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Yes, the Buffalo Sabres are struggling, and yes, there is a very real fear that this season won't ever measure up to the season past.

The same can be said of the Dallas Stars, who are every bit as mentally spent as the Sabres seem to be. The Stars, however, certainly appear tired of waiting. Earlier this week they conceded that they may have cut too many veterans off their lineup card when they signed Kirk Muller, a veteran free agent who's been waiting all season to perhaps catch on with a team.

Why Muller, a player many say has been a floater through the final stages of his career?

Why now?

We'll let Stars general manager Bob Gainey explain.

"Those (negative comments) are the reports on him and that's why he's there in December," the GM said. "There is ability there and if his emotion and his desire are there, he'll get a good opportunity here. He's only 33. He still believes he's a capable player and he's had to listen to the critics for the past couple of years. And when that happens, you have to go to war and fight those points of views. He wanted the opportunity to do that and I think that's a great frame of mind for him."

Gainey only can hope that's true. He won't actually concede that he cut too deep into his roster when he sliced veterans like Pat Verbeek, Craig Ludwig and others in favor of a youth movement, but he is aware that much of the hunger that fueled his team last season appears to have been satisfied with their winning the Stanley Cup.

The hope is that adding a veteran like Muller, a player with something to prove night in and night out, might spark others on his club.

"I wouldn't say we have changed our focus or our plan on how we're using our younger players," Gainey said. We have four younger players in the lineup right now (Brenden Morrow, Roman Lyashenko, Brad Lukowich and Juha Lind) and had you asked me at the beginning of the season, I probably wouldn't have thought we'd have that many. This (the Muller signing) gets us more in line with where we thought we would be as far as veterans go.

Gainey also traded for Atlanta's Kevin Dean. Dean is a decent defenseman who will battle with Jamie Pushor for the No. 6 spot. Pushor already has been inspired by the trade and is performing better as a result of the competition.

Competition is what Gainey is trying to create all through his lineup. Like the Sabres, the Stars just can't seem to get motivated for the regular season after such an intense postseason.

Gainey is hoping the additions, plus giving out the Stanley Cup rings, will help shake up his team.

"It's been a rough go at times to start out this year," said veteran Brian Skrudland. "But you get this thing (the ring) and you look down at it and it really does motivate you. You remember why you're out there playing."

The Stars got their rings Monday, in a private ceremony in Dallas. Five Australian green diamonds are bonded to make a star, surrounded by a sea of 100 white diamonds. According to those who have seen them, owner Tom Hicks wanted to dazzle. He spent just under $1 million for 175 rings for everyone involved. There were three styles and only the players and the club's higher-ups got the ones with the green diamonds. Support personnel got a commemorative model with a metal star in the middle.

Stars are smart shoppers

Muller came exceptionally cheap for the Stars.

The club gave up an inconsequential draft pick for him and are paying him a mere $190,000 plus bonuses. "I told Bob right off the bat that money wasn't an issue," Muller said. "At this point in my career, I just want another chance to win the Cup."

It's likely he'll be used as a left wing, allowing Skrudland, Guy Carbonneau and Roman Lyashenko to rotate at center. The Stars had hoped that former Sabre Derek Plante would fill that role, giving Lyashenko, 20, time to work into his first NHL season. But Plante has been waived and is now with the Michigan K-Wings in the International League.

Muller also could play second-line left wing with Joe Nieuwendyk to give Morrow, 20, a few games off.

Getting slicker for Sather

And now here's some news from further West.

Edmonton general manager Glen Sather is in the Hall of Fame for building a franchise that won five Stanley Cups in seven years, but the well of victories, and especially talent, has been awfully dry since 1992-93. Jim Matheson, a veteran hockey scribe who was there at the beginning has done the math. Matheson says that if you take that year and run it to Dec. 9 of this year, the Oilers are 80 games under .500. Only four teams (Islanders, Sharks, Lightning and Senators) have been worse in that time, taking into account only teams that were in existence then. The Wings are first (159 games over .500). If you took the '90-91 and '91-92 seasons and ran it through the whole decade, the Oilers are only marginally better (minus-78). In the 80s, they were plus-217.

Don't think that hasn't gone unnoticed in Edmonton, where Sather's reputation for being a shrewd trader and having a staff that drafts extremely well is being questioned by some in the club's 37-man ownership group.

That's led to speculation that President and General Manager Sather might actually be serious about getting out soon. The unwieldy owner's group has made for some serious infighting in recent weeks and everyone is feeling the heat.

NHL's fight club dwindles

Had a little trouble satisfying your blood lust so far this season?

There's a reason.

As of last Sunday, there had been 433 fighting majors in 410 games, 104 fewer than the year before and 210 fewer than the 97-98 season, a drop of 33 percent. Last year, eight guys had at least 20 fights with Patrick Cote leading the way with 30. Jeff Odgers had 29, Kryzstof Oliwa 28, Peter Worrell 21 and Paul Laus, Tie Domi, Bob Probert and Stu Grimson had 20.

This year Cote leads with 10 and Laus and Craig Berube have nine. There seems to be no honor or passion in the fight game this season. There are a few, like Rob Ray, who know their role and do their duty, but those kinds of fights are almost as obvious as the scripts they run on the Jumbotron in Marine Midland Arena. The Sabres sag (or worse, fall behind), Ray goes out to "try and get something going," the fans jump to their feet and then its over and the game goes back to its dull and boring ways.

What seems to me missing from the new-era players is any passion in the game. Most players today seem to think that it's someone else's job. Many of them won't even hit, let alone fight, expecting the designated brawler to carry all of the load.

Even recent Bruins acquisition Marty McSorley, a premier fighter in his day, has noticed the change.

"The thing I miss about fighting is the honor of it," McSorley said. "Now you get guys standing behind linesmen or guys pretending they want to fight. You come up to a guy now and he'll just lay down. Even big guys."

Skills event, NHLPA under fire

The injury to Florida Panthers goalie Trevor Kidd in a skills competition has set off a wave of complaints from the team regarding the need for such an enterprise and how to go about it.

Kidd injured his shoulder during a rapid-fire shooting event and could be lost to the Southeast Division leaders for up to two months.

General Manager Bryan Murray was upset that the agreement between the NHL and the NHLPA provides no time for a true practice on the day of a skills competition (this is an event each team hosts in preparation for the All-Star skills competition and is generally a big marketing promotion for individual clubs). The no-practice rule is so that the players don't have to engage in both a practice for the sake of practice and then the marketing event. The downside is that sometimes teams don't do the necessary warm-up drills and that increases the chance of injury.

In the never-ending quest to blame the PA for everything, the Panthers made a point of the no-practice rule. However, Kidd was injured trying to poke-check the puck from one of his teammates, something that could have led to an injury even in a regulation practice.

What's the Kings' Storr-y?

After giving up 15 goals in back-to-back road loses to New Jersey and the New York Rangers, Los Angeles is looking for ways to put the Kings back together again.

It started with a team meeting a mere 12 hours after the team landed back in L.A. Coach Andy Murray called it. It was largely a pep talk. The real issue is what happened to goalie Jamie Storr, who fell apart in both games and had to be replaced. He was tagged for nine goals over the two games and only played the first 20 minutes in each.

The whisper is that Storr suffered a concussion or concussion-like symptoms after hitting his head on the ice in a game at Montreal two nights prior to the swing through the New York region. He complained of dizziness right after the Montreal outing, but was examined and cleared to play in the debacles on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Around the boards

Eric Lindros denies it, but the injury to his left hand may have come from a fight in Toronto and not from being hit by a puck. The injury is on the top of Lindros' left hand, the area most heavily protected by a glove. However, Lindros had his gloves off when he took exception to Alexander Karpostsov tripping him and hit the Toronto player with both his right and left hands. . . . Former Buffalo Sabres defenseman Doug Bodger is finished. Bodger signed with the Vancouver Canucks this season, but retired this week after clearing waivers and facing a demotion to Syracuse in the American Hockey League.

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