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Once again the NHL is preparing to send its best players to its All-Star fest.

And once again one must ask the question: Is that really true?

This is not a question of fading talents taking a last bow or two as their careers come to an end. Fans seem to like seeing a Ray Bourque or Mark Messier on the ice, even if their best days are behind them.

There also shouldn't be a huge cry of protest should Dominik Hasek appear despite the fact he's registered all of one win this season and hasn't played an NHL game since Oct. 29. Hasek is one of the league's best.

The bigger issue, and the one that never seems to go away, is that players having All-Star seasons continue to get overlooked because of format.

Having at least one player from each team is a part of the problem. Truth be told, there is no one on the current roster of say, the New York Islanders, who hockey fans would be clamoring to see. One could say the same given the current state of the Atlanta Thrashers or Chicago Blackhawks.

A more disturbing problem is the North America vs. the World format. While an acknowledged crowd-pleaser when it was first introduced just prior to the 1998 Winter Olympic Games, the format does have its drawbacks. The biggest is that European (or World) players make up just about one-third of the NHL's total roster. That opens the door for a player like Alexei Zhitnik to make it to the show while a deserving Canadian- or American-born player might find himself closed out.

Zhitnik by his own admission is having a poor season and at midweek had one goal in 47 games. He's also a minus player on a team that generally prides itself on having a good plus-minus ratio. He's the quarterback on a power play that is the league's worst.

Not exactly the stuff that All-Star seasons, or even half seasons, are made of. Yet Zhitnik is a "name" player, and given the fact the European leagues do not contribute elite defensemen at the same rate as they produce forwards, the NHL panel of experts was hard-pressed to fill out the World team's defensive lineup card.

The point is further made by the addition of Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Petr Svoboda. The former Canadiens, Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers defenseman is having an ordinary year on a very bad team. But given that the NHL has to fill out a "World" roster, Svoboda makes for an easy fit.

Ironically, Hasek's presence on the roster (the result of fan balloting) hasn't created near the problem the NHL created for itself by naming Washington's Olaf Kolzig and Edmonton's Tommy Salo to the back-up positions. Salo, a former Islander, is having a solid season, but is doing nowhere near what Roman Turek is doing for the Blues.

Through 41 games, Salo has a 2.30 goals-against average and Kolzig comes in at 2.46. Through Thursday, Turek was the NHL's leader in that regard with a solid 2.02. He also has more wins than either goalie (24, second in the league behind New Jersey's Martin Brodeur), had more shutouts (four) and a comparable save percentage (.909 to Kolzig's .904 and Salo's .916).

However, Turek is a relative newcomer on the NHL scene. A quality backup to Dallas starter Ed Belfour the past two seasons, Turek was traded in the offseason because of an expansion-list protection problem. He's excelled as a starter, but hasn't yet developed a worldwide or even national reputation. Salo (Team Sweden at the 1998 Olympics) and Kolzig (a Stanley Cup finals appearance two seasons ago with the Caps) might not be playing as well, but at least fans know who they are.

Meanwhile, on the North American side there are problems created mostly by overcrowding.

The NHL panel of experts recently named New Jersey's Martin Brodeur and New York Rangers goaltender Mike Richter to stand in behind starter Curtis Joseph. Joseph was the fan's choice and, given that he's also a candidate for the Hart Trophy (league's most valuable player) and that he plays in Toronto, the host city, the choice was expected.

Adding Brodeur, a four-time All-Star and again one of the league's best this season (2.17 goals-against and a league-best 30 wins) was also an easy choice.

However, in adding Richter, a two-time All-Star, over Calgary's Fred Brathwaite, the league appeared to be going more for television market share than adding a worthy netminder.

Brathwaite has just 17 wins, but has a solid 2.27 goals-against average and a very solid .918 save percentage. On a team that overall lacks talent and especially scoring (worst goals-for total in the Western Conference), Brathwaite has been the success story of the season. He is tied for second in shutouts behind Martin Biron with four and has kept other teams at bay while Calgary has run up a record 10 overtime wins.

Among goaltenders who have played 30 or more games this season, Brathwaite's .918 save percentage is second only to Dallas' Ed Belfour's .919.

The NHL makes up its All-Star list by polling its hockey operations department and a panel of unnamed general managers. It's a weak system fraught with the potential for playing favorites and for considering reputation and market share over performance. The World vs. North America format serves only to make an awkward situation worse.

Clarke moves questionable

Here's why media types tend to reserve judgment regarding the truthfulness of some of the people they cover.

In the first week of December, Philadelphia Flyers General Manager Bob Clarke announced he would no longer be in the trade market.

The reason was a heartfelt one. Coach Roger Neilson had been diagnosed with cancer and Clarke had pledged to take the time before the March trade deadline to keep his team out of the rumor mill and allow it to come together "as family." Just over a month later, Clarke finished off a deal for Keith Primeau, a deal that had been in the on-again, off-again stages even before Clarke made his announcement. (A fact Clarke denied back in November.)

Clarke's buying time to work a deal is understandable. It's difficult enough making a deal in the NHL today without the day-to-day hounding that comes whenever a team is angling for a top-echelon player, but buying the time by playing on Neilson's illness and the team's need to "deal with it as family" sets a new low.

It's also difficult to follow Clarke's logic on this deal. By most accounts, Rod Brind'Amour, the key player sent to Carolina, is a better all-around player than Primeau. Brind'Amour was also immensely popular with his teammates, something that hasn't always been the case for Primeau both in Detroit, where he started his NHL career, and in Hartford, which eventually became the Hurricanes.

Primeau is one year younger and does appear to be excellent center-ice insurance should No. 1 center, Eric Lindros, continue to have health problems. Lindros has had a variety of knee, hand, shoulder and now concussion problems (three in the last 22 months) throughout his career. His being lost to the Flyers (punctured lung) during the playoffs last season was the primary reason the Flyers lost to Toronto in the second round.

Being in the second slot behind a healthy Lindros also opens up a world of opportunity for the 6-foot-5 center, who in his time in Carolina consistently drew the league's better checking centers. He'll get much more ice and better scoring opportunities playing behind Lindros. He'll likely center a second line with the struggling Mikael Renberg and the solid Mark Recchi.

Still, the deal seems a little strange. Clarke paid a high price for a player who doesn't address the team's primary weaknesses. Philadelphia is suspect on defense and especially in goal. Adding to the confusion, Clarke gave up a goaltending prospect, Jean-Marc Pelletier, at a time when the Flyers have to be concerned with the play of aging netminder John Vanbiesbrouck. Former Cornell standout Pelletier is not yet ready for prime time, but he is a good-sized goalie with quickness and scouts say he has star potential.

The trade does have upside for Carolina. The team was hanging around eighth place in the Eastern Conference playoff race, but could be expected to fade without Primeau and a defense that still holds Paul Coffey as one of its regular performers.

However, Carolina now gets leadership and a boost in scoring with Brind'Amour on board. Should the 'Canes manage to pick up a quality defenseman before the trade deadline, they should make the playoffs with ease.

Family feud

A sidebar to the family issue: After nine years of quality service with the Flyers, Brind'Amour learned he was traded when 'Canes coach Paul Maurice called his hotel room in Pittsburgh. Clarke didn't call. Nor did Neilson. Nor did Flyers chairman Ed Snider.

"It's something you're never really prepared for," Brind'Amour said. "You'd like to think you're a little different, that they'd come talk to you first before making a move . . . But hockey is a business. They pay you a lot of money and you have to take the good with the bad.

"There had been a lot of trade rumors. Earlier in the season, Clarke said no one would be traded. Then just two days (before I was traded), he said, 'What I meant was, Eric Lindros would not be traded.' I told my wife to pack her bags."

Greater than Gretzkys

Should both play to their pro-rated seasons, the Bures -- Pavel in Florida and Valeri in Calgary -- are on track to become the first brother pairing to combine for 100 goals in an NHL season. Pavel is on track for 63 and Valeri projects to 42. This is one of the few records Wayne Gretzky doesn't have. Had either brother Brent or Keith made it to the NHL in the year Gretzky scored an NHL record 92, it could have been the most one-sided brother-brother combination since the Aarons (most homers in a career, 768 -- Hank 755 and Tommie 13).

Around the boards

A success story of the season is the play of the Nashville Predators of late. In a goal-starved league, the second-year franchise has 132 goals through Thursday. That's more than the Sabres, the Dallas Stars and the Mighty Ducks, to name a few teams. . . . For the record, the New York Rangers, heretofore referred to as the worst team money can buy, at midweek had more wins, fewer losses and more points than the Sabres, a team the Rangers can't seem to beat. Team chemistry is growing in New York, but former Sabres coach and General Manager John Muckler is getting credit for some of the turnaround as the New York offense is finally starting to get untracked.

Who's Hot
Chris Simon, Washington: Remember when former Sabres coach Ted Nolan wanted this guy in the worst way? Big, strong, tough and at midweek, eight points in his last seven games, including six goals. The key to the Capitals improved play of late.
Todd Marchant, Edmonton: The Williamsville native is the bright light in Edmonton with an eight-game scoring streak that has produced 11 points and brought hope to a beleaguered franchise.
Patrik Elias, New Jersey: This guy is smokin' -- 10 points in a recent four-game stretch and a plus-8 on the plus-minus charts. No soft touch in the physical game either.

Who's Not
Michal Grosek, Buffalo Sabres: It's that time of the year again. After a strong start, Grosek through midweek has produced just one goal in seven games, not a good showing on the road swing.
Brad Werenka, Pittsburgh: Once rumored as a part of a swap for Sabre forward Wayne Primeau, defenseman Werenka is pointless over 10 and struggling to stay up with coach Herb Brooks' attack.
Bobby Clarke, Philadelphia: After swearing off trades because of coach Roger Neilson's illness, Clarke jumps up and grabs Keith Primeau, a forward not quite as good as Rod Brind'Amour, the one he traded away.

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