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TIME TO BEAT THE RUSH AND PREDICT AWARD-WINNERS

The NHL handed out its annual awards three months ago, and I still haven't figured out how Dominik Hasek won the Vezina Trophy. General managers vote on the Vezina, so you would think it would carry the most credibility.

Apparently, the GMs fell into the same trap writers often do when picking postseason awards. They checked the stats, saw his 2.11 goals-against average with a league-leading 11 shutouts and disregarded the wall his (ex-)teammates built around him. Basically, they took the easy way out.

The tougher assignment is choosing postseason award winners in the preseason. The regular season starts in a few days, so it's time for a few predictions. Fortunately, most people won't remember mine in nine months. In fact, I might not remember mine in nine months. Don't worry, if I'm right, you'll hear.

We'll start with the Vezina, given to the top goaltender. Hasek doesn't have a chance playing in Detroit. He's still a good goalie, still better than most, but his declining skills will be exposed once the Red Wings open their offense. There's a false belief he's the same goalie he was four years ago. And the winner is . . . Curtis Joseph, Toronto. He's been hampered by slow defensemen, but he can carry the Leafs if he stays healthy.

Hart Trophy, most valuable player: Colorado's Joe Sakic was the best player in the league last season and the rightful winner. Jaromir Jagr should have a big season in Washington, especially if setup man Adam Oates waives his request to be traded. And the winner is . . . Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh. Super Mario won't play a full season, but he'll prove he's still the best.

Art Ross Trophy, most points: Jagr has won it the last four years, although Sakic gave him a run last season. The title is still out of reach for New Jersey's Patrik Elias and Pittsburgh's Martin Straka and Alexei Kovalev. Lemieux would win if he played every game. And the winner is . . . Jagr. He'll benefit from Oates, but he'll love playing with puck-pushing defenseman Sergei Gonchar.

Selke Trophy, best defensive forward: The Islanders' Michael Peca is determined to remind everyone what the Sabres missed last season. New Jersey's John Madden, the winner last year, is a great one. And the winner is . . . Todd Marchant, Edmonton. No, this is not a hometown pick. The Williamsville native is grossly underrated. Somehow, scoring 20 goals has factored into the voting in recent years. He also plays in the Western Conference, in Canada, leaving him often overlooked in the United States.

Norris Trophy, best defenseman: Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom finally won it last season, and he'll have another good year this year. Rob Blake will put up big numbers after a full season with the Avalanche. The Rangers' Brian Leetch is still among the best. And the winner is . . . Chris Pronger, St. Louis. He was plagued by injuries last season. He's the best two-way defenseman in the league and he has talented teammates.

Calder Trophy, top rookie: San Jose goalie Evgeni Nabokov came out of nowhere last season to win the honor. The Flyers love what they see in winger Pavel Brendl, who arrived from the Rangers in the Eric Lindros trade. Montreal's Mike Ribeiro has shown a scoring knack. And the winner is . . . Ilya Kovalchuk, Atlanta. It's a close call between the Russian rookie and his fellow Thrasher bratpacker, Dany Heatley. Kovalchuk had six goals and nine points in his first five preseason games and has shown the toughness to play in the NHL. He'll get the ice time.

Jack Adams Award, top coach: Craig Ramsay shouldn't have been fired in Philly in the first place, but Bill Barber helped turn them around last year. Ron Wilson will be a popular choice if the Caps realize their potential. Duane Sutter will draw some attention if Florida can get back in contention. And the winner is . . . Scotty Bowman, Detroit. Anybody coaching Sergei Federov, Brett Hull and Hasek at the same time should be given the trophy without a vote. Scotty will make sure egos are checked at the door.

Allison aims for more money

Jason Allison's contract dispute with the Bruins is getting uglier by the day, and the center has told the team he's finished in Boston. The two sides are $9 million apart -- yes, $9 million -- on a three-year contract and neither appears willing to budge.

Allison, who has been handling negotiations himself, could sit out the entire season unless he's traded. He and GM Mike O'Connell called upon team president and former GM Harry Sinden to iron out the problems to no avail.

"It appears to me that the major difference between Mike and the team and Jason is the huge gap between the two sides," Sinden said. "It's absolutely huge. There isn't even any room to compromise."

Allison led the Bruins in scoring last year with 95 points and declined his rights to arbitration. He originally had been looking for a deal that would have paid him $8.5 million the first year, $9 million the second and $9.5 million the third. The Bruins were offering $3 million less in each of the three years before both sides dropped their proposals.

Allison came down to an average of about $7 million. The Bruins came down to about $4 million annually, leaving the two sides still about $3 million apart per season. Allison might be dreaming, but the Bruins are pinching, too.

Rent-a-player

Tony Amonte could be the best player available this season if contract talks don't pick up with the Blackhawks between now and the March trade deadline.

Amonte, the Blackhawks' best player and biggest drawing card, will become an unrestricted free agent after the season if he does not receive an extension. He and the Blackhawks did not get off to a good start in negotiations.

Amonte is scheduled to make $3.3 million this season and is looking for a long-term deal that would pay him between $6 million and $7 million while the Blackhawks prefer a deal between $4.5 million and $5 million annually. The two sides were supposed to have a meeting with management last week, but there was a miscommunication concerning where it would be held.

"I didn't fly all the way here not to go to the meeting," agent Mike Gillis said. "I don't think they have any intention of trying to sign Tony. These aren't the best times for flying, and for me come here and not have them show up for a meeting says it all."

Berard taking baby steps

Bryan Berard's decision to shy away from the Maple Leafs and sign with the Rangers had nothing to do with ill feelings toward Toronto. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

The defenseman wanted to make sure he was playing for a team that probably wouldn't contend for the Stanley Cup, which would allow him to ease his way back into hockey after suffering what many thought was a career-ending eye injury 18 months ago.

Berard figured the Leafs would be among the best teams in the Eastern Conference and didn't want to saddle them with his comeback attempt. The Leafs felt betrayed after paying Berard's medical bills and his $1.8 million salary last season. They didn't know he planned to come back, so they didn't offer him a contract. It allowed him to become a free agent.

"We acknowledge that the Toronto organization was great to him, there's no question of that, but we didn't think that a team with a legitimate shot at winning the Cup would really be the best fit," agent Tom Laidlaw told the New York Post. ". . . There are going to be some rough times out there that a contender probably couldn't afford to accept."

Keeping quiet

Hasek and Bowman had exactly one conversation through the first three weeks in training camp. Apparently, there's no time for small talk. Hasek's preseason road roommate? Brett Hull. No word yet on whether the winger had his foot on Hasek's side of the room. "Everybody has asked if me if we talked about that goal again," Hasek said. "No, it didn't come up."

Yeah, right, and Hasek wants to retire in Buffalo.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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