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CECHMANEK IS LATEST SCAPEGOAT FOR CLARKE'S REIGN OF ERROR IN PHILLY

Roman Cechmanek might as well call the real-estate agent and dump the house now because he's gone. It was obvious a few minutes after Philadelphia Flyers General Manager Bob Clarke began his postmortem, explaining another early playoff exit and suggesting goaltending was his primary problem.

It was classic Clarke.

Clarke's modus operandi is tossing someone overboard to see whether the sharks are biting. Sure enough, the biggest fish, chairman Ed Snider, took the bait, hook, line and sinker, once again. Granted, Cechmanek didn't play well in the final two games against the Senators, but he was just one among many underachievers.

Snider hasn't realized what seemingly everybody in Flyerville has known for years: The guy calling the shots, Clarke, is the very guy making the most mistakes. He points the finger at someone else and says "It's his fault" when, in fact, it's often his own. After all, he does the hiring and firing.

In a few years or sooner, coach Ken Hitchcock will join the distinguished list of extinguished. Last spring, Clarke blamed coach Bill Barber, also known as 2001 coach of the year. Before Barber, there was Craig Ramsay. Or Roger Neilson. Or Eric Lindros. Or John Vanbiesbrouck. Or Sean Burke. Or Brian Boucher.

Hey, what about Bob?

It was Clarke who caved when Keith Primeau, at this time last year, moaned about Barber and pleaded for change. It was Clarke who watched Primeau score one goal and two points in 13 playoff games this year, making him less productive than Donald Brashear. Clarke acquired Tony Amonte from Phoenix before the trade deadline and watched him score once in 13 games.

Clarke signed John LeClair before last season knowing health might be a problem. LeClair missed all but 35 games this season. He has 79 points to show for the last two seasons. He has three playoff goals in the last three years. He made $25 million the past three years and is on the books for $9 million next year.

But what's $9 million?

Clarke gave one Chris Gratton a $9 million signing bonus when he was worth roughly $9 when it came to team chemistry. That alone is a fireable offense, but Clarke plunges forward. Gratton is now on his fifth team, if you count the Lightning twice.

It was Clarke who made a commitment to the goofy Cechmanek after the goalie's childish tirade in the playoffs last season. Cechmanek, shaky against Toronto, eventually melted down in the final two games against Ottawa, as many figured he would. Cechmanek should have been history before this season, but as usual Clarke is a year behind.

Amazingly, he's still a step ahead of Snider.

Briere's world of confidence

Sabres newcomer Daniel Briere, who made an immediate impact in Buffalo after he was acquired from Phoenix, was very impressive for Canada during the World Hockey Championships in Helsinki.

Briere was Canada's second-leading scorer with four goals and nine points in nine games en route to the gold medal. He was on the same line with Thrashers star Dany Heatley, emerged as one of the dominant players and came back with renewed confidence.

"It made me realize I can play with the best players in the league," said Briere, who was driving across the country from Phoenix. "Confidence-wise, it was great. Experience-wise, it was great. There were a lot of positives."

Look for Briere to build on the experience next year in Buffalo. He had a tough year with the Coyotes before playing very well for the Sabres. He was Buffalo's best player in the final three weeks. He plans to get his family settled into their new home in Amherst a few weeks before training camp and get ready for the season.

"I was surprised Phoenix gave up so early on me," said Briere, 25. "But, personally, it's been a great move. I'm happy about the trade, excited about the team we have in Buffalo. I can't wait for the season to start."

Don't do it, Larry

Former Devils coach Larry Robinson is on Rangers General Manager Glen Sather's short list for the coaching opening in New York. Robinson is a good coach, but he should avoid getting behind the Rangers' bench.

Robinson is a player's coach whose style works great with young players. He's a great teacher and tactician. The Rangers don't need either. They need a quality goaltender, a few defensemen and someone who can motivate an overpaid, uninspired group that has missed the playoffs for six straight seasons.

I can just imagine Robinson pulling Pavel Bure aside and saying, "Pavel, you don't need to straddle the red line" and Bure saying, "Larry, I have $10 million reasons why I do."

Getting fitted for the cap

It should be interesting to see how much money the top unrestricted free agents receive this year with negotiations looming for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Many expect a salary cap, so teams could start preparing by being more judicious at the bargaining table.

Take the Stars, for example. They had one of the best teams in the league but left the postseason after two rounds. They've been among the top five in payroll for years, shelling out about $63 million this year. There has been talk the salary cap could be $40 million or lower in a new CBA.

Defenseman Derian Hatcher made $4.2 million last year and could receive $7 million or more in the open market. Will the Stars pay him that much annually on a long-term deal knowing drastic cuts could be right around the corner? They might with the idea they can win another Cup, but the decision could cause other problems down the road if they fail.

Sabres rewind good times

If you're in the Sabres' address book, you should expect a DVD this week highlighting the greatest moments in team history. The Sabres are mailing some 20,000 copies to former and current season-ticket holders in an effort to drum up business.

Footage from the early days, including the spinning of the wheel that granted them the right to draft Gilbert Perreault, is among the highlights. The Sabres take a look back at their history and show the best plays from the 1970s, '80s and '90s.

Fans can also take a closer look at their Stanley Cup seasons. Included is the five-minute video fans saw before the home finale this season. Of course, the DVD also includes information about ticket prices and seating.

Around the boards

It would be great if the NHL could survive the playoffs without a serious mistake about a goal. Kerry Fraser blew a call on the ice after Jay Pandolfo beat Patrick Lalime on Thursday night. Off-ice officials trumped Fraser's blunder on review. Luckily, the Devils won, and it didn't make a difference. Need we review others that did?

Not a good sign for the NHL when television ratings reached a record low in the first two rounds. ABC averaged a 1.1 rating for its Saturday afternoon games, down 21 percent from last year. I had more people watching my house during vacation. By comparison, NASCAR's average rating for this year is 5.7. You wonder how many Americans can name three players on a team outside their region.

Talk continues about the Capitals wising up and trimming payroll next season. I'm still not sure what they were thinking when they traded for Jaromir Jagr and paid the moody winger $11.4 million for this season. Jagr could be up for auction. Gee, any chance the Rangers might be interested? If not, the Caps could be stuck with him.

The Blackhawks are preaching discipline after a series of embarrassments last season, but their work is mostly done. Theo Fleury, whose signing was a disaster, won't be back. Phil Housley, who accompanied Fleury during his visit to the Columbus strip joint, was traded. Boris Mironov was dealt after quitting over ice time. Presumably, Alex Zhamnov will call a cab the next time he's under the influence.

The Leafs wondered what bothered prospect Petr Svoboda, who showed promise before his performance fell off last season. Doctors in the Czech Republic believe he had a rare ailment with the gland that regulates body temperature and the immune system, among other things.

It's good to see the Rochester Americans keep their affiliation with the Sabres, but the $500,000 more the Amerks will receive is just part of the healing process. Amerks boss Steve Donner and Sabres GM Darcy Regier aren't exactly fishing buddies. Both sides will need to give if they want to build a better relationship.

Brothers Niedermayer, New Jersey's Scott and Anaheim's Rob, could become the first siblings to square off in the Stanley Cup finals since Ken and Terry Reardon were on opposing teams for the 1946 title. And here I was thinking the Bures or Primeaus might make history. Yes, that was a joke.
e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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