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Northwest: Nolan lives by his own code

by Roger Phillips
Back in his days in San Jose, Owen Nolan was known for his steely glare, his at-best standoff-ish approach with local reporters, and his nickname, "Buster." Some of the writers, in fact, referred to him from time to time as "Buster Crab."

Now a 37-year-old with the Minnesota Wild, it turns out Nolan's persona hasn't changed much. He's still the power forward with the hard edge and the smile that only comes out on special occasions. But if the Wild scrape their way into the playoffs, Nolan is going to deserve a good deal of the credit.

Nolan scored 2 goals in Minnesota's pivotal 3-0 victory against the Oilers on Sunday. It was his fourth two-goal game in the last 14 games. Nolan has 22 goals this season, a far cry from the career-high 44 he scored for the Sharks in 1999-2000, but two goals shy of establishing his best goal-scoring season since his big season in San Jose.

Just as in San Jose, Nolan is an imposing figure in Minnesota. The Wild impose a dress code on the road, but Nolan doesn't adhere to it, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. According to the paper, he showed up for a recent trip "looking like the bad guy in a Clint Eastwood western, with his blue jeans, gray stubble and gunmetal glare."

"Guys leave him alone, that's for sure," defenseman Nick Schultz told the Star Tribune. "On the road, you've got to wear a collared shirt. He's got no collar. You're supposed to fine him, but we just let it go. He shows up wearing blue jeans, which we're not supposed to wear, and nobody says anything. We just kind of let him be."

It seems only fair, considering all the punishment Nolan willingly accepts in front of the net, which is where he scores most of his goals.

"You've got to be willing to take a beating," Nolan told the Star Tribune. "It's not a fun area to sit, but definitely, the rewards are there."

Nolan's importance to the Wild only will increase during the stretch run, given injuries to Mikko Koivu and Brent Burns, and with Marian Gaborik just now back in action. Nolan said despite the key injuries, the Wild are not about to give up.

"We've got a lot of fight left in us," Nolan said. "We're not just going to lay down and watch it happen."

Cap crunch -- Soon enough, this miserable season will be over for the Avalanche, who can then begin to look to a brighter future.

Or can they?

The make-up of the team that plummeted to the bottom of the Northwest Division this season might not be all that different next season. After all, the NHL's salary cap probably will be about the same in 2009-10 as it was in 2008-09 ($56.7 million), and the Avalanche already have committed $43.775 million -- more than three-quarters of the cap -- to 13 players.

Those 13 players do not include captain Joe Sakic, who has yet to say whether he will return next season. But among the 13 are five -- Ryan Smyth, Scott Hannan, Adam Foote, Paul Stastny and Milan Hejduk -- who have no-trade clauses in their contracts.

"It's going to be a challenge," Avalanche General Manager Francois Giguere told the Denver Post. "Two years from now, half of those dollars will disappear. But we're here to find solutions and that's what we're going to do."

With 13 players under contract, the Avalanche have about $13 million more for 10 additional players -- an average of $1.3 million a player. When you consider Sakic made $6 million this season, you've got to believe that in order for him to return to the only franchise he's ever played for, he will have to be willing to take a rather hefty pay cut.

"I knew last summer what our financial situation was going forward," Giguere told the Post. "And I knew we had to sign Paul Stastny, so I knew there were going to be some hard decisions to make and we weren't going to be able to keep (John-Michael) Liles and (Jose) Theodore and (Andrew) Brunette. There were going to be some decisions to make. And Liles was the one we decided to keep."

So unless the Avalanche get very creative -- or unless they stay much healthier next season and the underachievers from this season start performing better -- the 2009-10 season could be more of the same in the Rocky Mountains.

Luon-gone? -- Hockey paranoia quickly can get out of hand, especially when the subject is one of the best goalies in the NHL.

It's even more the case in that most rare situation -- where the goalie also happens to be the team captain.

The Canucks are zipping along, challenging for home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, something they have a real shot at if they can survive their current six-game road trip.

The trip did not begin well -- the Canucks lost 5-1 in Phoenix on Saturday -- but what was more concerning was what goalie and captain Roberto Luongo said during an appearance on Hockey Night in Canada.

Luongo, who will be an unrestricted free agent after next season, was asked if being the Canucks' captain would influence his decision as to whether or not to sign a contract extension in Vancouver. Essentially, Luongo did nothing to silence any concern in Vancouver that he might not have a long-term future in British Columbia.

"I don't think so," the Vancouver Province quoted Luongo as saying on HNIC. "That's not something that's going to weigh on my decision.

"I think first and foremost, I want to win the Cup, and whichever team is going to give me the best chance to do that is the team I want to be with. I love Vancouver, it's a great city with great fans. So far, I've really enjoyed my time there. Obviously, this year and next year are going to be a key role in my decision."

Maybe it's not that big a deal what Luongo said. After all, the Canucks have shown a commitment to trying to win now. They did, after all, win the Mats Sundin sweepstakes. And they've been one of the NHL's hottest teams in the second half of the season.

Nonetheless, the Canucks face the danger that other Northwest teams have dealt with in recent years with varying degrees of success when it comes to prospective unrestricted free agents. Edmonton had its Ryan Smyth fiasco, Calgary had smooth sailing with Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff, and the situation between Marian Gaborik and the Wild remains muddled at best. How Vancouver deals with Luongo will be crucial over the long haul -- unless the Canucks decide they feel comfortable putting their future goaltending in the hands of prospect Cory Schneider.

Streaky Sam -- The Oilers have been asking a lot of center Sam Gagner for the past two seasons. Even though he was a high first-round draft choice with big expectations in 2007, the team has been asking him to perform at the NHL level since he was 18 years old -- the type of demand usually reserved only for the Gretzkys, Lemieuxs and Crosbys of the world. Talented as he is, Gagner is still only 19 years old.

He scored 13 goals last season, his first in the NHL, but until recently it appeared he wouldn't even score that many this season. Lately, though, Gagner has been catching fire, a sign that he's beginning to adapt to the demands of the NHL game.

"Sam's playing a more reckless game," Oilers coach Craig MacTavish told the Edmonton Journal. "At this level, all the productivity is in the last five percent ... you find a way to get that extra five percent, and Sam is playing a really hard, determined game.”

Gagner has 14 goals this season, but eight of those goals have come in the last 12 games. He scored 2 goals in a 4-2 loss to Ottawa on March 5, and then last week against Colorado he recorded his first NHL hat trick in an 8-1 defeat of the Avalanche. Gagner has been clicking with young linemate Robert Nilsson.

Of a recent goal off a Nilsson pass, Gagner told the Journal, "I didn't have to yell (at Nilsson). He's got pretty good vision ... I saw him go back for the puck (after a Dwayne Roloson save), I just took off. A great play by him."

The recent success is a relief to Gagner, who was frustrated earlier in the season by his lack of production.

"You get off to a bad start and you start to panic a little bit," Gagner told the Journal. "It's hard to get out of it. I came into the year with pretty high expectations after the way last season finished and maybe mentally I wasn't ready for how tough the season was going to be. I had to get back to the same preparation for every game, where I'm trying to create offense."

His hat trick put Gagner in select company. He, Wayne Gretzky and Martin Gelinas are the only Oilers to record hat tricks as teenagers.

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