Teenage defenseman Nick Boynton could have walked away with a million dollars. He could have received a signing bonus near that amount from the Washington Capitals, who drafted him in the first round in 1997. He could have received seven figures from the Chicago Blackhawks after the Capitals had brokered a trade. Instead he and his agent, Anton Thun, made a gamble they might one day regret.

Now, two years after being drafted, Boynton's professional career is still stalled due to a combination of questionable decisions and bad luck. The Capitals had two years to sign Boynton before he reentered the draft. The team soured on the prospect, no longer sure he would be an NHL player, especially not at the rookie salary cap ($925,000 a season for 1997 draft picks). Boston, traditionally the most tightfisted front office in the NHL, selected Boynton this June and, predictably, the 20-year-old went through training camp without a contract.

In the meantime, Boynton was discovered to have juvenile diabetes and dropped 15 pounds. He missed much of the preseason and then suffered a shoulder injury that again sidelined him. With virtually no leverage and few options outside the NHL, Boynton eventually signed a three-year deal with the Bruins, worth about $800,000 a year, though closer to $100,000 a season in the minors, with no huge signing bonus. The Bruins have a veteran defense, and rather than being an NHL millionaire, Boynton is riding the buses in Providence of the American Hockey League, playing in just four of the team's first 12 games.

Other agents believed Thun made a big mistake turning down deals before reentering the draft. "That whole thing doesn't make sense," one agent said. "They turned away from a lot of money and all their leverage." Thun said he's still wondering why his client wasn't given lucrative bonuses by the Capitals to get the original deal done. Instead, Washington was granted a second-round pick as compensation for losing Boynton, and took junior defenseman Nolan Yonkman.

"I'm still a little surprised by their decision, but then again, I don't run the Washington Capitals," Thun said. "[General Manager] George McPhee does, and he gets to make any decision he chooses. In essence, they chose to let go of a player they drafted ninth overall and as compensation they got what amounted to the 38th pick in the draft. I'm not sure how that will all work out. Maybe they think Nolan Yonkman will turn out to be a better hockey player than Nick Boynton. We'll see."

Hasek Struggles

Buffalo's Dominik Hasek--the most dominant goalie of his era, who has vowed to retire at the end of the season--has not begun his farewell tour in style. He's already allowed more soft goals than he normally would in half a season. And on Friday night he left a game against Florida with about 30 seconds left because of a groin injury--a problem that plagued him last season and prompted hernia surgery over the summer. He's expected to be out at least a few weeks.

His numbers are very un-Hasek-like: 1-4-1, 3.03 goals-against average. In fact, it's been all downhill for the Dominator since Brett Hull ended his season with a controversial goal that gave the Dallas Stars the Stanley Cup in triple overtime in Game 6 of the finals. But that's one of the few things the Czech native can laugh about these days. Well, that and the wacky world of professional wrestling.

"I don't think about that goal anymore," Hasek said. "I see Brett Hull on WWF. It was from Dallas and he was in the first row. He was cheering with [Mike] Modano and [Grant] Marshall. I was watching with my son. It was pretty funny. I like to watch wrestling once in a while when my wife goes to bed. But the whole two hours is too much for me. One hour is enough."

Gretzky Takes Heat

Wayne Gretzky has come under fire in Canada for being overexposed. Gretzky was criticized in the Canadian media for an campaign he did for an aspirin company concerning arthritis, which some believed blurred the line between advertisement and public service announcement. Others deemed the criticism petty. Gretzky, who retired at the end of last season, will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto on Nov. 22. . . .

The New York Rangers, Gretzky's former team, are feeling the brunt of his departure. They were shut out in three straight games last week despite spending more than $60 million on free agents over the summer. Should they keep faltering, look for them to throw more money at the problem, making bids for holdouts Alexei Yashin (Ottawa) and Keith Primeau (Carolina).

Slap Shots

The NHL's new overtime format (four-on-four, a point awarded to an overtime loser) is working. After getting a winner in just 19 percent of overtime games in the first two weeks, about 50 percent of the games have been decided the last two weeks. Last season, 27 percent of overtime games ended with a winner. . . .

Detroit power forward Brendan Shanahan, who was nearly acquired by Washington at the 1996 draft, is set to sign a contract extension with the Red Wings worth about $5 million a season, sources said, which would take him off the free agent market this summer. . . .

The two best signings of the summer could be two of the least heralded. Dave Andreychuk was expendable in New Jersey with several young forwards on the rise. Boston nabbed him for $1 million and he's near the top of the league with nine goals. Steve Duchesne was waived out of the league after signing a deal worth more than $3 million a season with Los Angeles in 1998. He was signed for $1 million by Detroit, where he has limited responsibilities on a deep defense and is a great fit with the Red Wings' talented forwards. He already has four goals (second among defensemen) and seven points. . . .

The dominant Western Conference seems headed to winning a fifth straight Cup. Only four teams in the conference are below .500 while at least three teams in all three Eastern Conference divisions are below that mark.