The plight of Canadian NHL teams may be worse than ever. Some executives around the league believe it's only a matter of a few years before three more teams head south because of the inability of Canadian franchises to compete financially with their American counterparts.

In Calgary, talk is centered on whether the hockey-mad city really needs the Flames with a wealth of inexpensive youth, junior and minor league hockey around. The Ottawa Senators have repeatedly expressed their financial woes and are hoping a government reduction in their arena tax will help keep the club in Canada's capital. Edmonton, a city that rallied to keep the Oilers from moving to Houston a few years back, continues to deal its best players when their salaries rise. The Oilers are off to a poor start this season and likely will miss the postseason for the fifth time in eight years, with little sense of optimism for the future.

And, of course, American investors are already making their pitches to the NHL. One longtime member of the NHL Board of Governors--a man who has been in the league since it expanded from six teams in 1967--believes Portland, Ore., Houston and Las Vegas (in that order) will have existing teams early in the next decade.

"I don't see this situation getting any better," the executive said. "I will say that if things don't improve quickly you could see two or three teams leaving at once. I really expect that to happen. The economics just don't work for the smaller Canadian teams. That's the reality."

Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen already has a building (the Rose Garden) waiting to be filled in Portland. He made a run at the Pittsburgh Penguins and is likely to be the first to get a team. Leslie Alexander nearly got the Oilers to move to Houston, which draws big crowds for its IHL team. Las Vegas is the dark horse, but the city's mayor has met with Commissioner Gary Bettman, and if NHL games are taken off the board at casinos, it could end up with a team. Steve Wynn, the CEO of the Mirage, is the point man in the city's bid.

Canadian hockey fans hope that more government assistance can help keep teams from leaving. The league has suggested putting some of the millions generated by the country's legalized NHL betting back into the game. Efforts are being made, but skyrocketing salaries and the weak Canadian dollar keeps teams in a perpetual game of catch-up. Even the mighty Montreal Canadiens, one of the most prestigious sports franchise of the century, are bleeding money, claiming huge losses. The team has the most losses in the league this season and it isn't selling out, something that's been as certain as the sunrise the last 50 years.

Vancouver owner John McCaw, who has been trying to sell his team for more than a year, claimed losses in excess of $25 million last year, but has vowed not to relocate the Canucks.

It's impossible to envision the league without Toronto and Montreal. Vancouver is probably safe, too. But the Flames, Oilers and Senators are on the endangered species list.

Capped Out?

Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee repeatedly has said that the team has no interest in any available unrestricted free agents. "We're going to go with what we have," McPhee has often said. "We're going to let our kids play."

The Capitals are saving their money for bigger prizes. That's sound logic, but for a minimal fee in today's NHL market (about $1 million), a team struggling offensively could have had veterans Joe Murphy or Pat Verbeek. Also on the market until yesterday was Ray Sheppard, who signed a one-year deal with Florida worth $750,000. These players are nearing the end of their careers, but signing one of them might have been worth the gamble.

Red Wings Hold Pat

Verbeek, who Detroit signed to a two-year, $2.6 million deal last week, wore No. 16 most of his career, but the Red Wings would not let him have it. That's the number defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov wore before a tragic limousine accident in 1997 stole his livelihood and nearly took his life. The Red Wings are unlikely to formally retire the number, but no Detroit player will ever wear it again, sources said. Konstantinov, who needs assistance with most daily functions and has reduced mental capabilities because of the accident, skated last week (his teammates supported him) for the first time since playing in Game 4 of the team's sweep of Philadelphia in the 1997 Stanley Cup finals. Verbeek is wearing No. 15.

News & Notes

The word is getting out that the Rangers and Flyers are both interested in trading for Carolina unrestricted free agent center Keith Primeau. The Rangers would have to deal talented youngsters such as Manny Malhotra and Jamie Lundmark; the Flyers likely would have to include gritty center Rod Brind'Amour in their package. . . .

The Buffalo Sabres are shopping winger Dixon Ward, and Dallas, still looking for natural left wings, is interested, sources said. . . .

With three defensemen out with serious injuries, the Senators continue to talk to rugged veteran Marty McSorley. . . .

Former Capitals captain Mark Tinordi is on crutches after knee surgery, but the unrestricted free agent hopes to sign somewhere in January, when his recovery should be complete.