While the NHL's expansion is widely blamed for watering down the game, there is a positive side to the trend. Teams are now much more willing to take chances on players once excluded from the league because they were perceived as being too small or too slow.

Everyone from expansion teams to elite franchises such as Dallas and Detroit is taking a closer look at players who once would be labeled as strictly minor league material.

Here in Washington, 25-year-old rookie Glen Metropolit is getting his first taste of the NHL. He is hardly alone. Stan Drulia, a longtime player in the International Hockey League, is contributing in Tampa Bay.

Boston took a flier on 27-year-old Finn Mikko Eloranta with the 247th pick in June's draft and he's playing on the Bruins' checking line. Undersized journeyman Stacy Roest cracked Detroit's lineup last season, and Marc Rodgers, who played 471 minor league games over seven seasons before making his first NHL appearance this season, has filled in after injuries struck the Red Wings.

Last season, the expansion Nashville Predators, led by former Capitals general manager David Poile, gambled on projects such as 28-year-old Rob Valicevic--a player Predators Coach Barry Trotz first scouted when he was coaching Washington's minor league affiliate in Portland, Maine. Valicevic is the team's second-leading goal scorer after bouncing among three minor leagues. The Predators also took a chance on a smallish Swedish defenseman drafted 250th overall in 1993 by Los Angeles. Now, Kimmo Timonen, in his second season, is one of the scoring leaders among defensemen.

"I think we opened some eyes around the league," Trotz said. "Some of the coaches I spent time with last season like [Vancouver's] Marc Crawford, all of a sudden you see guys like [5-foot-5 Steve] Kariya and [5-9 defenseman Greg] Hawgood on that team. You probably wouldn't have seen that a year ago. That's the way the league is going and hopefully we had something to do with it."

Atlanta Thrashers General Manager Don Waddell took a similar approach in assembling his expansion team. He looked at several older European players who were drafted late and never signed by their original NHL clubs. Swedish forwards Andreas Karlsson (24, taken 148th overall by Calgary in 1993) and Per Svartvadet (24, taken 139th by Dallas in 1993) are among the team's most promising players.

"We think they both are going to be good players in this league for a long time," Waddell said.

Capitals director of hockey operations Shawn Simpson said he made a list of 10 quality veterans while scouting in Europe last season--eight were signed over the summer.

McCarty's Father Dies

Hockey lost a good friend last week when Craig McCarty, father of Red Wings forward Darren McCarty, died of a rare form of bone cancer after a four-year struggle.

Craig McCarty, 50, was a fixture at Joe Louis Arena and close to many members of the organization. His cancer was diagnosed about the same time his son began to come to grips with his alcoholism; they battled the diseases together.

Craig McCarty lived long enough to see his son become a father, score the Stanley Cup-clinching goal in 1997 and win another Cup in 1998. Father and son started the McCarty Cancer Foundation together, raising money to fight the illness and publishing a quarterly magazine for families coping with it.

One Last Dig for Courtnall

Former Capital Geoff Courtnall became the latest player to retire because of multiple concussions, but he did not go quietly. Courtnall, a notorious practical joker, hooked St. Louis defenseman Marc Bergevin with a ruse involving fellow teammates, coaches, management and the media. Courtnall's teammates told Bergevin a former St. Louis player had complained publicly about Bergevin's conduct when he was with the Blues. Courtnall persuaded reporters to ask tough questions about the fabricated incidents. Teammates began complaining to coaches that it was becoming a distraction and finally GM Larry Pleau called Bergevin into his office to upbraid him for his conduct. When a frazzled Bergevin left the office, the entire team was waiting for him, erupting in laughter.

"Sixteen years in the league and nobody ever got me like that," Bergevin said.

Courtnall's brother Russ, still an unsigned free agent, is expected to formally retire sometime this season. . . .

Last season Anaheim had the best power play in the NHL; this season the Ducks' power play is below 12 percent, third-worst in the NHL. . . . Last season Alex Selivanov was best known as the underachieving stepson of Hall of Famer Phil Esposito and the guy who got his Mercedes repossessed during a practice in Tampa Bay last season; this season he has 17 goals in 22 games with Edmonton, second in the NHL. . . . Last season Phoenix center Jeremy Roenick was criticized for lack of offensive production; this season he already has notched back-to-back hat tricks (last week) and has 14 goals and 29 points in 24 games--the third-highest goals per game ratio in the NHL (Jaromir Jagr and Selivanov). Last season Dave Andreychuk scored 15 goals--the third-worst total in his 18-year career--in New Jersey; this season Andreychuk led Boston with 15 goals at the season's quarter mark. . . .

Former Capital Larry Murphy (Detroit) last week became the first defenseman to play 1,500 games. Detroit captain Steve Yzerman scored his 600th career goal and became the fifth player to notch 600 goals and 900 assists in that same victory over Edmonton. . . . The awful New York Rangers have seven power play goals; Selivanov, Andreychuk and San Jose's Owen Nolan all have at least seven power play goals. . . . Proof that the NHL's computer-generated schedule makes less sense than the old man-made versions: The Oilers played St. Louis four times in the first six weeks of the season, but won't play rival Calgary until Dec. 23. . . . Islanders GM Mike Milbury has stopped speaking to the media and word is he wouldn't mind being fired from the floundering organization, collecting over $1 million in remaining salary. His name was misspelled in the team's game notes Saturday night.