2002-03 SEASON PREVIEW

WESTERN CONFERENCE.

CENTRAL DIVISION.

1. DETROIT RED WINGS. I made the mistake of selling the Wings veteran-laden club short last season. I won't make that error again this year. The defending Cup champions return with essentially the same roster as last season. The only significant change is between the pipes, where former Maple Leaf Curtis Joseph replaced the retired Dominik Hasek, and behind the bench, where long-time assistant Dave Lewis replaced the retired legend Scotty Bowman. Both changes won't adversely affect the Wings. One area of real concern is the loss of captain Steve Yzerman for at least half the upcoming season as he recuperates from off-season knee surgery. The Wings depth of talent, however, is so strong they shouldn't have any problems playing without "Stevie Y". While most of the roster is made up of notable star veterans (Fedorov, Shanahan, Hull, Robitaille, LIdstrom and Chelios) and rugged role players, it's the emergence of young talent like Pavel Datsyuk, Boyd Devereaux, Jason Williams and Jiri Fischer who could have a key role in the Wings title defence.

2. ST. LOUIS BLUES. Since their President's trophy winning performance in 2000, the Blues have been unable to break through as the next dominant force in the West as predicted. There appears to be a lack of depth throughout their lineup heading into this season. While there is star power on the forward lines in Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight and Pavol Demitra, the depth drops off noticeably after them. They face the same problem on the blueline after Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger, although youngster Mike Van Ryn shows promise. Pronger is expected to miss the opening weeks of the season, thus his presence will be greatly missed. The biggest question mark, however, is in goal, where there are concerns regarding Brent Johnson's ability to improve as a starting goaltender. There is also some talk of the players tiring of Joel Quenneville's coaching style. Although there is enough talent here to finish second in the division, the Blues could drop to third if these problem areas go unaddressed.

3. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS. After a five year drought, the Blackhawks returned to the playoffs last year, and are hoping to build on that promising performance in 2002-03. There is no lack of scoring ability at forward, with recently signed free agent forward Theoren Fleury joining Alexei Zhamnov, Steve Sullivan, Eric Daze, Michael Nylander and the promising Kyle Calder. Rejuvenated blueliner Phil Housley adds to the offence, while the rest of the defence corps will provide steady, if unspectacular, defence. There are concerns about a lack of depth on the checking lines, but that's overshadowed by worries about starting netminder Jocelyn Thibault. Despite carrying a heavy workload in the Windy City, questions dog his ability to carry the 'Hawks as their starter. Indeed, some feel a better starting goalie is all that stands in the way of Chicago overtaking the Blues in this division.

4. NASHVILLE PREDATORS. The anticipated breakout last season of the Predators never materialized, thanks predominantly to an injury-riddled roster. There's a lot riding on this season for the club, even to the point of their ownership offering refunds to season-ticket holders if the Preds fail again to make the playoffs. There is nothing wrong with the defensive system they play, but rather, it's the inability of the promising young forwards to develop as hoped. For Nashville to take the next step to playoff contention, they must have improved performances from forwards Denis Arkhipov, David Legwand, and Scott Hartnell, while sophomores Martin Erat and Vladimir Orszagh must build on their rookie campaigns. A lack of offence has held back the Predators in the past, and it'll kill them again unless the youngsters step up. It could be asking too much.

5. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS. Jackets GM Doug MacLean earned kudos for his off-season moves to improve his club. From his swap of picks with the Panthers in the first round to land forward Rick Nash, to the free agent signings of defencemen Scott Lachance and Luke Richardson and centre Andrew Cassels, MacLean has brought in much-needed skilled depth, as well as a potential future star. The Jackets still have a long way to go, however, before they can become a playoff contender. Questions dog netminder Marc Denis, who has yet to prove he can perform as a starting goaltender. The blueline depth, featuring Richardson, Lachance and promising sophomore Rostislav Klesla, has improved, but the same cannot be said of scoring punch on the forward lines. MacLean will be gambling reuniting Cassels with his old Hartford Whalers linemate Geoff Sanderson will re-ignite their old scoring chemistry. It remains to be seen if Nash will be ready for the big time this season, but he can only help a Jackets club that needs all the offence it can get.

NORTHWEST DIVISION.

1. COLORADO AVALANCHE. The Avs were stung by their late collapse to arch-rival Detroit in the Western Conference finals last spring, which derailed their hopes of a Cup repeat. A burning desire to atone for that defeat, and a healthier roster, should once again make the Avalanche one of the dominant clubs in the league. Their "big three" defence of Rob Blake, Adam Foote and Martin Skoula could use another talented veteran capable of sharing the workload with them. With the depth of young talent up front - Alex Tanguay, Steven Reinprecht, Radim Vrbata and Vaclav Nedorost - it's quite likely one or more of these guys could be shopped by cagey GM Pierre Lacroix to bring in that quality blueliner. A full season with a healthy Peter Forsberg and Milan Hejduk should boost the offensive production of team captain Joe Sakic and Chris Drury. Goaltender Patrick Roy stumbled in the Conference Finals, but the fact he had a career season last year at age 37 indicates he's showing no signs of slowing down.

2. VANCOUVER CANUCKS. A horrific first-half nearly scuttled the Canucks playoff hopes last season until they rallied to nudge into the post-season, then a promising start against Detroit in the first round collapsed before the Red Wings veteran-laden charge. The Canucks possess superstar talent in forwards Todd Bertuzzi and Markus Naslund and defenceman Ed Jovanovski, but they run the risk of becoming the Blues of the Northwest. Their offensive depth could be bolstered if the Sedin twins can improve in their third seasons, and if Jan Hlavac can return to his 30-goal potential he demonstrated with the Rangers two years ago. Like the Blues, the Canucks defence corps depth drops after their top two blueliners, in this case Jovanovski and Mattias Ohlund, and there are questions regarding their starting goalie. Dan Cloutier must recover from his playoff collapse and give the Canucks the winning goaltending they'll need to stay ahead of the Oilers and Flames.

3. EDMONTON OILERS. If it weren't for a month of lousy mid-season hockey, the Oilers would've easily made the post-season in 2002. That, and playing in the ultra-tight Western Conference, saw them cooling their heels on the sidelines, despite a 92-point season. That should be motivation enough for the Oilers to crank it up a notch this time around. The Oilers are hoping Czech centre Jiri Dopita can provide much-needed second line scoring depth to compliment the Oilers top four forwards of Mike Comrie, Ryan Smyth, Mike York and Anson Carter. The blueline threesome of Janne Niimimaa, Eric Brewer and Jason Smith remains one of the best in the league, but the trading away of Tom Poti will see them splitting more of the workload. Speaking of which, the Oilers must find a decent backup for the overworked Tommy Salo or risk burning him out at playoff time, when they'll need him the most.

4. CALGARY FLAMES. Re-signing scoring superstar Jarome Iginla in the off-season was cause for rejoicing in Calgary. They need "Iggy" if they're to compete for a playoff berth, but the fact remains the Flames are lacking scoring punch beyond the Iginla line. Thus, the defence corps of Derek Morris, Toni Lydman, Denis Gauthier, Robyn Regehr, Petr Buzek and Bob Boughner will have their work cut out for them to minimize their opponent's offensive chances. Unless the Flames can find a good young scorer within their system, expect one of the aforementioned blueliners to be dealt at some point in the coming season to bring in scoring depth. Without an improvement on their second line to take pressure off the Iginla line, the Flames hopes of ending their six-year absence in the playoffs seem long.

5. MINNESOTA WILD. It may have gone unnoticed outside of the state of Minnesota, but the Wild improved noticeably last season and are poised to continue building toward playoff contention this year. A big reason for the Wild's rise is the play of emerging superstar forward Marian Gaborik, who nearly doubled his point total last season from his rookie season two years ago. He'll be ably abetted by linemate Andrew Brunette and off-season free agent signee Cliff Ronning. The Wild are still building their depth, but the hardworking defensive system imposed by head coach Jacques Lemaire makes them a tough opponent to face every night. The one major area of concern is between the pipes, where netminder Manny Fernandez must rebound from a horrific '01-'02 campaign. Without better goaltending, the Wild's overall improvement could stall.

PACIFIC DIVISION.

1. SAN JOSE SHARKS. Expectations are high for the Sharks coming off their best season in team history last year. Defensively strong, they extract a tough physical price from their opponents. The goaltending tandem of Evgeni Nabokov and Miikka Kiprusoff is one of the best in the league, and the blueline corps of Brad Stuart, Jeff Jillson, Mike Rathje, Marcus Ragnarsson, Scott Hannan and Bryan Marchment provide an excellent mix of promising youth and skilled veterans that play very well in their own end. The Sharks have a good mix of offence (Selanne, Nolan, Marleau and Damphousse) and grinders (Ricci, Sturm, Thornton) up front, although their defensive system does limit the more offensively gifted of their forwards. Given that most of the core players on this team have been together for a while and there's been little change in their system, that may give them the edge over the rebuilt Dallas Stars.

2. DALLAS STARS. Perhaps no team changed as much this year as the Stars. Gone is the defence-first stylings of head coach Ken Hitchcock, replaced by former LA Kings assistant Dave Tippett's promise of a more offensive game. Gone is Ed Belfour, replaced by former backup and rising talent Marty Turco and veteran Ron Tugnutt. Goodbye to Joe Nieuwendyk, Jamie Langenbrunner, Randy McKay, Donald Audette, Martin Rucinsky, Roman Lyashenko and Brad Lukowich. Hello to Phillipe Boucher, Bill Guerin, Scott Young, Jason Arnott and Manny Malholtra. Hello also to lingering questions about captain Derian Hatcher getting a long-term contract extension, Pierre Turgeon's ability to rebound from a sub-par season and of how well the new additions will fit in. This is a talent-laden squad on paper, and if they mesh well, they could top the division. But things could get ugly if they don't, and in the tightest division in the West, that could be spell trouble for the Stars.

3. LOS ANGELES KINGS. If the Stars hadn't made the UFA signings they did this summer, my second place prediction in this division would go to the Kings. As it stands, there's enough talent here to not only finish second, but also challenge for first. Jason Allison and Ziggy Palffy provide a lethal one-two offensive punch, while Adam Deadmarsh has been a tremendous addition to the Kings since coming over from the Avalanche in 2001. The defence corps has to be one of the hardest working in the league, particularly Mattias Norstrom, Aaron Miller and Jaroslav Modry. If Lubomir Visnovsky can improve in his third season and Mathieu Schneider can stay healthy, scoring opportunities against the Kings will be tougher to come by. This'll suit goaltender Felix Potvin just fine, who has seen his career reborn since coming to Los Angeles. The one problem area for the Kings is their lack of offensive depth, which could limit their opportunity to improve against the rival Sharks and Stars.

4. PHOENIX COYOTES. Don't count out one of the hardest working teams in hockey. Coach Bobby Francis won coach-of-the-year honours for installing a system that brought out the best in his Coyotes and made them one of the surprises of last season. Goaltending should remain a strong point, thanks to veteran Sean Burke and the newly-acquired Brian Boucher. The defence is a strong mix of experience (Teppo Numminen, Danny Markov) and promising youth (Paul Mara, Ossi Vaananen). The offence was bolstered last season by the improved performances of Daniel Briere, Daymond Langkow and Ladislav Nagy. If these three can build on those performances, the addition of Tony Amonte via free agency could make the Desert Dawgs even more lethal offensively. Still, the Coyotes need a good second line, and they'll need better outings from Shane Doan, Brian Savage, Mike Johnson and sophomore Krys Kolanos if they're to keep in step with the Sharks, Kings and Stars.

5. ANAHEIM MIGHTY DUCKS. A new broom swept clean in Anaheim with the hiring of Bryan Murray as general manager. He wasted no time, signing veteran playmaker Adam Oates and veteran blueliner Fredrik Olausson via free agency, and dealing away Jeff Friesen and Oleg Tverdovsky to New Jersey for winger Petr Sykora. The idea is to surround superstar captain Paul Kariya with a better depth of talent to play with. Add in rising star goaltender JS Giguere and the potential of forwards Andy McDonald, Matt Cullen and Mike Leclerc, and it appears the Ducks are finally heading back in the right direction after several moribund seasons. Still, their blueline corps lacks the depth of their divisional rivals, and the development of the aforementioned forwards is still an ongoing process. The Ducks will be a tougher club to play against this season, and could move up a spot in the division if one of their rivals slip, but it's going to take time before they're a legitimate playoff team again.

EASTERN CONFERENCE.

NORTHEAST DIVISION.

1. OTTAWA SENATORS. The Sens did a masterful job of shutting down the Philadelphia Flyers and pushing the rival Toronto Maple Leafs to seven games in the 2002 playoffs. They look to build on that success with a strong 02-03 campaign, and the pieces are certainly in place. They possess impressive talent on the forward lines in captain Daniel Alfredsson and the ever-improving trio of Radek Bonk, Marian Hossa and Martin Havlat. Their blueline corps of Wade Redden, Chris Phillips, Zdeno Chara and Karel Rachunek is among the deepest in the league, while the tandem of Patrick Lalime and Jani Hurme provide strong goaltending. There are, however, two areas of concern: a lack of depth at centre, and the lingering reputation for choking in the playoffs. It remains to be seen if they can bury that label for good next spring, but there's enough talent here to lock up first in the Northeast.

2. TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS. The Leafs are hoping the talented, but enigmatic Ed Belfour will fill the void in goal left by the popular Curtis Joseph, who bolted to the Detroit Red Wings via free agency. "Eddie the Eagle" will see more rubber than he was used to in Dallas, as the Leafs defensive game is below that of the Stars. The Leafs showed toughness, durability and a decided mean streak in last spring's post-season, but it wasn't enough to get them into the Finals. There are other areas of concern. Spark plug winger Gary Roberts is gone until mid-season recuperating from shoulder surgery. They dealt away gritty blueliner Dmitry Yushkevich for Robert Svehla, while questions regarding the potential of certain veterans on the roster (Reichel, Mogilny, Hoglund, Renberg, Corson and Lumme) hang over the team. The Leafs may rely more heavily on captain Mats Sundin this season than in other years. There's still enough talent here to have a good season, but Cup aspirations may be dimming in Toronto.

3. MONTREAL CANADIENS. The gritty little team with big hearts look to build on their surprising success of last season. GM Andre Savard continues to rebuild the depth of the Habs, bringing in forwards Mariusz Czerkawski for scoring depth and Randy McKay for grit. How well the Canadiens fare this season ultimately depends on two players, team captain Saku Koivu and Hart-and-Vezina winning netminder Jose Theodore. If Koivu can finally have a healthy season, the Habs speed-oriented offence could show marked improvement. It's unlikely Theodore will repeat his eye-popping heroics of last year, but he's clearly now among the top five netminders in the NHL. He'll probably be grateful if his teammates can improve their overall defensive game. If Theodore and Koivu have good seasons, the Canadiens should have little difficulty making the post-season again.

4. BOSTON BRUINS. There's still plenty of talent on this club, notably forwards Joe Thornton, Sergei Samsonov and Brian Rolston, while young defenceman Nick Boynton shows promise. That being said, the off-season losses of goalie Byron Dafoe and winger Bill Guerin via free agency will hurt. The pain worsens with rugged, oft-injured blueliner Kyle McLaren holding out demanding a trade. Dafoe's replacement, Steve Shields, has yet to prove he can handle the role of an NHL starting netminder. It's a shame to see the Bruins, who three years ago possessed a potential Cup-contending roster, slowly falling apart because of their management's hardnosed contract negotiations with their players. This year's version is going to have to work harder than they did last season to make the post-season.

5. BUFFALO SABRES.With the arrest of former owner John Rigas and his sons and the collapse of their Adelphia empire dominating the headlines, the future of the Sabres, the 1999 Cup Finalists, looks bleak. They go into this season icing a predominantly young team that has yet to reach it's potential. They possess excellent goaltending depth in Martin Biron and Mika Noronen, and still have a good blueline corps with such notables as Alexei Zhitnik, Jay McKee and the underrated Rhett Warrener. If Buffalo is to move up in the standings, they'll need promising youngsters Tim Connolly, JP Dumont, and Maxim Afinogenov to finally deliver and take some of the offensive burden off Miroslav Satan's shoulders. Another season of unfulfilled expectations isn't going to cut it. There's also speculation the players may have grown weary of head coach Lindy Ruff's defensive system. If the Sabres struggle out of the gate, Ruff's days could be numbered.

ATLANTIC DIVISION.

1. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS. Following the Flyers shocking collapse down the stretch and in the first round of last spring's playoffs, GM Bob Clarke did the unexpected: rather than jump into the UFA market again, he hired former Dallas Stars bench boss Ken Hitchcock to improve his talented but underachieving club. The Flyers are loaded offensively on the forward lines in Simon Gagne, Jeremy Roenick, Mark Recchi, Keith Primeau and a supposedly healthy John LeClair. Their defence corps of Eric Desjardins, Kim Johnsson, Danny McGillis and Eric Weinrich is perhaps the best the Flyers have had in years. Goaltender Roman Cechmanek has to mend fences with his teammates for his outburst over their uninspired play in the playoffs, but he gives them world-class goaltending. A team with this much talent needed a strong whip hand to snap them out of complacency, and Hitchcock will certainly get the job done, so long as Clarke stands by him.

2. NY ISLANDERS. Last season was no fluke. The Islanders are back and will be hungry to improve on their success of 2001-02. The best move GM Mike Milbury ever made was plucking Chris Osgood off waivers, providing the Isles with the steady veteran netminding they lacked for years. Blueliners Roman Hamrlik, Adrian Aucoin, Kenny Jonsson and Radek Martinek provide strong two-way play, provided they can stay healthy. Up front, a good mix of established stars (Alexei Yashin and Mike Peca) and possibly emerging ones (Brad Isbister, Mark Parrish, Shawn Bates) gives the Islanders excellent depth on the forward lines. It will be interesting to see how the Isles start the season without Peca, who's recuperating from off-season knee surgery, but there is enough depth of talent to carry them until their captain returns.

3. NY RANGERS. Hard to believe a club filled with potential Hall-of-Famers like Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure, Mark Messier, Brian Leetch and Mike Richter missed the playoffs, but for the fifth straight time, that was the fate that befell the Blueshirts in 2002. This forced GM Glen Sather to take a page from his predecessor's notebook and make a huge splash in the UFA pool, as he signed gritty centre Bobby Holik and blueliner Darius Kasparaitis to eye-popping contracts. Slats deserves credit for these signings and the late-season deals for Bure and defenceman Tom Poti as he's clearly trying to turn the moribund Rangers around. However, it's going to be the ability of rookie head coach Bryan Trottier to mould these highly-paid egos into a team, especially one that pays attention to the defensive aspects of the game. This Rangers squad may be one of the most lethal offensive teams this coming season, but if they repeat their horrid defensive play of the past two years, they'll be on the outside looking in again at season's end.

4. NEW JERSEY DEVILS. It may be premature to write off the 2000 Cup champs, but it was obvious as the Devils lurched through last season they were no longer playing like a team. Newly hired head coach and three time Adams winner Pat Burns has been brought in to get these guys back on track. There is a good base to work with here, from workhorse goalie Martin Brodeur to a strong defence corps anchored by Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski and Oleg Tverdovsky. However, there is less depth up front than in recent years, with Bobby Holik lost to free agency and the dealing away of Petr Sykora and Jason Arnott. The replacements for the latter two, Joe Nieuwendyk and Jeff Friesen, are talented in their own right, but Nieuwendyk is getting older and has suspect knees, while Friesen's stock has been on the decline over the past three years. There is also concern over the plummeting stats of 2000 Calder winning centre Scott Gomez. The Devils may not have the depth of offensive talent to compete with the Flyers, Isles and Rangers. Should last season's acrimony carry over into this season, things could get very ugly in New Jersey.

5. PITTSBURGH PENGUINS. The loss of Jaromir Jagr to Washington and a combination of injuries to Mario Lemieux, Alexei Kovalev and Martin Straka combined to scuttle the Penguins last season. Unfortunately, things don't look to be improving for them this season. While Lemieux and Kovalev will return healthy, Straka is out indefinitely after injuring his back in a freak off-season training accident. Losing second line centre Robert Lang to free agency and dealing away gritty blueliner Darius Kasparaitis further depletes the roster. Netminder Johan Hedberg played well last season, but carried a heavy load as his backup, JS Aubin, floundered in limited action. Lemieux and Kovalev alone cannot carry this team, even if they're healthy all season. The Pens are betting on youngsters like defenceman Andrew Ference and forwards Milan Kraft, Toby Petersen and Kris Beech to improve, while hoping Jan Hrdina and Aleksey Morozov can repeat or top their career performance of last season. It may be asking too much at this stage for the rebuilding Penguins, given the depth of talent their Atlantic Division rivals possess.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION.

1. CAROLINA HURRICANES. Most were surprised by the 'Canes topping the Southeast last season, let alone their run to the Cup Finals. While it may be a stretch to expect a repeat visit to the Finals, placing first in the Southeast is not. The Hurricanes are a well-coached squad with a great mix of rising young talent and established veterans at all positions. Led by their ageless captain, Ron Francis, the Hurricanes shouldn't have too much trouble shaking off any "Cup Finals hangover". If youngsters Josef Vasicek, Erik Cole, Jaroslav Svoboda and David Tanabe can continue their improvement, Carolina could be a lock to top this division, and could well be on their way to becoming a legitimate powerhouse.

2. WASHINGSTON CAPITALS. Injuries played a substantial role in Washingston's inability to make the postseason in 2002, and the Capitals will be hoping key players like goaltender Olaf Kolzig, defenceman Calle Johansson and forwards Jaromir Jagr, Steve Konowalchuk and Jeff Halpern can stay healthy. The addition of centre Robert Lang via free agency provides more depth up front, and the potential emergence of forward Dainius Zubrus should make their offense, powered by Jagr, Peter Bondra and Sergei Gonchar that much more dangerous. However, the two big question marks are on the blueline and behind the bench. Beyond Gonchar and Johansson, the Caps are thin on defence, while new head coach Bruce Cassidy is a rookie to the NHL coaching ranks. These factors could hamper the Capitals as they battle the Hurricanes for first in the Southeast. Should the injury bug bite again, missing the postseason for the second straight year becomes a real possibility.

3. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING. The "If factor" will decide the Lightning's fate this season. If defenceman Pavel Kubina can improve on his career-best performance of last season. If Fredrik Modin can stay healthy and return to his 30-goal form. If Martin St. Louis can prove his strong play prior to a season-ending leg injury wasn't a fluke. If Shane Willis can bounce back from his sophomore slump. If Ruslan Fedotenko can fit in well coming over from Philadelphia. If other young players like Nikita Alexeev, Cory Sarich and Sheldon Keefe can take the next step in their development. But most importantly, if Vincent Lecavalier can finally deliver on his huge potential, then the Lightning could not only contend for a playoff berth, but might possibly challenge the 'Canes and 'Caps. Goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, rising young star Brad Richards and veteran leader Dave Andreychuk are the only guarantees to deliver. Most of the "ifs" must now do so.

4. FLORIDA PANTHERS. The plans to build around Pavel Bure were a miserable failure, so the firing of the management and coaching staff last season and the March trade of the Russian Rocket signalled another major rebuilding process. With rising young superstar Roberto Luongo between the pipes, goaltending isn't a problem. New GM Rick Dudley addressed the swiss-cheese blueline by dealing for Dmitry Yushkevich and drafting the promising Jay Bouwmeester, although there is still more work to be done here. Up front, the Panthers possess one of the youngest forward lines in the league, but in Kristian Huselius, Niklas Hagman, Ivan Novoseltsev, Marcus Nilson, Pierre Dagenais and Stephen Weiss there is plenty of promising talent. Head coach Mike Keenan has shown he can work well with young players, so expect this club to work hard every night. They're still a long way from getting back into the playoffs, but they will be a pain in the ass to play against this season.

5. ATLANTA THRASHERS. If it weren't for the play of rookie sensastions Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk, the Thrashers 2001-02 season would've been considered another failure. These two kids have given their fans and the franchise a glimmer of hope. GM Don Waddell went shopping for depth and brought in veteran forwards Slava Kozlov and Shawn McEachern and blueliner Richard Smehlik. There is also hope Patrik Stefan can finally play up to expectations and Tomi Kallio can get back on track. That being said, the goaltending and blueline remain critical areas for improvement.

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