Rugby World Cup
This Week's Issue
Life of Reilly
SI for Women
CNN/SI - TV
Golf Pro Shop
MLB Gear Store
NFL Gear Store
SI FOR KIDS
Hasek's swan song highlights NE ensemble
Posted: Tuesday September 28, 1999 05:32 PM
JERSEY CITY, N.J. (Ticker) -- The Northeast turned out to be the place to be last season as the Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres finished the regular season separated by just 12 points.
It may be more of the same this season.
The Sabres used grit, determination and, of course, the goaltending of Dominik Hasek to reach the Stanley Cup finals last season. With Hasek playing his final season, the Sabres may have a last-hurrah-type of motivation working for them.
Miroslav Satan (who is unsigned), Michael Peca and Michal Grosek should continue to provide the spark on offense. All three posted career highs in goals last season and fit perfectly into coach Lindy Ruff's blue-collar system.
Ruff is hoping players like Brian Holzinger, Geoff Sanderson and Stu Barnes realize their potential and Wayne Primeau, Erik Rasmussen and Curtis Brown build off their postseason performances.
The Sabres' defense is one of the most underrated in hockey. Buffalo has players who can contribute offensively in Jason Woolley and Alexei Zhitnik, while Rhett Warrener, Jay McKee and youngsters Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre and Cory Sarich are hard hitters.
While Hasek almost certainly will remain a workhorse, the Sabres are grooming Mathieu Biron as their goaltender of the future. He went 1-2-1 with a 2.14 goals-against average in six NHL games last season. If Biron needs more seasoning, Dwayne Roloson will spell Hasek.
The Bruins went 10-3-3 over the final 16 games to finish fifth in the Eastern Conference for the second straight year. To move up, Boston must find a way to put the puck in the net more often. The Bruins' goal output has decreased every season since 1992-1993.
It will be a pivotal campaign for Jason Allison, who led the team in scoring with 76 points, but also spent time in coach Pat Burns' doghouse. After Boston was knocked out in the second round of the playoffs, Allison also was a target of general manager Harry Sinden.
The pressure will be even greater on Allison because the Bruins cut loose leading goal-scorer Dmitri Khristich after he was awarded $2.75 million by an arbitrator.
With Allison expected to miss at least a month with ankle and wrist injuries, the Bruins need fast starts from Joe Thornton, Sergei Samsonov and Anson Carter. Thornton made great strides from a disappointing rookie season and may have been Boston's top center down the stretch. 1998 Calder Trophy winner Samsonov struggled through his sophomore campaign, while Carter put up a career-high 24 goals.
Scoring from the third and fourth lines was almost non-existent last season, and the Bruins lost checking center Tim Taylor to free agency. Boston is hoping to get something out of 17-year veteran Dave Andreychuk, who scored 53 goals for Burns in Toronto in 1993-94.
Ray Bourque begins his 21st consecutive season with the Bruins, and time is running out in his quest for a Stanley Cup. He was the only Boston defenseman with more than six goals last season.
The biggest story for the Bruins' last season was goalie Byron Dafoe, who had 32 wins, a league-leading 10 shutouts and a 1.99 GAA. Dafoe became the first Bruin with a GAA under 2.00 since 1938-39. But he is a restricted free agent who remained unsigned late into training camp, meaning Rob Tallas will start the season as the No. 1 netminder.
In Toronto, fans are wondering whether the Maple Leafs can duplicate last season's success. Under first-year coach Pat Quinn, the Leafs played a wide-open system that produced a league-leading 268 goals and a berth in the Eastern Conference finals.
In the offseason, however, an ugly power struggle ended with the departure of associate general manager Mike Smith and assistant GM Anders Hedberg. Quinn ended up assuming the dual role of general manager and coach.
On the ice, six players are coming off seasons with at least 20 goals. Mats Sundin led the team in scoring for the fifth consecutive campaign with 83 points, while Sergei Berezin had a career-high 37 goals.
"We have pretty much the same team as we had last year," Berezin said. "I think we've got a great chance this year. We're older (by) one year. And we have the experience in the playoffs. I think we're going to be pretty good."
Steve Thomas will be hard-pressed to duplicate his 28-goal season, but Toronto is counting on more from Igor Korolev, who had 47 points despite missing 16 games due to injury.
The Leafs' freewheeling style came at the expense of defense, which ranked 21st. Quinn's biggest concern was with his forwards, who were unwilling to backcheck, leaving defensemen and workhorse goalie Curtis Joseph vulnerable to odd-man rushes.
The big free-agent contract given to Joseph paid off with 35 wins. But only one goaltender faced more shots and CuJo was 16th with a .910 save percentage and 25th with a 2.56 GAA.
His workload could be even bigger if holdout defensemen Dmitri Yushkevich and Bryan Berard do not agree to terms.
In Ottawa, the Senators could go from a team with a promising future to one in disarray.
Taking center stage on the eve of the season is the ongoing soap opera involving All-Star center Alexei Yashin. He wants the team to tear up the final year of his contract for a deal that would make him one of the league's highest-paid players. Management has drawn the line, agreeing only to tack on two years worth $23 million.
Yashin is threatening to sit out the season, prompting the Senators to consider legal action. The two sides have butted heads twice before in contract talks, and public opinion is firmly with the team this time around.
Yashin is not the only face missing as the Senators prepare to defend the first division title in team history.
For the third time in as many years, Ottawa has a new general manager. Marshall Johnston replaces Rick Dudley, who defected to Tampa Bay. As compensation, the Senators received left wing Rob Zamuner, whose versatility and tenacity make him a perfect fit.
Goalie Damian Rhodes was traded to expansion Atlanta, leaving the starting job to Ron Tugnutt. Tugnutt is coming off a career season in which he was 22-10-8 with a league-best 1.79 GAA.
Also gone is defenseman Lance Pitlick, who left for Florida via free agency. Those losses will make it almost impossible for Ottawa to repeat last season's 103-point performance.
If Yashin sits, Coach of the Year Jacques Martin has to find a way to replace 44 goals, including 19 on the power play. Shawn McEachern established a career high with 31 goals, but he played on a line with Yashin. More likely, the help will come from Calder Trophy finalist Marian Hossa and oft-injured winger Daniel Alfredsson, who has missed 51 games in two seasons.
Once, it was considered catastrophic for the Canadiens to miss the playoffs. Now it may happen two years in a row.
Preseason contract squabbles, a lack of scoring and endless injuries last season sent Montreal to the Northeast cellar, a spot they could occupy again.
The Canadiens did not have a 20-goal scorer last season, a dubious feat that hockey's most storied franchise had not accomplished since 1940-41. In fact, leading scorer Saku Koivu had 44 points while missing 17 games.
Brian Savage, Shayne Corson and Martin Rucinsky are among the players who must rebound from dismal seasons for the Habs to have any shot at the playoffs. Big things will also be expected from Dainius Zubrus, who came over from Philadelphia in the Mark Recchi trade.
The Habs brought in center Trevor Linden to help provide leadership. He had 18 goals and 47 points for the last-place New York Islanders and is four years removed from his best season.
Stephane Quintal's defection to the New York Rangers left a major hole on defense. And it got worse for coach Alain Vigneault when Vladimir Malakhov tore knee ligaments in a preseason game. He will be out at least four months. Combine that with back injuries to Patrice Brisebois and Benoit Brunet and it could be a long year for Vigneault and GM Rejean Houle.
If there is a bright spot on this team, it's goalie Jeff Hackett, who somehow compiled a 26-26-10 record while playing for Montreal and Chicago.
© 2003 SportsTicker Enterprises, LP
Copyright © 1999 CNN/SI. A Time Warner Company.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.