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Everybody shoots for the Stars
Posted: Tuesday September 28, 1999 03:29 PM
JERSEY CITY, N.J. (Ticker) -- The Pacific Division has it all -- dynamic young offensive players, heated rivalries and strong coaching. Oh, and the defending Stanley Cup champion Dallas Stars.
Last season, the Stars continued the Western Conference's recent dominance in the Stanley Cup finals by knocking off the Buffalo Sabres in six games.
The team added Brett Hull before last season and acquired Derek Plante before the trade deadline. They complemented veterans Mike Modano and Joe Nieuwendyk well and, more importantly, bought into coach Ken Hitchcock's defense-first system.
The Stars also rely on a defensive unit that is built around Derian Hatcher, Darryl Sydor and Sergei Zubov. Ed Belfour keeps the Stars strong in net, though they may be in trouble if he gets hurt. The Stars also possess one of the game's best power-play units with Modano, Hull, Sydor and Zubov doing their best work with the man advantage.
As one of the league's older teams, Dallas is not without questions. There also are concerns regarding the team's season-long commitment to Hitchcock's program.
If Dallas stumbles, there is a trio of teams that can challenge for division leader.
The Sharks are another team that bought into the defensive system of their coach Darryl Sutter. They reached the playoffs without a 30-goal or 60-point scorer.
That's not to say that San Jose is without talent as Owen Nolan, Jeff Friesen and Patrick Marleau are skilled offensive players. Vincent Damphousse, a late-season acquisition, should bolster the attack and, with an improving defense, the Sharks should be able to open it up offensively.
Goaltenders Steve Shields and Mike Vernon are a solid 1-2 punch who benefit from the play of blueliners Marcus Ragnarsson, Mike Rathje, Gary Suter, Bill Houlder and Bryan Marchment.
Another team poised for a breakout season is the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. No NHL team boasts a better 1-2 combination than Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. For most of the past two years, however, keeping that duo together proved a difficult challenge.
If you had to use only six players, the Ducks would be set with Kariya, Selanne, reliable center Steve Rucchin, defensemen Oleg Tverdovsky and Frederik Olausson, and goaltender Guy Hebert.
The Achilles' heel of the Ducks always has been their second line, and for Anaheim to succeed, coach Craig Hartsburg will have to get more out of solid but unspectacular players like Ted Donato, Marty McInnis and Matt Cullen. Cullen is expected to move up and center Kariya and Selanne, pushing Rucchin to the second line. Hartsburg also may turn to prospects like Maxim Balmochnykh, Vitali Vishnevsky and Mikael Holmqvist.
Another team that is deep offensively is the Phoenix Coyotes, who hope to build around stars Keith Tkachuk, Jeremy Roenick and Rick Tocchet. Unlike Anaheim, the Coyotes have depth with veterans Travis Green, Greg Adams, Dallas Drake and Shane Doan.
But Bobby Francis -- Phoenix's third coach in four years -- must find a replacement for second-line center Robert Reichel, who is staying in Europe.
Defenseman Teppo Numminen is a solid as they come, but fellow Finn Jyrki Lumme had a disappointing first season in the desert. Deron Quint can improve, but Keith Carney and J.J. Daigneault have seen their better years.
Few NHL goaltenders log as many minutes or face as many shots as the Coyotes' Nikolai Khabibulin. The 26-year-old Russian continues to improve and his .923 save percentage was even more impressive, considering he logged 3,600 minutes for the third straight season.
But the 'Bulin Wall' may never come to terms on a contract, leaving Francis with journeymen Mikhail Shtalenkov and Bob Essensa.
One of the Coyotes' big question marks is Francis, who must find a way to take a lot of expensive parts and build an efficient machine. He and general manager Bobby Smith face this pivotal year for the franchise on a very short leash.
Excitement abounded for the Los Angeles Kings , who acquired sniper Zigmund Palffy in the offseason and are set to move into a new home, the Staples Center. Palffy arrived from the New York Islanders with center Bryan Smolinski and the duo is sure to bolster an anemic attack.
Palffy, who has never scored fewer than 40 goals in a full season, will have a good mix of talent around him with veterans Luc Robitaille and Donald Audette. They must help integrate some young offensive talent but can rely on a steady group of defensemen headed by perennial Norris Trophy candidate Rob Blake.
Jamie Storr and Stephane Fiset are capable, but neither emerged as a No. 1 goaltender in the preseason.
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