Work in Sports
Same song, different verse
Recent NHL favorites should shine once again
By Darren Eliot, CNNSI.com
After 1,148 regular season games and 12 playoff series, this past season's final four were widely anticipated. Sure, some thought the St. Louis Blues would run the table instead of being a first-round victim of the San Jose Sharks.
And many hoped the Toronto Maple Leafs would run-and-gun their way to the finals. Still, the defending champion Dallas Stars representing the Western Conference and the New Jersey Devils coming out of the East was hardly a stretch. Further, the best team won, which certainly has been the case in the past five Stanley Cup showdowns.
So, despite rampant player movement throughout the league during the off-season, the base of power atop the NHL has shifted little since the springtime.
The Western Conference has seen Dallas, Detroit and Colorado dominate for the past six seasons. The Blues joined them this last year, evidenced by winning the President's Trophy as the best team during the regular season.
But as the Red Wings and Stars can attest, regular-season excellence followed by an early playoff exit only hurts for a while and is completely exorcised the following spring when atonement comes in the form of full potential realized in the form of a trip to the finals.
This past spring's loss will keep the Blues focused. They added veteran players in Sean Hill and Dallas Drake; both should fit nicely into the Blues' team scheme and contribute on the blueline and on the forecheck respectively. Goaltender Roman Turek must bide his time patiently until April because nothing he accomplishes until then will matter.
But once the postseason begins, close scrutiny of his every move will be a constant companion. Still, the Blues have a great mix of veterans and young legs at their core. Add incentive to an already outstanding collection of players and you have the best team in the West.
Following closely behind the Blues is Colorado. The Avalanche also have a nice blend of young and aging stars and they, too, have the intangible of collective motivation. Ray Bourque's quest for his first Stanley Cup is part of the team spirit, but the reality is that the expectations are clear from top management for this team to win it all.
If they fall short, the team will be broken up. It might just be the challenge veterans like Bourque, goaltender Patrick Roy and forwards Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic respond to.
The 1999-2000 season exposed the Dallas Stars as an offensively fragile team. Yes, they had 100 points during the regular season and made it back to the finals. Offense, however, had nothing to do with their relative success.
It was all because of the fantastic goaltending of Ed Belfour from start to finish. Period. Entering 2000-01, the Stars lost leadership with the retirement of Guy Carbonneau and have done very little to infuse young players that do little more than take up minutes, while trying not to be scored upon.
With Mike Modano, Brett Hull and Joe Nieuwendyk up front and Darryl Sydor and Sergei Zubov on the points and Belfour tending goal, the Stars have enough to beat most teams. But, unless a few of the twenty-something forwards like Jamie Langenbrunner, Brenden Morrow and Roman Lyashenko consistently contribute offensively, the Stars will continue to fade from their Cup victory of '99.
The Red Wings face a similar plight as the Stars. They have a Hall-of-Fame nucleus of players well into their thirties, who are crafty enough and still strong enough most nights to beat much of the competition. Yet, the team's focus since winning back-to-back Cups has waned and with it the commitment and contributions of the supporting cast has dwindled.
Aside from playing some youngsters on the blue line to build depth, the Wings need forwards Darren McCarty, Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby to return to prominence. Their collective energy was vital when the Wings were on top. Sergei Fedorov and Slava Kozlov have to persevere throughout the season, instead of trying to conserve effort for the postseason.
When the Wings were at their best, they set consistently high standards as a group -- on a nightly basis. The standards and the results have been lower, with inconsistencies emerging. Can the Red Wings get everyone to rededicate to excellence? Or are their days as a legitimate power on the wane?
In the East, the New Jersey Devils begin their title defense as the best team in the conference. However, this past spring's acquisitions led to a depletion of defensive depth in the Devils' organization, exacerbated by Vladimir Malakov's free agent defection to the Rangers.
Further, Larry Robinson must now endure the rigors of commanding the team's attention for an entire season, the one aspect of coaching he found so elusive in his four seasons as the Los Angeles Kings' bench boss. And Scott Stevens can't possibly perform again as if the calendar has been flipped back a decade or so.
Even with agitator Claude Lemieux's final exodus from New Jersey, the Devils are still poised to repeat, with Martin Brodeur supplying superior goaltending -- backstopping the best blend of size, speed and skill in the NHL.
A year ago, the Sabres were in chaos, with all-world goaltender Dominik Hasek missing half the season and captain Michael Peca suffering through a below-average season. The Sabres squeaked into the playoffs, largely on the strength of Hasek's gradual return to form and contributions down the middle from Doug Gilmour and Chris Gratton, both acquired in desperate deadline deals.
Well, that desperation has dissipated to a sense of urgency -- not merely to make it to the post-season, but to return to the Finals as they did in '99. This is Hasek's final season and the only thing missing from his resume is a Stanley Cup.
In addition to a motivated Hasek, the Sabres have depth at center and skill on the wings, ably supported by a stalwart, if not flashy, blue line corps. It all should add up to a return to prominence, with the Sabres proving this past year was the anomaly, rather than the previous two.
The Toronto Maple Leafs went out and overpaid for seasoned grit in the form of proven NHL forwards Gary Roberts and Shayne Corson. Both should solidify the Leafs' play in the trenches, helping star center Mats Sundin create offensively in tight-checking games.
The aggressive addition of these two proves the Leafs believe their time is now to contend for the crown. With a stronger commitment on the defensive side of the puck, the Leafs have enough team speed to augment the great goaltending of Curtis Joseph to challenge the Devils.
Plus, the Leafs now have the entire campaign to come to terms with the devastating late season loss of gifted defenseman Bryan Berard. The Leafs won't try to replace his ability to skate the puck out of the defensive zone and lead the rush. Rather, they will adjust their style accordingly, something they were unable to do during the playoffs.
The good news in Philadelphia is that Craig Ramsey is in place as the head coach from the beginning of the season. He led the Flyers to the precipice of a finals' berth as the interim coach, an exhilarating and improbable run this past spring.
Ramsey's role clarification may be the only certainty in Philly. Goaltender Brian Boucher emerged as the main man during the playoffs and now bears the burden of a No. 1 netminder for an entire season, without the security of having the steady and stellar veteran John Vanbiesbrouck as a partner.
John LeClair enters the season without the long-term contract he was seeking, settling for a lucrative one-year arbitration agreement. He will have to remain productive in isolation though, as Eric Lindros will no longer be part of the much vaunted one-two power forward punch. Sure, Keith Primeau stepped in to fill the Lindros void as the team's big man in the middle. And while his playoff performance was solid, Primeau cannot dominate the way a healthy Lindros can.
Certainly, the Flyers proved in the playoffs that they are an upper echelon team with or without Lindros. Still, it is hard to rationalize that a team can lose one of the game's top players and truly be better. With soaring scrutiny and escalating expectations, the Flyers might be hard pressed to ascend to last season's heights.
Former NHL goalie Darren Eliot is now an analyst on Atlanta Thrashers broadcasts. His column will appear weekly on CNNSI.com.