Work in Sports
Atlantic Division Preview
Devils missing two holdouts; Messier back with Rangers
JERSEY CITY, New Jersey (Ticker) -- The Stanley Cup is back in New Jersey. Mark Messier is back in New York. Turmoil and controversy are back in Philadelphia. Welcome to the NHL soap opera known as the Atlantic Division.
After two years of failing to get past the first round of the playoffs, the New Jersey Devils overcame a 3-1 deficit in the Eastern Conference finals and went on to capture their second Stanley Cup championship in six seasons. Now they may have to defend that title without their top center and a key defenseman.
Jason Arnott, who scored the Cup-winning goal in double-overtime in Game Six against the Dallas Stars, and Scott Niedermayer both held out of training camp due to contract disputes. Most players who play hardball with general manager Lou Lamoriello find themselves on a new team before long. And considering that Niedermayer has been involved in more than one holdout, he could be next on his way out.
Besides the holdouts, the Devils will be without veteran Claude Lemieux, an unrestricted free agent expected to sign with Phoenix, and defenseman Vladimir Malakhov, who signed with the New York Rangers.
Enforcers Jim McKenzie and Turner Stevenson were acquired to help protect budding stars like leading scorer Patrik Elias, Petr Sykora and Calder Trophy winner Scott Gomez. Former 76-goal scorer Alexander Mogilny, obtained before the trade deadline this past season, is in the final year of his contract and will be counted on to regain his scoring touch.
The age of the New Jersey defense was considered a concern this past season. Captain Scott Stevens, 36, put those concerns to rest by capturing the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the postseason. Ken Daneyko, also 36, continued his solid play and was rewarded with the Masterton Trophy for perseverance and dedication. Rookies Brian Rafalski and Colin White were major contributors during the playoff run.
With the futures of Niedermayer and Arnott in limbo, journeyman defenseman Ken Sutton and rookie Willie Mitchell will contend for a spot on defense, while Steve Kelly, who saw spot duty in the playoffs, vies for the opening at center.
Goaltending is never a question with Martin Brodeur between the pipes. He posted a league-leading 43 wins and a 2.24 goals-against average.
The Eric Lindros saga apparently is in its final chapter in Philadelphia, although it's anyone's guess how it will end.
Lindros suffered his fourth concussion of the season minutes into Game Seven of the conference finals -- most likely his final game in a Flyers' uniform -- and may never lace up the skates again. His contract status also is up in the air. General manager Bob Clarke made a qualifying offer to Lindros, but he turned it down and is a restricted free agent.
Doctors say the earliest he will be cleared to play is January, and no team will consider making Lindros an offer without special provisions on the part of Philadelphia.
On the bright side, the Flyers no longer are searching for a No. 1 goaltender. Brian Boucher led the league with a 1.91 GAA as a rookie and led the team to the conference finals, outplaying Dominik Hasek, Ron Tugnutt and even Brodeur in the process. If Boucher suffers from the dreaded sophomore jinx, however, there could be problems.
Veteran John Vanbiesbrouck was traded to the New York Islanders, leaving former Czech star Roman Cechmanek and rookie Maxime Ouellet -- the team's first-round draft pick in 1999 -- to battle for the backup job. The three goaltenders, Boucher included, have a combined 35 games of NHL experience.
Left wing John LeClair will have to prove he can score without Lindros setting him up, and Mark Recchi, who led the team with 91 points, will be expected to post similar numbers. A full season from hulking center Keith Primeau will help make up for Lindros' loss, while Simon Gagne, who showed amazing composure for a rookie in the playoffs, should improve on a 48-point season.
Former sniper Kevin Stevens was signed over the summer with hopes he can regain his scoring touch. He underwent a turbulent season in 1999-00, being arrested and undergoing treatment for substance abuse. Time will tell if the reclamation project is successful.
The Flyers' defense surprised many during the playoffs, playing effectively if not spectacularly. Rookie Andy Delmore, who recorded a hat trick against Pittsburgh in the conference semifinals, added speed and an ability to join the rush. Eric Desjardins, who assumed the captaincy from Lindros, enjoyed his finest season with 55 points and finishing fourth in voting for the Norris Trophy.
The only new face on the blue line will be Michal Sykora, who returns to the NHL after spending time in the Czech Republic.
The New York Rangers are hoping to recapture the magic of old after signing Messier, the man who led them to their first Stanley Cup in 44 years.
Messier was brought in by his former coach and general manager, Glen Sather, who is being given free reign to help turn around the franchise. Messier, who will turn 40 in January, undoubtedly will bring leadership to the Rangers, something that was sorely lacking this past season. But his skills are not what they used to be and he cannot be counted on to supply a lot of offense.
Disappointing free agent acquisitions Theoren Fleury and Valeri Kamensky will be expected to provide more offense while Mike York and Jan Hlavac look to improve on fine rookie seasons.
Defenseman Brian Leetch is still among the NHL's elite and young Swedish import Kim Johnsson impressed this past season. The rest of the defense is serviceable, with the likes of Malakhov, Sylvain Lefebvre and Stephane Quintal.
Goalie Mike Richter is recovering from offseason knee surgery and will not be ready in time for the season opener. Backup Kirk McLean will shoulder the duties until Richter returns.
It's official -- the Pittsburgh Penguins are now Team Europe.
After Herb Brooks stepped down following the playoffs, the Penguins named Czech Ivan Hlinka the second European-born coach in NHL history. Quite fitting, considering there are at least 10 Europeans on the Pens' roster.
The Czech brigade is led by superstar Jaromir Jagr, who led the league in scoring for the third straight season with 42 goals and 96 points in just 63 games. Fellow Czechs Robert Lang, Martin Straka and Jan Hrdina provide support.
Defense was a surprising bright spot for Pittsburgh in the postseason, thanks in part to trade deadline acquisitions Bob Boughner and Janne Laukkanen. Swedish rookie Hans Jonsson had a solid season, while Czechs Jiri Slegr and Michal Rozsival added offense from the blue line.
The Penguins dodged a bullet by re-signing goalie Jean-Sebastien Aubin late in training camp. He played well last season, going 23-21-3 with a 2.58 GAA. Had Aubin not returned, the Pens would have had to rely on journeyman Rich Parent and 20-year-old Sebastien Caron.
It's been six straight seasons without a playoff appearance for the New York Islanders, and 2000-01 could be more of the same.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, however. New ownership expressed a willingness to raise the payroll and general manager Mike Milbury wasted no time spending, trading for defenseman Roman Hamrlik and Vanbiesbrouck.
Vanbiesbrouck was expected to serve as backup and tutor to Rick DiPietro, who in June became the first goalie ever selected with the top overall draft pick. But DiPietro was sent to the minors late in training camp, leaving Vanbiesbrouck as the starter.
Hamrlik gives the Isles the quarterback they sorely needed on the power play. Veteran Garry Galley and captain Kenny Jonsson also add scoring from the blue line while Zdeno Chara and newcomer Kevin Haller provide a physical presence.
Right wing Mariusz Czerkawski is coming off a career season in which he registered 35 goals and 70 points. But the dropoff after Czerkawski is huge. Left wing Brad Isbister was second in scoring with 42 points and rookie center Tim Connolly had 34. Full seasons from Dave Scatchard and Bill Muckalt, along with offseason pickups Oleg Kvasha and Mark Parrish will help, but the Isles still lack a forward who puts fear in opposing goalies.
A repeat is not out of the question for the Devils, but it becomes increasingly less likely without Arnott and Niedermayer.
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