Work in Sports
Central Division Preview
It's redemption time in St. Louis after playoff failure
JERSEY CITY, New Jersey (Ticker) -- The St. Louis Blues enjoyed the finest regular season in team history, winning the Presidents' Trophy with 114 points. But they were stunned in the first round of the playoffs by the San Jose Sharks.
So general manager Larry Pleau moved quickly. On July 1, the first day of the free agency period, he signed defenseman Sean Hill and gritty right wing Dallas Drake. Both should help keep St. Louis on top in the Central Division.
Hill had his best season, picking up 13 goals and 31 assists for the Carolina Hurricanes despite missing 20 games. More importantly, he should ease the burden on Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis, who ranked first and 10th, respectively in average ice time.
Pronger and MacInnis give the Blues two Norris Trophy winners on the same team for the first time since the 1959 Montreal Canadiens had Tom Johnson and Doug Harvey.
Adams Award winner Joel Quenneville was rewarded in the offseason with a contract extension through the 2003-04 season. In four seasons with St. Louis, he consistently has gotten the most from his team.
Quenneville's task gets easier and easier as the Blues' talent level continues to rise. While still a blue collar team, they have legitimate scorers in Pierre Turgeon, Pavol Demitra, who missed the playoffs while recovering from a concussion. And Drake will add intensity, work hard at both ends of the ice and see time on special teams.
Roman Turek helped the Blues win the Jennings Trophy in his first year as an NHL starter, going 42-15-9 with seven shutouts and a 1.95 goals-against average. He has something to prove after struggling in the playoffs.
St. Louis was able to unseat the Detroit last season and this figures to be the Red Wings' last shot at glory with an aging team and coach Scotty Bowman beginning what is expected to be his final season behind the bench.
Detroit's roster is loaded with familiar names like Yzerman, Shanahan, Osgood, Fedorov, Chelios, Lidstrom and Murphy. That's largely the same crew that won back-to-back Stanley Cups, but it's also two years older and coming off consecutive playoff defeats to the hated Colorado Avalanche.
The Red Wings are trying to work in some young players, particularly on defense. And the signing of speedy 22-year-old center Boyd Devereaux will pay dividends. But even general manager Ken Holland admits the success of this team depends on how well its 30-something players perform.
The Chicago Blackhawks have turned to their third coach in as many seasons as they try to return to the playoffs for the first time since 1997. Alpo Suhonen, a Finn, is the first European-born coach in NHL history.
The former Toronto Maple Leafs assistant plans to open things up, although Chicago ranked fourth in the Western Conference this past season with 242 goals. New Blackhawks captain Tony Amonte remains one of the best bargains in the NHL. He has scored at least 41 goals in three of the past four seasons but will be paid "only" $3 million.
Amonte was one of Chicago's five 20-goal scorers in 1999-00 (Michael Nylander, Eric Daze, Steve Sullivan and Alexei Zhamnov were the others).
Keeping the puck out of the net will determine whether the Hawks will be playing hockey into late April. There were nights when goaltender Jocelyn Thibault was inhuman, but there were too many other nights -- especially early in the season -- when he was all too human.
Once the Blackhawks' strength, Suhonen's defense is riddled with question marks. Boris Mironov was out of shape after a prolonged holdout and never rounded into form. Many are still wondering how Bryan McCabe won his arbitration case and Anders Eriksson's first full season in Chicago was a forgettable one.
Rookie Steve McCarthy is expected to win a spot in the lineup fresh out of juniors.
The novelty is wearing off in Nashville, where the Predators have posted 28-47-7 records in each of their first two seasons. But general manager David Poile isn't worried. He's sticking to his plan of building through young players.
Fitting that description are first-round draft pick Scott Hartnell, 20-year-old center David Legwand and a pair of defensemen -- 25-year-old Kimmo Timonen and 26-year-old Karlis Skrastins.
Coach Barry Trotz also gets big contributions from veterans Cliff Ronning and Patric Kjellberg. But Nashville has only two 20-goal scorers and ranked 25th offensively. Like Quenneville, Trotz gets the most from his players. Of the Predators' 47 losses, 34 were by one or two goals.
Mike Dunham and Tomas Vokoun form a solid goaltending tandem, but Nashville took Brian Finley in the first round of the 1999 draft and Dunham could become expendable as the trade deadline approaches.
Making the playoffs remains an uphill climb for the Predators.
The same can be said of the Columbus Blue Jackets, one of the NHL's two expansion teams. Like any first-year club, the Blue Jackets will struggle to score goals. But their goaltending could be better than many established teams.
General manager Doug MacLean acquired 23-year-old Marc Denis from Colorado and signed free agent Ron Tugnutt, who had a 1.77 goals-against average in the playoffs for Pittsburgh this past season.
There's also some talent on defense in veterans Lyle Odelein and Jamie Pushor. Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre will provide a physical element and MacLean hopes to get something out of 32-year-old Frantisek Kucera, who returns to the NHL after winning player of the year honors this past season in the Czech Republic.
There's a lot of feistiness up front in the form of Kevyn Adams, Krzysztof Oliwa, Kevin Dineen and Bruce Gardiner. But Geoff Sanderson, Robert Kron, Tyler Wright and Steve Heinze are the only Blue Jackets who scored as many as 12 goals this past season.
The Central Division has become the weakest in the Western Conference. Unless Suhonen can produce immediate results in Chicago -- and his two predecessors could not -- the Central again will send only two teams to the playoffs.
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