Work in Sports
Northwest Division Preview
Every team should get plowed by Avs
JERSEY CITY, New Jersey (Ticker) -- With the expansion Minnesota Wild just getting their feet wet and the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks still several years from contending, the Colorado Avalanche again are the Northwest Division's premier club and only Stanley Cup threat.
One of the league's most talented clubs over the past five seasons, the Avalanche have just one Stanley Cup to show for it -- and that was back in 1996. This past season, they acquired several veterans for the stretch run, only to fall to the Dallas Stars again in seven games in the Western Conference finals.
Underwhelming performances hampered the club by Joe Sakic and Adam Deadmarsh. After combining for 46 goals during the season, they totaled six points against the Stars, with Sakic failing to score a single goal.
After losing Theo Fluery, Valeri Kamensky and Sylvain Lefebvre to free agency following the 1998-99 campaign, the Avs enter this season with all of their key performers signed for at least one more year.
Sakic, 31, can become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. He's coming off an 81-point season despite missing 22 games. Complementing him are the recently re-signed Chris Drury, who followed up his Calder Trophy campaign with 67 points, and Milan Hejduk. The 23-year-old Czech had a sensational sophomore season, leading the team with 36 goals and finishing second with 72 points.
Most importantly, however, third-year coach Bob Hartley should have a healthy Peter Forsberg. The 27-year-old Swede is the premier two-way player in hockey, but injuries cost him 33 games this past season.
Aside from shipping power-play quarterback Sandis Ozolinsh to Carolina for defenseman Nolan Pratt on draft day, the Avalanche was relatively quiet during the offseason. By swapping Ozolinsh for the more physical Pratt, Colorado showed confidence in second-year defenseman Martin Skoula, who succeeds Ozolinsh alongside Ray Bourque on the power play. With Adam Foote, Jon Klemm, Aaron Miller and a healthy Alexei Gusarov, the Avs sixth-ranked defense could be even better.
Goaltender Patrick Roy enters his 16th season needing only four wins to breaking Terry Sawchuk's all-time record of 447. And the 34-year-old shows no signs of slowing down after lowering his goals-against average for the third straight season and recording his fifth consecutive 30-win campaign.
Roy's workload is expected to increase now that Marc Denis was traded to Columbus and replaced by Swiss rookie David Aebischer.
For the first time in 20 years, Edmonton opens camp without general manager Glen Sather, who like so many Oilers before him headed east in an attempt to help the New York Rangers.
With Sather out of the picture, Edmonton handed the GM duties to former coach Kevin Lowe, the team's first-ever draft pick and a member of all five of the Oilers' Stanley Cup-winning teams. In his only season behind the bench, Lowe guided the team to its top point total (88) in a decade.
Another former Oiler, Craig MacTavish, succeeds Lowe as coach. The 41-year-old MacTavish inherits one of hockey's most energetic and skilled young teams. While some feel the club has taken a couple of steps back since first-round playoff upsets of Dallas and Colorado in 1997 and 1998, respectively, MacTavish insists the Oilers will not deviate from their aggressive, forechecking style.
Doug Weight (21-51-72) anchors a solid group of forwards that includes Ryan Smyth, who rebounded from a 13-goal campaign and led the team with 28 this past season. Smyth and right wing Bill Guerin again will be counted on to supply most of the offense.
The knock on the Oilers in recent years has been the lack of second-line scoring. Alexander Selivanov netted 18 goals in his first 24 games last season but picked up only nine thereafter and was not re-signed.
Ethan Moreau, Georges Laraque and Todd Marchant are coming off career seasons, while Rem Murray and Mike Grier are contributing members of the checking line. Former first-round draft picks Daniel Cleary and Michel Riesen are expected to stick this year.
One of Lowe's priorities was adding a physical element. He took a step in that direction on draft day by sending former All-Star defenseman Roman Hamrlik to the New York Islanders for hulking forward Josh Green and defenseman Eric Brewer, the fifth overall pick in the 1997 draft.
If Brewer shakes off the sophomore jinx, he becomes another member of a promising young defense that boasts Jason Smith, Tom Poti and Janne Niinimaa. Sean Brown proved he can be a force on the blue line when he's not in the penalty box.
One thing MacTavish can rely on is goaltender Tommy Salo, who was 10th in the NHL in goals-against average while playing 70 games.
Just like their Alberta neighbors, the Flames have an impressive core of young players, providing hope that the once-great Calgary-Edmonton rivalry is on the verge of being rekindled.
Unlike Edmonton, however, Calgary has failed to make the playoffs for four years. General manager Al Coates and coach Brian Sutter paid the price with their jobs. Enter Craig Button, the Dallas Stars' former director of player personnel, and former Phoenix Coyotes coach Don Hay.
Hay, who coached Kamloops to a pair of Memorial Cup titles and earned a gold medal for Canada at the 1995 World Junior Championship, also is a former Flames assistant.
In Jarome Iginla and Valeri Bure, the Flames boast one of the NHL's top scoring duos. Both posted career highs in goals, assists and points last season and helped Calgary rank fifth on the power play.
The offense should receive a boost from the return of left wing Cory Stillman, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in late December. Center Marc Savard followed up an impressive rookie season with a career-high 22 goals and 53 points. Targeted again for the No. 1 line, he was a holdout into the final week of the preseason.
Also holding out is 22-year-old defenseman Derek Morris, who had a career-best 38 points this past season. He and the ageless Phil Housley form a productive duo on the power play.
While goaltender Fred Brathwaite was a workhorse, the Flames were one of only four teams with a GAA over 3.00. Backing him up is Calgary native Mike Vernon, who backstopped the Flames to their lone Stanley Cup in 1989. Ironically, that marked the last time this team won a playoff series.
If not for a 5-21-6-5 stretch from late November to February, the Canucks would have made the playoffs for the first time since 1996. Vancouver closed the season 13-8-5-2 to finish four points from the final Western Conference postseason berth and with the highest single-season point total since the 1994 squad reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
Many attribute the Canucks' 25-point improvement to goalie Felix Potvin's solid play and the late-season resurgence of Mark Messier. But Vancouver bought out Messier's contract and he returned to New York. Markus Naslund, who followed up a 36-goal season with 29, inherited the captaincy.
But most of the attention on Canada's West Coast has been focused on rookie forwards Daniel and Henrik Sedin, the Swedish twins who appear ready to showcase the skills that made them the second and third overall picks in the 1999 draft.
Playmaker Andrew Cassels registered his highest point total in three years playing alongside budding sniper Todd Bertuzzi and impressive rookie winger Peter Schaefer.
On defense, the Canucks are hoping Ed Jovanovski can become the type of defensive force that Scott Stevens is for New Jersey. Acquired in the Pavel Bure trade, Jovanovski reduced his penalty minute total from 172 in 1997 to a career-low 54 this past season. Mattias Ohlund recovered from eye surgery to record the highest points-per-game average of his career.
This should be the year Bryan Allen, the fourth overall pick in the 1998 draft, finally reaches the NHL. His progress was stalled a year ago by a serious knee injury suffered in preseason.
The Wild mark the NHL's return to the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" a seven-year absence. Talk of making the playoffs is years off, but a 50- or 60-point season should make general manager Doug Risebrough happy. Due to the region's zest for college and high school hockey, Minnesota begins its inaugural season with no real pressure or "win-now" expectations.
Naming a bona-fide winner like Jacques Lemaire as coach was a step in the right direction. Lemaire is a great tactician, highly regarded as a member of eight Cup winners with Montreal. He brought that winning attitude over to New Jersey in 1994 and instantly transformed the Devils into a powerhouse, thanks to the stifling neutral-zone trap.
Building a team through inexpensive free agents, draft picks and NHL leftovers usually adds up to a last-place finish and a high draft choice the following June. The Wild struck gold with their first pick in this year's draft, selecting 18-year-old Slovakian sniper Marian Gaborik.
Sergei Krivokrasov and Scott Pellerin, two of Minnesota's more notable expansion draft picks, won't be confused with the NHL's top snipers but should provide experience up front. Jim Dowd is a speed demon with a Cup ring from his playing days in New Jersey, and winger Christian Matte led the American Hockey League in scoring this past season with 104 points in 73 games.
Curtis Leschyshyn anchors what should be a porous defense. The third pick in the 1988 draft behind Mike Modano and Trevor Linden, he won a Stanley Cup with the Avalanche in 1996 but is years removed from playing on losing teams. J.J. Daigneault, Sean O'Donnell and Brad Bombardir are other experienced hands on the Wild blue line, which probably will be an apt description.
Lemaire's nephew, Manny Fernandez, will share the goaltending chores with Jamie McLennan. Both come from winning programs, with McLennan three years removed from a career-best 16 wins with the St. Louis Blues.
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