- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Pittsburgh's chances of repeating as Cup champion were dealt a devastating blow by the sudden illness of coach Bob Johnson, who, in August, learned that he was suffering from brain cancer. Johnson is a smart strategist and a boundless optimist whose personality is perfect for a team with large talents and large egos. Whoever fills in for him (assistant coaches Barry Smith, Rick Kehoe and Rick Patterson ran the team in the preseason) will have a difficult act to follow.
To write off the Penguins, though, would be wrong, especially in light of this preseason comment from Lemieux: "I want to be the best player in the world again." His dominating performance in the finals—with his back far less than 100%—demonstrated he can be anything he wants.
Pittsburgh won without much help from Coffey, who suffered eye and jaw injuries early in the playoffs and only saw spot duty in the finals. This has convinced the Penguins of Coffey's expendability—a dangerous assumption if other Pittsburgh defensemen don't play over their heads again, as they did during the Cup run.
The Rangers and Penguins are on the top floors of the Patrick. There's a long staircase down to the next level. Defenseman Scott Stevens, who was awarded to the New Jersey Devils as compensation for the St. Louis Blues' signing of free-agent winger Brendan Shanahan during the off-season, makes the Devils stronger, but the backline was the least of their problems. Stevens, a three-time All-Star, will make New Jersey more aggressive, but speed is in short supply, as is faith in penurious owner John McMullen. Unable to satisfy the salary demands of forward Kirk Muller, their best all-around player, the Devils dealt him to Montreal for the more dynamic but less consistent Stephane Richer. Richer is in his option year. Is New Jersey buying or just renting?
That Washington's leading scorer last season was defenseman Kevin Hatcher indicates that too many of the Capitals' goals came on long shots for them to remain anything but a long shot. Defenseman Al Iafrate, acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs last January, can upgrade Washington's skill level if he can boost his confidence to the level of his ability. But this industrious, tedious team still needs a playmaking center and a winger who can consistently put the puck by a goalie.
The Caps made the playoffs last year only because Philadelphia, another team that has difficulty scoring, fell apart down the stretch. If goalie Ron Hextall, whose fifth groin muscle injury in the last two years precipitated a 2-10-3 late-season plunge, can't stay healthy, the once-proud Flyers will spend April at home for the third straight year. Hextall is doing ballet exercises to prevent a recurrence of his injury, and the lumbering Flyers are rejoicing at the acquisition of a player—offensive defenseman Steve Duchesne—who could do Swan Lake. Right wing Rick Tocchet and center Mike Ricci are old-mold Flyer triers, but Philly is still too short on talent to effect a big turnaround.
Star center Pat LaFontaine, who feels he was insulted by Islander owner John Pickett during contract renegotiations, has vowed not to return until the team, which is for sale, changes hands. Without LaFontaine, the Isles, who were 12-60-6 in their first NHL season, 1972-73, may revert to infancy. Al Arbour, who has decided to return for another year as coach, is an excellent teacher. But he is not an alchemist.
Elite goalie Patrick Roy and Petr Svoboda, the most experienced Montreal defenseman, both suffered injury-filled, subpar 1990-91 seasons. The Canadiens nevertheless had the league's second-best goals-against average and took Boston to a seventh game in the Adams Division finals. This is a tip-off that the last two seasons, which the Canadiens have spent slow-cooking a younger, more mobile defense, have been well spent. Montreal looks ready to move to the front burner again.
If 22-year-old Mathieu Schneider, the star-to-be of the Canadiens' backline, matures quickly and if center Denis Savard can again play at a point-per-game pace, the Canadiens will jump over the Bruins. Muller will be far more reliable than the moody Richer, who turned down a Canada Cup invitation to play softball. Montreal retains a home run threat in forward Russ Courtnall, while wingers Shayne Corson and Mike McPhee and centers Guy Carbonneau and Brian Skrudland provide plenty of character.
How long Boston, a team noted for its stoutness, will continue to tolerate wimpy playoff performances from center Craig Janney remains to be seen. Last May, Janney, a 92-point regular-season scorer, disappeared when two of the Bruins' heart-and-soul players, right wing Cam Neely and center Dave Poulin, were injured. Poulin is healthy again, but Neely, whose damaged thigh muscle has only slightly improved, might not be back in the lineup until November or even later. With little scoring depth, Boston has to hope that Ken Hodge, a Minnesota North Star castoff who came out of nowhere to score 30 goals last season, is for real. But as long as Ray Bourque—at age 30 still the league's best defenseman—remains a dominating player, the Bruins' string of consecutive winning seasons, now at 24, will keep growing.