2002-02-16 / Sports

Taking A Break - MHL Midseason Report

By Branimir Vukadin

By Branimir Vukadin

Traditionally, the halfway mark of the NHL season, the All-Star break, is the time to take a close examination at the standings, to see who's surprising, who's not, who's a real contender, and who needs to make a few moves to become one. With the trade deadline approaching, and some teams on the cusp of doing great things, things look to become verry interesting.

CONTENDERS:

Detroit: C'mon, they've been leading the league in wins since before anyone can remember. They have an All-World class of forwards, although they may be a little long in the tooth. And they have the most dynamic goaltender of this generation, if not of all time. The weak blue line, which has forced the move of center Sergei Federov to defense, may force Red Wings GM Ken Holland to make a move (Darius Kasparitus anyone?). Nevertheless, they are the team to beat right now.

Colorado: You can never count out the defending champions. The Avalanche are always dangerous, even in spite of the unexpected loss of All-Star center Peter Forsberg. The รข018Lanche are always active around the trade deadline, often surprising the entire league with their blockbuster deals (see Theo Fleury, Ray Borque, and Rob Blake). Expect more of the same, as talks of a deal for Mighty Ducks left wing Paul Kariya continues to make the rounds.

Philadelphia: The class of the East right now. Their group of talented forwards has finally jelled, giving them the deepest ranks in the East. Defenseman Kim Johnsson has developed into an All-Star, and the rest of the defense has been solid. However, the looming goalie controversy hangs over the team like a black cloud. Coach Bill Barber has to make a decision soon; continuity means everything in the playoffs.

ON THE CUSP

San Jose: An up-and-coming team for a few years now, the Sharks look to finally break through to the upper tier of teams by making a statement in this year's playoffs. With a strong group of forwards, led by gritty center Vincent Damphousse and wing Owen Nolan, a solid team oriented defense, and good goaltending by second year man Evgeni Nabokov, they have a chance to make an impact. All they need is some experience.

Boston: Everything has seemed to go right for Bruins fans this year. Joe Thornton has become the force everyone has predicted him to become since he was drafted first overall in 1997. Bill Guerin is playing for a new deal in the off-season, and he's looking to cash in big, with 31 goals so far this season. Plus, they have the benefit of top-flight goaltending from "Lord" Byron Dafoe for the first time in years. If they just add an offensive defenseman, a rare commodity these days, they could be a team no one wants to play come the postseason.

PRETENDERS

St. Louis: The Blues management felt a need to retool in the offseason, after coming up short the last few years to reach the Cup. They jettisoned longtime center Pierre Turgeon, and replaced him with center Doug Weight. Also, starting goalie Roman Turek was traded, after he had shown himself to be something less than a clutch performer. To date, these moves have not worked out for the best for the Blues. Weight, while solid, has not provided the scoring they had hoped from him, certainly not the level he was accustomed to scoring, or the level that he needed to replace. And Turek has done nothing but break out this year, leading the Flames to Cup contention. In this case, changing the recipe did not lead to a better dish.

Chicago: Experts are still baffled by the success of the Blackhawks. They seem to be the "Little Engine That Could" story of the NHL this season. Without spectacular individual play, they have put together a team effort that seems to keep winning. However, all this will come to nothing if they don't retain captain Tony Almonte, the heart and soul of the team who is set to test unrestricted free agency this year. Without him, there will be many more dark years in Chi-Town.

HAS-BEENS

New Jersey: It's finally happened. The stifling system the Devils have played for years has finally sucked the life from the team. It's the only explanation one could give for such a talented team playing with such little regard for winning. Their lackadaisical approach has already gotten their coach fired, and if they fail to make the playoffs, bodies will go flying from that locker room faster than the Rams can get downfield. There will be roster turnover this offseason as has never been seen under GM Lou Lamoriello's tenure; with several key players set for free agency, the continuity the Devils have established will be no more.

Dallas: Once again, the players have revolted against the system. In a tight West, they find themselves on the edge of the pack. It's an odd place for them, given their five straight first place finishes. Players tuned out coach Ken Hitchcock, and it cost him his job. Given the right coach, this team still has enough talent to compete in future seasons. But this year? It seems that the team is ready to give up on it.

What does all of this mean? Nothing. With the Olympics here, the trade deadline just a couple of months away, and the playoffs right after that, anything can still happen. Trades, injuries, and sudden hot streaks can change the complexion of contention in an instant. The entire regular season is nothing but a way to determine seeding. The real show starts in April.


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