Let The Season Begin! A Metro Hockey Update
Let The Season Begin! A Metro Hockey Update
By Andrei Petrovitch
The days are getting colder, and the nights are getting longer, which means only one thing…Hockey season! All three teams have made significant changes this season in hopes of winning Lord Stanley’s Cup. But are they better? Here’s a look at each team by position:
The New York Islanders –
Hello: Mariuz Czerkawski, Justin Mapletoft, Steve Sterling (Coach) Goodbye: Peter Laviolette (Coach), Kevin Haller, Randy Robitaille, Steve Webb.
FORWARDS: Well, well, well. The Metro Hockey Update’s whipping boy, Mariuz Czerkawski, is back! Not that it will matter much anyway; for the Islanders to make the playoffs for a third straight season, it is center Alexei Yashin who must take charge. However, this won’t be an easy task, as the team has very few forwards aside from the aforementioned Czerkawski that can compliment Yashin’s play. Candidate Mark Parrish scored arguably the quietest 23-goals ever by an Islander forward, although to his credit five of those goals were game winners. After him, the Isles boast Dave Scatchard (27 goals) and Jason Blake (25). While their contributions certainly provide depth, new coach Steve Sterling has hinted that he will try to implement a trapping style defense. Such a change in fundamental strategy could make it difficult for either Scatchard or Blake to reach those totals again. Factor in the difficulty of finding a compatible line mate for Yashin, and things start to look a little gloomy. While captain Mike Peca can contribute on offense, he has always been a defense-first player. Oleg Kvasha is quickly approaching "bust" status, and prospect Trent Hunter has scored 30 goals…in the minor leagues. If both can mesh well with Yashin, then perhaps things will go well. But if not…it won’t be pretty.
DEFENSE: Here is the team’s greatest strength. The top-four rotation of Adrian Aucoin (35 points), Roman Hamrlik (41), Kenny Jonsson (26) and Janne Niinimaa (34) provides excellent skating and playmaking ability both on the power play point and the breakout. The depth of the defense gives the Isles two strong pairs which can make up for the scoring deficiencies of the forwards ranks. Eric Cairns provides necessary toughness on the third pair, but he needs to be given the minutes necessary to contribute. Radek Martinek, Sven Butenschon, and Mattias Timander are all big, useful skaters who will benefit from coach Sterling’s defense-first philosophy.
GOALTENDING: With Chris Osgood now playing in St. Louis, the number one job falls to…who? Sure, Garth Snow has the experience, and Rick DiPietro has the talent, but who exactly SHOULD be tending goal opening night? All signs so far are pointing to DiPietro, but it is anyone’s guess as to whether or not he can handle the "franchise goalie" role. He has been excellent in the minor leagues, posting a .924 save percentage and 2.14 goals against average. However, in limited NHL play he’s been rather ordinary. Here’s betting that he will take a big step forward this season; heck, he’ll have to if the team is to take the next step into contention.
OUTLOOK: Unpopular coach Peter Laviolette has been dumped along with longer room nuisance Steve Webb, thus enhancing team chemistry. This new found feeling of peace, love, and understanding isn’t so funny to Steve Sterling, who is now free to concentrate on the necessary X’s and O’s. While the forward ranks could be better, the talent level is deep enough, and their mistakes can be covered up by the strong and skilled defense. Goaltending, however, is still a significant question mark. 8th SEED IN THE EASTERN CONFERENCE.
The New York Rangers
Hello: Chris Simon, Sheldon Keefe, Joel Bouchard, Martin Rucinsky, Jan Hlavac. Goodbye: Ronald Petrovicky, Mike Richter, Pavel Bure
FORWARDS: It’s been an off-season of ups and downs for Blueshirt fans. First came news that sniper Pavel Bure is done for the season (and possibly his career) due to chronic knee injuries. Then, popular former Rangers Jan Hlavac and Martin Rucinsky were reacquired via the miracle of free agency. While neither can replace Bure’s sheer talent, both Rucinsky and Hlavac are freak paradoxes of nature; both have actually (gasp!) played BETTER as Rangers, and they effectively compliment incumbent centers Eric Lindros and Peter Nedved, respectively. Meanwhile, new acquisition Chris Simon has underwhelmed fans and teammates alike in preseason play, and is being challenged for his roster spot by minor leaguers Richard Scott and Dominic Moore. Ditto for Matt Barnaby, who has been relegated to fourth line duty alongside Mark Messier. However, a full season of both Alexei Kovalev and Anson Carter provides, along with Jamie Lundmark, significant depth on the starboard side. Bobby Holik is FINALLY being used properly as a checking center at even strength and as a crease-crasher on the power play.
DEFENSE: Surprise! Brian Leetch is hurt again. The team struggled mightily during his previous injury-caused absence, and an extended stint on the IR this year will mean major trouble. Steady new arrival Greg DeVries has played well with puck-rusher Tom Poti during preseason, and will play on the top pair until Leetch’s return. Another significant addition was the reacquisition of Joel Bouchard, who scored a respectable 7 goals in limited time with the Blueshirts last season. Vlad Malakhov is still, well, Vlad Malakhov: big, agile, talented, and, sadly, often clueless. Darius Kasparaitus is looking to repeat his strong performance of last season’s second half, in which he improved his plus-minus rating of minus 18 to plus 5. Still, big names and big talent won’t impress unless the team improves on overall team defense, which was laughable last season with 231 goals against compared to 210 goals for.
GOALTENDING: While Mike Richter will certainly be missed in the locker room, Mike Dunham has certainly proved capable of replacing him on the ice. Despite a 21-26-7 record, Dunham posted a respectable 2.50 goals against average and a strong .916 save percentage while playing in front of a crappy defense and twelve forwards who refused to seemingly refused to back check on most nights.
With prospect Dan Blackburn receiving some much needed seasoning, Jussi Markkinen will be fulfilling backup duties.
OUTLOOK: This is the year. Seriously! The Rangers will make the playoffs this year. A full season with general manager Glen Sather coaching the team will provide the individual accountability and discipline that has been lacking in recent years. However, the team must pay better attention to its own zone in order to be successful. Losing, like smoking, is a hard habit to break. 7th SEED IN THE EASTERN CONFERENCE
The New Jersey Devils
Hello: David Hale, Paul Martin, Sean Brown, Erik Rasmussen Goodbye: Joe Niuwendyk, Ken Daneyko, Oleg Tverdovsky.
FORWARDS: Niuwendyk may be gone, but who cares? Winger Jamie Langenbrunner put up the best offensive numbers of his career (22 goals, 55 points), and Patrick Elias once again flirted with the 30 goal mark, managing 28 goals while adapting to coach Pat Burns’ tight defensive system. Jeff Friesen rebounded after a slow start, finishing the regular season with 23 goals and, more importantly, added 10 more goals in the playoffs. Igor Larionov, the oldest player in the league at age 42, provides depth and leadership to a team that is otherwise intent on getting younger.
DEFENSE: Youth will be served, as rookies David Hale and Paul Martin are expected to make the opening night squad. A strong physical defenseman, Hale is considered by Devils management to be a worthy replacement for the recently retired Ken Daneyko, while Martin will replace Oleg Tverdovsky as the puck rusher on the third pair. Of course, Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Brain Rafalski will be back to defend, with Rafalski being the number one guy on the power play point. His offensive flair has taken a lot of pressure of Niedermayer, who for the early part of his career was uncomfortable in the role of lead puck rusher. Colin White’s overall game has improved, and Tommy Albelin and Sean Brown provide depth.
GOALTENDING: For nearly a decade, the position has began and ended with Martin Brodeur. Despite going through a messy divorce, Brodeur managed to keep his head focused throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs. In 24 playoff games, he posted a .934 save percentage, second only to playoff MVP J.S. Giguere, whose team, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, lost to the Devils. In 73 regular season games, Brodeur won an astonishing 41 games. Rest assured, Devils fans – barring serious injury, you won’t have to worry about goaltending for a while. Corey Schwab is a more than adequate backup.
OUTLOOK: While the Ottawa Senators may be the dominant team in the East, the Devils are still the reigning champions. While the defense corps has changed considerably, it is still very strong. The only real question mark is at forward, but the Devils has always proved that no matter who comes and goes, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. 2nd SEED IN THE EASTERN CONFERENCE.