Eastern Conference

Hockey: NHL Preview

October 08, 2003|By Los Angeles Times

(Teams listed in predicted order of finish)

1. Ottawa Senators

Coach: Jacques Martin, eighth season.

2002-03 record: 52-21-8-1, 113 points, first in Northeast, conference and NHL.

Player to watch: Jason Spezza. He's dynamic and tough to check and is likely to play on one of the top two lines. A budding star.

Outlook: No more excuses for this talented team, which lost a seven-game conference final to New Jersey last spring. It has superb goaltending in Patrick Lalime (2.16 goals-against average, .911 save percentage), a deep offense that produced 263 goals, third in the NHL, a power play that ranked second and penalty killing that ranked 10th. The Senators are solid on the right side with Marian Hossa (45 goals, 80 points) and Daniel Alfredsson (27 goals, 79 points) and strong defensively up the middle with Todd White, Radek Bonk and Bryan Smolinski. Defenseman Wade Redden (10 goals, 45 points) is creative offensively.

2. New Jersey Devils

Coach: Pat Burns, second season.

2002-03 record: 46-20-10-6, 108 points, first in Atlantic, second in conference.

Player to watch: Jeff Friesen. He became a clutch player in the playoffs, using his size and skill while buying into Burns' selfless system.

Outlook: The Stanley Cup champions have hardly changed, besides losing veteran Ken Daneyko to retirement. They still have speed up front, forwards who are well-schooled defensively and the muscle and intensity to be effective when things get physical. If they make a mistake, goalie Martin Brodeur (2.02 goals-against average, .914 save percentage) usually bails them out. John Madden is becoming a premier defensive center. Defenseman Scott Stevens remains the team's heart, playing with a desire that hasn't faded at 39. They won't have to expend energy finishing first overall.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning

Coach: John Tortorella, third season.

2002-03 record: 36-25-16-5, 93 points, first in Southeast, third in conference

Player to watch: Nikolai Khabibulin. Management was unhappy with his rocky playoff performances in goal last spring. If he falters early, look for him to be traded and replaced by John Grahame.

Outlook: Although it lost top scorer Vaclav Prospal as a free agent to the Mighty Ducks, it still has enough to finish atop the weak Southeast. Vincent Lecavalier (33 goals, 78 points) is still improving, and Brad Richards (17 goals, 74 points) opened many eyes last season. So did pint-sized right wing Martin St. Louis (33 goals, 70 points). Winger Cory Stillman was a good acquisition, but the defense isn't physical or especially mobile. Not quite ready to play with the big boys, but Tampa Bay has made progress and appears to be on the rise.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs

Coach: Pat Quinn, fifth season.

2002-03 record: 44-28-7-3, 98 points, second in Northeast, fifth in conference.

Player to watch: Ed Belfour. He had a superb season (2.26 goals-against average, .922 save percentage) while facing nearly 30 shots a game. A mediocre defense offers little promise that his task will be easier, and he can't afford to let up.

Outlook: Quinn was pressured into giving up the general manager job, which went to former St. Louis assistant John Ferguson Jr. This team has ample financial resources but could get bogged down in battles among Quinn, Ferguson and club president Ken Dryden. Signing Ken Klee as a free agent should add experience on defense. Alexander Mogilny (33 goals, 79 points) and Mats Sundin (37 goals, 72 points) lead a productive offense. Owen Nolan (seven goals in 14 games) can share the burden if his back problems don't flare up.

5. Philadelphia Flyers

Coach: Ken Hitchcock, second season.

2002-03 record: 45-20-13-4, 107 points, second in Atlantic, fourth in conference.

Player to watch: Jeff Hackett succeeds Roman Cechmanek, whose 1.83 goals-against average last season was second in the league. Hackett must live up to that - with meddlesome general manager Bob Clarke hovering in the background. Good luck.

Outlook: Their playoff results don't match their talent, although losing defenseman Eric Desjardins to a broken foot was a factor in their second-round loss last spring. Always too reliant on brawn, they're turning to youngsters Simon Gagne and Justin Williams to assume scoring responsibilities carried out by Jeremy Roenick and injury-riddled John LeClair. The Flyers tied the Devils for the lowest team goals-against average, 1.99, but Hackett probably can't keep them at that level.

6. New York Islanders

Coach: Steve Stirling, first season.

2002-03 record: 35-34-11-2, 83 points, third in Atlantic, eighth in conference.

Player to watch: Alexei Yashin. The enigmatic Russian center, signed to a $90 million deal, responded with 26 goals and 65 points. He's capable of more if he's willing to exert himself, but that's often in question.

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