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Penguins Dave Molinari's NHL Forecast: Eastern Conference

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Atlantic Division

1. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

Coach: Ken Hitchcock

General manager: Bob Clarke

2002-03 record: 45-20-13-4

Newcomers: G Jeff Hackett, D Joni Pitkanen, RW Mike Peluso

Departures: G Roman Cechmanek, C Marty Murray, D Dmitry Yushkevich

Strengths: Have core of productive forwards, headlined by C Jeremy Roenick, RW Tony Amonte, LW Simon Gagne. ... Veterans RW Mark Recchi, LW John LeClair seem willing to accept reduced roles. ... Hitchcock is outstanding coach.

Weaknesses: Power play is surprisingly ineffective. ... Hackett is upgrade on erratic Cechmanek, though probably not enough of one to allow Flyers to contend for Cup.

Outlook: Goaltending remains Flyers' biggest question, and Hackett isn't the answer.


2. NEW JERSEY DEVILS

Coach: Pat Burns

General manager: Lou Lamoriello

2002-03 record: 46-20-10-6

Newcomers: C Igor Larionov, D David Hale, LW Erik Rasmussen, D Sean Brown, D Matt DeMarchi

Departures: C Joe Nieuwendyk, D Oleg Tverdovsky, LW Jim McKenzie, D Ken Daneyko, D Richard Smehlik, D Ken Sutton, D Ray Schultz, D Tommy Albelin

Strengths: Have league's stingiest defense, complemented by one of its top goalies, Martin Brodeur. ... Penalty-killing is exceptional. ... John Madden has become one of games' top two-way centers.

Weaknesses: Power play is one of NHL's least productive, for no apparent reason. ... Nieuwendyk's departure will hurt offense that, while balanced, is not very volatile. ... Burns has history of grating on players.

Outlook: Wake Devils when the real games begin in April.


3. NEW YORK RANGERS

Coach, general manager: Glen Sather

2002-03 record: 32-36-10-4

Newcomers: D Greg de Vries, LW Chris Simon, LW Jan Hlavac, D Joel Bouchard, LW Martin Rucinsky, G Jussi Markkanen, D John Jakopin, RW Sheldon Keefe, D Fedor Tjutin

Departures: G Mike Richter, RW Sandy McCarthy, LW Ted Donato, C Ronald Petrovicky, LW Nils Ekman, D Sylvain Lefebvre, D David Karpa, RW Dixon Ward, RW Billy Tibbetts

Strengths: Hlavac-Petr Nedved-Alex Kovalev line was oustanding in preseason and has potential to put up big numbers. ... Sather has introduced some long-overdue defensive structure.

Weaknesses: G Mike Dunham is capable, but retirement of Mike Richter leaves void. ... Mediocre defense corps goes downhill fast when Brian Leetch is injured, which happens often. ... Lack of chemistry has killed chances of getting fair return on big-money talent in recent years.

Outlook: Always scary on paper, though rarely on the ice, but major improvement is conceivable.


4. NEW YORK ISLANDERS

Coach: Steve Stirling

General manager: Mike Milbury

2002-03 record: 35-34-11-2

Newcomers: RW Mariusz Czerkawski, C Ryan Kraft, LW Sean Bergenheim

Departures: D Kevin Haller, C Randy Robitaille, RW Steve Webb

Strengths: Top four defensemen -- Adrian Aucoin, Kenny Jonsson, Janne Niinimaa and Roman Hamrlik -- rival any group in league. ... Are strong down middle, with Michael Peca, Alexei Yashin and Dave Scatchard. ... Could get momentum from 7-0 run during preseason.

Weaknesses: Special teams do not perform to level of personnel manning them. ... Milbury always capable of sabotaging own team.

Outlook: Offense looks to be flat as a Long Island accent.


5. PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Coach: Eddie Olczyk

General manager: Craig Patrick

2002-03 record: 27-44-6-5

Newcomers: G Marc-Andre Fleury, D Nolan Baumgartner, D Drake Berehowsky, LW Kelly Buchberger, C Mike Eastwood, LW Reid Simpson, LW Matt Murley, LW Ryan Malone, RW Konstantin Koltsov

Departures: G Johan Hedberg, LW Ville Nieminen, RW Mikael Samuelsson, C Mathias Johansson, D Jamie Pushor, D Joel Bouchard, C Kent Manderville, D Hans Jonsson, D Shawn Heins

Strengths: LW Mario Lemieux, 38, is healthy and performing at level few players could reach in their primes. ... Olczyk has well-conceived systeam and has sold players on working hard and smart in defensive zone. ... Locker-room chemistry is as good as it has been in years.

Weaknesses: Defense corps is weak even at full-strength. ... Will have, at best, two lines capable of scoring much. ... Young players can expect some nasty growing pains. ... Do not have depth to deal with injuries, especially volume experienced during past two seasons.

Outlook: Year will be tough, but so will playing against these guys most nights.



NORTHEAST DIVISION

1. OTTAWA SENATORS

Coach: Jacques Martin

General manager: John Muckler

2002-03 record: 52-21-8-1

Newcomers: D Peter Smrek, LW Denis Hamel, RW Serge Payer

Departures: LW Magnus Arvedson, LW Chris Bala, RW Joey Tetarenko, LW Rob Ray, RW Dennis Bonvie

Strengths: Stifling team defense takes attention from deep collection of superb offensive talents, especially RW Marian Hossa. ... Strong defense corps benefits from forwards' commitment to two-way hockey. ... Purchase by billionaire Eugene Melnyk erases money problems.

Weaknesses: Do not have true No. 1 center, although Jason Spezza could fill niche nicely. ... Martin, so excellent during regular season, hasn't proven he can win championship.

Outlook: The dreams are justifiably huge in this small-market outpost.


2. TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Coach: Pat Quinn

General manager: John Ferguson, Jr.

2002-03 record: 44-28-7-3

Newcomers: C Joe Nieuwendyk, D Ken Klee, D Bryan Marchment, C Harold Druken, C Matt Stajan, D Maxim Kondratiev

Departures: C Doug Gilmour, D Robert Svehla, LW Jonas Hoglund, D Phil Housley, D Jyrki Lumme, D Anders Eriksson, LW Shayne Corson, D Glen Wesley, C Travis Green

Strengths: Nieuwendyk reinforces an offense that already could score practically at will. ... Might be NHL's grittiest, and often nastiest, team. ... G Ed Belfour is coming off strong first season with Leafs. ... Penalty-killing is outstanding, critical for team that spends so much time in box.

Weaknesses: Klee and Marchment should bolster blue line, but defense remains real soft spot. ... RW Owen Nolan was serious disappointment after being acquired from San Jose. ... Saturation coverage by local media makes every issue a potential distraction.

Outlook: If defense wins championships, Toronto's Cup drought won't end anytime soon.


3. BOSTON BRUINS

Coach: Mike Sullivan

General manager: Mike O'Connell

2002-03 record: 36-31-11-4

Newcomers: C Patrice Bergeron, LW Ted Donato, G Felix Potvin, RW Sandy McCarthy, C Travis Green

Departures: G Jeff Hackett, D Don Sweeney, C Jozef Stumpel, LW Krzysztof Oliwa, G Steve Shields, D Sean Brown, RW Brantt Myhres

Strengths: C Joe Thornton, RW Glen Murray are 1-2 punch with few equals. ... Healthy Sergei Samsonov is potential game-breaker. ... Sullivan seems to have attention and respect of players. ... C Brian Rolston is one of most dangerous short-handed players in game.

Weaknesses: Loss of D Jonathan Girard (auto accident) hurts already suspect defense. ... Potvin is management's latest low-budget -- and doomed -- attempt to upgrade goaltending. ... Rely too heavily on Thornton's line for offense.

Outlook: Bruins will get what they pay for: mediocrity.


4. BUFFALO SABRES

Coach: Lindy Ruff

General manager: Darcy Regier

2002-03 record: 27-37-10-8

Newcomers: C Chris Drury, D Andy Delmore, C Domenic Pittis, D David Cullen

Departures: LW Denis Hamel, D Rhett Warrener. D Keith Ballard

Strengths: Drury is one of NHL's great clutch players and should ease some of offensive burden on Miroslav Satan. ... New ownership has provided badly needed financial stability. ... Delmore's shot from point should upgrade poor power play. ... Have three promising young goalies.

Weaknesses: Are still assembling depth and skill needed to contend. ... Get in trouble when they get away from tight-checking style. ... Must fill void of leadership, experience caused by trades last season.

Outlook: Future on Niagara Frontier looks brighter than in several years.


5. MONTREAL CANADIENS

Coach: Claude Julien

General manager: Bob Gainey

2002-03 record: 30-35-8-9

Newcomers: RW Darren Langdon, C Steve Begin, LW Chris Higgins, G Jean-Francois Damphousse, LW Pierre Dagenais, C Andrei Perezhogin

Departures: RW Mariusz Czerkawski, RW Randy McKay, LW Bill Lindsay, LW Gino Odjick

Strengths: Young defensemen Ron Hainsey, Mike Komisarek show promise on blue line. ... RW Donald Audette can't help but improve on 11-goal season. ... Gainey restores ties to Canadiens' storied past and ranks among league's top GMs.

Weaknesses: G Jose Theodore must rebound from poor season while ignoring family members' legal problems. ... Were consistently outscored during third period last season. ... Special teams are awful. ... Lack size to cause problems around opponents' net.

Outlook: How do you say "lottery pick" en francais?



SOUTHEAST DIVISION

1. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

Coach: John Tortorella

General manager: Jay Feaster

2002-03 record: 36-25-16-5

Newcomers: LW Cory Stillman, C Eric Perrin, D Pascal Trepanier, D Andreas Holmqvist, RW Eero Somervuori

Departures: LW Vaclav Prospal, D Kristian Kudroc, RW Sheldon Keefe

Strengths: Top two lines can score, although Prospal's departure stings. ... RW Martin St. Louis is one of NHL's most exciting players, and C Vincent Lacavalier finally is living up to potential. ... G Nikolai Khabibulin stumbled in playoffs, but can be one of world's best. ... Until players tune him out, Tortorella is major asset.

Weaknesses: Could use more consistent scoring from right side. ... Third and fourth lines remain unimposing. ... Penalty-killing unit would benefit from addition of physical defenseman to clear fron of net.

Outlook: Another division title is realistic, but so is a stumble back through the standings.


2. WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Coach: Bruce Cassidy

General manager: Mike McPhee

2002-03 record: 39-29-8-6

Newcomers: LW Petr Sykora, D Alex Riazantsev, RW Brian Willsie

Departures: D Calle Johansson, D Ken Klee, LW Josh Green, RW Mike Farrell, C Chris Ferraro, RW Peter Ferraro, LW Glen Metropolit, LW Sergei Berezin

Strengths: Have several potential game-breakers up front, particularly RWs Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra. ... G Olaf Kolzig ranks among NHL's best, year in and year out.

Weaknesses: Do not have sufficient depth on defense, once a strong point. ... Special teams are inexplicably poor. ... Speculation about Jagr's relationship with Cassidy -- and possible trades involving Jagr -- could cause huge distractions.

Outlook: Maybe owner Ted Leonsis could rig Web site to reject ticket requests from Washington fans, too. Or maybe it won't be necessary.


3. CAROLINA HURRICANES

Coach: Paul Maurice

General manager: Jim Rutherford

2002-03 record: 22-43-11-6

Newcomers: C Eric Staal, D Glen Wesley, D Danny Markov, RW Joey Tetarenko, C Marty Murray, D Bob Boughner, D Danny Richmond, G Jamie Storr

Departures: G Arturs Irbe, D David Tanabe, LW Jan Hlavac, C Craig MacDonald, C Tommy Westlund, D Steve Halko, D Nikos Tselios

Strengths: Boughner, Wesley, Markov will upgrade a defense corps that needed it badly ... With LW Ron Francis feeding him puck, RW Jeff O'Neill is legitimate 40-goal man. ... Staal shapes up as serious rookie of year candidate and can only benefit from being around Francis.

Weaknesses: Scored league-low 171 goals last season. ... Power play suffers from lack of true quarterback. ... Speculation about Maurice's job security will mushroom if team starts slowly.

Outlook: Should bounce back nicely from disastrous season.


4. FLORIDA PANTHERS

Coach: Mike Keenan

General manager: Rick Dudley

2002-03 record: 24-36-13-9

Newcomers: RW Nathan Horton, RW Mikael Samuelsson, RW Valeri Bure, LW Jonas Hoglund, LW Eric Messier, C Vaclav Nedorost, C Petr Taticek, D Lyle Odelein, RW Lee Goren, D Todd Gill, G Steve Shields

Departures: LW Peter Worrell, LW Stephane Matteau, G Jani Hurme, LW Pierre Dagenais, RW Jim Campbell, D Igor Kravchuk, D Ivan Majesky, D Jamie Rivers, D Pascal Trepanier, RW Serge Payer

Strengths: G Roberto Luongo is one of NHL's best. ... C Olli Jokinen finally is living up to potential. ... Have been accumulating impressive group of talented young players.

Weaknesses: Enjoy less home-ice advantage than any NHL club. ... Special teams need serious improvement. ... Ongoing power struggle between Keenan, Dudley can only be a negative.

Outlook: Breakthrough season for young Panthers is getting closer.


5. ATLANTA THRASHERS

Coach: Bob Hartley

General manager: Don Waddell

2002-03 record: 31-39-7-5

Newcomers: C Randy Robitaille, LW Bill Lindsay, G Kari Lehtonen, G Jani Hurme, D Ivan Majesky, C Tommi Santala, D Shawn Heins, C Serge Aubin, C Brian Swanson, C Ronald Petrovicky

Departures: C Tony Hrkac, LW Per Svardvadet, RW Lubos Bartecko, RW Jeff Odgers, C Mark Hartigan, C Andreas Karlsson, G Damian Rhodes, G Milan Hnilicka, C Dan Snyder

Strengths: RW Ilya Kovalchuk is one of top pure talents in league. ... Byron Dafoe, Lehtonen should provide quality goaltending missing throughout brief franchise history. ... Although Hartley alienates players over time, his message still is fresh and his early results impressive.

Weaknesses: Absence of RW Dany Heatley, badly injured in tragic recent car wreck, is major blow. ... Do not have enough talent or depth on blue line. Have done little to improve team defense.

Outlook: Upbeat playoff outlook crashed when Heatley's car did.

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