98/99 NHL Extravaganza - Western
By Justin Klein
The play of the reigning Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings will be a definite indicator whether or not coaching truly matters.
With Scotty Bowman stepping down, there is great concern in the Motor City. For now, Barry Smith and Dave Lewis are serving as co-coaches and hope to fill his legendary shoes. Detroit's entire cast of fabulous forwards are back and the defense is also in great shape.
The Dallas Stars are favoured to win the Pacific Division. The Stars have all the ingredients to win goaltending, a non-penetrating defense, two scoring lines, successful specialty teams, plenty of leadership and newly acquired all-star, Brett Hull. The only downfall of this dominating team is that it is the oldest team in the league and injuries can be devastating to the team's success.
In the Northwest division, the Colorado Avalanche is clearly the favorite. The Avalanche, who were distracted by management difficulties last season, are hoping that Bob Hartley, who has no previous National Hockey League experience, can lead the team to success. Peter Forsberg will act as the catalyst of Colorado's fast-break offence, while Joe Sakic hopes that his injured left knee will not limit his contribution. Wade Blek and Eric Messier are being counted on to step up and fill the shoes of departed Uwe Krupp.
The St. Louis Blues lost Brett Hull this summer. When general manager Larry Pleau let him escape to Dallas as a free agent, he didn't even offer the team's all-time leading goal scorer a contract. The team also lost Steve Duchesne, which makes last year's top-scoring team short on firepower. Pierre Turgeon and winger Geoff Courtnall will have to boost their production, while free agent winger Scott Young must produce more than the 13 goals he scored last year in Anaheim.
The Chicago Blackhawks don't want to miss the playoffs this year. To accomplish this, they signed veteran Doug Gilmour in the off-season. However, the Hawks still have problems offensively. A strong first line of Gilmour, Daze and Amonte might prove to be a threat, but Alexi Zhamnov and Chad Kilger are too inconsistent to compose lethal second and third lines. Their offence might be rusty but their defence is non-existent as the aging Paul Coffey leads the way.
If the Phoenix Coyotes want to contend this year, they will have to look to Jeremy Roenick, who last year had the worst season of his 10-year career and Keith Tkachuk, who has something to prove to Phoenix fans after another extended hold out. Their blue line became stronger in the off-season, as Phoenix signed free agent Jyrki Lumme. This move might improve the stability of Nikolai Khabibulin, who was far from dominating last season.
The Los Angeles Kings are looking to improve their record from last season. The Kings will once again pin all their hopes on young defenceman Rob Blake, who hopes to repeat his Norris Trophy season. The only major additions to the Kings were 14-year veteran Doug Bodger and quick-handed Steve Duchesne. These two provide hope in improving their power play, which ranked 17th in the NHL last season.
Are the Vancouver Canucks going to be contenders this year? Is the Pope Jewish? The Canucks lack a first-string goaltender and their best player, Pavel Bure, has demanded to be traded to a team that might not finish last in their division, captain Mark Messier is coming off his worst season ever and the roster includes five rookies. Don't bet the bank on the Canucks.
The Edmonton Oilers took advantage of the off-season by signing the infamous forward Mats Lindgren, who had two points in 12 playoff games last season. To offset the loss of star goaltender Curtis Joseph, the Oilers signed Bob Essensa and Mikhail Shtalenkov. The Oilers can't look to their penalty-killing unit to lead the team to victory, as they finished 22nd in the league last season. The biggest hole now is not in net but up the middle, where the signing of free agent Doug Weight is key to Edmonton success this season.
The only reason the Calgary Flames will be a contender is because they brought 13-year veteran Steve Smith out of retirement. He will team-up with 34-year-old free agent Phil Housley as the oldest duo in the NHL. If that is not reassuring, don't look to 34-year-old Ken Wregget to provide stability. They might be old but off-ice leadership is an unmeasureable asset something the Flames are filled with.
During the off-season, the San Jose Sharks signed four-time all-star Gary Suter and the reliable Bob Rouse, both of whom are 34. These veterans are ideal models for such promising blue-liners as Andrei Zyuzin and rookie Andy Sutton. The Sharks also hope that Brad Stuart, the no. 3 pick in June's draft, will blossom.
The Anaheim Mighty Ducks decided to weaken their chances of making the playoffs this year. First they fired head coach Ron Wilson, after he led the team to its best season. Then, to replace him, they hired Craig Hartsburg, who mocked Paul Kariya while he was coaching the Blackhawks after breaking his jaw. Good job Disney!
The expansion Nashville Predators round out the league and will undoubtedly be a threat to the record for largest point-differential between first and last.