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NHL - Change of Guard Continues in East

By Vishal Patel
Tuesday, August 20th, 2002
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Time to check back in with hockey after some long months of being forced to watch bench clearing brawls in baseball or gritty arena football as a substitute for the beloved game of hockey -- something we all wish would last all year long.

But even if we can't watch hockey, following the NHL offseason is as interesting as watching it. To make up for lost time, I will update you all with the progress of each Eastern Conference team during the offseason. Let's get it on...

Atlanta Thrashers: This squad looks very different from last year's in the sense that the core of the team actually possesses a few players who have displayed decent amounts of talent in past years such as D Uwe Krupp, F Slava Kozlov, F Shawn McEachern, and D Richard Smehlik. The maturation of C Patrik Stefan and wingers Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk should be complimented with the addition of these players although the Thrashers are still a few bona fide veteran players away from being contenders.

Boston Bruins Touted as contenders last season, much still remains the same despite the loss of Bill Guerin and the inevitable departure of Byron Dafoe -- two of the team's most critical and talented players. The addition of coach Robbie Ftorek, ex-Devils coach and known disciplinarian, should be a good fix for a team whose focus slipped in its playoff series against Montreal (Kyle McLaren, need I say more?). The addition of Bryan Berard helps a team in need of some defensive leadership, something it hasn't seen much of since the departure of hockey legend Ray Bourque (makes it seem longer than it is). Berard and Co. will have to step it up a notch because Steve Shields is no Byron Dafoe in the clutch.

Buffalo Sabres: With the thought that the team's days are numbered and that they possess one of the youngest and weakest offenses, there isn't much of an effort to win this year. They let go of core players Richard Smehlik, Slava Kozlov, and F Erik Rasmussen while banking on a few youngsters led by C Jochen Hecht. But it desperately needs to resign its remaining offense in F Maxim Afinogenov, F Vaclav Varada, and C Chris Gratton -- all fairly young and still developing.

Carolina Hurricanes: Even if last season was one big Cinderella story, the Carolina Hurricanes can be expected to compete again thanks to the always-weak Southeast Division. The 'Canes also have the core of their team from last season with the exception of Martin Gelinas, who departed for Calgary. Signing David Tanabe is key for their future.

Florida Panthers: This team hasn't seen much success in the last five years and you can probably add another year making it six years of doldrums. But amongst all the dismalness, there does lie hope -- in the form of franchise player G Roberto Luongo, who the team hopes to build around. D Robert Svehla and F Jason Wiemer leave as the team continues to rebuild.

Montreal Canadiens: A cellar-dweller turned playoff contender also led by their franchise player also in the form of a goalie -- Hart and Vezina winner Jose Theodore. The Canadiens got grittier and more offensive with the acquisitions of Randy McKay from the Stars and Mariusz Czerkawski from the Islanders. They should definitely compete again through Theodore.

New Jersey Devils: These aren't the same Devils from previous seasons, that's one thing for sure. The additions of C/F Jeff Friesen and D Oleg Tverdovsky are known to be proven talent, but GM Lou Lamiorello doesn't see Friesen playing his better suited centering game, but rather as a winger to Patrick Elias, who's more better suited at the wing. The addition of Tverdovsky is ill-suited to the Devils notorious trap game, since Oleg is small and not so physical. The success of the Devils is really uncertain, but one thing that is sure is the fact that these Devils won't be playing the (in)famous Jersey style hockey of past years.

New York Islanders: Perhaps the Islanders were one bona fide veteran from being top contenders in the East. They will have to manage with what they had left from last season minus Czerkawski so in essence, their team only got worse since they didn't really play any prospects or all-stars-to-be in their four lines last year. In fact, they lost one in Branislav Mezei, who got shipped to the Sunshine State for Jason Wiemer, who won't change these Islanders enough to appease management.

New York Rangers: This team still remains one of the biggest quandaries in the league year after year. All this talent, no results. The hiring of Islander great Bryan Trottier as head coach doesn't help matters, either, but chemistry could fall into place this year with the addition of some grittiness in the form of C Bobby Holik, D Darius Kasparaitis, and D Krzystof Oliwa -- something weaklings Eric Lindros and Pavel Bure weren't able to provide last year. But still, it comes down to their shoddy goaltending in the form of geezer Mike Richter, who was picked off free agency. Curtis Joseph would have meant more to this team than Holik.

Ottawa Senators: There isn't much in the way of additions for this club, but its subtractions will really hurt losing scorers Shawn McEachern and Chris Herperger.

Philadelphia Flyers: The addition of Michal Handzus should definitely benefit this club since they get a player who can both score and hit -- something they haven't seen since the glory days of Eric Lindros. Handzus is not in Eric's league yet, but the youngster definitely possesses the potential to move up the ranks. And with it, their goaltending predicament is also resolved, making Roman Cechmanek the all out number one.

Pittsburgh Penguins: This is team is on the edge of demise. Mario Lemieux turns 37 this year, Martin Straka seems as fragile as Eric Lindros of late, and they still haven't signed or gained confidence in a second line center to make them forget the departure of Robert Lang, who bolted for D.C. To make things worse, their youngsters haven't come along very rapidly, especially those that they received in the Jagr deal last offseason. This team is a rebuildment and a half from contending again if injuries continue to plague them.

Tampa Bay Lightning: As is the trend for most of the East's perennial cellar-dwellers, this team is finally coming around. Led by ex-Coyote holdout G Nikolai Khabibulin, the team allowed 60 less goals than the previous season -- the best in the league. Offensively, the team is full of youngsters who look prime to mature into star players: C Vincent Lecavalier, C Brad Richards, and F Martin St. Louis. They're complimented by veterans F Dave Andreychuk, Ruslan Fedotenko from the Flyers, and F Fredrik Modin. Whether this team competes rests on the shoulders of its youngsters and the continued prominence of the Bhulin Wall.

Toronto Maple Leafs: This team is bringing back much of the same squad that really broke out in the regular season despite only moving a round higher in the playoffs last season than the one before. But there is one difference -- this is a Maple Leafs team without CuJo, their franchise player for almost the past decade. Eddie Belfour or not, Big Ed's got some big shoes to fill in Toronto.

Washington Capitals: Seeing who they gained, the Caps did fairly well again this offseason, getting C Robert Lang while only losing a backup goaltender and F Ulf Dahlen. But the real question is whether Lang will mesh well with his teammates enough for everyone to come together over F Jaromir Jagr. The success of Jagr remains the underscoring facet to the success of this hockey club.

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