Rangers line up on top of NHL for '93 On paper, Penguins drop to second

THE BALTIMORE SUN

So many other things are different in the NHL this season.

There are new teams in Tampa Bay and Ottawa. There are new rules aimed at heightening the speed and skill of the competition.

So why not realign? Let's make four six-team divisions, based on their chances of winning it all in 1992-93:

Going-For-It Division * New York Rangers: They don't have a right-hand shooter for the left-wing circle on the power play. They have more skaters than hitters on defense. Still, this is the best team in the league.

* Pittsburgh Penguins: Their defense never looks good on paper, but this underrated group gets the job done. Playing behind the most lethal line in hockey -- Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Kevin Stevens -- also doesn't hurt.

* Detroit Red Wings: Dino Ciccarelli (38 goals) and defenseman Mark Howe will provide the point men who can improve a power play that ranked last of those of the 16 playoff qualifiers. Left wing John Ogrodnick should help as well.

* Vancouver Canucks: The departure of Igor Larionov left a hole at center. They tried right wing Trevor Linden there and it didn't work. Left wing Greg Adams may provide an answer. Right wing Pavel Bure remains a wonder, and goalie Kay Whitmore will help ease the workload on Kirk McLean's shoulders.

* Chicago Blackhawks: You can't count them out because they reached the finals last season and did not get worse over the summer. Except for center Jeremy Roenick (53 goals), too much of their limited offense came from players over 30 years old.

* Montreal Canadiens: On the way to surrendering just 207 goals with a still-maturing defense last season, the Canadiens held their opponents to three goals or fewer 60 times in 80 games. New coach Jacques Demers is not as defensive-minded as Pat Burns was. Badly needed offense should come from newly acquired left wings Vincent Damphousse and Brian Bellows.

Right-Up-There Division * New Jersey Devils: Under coach Herb Brooks, the team's style will activate the defense in the attack, which complements such players as Bruce Driver, Scott Niedermayer and Viacheslav Fetisov. The Devils will play a speed, skill, puck-control game. The Devils got 87 points last year with a less-sophisticated coach and without one minute from 40-goal man John MacLean. Do not take them lightly.

* Washington Capitals: Right wing Pat Elynuik won't match Dino Ciccarelli's scoring but will help an offense that somehow got 330 goals last year. Defense is talented and deep, as capable of creating goals as preventing them. Mike Ridley and Dale Hunter are dependable, but lack of a star-quality center hurts this team in the Patrick Division.

* Edmonton Oilers: Strong coaching by Ted Green, strong goaltending by Bill Ranford. Center Brent Gilchrist and left wing Shayne Corson could help the penalty killing, which was poor last season. Offense will suffer with Damphousse gone, but the Smythe Division isn't a shootout section any more. Team chemistry will be disrupted by departures of Kevin Lowe and Joe Murphy to points unknown.

* Winnipeg Jets: Improved 18 points last season. They've got Soviet skaters galore, impressive forwards Keith Tkachuk and Darrin Shannon, good goalies Bob Essensa and Rick Tabaracci. But they could use some young leadership and intensity.

* Buffalo Sabres: Haven't won a playoff series since 1983, and their goaltending (Daren Puppa, Dominik Hasek, Tom Draper, Clint Malarchuk) is more quantity than quality unless Puppa returns to form from injury-induced funk. However, Pat LaFontaine was on fire in second half, Dave Andreychuk is NHL's premier power-play scorer. Alexander Mogilny and Dale Hawerchuk leave no doubt about the offense. The defense is still taking form, however.

* New York Islanders: You know they can score. You don't know how many they'll keep out of the net. They have three of the top defensive prospects in the league -- Scott Lachance, Vladimir Malakhov and Darius Kasparaitis -- but adjustments to the NHL pace and skill level take time.

Dark-horse Division * Calgary Flames: Coach Dave King already has the Flames better prepared, playing more disciplined. He'll have a reclamation project in Gary Leeman and needs playmaking out of Robert Reichel, who may center for 50-goal man Gary Roberts and Sergei Makarov.

* Quebec Nordiques: They used the Eric Lindros deal to fill a lot of needs. Center Mike Ricci has been a firebrand leader in camp who should provide solid support for Joe Sakic and improve last year's incompetent penalty killing. Goalie Ron Hextall always is a health question, but he's going to help the improved defense. Top-notch forwards Mats Sundin, Owen Nolan and Valeri Kamensky return and will provide the scoring power for a team that won twice on the road last year.

* Boston Bruins: They always do better than you think they can or should. Cam Neely is almost ready to play, which will give Adam Oates a pass receiver. With Dmitri Kavartalnov on the left, those three could fill the net. They're in trouble if goalie Andy Moog gets hurt.

* Philadelphia Flyers: They won 10 games on the road last season, 10 games in the division and scored 252 goals. Lindros changes all that. He provides a short-handed scoring threat, an even-strength scoring threat, a power-play scoring threat. He can be a setup man for Mark Recchi. He wins faceoffs. He bangs. But Lindros may not be enough to make up for an awful defense. And while rookie Dominic Roussel looks like a future star, trusting him with the goaltending load is asking a lot.

* St. Louis Blues: After right wing Brett Hull, left wing Brendan Shanahan and center Craig Janney, they don't scare anybody.

* Minnesota North Stars: They figure right wing Russ Courtnall and left wing Mike McPhee will make up for the 30 goals Brian Bellows (traded to Montreal) gave them. They are ready to trade centers Dave Gagner or Todd Elik for an offensive defenseman; they got 24 goals from the defense last year and know that won't be enough this time.

No-chance Division * Toronto Maple Leafs: They play Tampa Bay nine times, San Jose three times, Ottawa three times. That's 30 points on the table, and how many they grab could sneak them into playoffs. They'll work harder under Burns, but an injury to center Doug Gilmour would ruin them; the second-line center is Peter Zezel.

* Los Angeles Kings: Without Wayne Gretzky in the foreseeable future, rookie coach Barry Melrose has a defense that doesn't defend much and an offense that isn't especially offensive.

* Hartford Whalers: If the players work as hard as new general manager Brian Burke, new coach Paul Holmgren and new assistant coach Pierre McGuire, they might squeak out a playoff spot. But there isn't one position where their strength is more than respectable.

* San Jose Sharks: Going with kids, without stars. The top line looks like Pat Falloon-Dale Craigwell-Johan Garpenlov. And there's barely a ticket available.

* Tampa Bay Lightning: Better of the two expansion entries, which doesn't say much. Adequate in goal with Wendell Young, who at least practiced against champions while riding Pittsburgh's bench last year.

* Ottawa Senators: They sold out for the season two years ago. Left wing Sylvain Turgeon is their top forward and Neil Brady had a good camp. But the defense is creaky.

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