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Hockey: NHL 2001-02 Preview

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Eastern Conference

(In projected order of finish in points)

1. Philadelphia Flyers

2000-01: 43-25-11-3, 100 points (second in Atlantic, fourth in East), lost to Buffalo in first round.

Most feared: LW John LeClair, if he plays in more than the 16 games he did last season.

To win the East: The Flyers are loaded after dealing C Eric Lindros to the New York Rangers for young talent and signing free agent Jeremy Roenick, but G Roman Cechmanek must prove that his unbelievable first season as an NHL starter wasn't a fluke.

2. New Jersey Devils

2000-01: 48-19-12-3, 111 points (first in Atlantic, first in East), lost to Colorado in Stanley Cup Finals.

Most feared: D Scott Stevens is a warrior, but he's also 37. When does he start showing his age? With Eric Lindros (who was given his most recent concussion by Stevens in the 2000 playoffs) just across the Hudson River playing for the New York Rangers, one of hockey's best rivalries just got a little better.

To win the East: Last season, the Devils found out how tough it is to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. They're refocused this season, but they must keep their three 37-year-old defensemen -- Stevens, Tommy Albelin and Ken Daneyko -- at or near the top of their games. And someone has to pick up the 43-goal void left by RW Alexander Mogilny's departure.

3. Washington Capitals

2000-01: 41-27-10-4, 96 points (first in Southeast, third in East), lost to Pittsburgh in first round.

Most feared: Despite rumors he would be traded, RW Jaromir Jagr led the league in scoring with 121 points last season. He's ready to solidify his claim as the best player in the game.

To win the East: Jagr must be happy in Washington. RW Peter Bondra, who has more goals than any NHL player other than Jagr since the start of the 1994-95 season, must play as he did last season, when he returned to form with 45 goals. G Olie Kolzig must continue to be solid in goal. And perhaps Jagr will finally help the Caps get past the Penguins in the playoffs.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs

2000-01: 37-29-11-5, 90 points (third in Northeast, seventh in East), lost to New Jersey in second round.

Most feared: Which Alexander Mogilny did the Leafs sign as a free agent? The RW who scored 43 goals (83 points) last season -- his best output since getting 107 points for Vancouver in 1995-96 -- or the underachiever who averaged 44.7 points a season from 1997-2000?

To win the East: A potentially porous defense is backed by one of the best goalies in the game, Curtis Joseph. When he's on his game, the Leafs can beat anyone.

5. Ottawa Senators

2000-01: 48-21-9-4, 109 points (first in Northeast, second in East), lost to Toronto in first round.

Most feared: RW Marian Hossa is the team's most skilled player and had career high in goals (32), assists (43) and plus-minus (19) last season.

To win the East: Ottawa has been great in the regular season but terrible in the postseason the past few seasons. The Senators need to get tougher -- and replace C Alexei Yashin's scoring -- to make a run at the title.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins

2000-01: 42-28-9-3, 96 points (third in Atlantic, sixth in East), lost to New Jersey in conference finals.

Most feared: C Mario Lemieux averaged 1.77 points per game after returning in December from a three-year retirement.

To win the East: G Johan Hedberg needs to duplicate his strong late-season and playoff performance, and the defense has to compensate for the offense Jaromir Jagr supplied. Lemieux has to avoid missing many games because of his chronic back problems.

7. New York Rangers

2000-01: 33-43-5-1, 72 points (fourth in Atlantic, 10th in East).

Most feared: It's C Eric Lindros if he remains healthy and returns to the form that made him one of the league's top five players. But he has suffered six concussions, and the next one could force retirement.

To win the East: Slow down. The Rangers have to get to the playoffs first, where they haven't been since 1997. To be contenders, their defense must improve. Having a healthy Mike Richter in goal is a start. Last season, New York gave up 290 goals, most in the league.

8. Carolina Hurricanes

2000-01: 38-32-9-3, 88 points (second in Southeast, eighth in East), lost to New Jersey in first round.

Most feared: G Arturs Irbe played in 77 of 82 games last season and in 152 of 164 the past two seasons, or 92.7 percent.

To win the East: The Hurricanes showed some mettle by winning two games against the Devils after dropping the first three in a first-round playoff series. For the Hurricanes to move up, Irbe must be given more rest to keep him fresh and RW Jeff O'Neill, who had 41 goals last season, must continue to be productive.

9. Buffalo Sabres

2000-01: 46-30-5-1, 98 points (second in Northeast, fifth in East), lost to Pittsburgh in second round.

Most feared: With G Dominik Hasek gone, the title falls to W Miroslav Satan, who is the Sabres' top returning scorer and has missed only two regular-season games in the past three seasons, averaging 65 points per season.

To win the East: G Martin Biron, impressive at times last season, must show he can play at a high level during the entire season. He might not be another Hasek, but he'll have to be close for the Sabres to be a factor this season.

10. Boston Bruins

2000-01: 36-30-8-8, 88 points (fourth in Northeast, ninth in East).

Most feared: Boston's front office. The Bruins have alienated C Jason Allison, 26, who was tied for fourth in the league in points last season. They gave free-agent RW Martin Lapointe about $5 million per season for four years, but have dropped their offer to Allison to $4.25 million per year. Allison, who outscored Lapointe by 38 points last season, is holding out and has said his days with the Bruins are over.

To win the East: The Bruins missed the playoffs by one point last season and with Allison continuing to improve, looked like a solid choice to make them this year. However, without Allison, they won't get as close as last year. The Bruins also need G Byron Dafoe to be healthy. He was 22-14-7 last season; Boston's other goalies were 14-24-1.

11. New York Islanders

2000-01: 21-51-7-3, 52 points (fifth in Atlantic, 15th in East).

Most feared: During the regular season it will be C Alexei Yashin, a prolific scorer; if they make the playoffs, it will be C Michael Peca, who sat out last season in a contract dispute with Buffalo.

To win the East: Worst to first? A long shot. Adding Peca and Yashin to the offense and acquiring goalies Chris Osgood and Garth Snow will take the heat off young Rob DiPietro and give the Isles a shot at making the playoffs.

12. Florida Panthers

2000-01: 22-38-13-9, 66 points (third in Southeast, 12th in East).

Most feared: RW Pavel Bure has scored at least 51 goals and 90 points in three of the past four seasons; in the other one, he was injured and played only 11 games.

To win the East: G Roberto Luongo, 22 and perhaps the best young goalie in the league, must continue to improve because Florida's defense was poor last season. Valeri Bure, Pavel's brother, will add scoring punch.

13. Atlanta Thrashers

2000-01: 23-45-12-2, 60 points (fourth in Southeast, 13th in East).

Most feared: LW Ilya Kovalchuk. The first overall pick in this year's draft can be a big scorer, but he will need time.

To win the East: The Thrashers hope to challenge for a playoff spot. They probably won't, but they'll be fun to watch. The team's past three top draft picks -- Kovalchuk, LW Dany Heatley (second overall in 2000) and C Patrik Stefan (first overall in 1999) -- get a chance to learn on the job.

14. Tampa Bay Lightning

2000-01: 24-47-6-5, 59 points (fifth in Southeast, 14th in East).

Most feared: G Nikolai Khabibulin, who missed two seasons because of a contract dispute with Phoenix, has one of the fastest glove hands in the game. He averaged 29.5 victories per season in his four full NHL seasons; the Lightning has won more than 29 games only three times in its nine seasons.

To win the East: It won't. For Tampa Bay to improve, Khabibulin must be as good as he was in Phoenix and C Vincent Lecavalier, who struggled last season, must come to terms with the team in their contract dispute and have a better season.

15. Montreal Canadiens

2000-01: 28-40-8-6, 70 points (fifth in Northeast, 11th in East).

Most feared: The franchise was dealt a blow when 26-year-old C Saku Koivu was diagnosed with cancer this summer. C Joe Juneau and C Yanic Perreault will have to take up the slack.

To win the East: If they fail to make the playoffs, it will be the first time in franchise history that the Canadiens have gone four years without playing in the postseason.

Western Conference

(In projected order of finish in points)

1. Colorado Avalanche

2000-01: 52-16-10-4, 118 points (first in Northwest, first in West), won Stanley Cup.

Most feared: C Joe Sakic had a storybook season with 54 goals among 118 points on way to winning the Hart Trophy as league MVP. With C Peter Forsberg out, Sakic will see even more defensive pressure.

To win the West: Ray Bourque is gone, Forsberg is out indefinitely and D Adam Foote is expected to miss the first month of the season after shoulder surgery. Sakic will be called on to match his MVP season.

2. St. Louis Blues

2000-01: 43-22-12-5, 103 points (second in Central, fourth in West), lost to Colorado in conference finals.

Most feared: LW Keith Tkachuk is in a contract season, and, word is, he worked out hard in the summer. With the addition of playmaker C Doug Weight, Tkachuk might score 50 goals for the first time since back-to-back seasons with the Winnipeg Jets (50 in 1995-96) and Phoenix Coyotes (52 in '96-97). And $9.5 million man Chris Pronger is healthy; injuries sidelined him for 31 games last season.

To win the West: Look in net. Unable to land Dominik Hasek, the Blues are relying on second-year G Brent Johnson and Fred Brathwaite. The position is the team's weakest link.

3. Detroit Red Wings

2000-01: 49-20-9-4, 111 points (first in Central, second in West), lost to Los Angeles in first round.

Most feared: They don't call him The Dominator for nothing. The Red Wings believe G Dominik Hasek can lead them past the second round for the first time since they won the Stanley Cup in 1998.

To win the West: The Wings have stars: Hasek, Chris Chelios, Brett Hull, Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov, Nicklas Lidstrom, Luc Robitaille, Brendan Shanahan and Steve Yzerman. The Wings are tired of hearing it, but they're still old.

4. Dallas Stars

2000-01: 48-24-8-2, 106 points (first in Pacific, third in West), lost to St. Louis in second round.

Most feared: C Mike Modano has waited to blast off until the second half the past two seasons. If he puts together a full season, he could be a candidate for several awards, including the Hart Trophy as MVP and Selke as best defensive forward. With Pierre Turgeon and Joe Nieuwendyk lined up behind him, Modano might find more offensive freedom than before.

To win the West: Coach Ken Hitchcock has been emphasizing leadership and bringing this retooled team together under the Stars' defensive system. If the centers can find a comfort zone and G Ed Belfour remains on top of his game, the Stars will win a lot.

5. San Jose Sharks

2000-01: 40-27-12-3, 95 points (second in Pacific, fifth in West), lost to St. Louis in first round.

Most feared: RW Teemu Selanne had no chance to show what he could do with the Sharks after having knee surgery upon joining the team. One of the league's most prolific goal scorers, he is expected to lift the Sharks into the West's top four.

To win the West: The pressure is on second-year G Evgeni Nabokov. He had a terrific rookie season, but came unglued during the playoffs. The list of one-year wonder goalies is long, but the Sharks believe his season wasn't a fluke.

6. Vancouver Canucks

2000-01: 36-28-11-7, 90 points (third in Northwest, eighth in West), lost to Colorado in first round.

Most feared: LW Markus Naslund scored 41 goals before breaking his right leg on March 16; the injury is expected to sideline him for at least the first month of this season. Naslund, 28 and the team captain, powered the Canucks on and off the ice as he matured last season.

To win the West: D Ed Jovanovski is on the verge of becoming a star. He and Mattias Ohlund give the Canucks a strong top end at the blue line. Naslund's return is key.

7. Edmonton Oilers

2000-01: 39-28-12-3, 93 points (second in Northwest, sixth in West), lost to Dallas in first round.

Most feared: G Tommy Salo is a workhorse who is quietly becoming one of the NHL's top goalies. Now, with C Doug Weight in St. Louis, Salo is the team's franchise player.

To win the West: This is clearly a team by committee now with LW Ryan Smyth the closest thing to an All-Star presence. The Oilers' fast-skating, aggressive style will rely on unproven talent -- such as C Mike Comrie, C Jochen Hecht, C Marty Reasoner, LW Daniel Cleary and RW Anson Carter -- to pick up the 90-point slack left when captain Weight was traded.

8. Los Angeles Kings

2000-01: 38-28-13-3, 92 points (third in Pacific, seventh in West), lost to Colorado in second round.

Most feared: RW Ziggy Palffy scored 38 goals in 73 games, and his 89 points are the most by a King since Wayne Gretzky had 130 in 1993-94. But the Kings need Palffy to be stronger in the final half of the season; 17 of his goals came in the first two months.

To win the West: Is G Felix Potvin really the answer? Any slump will again bring talk of the Cat's downfall. And a replacement for LW Luc Robitaille must be found.

9. Nashville Predators

2000-01: 34-36-9-3, 80 points (third in Central, 10th in West).

Most feared: RW Scott Walker, 28, is on his way to stardom. He scored 25 goals last season and is a hard worker on and off the ice. But can Walker's offensive production increase much while he's on a developing team that doesn't have many playmakers other than C Cliff Ronning?

To win the West: They use hard work, grit and emotion to win. If G Mike Dunham can stay healthy, the Predators could be a first-time playoff team.

10. Chicago Blackhawks

2000-01: 29-40-8-5, 71 points (fourth in Central, 12th in West).

Most feared: The Blackhawks have been so bad that talented RW Tony Amonte has been almost completely overlooked. Yes, he had a 20-point dropoff last season, but the Blackhawks were in disarray as they tried to play a European-style game under a European coach. New coach Brian Sutter's hard-nosed style should help Amonte.

To win the West: G Jocelyn Thibault must be consistent. He was far too sporadic last season, although he showed signs of endurance during a late stretch when the Hawks made a run at the playoffs.

11. Phoenix Coyotes

2000-01: 35-27-17-3, 90 points (fourth in Pacific, ninth in West).

Most feared: Is it really RW Shane Doan? It is now that C Jeremy Roenick and LW Keith Tkachuk play elsewhere. On a rebuilding team, Doan is the team's top returning goal scorer; he had 26 last season. His biggest problem will be finding someone to get him the puck.

To win the West: The Coyotes are probably two or three years away from returning to the playoffs.

12. Anaheim Mighty Ducks

2000-01: 25-41-11-5, 66 points (fifth in Pacific, 15th in West).

Most feared: LW Paul Kariya is one of the fastest skaters in the game and has the best shot on the team. If he can stay healthy, he could return to the form that helped him score more than 40 goals in three seasons.

To win the West: This team will be lucky to make the playoffs.

13. Minnesota Wild

2000-01: 25-39-13-5, 68 points (fifth in Northwest, 14th in West).

Most feared: He's only 19, but RW Marian Gaborik led the Wild in scoring with 36 points in his and his team's first season. Don't expect Gaborik's numbers to rise much until the Wild adds more offensive threats.

To win the West: Be patient. The Wild had a good first season, including the emergence of G Manny Fernandez, who, remarkably, had a winning record (19-17-4), with a 2.24 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.

14. Columbus Blue Jackets

2000-01: 28-39-9-6, 71 points (fifth in Central, 13th in West).

Most feared: LW Geoff Sanderson, 29, resurrected his career, playing with C Espen Knutsen. Sanderson had 30 goals among 56 points. The team's best stick handler and best shooter, Sanderson will be expected to carry the offensive load.

To win the West: Expansion clubs have to subdue their frustration and focus on improving. That's what LW Robert Kron, 34, must do after a disappointing eight-goal season.

15. Calgary Flames

2000-01: 27-36-15-4, 73 points (fourth in Northwest, 11th in West).

Most feared: With RW Valeri Bure gone, RW Jarome Iginla is ready to take charge. He had a career-best 31 goals and 71 points last season.

To win the West: The bottom line for the cash-strapped Flames is that even if they find a boost of offense, and even if G Roman Turek turns in another regular season like he did for St. Louis two seasons ago, and even if injury luck is on their side, making the playoffs is unlikely.

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