Boring is beautiful: the Devils’ defense-first style may be hell to watch, but it’s hard to argue with the results – Eastern Conference: Atlantic Division

John Kreiser

WHO NEEDS EXCITEMENT? THE New Jersey Devils are more than happy to settle for victories–and the rest of the Atlantic is willing to follow their lead.

The Devils won the division title last season and went on to capture the Stanley Cup by suffocating their opponents. They led the NHL in goals-allowed, with just 1.99 per game, thanks largely to following coach Pat Burns’ defensive system and letting Vezina winner Martin Brodeur stop anything that happened to get through. Offense often appeared to be an afterthought, although on the rare occasion that Burns let his minions attack, they showed bursts of speed and creativity.

So what if they can’t sell out playoff games? And who cares that their TV ratings are barely higher than a test pattern? Not GM Lou Lamoriello, whose sole interest is winning another Cup. Nothing else matters to hockey’s best GM. And having seen the results a successful checking system can produce, the rest of the division is prepared to follow suit.

Getting the same results as the Devils is another matter entirely. The Philadelphia Flyers, with defense-first Ken Hitchcock behind the bench, have a host of big-name scorers but will count on a new goal-tender, Jeff Hackett, as they try to get past their rivals from the other end of the Turnpike. The Flyers finished just a point behind the Devils, but that forced them into a first-round matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs and an early exit.

The Devils’ two area rivals are a step behind. Rangers coach/GM Glen Sather built the Edmonton dynasty of the ’80s on offense, but it appears he’s finally realized that the days of trying to outgun the opposition are over. Defensive consciousness will finally get some attention as hockey’s biggest spenders try to end a six-year playoff drought, the longest in team history.

On Long Island, new coach Steve Stirling wants to install a Devils-type system, but that doesn’t figure to be easy on the Islanders, a team that fell apart down the stretch.

And off in the distance, even the Pittsburgh Penguins–one of the last bastions of run-and-gun hockey–are changing their feathers. With the end of Mario Lemieux’s career visible and management husbanding every dollar, the Pens are hoping that young, cheap forwards and new coach Ed Olczyk will keep them afloat.

1. New Jersey Devils

THIS IS THE PROTOTYPE OF THE successful 21st-century team: excellent goaltending, solid defense, superb system, and excellent GM. They still won’t be very exciting to watch, but don’t bet against the Devils making a return trip to the Finals–they’re still the only Eastern team since 1994 to win the Cup.

On the attack: There really are Devils who can score, though they often seem to get lost in a checking system that has survived a quintet of coaches over the past decade. Patrik Elias (28 goals), playoff hero Jamie Langenbrunner (22 goals, plus 11 in the playoffs) and Jeff Friesen (23 goals) would post much bigger numbers on another team. John Madden (19 goals) is a terrific two-way player who figures to have a big season as he enters his walk year. More is needed from Scott Gomez (55 points), especially because the Devils let Joe Nieuwendyk walk.

Under fire: At 39, Scott Stevens shows no signs of slowing down. No defenseman plays a better physical game, especially at playoff time. Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rafalski handle the puck-carrying, and Colin White is a physical presence. GM Lou Lamoriello hopes youngsters like David Hale can step in for the now-retired Ken Daneyko and Tommy Albelin.

Between the pipes: With Patrick Roy having hung up his pads, Martin Brodeur reigns as arguably the best goaltender in hockey. He already owns three rings and finally added the Vezina Trophy to his collection in June. Brodeur is technically sound, as well as being the best stick-handling goaltender in NHL history. And no one shakes off a bad goal better. Corey Schwab is likely to stay on as a backup.

Behind the bench: Pat Burns justified Lamoriello’s faith in him by winning a championship in his first season in the Swamp. Burns didn’t make many friends among his players with his maniacal devotion to defense (nor many among the media with his grouchiness), but the results speak for themselves. The challenge is to do it again.

Bottom line: The rest of the division may try to play like the Devils, but Lamoriello has built the prototype 21st-century franchise. As long as Stevens and Brodeur stay healthy, there shouldn’t be any significant dropoff from last season, especially in a weakened division. They’re the champs until dethroned.

2. Philadelphia Flyers

AS THE FLYERS APPROACH THE 30th anniversary of their first Cup, they could really use another Bernie Parent Roman Cechmanek took the fall for last spring’s first-round loss to Toronto and was peddled to Los Angeles, but will Jeff Hackett be any better on a team whose nucleus is getting older by the minute?

On the attack: If reputation were accomplishment, the Flyers would lead the league in offense. But it’s not, and the Flyers had no 30-goal or 60-point scorers despite a roster that includes the likes of Jeremy Roenick, Tony Amonte, Mark Recchi, Keith Primeau, and John LeClair. The most important forwards may be a pair of kids–Simon Gagne and Justin Williams–who both missed significant time with injuries. Hitchcock did get the vets to buy into his defensive system, but they’ve got to produce more goals.

Under fire: GM Bob Clarke moved quickly to keep his top defenseman, Eric Desjardins, from getting away. Desjardins is still an above-average rearguard on a competent but unspectacular defensive corps. Part of his role will be to nurture Finnish rookie Joni Pitkanen, the fourth pick in the 2001 draft, of whom big things are expected.

Between the pipes: Clarke couldn’t get rid of Roman Cechmanek fast enough after the goaltender’s inconsistent play in a first-round playoff loss to Toronto. But can newly signed Jeff Hackett or backup Robert Esche replace Cechmanek’s 1.83 goals-against average, .925 save percentage, and six shutouts? If not, Clarke may not have to worry about whom his playoff goaltender is next spring.

Behind the bench: Hitchcock succeeded in getting a largely veteran team to play his defensive system; the hard part was finding someone to put the puck in the net. The Flyers tied New Jersey for the fewest goals-allowed and finished only a point behind the Devils despite a rash of injuries; much of that success belongs to Hitchcock.

Bottom line: On paper, the Flyers are good enough to challenge the Devils for the division title, especially if some of the big names rediscover their scoring touch. The biggest question is goaltending. Clarke may not have been happy with Cechmanek’s play in the playoffs, but at least they got there. There’s a lot of pressure on Hackett–and the man who signed him.

3. New York Rangers

THE RANGERS STAYED OUT OF THE free-agent sweepstakes this summer. That may help the bottom line, but there are still lots of holes on a team that’s in the longest playoff drought of its 78-year history. Money really can’t guarantee success.

On the attack: How messed up were the Rangers? For much of the season, Matthew Barnaby was a first-line forward. Eric Lindros was healthy but ineffective; Pavel Bure was effective but rarely healthy. Bobby Holik did little to justify his big free-agent contract, and neither Alexei Kovalev nor Anson Carter produced much after coming over in trades. Part of coach Glen Sather’s task is to find the right pairings; another is to find a more limited rote for Mark Messier; if the captain decides to come back for yet another season, he can’t play first-line minutes.

Under fire: Signing Greg de Vries adds depth, but he’s not a player to build around–despite a career year, Colorado made no effort to keep him. Sather’s biggest task was resigning Brian Leetch, whose 31-game absence due to an ankle injury was a killer. Tom Poti has offensive skills but struggles in his own zone, while Darius Kasparaitis improved after an awful start but like so many Rangers wasn’t worth the money.

Between the pipes: When Mike Richter went down for the season in November, Sather saved the day by landing Mike Dunham from Nashville. Dunham kept the Rangers in the playoff race until the final weekend with his best season. Newcomer Jussi Markkanen figures to be the backup, allowing Dan Blackburn to play full-time in the minors. Richter says he wants to play again, but should retire.

Behind the bench: As GM, Sather looked at a bunch of coaching candidates before deciding to keep the job he took over after firing rookie coach Bryan Trottier late in the season. Former Canucks and Canadian National Team coach Tom Renney will handle a lot of the practices as the new top assistant. Sather, who’s 0-for-3 in making the playoffs as a GM, could find himself losing both jobs if the playoff drought extends to seven years.

Bottom line: The Beatles told us that “Money can’t buy me love.” Nor can it buy a playoff berth. The Rangers haven’t made the playoffs since 1997, despite spending more money than any other team in history. They have the talent to break that drought; Sather’s task is to remember that “I Love the ’80s” belongs on VH1, not in the NHL.

4. New York Islanders

THE ISLANDERS LEARNED A VALUABLE lesson last season–becoming a playoff team is one thing, becoming an elite club is a lot harder. The Islanders hope changing coaches will bring them closer to their goal; having goaltender Rick DiPietro play up to his status as the No. 1 pick in the 2000 draft is a must.

On the attack: Until the final weeks of the season, Alexei Yashin’s offense was lost somewhere on the Long Island Expressway. He got hot down the stretch, though, and led the team in scoring, but 26 goals and 65 points are an embarrassment for someone of his talent. Michael Peca’s goal-scoring touch disappeared after mid-February, taking linemates Shawn Bates and Mark Parrish with him. Dave Scatchard (27 goals) and Jason Blake (25) had career years. Former Isles gunner Mariusz Czerkawski is back after bombing out in Montreal. The biggest need is for a wing who can bring out the best in Yashin.

Under fire: The foursome of Adrian Aucoin, Roman Hamrlik, Kenny Jonsson, and Janne Niinimaa is as good a top four as there is in the Eastern Conference. New coach Steve Stirling is likely to make sure he doesn’t burn them out, meaning that Mattias Timander, Radek Martinek, and Eric Cairns will have to prove they’re worthy of more time.

Between the pipes: It’s Rick DiPietro’s time to prove he’s ready for the starting job. He’s athletic and a great stick-handler, but he has a tendency to overplay the puck. When he doesn’t try to do too much, he shows why GM Mike Milbury made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2000. Just in case, the Isles re-upped Garth Snow, whose played solid play down the stretch.

Behind the bench: Stirling is a 180-degree change from Peter Laviolette, who was fired despite back-to-back trips to the playoffs. He’s older, an organization man, and a buddy of Milbury’s who says he’ll use his whole roster–unlike Laviolette, who shortened his rotation at every opportunity. Stirling was a success with the Isles’ farm team in Bridgeport and is likely to give younger players the chance they didn’t get under his predecessor.

Bottom line: The Isles took a big step back last season and did little to change the cast, except for the coaching change. Stirling is among the oldest first-time coaches in NHL history and will have to reunite a locker room that disintegrated under Laviolette. If DiPietro doesn’t become the star he’s projected to be, the playoff streak will end at two years.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins

EVEN HOCKEY’S GREATEST PLAYER needs some help, but Mario Lemieux won’t get much from the low-paid kids that will surround him in Pitt. The Pens may have a tough time performing two of hockey’s basic accomplishments: scoring goals and drawing fans.

On the attack: Yes, Mario Lemieux (91 points in 67 games) needs a little help. But hockey’s only player-owner isn’t likely to find it among a group of young forwards who are built to be cheap, not good. Only Aleksey Morozov and perhaps Rico Fata are likely to provide much help–Martin Straka’s $4 million-plus price tag assures him an eventual ticket out of town if he’s healthy. The Penguins’ days as a run-and-gun team are long gone; what’s left is a 37-year-old hockey icon and a bunch of kids who’ll try to hustle their way to some wins.

Under fire: This might be the most anonymous group of defensemen in the NHL. Only power-play whiz Dick Tarnstrom had more than 10 points last season, and he was hurt for large parts of the season. Rookies like Brooks Orpik will get every chance to make their mark.

Between the pipes: Sebastien Caron was one of the few bright spots last season, stepping in when Johan Hedberg and J.S. Aubin were hurt and playing well as the team melted in front of him. No. 1 overall pick Marc-Andre Fleury is the goaltender of the future, but the Penguins would be crazy to throw him into the breach behind what’s largely an AHL team.

Behind the bench: Ed Olczyk has never coached in his life–he’s been a broadcaster since his playing days ended. But the ex-Penguin will work for what the team was willing to pay and knows Lemieux and GM Craig Patrick well. Just in case, the Penguins are surrounding him with experienced assistants.

Bottom line: It’s hard to win when you’re counting every dollar, and the Penguins are doing just that as they try to survive until a new CBA and (hopefully) a new arena. They may not make it. The only reason they have Lemieux is that he owns a big chunk of the team–and offseason rumors said he was willing to sell out to go to a big-money team. No player in NHL history has meant more to his franchise. There would be no Penguins without Lemieux, but even Super Mario can’t win games by himself.

Eastern Conference

2002-2003 Records:

Atlantic Division W L T OTL Pts. GF GA

1. New Jersey Devils 46 20 10 6 108 216 166

2. Philadelphia Flyers 45 20 13 4 107 211 166

3. New York Rangers 32 36 10 4 78 210 231

4. New York Islanders 35 34 11 2 83 224 231

5. Pittsburgh Penguins 27 44 6 5 65 189 255

COPYRIGHT 2003 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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