Taking Flight – Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, and the other Atlantic Division teams

Taking Flight – Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, and the other Atlantic Division teams

John Kreiser

The Flyers spent big in the offseason on John LeClair and others in a bid to unseat their rival from up the Turnpike, the Devils

THE BEST TEAM IN THE Atlantic Division plays at one end of the New Jersey Turnpike. But which end?

Take the Turnpike south and you’re heading for Philadelphia, where Flyers

management has aired out the checkbook in hopes of bringing home the team’s first Stanley Cup since 1975. The Flyers spent big to bring in free-agent centers Jeremy Roenick and Jiri Dopita and defenseman Eric Weinrich, as well as to keep forward John Le Clair. They’re deep in the middle and versatile on defense, but there’s still the specter of Eric Lindros lingering, not to mention the fallout from last spring’s first-round rout by the Buffalo Sabres.

But to win the division, they’ll have to get past the team at the northern end of the Turnpike. The New Jersey Devils, who came within a game of repeating as Stanley Cup champs, have been one of the NHL’s most successful teams since 1994. In that span, the Devils have two rifles (1995 and 2000), not to mention last spring’s trip to Game 7 of the Finals. New Jersey takes a string of five consecutive 100-point seasons into 2001-02. With their nucleus generally intact and one of hockey’s best farm systems producing an influx of talent every year, unseating the Devils won’t be an easy task.

The other three Atlantic teams are a few steps behind the leaders.

Few teams could survive the loss of the NHL’s leading scorer–but few teams have the promise of Mario Lemieux for a full season the way the Pittsburgh Penguins do. Lemieux’s brilliant play following his return makes the trade of Jaromir Jagr easier to swallow. The deal will also let the Penguins keep the rest of one of the NHL’s top offenses intact.

Offense has been a rare commodity on Long Island, where the New York Islanders have missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons. But with the additions of Alexei Yashin and Michael Peca, the Isles could actually score enough to make Nassau Coliseum an unpleasant place to visit.

The New York Rangers are hoping Eric Lindros can do what Mark Messier couldn’t: Get hockey’s highest-spending team back into the playoffs for the first time since 1996-97. Lindros brings his considerable size and skills (as well as his six concussions and off-ice baggage) to the Big Apple, where he could turn out to be the bargain–or the bust–of the century.

1. Philadelphia Flyers

2000-2001 Record: W L T OTL GF GA Pts.

43 25 11 3 240 207 100

THE FLYERS ARE GOING FOR IT now. After last spring’s first-round flameout, GM Bob Clarke got the green light to open the vault, and he did just that, inking Jeremy Roenick to a five-year, $37.5 million deal and adding Czech center Jiri Dopita and defender Eric Weinrich. They also re-upped John LeClair, a prototype power forward, for another five years and $45 million, even though LeClair missed much of last season with injuries. One player who won’t be back is Eric Lindros.

On the attack: Keith Primeau (34 goals), Roenick, and Dopita (perhaps the best non-NHL forward in the world last year) give the Flyers a tremendous 1-2-3 punch down the middle; emerging star Simon Gagne could move to the wing. Roenick also provides some fire in the locker room. A lot depends on LeClair (12 points in just 16 games), who creates all kinds of problems for opponents with his strength and scoring touch near the net. Mark Recchi (77 points, eight game-winning goals) helps orchestrate the power play and has evolved into one of the game’s best passing wings.

Under fire: Eric Desjardins (48 points) was a step removed from his form of the previous couple of years. Dan McGillis (49 points) is an emerging force, though he’s not much of a puck-handler. Weinrich is a serviceable player, but there’s still not a major talent on the back line.

Between the pipes: Roman Cechmanek, drafted as an afterthought in 2000, started last season as a question mark and ended it as an exclamation point. Cechmanek (2.01 GAA, 10 shutouts) took the No. 1 job from Brian Boucher, 1999’s playoff sensation, and never gave it back. The only question: Will Cechmanek’s playoff failure have any impact this fall? If Cechmanek can carry the load,

Boucher could be dealt.

Behind the bench: Bill Barber started the season in the AHL and ended it as the NHL’s coach of the year. Barber, an ex-Flyer great, pushed all the right buttons and never let the Lindros controversy upset his players. Under Barber, the Flyers were much more physical–and a lot more successful.

Bottom line: The core of this team, including the new additions, is over 30. If the Flyers are ever going to win, this is the time. If the new acquisitions play to form, the Flyers could unseat the Devils as the best team in the East.

2. New Jersey Devils

2000-2001 Record: W L T OTL GF GA Pts.

48 19 12 3 295 195 111

THE DEVILS WERE A VICTORY AWAY from back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, but they couldn’t close the deal against the Colorado Avalanche. Still, they return a dynamic nucleus that should keep them among the NHL’s elite. With Martin Brodeur in goal, Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer on defense, and a deep, talented group of forwards, the Devils are loaded. Lou Lamoriello, the NHL’s best GM, has no peer when it comes to using his farm system to develop talent and in signing players to contracts that don’t bust the payroll.

On the attack: No team in the NHL can ice a 12-man group of forwards as deep as the Devils. The “A” line of Jason Arnott, First-Team All-Star Patrik Elias (40 goals), and Petr Sykora (34 goals) is among the NHL’s best, but the other lines score enough that opponents can’t gang up on the No. 1 unit. The Devils are counting on rookies like Pierre Dagenais to make up the 43 goals lost when Alexander Mogilny signed with Toronto. Scott Gomez, the 2000 Calder winner, must produce more than last year’s 14 goals and 63 points.

Under fire: Stevens, the team captain and its heart and soul, is still among the most feared hitters in hockey. Niedermayer and Brian Rafalski are the puck-movers, while Ken Daneyko and second-year player Colin White are asked to focus on defense. The Devils hope rookie Mike Commodore can fill the gap created by the loss of free agents Ken Sutton and Sean O’Donnell.

Between the pipes: Brodeur (2.32 GAA) is among the elite netminders, though he showed a few chinks in his armor during the playoffs. He sees more good shots than he used to since the Devils have become more offense-oriented. Rookies Jean-Francois Damphousse and Ari Ahonen will battle it out to be the backup.

Behind the bench: Larry Robinson has piloted the Devils to the Cup Finals twice in two years and has Lamoriello’s complete confidence. However, he was critical of his team’s lack of discipline during the playoffs. It will be interesting to see how his team reacts when it hits a slump.

Bottom line: Lamoriello builds from within and won’t chase free agents, so the Devils will rely on their farm system to fill any holes. The Devils are still the deepest team in the East, and knocking them off their perch won’t be easy.

3. Pittsburgh Penguins

2000-2001 Record: W L T OTL GF GA Pts.

42 28 9 3 281 256 96

PITTSBURGH IS THE LAST VESTIGE of ’80s hockey. In today’s Dead Puck Era, the Penguins play offense first Even the trade of Jaromir Jagr shouldn’t put too much of a crimp in the Pens’ attack, at least not as long as Lemieux, hockey’s only player-owner, stays healthy. Lemieux revitalized the team on the ice and at the box office, where it sold out every game after he returned. Lemieux and GM Craig Patrick hope the resources freed up by dealing Jagr will allow them to keep the rest of the team together.

On the attack: Lemieux (35 goals, 43 assists in 43 games) made the most remarkable comeback in sports history, yet he was just fifth on the Pens in scoring. For most of the season, the Penguins’ best line was Robert Lang (80 points) between Alexei Kovalev (95) and Martin Straka (95). Replacing Jagr’s production (52 goals, 121 points) won’t be easy. The Pens are hoping 1998 first-rounder Milan Kraft and center Kris Beech, the best of the three prospects they got for Jagr, are ready for the NHL.

Under fire: The loss of Bob Boughner takes away some of the physical element from a defense that was none too intimidating to begin with. The Penguins lack both muscle and puck-moving skills on the blue line; they often go with four or five forwards on the power play.

Between the pipes: Johan “Moose” Hedberg, a 28-year-old rookie acquired in a deadline-day deal, became a playoff hero–now he has to show he can do the job in the regular season. Jean-Sebastien Aubin will be his backup, but he could regain the No. 1 job if Hedberg falters.

Behind the bench: For someone who got his team to the Eastern Conference semis, Ivan Hlinka got no respect. Admittedly, it’s tough when you’re a rookie coach and your boss is your best player, but give Hlinka credit for deftly handling a potentially awkward situation.

Bottom line: The Penguins felt they had to deal Jagr to keep the rest of the team’s potent offense together. Patrick and Lemieux say they got the best deal they could by picking up three of the top 34 picks in the 1999 draft. To match last year’s success, at least one of the newcomers has to come through and Hedberg must repeat his playoff success.

4. New York Islanders

2000-2001 Record: W L T OTL GF GA Pts.

21 51 7 3 185 268 52

THE ISLANDERS HAVE BEEN THE butt of NHL jokes for years, but after picking up Alexei Yashin and Michael Peca in draft-day deals, the laughter may be over. GM Mike Milbury, finally given some resources by a new ownership group, junked his “build with kids” approach, dealing the No. 2 overall pick and two players to Ottawa for Yashin, then sending 1999 first-rounders Tim Connolly and Taylor Pyatt to Buffalo for Peca. Yashin and Peca now give the Isles a solid 1-2 punch in the middle and should revive one of the NHL’s most impotent offenses.

On the attack: Yashin (88 points) is the best center the Isles have had since Pierre Turgeon in the early ’90s; he should make life easier for players like Mariusz Czerkawski (35 and 30 goals the last two seasons) and Brad Isbister (18 goals in 51 games). Peca, who figures to wear the captain’s “C,” is an elite checking center and a leader who can also score 20 to 25 goals. The Isles need a lot more of an effort from players like Mark Parish (17 goals in 70 games) and Oleg Kvasha (11 in 62). Center Dave Scatchard (21 goals) was one of the few Islanders to improve last season.

Under fire: Adding Adrian Aucoin (from Tampa) to Roman Hamrlik gives the Isles two gunners from the point, which should boost a moribund power play. Kenny Jonsson ended the season on an upswing and rookie Branislav Mezei looks like a keeper. The Isles will have to replace the physical element of league hits leader Zdeno Chara, who was dealt to Ottawa in the Yashin trade.

Between the pipes: Rick DiPietro, the No. 1 overall pick in 2000, has all the skills to be an elite goaltender. But he’s raw and should spend at least a season in the minors. Free-agent signee Garth Snow is capable of being a No. 1 netminder while DiPietro learns. The Isles also drafted 29-year-old Czech Dusan Salficky, hoping he might be this year’s Roman Cechmanek.

Behind the bench: Newcomer Peter Laviolette did a terrific job leading Providence to the AHL title in 1999 before serving as an assistant with the Boston Bruins last year. Laviolette, 36, brings a whole new look to the Isles, who quit on Butch Goring last season.

Bottom line: This is it for Milbury–either the team gets better or he’s not likely to be back next fall. There’s enough talent here for the Isles to be one of the NHL’s most improved teams. Laviolette’s assignment is to get everyone to mesh rapidly.

5. New York Rangers

2000-2001 Record: W L T OTL GF GA Pts.

33 43 5 1 250 290 72

YEAR ONE OF GM GLEN SATHER’S regime was no better than the three years that preceded it. Year two may not be much better. The Rangers missed out on big-name free agents and came in second in the race for Jaromir Jagr, before landing Eric Lindros for three young players. If Lindros stays healthy–a big if–he will be the best power center New York has seen in years, and will provide some much-needed offensive muscle. But the Rangers are still porous on defense, and even with Lindros, they figure to offer little in the way of physical opposition in their own zone. Sather may love speed, but he needs more get.

On the attack: The Rangers’ problems really aren’t on offense, especially if Theo Fleury (74 points in 62 games before entering substance-abuse rehab) and Lindros are in top shape. Radek Dvorak (31 goals) blossomed playing alongside Petr Nedved (78 points). Messier had 12 of his 24 goals on the power play but started looking his age later in the season. The arrival of Lindros could mean Nedved becomes a wing or highly touted first-rounder Jamie Lundmark starts his career in the minors. Hopes are that ex-NHLer Zdeno Ciger can contribute.

Under fire: Brian Leetch (79 points) led defensemen in scoring and seemed revitalized by the return of Messier. But unless some of the younger defenders–such as Peter Smrek, Mike Mottau, and Tomas Kloucek–can step up, Leetch will be pretty much on his own again. Sather added muscle with Igor Ulanov and David Karpa, and hopes Vladimir Malakhov (knee surgery) can come back and carry some of the load.

Between the pipes: First-rounder Dan Blackburn is the future in goal. The question is, who’ll man the nets now? Mike Richter recovered from knee surgery, then blew out his other knee. He says he’ll be ready, but relying on him is asking a lot.

Behind the bench: Ron Low’s chief attribute seems to be his friendship with Sather. Low often appeared to have no answer for his team’s inconsistent play. To his credit, the team didn’t quit on him like it did on John Muckler the year before.

Bottom line: With four straight non-playoff seasons, the Rangers are at their lowest ebb since the pre-Emile Francis days of the mid-’60s. Even with Lindros on board, Messier may spend what could be his final season as the captain of the first Rangers team since the early ’50s to miss the playoffs for five straight seasons.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group