If all goes as expected, the 2003 Stanley Cup finalists will be drawn from the teams listed on this page. But then, how often do things go as expected?
Complete NHL 2002-2003 Team-by-Team Forecast
|• Part 1: Cannon Fodder
Penguins, Flames, Sabres, Wild, Panthers...
• Part 2: On the Border
Ducks, Blackhawks, Habs...
• Part 3: Playoff Prospects
Devils, Islanders, Leafs, Kings...
• Part 4: The NHL Elite
Avalanche, Wings, Sharks, Caps...
| Join the Discussion
|"Zetterberg looks like the real deal and Datsyuk, Williams, Fischer, Devereaux & co will all be given more ice time. The Wings are younger than a lot of people think"
The NHL Elite
The goal is a glorious run to the Stanley Cup final and a big victory parade in June, although some of these teams would likely count the season a success if they could get as far as the Conference finals. But no matter how much they spend and how many free agents they sign, only four teams can make the final four.
From outsider to contender in a single year? If the defense settles down, the Stars should expect no less. Last season was an aberration; Even if they started with the same lineup they would be back in playoff contention this year. Adding Bill Guerin launches them into the thick of the race. Several key players, including recent arrivals Scott Young and Jason Arnott, are coming off subpar seasons. If at least some of them can bounce back, the Stars could return to the top four in the West.
Can they win it all? The new coach, Dave Tippet, ran the NHL's best power play in Los Angeles. If he has a similar touch with the rest of the game, watch out.
Could they sink? They gave up too many goals last season. If that trend continues, all the flash and dash up front won't get them very far. From the front office to the goal crease, the jury is still out on this team.
Worth watching: Even as the Stars crumbled last year, Mike Modano never faltered. He is all you could ask for in a centre.
Ottawa has everything: goaltending, defense, speed, talent... Well, not quite everything. They aren't good enough at centre or on special teams, a formula that can kill you at playoff time. The Senators will score more goals than most NHL teams, and another step forward from a few players - Hossa, Havlat, Redden, Chara - could send them to the Stanley Cup final. Adding a veteran or two would help, but the tight budget won't allow it. And there is still that nagging problem at centre.
Can they win it all? On any given night they are as good as anyone in the East. But any given night never seems to happen in April.
Could they sink? Could they ever! They've been sinking in the early playoff rounds for several years now.
Worth watching: On a team filled with speedsters and finesse players, Zdeno Chara literally stands out. The NHL's tallest player (six-foot-nine) may not be an all star, but he's a bulldozer.
Ken Hitchcock, the new coach, is known as a teacher and disciplinarian. He'll never find a more challenging classroom. The high-priced Flyers are a playoff disaster, and responded to last spring's flameout by publicly sniping at the coach and each other. There is loads of talent, so the question is whether they are willing and able to adjust to Hitchcock's demanding ways. Another question is whether the defense is up to the task, though the Flyers are consistently among the league's best defensive teams, at least in the regular season.
Can they win it all? As usual, they appear to have all the ingredients. A reasonably successful year of adjustments under Hitchcock is more likely.
Could they sink? Like Ottawa, the Flyers could write a book on life as a playoff diving bell.
Worth watching: Smooth as silk and hard-working, Simon Gagne topped 30 goals last year for the first time. There's much more where that came from.
St. Louis Blues
It seemed like a good plan: Add a pair of star centres to a very solid team and watch the magic unfold. But Doug Weight got hurt, Pierre Turgeon turned into a wallflower and what little magic the Blues found fizzled in spring. Now Chris Pronger is laid up with a knee injury until after Christmas. Despite their bloated payroll, the Blues have never shown a lot of depth. If a few players - say, Mike Van Ryn and Petr Cajanek - finally step up, they can be formidable. But if the stars continue to carry the entire load, it will be another unremarkable season.
Can they win it all? They have the skill and the star power, but the supporting cast has never been a match for the Red Wings or Avalanche.
Could they sink? Losing Pronger, one of hockey's dominant players, would make any defense vulnerable. How much ice time can 39-year-old Al MacInnis handle?
Worth watching: After 11 NHL seasons, Keith Tkachuk finally looks like a complete package of skill, brute strength and reliability. Let's see if he can keep it up.
San Jose Sharks
The Sharks are young, talented and deep at every position, perhaps the team best-suited to knock off Detroit. But there are ominous signs. Two important players, goalie Evgeni Nabakov and defenseman Brad Stuart, are contract holdouts. Captain Owen Nolan has a sore back. Assuming these troubles are fleeting, San Jose should challenge for first place. But the playoffs are the only measuring stick. If they falter against Detroit or Colorado again, expect changes. One concern might be the Sharks' tight budget. Can they afford to make the trade that might push them over the top?
Can they win it all? They can, and now is the time.
Could they sink? Any team with goaltending issues can sink. Will Nabakov sign? Will he be ready to play? Can Miikka Kiprusoff take over? Do they have Byron Dafoe's phone number?
Worth watching: The makers of "Slapshot II" missed the boat when they failed to cast Mike Ricci. He looks like a Hanson brother, moves like a waterbug and creates havoc wherever he goes.
Capitals' owner Ted Leonsis is the NHL's latest looney spendthrift. His new catch, Robert Lang, is hardly a $5-million centreman. But if Lang helps Washington crawl out of last year's hole, Ted will presumably be satisfied. The Caps were a bust of hilarious proportions last year, spending $56-million and missing the playoffs. What they need more than another over-priced forward is good health. If they can keep the lineup together they might get on a roll, and Jagr, Bondra and Gonchar on a roll could be quite a sight. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Can they win it all? Only if the new coach, Bruce Cassidy, pulls off a neat trick: unleashing the offense while improving the defense.
Could they sink? Olaf Kolzig's goaltending wasn't great last year, and his team mates didn't help much. If they don't slash the goals-against they'll miss the playoffs again.
Worth watching: Combining lots of muscle with a huge bag of tricks, Jaromir Jagr can routinely bring a building to its feet, though he occasionally doesn't seem to be in the mood.
The Stanley Cup Contenders
Until the Sharks get their lineup settled, there are only two teams ready to win the Stanley Cup right now.
The Avalanche set an alarming franchise record last year: fewest goals scored. From October through April they compensated by playing the best defense in the NHL. But the cracks emerged at playoff time, when the blueline wore down and Patrick Roy, after a career-best regular season, was mediocre. Roy should be fine and a healthy Peter Forsberg turns the team back into an offensive powerhouse. Derek Morris was acquired to help share the burden on defense. He struggled at times in Calgary, but playing for a talent-loaded team could make all the difference.
Can they win it all? Most definitely.
Could they sink? Several forwards - Sakic, Tanguay and Hejduk - have to rebound from mediocre seasons. Plus someone has to replace Chris Drury (traded for Morris). It's possible that none of this will happen.
Worth watching: If Peter Forsberg's head and body are back in game shape, he could win a scoring title and inflict a lot of pain on opponents in the process.
Detroit Red Wings
This is a different team: new coach, new goalie, absentee captain. The Wings are working young players like Datsyuk and Fischer into the core lineup, which could mean growing pains. Yzerman is out until December with a bad knee. With all the changes it might be some time in the new year before they round into form. Running away with first place overall, like they did last year, might be a bit much to ask. But Detroit will be among the leaders, and when the playoff roll call is taken in April, this team will be first in line. Oh yes, and Henrik Zetterberg is an early favorite for rookie of the year.
Can they win it all? Not much doubt about that.
Could they sink? Only if the best players are hit with a string of serious injuries.
Worth watching: Speed, vision, passing, shooting, defense, offense and defense again: Just a typical shift for Sergei Federov. With Yzerman on the shelf, Federov will more than pick up the slack.
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