September is the happiest of times for NHL teams. A new hockey season! A fresh start! A time to sweep aside the botched game plans, locker room feuds, superstar sulks, bumbling power plays and muddled defensive breakdowns of last winter and forge ahead! Maybe that big winger has one more good year in him, maybe that gawky teenager is a franchise defenseman, maybe the goalie found better reflexes over the summer...
Of course, painful reality sets in come October, when the game start to count. But some NHL teams have genuine reasons to be optimistic going into the 2002-2003 season.
Can a team gain ground in the West without tossing money around like a drunken sailor on shore leave? The Vancouver Canucks believe so. Andrew Cassels and Scott Lachance departed as free agents over the summer, but the Canucks are deep at centre and have a strong top-four on defense. In fact, the core of this team - Naslund, Bertuzzi, Jovanovski, Ohlund - might soon be as good as any in the NHL, and Marc Crawford is one of hockey's better coaches. The Western Conference is more competitive than ever, but it will be a major disappointment if Vancouver can't improve on last year's eighth-place finish.
The question is: Which Dan Cloutier will show up? After a good regular season and not-so-good playoff, the Canucks' goalie isn't exactly a poster boy for reliability.
San Jose Sharks
Another Western team for which money is more than just funny paper. If the Sharks had signed Bill Guerin or Curtis Joseph this summer they might enter the season as Stanley Cup favorites. But the San Jose Sharks' budget does not allow such free spending. It is, however, healthy enough to keep an excellent young team together. The Sharks have an enviable mix of youth and experience, plenty of scoring up front and the best young defense in the league. If they stick with the game plan and Teemu Selanne and Owen Nolan score a little more, this team will be even better than the one that came within a game of the Western Conference final last season. How promising are the Sharks? Selanne took a pay cut to stick around.
The question is: Has Darryl Sutter worn out his welcome? History shows that after a few years, NHL teams tend to tune out the disciplined coaching style of the Sutter brothers.
If the Capitals aren't near the top of the Eastern Conference six months from now, they should dismantle the team, fire the front office, change the uniforms and refund everyone's money. Injuries, adjustments and bad breaks notwithstanding, there is no excuse for this team not making the playoffs last year. The Washington Capitals have a $10 million right winger, a $6 million goalie, possibly the most creative defenseman in the NHL and experience and quality at every position. And don't forget Peter Bondra, hockey's most consistent scorer. Washington should go into the playoffs with home ice advantage and win at least one round. Anything less is a cheat.
The question is: Will paying Robert Lang $5 million to be Jagr's centreman turn out to be a steal, or are the Capitals morphing into the new New York Rangers?
Next page > Part 2: Signs of life in Manhattan > Page 1, 2
[an error occurred while processing this directive]