Thursday, August 18, 2005

 

A Berger Fix

AN EARLY PEEK AT RESULTS OF THE FRENZIED SUMMER OF 2005



BY HOWARD BERGER

The Fan-590 Radio, Toronto

As August slowly winds towards September, and the start of NHL training camps for the first time in two years, the frivolous custom of predicting how teams might fare is gripping hockey fans from coast to coast.

And, why not? Forecasting is a harmless, amusing exercise that heralds the onset of every professional sports campaign – spawning much debate and contention. It is almost always colored by bias and partiality, and it frequently bears little resemblance to the end result. But, it’s a load of fun, nonetheless. In the summer of 2005, forecasting should be a delightful pursuit for fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, Chicago Blackhawks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks, Anaheim Mighty Ducks and Phoenix Coyotes – teams that were functional and creative in the free agent lottery. It is less so for followers of the Colorado Avalanche, Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres and St. Louis Blues, all of whom appear to have lost depth at key positions.

The team I follow, the Maple Leafs, is in a crisis at the moment for quality wingers. Coach Pat Quinn has indicated he will start the regular season by using his top three forwards – Mats Sundin, Eric Lindros and Jason Allison – at their natural centre-ice position, leaving the club perilously thin along the flanks. Having lost Gary Roberts, Owen Nolan, Alexander Mogilny and Joe Nieuwendyk (a center who often played the wing) from the 2003-04 squad, the Leafs are currently banking on a group of wingers that sorely lacks scoring punch.

While anything can happen moving forward, there is no escaping the fact that the nine wingers the Leafs list on their depth chart (Darcy Tucker, Jeff O’Neill, Alex Ponikarovsky, Tie Domi, Chad Kilger, Nik Antropov, Clarke Wilm, Wade Belak and Nathan Perrott) combined to score 69 goals in ’03-04. That’s an average of less than eight per man. Mogilny had eight, by himself, in only 37 games. And the total of 69 among the current group was attained by the threesome of Roberts (28), Nieuwendyk (22) and Nolan (19).

Quinn will likely discover in short order that he must shift one of his centers to the wing, but that will obviously detract from his depth up the middle. So, unless general manager John Ferguson pulls off a trade to acquire a scoring winger, or to create extra cap space, the Leafs and their fans are left with nothing but hope.

Hope that Tucker, if utilized in a scoring role, can regain the offensive creativity he had as a Junior in Kamloops. Hope that O’Neill can stay healthy and threaten the 40-goal mark. Hope that Domi can have a career year like he did with 15 goals in ’02-03. Hope than Ponikarovsky and Antropov can finally graduate beyond mediocrity. And hope that Kilger, Wilm, Belak and Perrott can score at levels that prove they do not belong in the American Hockey League, where they’d reside on any contending team with forward depth.

Those who suggest the Leafs will derive immediate benefit from rookies Alexander Steen and Kyle Wellwood are the most hopeful of all, given the club’s appalling history of player development. It can easily be argued that the Leafs have not cultivated a star performer since they chose Wendel Clark first overall in the 1985 NHL draft -- two years before Sidney Crosby was born. Defenseman Tomas Kaberle has been a surprise player considering his draft position – 204th overall in 1996. But, it’s more than a stretch to call Kaberle a star.

Legitimate hope for the Leafs evolves around second-year center Matt Stajan, who performed very well in his rookie campaign, but who Quinn did not have enough confidence in to dress during the ’04 playoffs.

On the flip side, hockey fans in western Canada could be in for the grandest season ever. It is my opinion that any of the Flames, Oilers or Canucks could easily represent the Western Conference in the 2006 Stanley Cup Final. All three teams have done a terrific job since the player market re-opened on Aug. 1.

The Flames, defending Western champions, re-signed Jarome Iginla, and added character and scoring punch by inking Darren McCarty and Tony Amonte. In McCarty, they also added the intangibles of a multiple Stanley Cup winner. If goalie Miikka Kiprusoff can play at anywhere close to his ’03-04 level, Calgary will be tough to beat once again. The Oilers – already a fast, entertaining club – made superb additions in Chris Pronger and Michael Peca. A defenseman of Pronger’s caliber rarely comes available. The entire Edmonton team will be able to rally around his size, experience and savvy. Peca has simply been one of the most reliable players in the league over the past decade. The Canucks are the most talented of the three western teams, and they enhanced their scoring ability by signing free agent Anson Carter. Re-upping with Markus Naslund was obviously the key off-season move, and Vancouver will clearly benefit from the return of Todd Bertuzzi. As always, however, the Canucks’ capacity to go deep in the playoffs will largely depend on re-signed goaltender Dan Cloutier, who has yet to overachieve in the springtime.

Exceptional work by GMs Darryl Sutter, Kevin Lowe and David Nonis will make the scramble for positioning in the Northwest Division a continuous highlight in 2005-06, augmented by the western-Canadian teams facing each other eight times. Should be a blast to watch.

Elsewhere in Canada, the Ottawa Senators made their big splash prior to the lockout when they acquired goalie Dominik Hasek. Clutch netminding has clearly been the missing ingredient for the multi-talented Ottawa teams in recent years. When Patrick Lalime – now in St. Louis – played his best hockey for the Sens, they came within five minutes of making it to the 2003 Stanley Cup Final. Lalime, however, fell apart in the seventh and deciding match of a playoff round against Toronto in ’04, and Ottawa dropped a series it dominated for all but four periods. If Hasek hasn’t lost anything significant during the NHL’s absence, the Senators will continue to be a handful for any opponent.

In Montreal, fans were buoyed by the Canadiens’ stirring comeback from a 3-1 series deficit against Boston in the ’04 playoffs. But, it’s my belief that Montreal and Toronto are a large step behind the other Canadian teams.

On paper, the State of Pennsylvania is riding high into the new season. Bob Clarke can be a curmudgeon at times, but give the Flyers’ GM loads of credit for positioning his cap-heavy team well enough to add mega players Peter Forsberg and Derian Hatcher, along with the underrated and steady Mike Rathje. Like Vancouver, the Flyers’ fate rests with goaltender Robert Esche graduating to a higher level in the playoffs, but keep an eye on rookie Finnish goalie Antero Niittymaki, who led the Flyers’ AHL farm team – the Philly Phantoms – to the ’05 Calder Cup title.

In western Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Penguins have undergone an eye-popping makeover with the addition of rookie phenom Crosby, along with accomplished veterans Sergei Gonchar, Ziggy Palffy, John Leclair and Jocelyn Thibault. The Penguins – minus these players – were one of the NHL’s lowest-ranked teams in 2003-04, but many people forget the improvement they showed in the final stages of the season, winning 12 and losing only five of their last 19 games. Defenseman Ric Jackman was absolutely lost while playing in Toronto (he had a poor relationship with Leafs’ assistant/defense coach Rick Ley), but his offensive talents flourished in Pittsburgh after being traded for veteran Drake Berehowsky – long gone, now, from the Blue and White. In 25 games with the Penguins, Jackman struck for 24 points, including six powerplay goals. If Mario Lemieux’s body can somehow hold together for much of the coming season, there’s no telling how improved the Penguins might be.

The best off-season signing of all was made by Brian Burke – Anaheim’s new GM – who lured defenseman Scott Niederemayer away from the New Jersey Devils. As with Pronger in Edmonton, the Mighty Ducks will be able to build much of their team around Niedermayer -- the defending Norris Trophy winner, and a multiple champion at all levels of the game (not to mention his character as a person). When coupled with the Los Angeles Kings’ acquisition of outspoken and talented Jeremy Roenick, southern California should be a hockey hot-spot this winter.

Even the moribund Chicago Blackhawks – who haven’t won a Stanley Cup since the days of black-and-white television – came alive in the marketplace, pilfering Cup-winning goalie Nikoali Khabibulin from Tampa Bay, while adding veterans Adrian Aucoin and Martin Lapointe to a up-and-coming group that features Tyler Arnason and Kyle Calder. There could be reason for a few more backsides in the seats at the United Center this season.

Phoenix has some big-time improving to do, but it should be a fun place to watch hockey this winter with Wayne Gretzky behind the bench, and newly signed Curtis Joseph in goal.

Red flags have risen in Buffalo, St. Louis and Denver. The Sabres – already talent-thin throughout – suffered huge free agent losses in Alexi Zhitnik and Miro Satan, both of whom defected to the Islanders (a potential darkhorse in the East). Buffalo did recoup, somewhat, by adding classy defenseman Teppo Numminen from Dallas. The Blues cannot possibly replace, in one season, what Pronger meant to them. It was only a few years ago that Pronger and Al MacInnis gave St. Louis one of the most multi-faceted defense pairings in the NHL.

And, considering Colorado’s lofty status in the past decade (two Stanley Cups), how quickly can the Avalanche rebound from losing stalwarts Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote?

So, given the fact that predictions are both perilous and harmless, my late-summer pick for the ’06 Stanley Cup Final is… Philadelphia vs. Vancouver.



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