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1995 NHL SEASON PREVIEW : Blame It on the Rangers : Among the Givens Has Been That They Won’t Win the Stanley Cup, but Then It Happened, so It’s No Wonder That Nothing Has Gone Right Since

TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than a few hockey observers have suggested that the NHL lockout, which delayed the start of the season from Oct. 1 until Friday, is the New York Rangers’ fault.

According to their theory, by winning the Stanley Cup last spring for the first time since 1940, the Rangers threw the hockey universe completely out of whack. Ranger fans believe it. They finally saw their team beat the Vancouver Canucks in a dramatic, seven-game series, then almost didn’t get to see the championship banner hoisted to the Madison Square Garden rafters.

After 54 years--and a 103-day stoppage--Ranger fans get their reward Friday.

The lockout might turn out to be a blessing for the Rangers. The condensed, intra-conference schedule gives them an easy travel schedule, and a half-dozen key players had time to recover from injuries while Commissioner Gary Bettman and union boss Bob Goodenow haggled over salary arbitration and free agency.

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But can they win again without Coach Mike Keenan goading them from behind the bench? The confetti from their victory parade was still being swept up when Keenan bolted for St. Louis. It won’t take long to measure how much of their success was due to Keenan and how much was due to the blend of European finesse and North American grit assembled by General Manager Neil Smith.

The free-spending Blues will pay Keenan $7.5 million for five years to bring that old silver cup to the new Kiel Center. The building--and the town--won’t be big enough for him and Brett Hull. Expect fireworks there.

Look for more offensive sparks everywhere. Although Pittsburgh Penguin center Mario Lemieux is out, recovering from the effects of his Hodgkin’s disease treatments, scorers will reclaim center stage. The arrival of Peter Forsberg in Quebec, the return of Buffalo’s Pat LaFontaine and Winnipeg’s Teemu Selanne from injuries and the debut of Mighty Duck rookie Paul Kariya will reverse last season’s dull, defense-first trend.

Here’s a league preview, in predicted order of finish in each division.

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WESTERN CONFERENCE: PACIFIC DIVISION

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

* Coach: Rick Ley, first season.

* 1993-94: 41-40-3, 85 points.

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* Outlook: Their run to the finals will carry over to this season. They have an outstanding goaltender in Kirk McLean, a rugged but mobile defense and balance up front with Geoff Courtnall, Cliff Ronning and Trevor Linden. The key is whether 60-goal scorer Pavel Bure, who demanded to be paid for games missed because of the lockout, will sulk. If he’s unhappy, the Canucks will struggle. Ley, an assistant to General Manager-Coach Pat Quinn last season, has coached in Hartford and should step in easily.

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*CALGARY FLAMES

* Coach: Dave King, third season.

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* 1993-94: 42-29-13, 97 points.

* Outlook: They gambled in trading goalie Mike Vernon and their two best power-play point men, Al MacInnis and Gary Suter. Adding steady Steve Chiasson in the Vernon deal gave them six defensemen who have at least six years’ experience and handle the puck well, but their goaltending isn’t sorted out among Trevor Kidd, Jason Muzzatti and Andrei Trefilov. Joe Nieuwendyk’s back problems might hurt them offensively, but they’re deep enough to compensate.

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KINGS

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* Coach: Barry Melrose, third season.

* 1993-94: 27-45-12, 66 points.

* Outlook: Missing the playoffs--and finishing behind the expansion Ducks--should have taught them humility. To avoid a repeat of last season’s debacle, Melrose must be quicker to react if they stumble. The X factor: The last time Wayne Gretzky played a short season, they went to the Cup finals. (A back injury limited him to 45 games in 1992-93). Rob Blake is ready to take the lead on defense. Don’t believe claims goalie Kelly Hrudey has slipped. If they can limit opponents’ shots--as opposed to last season’s league-worst 36.3 per game (3,046 in 84 games)--he will be fine. If Dan Quinn contributes and their tough guys keep stupid penalties to a minimum, they can make an impact.

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MIGHTY DUCKS

* Coach: Ron Wilson, second season.

* 1993-94: 33-46-5, 71 points.

* Outlook: They won with defense last year, sometimes boring opponents into submission, but they plan to open up offensively this season. That’s likely to bring mixed results as they adjust. Kariya is a sure rookie-of-the-year contender, and he and 1994 top pick Oleg Tverdovsky raise the talent level considerably. But the defense is mediocre and the forwards not prolific.

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SAN JOSE SHARKS

* Coach: Kevin Constantine, second season.

* 1993-94: 33-35-16, 82 points.

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* Outlook: They were last spring’s playoff darlings when they upset Detroit and took Toronto to seven games, but they might regress while they break in a batch of rookies. Sandis Ozolinsh, who scored 26 goals last season, has the skills to be a top-notch defenseman, but he must shoot more on the power play. Left wing Viktor Kozlov might have helped, but he broke his ankle and damaged ligaments while playing in Russia during the lockout. Acrobatic goalie Arturs Irbe, who played a record 4,412 minutes last season, will be busy again.

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EDMONTON OILERS

* Coach: George Burnett, first season.

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* 1993-94: 25-45-14, 64 points.

* Outlook: Give them one more year. General Manager Glen Sather has collected some young talent, but he needs more scoring punch to supplement Jason Arnott, who was impressive as a rookie, and Doug Weight. Weight scored 24 goals and had 74 points, Arnott 33 goals and 68 points. Left wing Ryan Smyth, the sixth pick in June, had a better camp than the more heralded Jason Bonsignore, who was chosen fourth. Goalie Bill Ranford will keep them in a lot of low-scoring games.

CENTRAL DIVISION

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

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* Coach: Pat Burns, third season.

* 1993-94: 43-29-12, 98 points.

* Outlook: General Manager Cliff Fletcher, one of the NHL’s shrewdest traders, made some gutsy deals that gave him the best group of centers in the NHL. Behind Doug Gilmour, who had 27 goals and 111 points, Fletcher added Mats Sundin, who had 32 goals and 85 points for Quebec, and Mike Ridley, a strong two-way player who has long been overlooked in Washington. Left wing Dave Andreychuk (53 goals) remains a threat on the power play. On defense, they traded Sylvain Lefebvre and lost Bob Rouse, but added Garth Butcher. If Swedish rookie Kenny Jonsson comes through on defense, they will go far.

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ST. LOUIS BLUES

* Coach: Mike Keenan, first season.

* 1993-94: 40-33-11, 91 points.

* Outlook: Their efforts to buy the Stanley Cup by throwing money at superstars have failed, so they bought the services of a Cup-winning coach. Keenan gets an unpredictable team, loaded up front with Hull (57 goals), Brendan Shanahan (52 goals, 102 points) and playmaker Craig Janney. However, Shanahan is questionable in the early going because of a viral infection. They’re no more than ordinary on defense past MacInnis and the streaky Steve Duchesne. There’s little reason to think this group will meet Keenan’s high work ethic, so he’s likely to use his power as general manager to make some splashy moves.

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DETROIT RED WINGS

* Coach: Scotty Bowman, second season.

* 1993-94: 46-30-8, 100 points.

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* Outlook: Before the lockout, Bowman said this would be his coaching finale, and he’d love to retire with his seventh Cup. He has a so-so chance. General Manager Bryan Murray’s refusal to deal for a premier goalie cost the Wings last spring and cost Murray his job after their playoff loss to the Sharks. Bowman, who became director of hockey operations, remedied the problem by grabbing Vernon from Calgary. Sergei Fedorov, who had 56 goals, 120 points and won the MVP trophy, leads a husky and talented corps of forwards, and the lockout gave Steve Yzerman time to recover from neck surgery. They scored a league-high 356 goals last season but will struggle to keep the puck out of their own net.

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DALLAS STARS

* Coach: Bob Gainey, fifth season.

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* 1993-94: 42-29-13, 97 points.

* Outlook: Center Mike Modano, who had a career-high 50 goals and 93 points, carried the scoring load on Gainey’s defense-minded team. Modano appears capable of even more, and he will have to step up another level for the Stars to contend. They don’t have many threats, although Russ Courtnall (23 goals, 80 points) and Dave Gagner (32 goals) are solid. They lost a leader when they traded Mark Tinordi for Kevin Hatcher, but reuniting Hatcher with his brother, Derian, might rekindle the passion Hatcher had lost in Washington.

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WINNIPEG JETS

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* Coach: John Paddock, fourth season.

* 1993-94: 24-51-9, 57 points.

* Outlook: Injuries to Selanne, Alexei Zhamnov and Teppo Numminen devastated them last season, but all have recovered. Former U.S. Olympian Keith Tkachuk was their top scorer with 41 goals and 81 points, and he is becoming a prototypical power forward. Defense looms as a problem again, but they have more brawn and ample skill to improve on last year’s miserable showing.

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CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

* Coach: Darryl Sutter, third season.

* 1993-94: 39-36-9, 87 points.

* Outlook: So they have Jeremy Roenick, who scored 46 goals and had 107 points. Chris Chelios and Suter will fuel the power play. Ed Belfour will be his usual workhorse self. But little else is likely to give fans in the new United Center much to cheer about. Can they count on Bob Probert, who signed a four-year, $6.6-million deal but continues to cope with drug and alcohol abuse problems? He was in a drug-abuse program and would have missed the opener had the season started Oct. 1. Aside from Tony Amonte, the Hawks have no speed up front and Bernie Nicholls, 33, is their second-line center.

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EASTERN CONFERENCE: ATLANTIC DIVISION

NEW YORK RANGERS

* Coach: Colin Campbell, first season.

* 1993-94: 52-24-8, 112 points.

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* Outlook: Team captain Mark Messier was a preseason holdout, but he is close to signing for about $6 million per year and is expected to be in the opening-night lineup. Goalie Mike Richter, who had a league-leading 42 victories last season, is also expected to get a new contract that will double his salary to about $2 million. Keeping everyone satisfied and motivated will pose more of challenge to Campbell than any on-ice foe. The Rangers are still deep, experienced and skilled in every area. They actually were helped by the lockout, because injuries would have made defensemen Kevin Lowe, Sergei Zubov and Joby Messier, right wing Joe Kocur and left wing Adam Graves unable to play in October.

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NEW JERSEY DEVILS

* Coach: Jacques Lemaire, second season.

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* 1993-94: 47-25-12, 106 points.

* Outlook: Lemaire and assistant Larry Robinson did a marvelous job guiding the Devils to the NHL’s second-best record and second-best defense. Rookie goalie Martin Brodeur, who had a 2.40 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage, must prove he’s no fluke. They have no big guns, but 14 players scored at least 10 goals last season, led by right wings John MacLean with 37 and Stephane Richer with 36. Gritty support players and a solid defense, led by veteran Scott Stevens and promising third-year player Scott Niedermayer, will make them a threat again.

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PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

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* Coach: Terry Murray, first season.

* 1993-94: 35-19-10, 80 points.

* Outlook: Bob Clarke, back home as general manager, let sentiment outweigh reason when he reacquired goalie Ron Hextall. A disastrous playoff performance with the Islanders ended an inconsistent season for Hextall, whose reflexes have slowed. Dominic Roussel will probably get the bulk of the work, and there will be work because the Flyers were 23rd defensively last season. If Eric Lindros avoids injuries, their offense will be fearsome. Behind Lindros, who had 44 goals and 97 points in 65 games, are Mark Recchi (40 goals and 107 points), second-year left wing Mikael Renberg (38 and 82) and playmaker Rod Brind’Amour (62 and 97). But they might have to trade scoring to shore up a thin defense.

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WASHINGTON CAPITALS

* Coach: Jim Schoenfeld, second season.

* 1993-94: 39-35-10, 88 points.

* Outlook: They have a scoring threat in center Joe Juneau, and second-line center Pat Peake is expected to produce. But offense will be their downfall, as usual. Their only move to help the offense was getting right wing Rob Pearson from Toronto for Ridley. Acquiring hard-hitting Mark Tinordi from Dallas for the unhappy Kevin Hatcher will help an already solid defense. Defensemen Calle Johansson and Jim Johnson, injured during the playoffs, have recovered. If they get the offense they anticipate from rookie center Jason Allison, they will be respectable.

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NEW YORK ISLANDERS

* Coach: Lorne Henning, first season.

* 1993-94: 36-36-12, 84 points.

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* Outlook: Al Arbour got them into the playoffs last season, but they were swept by the Rangers. They might not get that far this season. They’re going with a young goalie, in Jamie McLennan, and a young defense. They also hope heavy-hitting defenseman Darius Kasparaitis doesn’t backslide after admitting to alcohol problems and undergoing treatment. They have some skill in Pierre Turgeon (38 goals, 94 points) and Steve Thomas (42 goals), but Ray Ferraro scored only 21 goals and Brad Dalgarno had only 11. Turgeon has yet to become the leader they’re paying him $11 million over four years to be.

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FLORIDA PANTHERS

* Coach: Roger Neilson, second season.

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* 1993-94: 33-34-17, 83 points.

* Outlook: Neilson’s strict defensive system kept them in contention for a playoff berth, but a few more goals might have prevented the season-ending 2-5-4 skid that left them a point behind the Islanders. Right wing Bob Kudelski scored 40 goals--only 13 in the second half--and Scott Mellanby had 30, but there’s a steep drop-off after that. Goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, who had a 2.53 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage, was the key to their expansion-record 83 points. He will have to excel again, because they did little to strengthen their offense.

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TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

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* Coach: Terry Crisp, third season.

* 1993-94: 30-43-11, 71 points.

* Outlook: This over-the-hill gang will go nowhere. Only goalie Daren Puppa (2.71 average) will keep them from utter futility. Top 1992 pick Roman Hamrlik is coming back from knee surgery, which won’t help his already slow development. Their 224 goals were second-lowest in the league, and they’re counting on center Brian Bradley to rediscover his form of two years ago, when he scored 42. He had 24 last season. Denis Savard (18 goals) and Petr Klima (team-high 28 goals) aren’t known for their diligence.

NORTHEAST DIVISION

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BUFFALO SABRES

* Coach: John Muckler, fourth season.

* 1993-94: 43-32-9, 95 points.

* Outlook: LaFontaine is back from knee surgery and Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Dominik Hasek is happy with a new contract. Muckler’s emphasis on defense--and Hasek’s brilliance--enabled the Sabres to compile the NHL’s top defensive record last season. Will Muckler ask LaFontaine to play defense or will he revamp his strategy? And will right wing Alexander Mogilny, who slumped from 76 goals to 33 last season, again give in to his fear of flying? They might deal goalie Grant Fuhr for a defenseman who can generate some offense.

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QUEBEC NORDIQUES

* Coach: Marc Crawford, first season. * 1993-94: 34-42-8, 76 points.

* Outlook: They’ll be a one-team highlight film or an abject failure, no in-between. New General Manager Pierre Lacroix beefed up the defense by acquiring Sylvain Lefebvre from Toronto and Uwe Krupp from the Islanders and strengthened the team’s character in getting left wing Wendel Clark from Toronto. Everyone is drooling over Forsberg, whose shootout goal won the Olympic gold medal for Sweden last February. Center Joe Sakic (28 goals, 92 points) has averaged more than 100 points over the last five seasons and should exceed that because of the talent on both wings. 1994 U.S. Olympian Garth Snow might push Stephane Fiset for the starting goalie spot.

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PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

* Coach: Eddie Johnston, second season.

* 1993-94: 44-27-13, 101 points.

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* Outlook: They have won without Lemieux in the past by going to a tighter defense, but they might not be able to compensate this time. Age has slowed their defense and goalie Tom Barrasso (wrist surgery) will sit out most of the season. Offensively, they match up with anyone. On the right side there’s Lemieux’s heir apparent, Jaromir Jagr (32 goals, 99 points), Joe Mullen, who scored 38 goals at age 37, and Tomas Sandstrom (23 goals). At center, there’s the reliable Ron Francis (27 goals, 93 points) and the sensational Martin Straka, who had 30 goals last season. On the left there’s former King Luc Robitaille, (44 goals, 86 points) and Kevin Stevens (41 goals and 155 penalty minutes). It will be a delicate balancing act.

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MONTREAL CANADIENS

* Coach: Jacques Demers, third season.

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* 1993-94: 41-29-14, 96 points.

* Outlook: Offense was their weakness last season and will hold them back again. It’s time to wonder whether forwards John LeClair, Gilbert Dionne and Paul DiPietro will ever play up to their size and potential. Vincent Damphousse, with 40 goals and 91 points, was their top scorer, with Brian Bellows at 71 and Kirk Muller at 57. Their defensemen can move the puck, but only Mathieu Schneider stands out. Goalie Patrick Roy--2.50 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage--holds it all together, but he will have no margin for error.

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BOSTON BRUINS

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* Coach: Brian Sutter, third season.

* 1993-94: 42-29-13, 97 points.

* Outlook: The Bruins’ final season at the Garden isn’t likely to produce fond memories. Rookies Blane Lacher from Lake Superior State and Yevgeny Ryabchikov of Russia are competing for the starting goalie job with retread Vincent Riendeau, and that’s worrisome. The state of right wing Cam Neely’s fragile knees keeps General Manager Harry Sinden up nights. Neely scored 50 goals in 49 games last season but missed the playoffs. Five-time Norris Trophy winner Ray Bourque, 34, is still supreme at playing all three zones. But he will miss longtime defense partner Glen Wesley, who was traded to Hartford. Defenseman Al Iafrate left camp in September after claiming the Bruins pushed him to play on an injured knee, and his status is uncertain.

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HARTFORD WHALERS

* Coach: Paul Holmgren, third season.

* 1993-94: 27-48-9, 63 points.

* Outlook: Top draft pick Jeff O’Neill walked out during training camp, and he must have known something. The Whalers’ defense is a wasteland, beyond the promising Chris Pronger. Up front, left wing Geoff Sanderson (87 goals in the last two seasons) is the only consistent threat. Pat Verbeek (37 goals, 75 points) will plug away, but there’s little reason to believe the Whalers will improve over last year’s feeble 227 goals, third-lowest in the league.

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OTTAWA SENATORS

* Coach: Rick Bowness, third season.

* 1993-94: 14-61-9, 37 points.

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* Outlook: From worst to worst again. Radek Bonk, their 1994 first-round pick, refused to sign; 1992 first-rounder Alexei Yashin demanded to be traded and 1993 first-rounder Alexandre Daigle was mediocre last season. Managed badly by General Manager Randy Sexton, they were the NHL’s worst team offensively and defensively last season. They still are.


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