October 1, 2001
By Scott Erskine
SportsTicker Staff Writer
JERSEY CITY, NEW JERSEY (TICKER) -- The Pittsburgh Penguins
traded "J.J." The Philadelphia Flyers signed "J.R." and traded
"The Big E" to the New York Rangers. And the New Jersey Devils'
"A-Line" looks to dominate the league again.
Following the Atlantic Division this season will be as easy as
The trades of two of the NHL's biggest stars dominated the news
over the summer, but the fact that several Atlantic Division
teams improved themselves through free agency was somewhat
Jaromir Jagr knew the 2000-01 season would be his last in
Pittsburgh. And on July 11, it became official. The former Hart
Trophy winner was shipped to the Washington Capitals for three
prospects -- Kris Beech, Michal Sivek and Ross Lupaschuk -- with
a combined four games of NHL experience.
That's not exactly the package one would expect the best player
in the league to command, but Pittsburgh's financial woes tied
the hands of general manager Craig Patrick.
Even without the NHL's leading scorer for the past four seasons,
the Penguins boast a potent offense. Team owner and Hall of
Famer Mario Lemieux returned last season after a 3 1/2-year
absence and had 35 goals and 41 assists in just 43 games. The
unit of Martin Straka, Robert Lang and Alexei Kovalev combined
for 103 goals and 270 points and earned the nickname
"Arbitration Line" in the offseason as a result of their
collective contract status.
Despite the lack of a top-flight defenseman, the Penguins
performed admirably before being overmatched by the Devils in
the Eastern Conference finals. Hard-hitting Darius Kasparaitis
returns to lead the underrated group, but the loss of workhorse
Bob Boughner via free agency and a knee injury to Janne
Laukkanen will force others to fill the void.
The biggest surprise for the Penguins last season was not the
return of Mario but the emergence of goaltender Johan Hedberg.
The 28-year-old Swede played just nine regular-season games
before leading the Pens to the conference finals. It will be
interesting to see how Hedberg handles a full season it the NHL.
The Eric Lindros saga finally is over in Philadelphia. After
years of concussions and a bitter feud with general manager Bob
Clarke, Lindros will suit up for the team he was thought to have
been traded to in 1992 -- the Rangers.
Following a third concussion in four months in the 2000
conference finals, Lindros sat out the 2000-01 campaign while
vowing never to play for the Flyers again. Months passed before
Clarke received an offer he couldn't refuse from Rangers general
manager Glen Sather, and Lindros was headed to the Big Apple.
Many say the price Sather paid for a player whose next shift
could be his last was too steep -- and extraordinarily more than
the Capitals gave up for Jagr. On paper, they're right.
The Flyers add Jan Hlavac, a 25-year-old left wing who scored 28
goals last season; Kim Johnsson, a 25-year-old defenseman who
showed he can be a solid contributor; and Pavel Brendl, a
20-year-old right wing oozing with potential but seemingly
lacking discipline. If Brendl blossoms into the player most
think he can be, this trade will be more lopsided than it
Philadelphia strengthened itself well before the Lindros trade,
however. Center Jeremy Roenick was signed away from Phoenix to
give the Flyers two top-flight scoring lines, and veteran Eric
Weinrich was brought in to help take some of the defensive load
off captain Eric Desjardins.
Jiri Dopita, considered the best player outside North America,
was acquired from Florida and signed to a two-year contract. He
never played for the Panthers, opting to remain in his native
Czech Republic. The fact that his and Flyers goaltender Roman
Cechmanek's wives are best friends was instrumental in his
decision to finally come to the NHL.
After leading the league with a 2.01 goals-against average,
Cechmanek had a less than stellar postseason, causing some
concern. The 30-year-old will have to carry the Flyers deep into
the playoffs to avoid more criticism. With players like Roenick,
Keith Primeau, John LeClair, Mark Recchi and Simon Gagne
supplying the offense, Cechmanek shouldn't worry about putting
up double-digit shutouts, as he did last season.
After years of futility, the New York Islanders appear on the
verge of respectability.
Having missed the playoffs every season since 1993-94, general
manager Mike Milbury pulled the trigger on two major draft day
deals, acquiring established centers Alexei Yashin and Michael
Peca. Some of the team's youth was sacrificed in the deals, with
the likes of defenseman Zdeno Chara and forwards Tim Connolly,
Bill Muckalt and Taylor Pyatt leaving town. But they were moves
Milbury had to make to show Islanders' fans he was serious about
building a contender.
If the Isles really expect to even sniff the postseason, their
goaltending will have to improve dramatically. While 20-year-old
Rick DiPietro shows signs of being a top-notch netminder, he may
not be ready to shoulder the load. Enter Chris Osgood.
Milbury claimed Osgood in the waiver draft and expects him to
help lead the Isles to the playoffs. Free agent Garth Snow also
was brought in and gives first-year coach Peter Laviolette depth
should DiPietro need more seasoning in the minors.
The defense is solid, if not spectacular. Roman Hamrlik is
entering his 10th season and still may not have shown his best.
Kenny Jonsson and newcomer Adrian Aucoin are offensive
complements while Eric Cairns hits anything that comes his way.
Right wing Mariusz Czerkawski should improve on his 30-goal
season with Yashin as his center, and left wing Brad Isbister
looks for an injury-free campaign after missing 31 games last
If acquiring Lindros does anything for the Rangers, it proves
that Sather is still unsure about which way to steer his team.
It seemed the Rangers were headed toward a youth movement. But
after shipping three of their bright young players to
Philadelphia, one wonders where Sather is headed. While he
contends he could afford to trade Hlavac, Johnsson and Brendl,
the risk still seems high.
If Lindros plays concussion-free hockey for several years and
performs at a high level, and if Hlavac, Johnsson and Brendl
don't turn into major stars, the risk was worth it. But those
are big ifs.
And if acquiring the oft-injured Lindros wasn't enough, Sather
signed defenseman Bryan Berard to a tryout contract on the eve
of the regular season. Berard was forced into retirement 18
months ago after suffering a serious eye injury and losing much
of his vision.
Another area that must be addressed is goaltending. Mike Richter
appears healthy again after season-ending knee surgery. But who
will back him up? Are youngsters Johan Holmqvist or Dan
Blackburn ready? Is retread Peter Skudra capable if Richter goes
The Rangers also are hoping that right wing Theo Fleury is able
to pick up where he left off. Fleury was enjoying a comeback
season with 74 points in 62 games before checking himself into a
substance abuse rehabilitation program. Skating alongside
Lindros should open more ice for him. Petr Nedved, who led
Rangers' forwards with 32 goals and 78 points, may move to left
wing with Lindros and Fleury.
The rest of the Rangers' offense is riddled with question marks.
Does 40-year-old Mark Messier have anything left? Can Zdeno
Ciger perform in the NHL after being out of the league for five
years? Can Radek Dvorak score 30 goals without Czech linemates
Hlavac and Nedved? How much will the Rangers miss Adam Graves'
grit and leadership? Who will play on the third and fourth
And the question all Rangers fans will ask on a daily basis --
how long will it be before Lindros suffers another concussion?
While the other four Atlantic Division teams have made trades to
improve themselves, the Devils have done very little.
One could argue that a team that has reached the Stanley Cup
Finals two years in a row has no need to improve. But with the
already formidable Flyers getting better and the Islanders
moving forward for a change, the Devils' big offseason
acquisition was 37-year-old defenseman Tommy Albelin.
Adding Albelin to a defense that features fellow 37-year-olds
Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko could mean that goaltender Martin
Brodeur will have to be on top of his game at all times.
Brodeur has played 87 percent of New Jersey's games over the
past six years, a number that could increase this season. With
no established backup, the Devils must choose from a pool of
rookies consisting of Ari Ahonen, Scott Clemmensen, J.F.
Damphousse and Frederic Henry.
Replacing Alexander Mogilny's 43 goals also is a concern for
coach Larry Robinson. Mogilny signed with Toronto over the
summer, leaving a major void on the second line. Robinson may
look to rookies Pierre Dagenais and Jiri Bicek to step up.
The loss of Mogilny also will put more pressure on the "A Line"
of Patrik Elias, Petr Sykora and Jason Arnott. Elias was third
in the league with 96 points and Sykora added 81. Arnott played
just 54 games after holding out but still managed to average a
point per contest. The trio will be together from the start of
the season for the first time.
The Devils pride themselves on a workmanlike attitude,
discipline and an ability to come through when the chips are
down. Whether it's Scott Gomez, Randy McKay, John Madden, Sergei
Brylin, Sergei Nemchinov, Bobby Holik or Turner Stevenson, New
Jersey always seems to get the big goal when needed.
With their main corps of players still on board, there's no
reason to believe the Devils won't win, or at least challenge
for, the Atlantic Division title in 2001-02. But the road to a
third consecutive Stanley Cup Finals appearance may go through