New York Rangers
The Rangers spent yet another off-season acquiring unrestricted free agents in an attempt to make the playoffs, picking up two very capable players in Bobby Holik and former Islander Darius Kasparaitis. Although there is no way you can convince me that Holik (9 million) and Kasparaitis (5 million) are worth anywhere near what they will be making in their contracts with the Rangers, the Broadway Blueshirts have certainly made themselves a better team. They now have a great one-two punch at center with Eric Lindros and Holik, and a bruising defenseman in Kasparaitis who hits as hard as anyone in the league. However, just like last season, the Rangers have a lot of questions going into the 2002-2003 season. The biggest question for them is depth, both offensively and defensively. Up front, they have Lindros and Pavel Bure, who seemed to click very well offensively with the Rangers last season with the now-departed Theo Fleury. However, now that Fleury is gone, who will take his spot on the top line? Although the Rangers will certainly not miss his antics, they will miss the little guy's offensive production on their top scoring line, and there will have to be a number of players ready to pick up the slack if the Rangers want to be successful this year.
Depth offensively: After Lindros, Bure, and Holik, the offense for the Rangers is pretty thin. Radek Dvorak is coming off knee surgery, and has been inconsistent since the Czech line was broken up before last season when Jan Hlavac was shipped to Philadelphia. Same goes for Petr Nedved. Ranger fans have been calling for his head for a while now, and if he doesn't produce this year then he might find his way out of town after all. If Mark Messier can stay healthy and play close to a full schedule in what looks to be his final season as an NHL player, he will almost certainly help pick up some of the offensive slack. Guys like Martin Rucinsky, Roman Lyashenko, and Mikhael Samulesson will also have to step up in order to get the Rangers into the playoffs.
Depth defensively: Like the offense, the defense has also been improved with the addition of "Kasper," but the Rangers failed to reel in a solid, defensive blueliner like Chris Chelios who would have instantly solved their defensive woes. Kasparaitus will help, but sometimes has lapses defensively, and did not have a particularly good playoff run with the Colorado Avalanche this past year. As an Islander fan, I would have loved to see Kasper back on Long Island, but GM Mike Milbury was talking about bringing him back strictly as a 5th or 6th defenseman, and did not have the money he was asking for. With the additional money he is receiving from Glen Sather and the Rangers, Kasparaitus is being expected to take a much bigger role on the Rangers' blue line. Brian Leetch will undoubtedly be the steady force defensively as he has been throughout his career, in addition to his offensive production, and if he stays healthy, Vladimir Malakhov can do the same. Beyond those three, however, there are still a number of holes in the Rangers' defense. Tom Poti is a work in progress for the Rangers, as they hope he can replace Leetch as their number one defenseman at some point. However, he has not been very sound defensively in his short career with the Edmonton Oilers and Rangers, getting caught behind the play numerous times and causing odd-man rushes the other way while trying to move the puck up the ice. Sylvain Lefebvre and Dave Karpa were ineffective last year, and now that Bryan Berard is no longer with the team, the Rangers will need someone to fill that spot. Dale Purinton is a tough customer as we all found out during the Islander-Ranger series' but he has been unable to stick with the big club on a consistent basis. If they feel Purinton can't fill the role, then the Rangers will probably bring up Tomas Kloucek from their AHL affiliate in Hartford as their 6th defenseman.
The play of Mike Richter: Richter proved last year after two knee surgeries that he could come back and still be one of the best goaltenders in the league. Although a concussion ended his season last year in April, he was rewarded this summer with a contract, which should keep him in Ranger blue until the end of his career. Rookie Dan Blackburn played well during his first year in the NHL, but he isn't ready to start in the NHL just yet. Richter has to come up big again this year if the Rangers are going to have a shot at postseason play.
Bryan Trottier: The former Islander took over the head coaching reigns for Ron Low this summer, his first stint in the NHL as a head coach. A lot of the Rangers woes' these past five seasons have had to do with coaching; last year the Rangers as a team did not buy into a defensive system, and took a great deal of undisciplined penalties. "Trots" will try to stop this from happening and get the Rangers to play like a cohesive unit.
Outlook: Just like the past couple of years, it's hard to predict what will happen with the Rangers. They have a great lineup on paper again this year, but they haven't been able to get it done with all of the money they've spent over the past five seasons. The Eastern Conference will likely have another log-jam this year, with a number of teams vying for those final playoff spots. Can Trots turn it around for the Rangers? Only time will tell.
New Jersey Devils
Although the Devils did lose Bobby Holik, I don't think they're in as bad a shape as everyone seems to think they are. I liked the big trade they made with Anaheim that sent Petr Sykora to the Ducks for Oleg Tverdovsky and Jeff Friesen. Tverdovsky just adds to a superb defense that already includes Scott Stevens, Scott Neidermayer, and Brian Rafalski. Friesen scored 31 goals a few years ago for San Jose, and is a speedy power-forward that should fit in nicely with New Jersey's defensive-minded system. Obviously, when you have a goaltender like Martin Brodeur between the pipes, your team has a chance to win everytime they step on the ice. I didn't think the trade last year with the Stars that sent Jason Arnott and Randy McKay to Big D for Joe Niewendyk and Jamie Langenbrunner would turn out to be beneficial for the Devils, but they certainly proved me wrong. Even though their patented "A line" of Arnott, Sykora, and Elias was broken up, both Niewendyk and Langenbrunner stepped in nicely with the Devils. With Patrik Elias signed for another three years, and the Devils finally acquiring a capable back-up for Brodeur in Corey Schwab, they seem to be poised for another run, trying to prove that their loss to Carolina in the 1st round of the playoffs was a fluke.
The Pat Burns effect: Shouldn't be a huge question here, since Burns' style is more akin to that of Kevin Constantine, who took over the head coaching duties for Larry Robinson in January for the remainder of the year. Burns expects a lot out of his players, and New Jersey hopes they can get the most out of guys like Scott Gomez, who had somewhat of an off-year with only 10 goals.
The loss of Holik: The Devils should be able to make up for Bobby Holik's offensive output, but his physical presence up the middle will be sorely missed. The Devils still have the opportunity to make a trade this off-season, or if they feel undersized at the start of the season. This, however, might become a sore spot to be exploited by other teams this season, especially in the rough Eastern Conference. The Islanders learned that first hand last year, both in the regular season and in the playoffs.
Ageless wonders: Joe Niewendyk, Scott Stevens, and Ken Daneyko are all getting up there in age. Will all three of these guys be able to sustain their offensive and defensive play for another year? If not, then the Devils might be in trouble.
Outlook: I still think the Devils are in good shape, and barring a major collapse or an injury to one of their key players, I think they can make another run in the Eastern Conference, and maybe towards another Stanley Cup.
New York Islanders
The off-season has been one of….well….unexpected inactivity for the Islanders, who had been hyped up for months as the major player in the Tony Amonte sweepstakes. However, that was not to be, as Amonte took $6 million to sign with the Phoenix Coyotes, while General Manager Mike Milbury told Islander fans very bluntly that the Islanders would not be looking to sign any of the big free agents. This came as extremely disturbing news, as Milbury had stated previously that he would try to find a scoring winger to play with Alexei Yashin, and after trading away Marius Czerkawski, Islander fans, including myself, felt that a deal was in the works to bring a scoring winger to Long Island. Although there is still time left in this off-season, Milbury has yet to fill this void. Whether or not he has been told by Islander owners to cut back on spending money because of financial losses stemming from the Islanders' terrible lease with SMG and the Nassau Coliseum or whether he feels a player like Mattias Weinhandl, Trent Hunter, Raffi Torres, or Martin Chabada can step in and play on the Islanders' top line remains to be seen. Mark Parrish and Adrian Aucoin will also be commanding huge raises from their previous salaries this summer, which might also be contributing to the Islanders' fiscal responsibility. Whatever the case may be, the Islanders could really be burned by this decision, if a trade isn't made for a scoring winger or one of those aforementioned young guns that the Islanders currently have in their system can't step in right away and produce on the top line. Islander fans, we'll just have to wait and see what happens. Milbury did acquire Jason Wiemer from the Florida Panthers, who can step into the number 2 hole at center until Michael Peca returns to the Islander lineup and Mattias Timander who can log a lot of minutes as a 6th defenseman, and will take some of the load off of Adrian Aucoin and Kenny Jonsson.
Who steps in on the number one scoring line?: I feel that the Islanders are very, very close to making a run at not only the playoffs, but the Stanley Cup Finals if they can acquire a scoring forward to go along with Alexei Yashin, especially in a wide-open Eastern Conference that really is anybody's for the taking. Mattias Weinhandl, who played with the Sedin twins in the Swedish Elite League, might be able to step in and play with Yashin if a deal is not made. He was one of the top point producers last year in Sweden, with 18 goals and 34 points in 50 games for MoDo, and has come back strong from a very serious eye injury he suffered a few years ago. Another possibility is Martin Chabada, a 25-year old late round prospect in this year's draft from the Czech Republic who might make a similar impact on the Islanders as Radek Martinek did last season. He racked up 40 points in 51 games while playing on the top line for Sparta Praha, the Czech league's best team. Other possibilities are Raffi Torres, a tough young forward who played some games for the Islanders last year, and was one of the best players for the Islanders AHL affiliate in Bridgeport and Trent Hunter, who stepped into the Islanders' lineup in place of Brad Isbister during the playoff series with Toronto, and played outstanding, scoring a goal and coming close to tying up the score in Game 7 in the dying minutes.
The health of Kenny Jonsson and Michael Peca: Jonsson, who has been plagued by concussion problems over his tenure with the Islanders, suffered another concussion after a dirty hit from Gary Roberts in Game 5 of the Islanders-Maple Leafs series. Will he hold up this season and play the same as he did last year? Another big question mark is Captain Michael Peca, who we know will be out until at least December after undergoing serious knee-surgery. Once he comes back, he will need some time to get back into game shape, and the Islanders will certainly miss his physical presence while he is out. Can Jason Wiemer step up in his place? The Islanders hope so.
Isbister and Kvasha: Time is running out for Brad Isbister and Oleg Kvasha to produce at a consistent level. Kvasha started playing very well after undergoing knee surgery, and really seemed to pick up his game, which was severely lacking during the first half of the year. He has all the tools to become a great player in the league, and he's similar in size and play to Josef Vasicek of the Carolina Hurricanes, who busted out in the playoffs. Can Kvasha do the same? The same goes for Izzy, who had a horrible regular season and was pretty much invisible during the few games he played in the playoffs. Isbister has to step up and play like he did in 2000, or he might be used as trade bait to bring in another scorer. Dave Scatchard and Claude Lapointe might also find themselves playing for another team before the trade deadline if they don't play well before Peca returns to the lineup.
Outlook: With the lineup they have right now, I still believe the Islanders will make the playoffs. Osgood and Snow are a solid tandem in net, and with surpising Radek Martinek back in the lineup joining Aucoin, Jonsson, and Roman Hamrlik, the defense should be extremely solid. However, how far they go in the playoffs is dependent on who the Islanders might acquire as a scoring winger to play with Yashin or whoever can step up and fill that glaring void, especially considering the health of Michael Peca.
What do you think? Let me know and I'll post your opinions on the Rangers, Devils, and Islanders in a future article.