Once the NHL season ends, hockey is usually relegated to the back of the sports world.This off-season however, hockey never managed to stray too far from the minds of sports fans. Before the playoffs were over, Patrick Roy, the greatest goalie in NHL history, announced his retirement. The Avalance stole headlines with the signing of Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. The hockey world was saddened by the death of long time head coach Roger Neilson who succumbed to skin and bone cancer and the tragc death of Herb Brooks, coach of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” in a car crash. Days before the season opener Dany Heatley crashed his Ferrari, leaving teammate Dan Synder in a coma that he would never come out of. It was a horrific beginning to an otherwise exciting-looking season.

Atlantic Division

1. New Jersey Devils – Now that Patrick Roy has retired, Martin Brodeur has finally earned the crown of top goalie in the league. Even if they struggle to score goals and their aging defense begins to break down, as long as Brodeur stays healthy, the Devils will be the team to beat in the East.

2. Philadelphia Flyers – For yet another year, a solid offense and a stellar defense will not be able to overcome questionable goaltending. Jeff Hackett was brought in to take the place of Roman Cechmanek, but either he or Robert Esche must emerge as a clear-cut starter.

3. New York Islanders – Their only significant departure from last year is Coach Peter Laviolette, replaced by rookie coach Steve Sterling. Mariusz Czerkawski returns from an awful year in Montreal, and 22- year-old goalie Rick DiPietro appears ready to handle the starting job. Most importantly, Alexei Yashin and Mike Peca must forget about last season.

4. New York Rangers – In his first full season as coach, Glen Sather tries to get the Blueshirts to the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade. Mike Richter retired, Pavel Bure is out for the year, Brian Leetch starts the year out indefinitely, and Eric Lindros and Mark Messier are shadows of their former selves.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins – The Pens hope that in first overall pick Marc-Andre Fleury they have found the goaltending equivalent of Mario Lemieux. Super Mario has decided to hang on for one more year – he’ll regret it when his team is out of playoff contention.

Northeast Division

1. Ottawa Senators – Last season ended in disappointment when the President’s Trophy winners failed to capture the Cup. They have the fastest, most potent offense in the East, and their defense is among the best in the league. If they stay healthy, they will breeze through the regular season and hope that Patrick Lalime heats up.

2. Boston Bruins – Captain Joe Thornton has emerged as the top young power forward in hockey, and he is surrounded by an underrated scoring attack. Their defense won’t steal many games, but it won’t hurt them either.

3. Toronto Maple Leafs – Last season’s late addition of Owen Nolan and newcomer Joe Nieuwendyk gives Mats Sundin some much needed offensive support. Ed Belfour is still a top goalie, and the Leafs will count on him to win some big games as their defense is shoddy at best.

4. Montreal Canadiens – Their fate depends entirely on which Jose Theodore decides to show up. Two seasons ago, he won the Hart Trophy and they were a playoff team – last year, he struggled horribly and they were out of contention by the end of November. This is a very young team in the midst of rebuilding.

5. Buffalo Sabres – The biggest problem the Sabres will have all year is their lack of ability to score goals. Their defense is solid and they have young goaltending that is rapidly improving, but they are still far from contending. With Tom Golisano’s purchase of the team, at least they no longer have to worry about getting paid.

Southeast Division

1. Tampa Bay Lightning – With Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards up front, the Lightning have two of the top young forwards in hockey. They have a solid defense, and they are backstopped by Nikolai Khabibulin, who will singlehandedly win games on nights when the rest of the team doesn’t show up.

2. Washington Capitals – With Jaromir Jagr and Peter Bondra up front, Sergei Gonchar leading the defense, and Olaf Kolzig in goal, the Caps are led by a core of veteran superstars, but there’s not much help behind them. They must get off to a hot start if they want to remain risky.

3. Florida Panthers – The biggest question right now just might be “Can Dontrelle Willis skate?” Much like the Marlins did this season, the Panthers need an unexpected star to emerge out of nowhere if they are to even compete for a playoff spot. Roberto Luongo is one of the top young goalies in the league, but with little offensive support and even less defense, he must stand on his head to win.

4. Carolina Hurricanes – One of the biggest letdowns of last season, the Hurricanes will make little progress from their last place finish. They have a number of players returning from injuries and if the whole team stays healthy, they might rebound to make the playoffs.

5. Atlanta Thrashers – Tragedy struck on Sept. 29 when Heatley, one of the top young scorers in the league, crashed his car, killing teammate Snyder. The Thrashers will certainly have extra motivation all season, as they have dedicated the 2003-2004 campaign to their fallen teammate, but no one can carry that kind of weight for a whole season.

Central Division

1. Detroit Red Wings – With the return of Dominik Hasek in goal, the Wings now have Curtis Joseph earning nearly $10 million to ride the bench. Sergei Fedorov skipped town, and Steve Yzerman is another year older, but with a balanced scoring attack and the top defense in the NHL, the Wings will contend.

2. St. Louis Blues – Chris Pronger has returned from injury, relinquishing his captaincy to the aging Al MacInnis. Together they lead one of the top defensive core in the league. They have a strong offense, and, with Chris Osgood on board all season, might finally have a steady goalie.

3. Columbus Blue Jackets – One of the fastest teams in the league, Columbus must change its style and focus more on defensive hockey if they are to contend for the playoffs. Rick Nash leads an improving scoring attack.

4. Chicago Blackhawks – Chicago fans were hoping that the Cubs performace would disract the fact that the Black Hawks are one of the worst teams in the league. Oh well, as the local saying goes, “Wait ’til next year.”

5. Nashville Predators – After a failed effort to make the playoffs last season, the Predators have turned to youth this season. Mike Dunham was traded to the Rangers during the season, allowing Tomas Vokoun to emerge as a solid number one goalie. If their youth continues to develop, the Predators might be ready to make the playoffs in a few years.

Northwest Division

1. Colorado Avalanche – So what does a team do when the greatest goalie in the sport’s history retires? Go out and sign two of the league’s top forwards. With the inexperienced David Aebischer manning the nets this season, the Avs will need all the scoring they can get from the attack of Peter Forsberg, Milan Hedjuk and Joe Sakic.

2. Minnesota Wild – After an unexpected appearance in the conference finals last season, the pressure will be on this young team to avoid a digression. Marian Gaborik has emerged as one of the league’s top scorers, and Manny Fernandez and Dwayne Roloson form a top combo.

3. Vancouver Canucks – On what looks like a modified version of the Swedish Olympic Team, Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi form the league’s scariest 1-2 scoring punch. They have a strong defense led by Ed Jovonovski, but Dan Cloutier has yet to emerge as a clutch playoff goalie, and early playoff exits are causing frustration in BC.

4. Edmonton Oilers – With Anson Carter and Janne Niinimaa gone to start the season, the Oilers will turn their focus to the development of their youngsters. They have been putting together the pieces to be a force in
a year or two, and could surprise people.

5. Calgary Flames – Jarome Iginla remains the top scorer on an otherwise weak team, and the loss of Chris Drury to Buffalo only makes matters worse. Roman Turek is a decent goalie when a great team is placed in front of him, but he does little to make a bad team look good.

Pacific Division

1. Dallas Stars – After a disappointing season culminated in a playoff loss to Anaheim, Dallas did little to compete with the additions made by conference foes Detroit and Colorado. The roster remains relatively intact, although they lost their captain and top defenseman Derian Hatcher to the Red Wings.

2. Anaheim Mighty Ducks – With the replacement of the departed Kariya with Fedorov, the Ducks did little to alter their overall talent level. If “Jiggy” plays half as well as he did in last year’s playoffs, the Ducks will once again contend.

3. Los Angeles Kings – To help their top scorer and compete with the Mickey Mouse operation down the road, the Kings brought back Josef Stumpel and Luc Robitaille. If the streaky Cechmanek can step up in goal, the Kings will compete.

4. San Jose Sharks – The Sharks are rebuilding. They still have leadership in Mike Ricci and Vincent Damphousse, and goalie Evgeny Nabokov is among the best in the league.

5. Phoenix Coyotes – Instead of hanging on to aging goalie Sean Burke, the Coyotes would be better served trading him to a potential contender such as Boston or Colorado for a top prospect or two. They have a few decent players, but no one is considered a game-breaker.

Swidler can be reached at dswidler@campustimes.org.

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