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KELLEY: Eastern Conference camp preview

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Jim Kelley

 
   
 
he consensus is, and has been for several seasons now, that the best teams in the National Hockey League reside in the West. The record seems to bear that out, but that doesn't mean the East is not competitive in and of itself. That was born out last spring when the Carolina , a team that was at one point perilously close to firing its coach, Paul Maurice, because it appeared the team might not make the playoffs, put it all together and advanced to the Stanley Cup finals. That certainly was a shock to Boston, the No. 1 seed in the East and to Toronto, New Jersey, Philadelphia and a great many other Eastern clubs who felt they were much more talented and better positioned than the . With the expected rise of the Washington , New York and Buffalo , all of whom missed the playoffs last spring, the competitive nature of the East should become even more intense.
Training Camp previews
  • Western Conference
  • Eastern Conference
  • Preseason schedule
  • Traning camp dates and locations
  • Of course, it all starts in training camp and with that in mind, what follows is a capsule look at the Eastern Conference training camp agendas with an eye on what's new, what's needed, what the coaching and management staff might be looking for and what their options might be. We'll even give you a player or two to watch as this is the time when that new addition or that up-and-coming prospect is given his time to shine. Teams are listed in alphabetical order saving our order of prediction for the 2002-03 season preview that comes your way next month. Most camps open on either Sept. 12 or 13 with preseason games getting underway as early as Sept. 19. A full preseason schedule can be found right here.

    ATLANTA

    Camp will feature a battle for all defensive positions now that veterans (late of Detroit) and (late of Buffalo) have signed on as free agents. Goalie is a lock, but he still hasn't settled his contract yet, opening the door for a look-see for Pasi Nurminen to show his stuff. Nurminen led the Chicago Wolves to the AHL championship last spring. Up front it's still mostly wait-while-the-kids-develop time, but this is likely a make-or-break camp for . The former No. 1 pick has been discounted because of injuries, especially concussions, but he has immense talent and appeared to receive the message when he was demoted to the minors for a time last season. Forward , over from Ottawa, is expected to provide scoring off the left side and a veteran presence on a team that needs one. Players to Watch: It remains to be seen if both Krupp and Smehlik have something left to give. Both have had injuries and age working against them in recent seasons. Both Ilya Kovalchuk and need to show they can avoid the dreaded sophomore jinx. Right wing Slava Kozlov can juice the power play provided he is fully recovered from a severed Achilles tendon he suffered last season with Buffalo. Left wing has talent and grit and could use this camp to show it assuming he gets regular linemates.

    BOSTON

    Goalie , acquired from the of Anaheim, will compete for the No. 1 job, but he'll get a battle from , the player the think is ready to do the job. Boston must find an answer for the goals once scored by (free agent, signed with Dallas), but expect that to come from the remaining core group as they are young and still improving. , signed as a free agent off the roster will be given a chance to quarterback the power play, but he'll get a run from , who is attempting to break through from the minors. The rest of the defense is thin and things could get worse if forces the trade he is demanding. Players to Watch: Defenseman needs a good camp to show he's ready to break through, possibly as a replacement for McLaren. is trying to reignite a once-promising pro career after a season in the minors with the . Andy Hilbert and Ivan Huml, both solid scorers in the AHL last season will be looking to make the squad at left wing.

    BUFFALO

    The biggest question with the surrounds who owns the team in the wake of the bankruptcy of Adelphia Communications Corp., and the Rigas family surrendering the franchise to the NHL. The club is expected to operate in Buffalo and under control of the NHL until a new owner is found, but the lack of funding casts a cloud. It is a talented young outfit with three on-the-rise goalies (Martin Biron, and ) in camp. Veteran defensemen and will get pushed by youngsters and Hendrik Tallinder. Up front, the will continue to look for offense from kids and likely will give minor-league prospect a good chance to replace Slava Kozlov (on to Atlanta) on this edition of the club. Players to Watch: The want to see if center is serious about staying and will play like it. The vet has talent, but has asked out after being demoted to fourth-line status for much of last season. Young players (center) and (left wing) need a strong camp to show they were good pickups in the trade that made a New York Islander last season. Connolly in particular needs to show that he's finally ready to be a play-making center who can carry a No. 1 line. Pyatt is the replacement for , who was shipped to Los Angeles. The picked up from Edmonton in the off-season, but it remains to be seen where he fits in right now, perhaps he'll be insurance in case the club has to move Gratton.

    CAROLINA

    There's a left-wing spot open via the free-agent departure of to Calgary. The club is fairly well set elsewhere though it would be a positive if can step up from the minors and be the bruising force on the left side that is sorely missing. On defense this is the camp for to prove he's a blue-line regular. Players to Watch: Forward is expected to turn some heads after showing promise in some games late last season. is being looked upon as the heir apparent to either or as a first or second-line center. A good camp would cement that appraisal. , a No. 1 (11th overall) in 1998, had a good season in the minors last season and should contend for a right-wing spot in this camp.

    FLORIDA

    Coach Mike Keenan got a lengthy contract extension, a clear indication that the rebuilding of the is in his hands. Keenan expects to have 10 players vying for seven spots on the defense now that Jay Bouwmeester (No. 1 pick, third overall) is in the fold, along with , and Filip Novak. There is a need for leadership in the locker room and in the forward ranks along with a power player or two. The signed veteran , a Keenan favorite, but at 33, his role is limited and the grit will likely come from Keenan recasting some of the softer Florida forwards in demanding new roles. There is a strong need for a backup goaltender to replace the departed (Toronto). Players to Watch: Veteran defenseman is rumored to be on the trading block and if he doesn't show well in camp it will expedite matters. Veteran defenseman Dmitry Yushkevich (late of Toronto) replaces , but Yushkevich must show he's fully recovered from a blood clotting problem that caused him to miss the end of the season and the playoffs last spring. Management hopes RW emerges as a power forward who can help fill the scoring gap left by the departure of .

    MONTREAL

    This is an offensively challenged team that is counting on a full and healthy season from captain . There will be some "fit-in" work for former N.Y. forward and former and forward to lend size and some veteran presence. Reserve goalie is said to be on the trading block now that league MVP is the solid No. 1. That move should open the door to Mathieu Garon as No. 2. Players to Watch: It remains to be seen if 39-year-old center still has it in him. Camp should prove it. Defenseman Ron Hainsey, a former first-round pick, should make the team, along with left wing Marcel Hossa, brother of Ottawa standout .

    NEW JERSEY

    A new, no-nonsense coach is in place in veteran Pat Burns. Expect a shuffle in the forward ranks, including sorting out the order of centers now that is gone. The integration of winger and defenseman will be key. All formidable tasks for an aged team. Players to Watch: With gone, look for Burns to try winger up the middle. , whenever he signs a new contact, will also contend for a spot there, the thinking being there can't be enough quality centers behind the injury prone . needs to show he's recovered from a serious knee injury. needs to show he's a consistent goal scorer to keep a spot he grabbed late last season. will attempt to gain a right wing spot after a standout season in the minors.

    NEW YORK ISLANDERS

    Not nearly as many moves as last offseason, this team wants growth, especially from and , to come from within. Prospect will be given a chance to earn the backup goalie spot behind , putting 's career at risk. Should a scorer emerge at wing to compliment center , it would be a plus. Players to Watch: Raffi Torres will get a shot at being one of those wingers as will Trent Hunter. Defenseman Radek Martinek needs to show he's fully recovered from injury to earn a spot on this squad.

    NEW YORK RANGERS

    Slotting in former Devil as the No. 1, No. 2, or No. 3 center is the job of new coach Bryan Trottier. There's an open spot on the left side of a line anchored by and (the occupant better know how to backcheck). Veteran could well be asked to move to wing (though not on that line) and is still said to be trade bait. Installing some kind of defensive system is a coaching priority assuming Trottier wants to last longer than the last two, John Muckler and Ron Low. Players to Watch: Forward needs a strong camp to finally make this team on the wing. and need to find their roles on a defense still dominated by .

    OTTAWA

    New general manager John Muckler is expected to move slowly in putting his stamp on a team that is pretty good, but has character flaws, especially in the grit department. Left winger Petr Schastlivy will be given the opportunity to replace the departed . The No. 2 center spot behind is up for grabs with kids and Antoine Vermette getting a long look, along with who returns after stints with Dallas and Montreal. There are rumors that backup goalie is on the market which would help reduce payroll and open a door for . Players to Watch: Ottawa desperately needs Spezza or Vermette to succeed. may move from the right to the left side. Defenseman will be asked to upgrade the offensive side of his game.

    PHILADELPHIA

    A new coach in Ken Hitchcock. A reconstructed back for scoring star . A bit of housecleaning in the form of a few departed names like and . There are always changes on the ice but seldom in the standings. Hitchcock will have to impart a "get-tough" philosophy on a collection of players that refuses to bend itself to playing as a team. Pavel Brendl gets a chance to take a winger spot open via the trade of and Bruno St. Jacques gets a chance to fill Richardson's huge shoes. comes over from Phoenix to take the backup goaltender job vacated by the trade of , but he'll get a challenge from , a standout from Finland. There's a center ice spot open because of the departure of Oates, but it likely goes to . Players to Watch: LeClair has had two serious back operations in the past year and needs this camp to prove he's still a No. 1 winger. Winger , seeking to rebound from a subpar season will have to find a way to mesh with either , or Handzus. need Brendl to break through as a scorer.

    PITTSBURGH

    Club is still awaiting word on the health of oft-injured scorer , a key component on the left wing. There's an opening at center ice now that signed with Washington. Former No. 1 pick overall (by Ottawa) Alexander Daigle is trying to catch on as a center iceman via a free-agent tryout. Anyone who steps up in camp and shows an ability to play defense gets a job as depth is exceptionally thin. Players to Watch: , over from Washington in the deal, gets a long look at center. The same can be said for Joseph Melichar, who showed promise on defense last season before suffering a serious shoulder injury. Left wing , late of Colorado, could have a career season should he stay on a line with (and Lemieux stays healthy).

    TAMPA BAY

    The want newcomer (from Philadelphia) to claim a wing on either of the top two scoring lines. Goalie Kevin Hodson has been signed to sit and watch play. is expected to add some substance to the defense. The club is strong in goal, but needs growth from young players, especially center , if it's to improve in this camp. Players to Watch: It's put up time for Lecavalier, a classic young pouter who can't seem to work with any coach. has speed off the wing, but is coming back from a broken leg and needs to show he hasn't lost it. Center Alexander Sitov is making a bid for the No. 2 center spot. is attempting to land the second-line right wing spot, but will be pushed by .

    TORONTO

    A former Cup winner with Dallas, inherits the goaltending duties vacated by (to Detroit). Rock solid winger is out until midseason with assorted injuries left over from last season. replaces Dmitry Yushkevich on defense and replaces among the top nine forwards. In general, the defense needs more star power, something that wasn't achieved in the free-agent market. Look for the Leafs to be a predatory team, making deals for defensemen that other teams can't afford to sign. Players to Watch: Belfour, a tightly wound goalie who replaces a legend in a media-intense market, will be pushed by , and Belfour doesn't like to be pushed. The Leafs are looking for breakthrough seasons from defenseman Karl Pilar and right winger . Management needs to make a decision as to whether or not to breakup the brother-in-law pair of and , two players a little too much alike.

    WASHINGTON

    New coach Bruce Cassidy had multiple decisions to make, not the least of which is who will play center on 's line? What pairings will make a defense caught between aged and inexperienced players works best? And who backs up in goal? , over from Pittsburgh, is the likely candidate for Jagr's center, but he also needs to show in camp that he's ready to return to form. Lang's competition is . There is a need for a playmaker to quarterback the power play, one of the best units in the league last season. Jagr still needs to show he wants to be in Washington. Players to Watch: Center is attempting to come back from off-season knee surgery. Defenseman is still recovering from rotator cuff surgery and will need all of training camp to how he's fully recovered. Rookie Brian Sutherby will get a look-see as a defensive-minded center, as will the newly acquired . Backup goalie will get a push from . Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address: jkelley@foxsports.com.
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