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.
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.
WESTERN CONFERENCE: PACIFIC DIVISION
* Coach: Rick Ley, first season.
* 1993-94: 41-40-3, 85 points.
* 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.
* Coach: Dave King, third season.
* 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.
* 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.
* 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.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
* Coach: Kevin Constantine, second season.
* 1993-94: 33-35-16, 82 points.
* 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.