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NHL PREVIEW : Lemieux's 500th Goal, Avalanche Are Early-Season Focus


Having survived a lockout that reduced last season to a 48-game scramble, the NHL returns to normalcy today with a full schedule and with Mario Lemieux in a Pittsburgh Penguin uniform for the first time in nearly 18 months.

The four-time scoring champion resumes his career after taking a season off to recover from back surgery and the effects of treatment for Hodgkin's disease. He's in time to benefit from an NHL directive ordering referees to crack down on obstruction fouls, including the clutch-and-grab tactics Lemieux once said might drive him to retire. Lemieux has scored 494 goals in 599 games and would join Wayne Gretzky (who scored his 500th goal in his 575th game) as the fastest 500-goal scorers in NHL history.

To afford the rest of Lemieux's $42-million contract, the Penguins slashed their payroll and retooled with younger players. The Buffalo Sabres also cut costs after their $24-million payroll bought them a first-round playoff exit.

Success threatened to break up the Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils, when playoff MVP Claude Lemieux (no relation to Mario) challenged the validity of a contract he signed last spring and refused to report to training camp. After the Devils prevailed in arbitration, they traded him to the Islanders for Steve Thomas. (The Islanders then sent Lemieux to the Colorado Avalanche). Goaltender Martin Brodeur and defenseman Scott Niedermayer held out for--and got--big contracts after sitting out most of camp.

The Western Conference landscape has changed. Thirteen years after the Rockies left Denver, the NHL returns with the Avalanche, formerly the Quebec Nordiques. With an explosive offense, Colorado looms as the chief rival to the Detroit Red Wings, who had the NHL's best record last season but were swept by the Devils in the finals.

Here's a look at what to expect this season.




(formerly Quebec Nordiques)

* Coach: Marc Crawford, second season.

* 1994-95: 30-13-5, 65 points.

* Outlook: Uncertainty over their future hurt them last season, but that excuse is gone. After trading holdout Wendel Clark for the pesky Claude Lemieux, they might have the best forward corps in the NHL, led by rookie of the year Peter Forsberg, Owen Nolan, Mike Ricci, Scott Young and the under-appreciated Joe Sakic. Their defense should generate more offensive chances--their most prolific defenseman, Uwe Krupp, ranked only 10th in team scoring--but that's a minor problem.


* Coach: Rick Ley, second season.

* 1994-95: 18-18-12, 48 points.

* Outlook: Alexander Mogilny will fortify the Canucks' offense, but will one puck be enough for him and Pavel Bure? Both Russians are considered temperamental, but they might be happy and productive playing together. General Manager Pat Quinn was smart to trade Sergio Momesso for Mike Ridley, who centered for Mogilny and Bure in exhibition games, but Quinn's best decision was re-signing gutsy center Trevor Linden late in camp. The Canucks have a mobile and skilled defense and a steady goalie in Kirk McLean.


* Coach: Pierre Page, first season.

* 1994-95: 24-17-7, 55 points.

* Outlook: Only for the Flames was last season normal, ending with their third successive first-round playoff loss. They've made no major additions and lost two key players when center Joel Otto became a free agent and Robert Reichel went to Germany. They signed the fiery Theo Fleury after he sat out much of camp. Gary Roberts hasn't recovered from surgery to repair nerve damage in his neck and shoulder, leaving the Flames primed for a big fall.


* Coach: Kevin Constantine, third season.

* 1994-95: 19-25-4, 42 points.

* Outlook: Goalie Arturs Irbe, sensational two seasons ago, lost his job to Wade Flaherty last season. Irbe underwent hand surgery and must prove himself again. The Sharks expect leadership from center Craig Janney, but he's a playmaker, not a scorer, and he has few decent wingers to set up. Jeff Friesen (15 goals) was impressive as a rookie and 6-5 left wing Viktor Kozlov is promising, but Pat Falloon must end his scoring decline. Talented defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh rejoined them Wednesday after a contract squabble.


* Coach: Ron Low, first season.

* 1994-95: 17-27-4, 38 points.

* Outlook: General Manager Glen Sather has assembled a group of swift, young forwards led by Jason Arnott (15 goals), Todd Marchant (13 goals), David Oliver (16 goals) and Doug Weight (40 points). Also worth watching: swift Swedish winger Mats Lindgren. The defense is sluggish but Sather can improve the mix, if need be, by trading spare goalie Curtis Joseph.


* Coach: Larry Robinson, first season.

* 1994-95: 16-23-9, 41 points.

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