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NHL PREVIEW / WESTERN CONFERENCE

Ice in West Should Be Pretty Hot

October 07, 2002|LONNIE WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you're looking for excitement, pay attention to the Western Conference. With several teams ready to knock off the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, the West is not a conference for the weak. Even the Ducks are taken seriously these days.

But along with excitement, there also are a good deal of questions. How will the aging Red Wings respond under new Coach Dave Lewis? Can the San Jose Sharks take the next step? Will a healthy Peter Forsberg carry the Colorado Avalanche back to the top? Will Calgary's Jarome Iginla repeat as scoring champion?

Those are just some of the hot topics heading into a season that is expected to be one of the best in years. But the team to beat will once again be the Red Wings, who won their 10th Stanley Cup title last year but will be without legendary coach Scotty Bowman and goaltender Dominik Hasek, both of whom have retired.

Lewis, a longtime assistant under Bowman, and Curtis Joseph, who took less money to sign as a free agent with Detroit to replace Hasek, definitely will feel the pressure.

The Red Wings still are loaded with talent headed by veterans Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov, Brett Hull and Steve Yzerman. Add up-and-coming players such as Pavel Datsyuk and Jiri Fischer and it's easy to understand why Detroit is still a favorite.

But the strongest team in the West may be Colorado, which lost in seven games to Detroit in the conference finals last season. The Avalanche will be stronger with Forsberg available for a full season and the recent trade for talented defenseman Derek Morris. Don't forget, Colorado Coach Bob Hartley still has Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy, Rob Blake and Adam Foote to work with too.

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Capsules in predicted order of finish:

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1. COLORADO

Coach: Bob Hartley, fifth season.

2001-02 record: 45-28-8-1, 99 points; first in Northwest Division, second in conference.

Player to watch: Forward Steve Reinprecht stepped up in the playoffs and helped make Chris Drury expendable.

Outlook: Forsberg's play in the playoffs after sitting out the regular season proved he's the game's most dominating player. It may be smart for Hartley to limit Forsberg's playing time to make sure he's healthy for the playoffs. Roy is still one of the NHL's top netminders and the addition of Morris makes Blake and Foote even better. The key to the season will be if young players such as Radim Vrbata and Reinprecht can take the next step.

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2. DETROIT

Coach: Dave Lewis, first season.

2001-02 record: 51-17-10-4, 116 points; first in Central Division, first in conference.

Player to watch: Defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom won second consecutive Norris Trophy and was named MVP of playoffs.

Outlook: Goalie Joseph should do well with the Red Wings, who have such a strong supporting cast. But because Yzerman will be out until at least February after off-season knee surgery, the Wings will not be as dominant as last season when they won the Presidents' Trophy for the league's best record. Look for Lewis not to rely so heavily on veterans such as Chelios, Larionov, Hull and Luc Robitaille during the regular season in order to give more playing time to younger players.

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3. SAN JOSE

Coach: Darryl Sutter, sixth season.

2001-02 record: 44-27-8-3, 99 points; first in Pacific Division, third in conference.

Player to watch: Forward Owen Nolan led the Sharks in scoring for the fourth time in seven seasons in 2001-02.

Outlook: Expectations are high for the Sharks, but goaltender Evgeni Nabokov is still unsigned. Backup Miikka Kiprusoff is solid but the Sharks will need Nabokov in order to be a legitimate Stanley Cup threat. Brad Stuart leads an outstanding group of defensemen and Mike Ricci, Vincent Damphousse, Teemu Selanne and Nolan head a balanced offense for the Sharks, who have improved record-wise for seven consecutive seasons.

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4. DALLAS

Coach: Dave Tippett, first season.

2001-02 record: 36-28-13-5, 90 points; fourth in Pacific Division, 10th in conference.

Player to watch: Forward Bill Guerin signed as a free agent with the Stars after scoring 41 goals for Boston last season.

Outlook: Perhaps no team changed as much as the Stars, who will feature a high-powered offense under Tippett, a former King assistant. Goodbye to Joe Nieuwendyk, Jamie Langenbrunner, Randy McKay, Donald Audette, Martin Rucinsky, Roman Lyashenko and Brad Lukowich. Hello to Guerin, Phillipe Boucher, Scott Young, Jason Arnott and Manny Malholtra. The Stars, however, will go only as far as goalies Marty Turco and veteran Ron Tugnutt will take them.

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5. VANCOUVER

Coach: Marc Crawford, fifth season.

2001-02 record: 42-30-7-3, 94 points; second in Northwest Division, eighth in conference.

Player to watch: Forward Todd Bertuzzi is coming off a career high 36-goal, 85-point season.

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