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WESTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW

No One Writing It Off to Avalanche

October 06, 2003|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

Pierre Lacroix is the luckiest general manager in the NHL.

When Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne became free agents and decided to become teammates again, they deposited themselves on Lacroix's doorstep with a price tag of $7 million, a Christmas present in July.

But don't concede the Stanley Cup to the Avalanche just yet.

There's still the matter of how Colorado will replace Patrick Roy, who retired after setting a slew of NHL goaltending records. It might not matter much until the playoffs, because the Avalanche has enough scoring punch to win 6-4 games instead of the 2-1 snoozers most coaches prefer.

The Detroit Red Wings, stung by a first-round playoff loss to the Ducks, are counting on six-time Vezina Trophy winner Dominik Hasek to carry them again, no sure bet with an aging defense in front of him. Dallas, which lost defense stalwarts Derian Hatcher and Darryl Sydor, might not match last season's conference-leading 111 points but has the size, skill and goaltending to be a major force.

The Ducks and Minnesota Wild, unlikely conference finalists last spring, will be pressed from the outset to prove they're for real. As of Sunday, Minnesota hadn't re-signed top scorers Marian Gaborik and Pascal Dupuis and had lost energetic winger Richard Park to a knee injury; the Ducks open without winger Mike Leclerc (knee surgery) and defense anchor Keith Carney (broken foot). Jean-Sebastien Giguere, voted the playoff MVP after the Ducks' seven-game Stanley Cup finals loss to New Jersey, will be watched closely to see whether his magic vanishes with the introduction of new rules governing goalies' equipment.

The top five or six teams figure to be tightly bunched, but the rest of the pack might be well behind while Phoenix, San Jose and Calgary rebuild around kids.

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VANCOUVER CANUCKS

Coach: Marc Crawford, sixth season.

2002-03 record: 45-23-13-1, 104 points, second in Northwest, fourth in conference.

Player to watch: Actually two -- twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin. They showed glimpses of their vaunted skills last season but must be consistent.

Outlook: Tightening up on defense might start the Canucks on a long playoff run. Free-agent winger Magnus Arvedson, a fine two-way player, was a good addition to a prolific offense that includes Todd Bertuzzi (46 goals, 97 points) and scoring race runner-up Markus Naslund (48 goals, 104 points). Ed Jovanovski has revived his career and become a force on defense. General Manager Brian Burke created competition by acquiring goalie Johan Hedberg from Pittsburgh to back up Dan Cloutier, who yielded too many bad goals during last spring's second-round loss to Minnesota.

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DETROIT RED WINGS

Coach: Dave Lewis, second season.

2002-03 record: 48-20-10-4, 110 points, first in Central, second in conference.

Player to watch: Can Dominik Hasek regain his dominating form after a year of retirement? The Red Wings want to trade Curtis Joseph and the $16 million he is owed the next two seasons but will have to pay a portion of the money to get him off their hands.

Outlook: They lost Sergei Fedorov and Igor Larionov as free agents, but the Red Wings -- who led the NHL last season with 269 goals -- say they will focus on defense. Henrik Zetterberg, last season's top-scoring rookie with 22 goals and 44 points, and Pavel Datsyuk will play bigger roles. Rookie center Jiri Hudler is promising too. Derian Hatcher, signed as a free agent, is the mean, hard-hitting defenseman they have lacked since Vladimir Konstantinov's tragic car accident.

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MIGHTY DUCKS

Coach: Mike Babcock, second season.

2002-03 record: 40-27-9-6, 95 points, second in Pacific, seventh in conference.

Player to watch: Sergei Fedorov left Detroit to play a bigger role in Anaheim, not merely for more minutes. Here's his chance to be the go-to guy offensively and overall leader.

Outlook: General Manager Bryan Murray wasn't idle after his team won the West title. He lost Paul Kariya by not making a $10-million qualifying offer but arguably improved the team by signing Fedorov (36 goals, 83 points) and winger Vaclav Prospal (22 goals, 79 points). Playoff MVP Jean-Sebastien Giguere signed a four-year, $19.5-million deal on the eve of training camp. The solid defense is led by Keith Carney, Ruslan Salei and young Kurt Sauer. Another experienced forward to replace Adam Oates and Steve Thomas might help, but Murray has depth to deal.

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COLORADO AVALANCHE

Coach: Tony Granato, second season.

2002-03 record: 42-19-13-8, 105 points, first in Northwest, third in conference.

Player to watch: In this case players, as in free-agent signees Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. They wanted to play together and have free rein offensively, but defense rules in the NHL these days.

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