New look for NHL in 2001-02

Offseason changes leave questions to be answered on the ice

Posted: Sunday, September 30, 2001

The landscape of the NHL has changed so much in a year, it might as well be a brand new league.

Mario Lemieux returns for his first full season in five years. Wayne Gretzky is back, too, as an executive in Phoenix. For the first time since 1979, Ray Bourque isn't playing -- and isn't chasing the Stanley Cup. Will any fan forget the image of Bourque, a tear running down his cheek, hoisting the trophy he pursued for a lifetime?

Eric Lindros is wearing a new blue shirt, hopeful his concussions and months of acrimonious relations with his former employers, the Flyers, finally are over now that he's with the Rangers.

Jaromir Jagr has changed colors, too, leaving Pittsburgh behind after 11 years and five NHL scoring titles to try to put hockey on the front page in Washington. That could be difficult: After realizing he couldn't compete in Pittsburgh with Lemieux's popularity, he now must go head-to-head at the box office with a guy named Michael Jordan.

In perhaps the most intriguing moves of all, Detroit's assembly line of aging stars added more big names, and they're about as big as they get: Dominik Hasek and Brett Hull, plus Luc Robitaille, too.

The Red Wings have more potential Hall of Famers than any team in sports (and a Hall of Fame coach in Scotty Bowman). The trouble is, most could be joining the hall relatively soon -- seven are 35 or over.

The Colorado Avalanche, once seen as a collection of high-priced stars who couldn't win the big game, are the defending champs. They're nearly all back, too, except for the now-retired Bourque and the tired-out Peter Forsberg, who may sit out the season after having his spleen removed during the playoffs.

However, the Avalanche still have plenty of stars, thanks to the $100 million-plus in contracts signed by Joe Sakic, Rob Blake and Patrick Roy not long after they raised the Stanley Cup.

The New Jersey Devils, who couldn't hold a 3-2 lead in the finals, are contenders again rather than champs. They're virtually unchanged, too, except for losing 43-goal scorer Alexander Mogilny to Toronto.

Very much changed are the other two New York metro teams, the Rangers (Lindros) and Islanders (Alexei Yashin, Michael Peca), who have new stars and, as always, new hope.

So many story lines and the Olympics, too, which will shut down the league in February for only the second time ever. Then, teammates will become opponents (the Penguins alone have players for Canada, the Czech Republic, Russia, Finland and Sweden) and a gold medal, not a silver cup, will become the sought-after prize.

Speaking of gold, a lot of players grabbed it in an offseason filled with more big-money signings than ever -- Yashin's $90 million and Sakic's $50 million-plus deals for starters. (Even Martin Lapointe, a modest scorer, got $20 million from Boston.)

There were so many big contracts, some wonder if the NHL can dare wait until its labor deal expires in 2004 to establish a salary ceiling that owners and players can live with in a sport that, unlike the NFL, NBA and baseball, can't live off its TV dollars.

But even after a seemingly endless flurry of star-player movement (Pierre Turgeon from St. Louis to Dallas also was a huge move), the most-watched player will be one who stayed put: Lemieux.

His unexpected comeback in December was even better than he imagined. He easily led the league in per-game scoring and carried the Penguins to the Eastern Conference finals, even with minimal contribution during the playoffs from a distracted and soon-to-depart Jagr.

Now, Lemieux is a year older (36 on Oct. 5) but nearly 20 pounds lighter than when he returned and, he says, is in the best shape of his career.

The challenge now is to do it for a full season again, something he hasn't done since 1996-97, without a five-time scoring champion (Jagr) skating beside him.

''He's skating as well as he skated back in the day,'' linemate Kevin Stevens said. ''He's really going to have a huge year. He's flying.''

The charismatic yet complicated Jagr, who desperately wanted a change of address despite his enormous success in Pittsburgh, seems to have settled in well in Washington. Of course, how he functions over the long haul in a team-first system not accustomed to coddling stars might determine if he wins another scoring title.

''It's going to be exciting having him on our team and not having to play against him,'' Capitals defenseman Brendan Witt said. ''Now we have the big scorer that we need.''

Of course, the Rangers, Islanders and Stars are saying the same thing.

Other questions to be answered as the NHL starts its new season barely 3 1/2 months after ending its last one:

-- Are three talented centers too many? The Flyers, who already had Keith Primeau, will find out after adding Jeremy Roenick and Czech center Jiri Dopita following Lindros' departure. So will the Stars after adding Turgeon to a roster that already included Mike Modano and Joe Nieuwendyk.

-- Will there be enough pucks to go around in Washington? Jagr likes to have the puck on his stick, and not just some of the time, a major adjustment for a Capitals team that loves to move the puck quickly.

''There's been a lot of dialogue ... with what he wants us to do,'' Capitals center Trevor Linden said. ''In the offensive zone, he doesn't like you to come to his side or be too close because he wants to be more one-on-one, kind of like a clear-out in basketball.''

-- How badly will the Avs miss the locker-room presence of Bourque, who refused to let them get down or distracted even when they were a game away from elimination in the finals?

-- Is Buffalo in for a big fall without the Dominator and Peca, who signed with the Islanders after sitting out last season in a contract dispute?

-- Can the reunited Bure brothers (Pavel and Valeri) get the Florida Panthers back in the playoffs?

-- Is the balance of power still in the West? The Western Conference has won five of the last six Stanley Cups and looks as talented, deep and competitive as ever.

Even the Kings, barely noticed when the playoffs began, had a nice run during the postseason.

-- Did the Maple Leafs add enough (Mogilny, Travis Green, Robert Reichel and Mikael Renberg) to get back into the playoffs?

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