UKRAINIAN PRO HOCKEY UPDATE

by Ihor Stelmach


Below is the conclusion of a two-part mini-preview of the 2005-2006 National Hockey League Season. (Beginning with last week's issue, teams are listed from best to worst.)


NEW YORK ISLANDERS

Key ingredients: Newly appointed captain Alexei Yashin, newly acquired ex-Sabre captain Miroslav Satan, goalkeeper Rick DiPietro and a couple of new Islander defensemen (see below).

Recipe for success: Highly touted goaltender DiPietro must deliver on his promise. He has become the heart and soul of the team's dressing room despite playing only 86 NHL games. Yashin must perform consistently without Peca around to prod him.

Ukrainian flavor: Free-agent blueliners Alexei Zhitnik and Brad Lukowich aim to replace the team's top three defensemen, who departed as free agents. Look for Zhitnik to experience a rebirth on the point, while his partner, Lukowich, covers for him in a more defensive role.

DALLAS STARS

Key ingredients: Mike Modano and his team of 30-somethings, Jere Lehtinen, Bill Guerin, Jason Arnott, Stu Barnes, et al, insist older can be better. Sergei Zubov leads a younger defense corps. Marty Turco shined in 2003-2004 with 37 wins in regular season.

Recipe for success: Coach Dave Tippett can't let the pressure get to him, as this team has underachieved in each of his two seasons. Leaders Modano and Zubov must help Stars fine tune with young talent, but still win.

Ukrainian flavor: David Bararuk, a mid-round draftee, toils away in the AHL.

ANAHEIM MIGHTY DUCKS

Key ingredients: Sergei Fedorov, Teemu Selanne and Petr Sykora hope there's still something left in their tanks. The Niedermayer brothers are united at last, while J.S. Giguere hopes to overcome his confidence crisis that followed his Conn Smythe Trophy performance in 2003.

Recipe for success: The Ducks must score their share of goals with their potential fire power up front. Fedorov must light it up. Up-tempo style will put onus on blueline and goalie.

Ukrainian flavor: Vitaly Vishnevski is rated as a very nice stay-at-home defender capable of adding some offense. Todd Fedoruk was brought in to protect linemates Fedorov and Selanne. Minor leaguer Zenon Konopka earned spot on extended roster after netting 46 points and 212 penalty minutes for Cincinnati (AHL) last year. He's only 24.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

Key ingredients: League's top one-on-one forward is Rick Nash. At age 19, he tied for league lead in goals with 41 in 2003-2004. New rearguards Adam Foote and Bryan Berard brought a lacking element of distinction to a green franchise. Young Pascal Leclaire will push Mark Denis for playing time in goal.

Recipe for success: Need production from revamped power play. Foote, Nash, Zherdev and company need to respond now that new collective bargaining agreement has leveled playing field for clubs like the Blue Jackets.

Ukrainian flavor: Ukrainian right winger Nikolai Zherdev has been described as a "dervish with the puck." Only 20, he is a 2003 first-round pick whom G.M. Doug MacLean calls "as good a talent as I've seen in my career." Paired with Rick Nash, this may be the league's top young scoring tandem.

ATLANTA THRASHERS

Key ingredients: Arguably the most exciting player in the league, Ilya Kovalchuk, just re-signed for five years. Marian Hossa comes over from Ottawa in the Dany Heatley deal. Bobby Holik is still another new Thrasher; Slava Kozlov returns.

Recipe for success: Young goaltender Kari Lehtonen must show he's ready to team with a somewhat unproven defense. If Atlanta is tough to score against, they may win their fair share of matches. Scott Mellanby and Holik must lead for this franchise to qualify for their first post-season.

Ukrainian flavor: Giving the club a bargain deal, winger Peter Bondra hopes the payoff will be the playoffs.

LOS ANGELES KINGS

Key ingredients: New arrivals Jeremy Roenick, Craig Conroy, Valeri Bure and Pavol Demitra meet holdovers Luc Robitaille, Alexander Frolov and Dustin Brown. Two new goalies: the unproven Mathieu Garon and Jason LaBarbera. No turnover on defense.

Recipe for success: Two new goalies need to win more than Roman Cechmanek did in 2003-2004. Youngsters Frolov and Mike Cammalleri must step up. Mattias Norstrom and Aaron Miller must lead solid defense group.

Ukrainian flavor: None.

MINNESOTA WILD

Key ingredients: Goalies Wayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez; new centermen Brian Rolston and Todd White; game-breaking scoring threat Marian Gaborik.

Recipe for success: Wild have lots of speed; see if conservative coach Jacques Lemaire takes advantage of it. Long-term future bright, but expect lots of growing pains for 20-something team.

Ukrainian flavor: None.

ST. LOUIS BLUES

Key ingredients: Veteran scorers Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight and Dallas Drake. Nice mix at defense with Eric Brewer, Eric Weinrich and Barret Jackman. Big question mark in goal with ex-Senator Patrick Lalime.

Recipe for success: If Blues hope to extend their 26-year playoff streak, they'll have to develop or acquire marksmen at bargain prices. With the club up for sale, payroll will kept to a minimum.

Ukrainian flavor: Aforementioned Tkachuk is only 20+ goal scorer left on roster; young defenseman Jeff Woywitka came over in Pronger deal with Edmonton and should finally stick in NHL; draftees Roman Polak (D) and Lee Stempniak (F) returned to juniors and college hockey, respectively.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Key ingredients: Owner/captain Mario Lemieux returns for still another season at age 39; "the next Great One," Sidney Crosby, is supposed to rescue the NHL from obscurity; Ziggy Palffy, John LeClair, Mark Recchi and Sergei Gonchar are new Penguins.

Recipe for success: New goalie Jocelyn Thibault must get healthy and buy some time for future goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Lemieux also needs good health with the hope that 10 new players, together with the rest of the roster, blend into three solid lines and three sets of defenders, including a penalty-killing unit and a checking line.

Ukrainian flavor: Minor league defenseman Ross Lupaschuk returns yet again to Wilkes-Barre (AHL), while Jonathan Filewich concludes his junior hockey career.

BUFFALO SABRES

Key ingredients: Centers Daniel Briere and Chris Drury; right wingers J.P. Dumont and Maxim Afinogenov; goaltenders Ryan Miller and Martin Biron.

Recipe for success: After several brutal seasons, management is attempting to rebuild with a youth movement. Drury needs to be a strong leader, while rookie Thomas Vanek (42 goals in AHL last year) must do it where it really counts.

Ukrainian flavor: None.

NEW YORK RANGERS

Key ingredients: NHL's highest-paid player, Jaromir Jagr; proven scorers Martin Straka and Martin Rucinsky; set-up men Michael Nylander and Steve Rucchin; hitman Darius Kasparaitis; and a Russian force on defense, Fedor Tyutin.

Recipe for success: Must locate some goaltending somewhere (Kevin Weekes and rookie Henrik Lundqvist begin the season in net). Experts claim any fortunes for the Blueshirts revolve around the mercurial Jagr. This rebuilding drags on and on and on.

Ukrainian flavor: Draftee Rich Kozak starts his first professional season in Charlotte (ECHL) with returning defenseman Rory Rawlyk.

PHOENIX COYOTES

Key ingredients: New head coach Wayne Gretzky hopes he can speed up the rebuilding process. Goaltender Curtis Joseph, defenseman Sean O'Donnell, forwards Petr Nedved and Mike Ricci all new Coyotes. Shar Doan, Ladislav Nagy and defender Derek Morris are top returnees.

Recipe for success: Score, and score often, in the wide-open system Phoenix intends to play. Hope defense and Joseph can limit scoring chances and make key saves on opposition. With time, "The Great One" will help the franchise on and off the ice.

Ukrainian flavor: Phoenix's managing general partner for hockey operations and new head coach, Wayne Gretzky. Will he be as good behind the bench as he was on the ice?

CAROLINA HURRICANES

Key ingredients: Centers Rod Brind Amour and Eric Staal; right wingers Cory Stillman and Eric Cole; defensemen Glen Wesley and Brett Hedican.

Recipe for success: Improve very poor penalty kill and worst power play. Career back-up goalie Martin Gerber and unproven youngster Cam Ward start season as netminding tandem. Coach Peter Laviolette will need maximum effort from charges for playoff berth.

Ukrainian flavor: Blueliner Oleg Tverdovsky, a puck-mover, was brought back from a lucrative two-year exile in Russia. No. 7 future prospect Kevin Nastiuk was a recent recall (and quick return) to the big club when Gerber got hurt. Nastiuk was the 126th overall pick in 2003. He got a quick nip of the NHL at age 20.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Key ingredients: 2004's top overall draft choice Alexander Ovechkin makes his long-awaited NHL debut for a stripped-down franchise. Third-liner Chris Clark must be overjoyed with his arrival from Calgary in a trade. Brendan Witt has requested a trade out of D.C., while long-time netminder Olaf Kolzig wonders whether he wants to retire a Capital.

Recipe for success: Caps have very far to go - their only asset may be their youthful energy. Kolzig could get a decent return in a trade. If Ovechkin has any type of linemate support, he could challenge Sidney Crosby for Rookie of the Year.

Ukrainian flavor: 2005 draft choice Sasha Pokulok, 13th overall out of Cornell University, is a towering defenseman with a punishing physical game and surprising mobility for a big guy.


Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, November 13, 2005, No. 46, Vol. LXXIII


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