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Pierre's Picks - Cup contenders

The Reminder is making its archives back to 2003 available on our website. Please note that, due to technical limitations, archive articles are presented without the usual formatting.

The Reminder is making its archives back to 2003 available on our website. Please note that, due to technical limitations, archive articles are presented without the usual formatting.

With the dog days of summer officially over, fans are breathing a collective sigh of relief and looking ahead to the 2003-04 NHL season. No more reflecting on what went right and wrong with their favourite NHL teams. No more surfing the waiver wire. No more keeping a handle on all the off-season wheelings and dealings. It's time to get down to the business of hockey. It's also time for hockey analysts, like myself, to earn our keep by trading in our depth charts for crystal balls and forecasting who's going to bring home Lord Stanley. Here we go! Beasts of the East The Eastern Conference boasts three teams with legitimate Cup-calibre lineups: the Ottawa Senators, Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils. Leading the East Coast pack is the Senators Ð a team once considered an NHL choke joke for their inexplicable ability to tear up the regular season, only to find themselves on the golf course after the first round of the Playoffs. But 2002-03 turned the jeers to cheers in Ottawa after a breakout season that saw the Sens come within one game, or more specifically Ð one goal, of the Stanley Cup final. Ottawa's recent success can be attributed to a farm system that drafts well and a rare ability to maintain a core of key players throughout the past five or six years. The Sens have finally learned to play as a team and their lineup is full of quality two-way players, including team captain Daniel Alfredsson, Marian Hossa and Radek Bonk. And with young guns Jason Spezza and Antoine Vermette, the Sens come into the season with solid depth up the middle. The Philadelphia Flyers are another Eastern Conference team with a promising post-season future. With a solid coaching staff led by veteran NHL guru Ken Hitchcock, hard-nosed veterans in Jeremy Roenick, Tony Amonte and Keith Primeau, and a penalty kill that refuses to quit, the Flyers are a tough team to beat Ð especially on home ice. Signing Jeff Hackett, one of the most underrated goaltenders in the league, should give Philly the necessary confidence required for playoff success. Last but certainly not least in the East, the defending Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils are a force to be reckoned with on all fronts. Last year, the Devils won their third Cup in nine years. This year, they come into the season with all of the key ingredients to repeat as champions: veteran leader Scott Stevens, game-breaking youngsters Patrik Elias, Scott Gomez and Jamie Langenbrunner, and 2002-03 Vezina Trophy winner Martin Brodeur. If the dynasty continues, the League will have to start issuing Stanley Cup rings fitted for thumbs. The wild, wild West The only problem in the Western Conference this season is a logjam of legitimate Cup contenders Ð the most obvious being the Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings. With the blockbuster off-season signings that saw Derian Hatcher shore up Detroit's already all-star quality blue line, and the one-two punch of Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya joining Colorado, you can bet both recent Stanley Cup champions will be back in business come April of 2004. The only difference separating the two clubs is that one expects a healthy and rested Dominik Hasek manning the pipes, while the other heads into the season with unproven fourth-year youngster David Aebischer (former back-up to the recently retired Patrick Roy). This means the Wings have an opportunity to acquire some quality starters in a trade for $8-million goaltender Curtis Joseph, while the Avs run the risk of being forced to make some mid-season moves to shore up the blue ice should Aebischer not pan out. But that's only the tip of the Western Conference iceberg. The Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota Wild and Anaheim Mighty Ducks are all dangerous teams with legitimate shots at a run for the Cup. They possess speed, size, depth and foot soldiers Ð the cornerstones of NHL greatness. With all eight of those teams healthy, rejuvenated and firing on all cylinders this season, it's hard to say who's going to come out on top. But it's safe to say that with so much talent packed into one Conference, there's going to be one heckuva shootout in the wild, wild West. And the winner is? A lot can happen in an NHL season. From injuries to dressing room debacles to contract disputes and front office upheavals, there are a variety of unforeseeable circumstances that can plunge a team from first place to last in less than a heartbeat. The true Cup quest is overcoming adversity, and it is the team with the will, desire and strength to battle through the ups and downs that has the best shot at hockey's ultimate prize. This year, that team is the Ottawa Senators. As mentioned, the Sens are a cohesive unit. From the first line to the fourth, their lineup is unrelenting. They have a core group of players who are talented, confident, motivated and remain loyal to the organization. It isn't often you see a team stay together through lean years and ownership struggles, but the Sens have managed to overcome those hardships. If head coach Jacques Martin can find a way to build on last year's momentum, the Ottawa Senators should be the next Stanley Cup champions. Only time Ð and a punishing 82-game regular season schedule Ð will tell.