Friday, September 22, 2006
Five people to watch this season
By Linda Cohn
Special to ESPN.com
While I am knee-deep into football season (covering both college and the NFL on TV side), I am starting to feel the buzz that can only mean hockey is around the corner. So, what better way to get even more pumped about hockey than to reach out to you, the fans, here at ESPN.com?
We'll have a lot to talk about, so check out the column every Friday. Let's get started!
Each season gives every team a fresh start. It also puts a few players and coaches on my NHL radar. Here are five people I'll be watching this season.
After entering the postseason as the top seed in the West, only to lose in the first round to the pesky Edmonton Oilers, the Detroit Red Wings had to do something this offseason. That something was bringing back The Dominator, Dominik Hasek, since goaltending was not Detroit's strength in the playoffs last season.
Were the Red Wings that desperate? Was the goalie pool that thin? Everything else is in place in Detroit, but with Hasek getting a lot of playing time, at age 41 no less, can he make it through an entire season? I am going to be checking the box scores every night to see how he does, to see if he can stay healthy. If I am a Red Wings fan, especially after Hasek's injury woes last season, I am concerned about Detroit's goaltending. We know Hasek's a winner, but when you're talking about a netminder, it's hard to stay healthy. Look at the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist last season. He was young, he had a great start, but the wear and tear caught up with him.
I've watched Brendan Shanahan in a couple of games this preseason, and I know it's early, but he looked strong for the Rangers. The skating ability is there and he makes pinpoint passes. The winger doesn't look 37. I also think he's come to embrace the challenge of taking on a leadership role in New York, a leader the Rangers desperately need. Shanahan also seems to be relishing life off the ice in the Big Apple. He's walking his kids to school, he's riding the subway, he's talking to the fans. He loves it. It also doesn't hurt that one of his best friends, former Rangers star Adam Graves, is in town. You can bet Gravy had a hand in recruiting Shanahan.
Shanahan is going to help this power play and he's going to take pressure off Jaromir Jagr and Michael Nylander. He'll find the open man. He'll also help make Petr Prucha better in his sophomore season. And the fact that Shanahan signed a one-year deal shows he is committed to winning (it also shows the Rangers have learned their lesson). He could have gone to a lot of places, but he knows he has a legitimate shot at winning a Cup in New York. It's also kind of cool that Shanahan will reach the 600-goal plateau in a Blueshirt.
After all of the offseason distractions, big defenseman Chris Pronger now has a chance to focus on the task at hand: bringing the Anaheim Ducks back to the Cup finals. I believe Pronger can be the kind of leader Paul Kariya was when he was with the Ducks -- the kind of never-say-die, impose-your-will-on-the-opposition type of leader. (Remember Kariya in Game 6 of the 2003 Stanley Cup finals!?! After taking that hard hit from the Devils' Scott Stevens, he came back and helped force a Game 7. Oh, if only the Ducks could have pulled out a Cup win, but I digress!)
Pronger's leadership, plus what he learned from his run with the Oilers last season, has to trickle down to the rest of the team. I don't think he's washed up, I don't think he'll be distracted on the ice. I don't think Southern California will sidetrack him. He'll get the Ducks back on the Cup track.
One of my favorite players in the league is forward Scott Walker, who will start the season in a new home after being traded by the Predators to the Cup champion Hurricanes.
He's only 5-foot-10, but Walker makes up for it with his great skating and speed. He helped make the Predators a watchable team last season. And the new rules help Walker, who loves the more open ice. He's one of those underdog players you love rooting for, so he'll be on my radar. Many GMs talk about taking chances the season following a Cup win. While the Hurricanes didn't make a splash this offseason (something that didn't hurt them before the 2005-06 season, either), Walker is the type of quiet acquisition that can be a difference maker over the long haul.
You don't have to know a lot about hockey to know the raw deal Ted Nolan has received over the years. He made a strong impression when he started in the league over 10 years ago, he won Coach of the Year honors in 1997, and then he was an outcast. Why?! So with his return to NHL coaching, even die-hard Rangers fans have to root for the new Islanders bench man.
We all scratched our heads this offseason with all of the Islanders' crazy moves (the hiring and firing of GM Neil Smith, the hiring of new GM Garth Snow, the 15-year deal to Rick DiPietro). But, they did stick to their guns and stuck with Nolan as their coach. Nolan seems motivated, and with role players like Brendan Witt and Mike Sillinger added to the lineup, he'll have more role players that can buy into and help implement his game plan. Don't be surprised, despite all the offseason turmoil, if this team gets off to a decent start. Will it last? I don't know, but I think Nolan will start off well.
Hooked on hockey, Linda Cohn is an anchor for ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNEWS. She has been with the network since 1992 and promises a gluttony of glove saves in her weekly column.