It’s every bloggers job to make lofty, grandiose predictions about how the coming NHL season will develop. So I’m not gonna disappoint you. Here they are. Are they insightful? That’s for you to decide. If it makes you feel better, I’ve spent many bored hours at a desk on someone else’s dollar thinking this over.
Unfortunately, here’s the downside: it turns out I’m not very good at these. Last season, I predicted Boston would win the Eastern Conference and that Buffalo, the Rangers, and the Hurricanes would miss the playoffs. Oh, and the Calgary Flames would win the Stanley Cup. So by that logic, call Vegas and put good money on Florida to be drinking from Lord Stanley eight months from now.
1. Buffalo Sabres
Having learned from their exit in the conference final, the Sabres will a better team for it. Should they stay healthy, they’ll be the best club in the Eastern Conference, able to roll four lines that can hurt you, six d-men that can play 20 minutes, and one of the best goaltending tandems in the league. What will be interesting to observe is how they respond in their new role of consensus favorite. They were able to sneak up on a lot of their opponents last season because no one considered them a threat, but once you go to the final four, those days are over. And Buffalo fans, you better hope this year is the one, because with both Daniel Briere and Chris Drury eligible for UFA status in July, this might be your lone kick at the can with this core.
2. New York Rangers.
No one saw this team succeeding last year, yet building around Jagr paid off big time. Adding Brendan Shanahan and Matt Cullen will take their powerplay over the top, and Aaron Ward provides a much needed veteran presence on the blueline. Oh, and all three bring Cup rings, which ideally translates to the others soaking in their wisdom. I’m picking Henrik Lundqvist to win the Vezina and backstop the Rangers to a 100 point season.
3. Carolina Hurricanes
There will be some hangover, which is to be expected, however, the ‘Canes remain the cream of the crop in the Southeast. They still have six likely 20 goal scorers, a balanced blueline, and a goalie who has proven himself capable of carrying a team on his 22-year-old shoulders. The fear those down in Raleigh should have though centers around the scenario where Ward struggles or goes down with an injury. John Grahame is not able to be a number one goalie.
4. Ottawa Senators
People in this city don’t give two shits about regular seasons. We know this. So where the Sens finish is irrelevant as long as it’s in the top eight of the conference. Losing Chara and Havlat hurts, but a full season of Patrick Eaves, an increased role for Antoine Vermette, and the additions of Tom Preissing and Joe Corvo should help alleviate that almost entirely. Can Mike Fisher be a second line center? Is Martin Gerber the answer? These are the pressing questions that will make the season intriguing.
5. New Jersey Devils
Lou Lamorello finally solved the cap issue, and with Brian Gionta back in the fold, the Devils have to be considered a lock another playoff birth, and should give the Rangers some competition for the division title. New head coach Claude Julien leads a team that tore up the second half and largely remains in tact. Having Patrick Elias for the majority of the season will aid their scoring needs, as with a gamebreaker like that, there’s no way they’ll finish 22nd in goals scored again.
6. Atlanta Thrashers
If they actually had NHL caliber goaltending last season, Don Waddell’s guarantee of a franchise first playoff birth would have been realized. The mess that was their netminding situation is the kind of fiasco that, hopefully, only occurs once in a lifetime. They put up 90 points last season. If they have Kari Lehtonen, 95 isn’t out of the question, and 100 isn’t as absurd as you might think. Losing Marc Savard isn’t great, however, it also won’t hurt to the extent you think, and his replacement of sorts, Steve Rucchin, brings leadership that Savard just doesn’t have in his makeup. They’ll score a ton of goals, with the one Achilles’ heel possibly being in the backend, having lost Jaroslav Modry’s 38 points and 20 minutes a game.
7. Philadelphia Flyers
Owner Ed Snyder put out the word that his patience was running thin. Ken Hitchcock’s job is on the line and the unthinkable, Bob Clarke being removed, isn’t so silly as it was previously. Philadelphia is entering a crossroads season and I don’t see it going particularly well. Their goaltending situation remains unsteady, especially with Antero Niittymaki’s questionable health. Taking Eric Desjardins and Keith Primeau’s presence out of that room will hurt and the kids (Jeff Carter, Joni Pitkanen, Mike Richards) aren’t quite ready to take over. Enjoy the one year of Forsberg you have left.
8. Tampa Bay Lightning
Many have theorized that trading for Marc Denis solves Tampa’s problems, but I believe that’s a simplification. Goaltending was certainly their primary issue last season, but it extended beyond that. Despite being loaded with talent on the top lines, they struggled with scoring and their defencemen didn’t go the netminders any favors. Shuffling out Dary Sydor and Pavel Kubina, and replacing them with Filip Kuba and Luke Richardson, has recipe for disaster written all over it. They’ll need monster years from Brad Richards and Vinny Lecavalier to even finish this high.
9. Montreal Canadiens
While it’s hard to believe the Habs won’t win the Cup based on the hype surrounding “Guy” Latendresse, I think the Habs are in for a tough go at it. A lot will depend on Cristobol Huet. I don’t see him collapsing entirely, but I also can’t see how he’ll be able to replicate last season’s successes. And if Huet doesn’t stand on his head, the Habs don’t win. Their D, even with the addition of Janne Niinimaa, is still way too weak and their forwards not committed to doing their part in their own end. You won’t find a bigger fan of Guy Carbonneau than me, but I see his first season being a tough one.
10. Toronto Maple Leafs
I’ll save you the time now Leafs Nation. You don’t even have the write those comments or the nasty emails: I have a bias, I’m a Sens fan, I’d never admit the Leafs will do well. Strangely, I went against the grain last season and thought they’d make the playoffs, and we saw how that went. This time around, I’m not making that mistake. An improved blueline helps, and Andrew Raycroft could rebound in a new environment, however, there just isn’t enough scoring up front. They’ll need huge seasons from Kyle Wellwood, Alex Steen, and Alex Ponikarovsky, and I’m not convinced they’re up to the challenge. JFJ will survive the season though, for those of you in GM death pools.
11. Florida Panthers
The Panthers desperately need a playoff birth to re-ignite a dwindling fanbase, but it’s not gonna happen. They’re moving in the right direction, and adding Bertuzzi means they’ll at least be interesting to follow, however, ultimately, their weakness lies in goal, which is a strange twist of fate for an organization that has been dependent on their goalie for so long. Ed Belfour won’t be able to stay healthy and Alex Auld doesn’t have what it takes to get the job done.
12. Boston Bruins
Talk about hype. The B’s finally throw some paper around and suddenly they’re back in the Cup hunt. Chara will make an already strong defence good, and I like their first line, but scoring beyond those three will be hard to come by. They’re praying Marc Savard rejuvenates Glen Murray, but I don’t see that happening, and after those three, where is the secondary scoring going to come from? Also, Hannu Toivonen is a few years away for starting status while Tim Thomas was an aberration.
13. Pittsburgh Penguins
Pens fans, take relief in the fact that things are getting better. Malkin gives you another weapon, Colby Armstrong looks to be the real deal, and Nils Ekman was a nice addition. But onto the bad news: Marc-Andre Fleury is a flop, Jocelyn Thibault is done as a starter, and the defence that struggled badly last season won’t be much better this time around, unless Mark Eaton turns into a Norris. If you’re expecting that, I got some land to sell you.
14. New York Islanders
The circus in Uniondale continues. Not enough scoring, an overrated and overpaid defence, and a ridiculously overrated goalie make this one of the worst Islander teams since the lowly teams of the mid-90s. Strap in Long Island. It’s not gonna be fun.
15. Washington Capitals
There still isn’t much to this team behind A.O. and Kolzig, which explains why they had to pay Brian Pothier, Ottawa’s sixth defenceman $2.5 million to come there, however, as long as the fans of this team can be patient, there shouldn’t be any major issues. Even if you do end up losing 50 games, you still get to watch the most exciting player on the planet every night, so it’s hard for me to feel too sorry for you.
1. Anaheim Ducks
Consider me one of the many who’s drank the Kool-Aid about the no-longer-Mighty Ducks being loaded for success. While all the talk is about the Chris Pronger-Scott Niedermayer combination, let’s not forget that have a pretty potent offence that can bury whatever opportunities arise. If Selanne and McDonald can replicate their ’05-’06 campaign, the stage is set for the kids to be the sporting cast, and I believe they’re up to it. And they better, because I have Corey Perry in not one but two pools so if he fails there will he hell to pay. Might want to do something about the potential goaltending fiasco though because I see that going sour very quickly.
2. Calgary Flames
Alex Tanguay might be getting too much pressure placed on him, as anytime savior status is dropped onto a player, it has the potential to go horribly, but if nothing else, he gives them a dangerous weapon who can play with Jarome Iginla and not drag him down. Everywhere else they’re set, and should Tanguay bring 30 goals, you’re looking at another 10 points. This is a team that lost a shitload of one goal games last season, and he has the skill to change those situations. I’d feel more comfortable with them if they had Sutter behind the bench still though.
3. Nashville Predators
I may have been a year early predicting it, but the changing of the guard in the Central is in full effect. The Preds have, slowly, built a tremendous team around a core of young players while ushering in some big name veterans to provide the scoring they previously lacked. Jason Arnott may have the biggest single impact of an player signed as a free agent this past offseason, giving them the #1 center they’ve lacked since inception. Finally Paul Kariya has someone to play with, and it’s a guy who will create a lot of open ice for the speedster. I’m still not sold that they’re mature enough as a group to win in the playoffs but they’ll be there during the first 82 games.
4. Dallas Stars
Many are predicting their demise, and I was with you last season, but I see the Stars still being a top team until April. Marty Turco may fold like a cheap tent in the postseason, however, you cannot deny his regular season successes. A big part of that is a loaded defence that remains mostly in tact, as well as a forward group committed to strong play in their own zone. However, they’re gonna have to start winning when it matters most or there will be changes much grander than a new captaincy.
5. San Jose Sharks
The other team in California turned things around wonderfully and are well positioned for another run this season, including plenty of cap space to add firepower where it’s needed. And should they ever decide to stop demanding the farm for Vesa Toskala (did he win a Cup and I missed it?) and get something for him, they instantly get better. I am somewhat skeptical about their blueline, because it’s largely untested, and the ease in which they moved Preissing would concern me a little if I was a Sharks fan, but Doug Wilson has proven himself to be a master of his trade, so who am I to judge?
6. Detroit Red Wings
Like Philly, they’re a team in transition. Not quite yet Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterburg’s team, the old faces from the better days still linger. There’s way too much talent here for the Wings to fall flat on their faces, but I believe the days of 100 point seasons are, for the time being anyway, gone. Good luck with Dominik Hasek. I’m sure that won’t end horribly for all involved, again.
7. Minnesota Wild
No team improved themselves more than the Wild, who finally paid their dedicated fanbase back for their patience and passion by spending some money to get better and return to the playoffs. They brought in two 30 goal scorers in Mark Parrish and Pavol Demitra and improved their powerplay by signing Kim Johnsson, two major holes that hurt them horribly last season. The question is, can Jacques Lemaire coach this team? There’s no point in bringing in offensive minded players, at a high cost, if you’re not going to let them run wild, and I’m not convinced he’s able to adapt. They may need a new bench boss to reach the heights their new lineup allows.
8. Phoenix Coyotes
Besides Minnesota, the ‘Yotes were the next most improved club, and like Florida, they too desperately need a playoff spot ASAP, as they’re on the cusp of being entirely irrelevant. I was very cynical about Wayne Gretzky’s motives when he took the coaching job, thinking it was more about selling tickets than anything else, but the fact he came back after a year from hell says a lot. Curtis Joseph is 39 years old, so to expect him to play 60 games again and contend for the playoffs isn’t rationale, so they may need backup help, but an improved defence (Nick Boynton and Ed Jovanovski instantly make them better) should make his life easier. They may not score at will but won’t struggle to light the lamp as badly if Ladislav Nagy can stay healthy. Oh, and I’m nominating Owen Nolan for comeback player of the season.
9. Edmonton Oilers
It’s a sad state of affairs Edmonton, I know, but after coming within a few goals of the Stanley Cup, they’re gonna miss the playoffs. Dwayne Roloson is in for a wakeup call because I think he’s gonna hit the wall, which won’t be helped by their awful defence. They have cap space and forwards to spare, so it may be shortsighted to judge this team and not the one that emerges in a few months, but as it stands, I think this is a club that’ll lose a lot of 5-4 games.
10. Columbus Blue Jackets
Still a year away, Doug MacLean is collecting a juicy core of ultratalented youngsters who will make this team dangerous in a few. They’ll be able to score at will, but moving Denis placed a lot of pressure on Pascal Leclaire, who’s yet to prove himself as a starter in the league. It would’ve been wise to invest in some blueline help to make the transition easier, but that would require basic common sense, something this franchise has proven to be devoid of time and time again.
11. Vancouver Canucks
For a franchise that’s been a lock for the playoffs, and always mentioned among Cup contenders, it’s got to be strange to now be considered on the outside looking in. They’ve finally solved the goaltending problem, and for many years to come, but in the process sacrificed a ton of goals. With a new coach that has historically placed an emphasis on defence, they may be moving in a new direction. Unfortunately, a lot of the same old faces remain from the previous regime, and the transition to a new system could be a difficult one. Perhaps they need to move out those players before they can take the step in the right direction. The excitement that defined GM Place may now be replaced by low scoring, dare I say dull games.
12. Los Angeles Kings
What are the Kings doing? Are they rebuilding? Are they trying to compete? Do even they know? The Demitra for Patrick O’Sullivan trade, as well as the request Jack Johnson acquisition and rookie Anze Kopitar getting top line duty, would indicate they’re going with a youth movement. However, they also spent significant money on Rob Blake and Alyn MacCauley, as well as signing Dan Cloutier to a pretty silly contract extension. Purgatory is never a good place to be in, and the Kings seem to have a bad identity crisis.
13. Colorado Avalanche
The shit’s gonna hit the fan in Denver. Pierre Lacroix’s exit truly marked the end of the era, though the fact only two players remain from their cup win five years ago should’ve told that story on it’s own. Colorado’s been hit hardest by the salary cap, losing key players are replacing them with laughable pylons. I thought Patrice Brisebois and Pierre Turgeon was as bad as it could get, but when you realize they have Tyler Arnason as their second line center, you know all you need to about their prospects this season. Jose Theodore will have to commit hockey robbery on most nights for them to reach the playoffs, and I think those days have passed him by.
14. Chicago Blackhawks
When they traded for Martin Havlat, I thought you could rationale the big contract by realizing that it would provide excitement to a fanbase which needs it pretty badly. Alas, that excitement lasted all of a few weeks, and reality set in. The Hawks still aren’t good enough to compete. They don’t have any scoring depth, which can be seen by either Bryan Smolinski or Michal Handszus on their top line, and Nikolai Khabibulin’s been exposed as all hype. Expect plenty of empty seats in the United Center once again.
15. St. Louis Blues
What are they doing? I have the utmost respect for John Davidson, but surely you’d think the last thing they needed was a team full of veterans on their last legs, yet by bringing back Doug Weight and signing Bill Guerin, that’s exactly what they did. And the worst part is, beyond those wrinkled vets, they have very little offence. They’ll get another top pick at least. That’s something to look forward to.
Anaheim over the Rangers.