Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Into The Crystal Ball: 2009-10 Season Edition

It’s that time of year again- the leaves are changing colours, the temperature is unfortunately dropping and in two months we’ll start talking about snow again (fun!). The good news? Hockey season starts on Thursday and, to get you set for it, here’s my patented Crystal Ball™ prediction for the 2009-10 season.

First up, the Eastern Conference, its order of finish and how their playoffs will go.

1. Boston Bruins. Sure, the loss of Phil Kessel is going to hurt, but even without him, the Bruins are the most complete team in the Eastern Conference. They have one of the best playmakers in the game today (Marc Savard) alongside a potent cast of physical, mobile forwards (David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Michael Ryder and Milan Lucic) backed up by the feared (and lethal) defenceman Zdeno Chara. Furthermore, several of their youngsters like Blake Wheeler and Matt Hunwick on defence look primed to continue their upswing and will either be stars this year or in the future. The situation in goal appears set with last season’s Vezina winner Tim Thomas (who is good but wasn’t as good as his numbers suggested) and youngster Tuukka Rask waiting in the wings, so the Bruins appear set not just for this year but for several years to come. Boston’s speed issues (especially on defence) are still a concern, but they appear as ready a Stanley Cup contender as they’ve ever been.


2. Philadelphia Flyers. Many in Philadelphia thought the Flyers needed major changes after losing to their arch-nemesis Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 1 last year, and while that loss stung, it shouldn’t have been unexpected- I mean, the Penguins defeated them in the 2008 playoffs as well. It just showed that the Flyers didn’t improve since 2008. Are the Flyers a better team now? The Atlantic Division looks to be a tough race with three teams in the mix- the Flyers, the New Jersey Devils and the New York Rangers- and while Philadelphia still has some holes up front, the Flyers should prevail in the Atlantic based on the fact they’re the only ones with a competent defence. Chris Pronger adds instant credibility to the blueline as the picture-perfect Flyer, and Kimmo Timonen’s vision and passing skills will give the forward corps- led by Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne and Daniel Briere, plus the tough Scott Hartnell- ample opportunities to bury as many goals as they wish. The only question mark is in goal- is Ray Emery really the answer? “Razor” has earned more publicity for laughingstock-inducing antics, such as forgetting to set his alarm clock correctly and missing practice, than for his actual on-ice play, which is overhyped but may be competent enough for the Flyers. Emery (and his alarm clock) will be under the microscope all season long.


3. Carolina Hurricanes. Carolina only places here because there’s nowhere else to put them- the Southeast, once thought of as having potential to be the strongest division in hockey, has again reverted back to the “South-least”. That said, there’s no reason why they can’t be a comfortable playoff team again this season, because the team- led by forward Eric Staal, defenceman Joni Pitkanen and goaltender Cam Ward- is as fast as they come, plus Ward finally looks to be banking on the potential he had in the 2006 playoffs. The only problem is that this team still isn’t very deep, because after Staal and (maybe) Ray Whitney, they have an army of speedsters better suited to penalty-killing and defence than offence. Still, they roared up the standings late in 2009 and that’s not something that can be ignored- the question will be if they can sustain it over a full season and not in spurts.


4. New York Rangers. In replacing Scott Gomez with Marian Gaborik and Markus Naslund with Ales Kotalik, the Rangers are simply maintaining the status quo- a relatively small team with an army of dependable scoring forwards and a defence corps that’s serviceable if not spectacular; all backed up by one of the best goaltenders in the game in Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers probably have a shot at the Atlantic Division crown considering the Flyers took a step back in the offseason (despite signing Pronger, as the Flyers have yet to replace Scottie Upshall and Joffrey Lupul effectively), but I want to see if this team can gel first before I give them the crown.


5. New Jersey Devils. If it wasn’t for a certain legendary goaltender who happened to be the son of a photographer at the old Montreal Forum, this could be a long season for the Devils. Instead, Martin Brodeur is back and should be ready to go for a full season, having missed most of last season because of an injured shoulder. Brodeur will definitely want to prove he’s still capable of producing, and should have extra motivation with the Olympics around the corner. In front of him isn’t much though. Aside from forwards Zach Parise, Patrik Elias, Jamie Langenbrunner and Travis Zajac, there’s not much scoring punch, and the defence corps look average at best; plus without John Madden anchoring the checking this season, the defending might not be as fluid as it was last season, though newcomer Rob Niedermayer should steady that ship somewhat. Still, the Devils will be out to show they won’t break down defensively like they did in the playoffs last year and as long as they have Brodeur, they’ll always be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.


6. Buffalo Sabres. Make no mistake, as the Puck Daddy blog stated once in April, “it says here that if Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek (stay healthy) the Sabres are a playoff team”. I couldn’t agree more. Buffalo was comfortably in the playoffs when Miller was upended by Gomez in late February and though Miller returned in time to finish the season, the Sabres fell so far out of the playoff picture their star goaltender couldn’t save them. There were no major moves in the Queen City this offseason, outside of the overpaid Jaroslav Spacek and Maxim Afinogenov leaving as a free agent to Montreal and Atlanta, respectively, and Steve Montador coming from Boston, so this team- led by skilful forwards Vanek, Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, Tim Connolly and Drew Stafford- is largely unchanged from a year ago and- barring more health mishaps (not a guarantee, especially with Connolly)- this team should be a playoff team in 2010.


7. Toronto Maple Leafs. What, the Crystal Ball says the Leafs will be in the playoffs? This thing must be broken (checks)...no it’s not. Yeah, it’s surprising but with the addition of Phil Kessel and a slew of new defencemen like Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin, the Leafs finally look like a team that will do more than just be competitive every night. The forwards are still weak behind Kessel and Jason Blake, but the defence corps- what really matters- is finally strong. In addition to bruisers Komisarek, Beauchemin, second-year player Jonas Frogren and newcomer Garnett Exelby (a quality defender unlike his replacement, the pylon Pavel Kubina), the Leafs also have the underappreciated Tomas Kaberle, last year’s wunderkind Luke Schenn (a future elite defencemen), the dependable Ian White and Mike van Ryn (when he’s healthy), and Jeff Finger who can fill in for spot duty. That’s nine quality NHL defencemen on one team- ample trading chips to reinforce the forward corps. Goaltending looks solid on the surface with Vesa Toskala and newcomer Jonas Gustavsson, but there are questions such as, “is Gustavsson ready? Was Toskala’s poor statistical season the result of poor defending (I think it was)?” The Leafs are still not ready for the Cup but- finally- they appear to be headed in the right direction.


8. Montreal Canadiens. Out goes the mercurial Alexei Kovalev, the declining Saku Koivu and Alex Tanguay and in comes Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta. That’s a whole new first line in one off-season. Also in are Paul Mara (Rangers), Jaroslav Spacek (Sabres) and Hal Gill (Penguins), meaning the only returning starters are goaltender Carey Price (himself very mercurial) and All-Star defenceman Andrei Markov. Usually playoff teams don’t make such wholesale changes, but after Montreal terribly underperformed last season, drastic changes were necessary. On paper, there’s enough to suggest to a return to prominence, but with so many new additions they’ll need time to gel, so this year is going to be a “feeling out process” before the real fireworks begin.


9. Ottawa Senators. Lots was made of the “surprising” fall of the Senators, but as I outlined once already in my blog, it shouldn’t have been so unexpected- this was a team that had just one line of scoring, no goaltending and no defencemen; plus they had made no significant changes (Jason Smith doesn’t count) after playing so poorly down the stretch in 2007-08. Ottawa would address its shortcomings late last season and in the off-season, acquiring Chris Campoli and Alexei Kovalev as well as dealing Dany Heatley, even if it was acrimonious. Say what you want about Heatley’s trade request, but the truth is one of the “Big Three” (Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson) had to go for more depth. Fans would have preferred the defensively-challenged Spezza and I would have preferred the aging Alfredsson, but trading Heatley for Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo was still a nice haul. Michalek, Cheechoo and Kovalev should replace the offence Heatley provided, meaning that Ottawa should have more than just one line to defend against, plus the defence- backed by the mobile and underappreciated Campoli- is finally solid. Ottawa’s only concern- as it is always- is in goal, although Pascal Leclaire is accomplished and if he can stay healthy he can be the answer the Senators were looking for. He just has to be healthy, which is a big “if”. Look for the Senators and Canadiens to compete for a playoff spot in 2010, with Ottawa coming up short just because the Canadiens have a little more depth.


10. Pittsburgh Penguins. Yes, you’re reading that right- the Pittsburgh Penguins, last season’s Stanley Cup champions, are *not* in the playoffs. That’s right, *not* in the playoffs. Why am I so sure? For starters, Pittsburgh went on the luckiest playoff run in history, playing two teams they had played before in the playoffs (Philadelphia and Detroit, both losing because they shot themselves in the foot) and facing two other teams who were, at best, marginal playoff teams. The 2007-08 team should have been the team that won the Stanley Cup because that team had depth, but the truth is that since that time- when Pittsburgh had not just Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, centre Jordan Staal, defencemen Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang, and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury but also Ryan Malone, Ryan Whitney, Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Rob Scuderi and Petr Sykora as well. Armstrong and Chrsitensen went for Marian Hossa at the 2008 deadline in a deal that worked at the time but is still debatable (all the Penguins have from that deal is Pascal Dupuis), plus Hal Gill arrived at that deadline as well which also bolstered the team, but Malone, Whitney and Sykora have all gone without significant replacements (Chris Kunitz is dependable, but he’s really a poor man’s Malone and please don’t try to pass off Ruslan Fedotenko and Bill Guerin as difference-makers). Scuderi was overrated and Gill is interchangeable with any number of “big defencemen”, but they did form a key shutdown tandem for Pittsburgh last year and both are gone as well. Furthermore, Crosby is starting to get infected by the worst kind of bug- the injury bug. Crosby hasn’t played a full schedule once in his career (closest being the 81 games he played in his rookie season, and he hasn’t hit 80 games since that year), and after injuring his knee in Game 7, he’s already starting to get knee injuries, which will be a big problem down the road (just ask Pavel Bure or Mike Bossy about them). Granted, Crosby isn’t as bad as Marian Gaborik, but his injury history suggests that it will be an ongoing concern that can only get worse. In fact, one wonders if Team Canada will pressure the Penguins not to rush Crosby back from an injury should he sustain one because Crosby will be needed at the Olympics. Enough of that rant. So what does that leave us? You have one elite centre (Malkin), one two-way centre (Staal), two quality defencemen (Gonchar, who is aging and a free agent in 2010, and Letang), one goaltender who is merely above average (Fleury), another elite centre whose playing time we’re not sure about (Crosby) and many question marks. Does that sound like a playoff team to you? Maybe coach Dan Bylsma will have more magic to produce more out of less with this group, but last season he had the benefit of only having to work half the season with his players already in mid-season form- a full season is a different beast. With the rest of the East getting better, look for the declining Pens to be the first defending champion since the 1995 New Jersey Devils to miss the playoffs.


11. Washington Capitals. This is what we would call a “market correction”. Washington’s gaudy point total last season was due to the fact they feasted on a weak division and were still very much a “surprise outfit” with so many youngsters on the roster making their first big impact of their careers (most notably Nicklas Backstrom). Realistically, the Capitals have Backstrom, Alexander Semin, some guy who scores as many style points with his celebrations as he does goals (Alexander Ovechkin), Mike Green and little else. I’m not yet convinced that Simeon Varlamov is the real deal because he hasn’t yet had a full season, and his stellar post-season numbers are obscured by the fact he was facing an offensively-challenged New York Rangers team. Furthermore, Washington lost key leadership when Sergei Fedorov decided he’d rather retire in Russia. The rest of the East has gotten better and while Washington may be a playoff team in other years, their inability to build on last year will cost them.


12. Florida Panthers. It almost doesn’t seem fair- all season, the Panthers were playoff contenders with flashes of potential yet were dogged by the incessant Jay Bouwmeester trade talk. You have to wonder if the “J-Bo” rumours prevented the team from showing just how good they could have been. Now they’ll have to start life without the Edmonton native, traded to the Calgary Flames at the Draft for the Flames’ own free agent, Jordan Leopold. It was a deal that made sense at the time, but you’d have to think that if Florida knew they’d be trading Bouwmeester all along they should have traded him at the deadline, where someone was definitely going to overpay. Leopold, for his part, is solid, but he’s miles from being Bouwmeester, whose two-way skills the Panthers are going to miss dearly. That said, the defence is still solid, with veterans Bryan McCabe, Leopold and Keith Ballard, but they don’t have an anchor anymore. Up front are a lot of youngsters with lots of potential (David Booth, Nathan Horton, Michael Frolik), plus the dependable Stephen Weiss, Cory Stillman and newcomer Steven Reinprecht, but there’s no bona fide first-line material yet. Goal is the only place where Florida is set with Tomas Vokoun, but he’ll have very little support in front of him so he can’t carry the Panthers into the playoffs. It’ll be a long season in Sunrise, with a lot of questions about why the team couldn’t get more for J-Bo.


13. Tampa Bay Lightning. My how the mighty have fallen...or could have fallen. Okay, I muffed it, thinking that Tampa Bay’s additions would have brought the team instant success, because the truth was the team just never clicked, and the defending was a mess. The forward corps look strong, with Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis finally supported by a competent cast including the likes of super sophomore Steven Stamkos, Ryan Malone and Vaclav Prospal, but that’s where it ends in Tampa Bay. Viktor Hedman should be a future elite defenceman but he’s too young to make that kind of impact now, and while Mattias Ohlund was once a dominant force in Vancouver, he’s too old to be an impact defenceman at this stage in his career. Andrej Meszaros may round out into a power play quarterback (he is just 23) but he’s not there yet; and he’s never been known as much of a defender. Then there’s goal, with Mike Smith who appears to be starter’s material but would do a lot better with better defensive coverage in front of him. There’s enough pieces to suggest that an upswing is possible, but the Lightning appear to be a year away at best.


14. Atlanta Thrashers. If Jim Balsille fails to land the Phoenix Coyotes, look for the Thrashers to be in his targets next. Atlanta comes off its worst season since the lockout with an ownership upheaval and what appears to be Ilya Kovalchuk’s final season in Atlanta, ripe conditions for the next “franchise in trouble” for Hamilton’s egomaniacal hockey champion (these stories are getting repetitive don’t you think? You’d think the NHL would take notice...anyway). The truth is Atlanta has more to offer than just Kovalchuk, as Bryan Little, Todd White, Vyacheslav Kozlov, Rich Peverley, Colby Armstrong, Maxim Afinogenov and Nikolai Antropov are a good set of quality forwards, but Kovalchuk remains the team’s only game-breaker and this team will have a lot of trouble defending, with Tobias Enstrom being the only quality defenceman they have. Furthermore, Kari Lehtonen appears to have the skills to be a quality goaltender but he rarely comes up with the goods, meaning he’ll be giving up goals just as quickly as Atlanta scores them. The Thrashers may be terrible, but at least they’ll be entertaining- and without “Kovie”, who will want to be part of something that’s more than a Vaudeville act.


15. New York Islanders. You can’t really put the Islanders anywhere else, can you? Sure they won the lottery with John Tavares, but Tavares is going to find out he’s got little else to work with. Go ahead guys, name another Islander. Thought so. Still, for once the future looks bright, because years of futility landed the Islanders with several good young guys like Kyle Okposo, Blake Comeau and Bruno Gervais, plus the team added the solid Matt Moulson as a free agent in the off-season. That said, Rick DiPietro’s contract is looking to be more than just the proverbial “elephant in the room” (looks more like the “beluga whale in the room”) as it still has another ELEVEN years to run at a cap hit that’s not exactly very generous ($4.5 million a season), and his injury woes meant the team had to sign Dwayne Roloson to make sure they had a starting goaltender, so the future may be hamstrung by owner Charles Wang’s stupidity. Still, signs point to an upswing- finally- just don’t expect it to come anywhere close to this season.


Playoffs


Quarterfinals


(1) Boston Bruins vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens. Call this the “rubber match”- the Canadiens won the series in ’08, the Bruins won it in ’09 with the spoils going to the victor in ’10. Montreal was thoroughly outplayed by a bigger Boston team that wore them down as the series moved on, and there’s little to suggest that won’t happen this time around. The Canadiens will look to have made strides, but getting smaller against a team like the Bruins- who have lots of size and just enough mobility- will look to have been the wrong decision. Boston 4, Montreal 0.


(2) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (7) Toronto Maple Leafs. The Flyers might not be everyone’s model franchise, but the truculent Flyers are Leafs GM Brian Burke’s model franchise, and they’ll prove it here. Both teams are physical teams and both teams will be left with bruises by the end of it, but Philadelphia has the skill needed to succeed while Toronto does not have it just yet. Still, the Maple Leafs will just be glad to be back in the playoffs so even in losing they’ll be winners. Philadelphia 4, Toronto 2.


(3) Carolina Hurricanes vs. (6) Buffalo Sabres. A resumption of the “track-meet” series that was the classic 2006 Eastern Final, even though both teams are shells of their former selves. This series, while fun, will be a showcase of just how far both teams have fallen since the 2006 series, but it’s Carolina that has fallen more so. The Sabres may not have Daniel Briere or Chris Drury but they still have their impressive array of forwards even if none are game-breakers. The Hurricanes? There’s Eric Staal, Cam Ward and not much else. The Hurricanes are going to be competitive and will give Buffalo a challenge, but the Sabres will have too much in the end. Buffalo 4, Carolina 2.


(4) New York Rangers vs. (5) New Jersey Devils. King Henrik vs. Marty, Round 2. The Rangers easily won Round 1 in 2008, and there’s no reason to suggest it won’t happen in 2010. Why you ask? Well, the playoffs are a game of matchups and while a team with a goaltender can succeed over the course of a season (because they’ll be playing against teams without a goaltender), in the playoffs if you play a team with a goaltender, you’d better be able to match up against them in other areas of the game and the Devils don’t. New Jersey’s forwards match up with the Rangers offensively, but New York’s defence- while not stellar- is above average while New Jersey’s is just average. The games should be competitive, but the series won’t be. NY Rangers 4, New Jersey 1.


Semi-finals


(1) Boston Bruins vs. (6) Buffalo Sabres. The speed and skill of the Sabres suggests an upset of the Bruins is possible, and Ryan Miller’s presence in goal would make it possible in the early going, but the Sabres will realize that while they’re quicker- overall- than Boston is, the Bruins also have the skill to compete with the Sabres. Buffalo will make this a series, but Boston will be too much in the end. Boston 4, Buffalo 2.


(2) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (4) New York Rangers. Remember what I said in assessing the New York-New Jersey series? The fact that the playoffs are a game of matchups unlike the season where success is more likely because you’re not always facing against teams you don’t match up against? That assessment holds true in this series as well, because while the Flyers have more depth on offence and on the blueline than the Rangers do, the Rangers have a far superior goaltender and just enough mobility in front of him to handle whatever Philadelphia can throw at them. This series will be close, but it’ll be Henrik Lundqvist- miles better than Ray Emery- who will give the Rangers the saves Philadelphia won’t be getting. NY Rangers 4, Philadelphia 3.


Finals


(1) Boston Bruins vs. (4) New York Rangers. This is where the Rangers’ lack of size will catch up with them. Although Philadelphia had the same advantage, the presence of Henrik Lundqvist would be enough to overcome it, because the Flyers would have no answer for him. The Bruins, however, do, as although Tim Thomas isn’t King Henrik, he’s still capable enough to provide quality goaltending. That will allow the already worn down Rangers to be worn down even further meaning that- for the second straight season, the East Final will be a romp. Boston 4, NY Rangers 0.


After covering the East, here’s the assessment of the West, complete with the Cup final prediction.


Western Conference


1. San Jose Sharks (President’s Trophy Winners). Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking- San Jose hasn’t come close to the Stanley Cup since 2004, so why pick them to win the President’s Trophy? Remember, the Sharks don’t stink until the playoffs, where all the talent they have suddenly dries up under the pressure of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Talent they do have- and in spades- because San Jose is, once again, very very deep everywhere. Up front, San Jose can boast a fearsome forward troika of Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, backed up by the likes of Devin Setoguchi, Joe Pavelski, Ryanne Clowe and Torrey Mitchell, while on the back end the Sharks have Dan Boyle, Christian Ehrhoff, the new ageless wonder in Rob Blake and Marc-Eduoard Vlasic. In goal- but in his final year of his contract- is Evgeni Nabokov. There isn’t a more complete team in the National Hockey League, and over the course of a regular season where an off-night won’t cost you and where you don’t always face teams you play poorly against, the Sharks should again romp to the regular season title.


2. Chicago Blackhawks. An argument could be made that the Blackhawks’ Conference Final run was a fluke, given that their opponents- the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks- don’t have any postseason pedigree, almost assuring a Blackhawk victory, with Chicago being put in their place by the playoff savvy Wings in Round 3. Still, there were a lot of pieces that suggested future success, and many- including myself- knew that success in the Windy City would occur sooner rather than later- it just came a year earlier than we’d thought. This offseason, the Blackhawks built on that success, adding Marian Hossa and Tomas Kopecky to a forward corps that already has the talented Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Dave Bolland and Kris Versteeg, anchored on defence by new addition John Madden and returnee Adam Burish. The defence looks solid too with Duncan Keith, Cam Barker, Brian Campbell and Brent Seabrook, and if Cristobal Huet can play to his talents (which he should), the ‘Hawks won’t miss Nikolai Khabibulin much in goal. The problems are only going to start next season, when the Blackhawks- already pressed against the salary cap- will have to give new contracts to Toews ($850,000) and Kane ($875,000) and with a front office as unpredictable as Chicago’s (firing Dale Tallon, who only built this team back to relevance was a TERRIBLE move), you can be certain that troubling times are ahead. It’s sad to think that one of the proudest franchises in hockey could see its deserved resurgence swept from underneath their feet, but the truth is they did it to themselves meaning they better enjoy this season while it lasts.


3. Vancouver Canucks. Last season, the Canucks were Stanley Cup contenders (maybe even favourites as the playoffs wore on) but an inability to close out Game 4 against the Blackhawks (when the Canucks were up 1-0 with two minutes to go and held a 2-1 series advantage) came back to haunt them. Realistically, it did look like a series Vancouver was destined to lose, because Chicago’s team speed was too much for the Canucks to handle. So the Canucks waved goodbye to the big but underwhelming Mats Sundin and the aging Mattias Ohlund and brought in more reasonable replacements in Mikael Samuelsson and Mathieu Schneider, and re-signed Roberto Luongo, Daniel and Herik Sedin- the team’s franchise players- to extensions this summer. The Sedins will be backed up amply on offence by the likes of the improving Ryan Kesler, Mason Raymond, Pavol Demitra and Alexander Burrows, while Luongo will have a competent (if unspectacular) defence corps in front him, led by Willie Mitchell, Sami Salo, Schneider, Alexander Edler and Kevin Bieksa. Vancouver should again look like Cup contenders, and should again be in a dog fight with the similarly deep Calgary Flames- the question will be if they can overcome their playoff hump. Only then will they be counted truly among the league’s contenders.


4. Detroit Red Wings. On paper, Detroit should be the defending Stanley Cup champions, because there was NO WAY they could have lost to Pittsburgh. They did only because they became complacent- winning 5-0 in Game 5 does that to you. Usually when you get to the Cup Final and lose you’ve got nothing left for the season ahead, but the Red Wings have gone to the Final two years in a row and are definitely looking to atone for last season’s howler. Losing Marian Hossa and Jiri Hudler will hurt, but not as much as you’d think- the Wings have two of the best players in the world in Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk (they just may be *the* best players in the world because there’s no players even close to being as complete as those two), a great supporting cast in Johan Franzen, Daniel Cleary, Tomas Holmstrom and Valtteri Filppula plus their usual set of emerging youngsters, in this case being Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader and Villie Leino. The blueline is also impressive with the legendary Nicklas Lidstrom as the anchor and Brian Rafalski (himself a potential anchor as well), Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson backing him up. Then there’s Chris Osgood in net, who isn’t as good as his record may suggest but is dependable enough to make sure Detroit’s system- the puck-possession one instilled by coach Mike Babcock, hands down the NHL’s best coach- succeeds. Detroit will lose something during the season, but they’re definitely still Cup contenders.


5. Calgary Flames. The Flames made the biggest splash at the trade deadline, picking up Olli Jokinen for a bag of pucks (and then managed to reacquire some of that bag when Brandon Prust was dealt back to the team), and looked like surefire Stanley Cup contenders, as Jokinen finally gave elite power forward Jarome Iginla a linemate and complimented a team that already boasted elite defenceman Dion Phaneuf and goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff. Then Calgary whiffed down the stretch, blowing not just their commanding division lead in the Northwest to the Canucks but also blowing their Round 1 series with the Blackhawks, a series whose tone was set when Chicago’s Martin Havlat ended Game 1 after 12 seconds of overtime. Where did it all go wrong? The Blackhawks were faster, but the Flames seemed to keep up with them, as only a series of brain cramps (such as Game 1 overtime) did them in. So what did the Flames do in response? They only made the biggest splash at the Draft, acquiring Jay Bouwmeester from the Florida Panthers, complementing a defence corps that also includes Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr, a corps many are saying will be the best in the NHL (I don’t think it will be- Detroit’s is still far better, but Calgary’s corps will be one of the best), although Bouwmeester’s signing meant Michael Cammalleri had to leave as a free agent. The offence appears fine though, with Iginla, Jokinen, Daymond Langkow and the workmen Dustin Boyd and Rene Bourque, and Kiprusoff should be able to stop what the players in front of him aren’t able to. So if Calgary is this good, why are they ranked so low in the West? Mentality seems to always do them in, and that’s the fault of the coaches. Ever since Darryl Sutter decided he’d rather just be the GM after coaching Calgary’s improbable 2004 Cup Final run, the Flames have been through three coaches in five seasons (his brother Brent taking over this season) and none have managed to instil the kind of consistent, “lunch pail” ethos that Darryl instilled. So until the Flames prove they can stop beating themselves, I’m not convinced they’ll do anything more than just be a tease.


6. Columbus Blue Jackets. Boy that was fun, wasn’t it? The Jackets finally brought playoff hockey to the Ohio capital and finally made franchise power forward Rick Nash not regret that he got drafted by the Blue Jackets. Perhaps the promise the run provided is the reason why Nash decided to re-sign in Columbus instead of testing free agent waters like he could have in 2010. So what do the Jackets do for an encore? Well, Columbus essentially returns to the season with the same roster as last year, losing only spare parts, and with youngsters like Derrick Brassard (22) and Jakub Voracek (20) getting better and solid forwards Kristian Huselius, Antoine Vermette and R.J. Umberger returning, Nash should have even more support on offence. The blueline is still iffy, being a collection of No. 3’s and No. 4’s than having any real game-breakers, but they were competent last year and with goaltender Steve Mason- last season’s Calder winner- better and in between the pipes, the defending should be enough to get them comfortably back into the postseason. The question will be if they can take the next step, and the arena issues they’re facing might stunt their forward progress, but there’s no denying that the Blue Jackets will be relevant again this season.


7. Edmonton Oilers. Things haven’t looked rosy in Edmonton since the 2006 Cup Finals run, as the team has missed the playoffs in every season since then, but the Oilers possess an impressive array of youngsters and the team has always been close to a playoff berth, meaning that a turnaround will come sooner than later. What was needed was a mindset change, and the Oilers finally got that in letting Craig MacTavish go, ending the obsession Edmonton had with their glory years. The players on the ice are pretty impressive too. The forward corps are led by Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff and improving youngsters Andrew Cogliano and Sam Gagner; while Sheldon Souray, Tom Gilbert and Lubomir Višnovsky provide a solid blueline. They’ll be met in goal by newcomer Nikolai Khabibulin, giving the Oilers the best goaltender they’ve had in years. All signs point to the Oilers’ first playoff berth since the Cup Final run, because a team with this much talent and having come so close to the playoffs can’t be denied again. Cup contention is still years off though.


8. St. Louis Blues. Another team bouncing back last year from a poor run of seasons was the Blues, whose qualification for the playoffs was somewhat overshadowed by the Blue Jackets’ ascendancy but was equally as impressive. Until the lockout St. Louis was taking a run at the NHL record for the most consecutive playoff appearances (their streak ended at 25 in 2004, the longest streak was Boston’s 29 seasons and the longest current streak is- surprise, surprise- Detroit’s at 18), but the Blues were always mediocre during the streak. Now, after years of futility, the Blues have a future to look forward to and may just be contenders in a very short while. Key players like forwards David Perron, T.J. Oshie and Patrick Berglund and defenceman Erik Johnson are all 22 or less, and top forward Brad Boyes is just starting his prime years at 27. The only thing stopping them from contending this year is a lack of depth at defence and the presence of merely above average goaltending in the likes of Chris Mason and Ty Conklin, but it should still be enough to give St. Louis another playoff berth.


9. Anaheim Ducks. Since winning the 2007 Stanley Cup, the Ducks have flown south, and not just for the winter. Anaheim’s sole series victory was last season’s against San Jose, one that wasn’t entirely unexpected (the Sharks always lose to playoff-savvy teams, and the Ducks still had enough holdovers from the ’07 team to count as “playoff-savvy”) and have looked directionless since Brian Burke decided to leave for Toronto. The defence- once heralded as the best unit in the NHL- is a shell of its former self, with Scott Niedermayer anchoring a thin unit that features Ryan Whitney and James Wisniewski, who, while solid, aren’t Francois Beauchemin or Chris Pronger. The forward corps is led by Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and youngster Bobby Ryan and boasts little else, although the team hopes that veterans Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne have something left in the tank. Goaltending is solid though, with Jonas Hiller and Jean-Sebastien Giguere in net, which should allow them to compete for a playoff spot. However, this team has too little depth to guarantee themselves a spot, so they’ll just barely miss.


10. Nashville Predators. If you looked up “More from Less” in the dictionary, chances are the Nashville Predators are the definition. They always seem to get more for less, don’t they? Here’s a team that’s basically just a shell, featuring few real stars (defencemen Shea Weber- who is in the elite yet few casual fans seem to know he exists- and Ryan Suter, forwards Jason Arnott, Jean-Pierre Dumont, Steve Sullivan and Martin Erat and goaltenders Pekka Rinne and Dan Ellis), no depth and no retention of any stars yet they’re always in the playoff race. Why is that? Coach Barry Trotz keeps them working hard, and his defensive system has meant the Predators can easily cool more talented teams. They should again be in the playoff hunt, but the lack of a game-breaker will hurt them. They’ll need to address their depth issues if they want to taste playoff hockey again.


11. Los Angeles Kings. The Kings are at a crossroads this season. After years of teasing with youthful potential, they’ll have to bank on it one of these years. Certainly the roster suggests an upswing- up front are two solid lines with dynamos Anze Kopitar and Alexander Frolov, power forwards Dustin Brown and Ryan Smyth, and the mobile Jason Williams and Jared Stoll, with youngsters Oscar Moller, Wayne Simmonds and Teddy Purcell waiting in the wings. Then there’s super youngsters Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson on the back end, plus goaltender Jonathan Quick in net who has looked good at just 23. Having said that, Quick hasn’t learned “quick enough” to be at the level needed to bring the Kings to the playoffs but he’s close- so while he won’t do it this year, in a year or two he will. That’s the only missing piece.


12. Phoenix Coyotes. No team has gone through as much as the Coyotes franchise has. First there was the years in Winnipeg as the Jets, when they dominated the old World Hockey Association, floundered upon becoming a NHL team and moved to Phoenix despite strong fan support in Canada’s “Windy City”. Once in Phoenix, the rechristened Coyotes have received tepid fan support at best and are again in turmoil, again facing the threat of relocation, this time back to Canada in Hamilton, Ontario. I won’t use this space to justify where the team should be, but I will say that the relocation rumours will dog the Coyotes (pardon the pun) all season long. Not that this team would have been playoff bound anyway, as the Coyotes are have several role guys but few game breakers, chief among them captain Shane Doan (the last remaining Jet in the franchise) and Ed Jovanovski. That said, youngsters like forwards Peter Mueller, Mikkel Boedker and Kyle Turris and defencemen Sami Lepisto and Keith Yandle provide a bright future for the Coyotes- it just won’t happen this year.


13. Dallas Stars. How the mighty have fallen. Once one of the deepest teams in the NHL, the Stars have seen scores of stars depart the team with little replenishment. Going into this season, only Brendan Morrow, Mike Modano, Jere Lehtinen and Marty Turco remain on the Stanley Cup winning team of 1999, with Sergei Zubov departing this offseason. Zubov will the one most missed, because he gave the blueline its anchor and without him the offence will struggle. Turco should rebound after a terrible year, but unless he can start scoring goals himself, there won’t be much offence in the “Big D”. After Morrow, Brad Richards, Mike Ribeiro and possibly Loui Eriksson, there’s not a lot of surefire offensive threats here and while Matt Niskanen looks good at just 22, he’s not ready to be an impact player yet. Last year’s decline may have been sudden, but it merely confirmed what we knew was coming- the Stars’ years as a power were gone and now’s the time to rebuild. There’s some good young pieces able to produce a quick rebound, but don’t expect it this year.


14. Colorado Avalanche. Speaking of mighty fallers, there’s the Colorado Avalanche who were the class of the middle of the decade but predictably fell on hard times as a result of all those low draft picks. The cupboard is bare here, with the forward corps featuring just young guns Paul Stastny and Wojtek Wolski and the declining Milan Hejduk, with a defence corps that is bare after John-Michael Liles. Craig Anderson comes in net as the starter, and while he’s good, he’s not good enough to take Colorado out of the basement. It’ll be a “Mile Long” season in Denver.


15. Minnesota Wild. Question: how do you expect to play firewagon hockey without the fire? Or a wagon, for that matter? Old coach/GM tandem Jacques Lemaire and Doug Risebrough (respectively) were let go in the offseason, and new tandem GM Chuck Fletcher and coach Todd Richards promised a more up-tempo style to replace the old, crotchety defence-first style loved by Lemaire. However, despite the promises of more fire, the only offensive weapon Minnesota managed to nab was Martin Havlat and who knows if he’ll play enough to spark the offence, and the only guy he might be able to remotely play with is the improving Mikko Koivu. Returnees Marek Zidlicy and Brent Burns are known for being offensive blueliners but without anyone to pass to, can they really expect to create more offence than they can generate on their own? We’ll also see if goaltender Niklas Backstrom is really the goaltender he was since he came on to the scene in 2008, because if anyone benefitted from a defence-first system, it was him. Without much in terms of genuine offensive sparkplugs, I’m predicting a lot of one-sided games for the Wild, who are going to lose a lot of them because they just don’t have the horses. By season’s end, we’ll be remembering just how bad the Wild will be because this could get ugly, so ugly that the Senators’ 24-point campaign in 1992-93 might not be the worst campaign on record (well, with the shootout it’s not likely but it’s still a possibility). Minnesota is going to need a few years to get the players they need to really implement the new system- so prepare for a few more long years, Minnesotans. Hey, at least Brett Favre looks like he’ll be good.


Playoffs


Quarterfinals


(1) San Jose Sharks vs. (8) St. Louis Blues. The Sharks and the Blues have a long history in the playoffs, but that was when the Blues had Chris Pronger and the Sharks were still plucky. The roles are reversed (minus Chris Pronger), but the result should be the same- another San Jose victory. Yeah, the Sharks stink come playoff time, but they don’t usually tank unless it’s a playoff savvy opponent, and the Blues don’t count, allowing San Jose’s wealth of talent to overwhelm the Blues. San Jose 4, St. Louis 0.


(2) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (7) Edmonton Oilers. Speed kills- the Canucks and the Flames learned that the hard way last year facing these very Blackhawks. Chicago is going to be buoyed by that run last year but they’ll quickly find out the Oilers are just as fast they are, if not faster. Plus, they’ll have to face their old goaltender, Nikolai Khabibulin, who will just be dying to prove to the Blackhawks they erred in letting him go. With the ‘Bulin Wall standing on his head, Cristobal Huet showing that he’s not as good as Khabibulin and an Oilers team that will imitate a swarm of bees by the end of the series, the Blackhawks will be sent home early- just enough time to figure out how they can solve the salary cap mess they put themselves in. Edmonton 4, Chicago 2.


(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) Columbus Blue Jackets. First Rick Nash had to face an offensive juggernaut that wouldn’t give up the puck. Now he faces a defensive mastermind that plays so well without the puck. He just can’t win, can he? The good news is that Vancouver isn’t Detroit, and the Jackets should be able to build on their playoff experience from a year ago to prove that they weren’t as bad as the series made them out to be. The bad news is, Vancouver is still better- Roberto Luongo is miles ahead of Steve Mason, although Mason will make strides in this series. It’ll be a competitive series but one the Canucks should prevail in. Vancouver 4, Columbus 2.


(4) Detroit Red Wings vs. (5) Calgary Flames. By the time this series will start, Calgary will be limping having blown another division lead to the Canucks, and will be facing the worst possible opponent- the Red Wings. Calgary on paper has enough firepower to stay with Detroit and Miikka Kiprusoff is a much better goaltender than Chris Osgood, but to quote soccer pundit Andy Gray, “games aren’t won on paper”. Without a single player on their roster who’s experienced a playoff victory since the lockout, the Flames will look competitive but blow it on the same costly errors that led to their loss to the Blackhawks- and they won’t make a series of it. Detroit 4, Calgary 0.


Semi-finals


(1) San Jose Sharks vs. (7) Edmonton Oilers. It strains the credulity to call the Oilers “playoff savvy” because so few of the 2006 team remains, but among that few are key players such as Ales Hemsky and Steve Staois. Plus there’s enough talent for the Oilers to conceivably make a series of this and that spells trouble for San Jose, who wilt once it becomes obvious that the going is going to get tough; and the Oilers will make it tough. Featuring a workman like ethos and enough speed to stay with the Sharks, San Jose will have the same fits they had in 2006, and enough of the Oilers from that ’06 team will be around to tell their teammates how to defeat the Sharks. San Jose will make it competitive, but all things considered, they’ll be no match for the Oilers who will provide a defeat everyone will call “shocking” even though it probably shouldn’t be. Edmonton 4, San Jose 2.


(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (4) Detroit Red Wings. I know last season I stuck on the prediction that the Canucks would defeat the Red Wings but that was before I’d know they’d re-assume their roles as playoff busts. Once again Vancouver looks like they’d be the better team, because Roberto Luongo is miles better than Chris Osgood and the Canucks have enough mobility to stay with the Red Wings, but until the Canucks can show they won’t wilt in the second round- especially Luongo- they won’t be anyone’s pick in any second round series. Besides, when that opponent’s Detroit, you can be sure that any problems the opposition has will be multiplied by ten. Detroit 4, Vancouver 2.


Finals


(4) Detroit Red Wings vs. (7) Edmonton Oilers. No doubt the Oilers’ run will remind everyone of 2006, and frequent comparisons will be made of the Oilers-Wings matchup this season and the one that happened in 2006. One problem- the 2006 Red Wings aren’t the 2010 Red Wings. The 2006 Red Wings were like the Sharks, always wilting come playoff time (in between winning the 2002 Stanley Cup and the 2006 President’s Trophy, Detroit won only one series), but the 2010 Red Wings are as playoff savvy as they come. Furthermore, this team showed in consecutive years that no “Stanley Cup hangover” exists, so any concerns of this being “too far a run” are moot. That means that despite the fact Edmonton has the better goaltender, the Red Wings are just better everywhere else, enough to end the aspirations of the latest Cinderella run. Detroit 4, Edmonton 1.


Stanley Cup Finals


(E1) Boston Bruins vs. (W4) Detroit Red Wings. Detroit will be facing two new things in this final- one, a new opponent (Boston) and two, they’ll be opening on the road. No matter- this is still the Red Wings. This will actually be the first meeting in the playoffs between these two teams since the 1957 semi-final, back when Leo Labine, Leo Boivin and Doug Mohns toyed with the Production Line and the Red Wings in a five-game romp. Unfortunately for Boston, Labine, Mohns and Boivin are long since retired (with Labine having been dead for four years), but by the end of the series, they’ll be wondering if they were ever able to get them back in uniform, because the Red Wings will prove to be a real challenge. It’s not one Boston won’t be up to, because the Bruins have size that the Red Wings don’t have, but they don’t have enough skill to compete with the Red Wings, especially not enough to compete with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. Boston should still make this a close series because they have enough talent to stay with Detroit, but the Wings will be hungrier and better able to handle the pressure than Boston will be, allowing them to hoist their second Stanley Cup in three years and atone for last year’s debacle. Detroit 4, Boston 3.

-DG


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-DG

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