Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Into The Crystal Ball: 2010-11 Regular Season Edition

Edmonton Oilers Jordan Eberle (14) dives for the puck while Calgary Flames Ian White clears the puck during the third period of their pre-season NHL hockey game in Calgary, Alberta, October 3, 2010. REUTERS/Todd Korol (CANADA - Tags: SPORT ICE HOCKEY)

With NHL training camps winding down, it can only mean one thing- games are going to start to count. So it’s the perfect time to crack out the Crystal Ball and show you just how the season- including your Stanley Cup winner will play out; with the final standings and each round predicted and analyzed.

Regular Season

Eastern Conference

  1. Philadelphia Flyers. Even though they didn’t win, the Flyers’ 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs odyssey will go down in history as one of hockey’s greatest journeys. Making the playoffs on the final day in a dramatic shootout win over the New York Rangers, the Flyers later overcame a 3-0 series deficit (only the fourth time in all of professional sports that has happened) against the Boston Bruins to propel them eventually all the way to the Cup Final. A lot was made of the fact the Flyers were a #7 seed, but the truth is this was a Philadelphia team that awoke during the playoffs after an off-year, and the pieces are there to make a repeat performance. Captain Mike Richards showed during those playoffs that he could legitimately rank among the best in the game, adding great hockey instincts and defensive smarts to a game that features highlight-reel hits and shots. Richards is complimented up front by super sniper Jeff Carter, big Scott Hartnell, breakout star Claude Giroux and Daniel Briere, finally living up to his large salary; plus, if James van Riemsdyk breaks out this season- as what should happen- the Flyers may have the deepest forward cast in the East. The loss of Simon Gagne will hurt, but Philadelphia should still be fine without him. On defence, the Flyers can boast a deep cast as well, starting with twin anchors Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen, the mobile Braydon Coburn and newcomer Andrej Meszaros (essentially traded for Gagne), who should add much needed scoring punch to the blueline. The questions start in goal, because the Flyers are banking on Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher being able to reproduce for a whole season what they did in the last three months of the year. If they can do that, then the Flyers might have a legitimate shot at winning the Cup. Regardless, they have the talent to at least comfortably win the Eastern Conference regular season crown.
  2. Ottawa Senators. Yes, head coach Cory Clouston may play “Nashville Predators hockey”, using a bland, strict positional structure (more suitable for teams like the Predators without much natural talent) that stifles his forwards’ creativity; and, yes, he should allow players like Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza use their talents a bit more, but there’s no arguing with Clouston’s success. Ottawa built upon their strong finish from the playoff-less 2008-09 season to a strong fifth place showing in the East a year ago, being paced up front by Alfredsson, Spezza, big Milan Michalek (whose absence was sorely felt in the playoffs) and the two-way play of Mike Fisher. They’ll finally have some support on the blueline, as the Senators made a huge splash in the free agent market in signing Sergei Gonchar, whose offensive prowess should spark a mediocre power play and an offence that was frankly underperforming. Gonchar will also be slot in as the team’s anchor, being the clear No. 1 defenceman on a competent (but not overpowering) incumbent blueline corps that already featured the defensive prowess of Chris Phillips. Finally, Brian Elliott established himself as the team’s starter, giving Ottawa a solution in goal that they have been lacking for years. It’s not really an overpowering group but it’s a competent group and with the addition of Gonchar sparking the offence, it should bring the Senators back to the summit of the Northeast Division for the first time since 2006.
  3. Washington Capitals. Last year was supposed to be the season Washington took the next step. Alexander Ovechkin, the team’s de facto leader ever since his debut, was made the team’s real leader by being named the captain in January, replacing the departed Chris Clark; and responded by leading the team to the President’s Trophy title and a 3-1 series lead in the first round against the Montreal Canadiens. However, in one of the greatest upsets in NHL history, the Capitals failed to win the decisive game, running into the Jaroslav Halak stop sign and a position-wise Canadiens team that took advantage of Washington’s lack of a net presence (as Mike Knuble underperformed), suspect goaltending or players actually capable of patrolling the defensive zone. This season promises to be a repeat, with a strong offence featuring Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom (who also broke the century mark in points), sniper Alexander Semin, Tomas Fleischmann, the surprising Brooks Laich and defenceman Mike Green, who again posted a point a game pace from the blueline. However, that’s where the positives end. There’s still no adequate net presence outside of Knuble (who is getting up there in age at 38 and he’s not in the elite, the piece the Caps need) and there are questions regarding the defence (a game Green still hasn’t learned yet) and goaltending. The Capitals are hoping youngsters John Carlson and Karl Alzner can break out, especially Carlson, who appeared to be an anchor-in-waiting in the playoffs. Washington also has to hope Semyon Varlamov becomes the goaltender they need, which is a long prospect considering Varlamov has yet to show any signs of becoming even a NHL starter one day. They’ll still be the class of the Southwest because they still have the most talent in the division, but unless the youngsters pan out, contending for the Cup is still a long way away.
  4. Montreal Canadiens. The magic returned to Montreal after an inspiring playoff run that saw the Canadiens knock off the heavily favoured Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins in two consecutive rounds. The Canadiens did it through strong team play, strong defence and strong goaltending. The goaltending part is gone, as Montreal decided to trade playoff hero Jaroslav Halak for budding prospect Lars Eller, but everything else is still the same. The forward corps is still a workmanlike group led by Mike Cammalleri, who broke though in the playoffs last season as Montreal’s big money sniper. His main support is Tomas Plekanec, back after a career year with 70 points, and new captain Brian Gionta, though Montreal would be better served getting their money’s worth from Scott Gomez. On defence, Montreal can still rely on the services of all-world Andrei Markov, though if Markov can’t go (because he is injury prone), the Canadiens can lean on the big Hal Gill, the yeoman Josh Gorges, the mobile Jaroslav Spacek and P.K. Subban, the super rookie who dazzled last year in the playoffs and should make a bigger impact with the team this season. The wild card is Carey Price, once held to be Patrick Roy’s heir apparent but has been anything but; though the flashes of brilliance suggest that he could still be the player he was thought he could become. If Price becomes that goaltender then the Canadiens could challenge for the Conference title, but if not, then Montreal reverts to being a comfortable playoff team, but make no mistake- the Canadiens are back.
  5. New Jersey Devils. Make sense of this- the Devils, known for the defence, decide to acquire Ilya Kovalchuk, who may be the league’s best one-shot scorer but also has the biggest allergy to defence. Then the Devils watch him tank in the first round against the Philadelphia Flyers en route to an embarrassing five game defeat (becoming the first team eliminated in the process) and decide he’s worth a major recommitment, so much so that his contract had to be negotiated twice because the league didn’t like the first one. Kovalchuk is now signed for 15 years at $100 million, a curious cap hit of $6.66 million, which means New Jersey is clearly thinking about life after Martin Brodeur, who is still around but will likely retire soon as he is 38. It may be good news for the fans, but the team may learn to regret the signing, since the Devils were forced to get rid of top defenceman Paul Martin, who had to walk as a free agent. It’s the defence that will be the Achilles’ Heel of this team, since there’s no offence on the backend at all, with the highest returning goal total being Andy Greene’s six goals (that will surely scare the opposition). The Devils did sign Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov which should shore up the defensive side of the game, but there’s no defenceman capable of starting any rush, which will hurt the offence. What will bring New Jersey back to the playoffs, though, are those forward corps, who will have to do more work than they should in bringing the puck up ice, because it’s deep. In addition to Kovalchuk, the Devils can lean on the dynamic Patrik Elias, Brian Rolston’s big shot and the two-way play of Zach Parise, captain Jamie Langenbrunner and Travis Zajac. That is a scary bunch of top six forwards, though further down the line the checking support they used to have is gone. Still, when you have Brodeur you can afford to take risks, because Brodeur is still among the best, even if he’s losing his step. It adds up to another playoff run for the Devils, but unless they can get a puck-moving defenceman, they won’t be anything more than a playoff team.
  6. Buffalo Sabres. Don’t be fooled by the Sabres’ second division title in four years- this is hardly a Stanley Cup contending team. The improvements of Ottawa and Montreal means that a repeat division title isn’t likely, but a repeat playoff berth should be. Last season Buffalo established itself as a workmanlike group throughout its roster, utilizing speed in a mainly defensive approach, creating offence out of turnovers. The talent is there on offence, though, as four players broke the 20-goal plateau last season and six broke the 40-point barrier, which aren’t world-beating performances but it does mean the Sabres get the job done. It’s primarily a mobile group that are mainly playmakers (who need a scorer), led up front by Derek Roy, Tim Connolly, Thomas Vanek (who the Sabres hope his 28 goals last season was an off-year) and the two-way play of Jochen Hecht, one of the league’s most underrated players. The Sabres may also receive breakout performances from Nathan Gerbe and Tyler Ennis, who impressed in spurts last season; while free agent acquisition Rob Niedermayer will bring needed stability to the checking unit. On defence, super rookie Tyler Myers looks to eventually become the team’s anchor and should return among the team’s top defencemen this season, joined at the top by stay-at-home defenders captain Craig Rivet and Steve Montador, with Jordan Leopold coming in to provide much needed offence from the backend. Lastly, there’s Ryan Miller, the perennial Veznia candidate who doesn’t need much introduction, as Buffalo’s last line of defence. It’s a competitive group, but it’s still a ways from becoming a contender- and though the team preaches patience, its fanbase may be running out of it, since this has been the state the Sabres have been in for ages. It’s prudent that the team make more strides this season, or else General Manager Darcy Regier will have to look elsewhere for work.
  7. New York Rangers. There may not be a greater “what if” scenario last season than that final shootout for the Rangers. Get this- with the season on the line, Rangers coach John Tortorella decides his best player, Marian Gaborik, shouldn’t take part in it. Sure, Gaborik has been terrible in shootouts (he’s 2 for 18, or a paltry 11%), but your best player should be given an opportunity to win the most important game of the season, no? Oh well, on to this season, where Gaborik again becomes the outright leader on offence (his 42 goals was more than double any other total last season, and his 86 points was nearly 30 points greater than the second best player), though Gaborik does have *some* support up front, even if it isn’t much. Alexander Frolov comes in as a free agent, as does former Elitserien scoring leader Mats Zuccarello-Aasen, with Vaclav Prospal (who was the second highest scorer) returning. It’s still a competent and mobile forward corps, which means even if goals don’t easily come, they won’t give up too many either because they’ll be backchecking. The defence follows the same mould, being small but speedy, led by youngsters Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Michael Del Zotto and wily veteran Michal Rozsival and while there’s not an anchor in that bunch, it’s still serviceable enough to be effective. Then there’s goal, where “King” Henrik Lundqvist returns and should be among the Vezina candidates for another season. It boils down to another group that should be good enough to make the playoffs but that’s it- which could placate Ranger fans but not for long, since this team- like the Sabres- refuses to take the next step, a fact that could cost General Manager Glen Sather his job. Therefore, strides will need to be made or else change will be in order.
  8. Tampa Bay Lightning. OK, so last season was a mess, with ownership squabbles and management issues, but, despite all that, the Lightning managed an improvement. Really. Now the ownership is set and so is management (Steve Yzerman takes over as General Manager while former American Hockey League coach Guy Boucher takes over as coach), meaning we can finally see what this team is capable of; and what a team it is. Steve Stamkos broke out last season with a 51-goal, 95-point performance that topped the team, one point ahead of veteran Martin St. Louis, which made up for the down year of Vincent Lecavalier, whom the Lightning are banking will bounce back this season. The good news is that Lecavalier, St. Louis and Stamkos- the new “Big Three” of franchise players in Tampa- will have ample support, in the form of big Simon Gagne, Steve Downie and Ryan Malone, as well as the underappreciated two-way play of Domonic Moore, coming in after a year in Montreal. The defence is set too, with Victor Hedman ready to make strides in becoming the team’s anchor along with veteran Mattias Ohlund and free agent pickups Brett Clark and Pavel Kubina, the latter returning after a four-year sojourn in Toronto and Atlanta. Finally, the Lightning have a solution in goal, with Dan Ellis coming in to become the team’s starter though Mike Smith is no slouch either. The talent is there to suggest this is a contender in the making (though they’ll need Hedman to become an anchor for that to happen) but a return to the playoffs is more than likely.
  9. Pittsburgh Penguins. All right, so last season I predicted the Penguins would miss the playoffs and they didn’t, so why am I going back to it again this season? For the simple reason that the Canadiens showed the world just how to beat them and how far Pittsburgh really has fallen. Sure, the Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but I dare you to name anyone else. No cheating. Time’s up...get the point? Yes, most teams would kill to have even just one of Crosby or Malkin, but the truth is the Penguins haven’t given them a lick of support, and the cast is even barer this season than it was a season ago- Sergei Gonchar, the team’s anchor, departed for Ottawa to be replaced by the serviceable (though hardly No. 1 quality) Paul Martin, with the team’s other offensive weapon on the backend, Jordan Leopold, also leaving to be replaced by the primarily defensive Zbynek Michalek. This will put even more pressure on Alex Goligoski and Kristopher Letang to have breakout seasons, which are no guarantees, meaning that offence from the blueline- a big part of the Penguin game- will be at a premium in 2010-11. There certainly won’t be any offence from the forwards outside of the duo we know too well, since it’s just an army of checkers (though Chris Kunitz has ability, though he’s more of a second-line guy than a guy who could legitimately play with Crosby or Malkin). In goal the Penguins have Marc-Andre Fleury, who is good but not great, which should keep the team afloat as well as the magic from head coach Dan Bylsma (who has done more with less for two straight seasons), but without an injection of talent- and soon- Pittsburgh’s fight for the playoffs will wind up coming up short.
  10. Toronto Maple Leafs. OK, so the Phil Kessel trade didn’t work out the way General Manager Brian Burke thought it would, because losing out on Tyler Seguin really hurts. However, last year was a fluke, and there are enough pieces to suggest this Leaf team is capable of making a run at the playoffs, even if they’ll ultimately fall short. Kessel returns for a full season and has some help on the top six forward lines in newcomer Kris Versteeg, Nikolai Kulemin, big Colby Armstrong and potentially Tyler Bozak, who impressed as the season wound down last year. Kessel is still the only top-line player in that group, but at least he won’t have to do *all* the scoring himself. Defence is the real strength of the Leafs, with Dion Phaneuf coming in from the Calgary Flames and establishing himself as one of the league’s top anchors, a performance that earned Phaneuf the captain’s “C” this season. Phaneuf will be joined by other top-line defenders Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek, as well as an indeterminate time with perennial trade bait Tomas Kaberle. Lower down the defensive depth chart are youngsters Luke Schenn, Matt Lashoff, Carl Gunnarsson and Brett Lebda, players who would all be second-tier defenders on any other team. Finally, the goaltenders are both solid, in the form of Jean-Sebastien Giguere (who could return to his elite-level performance) and Jonas Gustavsson, who showed flashes of brilliance indicating a future career as a starter. It points to major strides for the Leafs this season, which is all Burke needs to retain his job (when he took over the Vancouver Canucks he needed three seasons to get them back into the playoffs, with that third season being one where the Canucks competed for a playoff berth, a process that the Leafs are following), but no playoffs- unless another top-level forward emerges to help Kessel out.
  11. Boston Bruins. Sure, this team made the playoffs with what was essentially a ragtag group of forwards, strong, defensive defencemen and Tuukka Rask, but the Bruins last year had Marc Savard, who could be gone for the whole season after his disappointing concussion setback this summer. The playoffs may still be a challenge even with Savard, since all of the Bruins’ competitors have gotten better and the Bruins have largely stood pat. Nathan Horton does arrive from Florida to give Boston another power forward (as if they didn’t have enough of those) and should work on the first line (especially with Savard) but after him and returnee David Krejci, there’s no one else on the team with even top six forward potential. On defence the story is even bleaker. Captain Zdeno Chara, one of the best all-around defencemen in the game, returns but returns with little support, as Dennis Wideman- the team’s only puck moving defenceman- was dealt for Horton, meaning the Bruins are hoping Chara can fill in there, even though Chara isn’t known for his passing skills. Boston could get lucky and Johnny Boychuck could emerge after a breakout performance in the playoffs, but that’s no guarantee. Finally, there’s Rask, who was brilliant last season but has to prove he can play a full season (he only played 44 games last year), though having former Veznia winner Tim Thomas as a backup is a good insurance policy. Still, unless Rask or Thomas can start scoring goals, it’s going to be a long season in Boston, making the pain of being just the fourth professional sports team to blow a 3-0 series lead hurt even more- and longer.
  12. Atlanta Thrashers. Toronto Star columnist Damien Cox- known for his largely sensationalist and grandiose pieces- wrote an article claiming that the Thrashers- yes, this ragtag group that just had Ilya Kovalchuk painfully wrested away from them- are in line to make the 2011 playoffs. He bases this largely on the expected breakout performances of players like Niclas Bergfors, Bryan Little and Evander Kane, who, if they all hit their potential, can be the game breakers the Thrashers desperately need. However, expecting a breakout can be just like a card game- sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, making it largely a game of chance. Therefore, I follow my own rule and not make predictions based on expected breakouts (because you can’t tell if they will actually happen) and apply it here to the Thrashers, analyzing the team simply on what I know. What I know is that this is a young team that has a lot of potential- in addition to Bergfors, Little and Kane, there’s also defencemen Zach Bogosian (already an alternate captain), 2010 draft pick Aleksandr Burmistrov, goaltender Ondrej Pavelec and forward Andrew Ladd- but few established players, the only ones really being Tobias Enstrom and newcomer Dustin Byfuglien. Yes, this is an exciting group that should challenge for the playoffs in the near future and could do so this season, but until I see results I won’t put them there yet.
  13. Florida Panthers. J-Bouw, oh where did you go? Remember 2008, when the Panthers faced the dilemma of whether or not to trade impending free agent Jay Bouwmeester, a decision that could have (and whose rumours likely did) impact the team’s playoff push? Those days are long gone, and Florida doesn’t look like they’ll come close to competing for them this season. There’s the expected youth on this team and quite a bit of is promising, like defencemen Erik Gudbranson (the third overall selection in 2010), Dmitry Kulikov, Keaton Ellerby and forwards Evgeni Dadonov, Michal Repik and Kenndal McArdle, but there’s few established stars, though one is Michael Frolik, who is all of 22 years old. Joining Frolik up front are capable first-line players Stephen Weiss and David Booth, but past those players there’s not much else outside of the serviceable Michael Grabner and veterans Cory Stillman and Steven Reinprecht. The defence is at least decent, with Bryan McCabe’s shot combining with newcomer Dennis Wideman’s passing (deadly for the power play) as well as solid defensive types Bryan Allen and newcomer Nathan Paetsch, but there’s not much else afterward. Finally, in goal there’s Tomas Voukoun, who is still among the league’s elite with a .926 save percentage last year, but he can only do so much without much support in front of him. Unless some of those youngsters break out and fill out the depth chart, it’s going to be a long season in South Beach.
  14. Carolina Hurricanes. It’s a bit hard to believe this team was in the Conference Finals two seasons ago but they were, and now continues the rebuilding process (but they’ll likely be back in the playoffs in 2012, because Carolina always makes the playoffs after two seasons out of it, and this is the second season since their playoff appearance). The Hurricanes said goodbye to two quality veterans this past offseason, Rod Brind’amour to retirement and Ray Whitney to free agency, leaving what was already a bare cupboard even more bare. Outside of defencemen Joni Pitkanen and Joe Corvo, superstar forward Eric Staal and goaltender Cam Ward, there’s not a whole lot to work with on this roster in terms of NHL talent, though Jussi Jokinen is serviceable and Brandon Sutter looks like he could be a breakout star after potting a respectable 40 points last year in 71 games. Still, unless there are some surprise performances, don’t expect the Hurricanes to do anything except compete for last in the East, missing out because they at least have the superstar in Staal.
  15. New York Islanders. I don’t care that the Islanders didn’t finish last in 2009-10- they’re going to do it in 2011, because all the teams that they finished ahead of- Toronto and Florida- have improved (well, Florida has only slightly...). This is going to be another year of the youth growing on Long Island, with players like John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Matt Moulson all looking to build on what were promising seasons in 2009-10, Tavares debuting with 54 points to lead the Islanders (though he faded as the second half of the season rolled on) and Moulson surprising most (but not me) with a 30-goal campaign. Past that group, there’s hardly any other NHL-ready talent, with just Mark Streit posting 48 points (ranking him among the league leaders on defence) and Dwayne Roloson in goal qualifying, though if veteran Doug Weight can overcome his injuries he should provide help. Still, this youthful team is going to be going through a lot of growing pains this season, and- with the squabbles over the Lighthouse Project potentially leading to relocation, there will be a lot on the minds of the Islander players. One hopes for better days but they could be a long way off still.

Western Conference

  1. Detroit Red Wings (President’s Trophy Winner). Sure, the Red Wings weren’t always “on” last season, beset by injuries that nearly cost them a playoff berth and then taking too long to dispose of the Phoenix Coyotes in Round 1, but these are the Detroit Red Wings. The proud Detroit Red Wings. They’re not going to let that happen again. To prove it, General Manager Ken Holland refurbished the team with veteran help at the lower end of the roster, adding Ruslan Salei on the backend and Mike Modano- in a homecoming- at forward. This veteran presence should help the team get through the rough patches better than last season and ensure that complacency doesn’t set in inside a star-studded dressing room. Those stars need no introduction, but I’ll introduce them anyway, with Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Ralfalski, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen all coming back, each among the best in the game at their positions. Behind them on the depth chart are defencemen Niklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart, Salei and Jonathan Ericsson, who could all be No. 1 defencemen elsewhere, as well as forwards Jiri Hudler (back from Russia), Valtteri Filppula, Tomas Holmstrom, Daniel Cleary and Darren Helm, all of whom could be top-end forwards on other teams. Plus, the Red Wings finally have their goaltender in Jimmy Howard, who can only get better at age 24. That’s a heck of a cast to call your own, and they all buy into head coach Mike Babcock’s two-way, puck possession system that’s just so fun to watch. Mark my words: in 2011, the Red Wings are back.
  2. Vancouver Canucks. The buzz all summer- after they acquired defenceman Dan Hamhuis- was that the Canucks represent Canada’s best shot at capturing the Stanley Cup for the first time in 18 years. Well, let’s see how they can get there. The good for the Canucks is that they have one of the deepest forward corps in the league (if not the deepest), led by franchise forward duo of twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin, with Henrik capturing both the Art Ross and Hart Trophies last season. The Sedins are followed by the two-way play of Ryan Kesler, Alexandre Burrows’ hard-nosed play (who benefitted from playing with the Sedins in netting a career high 35 goals), veteran Mikael Samuelsson and speedster Mason Raymond, who all posted top-tier performances last season (all posted at least 25 goals and 53 points, totals that could have been higher if they had more ice time). If Vancouver doesn’t score, they can bank on Roberto Luongo, still among the league’s elite, to guard the goal, and Luongo should be better this season now that he doesn’t have to worry about being the team’s captain anymore. The question comes on defence. The Canucks’ issues, for two straight seasons, has been a lack of a premier puck-moving defenceman that can create offence, meaning Vancouver has to be opportunistic in order to grab its goals. The team is great at creating those turnovers and a lot of teams don’t have the skill to prevent them, but some teams- like the team that the Canucks have lost to for two straight seasons, the Chicago Blackhawks- are too good at keeping the puck. This means Vancouver’s only form of offence is taken away from them, necessitating the need for a puck-mover to help the forwards and allow them to play more aggressively. Thus, Vancouver was linked to Tomas Kaberle this summer but the trade never materialized, leading to the acquisition of Keith Ballard from the Florida Panthers as a “stopgap” measure. Alexander Edler has the potential to be that kind of defenceman, but he’s not there yet, leaving Christian Erhoff and Sami Salo- who are more “scorer” types- as the Canucks’ only other offensive defenceman options. The good news is that Edler, Erhoff and Kevin Bieksa do give Vancouver good defensive zone coverage, and the addition of Hamhuis, one of the best stay at home defenders, will mean this group doesn’t have to be the top defenders for the Canuck defence to be effective. The only question is- can they create offence against the best? That’s what separates them from the Cup.
  3. San Jose Sharks. After getting bounced meekly in the Conference Final by the Chicago Blackhawks, we expected the Sharks to be blown up. That didn’t happen, though long-time goaltender Evgeni Nabokov wasn’t offered a contract after the season. Franchise forward trio Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley all return, as well as elite defenceman Dan Boyle (who became a punchline in the playoffs after his famous “own goal”. The support cast- mainly built for size, as much of the Sharks roster- is also impressive, with first-tier players Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe and Devin Setoguchi up front and Douglas Murray, Niclas Wallin and mobile Marc-Eduard Vlasic on the backend. The question is in goal, which prevents San Jose from ranking higher here. Signed are Stanley Cup winning goaltender Antti Niemi and Antero Niitymaki who are expected to share the duties, but neither has played without question marks in their careers. Niemi has the biggest question to answer, and that’s if last season was a fluke. If he can answer that question, San Jose can be Cup contenders again. If not, it’ll be the Bay Area asking more questions about why this group wasn’t blown up.
  4. Phoenix Coyotes. They may have to rename themselves “Team Teflon” if they keep this up. Despite enduring loud relocation rumours and even louder proclamations that they don’t have the talent to compete in the NHL, Phoenix only proceeded to live up to its mythical name and finish a strong 4th in the Western Conference. They face the same issues this season, so therefore there’s no reason why the Coyotes can’t have a repeat performance. They accomplished the feat last season with offence from the point and a mobile forward corps that used its speed for defensive purposes and for opportunistic offence via turnovers and that system won’t change. Much of the same cast returns, including captain Shane Doan (who had a down year despite leading the team with 55 points), Radim Vrbata (the team leader in goals with 24), Lee Stempniak (who was on fire after coming to the Coyotes from Toronto), newcomer Ray Whitney (coming in as a sorely-needed playmaker) and Wojtek Wolski (the team’s only real gamebreaker) up front and Ed Jovanovski, Keith Yandle and Adrian Aucoin on the backend (who combined for a total of 30 goals, a total that can only grow with the arrival of Derek Morris at the trade deadline last season). It’s not really an elite group but they play so well as a team that it doesn’t really matter. Where the Coyotes will really shine is in goal, as Ilya Bryzgalov is one of the league’s best. His MVP-type season was instrumental in the Coyotes’ success, and he will need to post similar numbers to keep the Coyotes among the best in the West. Phoenix also has a plethora of youngsters capable of breaking out, like Martin Hanzal and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, meaning they could challenge the Sharks for top spot in the Pacific. The safe bet, however, is 4th given what we know, but the Coyotes are a team on the rise.
  5. Chicago Blackhawks. “Defending champion Chicago Blackhawks”. Been a while since anyone said that...49 years to be exact. Chicagoans hope it won’t be another 49 years before that can be said again. They did accept the reality that the team likely had to be retooled, with many names not returning this year. Out were Dustin Byfuglien, Antti Niemi, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg and John Madden, with more inexpensive players coming in to replace them. The good news is that group does include veterans goaltender Marty Turco and forward Fernando Pisani, both of whom have had success previously in their careers, which bodes well for the Blackhawks’ chances of repeating. Also boding well is the fact its franchise player group of defencemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews (whose two-way play just may put him among the best in the NHL) are also all returning, as well as support staff of offensive defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson and checking centre Dave Bolland, both key to the Blackhawks’ success last season. Still, there will be some adjusting to make with all the new faces and while it doesn’t mean a complete collapse, it does mean the division likely won’t be theirs this season.
  6. Colorado Avalanche. For the first half of the season, the Avalanche were the surprise outfit in the league, as the youthful group, not expected to even compete in the NHL, held the Northwest Division lead for two months. They faded as the season wore on but still wound up securing a playoff berth; and nearly upset the San Jose Sharks after Dan Boyle’s infamous own goal. Much of the same cast returns, and they should be better prepared to go through the grind of the season this time around than they were last year. Centre Paul Stastny returns as the Avs’ sole gamebreaker, but behind him up front are promising youngsters Chris Stewart and Matt Duchene, who could potentially have breakout seasons in 2010-11, as well as other promising youngsters in Ryan O’Reilly, T.J. Galiardi and Kevin Porter, none of whom have hit the age of 25. On defence, the Avalanche are thin, with the only real proven talents being captain Adam Foote, Scott Hannan and John-Michael Liles, though head coach Joe Sacco’s defensive system means the forwards can make up for that. In goal, the Avs have Craig Anderson and Peter Budaj, who, in other years would be a good tandem but, after Anderson’s breakthrough 2010 season means that Colorado has its clear cut starter and a good backup. Anderson will have to prove last season was no fluke, but even if he doesn’t the Avs won’t be lacking in net. In short, there probably isn’t enough talent to compete for the summit of the division again, but this young group should show some improvement and comfortably qualify for the playoffs in 2011.
  7. Los Angeles Kings. The Kings spent much of the summer chasing Ilya Kovalchuk to no avail, which may have stunted their forward progress. The team’s pursuit meant they had to let go a number of roster players, including key figures Alexander Frolov, Sean O’Donnell and Jeff Halpern. It doesn’t mean the roster is completely gutted, but it does mean the Kings won’t make the strides they should. They still have one of the best power forwards in the game in Anze Kopitar, whose support cast- a good cast of power forwards- up front includes newcomer Alexei Ponikarovsky (which should replace some of Frolov’s lost offence), veteran Ryan Smyth and captain Dustin Brown. On defence, the Kings’ top defenceman is Drew Doughty, whose 59 points last year was among the league’s leaders and points Doughty well on pace to becoming one of the league’s best (he has some defensive shortcomings to work on though). He is joined on the back end by the mobile Jack Johnson and newcomer Willie Mitchell, the veteran stay-at-home defender who switched sides from the Vancouver Canucks to shore up defensive zone coverage that killed the Kings against those very Canucks. Finally, in goal there is Jonathan Quick, who established himself as the Kings’ first legitimate starting goaltender in years last season. It should equate to the status quo for the Kings for a second straight year- the talent isn’t deep enough to compete for the top spots, but it is still good enough to qualify for the playoffs once again.
  8. Calgary Flames. The quote of the 2009 offseason belonged to Jay Bouwmeester, the prize acquisition a year ago who stated “I’m glad to come to a team that isn’t just talking about making the playoffs”. Instead, the 2009-10 campaign made that statement into a cruel irony, with the Flames in a playoff battle all season long and ultimately losing out to the Colorado Avalanche, who nearly collapsed out of the playoffs themselves. There’s too much talent on this team for them to make it two seasons out of the playoffs, but the days of contending for the Western title- at least for this group- appear to be over. Captain Jarome Iginla is still an elite player but is entering the twilight of his career, and aside from goaltender Miikka Kiprussoff (also entering the twilight of his career), there’s not much else in terms of elite talent. Bouwmeester should be in this group but he underperformed last year, as did Calgary’s other defensive stud Robyn Regehr. Still, players like forwards Matt Stajan, Rene Bourque and Daymond Langkow and defenceman Ian White provide the nucleus for a serviceable, workmanlike team and- combined with bounceback seasons from Regehr and Bouwmeester, should propel Calgary back to the playoffs.
  9. Nashville Predators. Yes, I’m aware the Predators always seem to make the playoffs despite not possessing much natural talent as well as seemingly haemorrhaging that talent each offseason; and yes, the story is the same this season for Nashville. This past offseason, the Predators shed more high-priced talent in the form of defenceman Dan Hamhuis and forward Jason Arnott, requiring youngsters like Cody Franson and Colin Wilson (respectively) to breakthrough and fill the void. Previous history suggests they will but it’s not something to bank on. The proven talent up front- largely a workmanlike group- is thin, with Nashville boasting just Steve Sullivan, 30-goal man Patric Hornqvist, Jean-Pierre Dumont and the serviceable Joel Ward, Matt Lombardi and David Legwand. The backend at least provides Nashville something to work with, because the “Twin Towers” of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are among the best in the league; plus the goaltender they rely on is also among the best in Pekka Rinne. It’s almost the same story as last season and Nashville made the playoffs then, so why do they miss them this time around? It’s simple- Hamhuis gave the Predators a triple threat on the backend, and without him Nashville loses a major part of its gameplan, which is stellar defence and defensive zone coverage. I put them here in 9th to suggest that the playoffs could be in order if things fall into place (because head coach Barry Trotz is a wizard with little talent), but it still could be a tall order.
  10. St. Louis Blues. What happened? This was a team that was supposed to be on the rise with all the young talent they had in 2008-09, and while contending might still be a ways off, a return to the playoffs was likely. Instead, the Blues stumbled through the start of the season and saw several players underperform (like Brad Boyes and his lowly 42 points in 82 games) en route to a 9th place finish, albeit with a strong 90 points. So can the team bounce back this season? Well, there is no Chris Mason in net, being replaced by Montreal playoff hero Jaroslav Halak in what represents an upgrade in that position. The defence also looks pretty good, with super youngster Erik Johnson the clear anchor followed by solid veterans Barret Jackman, Carlo Colaiacovo and captain Eric Brewer. However, it’s the forward position where the Blues are lacking and what will ultimately cost them a playoff berth. Boyes should figure to have a bounce back year, but after him the only real top six talents are big David Backes, playmaker Andy McDonald and Alexander Steen, none of whom who are real first-line material yet. The loss of Paul Kariya- first to free agency then concussions- will hurt in this area, because he gave the team a real veteran presence on a team that often lacked direction. Therefore, the pieces suggest that a bounce back is possible, but a lot things will have to work out (such as rookies breaking out) for the Blues to make it happen, and it’s not likely.
  11. Minnesota Wild. Last season was supposed to be the dawn of a new era, with the trap-filled days of Jacques Lemaire gone for the open, free-wheeling days of Todd Richards. The free-wheeling didn’t really happen, but the Wild were more fun to watch in 2010 than they had been before- but they also missed the playoffs, so this transformation is a work in progress. The Wild made big strides in this direction in bringing in free agent help, signing Matt Cullen, John Madden, Eric Nystrom and Jose Theodore in an attempt to bring in the types of bodies Richards now wants. None will have to be impact players, but the cupboard is bare in this regard anyway. Only three players- Mikko Koivu (71), Andrew Brunette (61) and Martin Havlat (54) broke the 50-point barrier, and only one defenceman- Marek Zidlicky (43) broke the 30-point barrier, though Brent Burns (20 points in 47 games) would have broken the barrier had it not been for injuries. At least in goal the Wild can lean on Niklas Backstrom, who had another solid (if unspectacular) season in the Minnesota net. Still, unless there is an unexpected infusion of talent, the signs point to another “work in progress” year for the Wild, who still may be a year or two away from going back to the playoffs.
  12. Columbus Blue Jackets. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Columbus was supposed to make the playoffs in 2010 to prove that their great 2009 season was no fluke and ride that momentum into this season, where all the youth the Blue Jackets collect would finally pan out into something resembling a contender...or something like that. Instead, the Blue Jackets bottomed out to a pathetic 79 points and were never really in the playoff chase for 2010, reverting back to the days when the Blue Jackets collected promising youth and did nothing with it. A major part of that collapse was the regression of goaltender Steve Mason, whose numbers (3.06 G.AA and .901 save percentage) went south after his Calder Trophy victory a year ago. Mason will hopefully rebound, but there’s only so much he can do. He can rely on some kind of offence, as Rick Nash, Antoine Vermette, Kristian Huselius and R.J. Umberger all return, with promising Jakub Voracek primed for a breakout; though outside of Nash it’s not an elite group and still isn’t very deep. Mason just doesn’t have much of a defence, with Anton Stralman, Fedor Tyutin, Kris Russell and a whole bunch of question marks. Therefore, unless some of those youngsters start panning out (which in Columbus is as rare as the blue moon), expect another long season in the Ohio capital.
  13. Dallas Stars. There was a time, not so long ago, when Mike Modano was captain, that the Stars were perennial Stanley Cup contenders. Those days- like Modano- are long gone, and the Stars are continuing to rebuild in an effort to recapture their old glory. As a result, there’s not a lot of talent to work with. The forward corps look decent, with elite talents Brendan Morrow, Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson getting support from Mike Ribeiro and youngster James Neal; but the blueline still needs a lot of work, since it’s essentially Stephane Robidas, some lower tier defenders (Matt Niskanen, Trevor Daley) and question marks; let alone who will tend the net. The Stars may have signed Andrew Raycroft to replace the departed Marty Turco, but Raycroft was hardly starter material in his other starting gig in Toronto. The long season in Dallas just got a lot longer.
  14. Anaheim Ducks. It’s hard to believe that just three years ago the Ducks were hoisting the Stanley Cup, but it was just three years ago though last season made it feel a lot longer. Key to the decline has been the loss of Anaheim’s prowess on the blueline, as a team that once featured an enviable cast of Scott Niedermayer, Francois Beauchemin and Chris Pronger on the backend now features Toni Lydman as its best defenceman. He’s not a bad defenceman, but Lydman is well out of his element as a No. 1 defenceman, being more of a No. 3-4 kind of guy. The rest of the Ducks’ defence features veterans who are better served as depth defencemen than top-end guys, meaning someone is going to have to step up if this group is to be effective. At least the offence features some top-end talent in Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, two members of the Canadian Olympic team from earlier this year (though there’s not much else afterward) and there is at least all-world goaltender Jonas Hiller in net. It’s not much, and will keep them out of last place, but competing for the playoffs is nothing but a dream.
  15. Edmonton Oilers. “There’s nowhere to go but up” is the refrain Oiler fans are telling themselves after facing the ignominy of finishing last in the entire league last season, the first time Edmonton, the once proud franchise, had done so. It was a mess last season (highlighted by Sheldon Souray’s trade request, despite the fact his contract is untradeable), but at least the Oilers got the chance to draft Taylor Hall. Hall, the two-time Memorial Cup champion, may turn out to be Edmonton’s best player since Mark Messier, which is not an overstatement considering Hall’s proven track record as a winner and how hard he plays each night, proving he too can be the ultimate leader. He’s still a ways to go from that point, but the potential is there. So too is it present in Edmonton’s other fine youngsters Jordan Eberle (who scored the dramatic tying goal in the 2009 World Juniors against Russia) and Magnus Paarjavi (formerly Svensson), giving the Oilers the nucleus for a team that could dominate for years to come. Unfortunately, potential doesn’t translate into wins in the now, because, right now, there’s not a lot of proven talent on this team. Much of the mess that was the 2009-10 campaign returns without much hope for improvement. Ales Hemsky leads a forward corps that doesn’t even come close to matching his immense talent level (outside of possibly Dustin Penner and Shawn Horcoff), while on defence the Oilers can boast Tom Gilbert and little else. The situation doesn’t get any rosier in goal, as Nikolai Khabibulin has to prove he can be an elite goaltender again (and make smarter decisions behind the wheel), necessitating the need for the Oilers to sign Martin Gerber, who is himself far removed from his last good season. Therefore, there will be a lot of losses, a lot of headaches and not much to cheer about again in the self-proclaimed City of Champions…but hey, at least it gives the Oilers time to survey the top draft picks one more time.

Playoffs

Eastern Conference

Conference Quarterfinals

(1) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (8) Tampa Bay Lightning. A rematch of the Lightning’s first ever playoff series in 1996, where a young Tampa Bay team lost a hard-fought series to a seasoned Flyers team ready to make inroads in NHL circles. This series will play much the same way- a green Tampa Bay team will put up a good fight but ultimately lose to a seasoned Philadelphia team, but they’ll still make a name for themselves in the process. Flyers 4, Lightning 2

(2) Ottawa Senators vs. (7) New York Rangers. The Senators’ present for returning to the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference is King Henrik and the Rangers, as well as a potential meeting with former anchor Wade Redden. It will be largely a clash of styles, with two counter-attacking teams built primarily on speed and solid defence trying to outsmart their opponent and catch them being the first to blink. This one is likely going to go down to the wire- maybe even Game 7 overtime- before it’s decided, meaning either team could win, but if I had to pick, it’d be Ottawa, since in a series like this where the wrong move could be costly, the Senators boast the best defenceman and that is Sergei Gonchar, who will be the difference maker for Ottawa. Senators 4, Rangers 3

(3) Washington Capitals vs. (6) Buffalo Sabres. On paper, it looks like a matchup the Capitals can handle- the Sabres are also built on speed and can also be offensive. However, despite the fact Buffalo doesn’t have an Ovechkin or a Backstrom, the Sabres do have a Miller and a defence, things the Capitals don’t have, which will allow them to get out of this series, though they may need to go to the brink to pull off the upset. Sabres 4, Capitals 3

(4) Montreal Canadiens vs. (5) New Jersey Devils. The “homecoming” series for Martin Brodeur, this series will show just how far down the Devils’ defence has gone. Just like last season against the Flyers, without a capable puck-mover to bring the puck to the Devils’ skilled set of forwards, the defending becomes easy and with a team as smart and as deep as Montreal, that’s an opportunity they will pounce on. Therefore, it’ll be another quick exit- and likely the first for 2011- for the Devils. Canadiens 4, Devils 1

Semifinals

(1) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (6) Buffalo Sabres. Key to the Sabres’ demise last season was their lack of size against the Boston Bruins. Now they face a Philly team that not only has size, but speed and skill as well. Given that, you’d have to figure that the Flyers will finish the job quicker than the Bruins and they will. It’ll be another quick and meek exit for the Sabres. Flyers 4, Sabres 0

(2) Ottawa Senators vs. (4) Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens and Senators don’t have much of a rivalry in the Northeast Division, but after this series, there will be one. The “Autoroute 40” series (named for the highway that separates these two cities) will be a similar series to the Senators-Rangers series of the round before, being a tactical battle where the loser will be the one that blinks first. It probably won’t be as close as the other series, but it still will be competitive, with Ottawa getting the edge simply because they have the better goaltender, as Carey Price- as he has been known in years past- will eventually make mistakes under pressure and in a series like this, they will be magnified. Senators 4, Canadiens 2

Finals

(1) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (2) Ottawa Senators. After two straight defensive battles, the Senators might be a little confused when they’ll be forced to open up against the talent-rich Flyers. Even if they do make an adjustment, though, the overall talent of the Flyers- who are much deeper than Ottawa is- will prove too much, propelling Philadelphia back to the Cup Final for a second straight year. Flyers 4, Senators 1

Western Conference

Quarterfinals

(1) Detroit Red Wings vs. (8) Calgary Flames. A rematch of the 2007 first round series, many of the same cast of characters return, as should the same result. The Flames might be able to put more of a fight this time because they’re a little quicker, but without an offensive dynamo on the backend to control the pace, Calgary will fall to the Whirling Dervishes that is the Detroit Red Wings’ dynamic offence. Red Wings 4, Flames 2

(2) Vancouver Canucks vs. (7) Los Angeles Kings. Round 1 Take 2, right? Will anything have changed? Other than Willie Mitchell switching sides, not much will be different- the Kings will make too many mistakes, the Canucks will pounce on them and they’ll ultimately win the series. Pretty straightforward- but hey, the Canucks will at least enjoy having some sun for a change. Canucks 4, Kings 2

(3) San Jose Sharks vs. (6) Colorado Avalanche. Another rematch of last season, only this time some things *have* changed. No longer do the Sharks have a goaltender to rely on and no longer does San Jose have Rob Blake to patrol the blueline and keep things calm. With Craig Anderson holding the fort and the Avalanche swarming like bees around a bemused San Jose net, the Avalanche will complete the upset they should have had a year ago. Avalanche 4, Sharks 2

(4) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (5) Chicago Blackhawks. Last season an opportunistic Coyotes team managed to bang three victories out of the talent-rich Red Wings because the Red Wings weren’t always playing at the right intensity every night. This time around, they won’t be able to catch a similarly talent-rich Blackhawks team napping, because Chicago will come to play every night. Again lacking the raw skill to properly match up with Chicago’s speed, Phoenix’s second foray into the playoffs will be meeker than the first- and it could be the last they’ll ever play in the Grand Canyon State. Blackhawks 4, Coyotes 0

Semifinals

(1) Detroit Red Wings vs. (6) Colorado Avalanche. First was a 2007 rematch, now it’s a 2008 rematch. This isn’t exactly the same Avs team the Wings played then, as players like Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly replace 2008 stalwarts like Joe Sakic and Marek Svatos, but it will still be the same result- the youthful Avs will be no match for the precision and skill of the Red Wings, but at least this time the Avalanche will look like a team ready to grow. Red Wings 4, Avalanche 2

(2) Vancouver Canucks vs. (5) Chicago Blackhawks. OMG!!! WTF!!! Not again! Yes Canuck fans…it’s happening again and it will happen again. Vancouver can crow all it wants about how it upgraded its defence with the addition of Dan Hamhuis, but without a puck-moving defenceman (like Chicago’s Duncan Keith) the same story will unfold again- Chicago won’t make the mistakes Vancouver so desperately need for offence and will cut apart a bemused Canucks defence with penetrating passes Vancouver could only hope to hit. Maybe this time Vancouver will go after Tomas Kaberle. Blackhawks 4, Canucks 2

Finals

(1) Detroit Red Wings vs. (5) Chicago Blackhawks. From a 2007 rematch to a 2008 rematch and now on to a 2009 rematch. It’s not necessarily the same story this time since the Blackhawks’ depth players will be different as will be their goaltender (and the Wings’ goaltender for that matter) but it will be the same result. The loss of all that depth in the offseason by Chicago and the addition of depth in the offseason by Detroit will make all the difference in this series, since this is likely going to be a goals-fest- and Detroit, by virtue of having more talent, will get the goals that will propel them back to the Stanley Cup Final. Red Wings 4, Blackhawks 2

Stanley Cup Finals

(W1) Detroit Red Wings vs. (E1) Philadelphia Flyers. It’s rare that two No. 1 seeds represent their conferences in the Finals (last time it happened was in 2001 when New Jersey and Colorado hooked up) but there’s hardly an argument that these two shouldn’t be here- they’re both the deepest teams in their conference and the best coached, with both teams playing extremely well as a unit. So what will separate them? Well, the Wings’ “Whirling Dervish” system is better oiled and better conditioned than the predictable lane-bound Philly offence, plus the Wings have the advantage in goal. Therefore, it will be their Cup to win, though the Flyers will still make it close. Red Wings 4, Flyers 2

-DG


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-DG

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