Sunday, October 4, 2009

NHL Preview

It's finally here, the NHL season is ready to begin. After months of waiting through NHLPA nonsense, television distribution battles and the peak of the Balsillie/Bettman civil war, we finally drop the puck. There is a buzz to the start of this hockey season and just a pure excitement which I can't blame at all. Can Crosby and the Penguins repeat? Can OV win his first Cup? Did Marian Hossa pick the right team or are the Blackhawks destined for 12 straight Cup Finals losses? All these burning questions will be answered as the season progresses so let's begin with the preview.

The Eastern Conference seems to have a defined pecking order as you have the elite teams, the bubble and the bad ones. The Penguins, Caps, Bruins, Flyers and Hurricanes are going to make the playoffs. I think the Capitals will end up with the top seed, since the Southeast hasn't improved the way the Atlantic and Northeast have. The Flyers will win the second seed, beating out the Penguins for the division and the Bruins will be third in the East as the loss of Phil Kessel will drop their point total, but the defensive style of coach Claude Julien will keep them toward the front. It helps to have Zdeno Chara leading the team at the blue line, an eventual replacement for Marc Savard to work in unison with (Marco Sturm? Blake Wheeler? Milan Lucic?!?) and another Vezina trophy run for Tim Thomas this season. Pittsburgh and Carolina should end up 4 and 5 to close out the contenders. Pittsburgh still have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to score for them and I bet that Chris Kunitz, Bill Guerin and Jordan Staal will have bigger point totals this year. For Carolina, I don't think the mistakes from the last year after will happen to them and I expect career years from Eric Staal and Cam Ward.

You can't say the bad teams without mentioning the NY Islanders, who will be the worst team in the league after their only free agent signing consist of goaltenders (yes, goaltenders is plural). In a related story, Rick DiPietro is in the fourth year of his 15-year deal and I don't have a joke here. At least John Tavares will look forward to Taylor Hall joining him next year to form a foundation for the Islanders to succeed in the future when their playing in Hamilton or Kansas City. Tampa Bay has another high draft pick in Victor Hedman, who will patrol the blue line, Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis are still capable of scoring and Steven Stamkos is progressing into a good player. Still, the Lightning don't have the depth to contend for a playoff spot. The Thrashers are in the exact same situation as they have scoring depth but still can't keep pucks out of the net. Expect Ilya Kovalchuk to be traded at the trade deadline, remember the Bruins have the draft picks from the Phil Kessel trade with Toronto. Speaking of the Leafs, they will be better defensively and a joy to watch because of the fighting to come from longtime fave Colton Orr and others. However, truculence and playoffs don't mix, plus the Leafs don't have the secondary scoring to support Kessel once he starts.

This leaves a group of six that can either make the playoffs or miss: New Jersey, NY Rangers, Florida, Montreal, Buffalo and Ottawa. I include the Sens because they have the goaltending to possibly make the playoffs and the scoring to make up for the Heatley trade. However, I just don't trust them to make it and Pascal Leclaire must prove to be able to stay healthy. I was going to pick against the Canadiens before the Andrei Markov injury. Now that he's out for four months, there's no chance for them, which is a shame because I liked how Carey Price looked last night and could have bounced back. The Sabres will be back in the playoffs as Ryan Miller's injury (and to a lesser extent Thomas Vanek) was the only reason they missed the playoffs. As long as Scott Gomez doesn't get him again, the Sabres will end the two year drought. For the past few years, my prejudice of the Devils has led me to always say it's the end of their run of success and this year I'm not fooling around: 40 wins for Maaaaaartyyyyyy and the trap is back for the Devils (like it ever really left). So who's in between the Rangers and Panthers? Fact is, I just can't pick the Panthers to make the playoffs, though the loss of Jay Bouwmeester won't hurt them as much as you think. Marian Gaborik plays enough games to be effective for the Rangers and they make the playoffs on Henrik Lundqvist's back.

As for the top five teams, Boston won't feel the loss of Kessel until the playoffs when they have to score goals and Carolina won't be good enough defensively to knock off either the Flyers, Caps or Pens, despite Cam Ward's best efforts. I think Pittsburgh is due to for a bit a of a fall, the loss of Rob Scuderi will prove too great this year and won't make their third straight Stanley Cup Final. This leaves Philly and Washington; the addition of Chris Pronger seems to be fate for him and the Flyers, both fit better than a glove. Add that the Flyers can score from three lines (whether Mike Richards, Jeff Carter or youngsters Claude Giroux and rookie James Van Riemsdyk), the only question becomes whether Ray Emery can revert to 2007 Emery who led the Sens to the Cup Final. However, I believe in the Capitals, I believe in the tandem of Jose Theodore and Simeon Varlamov in net, I believe in Mike Green and he will score 40 goals this year, I believe Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom will score over 80 points and most importantly, I believe in Alexander Ovechkin will be motivated to even the Stanley Cup score with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

The Western Conference seems for the first time in a long time to be wide open as the Red Wings aren't as overwhelming of a favorite as years past. I do know that the Colorado Avalanche and the Phoenix Coyotes won't be any good. Both teams are too young and Phoenix has the weight of this bankruptcy and relocation that's hanging over this team. The Predators haven't improved and will miss the playoffs again and so will the Edmonton Oilers, despite having Pat Quinn as coach; they just keep getting burned by players not coming in free agency. I wish the L.A. Kings were back to being a good team and next season they will be, but this isn't next season and Ryan Smyth isn't enough to make the Kings a playoff team. I wanted to make the Minnesota Wild my surprise playoff team, I really did. They have taken off the shackles of the trap, the other Nicklas Backstrom is an elite goaltender and Martin Havlat is capable of replacing Marian Gaborik in every way (including injuries), but the West is too strong to creep through for them.

The team that will miss the playoffs who made it a year ago is the Blue Jackets. I hate to say it, since I want Columbus to succeed, but a sophomore jinx is due for Steve Mason and they need more than Rick Nash to make the playoffs. This leaves the door open for the Dallas Stars to return to the playoffs now that Brenden Morrow is back from last year's injury and the failed Sean Avery experiment is a year behind them. Most importantly, we all forgot that Marty Turco has been a top-5 goaltender in this league in the last six years and should bounce back from last year's tough season. The St. Louis Blues will return to the playoffs as well since last year's team was a year ahead of schedule, plus the return of Paul Kariya and Erik Johnson should also improve the team. I was going to have the Ducks out of the playoffs, but I can't ingore Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry for scoring, Scott Niedermayer returning for one more year and the terrific J.S. Giguere-Jonas Hiller combo in net.

The top five in the West is almost as solid as in the East with the Blackhawks, Flames, Red Wings, Sharks and Canucks. For Vancouver, it's almost only because of Roberto Luongo, though keeping the Sedins doesn't hurt. Eventually, a lack of offense will do them in and I see another second round exit, the Canucks trademark. The San Jose Sharks went all in with the Dany Heatley trade and if properly motivated, he can have a huge season, like Joe Thornton in 2006. I expect huge seasons from both Heatley and Thornton, another Vezina-type season from Evgeni Nabokov and the Sharks will still end the year with an early playoff exit. I'm down on Detroit this season and not just because they signed Todd Bertuzzi (there is a legitimate curse having him on your team since Steve Moore, like a Madden cover). The Wings have had too many losses to free agency and it probably takes a year for youngsters like Justin Abdelkader and Ville Leino to become big time players. So instead of 110 points and first in the West, Detroit get 100 and finishes in 4th.

Most everyone is picking the Chicago Blackhawks to win the West this year. The so-called experts point out the signing of Marian Hossa, the resigning a various RFA's to long-term deals and the continued emergence of Jonathan Toews and Patrick "20 Cent" Kane. What hurts the Hawks is Hossa's early season injury and the big question is if Christobal Huet can be the number one goaltender on this team. If this turns out no, the Hawks won't win. Hossa will make a difference as the season progresses and this team will be the top seed in the West, but they won't win. So who's left? The Calgary Flames.

I think the Flames did a great job in the offseason acquiring Jay Bouwmeester on an already strong blue line group with Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr. A full season with Olli Jokinen, along with Craig Conroy and Daymond Langkow looks good, in addition to adding a couple ex-Rangers in Nigel Dawes, who should thrive in a more open environment to play hockey and Freddie Sjostrom, one of my faves who will add terrific penalty killing ability. Jarome Iginla remains my favorite hockey player which all hockey players should model themselves after now that Joe Sakic is retired. He just reminds me of Mark Messier in so many ways; the toughness, the snarl when necessary, his scoring ability and his leadership of that team. He's a guy that is so good that you never want him to leave Calgary; in other words, The Franchise. The one player I haven't mentioned was Miikka Kiprusoff who has declined in net the past three seasons. If the Flames lower his workload from 75 games to about 55-60, he will have a better season and be better prepared to go through the long, arduous journey that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This is the 30th season the Flames have played in Calgary and I can't think of anything better than to see Jarome Iginla face Alexander Ovechkin in the Stanley Cup Final this June.

East: 1. Wash 2. Philly 3. Boston 4. Pitt 5. Car 6. NYR 7. Buf 8. NJ 9. Fla 10. Ott 11. Mont 12. Tor 13. Atl 14. TB 15 NYI

West: 1. Chi 2. SJ 3. Cgy 4. Det 5. Ana 6. Stl 7. Van 8. Dal 9. Minn 10. Clb 11. LA 12. Edm 13. Nash 14. Pho 15. Col

SCF: Washington over Calgary in 6.

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