We are only TWO days away from the beginning of a new season!! It’s seems like yesterday that the Penguins were raising the Cup. It’s time for some predictions, and here are my division-by-division predictions. Tomorrow, I’ll reveal my Cup pick along with the rest of my playoff predictions. I’ll also post my picks for the awards.
1. Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers have a bit of a new look this year after being knocked out by Pittsburgh for the second straight year. GM Paul Holmgren acquired veteran Chris Pronger to shore up the blue line, and signed Ray Emery to become their #1 netminder in an ongoing cycle between the pipes. Philly still boasts a deep group of talented forwards, and have the make-up of a Cup-caliber team. Now they just have to play like one.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
After knocking off Detroit to win the Cup, Dan Bylsma’s bunch is looking for a 2nd straight championship. Crosby & Malkin have more toys to play with now than they did before last season. The two superstars will be favorites for most of the major awards, and Marc-Andre Fleury should be a candidate to win the Vezina. For the Pens to repeat, though, the defense needs to step it up as a whole as Scuderi and Gill have moved on.
3. New Jersey Devils
GM Lou Lamoriello was hesitant to open up the checkbook this summer to reel in any key free agents. Even though it may hurt them, the Devils still have a solid group of veterans up front and a record-setting goaltender. The big question mark lies with their defense corps, which lacks offensive ability and size. The reigning division champs will have a hard time repeating that feat with Pittsburgh and Philly in their way.
4. New York Rangers
The Blueshirts were fairly active during the frenzy. But when they took a step forward, GM Glen Sather would take two steps back. Defensively, they’re still a mystery with the overpaid Redden and Michal Rozsival on board. The offense still lacks a 1-2 punch (let alone a true #1 pivot) that can be relied on in key situations. After 4 straight years of playing past Game 82, the playoffs are in jeopardy for the Rangers - even with Lundqvist.
5. New York Islanders
After two straight years of living in the basement, things might be on the way up on the island with phenom John Tavares in the fold now. The #1 pick will step in right away and play a big role. The Isles still have a lot of questions to answer before the season starts, including who will start in net out of their 3-headed monster. One thing is for sure, though... this team is still one of the worst in the league.
1. Boston Bruins
Claude Julien’s crew had their best season this decade, but exited the playoffs prematurely. Redemption will be on the Bruins’ minds this year. There’s not much changeover from last year - Derek Morris is their only notable off-season pickup. There has not been a resolution to the drama that is Phil Kessel; as of now, it looks like he’ll be playing elsewhere. It will be critical for last year’s breakout stars Tim Thomas and David Krejci to come close to that production. If they do, the B’s should remain at the top and will be a true contender again.
2. Ottawa Senators
The organization breathed a sigh of relief in mid-September when GM Bryan Murray was able to get rid of Dany Heatley. Alex Kovalev is a welcome addition to a power play that was already very potent. Michalek and Cheechoo add much-needed secondary scoring. Cory Clouston is going into his first full season as coach, and they should be better between the pipes. A return to the postseason is very possible.
3. Montreal Canadiens
Habs fans may need a program this year as they experienced an extreme makeover this summer. Mike Cammalleri and Gomez were among the many new additions as they waved goodbye to mainstays Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev. This team will have a tough time hanging with the Bruins, and may experience growing pains early. Goalie Carey Price will need to play to his potential for Montreal to be a threat in the East.
4. Toronto Maple Leafs
New GM Brian Burke put his stamp on this team by bringing in a lot more grit in the off-season. Their defense should be dynamite with Komisarek and Beauchemin joining Kaberle. The offense has good potential down the road after picking up Kessel late in the summer. The bottom playoff spots are up for grabs, and the duo of Toskala & Gustavsson can help Toronto snap their playoff drought.
5. Buffalo Sabres
This is a tough team to get a finger on. They certainly have enough talent to make the playoffs, but have experienced costly injuries in each of the last 2 seasons. The Sabres will look to end that playoff drought, but must do it with streaky forward production and an average blue line. The heat is on coach Lindy Ruff to make them a contender again, and it’s possible if they can stay out of the trainer’s room.
1. Washington Capitals
The East’s most explosive team went through some tough times against the eventual champ Penguins last spring. Mike Knuble’s veteran presence has been added to the young lineup with Ovechkin and company. Their defense and goaltending are still an issue, and that’s not a good sign for this de-facto Cup contender. Bruce Boudreau will have to sort things out before the Caps believe they can win the Cup.
2. Carolina Hurricanes
Eric Staal and company took the ‘Caniacs’ on a magical ride last spring, which ended in the 3rd round against Pittsburgh. They have most of the same crew back, and could push Washington for the division. Cam Ward has improved in each of his 4 seasons in the league. D-man Aaron Ward was re-acquired to shore up the back end. If the pieces all fall in place, the ‘Canes have the potential to be this year’s surprise team.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning
The Bolts’ rebuilding phase continued with the drafting of tower d-man Victor Hedman. GM Brian Lawton was also able to bring in Ohlund and Tanguay via free agency. Tampa Bay has playoff potential if stars Lecavalier and St. Louis can stay on the ice. Mike Smith and Antero Niittymaki will split time in net since neither is reliable as a #1. This team still might be a year away from returning to the playoffs.
4. Florida Panthers
Florida’s season ended in heartbreak as they lost a tiebreaker to Montreal for the 8th seed. The ‘Cats still have playoff aspirations, but must do it without Jay Bouwmeester. They’d like to believe they’re better off, but he was a perennial all-star, and they lost other key pieces as well. Coach Peter DeBoer has his work cut out for him this winter if they want to make the playoffs for the first time in 8 years.
5. Atlanta Thrashers
This might be the most important season for Atlanta. With the division (and conference) cellars calling their name, it’ll be key to remain in the playoff hunt with captain Ilya Kovalchuk becoming a UFA next July 1. Nik Antropov was recruited by ‘Kovy’ to improve the team. He should help their offense, but it likely won’t be enough unless others step up. Look for the Thrashers to flirt with the cellar all season long.
1. Detroit Red Wings
The Wings are going into this season after taking a hit this summer. They lost Hossa, Hudler, Samuelsson, among others, and could only fill in with cheap veterans. Their cap issues finally affected them, but will it hurt the on-ice product?? Detroit is still a talented bunch, and young guns Leino and Helm could explode onto the scene this year. It’s still their division to lose, and will be looking to win it for the 9th straight year.
2. Chicago Blackhawks
Chicago could not stay out of the news this summer, from Dale Tallon’s contract fiasco with the RFA’s to the Marian Hossa signing to the Patrick Kane arrest. But once the season starts, it will be all business for the ‘Hawks. They’re looking to improve on last year’s success, and changed their look a bit to do so. With Cristobal Huet in net, though, all of their offensive firepower may not be enough to win 16 playoff games.
3. St. Louis Blues
Last January, Andy Murray’s club was sitting in dead last in the West. Even though they were swept by Vancouver in the 1st round, just making the playoffs was a miracle. Can they carry over that momentum?? Only time will tell. Chris Mason will have to repeat his success from a year ago, and veterans like Kariya and McDonald must stay healthy. Their stunning finish was no fluke, and will be in the playoff hunt again.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets
Steve Mason went from future stud to Calder winner and Vezina candidate in a blink of an eye. He and Rick Nash created a lot of excitement last year, but were eliminated by Detroit quickly in their first playoff appearance. The Jackets return most of their roster, and will have Derick Brassard and Antoine Vermette for a full season. To make the playoffs again, they must improve on their 30th-ranked power play.
5. Nashville Predators
Hard work over the last 3 months didn’t quite pay off, as the Predators fell just short of their 5th consecutive playoff appearance. By the looks of it, they could have a tough time making it this year. They re-signed forwards Sullivan and Ward, but lost key guys like Zanon and Fiddler. Even if Pekka Rinne avoids a sophomore slump, it’s hard to imagine them getting off that playoff bubble unless they get more help up front.
1. Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks still have a bad taste in their mouth after a Game 6 loss in Chicago eliminated them. GM Mike Gillis waited until the 11th hour to re-sign the Sedin twins. He was also able to bring in veterans Samuelsson and Schneider, who should gel with the team quickly. Another new face on the horizon is Cody Hodgson, their 1st round pick from 2008. This could be a special season in VanCity if Luongo plays like he wants a ring.
2. Calgary Flames
In the middle of February, the Flames looked like a lock to win the division. But March wasn’t kind to Calgary, as injuries made it hard for them to skate a 20-man roster. After their 4th straight 1st round exit, GM Darryl Sutter is hoping Jay Bouwmeester and Brent Sutter will help get them closer to the Cup. Captain Jarome Iginla is their anchor up front, and could lead them to a deeper playoff run this spring.
3. Edmonton Oilers
Goodbye, Craig MacTavish... Hello, Pat Quinn! GM Steve Tambellini finally pulled the trigger on MacT’s stay behind Edmonton’s bench. Quinn will have the team focused from the get-go. They boast one of the most overlooked blue lines in the game, and now have a stalwart in net with Khabibulin in town. The Oilers may not hang with their Western Canadian mates, but could be a dangerous team to play next spring.
4. Minnesota Wild
Fans in the State of Hockey will be seeing something different this year: an offensive-minded Wild team. Todd Richards is a 180-degree turn from long-time coach Jacques Lemaire. They replaced the departed Gaborik with Martin Havlat; they also signed grit on the back end in Zanon and Hnidy. Minnesota can make the playoffs if they adjust to the new system faster than expected.
5. Colorado Avalanche
Oh, how far this franchise has fallen since the early 2000’s. Gone are the days of nightly sellouts and deep playoff runs. With Joe Sakic retiring, it’s a new era of Avalanche hockey, and it started with the #3 overall selection of Matt Duchene. Paul Stastny and Milan Hejduk will do the best they can to help Colorado get back to respectability, but a playoff berth just isn’t in the cards.
1. Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks impressed many by upsetting rival San Jose in round one last spring. The torch may have been passed right then and there. Anaheim lost Chris Pronger, but added much-needed offensive punch up front by adding Saku Koivu and Joffrey Lupul. Hiller and Giguere make for a nice 1-2 combo in net, and the defense in front of them is very good. If the goaltending holds up, there’s a chance that the Ducks could win it all.
2. San Jose Sharks
Last year was their chance. San Jose won the Presidents’ Trophy, and was a heavy favorite to win their first ever Stanley Cup. But it all went down the drain before they could get settled in the playoffs. Many changes were made late in the summer, as GM Doug Wilson shipped out a lot of depth to acquire Dany Heatley. The window is still closing for this Sharks team to win it all, and I’m afraid this won’t be the year, either.
3. Los Angeles Kings
Boston & Chicago burst onto the scene last season, and revived hockey in each of their cities. Los Angeles could follow suit. They have an abundance of talent and youth, and added a couple veterans this summer to balance it out. Their biggest flaw is in net, as Quick and Ersberg will battle for the #1 job. If they can’t get consistent goaltending, a playoff appearance may have to wait another year.
4. Dallas Stars
The Stars couldn’t build off a conference final appearance in 07/08 because of injuries and one big distraction (Avery). If everyone can remain healthy, they could be a dangerous team under new coach Marc Crawford. But Crawford hasn’t had much success at his recent stops, and there are doubts about the blue line. It’s Marty Turco’s contract year, so it’s time for him to play like he wants some serious dough.
5. Phoenix Coyotes
Phoenix has endured many problems and distractions this off-season. Wayne Gretzky stepped down as coach, and the ownership issues speak for themselves. They have a lot of good prospects, but haven’t used them wisely the last couple years. Once thought to be on the rise, the ‘Yotes seem to have hit a wall. They could easily be the worst team in the conference, and that won’t bode well for their ongoing attendance issues.
It's the best time of year!
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