Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Eastern Preview

The Eastern Conference is a wide-open battle this year. Several teams have lost big time talent in the offseason. The most dynamic young players in the game are in the East. Through it all, the Canadiens are one of the few teams that can claim to have made significant upgrades in the offseason. We'll get to them later...


15. Toronto Maple Leafs - The good: Vesa Toskala, Tomas Kaberle.

The bad: Ryan Hollweg, Jeff Finger and Jamal Mayers are your prized offseason acquisitions. I'm not going to include Niklas Hagman in that group, he's a great checking forward.

The ugly: Coach Ron Wilson came out and said the Leafs won't give veterans ice time just for the sake of staying in hockey games. Even their coach is thinking about next year and John Tavares. It will be a long and ugly season in T.O.

14. New York Islanders - Where to begin? Rick DiPietro is a good goaltender. Beyond him, things look grim. Habs fans know Mark Streit is not a number one defenceman. Andy Sutton and Brendan Witt will be doing their best to support him. Up front Bill Guerin, Mike Comrie, Doug Weight and Mike Sillinger are all in contract years and looking for strong performances. These guys will get ice time to stay in close games, which is why they will be better than the Leafs but only by the slimmest of margins. They won't get blown out a whole lot but won't win many games either.

13. Atlanta Thrashers - Poor Ilya Kovalchuk. The NHL's leading goal scorer since the 2001-02 season has very little support. Mathieu Schneider will help but who does Kovalchuk play with? The answer is Vyacheslav Kozlov and a third liner. Thanks to the utter craptaculence of Toronto and The Islanders, the Thrashers won't be the worst team in the conference.


12. Tampa Bay Lightning - Rod Francis pointed out on Melnick in the Afternoon the other day that the Lightning resemble a fantasy draft team. Fan favourite Dan Boyle is gone, replaced by Matt Carle, who took a drastic step back in his development last year in San Jose. Rookie Steven Stamkos will have his growing pains but being flanked by Ryan Malone and Radim Vrbata should help. People expecting an Ovechkin or Crosby-like rookie season for Stamkos should take a step back and remeber the growing pains Vincent Lecavalier experienced in his first year in Tampa. Mike Smith is a capable goaltender but is a huge question mark when it comes to handling the number one role. The Lightning will struggle.

11. New Jersey Devils - The Devils are still a few years away from getting back to their dominant years. Martin Brodeur is still Martin Brodeur but age and losing one defenceman after another every year will catch up. Brian Rolston is a great acquisition but isn't capable of providing the scoring the Devils need. Patrik Elias needs a huge season and Brian Gionta needs to rediscover his lightning quick wrist shot and scoring touch if the Devils want to avoid missing the postseason.


10. Carolina Hurricanes - The 'Canes possess some of the game's best forwards in the form of Eric Staal and Rod Brind'Amour. They will be supported by guys like Sergei Samsonov, Ray Whitney and Matt Cullen. The loss of Justin Williams for the first three months of the year will hurt this club big time. The addition of puck-moving defenceman Joni Pitkanen will help but not enough to bolster a defensive corps that gave up 249 goals last year. Brandon Sutter is a heck of a player and should make life hell for the 'Canes opponents.

9. Boston Bruins - The Bruins showed a lot last year, overcoming the loss of Patrice Bergeron to a season-ending concussion. Tim Thomas was a revelation in goal, Zdeno Chara was a Norris trophy contender and Marc Savard filled the void admirably. I Don't expect all those things to happen again this year. Blake Wheeler made the squad and could turn some heads and I'd love to see Bergeron bounce back with a huge season but he is second to Savard on the depth chart in Claude Julien's defence-oriented system. They will be close but on the outside looking in.


8. Buffalo Sabres - The Sabres had a rough time last year. Ryan Miller struggled, especially early in the season. The absence of a true leader after the departures of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury hurt. Also missing was veteran blue-liner Teppo Numminen. This year the Sabres will rebound and new captain Craig Rivet will shine. I'm expecting big things from Miller and Tomas Vanek will return to his form of two years ago.

7. Florida Panthers - Big additions on the blue line and a healthy Tomas Vokoun equal a return to the postseason for the Panthers. They will play a boring brand of hockey and win close games. Nathan Horton is a very good player and will likely lead the team in scoring. With 57 points. You heard it here first.

6. Ottawa Senators - Unless the Sens add Mats Sundin I can't see them contending for the division crown. They're thin up front beyond the big three of Spezza, Alfredsson and Heatley. They're thin on the blue line beyond Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov. Martin Gerber is their goaltender. Nuff said.


5. Philadelphia Flyers - The Flyers are thin on the blue line. Beyond Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen there are huge question marks on defense. Martin Biron is a capable goaltender but will have difficulty. The reason the Flyers will make the playoffs will be their forwards. Mike Richards is one of the best two-way forwards in the game. Daniel Briere, Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne will be the big-time players they're expected to be.

4. New York Rangers - They don't have a superstar anymore. Markus Naslund should have a big year with something to prove. Wade Redden is overrated and Nikolai Zherdev is a selfish jerk but having King Henrik in goal is enough. They will be lacking the physical edge they had last season with the losses of Sean Avery and Ryan Hollweg but more finesse isn't a bad thing.

3. Washington Capitals - They're a huge injury away from being in the cellar but the Caps look fantastic on paper. Mike Green is a beauty. Jose Theodore will get the job done. Alexander Ovechkin is a pretty good player. The supporting cast looks good. There will be nights when their blue line will look awful and be exposed but their depth at the forward position will win them the Southeast, which will once again be the worst division in the league.


2. Pittsburgh Penguins - They will feel the losses of Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar to long-term injuries in the first half of the season but will come out of it a better team. Marc-Andre Fleury will have a big year. Sidney Crosby is the best player in the NHL and will get his team to the promised land again. Crosby will win the Hart.

1. Montreal Canadiens - The Habs are deep. Scary deep. Having guys like D'Agostini and Weber in Hamilton knocking on the door will bring out the best in the players. Andrei Markov is emerging as the leader on the blue line and is capable of putting up 70+ points. Mike Komisarek will continue to punish forwards who try to squeeze past him. Up front, Andrei Kostitsyn is going to be huge. If he can keep his head in the game and his intensity level is there he could lead the team in scoring. Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev are in contract years. Carey Price will be dominant if can get his glove going again. Something special is brewing in Montreal. Expectations are high and it's almost impossible to follow up the magic of last year but the difference will be in the playoffs. This team is far better prepared for postseason play and the experience they gathered last year will only help.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Western Preview

With the regular season officially underway, it's time to make predictions for the upcoming year. We start out west, with an Eastern version to follow later this week.

The Western Conference is the stronger of the NHL's two halves. Detroit is the odds-on favourite to win it all again and San Jose looks very dangerous just to name two. Here's the way I see it, from worst all the to best.


15. Los Angeles Kings - The Kings have a great young core of Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Jack Johnson. They also don't have anything resembling a legitimate number one goaltender. Jason LaBarbera and Erik Ersberg will have their hands full all season long. Rookie defenceman Drew Doughty should be a standout but it will be a long year in LA.

14. St Louis Blues - The future looks good in St Louis. Brad Boyes, poised to follow up his monster 07-08 campaign with another big one this year. David Perron, skilled sophomore could break out. Guys like TJ Oshie and Patrik Berglund are looking to have strong rookie campaigns and could exceed expectations but the loss of big blueliner Erik Johnson could have disastrous consequences. Jay McKee and Eric Brewer need to eat a lot of minutes if this team wants to contend, which it won't.

13. Columbus Blue Jackets - It's a make or break year in Columbus. The Blue Jackets are the only NHL team to have never qualified for the postseason. Management has made a commitment to end that streak this year. They added Kristian Huselius and Carey Price's nemesis RJ Umberger up front. And they brought in a new number one defenceman.... Mike Commodore. He'll likely be with Fedor Tyutin as the top pairing. You've got to feel for goaltender Pascal Leclaire.

12. Nashville Predators - They were surprisingly good last year and gave Detroit a run for their money in the first round of the playoffs. Then Alexander Radulov injured Jason Arnott while celebrating a goal. It wasn't the last time Radulov shot his teammates in the foot. This summer Radulov elected not to honour the final year of his entry level contract instead opting to go to Russia and play in the KHL for big money and pay no taxes. Hanging his teammates out to dry came easily to Radulov and they'll be reeling from it for to long to make the playoffs.

11. Colorado Avalanche - Colorado's difficulties are in goal as well. Andrew Raycroft and Peter Budaj are expected to platoon and that's a tall order. The fact that the Avs put a whole lot of eggs in one basket with last year's deadline acquisitions doesn't help. If Paul Stastny is healthy he could score 90+ points but the lack of goaltending and dependence on aging and oft-injured superstars (Foote, Sakic, Hejduk) equals disappointment in the Mile High City this year.

10. Chicago Blackhawks - Huge changes in the windy city this summer. Cristobal Huet is an upgrade on Nikolai Khabibulin but isn't a guy who can give you more than about 50-55 starts per season so his backup will be important. Brian Campbell joins a strong blueline. Duncan Keith is a beast, Cam Barker and Brent Seabrook are solid. Pat Kane and Jonathan Toews are electric. Patrick Sharp is one of the best two-way forwards in the game. The rest of the forwards... Well Martin Havlat is great but he's more fragile than the polar ice cap. Andrew Ladd is a certified first round bust. Dustin Byfuglien was good last year and will need to be exponentially better if the Hawks expect to contend for a postseason berth.

9. Minnesota Wild - Jacques Lemaire is a great coach. Kiklas Backstrom a very good goalie. Marian Gaborik wants out. The Wild play a mind-numbing, sleep inducing brand of hockey and the loss of Brian Rolston will be too much to overcome. If they fall out of contention by trade deadline time, look for Gaborik to be in play on the trade market.


8. Edmonton Oilers - You have to love what the Oilers did this offseason. Bringing in noted Hab-Killer Erik Cole and underrated (at least out East) defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky to a talented group that includes Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky, Dustin Penner, super-sophomores Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano up front and guys like Tom Gilbert Steve Staios and Sheldon Souray on the back end. Dwayne Roloson and Mathieu Garon could very well determine whether the Oilers are on the outside or in when it comes down to the postseason.

7. Phoenix Coyotes - Ilya Bryzgalov had his ups and downs in his first year as a number one goalie but he proved he can get it done. Up front, a dynamic group led by veteran Shane Doan and complemented by youngsters like Peter Mueller and Kyle Turris is joined by Olli Jokinen. New addition Kurt Sauer is one of the most underrated defenceman in the West. Don't mess with them either. With noted sluggers like Daniel Carcillo (one of my favourite players in the league), Brian McGrattan and Todd Fedoruk out there, oppposing teams won't be taking too many liberties with Phoenix players. Viktor Tikhonov is a sleeper pick for rookie of the year.

6. Vancouver Canucks - This pick is based on one thing: Roberto Luongo and his ability to win games single-handedly. Sure, the Canucks will have trouble scoring goals but it won't stop them from making the postseason and pulling one of their patented early exits.


5. Anaheim Ducks - Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne are some of the best of their generations. Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf are two of the best of theirs. Add in a JS Giguere in goal, a shake of role players like Sami Pahlsson, Travis Moen and Rob Niedermayer and the only question left is... Are Ken Klee, Kent Huskins and Steve Montador good enough as your bottom three defencemen? They're Good enough for 5th.

4. Dallas Stars - Is there a better vetran bargain than Brenden Morrow? Guy Carbonneau's son-in-law is signed in Dallas through 2013 at 4.1 million per season. A true leader. Brad Richards is overpaid but still great. Marty Turco is a good and possibly great goaltender. The question is can Sergei Zubov come back in time to help out on the back end. The other question is how long before Sean Avery steals Jessica Simpson from Tony Romo?

3. Calgary Flames - The addition of Mike Cammalleri and Todd Bertuzzi will answer offensive questions. What it all comes down to is Mikka Kiprusoff. The Flames will live and die with Kipper this year and I expect big things from the ginger-haired netminder. He'd better be good and healthy as backup Curtis McElhinney's NHL experience is limited.


2. San Jose Sharks - It's now or never in San Jose. Rob Blake and Dan Boyle are part of one of the West's best defensive units. Joe Thornton has this year's playoffs to prove he's not the A-Rod of hockey. The Sharks look to have the right mix of grit and raw talent, veterans and youngsters. They also have one of the best goalies in the game.

1. Detroit Red Wings - Take last year's most dominant team and throw in Marian Hossa and you've got a recipe to repeat. The deepest team in the NHL got deeper this summer and guys like Mikael Samuelsson and Valtteri Filppula will only get better. There defence is so good they make Chris Osgood look like a superstar. The Wings will have the best record in the regular season and shouldn't have much trouble skating to yet another Stanley Cup final.

There are many contenders for the last two playoff spots in the West and injuries will play a big part in who gets them. At the end of the day, it looks like Detroit and San Jose at the top and then everybody else. With the regular season right around the corner, it's time for some bruising Western showdowns.