So allow me to offer some ill-advised, completely useless predictions for the upcoming season. Lots of things will happen between now and when the Stanley Cup is hoisted next June, so don't be surprised if I'm totally wrong on so much of what I'm about to say. It will at least be fun to look back and see how much of an idiot I am when that time comes. Here we go:
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
These Penguins will be very similar to the team that won the Cup last spring, with some minor losses on defense. It may be forgotten now, but the Penguins were plagued by inconsistency during last season and it wasn't until a coaching change that things began to turn around. More consistency this year will be achieved if Marc-Andre Fleury can channel his SCF Game 6 and 7 supremacy into an entire season. I wouldn't bet on that, but Pittsburgh could be an even better team this year.
2. Philadelphia Flyers
I badly want to like this Flyers team: Jeff Carter and Mike Richards are two of the best all-around players in the league; Scott Hartnell mixing scoring and toughness; the potential of a Riley Cote-Ian Laperriere-Dan Carcillo "Let Me Hand You Your Own Ass" line (591 combined PIMs last year); young stars on the rise like Claude Giroux and former UNHer James van Riemsdyk; and the ballsy move to try Ray Emery at goal. But, alas, they have Chris Pronger. Can I root for them as long as he's not on the ice? Please?
3. New Jersey Devils
Was the re-hiring of Jacques Lemaire a cry for help or another genius stroke for Lou Lamoriello? We're going to find out this year, and it won't be easy. The Devils lost a lot and didn't really gain much, with Brian Gionta and several other vets jumping ship. Patrik Elias is already hurt, but steady production should again come from Zach Parise (45 goals last year) and Travis Zajac (42 assists). Martin Brodeur needs to prove at 37 that he can withstand a full season and take New Jersey deep in the playoffs (he hasn't done the latter in several years).
4. New York Rangers
I have the Rangers barely squeaking into the playoffs, but not because of anything they did special this offseason. They trade perennial albatross Scott Gomez to the Canadiens for some solid young pieces, but then immediately replace him with the brittle Marian Gaborik for a similarly huge cap hit. Win some, lose some. At least with John Tortorella and Sean Avery around, the Rangers won't be too far removed from the headlines. It'll probably be more interesting than anything actually happening on the ice.
5. New York Islanders
It's probably not a great sign for the Isles and Rick DiPietro that they had to sign both Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron this offseason as insurance. Fifteen-year contracts should probably be avoided at all costs in this league. The #1 overall pick in this year's draft, John Tavares, ought to be relatively close to the NHL mid-season. Otherwise, there's no reason to care about this team.
1. Boston Bruins
My B's preview will be coming at some point before the Oct. 1 opener. Until then, I'll reserve extended comment on the team, but I'll break some suspense right now. I have the Bruins as the East's #1 seed, and yes, winning the Stanley Cup next spring. Shocking, I know.
2. Buffalo Sabres
Lindy Ruff's crew missed the playoffs for a second straight year in '08-'09, so I don't expect the third time to be a charm. It might be difficult with Ryan Miller expected to be a major part of Team USA's chances at the Olympics. Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Derek Roy are part of a group of excellent forwards that should lead the Sabres back into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. People in Buffalo need something to cheer about, right?
3. Montreal Canadiens
After the debacle that was the Canadiens' July 1, the Habs rounded out their extreme makeover with the likes of character forward Travis Moen and veteran defenseman Paul Mara, amongst others. But it's hard for me to believe that such wholesale changes will lead to success this year in Montreal. The stink from last season won't be going away anytime soon. I have the Habs missing the playoffs this year. Too much change, too much uncertainty, too much pressure, too much Bob Gainey.
4. Ottawa Senators
The Dany Heatley saga is over, and in his place will be Milan Michalek and someone I think is named Jonathan Cheechoo but may actually be this guy instead. They also added Alex Kovalev, and they need to hope he actually shows up all the time unlike last year during the putrid Montreal season. The Sens are banking a lot on Pascal Leclaire this year in a town known for ripping underachieving goalies to pieces. I'm not sure it's going to end well.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs
Adding Phil Kessel to the Truculent Bunch isn't going to make the Leafs good for this year. Kessel, who won't even play until November anyway, is the only scoring threat on the entire team and nobody on the roster jumps out as a potential center to feed him the puck like Marc Savard. Brian Burke added a lot of meat to this team's defense, so at the very least if they can't score goals they won't give up as many.
1. Washington Capitals
Scoring will not be an issue with these Capitals, what with prolific scorers Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, Mike Green and new additions Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison. The presence between the pipes could become an issue, with Jose Theodore reclaiming the job he lost to Simeon Varlamov during the playoffs. Theodore is one of the most embattled goalies of his generation, and it's hard to believe he actually won a Hart Trophy once. If their goaltending rounds into form, the Caps will be hard to beat.
2. Carolina Hurricanes
3. Florida Panthers
Sure, it's been rough for the Panthers through their relatively short history. For much of last year it seemed like they at least had a shot at getting in the postseason, and finished tied for the 8th spot but lost out on tiebreakers to the Canadiens. I'm personally grateful since beating the Panthers in the opening round wouldn't have been as sweet. I'm not sure what to expect this year for Florida, their first in several without Jay Bouwmeester. Scott Clemmensen should provide some stability in net.
4. Atlanta Thrashers
It's been pretty funny to watch the Thrashers try to convince Ilya Kovalchuk to stay through any move short of actually extending his contract. They sign his countryman Nik Antropov and ran very hard at another Russian Nikolai Zherdev. They added mobile defender Pavel Kubina to get him the puck. I'm not sure it's going to matter, and Kovalchuk could be available in a trade this season. Considering the pieces the Bruins acquired recently, I'd die to see Kovalchuk in Black and Gold. Make it happen, Chiarelli!
5. Tampa Bay Lightning
How the mighty fall. This franchise won the Cup five years ago? Really? No, I mean, really? When Barry Melrose can't save your team, no one can. Victor Hedman looks like a real #1 defenseman. If that's all Tampa has to look forward too, maybe it's time to think about rooting for the Rays...er...the Bucs...er...nevermind.
1. Detroit Red Wings
A lot has been made about Detroit's offseason losses, and because of the salary cap their relative inability to replace those losses with anyone of substance. A lot has been made about how they can't possibly go deep into the playoffs for a fourth straight year. A lot has been made about potential Team Canada distractions for Mike Babcock, and how so many key players have major Olympic commitments. But these are the Red Wings. Given how last season ended, I don't see a scenario under which this team isn't in it to the very end.
2. Columbus Blue Jackets
Yeah. That just happened. I don't expect the BJs to be too much better than Chicago, maybe only a point or two, but this preview is about taking chances. Why not take one here? Think of Steve Mason as a rock band; after a successful debut, the second album/season is always very tough. The success of Ken Hitchcock's young team will depend on that. Rick Nash is oh-so-close to breaking through as an NHL super-duper star, and I'm excited to see that happen if Columbus can also break through this year.
3. Chicago Blackhawks
Seems like most NHL observers are falling over themselves to anoint the Blackhawks as the NHL's next "it" team after getting to the WCF last year and adding Marian Hossa. Well, turns out Hossa was damaged goods and after All-American Boy Patrick Kane drunkenly punched out a cabbie in Buffalo things don't look so rosy for this crew. Brian Campbell might share that grave with Cheechoo and their goaltending situation is far from settled (or good). Sure, the Hawks will be a fine team. But let's not get too crazy here.
4. St. Louis Blues
I've got the Blues barely making it in the playoffs this year, continuing the good karma from last year's massive mid-season turnaround. Chris Mason came out of the doldrums to establish himself as a #1 goalie, but my man Ty Conklin is right behind should Mason not be up to the task. St. Louis dealt with a ton of injuries last year, so having Paul Kariya and Andy MacDonald fully healthy should make a huge difference this year. It's going to be a tough division race, as you can tell.
5. Nashville Predators
I'd think Nashville would make the playoffs, even in the tough Western Conference, if they were in another division. Pekka Rinne crushed Dan Ellis' soul last year and stole away the starting goaltender job and did not look back. Shea Weber is the most dynamic player on their roster, and it'd be interesting to see what kind of return he could yield on the trade market.
1. Vancouver Canucks
Expectations will be running high in Vancouver this year after an offseason of high activity. The Canucks retained the services of the Sedins, gave Roberto Luongo a mega-extension, added Mikael Samuelsson for scoring depth and shored up the blue line with Christian Ehrhoff and Mathieu Schneider. With continued growth in production for the likes of Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Kevin Bieksa and Willie Mitchell, this team can reasonably be expected to be a real Western Conference player until the end.
2. Calgary Flames
Jarome Iginla's crew crashed and burned late last season, losing the division race to the Canucks and getting blown out in the first round by Chicago. Mike Keenan was shown the door, and homeboy Brent Sutter took his place. They added Bouwmeester, who along with Dion Phaneuf should wreak havoc on the power play. Olli Jokinen will try to get on the same page as Iginla, something that did not happen last year. Some other forwards will have to step up in place of Michael Cammalleri.
3. Edmonton Oilers
It'll be a fresh start for Edmonton, who hired veteran bench boss Pat Quinn to reform a team that totally lost its way last year. The Oilers were all set to trade Andrew Cogliano, Dustin Penner and Ladislav Smid to Ottawa for Dany Heatley, but it literally took months for Heatley to finally say no and it pretty much screwed any other offseason plans they may have had. If being dangled as a trade chip doesn't finally motivate Penner, nothing will. The Oilers should benefit from adding Nikolai Khabibulin between the pipes.
4. Minnesota Wild
The Wild will also get a fresh start with a new GM and coach committed to move off the trapping style of longtime coach Lemaire. They replaced the brittle Gaborik with the similarly brittle Martin Havlat. Marty will probably team up with Mikko Koivu and when healthy should be a force to be reckoned with. Niklas Backstrom will be in net for the foreseeable future, but the change away from a defensive system might affect his final statistics this season.
5. Colorado Avalanche
It sucks to see the Avs suck. They've never sucked in their history, but now, they suck. At least they didn't hire Patrick Roy to be their head coach, that would have sucked. Their degree of suckitude will be lessened with a fully healthy Paul Stastny and the emergence of #3 overall pick Matt Duchene. But don't kid yourself, the Avs will suck again. And maybe for a while.
1. San Jose Sharks
Once again, the Sharks will be the #1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs and win the President's Trophy. But once again, they won't win the Stanley Cup, or even get close to it. Until they break up this team, they never will. It doesn't matter that they've added Heatley, or that Evgeni Nabokov will be playing for a contract. Failure after failure, it doesn't seem like this team or its management gets it. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Nabokov have the stink of fail all over them. No number of tomato paste baths will remove it.
2. Anaheim Ducks
They've rid themselves of Pronger, which is a good thing. But losing Francois Beauchemin leaves the Ducks pretty thin on the blue line, and they'll need James Wisniewski to play like he did in the postseason. Saku Koivu joins his countryman Teemu Selanne for one last run to the Cup, and new addition Joffrey Lupul will look to make an impact early. The goalie fight is one of the preseason's most intriguing storylines, with Jonas Hiller having the upper hand over proven vet and franchise icon J.S. Giguere.
3. Dallas Stars
So which Marty Turco shows up this year? The dominant force that led Dallas to the WCF in '08 or the horrible facsimile that sucked beyond comprehension for most of last year? If the former shows up, the Stars should contend for a playoff berth all year. If not, they have no chance, because they don't have anyone else on the club that can carry them. The Stars dealt with injuries and Sean Avery last year, but Mike Madano is ancient and I wouldn't trust anyone else to lead them to the promise land.
4. Los Angeles Kings
Beware the Kings. They have an excellent core with Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Justin Williams, and added the veteran presence of Ryan Smyth this summer. Jon Quick has potential to be a franchise goalie, and Rob Scuderi came over from the Penguins to provide depth on the blue line. While I still think they're about a year away from the playoffs, they could create a ruckus and mess up some team's chances, especially down the stretch. If you're not going to the playoffs, why not create a ruckus?
5. Phoenix Coyotes
To call what's going on with the Coyotes a "mess" wouldn't do it justice. The bankrupt franchise is in the process of being sold, with lots of lawyers and courts and businessmen and other crap involved. How it will affect the play on the ice, and attendance at home games, will be a major point of interest. News has just broken that Wayne Gretzky is out, which can only be a good thing. Shane Doan is the only player worth a crap on this team, and I feel pretty bad for him. He deserves a lot better.
Let's wrap up this preview with some useless playoff predictions. Here goes:
(1) Bruins beat (8) Rangers
(2) Penguins beat (7) Sabres
(3) Capitals beat (6) Devils
(4) Flyers beat (5) Hurricanes
(1) Bruins beat (4) Flyers
(3) Capitals beat (2) Penguins
(1) Bruins beat (3) Capitals
(1) Sharks beat (8) Blues
(2) Red Wings beat (7) Ducks
(3) Canucks beat (6) Blackhawks
(4) Flames beat (5) Blue Jackets
(4) Flames beat (1) Sharks
(2) Red Wings beat (3) Canucks
(2) Red Wings beat (4) Flames
Stanely Cup Final:
Bruins beat Red Wings in 7 games
I'm sure I've jinxed everyone in this process. Come back soon for my B's preview.