Yes, I know that the puck has dropped on the 2008-2009 season, but really, has the season officially started before I make my predictions? Didn't think so...
In the Eastern Conference, I see things more or less playing out like they did last year. Montreal takes the Northeast, Pittsburgh continues to score, Philadelphia gets better, Martin Brodeur defies all logic, and Ovechkin dazzles.
If Boston and Carolina are able to stay healthy this season, then they both have potential to move up the standings, however I don't think that there is enough room in the playoffs for both of them, and I've got to go with a team that has won the Cup in recent years. Whie Ottawa's goaltending and defense are questionable at best, they have too much talent up front not to make the playoffs for the 12th straight year. The Rangers have turned the page on the Jagr era, and while Markus Naslund is a step down, Jagr was so bad last year, Naslund should be able to score the 60-70 points that Jagr got last year. Plus, Gomez and Drury should be gel a bit more this year, making up for any loses they may have had.
When it is all said and done, the Canadiens should remain the best team in the Conference, with the Flyers, Penguins, and Capitals not too far behind. I think that the Flyers are a deeper team that the Penguins are so they should get the edge over their cross-state rivals and take the division in a battle that will probably be decided in the final few days of the season.
While everyone is thinking that Tampa should make the playoffs due to their plethora of changes, I just don't see it happening this year. Stamkos will be great, but he will not have a Crosby/Ovechkin/Malkin rookie year, not in Tampa. If any team from the sunshine state has a chance to move up in the standings and defy expectations, it is the Florida Panthers. Don't laugh, seriously. This team has a vastly underrated defense corps with Bouwmester and Ballard leading the way, and McCabe should boucne back now that he's out of the spot light. Add in the fact that they have one of the best goalies in the league, and Nathan Horton is on the cusp of superstardom, with Stephen Weiss not that far behind, and you have a potential dark horse. Lastly, their new coach, Peter DeBoer, vastly exceeded any expecatations for hte Kitchener Rangers in the OHL last year, and could very well get the most out of these guys. Granted, I don't think that they will be in the playoffs, but they should be a team to watch.
The Leafs will be in a dog fight until the end....to finish last overall. But in the East they will have some competition from the Islanders and Thrashers. The Leafs can't even loose right, I'll give that nod to the Island.
I think that when it's all said and done, the East should look something like this:
1. Montreal Canadiens
2. Washington Capitals
3. Philadelphia Flyers
4. Pittsburgh Penguins
5. New York Rangers
6. New Jersey Devils
7. Carolina Hurricanes
8. Ottawa Senators
9. Boston Bruins
10. Florida Panthers
11. Buffalo Sabres
12. Tampa Bay Lightning
13. Atlanta Thrashers
14. Toronto Maple Leafs
15. New York Islanders
As for the West, let's see that's a tough call for the best team...COLUMBUS BABY!!!!! Or maybe one of their division rivals.
Obviously the class of the Conference, League, and hockey universe are the Detroit Red Wings. They kept all of their parts from last season, and added Marian Hossa. Sure there is the "old" argument, but the core of their team is still young enough to have another dominant season in front of them.
While the Wings are clearly the top of the pile, the Pacific Division has the three teams that have the best shot at knocking them off, as the Stars, Ducks, and Sharks all call that division home. I think that these three teams really need to make the NHL consider following the NBAs lead and having the division leaders guarenteed a Top 4 seed instead of Top 3 seed. Because only one of these three can win the division, leaving the other two to be seeded 4-5, and therefore one of them has to get eliminated in the first round. That really is a crime against hockey.
As for the second toughest division in hockey, the Northwest, I see it once again, coming down to a dog fight between Calgary and Minnesota. On paper, Calgary had more gains in the off-season than Minny, so this seems easy. However, don't forget that Gaborik is playing for a contract, so he may find a way to be healthy this season, and Brent Burns should continue making strides to be one of the elite defensemen, so it may be a closer battle than people are expecting. I'll still give the nod to the Flames though.
Those are six teams that are a virtual lock to make the playoffs, but after that things get interesting. There are only two spots left, which were occupied by Colorado and Nashville last year. Nashville is a prime candidate for team to take the biggest drop off, so we can count them out right away. Meanwhile, their division rival, the Blackhawks, are poised to have the biggest leap forward, making them damn near a lock as a playoff team. Leaving one spot left, with the Avalanche, Blue Jackets, Coyotes, and Oilers being the most likely candidates.
While the Avalanche seemed to have taken a downgrade going from Theodore to Raycroft, I think that the former Leafs goalie will have a bounce back season now that he's out of Toronto (as is the norm for a lot of players), and last year the Avs made the playoffs despite losing a ton of man games to their four S's up front (Sakic, Smyth, Svatos and Stastny), so do not write them off just yet.
The Blue Jackets would easily be a playoff team in the East, but I just don't see them getting over that exceptionally tough hump to climb out West. They have the defense, great goaltending, but they just do not have a solid playmaker for Rick Nash. R.J. Umberger is a good centre, but he is not at the level to feed Nash as much as he needs. Sorry Jackets fans, there is always next year.
The Coyotes are one of the best young teams in the league, and the addition of Olli Jokinen was a great trade for them. Also, they will benefit from a full season with Illya Bryzgalov between the pipes. He is the kind of goaltender who could easily steal four games in a year to make up the 8 points that they missed out on the playoffs last year.
That just leaves the Oilers and their revolving door team. This team is SO different than the team that made it to the finals in 2006, it blows me away. If Eric Cole can stay healthy he will be a big addition to the team, and a top line of Cole-Horcoff-Hemsky could be one of the best line combinations in the Conference. Visnovsky is an interesting addition to the team, but he and Souray make a puzzling defense pairing. They are both power-play specialists, but defensive liabilities. I think that they added Visnovsky more as insurance in case Souray missed a large amount of the season again. I'm not sold on the Garon-Roloson goalie platoon, but that's more just on my gut and less on actual results.
I think that I'm going to go with the Oilers returning to the big dance this year, but to be honest, I'm not 100% sure that is a logical choice, as Colorado is a much safer bet.
As for the rest of the teams, I think that the LA Kings are a few years away from being really good, and they should make some progress as their young talent has an opportunity to get a bit more seasoned. The Canucks are on a huge downturn, as they may be able to count on Luongo to be the Captain, but they can't count on him to score goals. While I raved about the Blues going into last year, they had a simply disasterous season, and should have another just like it, especially with Erik Johnson on the IR.
When the dust settles, I think that the west will look something like this:
1. Detroit Red Wings
2. Anaheim Ducks
3. Calgary Flames
4. Dallas Stars
5. San Jose Sharks
6. Chicago Blackhawks
7. Minnesota Wild
8. Edmonton Oilers
9. Colorado Avalanche
10. Phoenix Coyotes
11. Columbus Blue Jackets
12. Los Angeles Kings
13. Vancouver Canucks
14. Nashville Predators
15. St. Louis Blues
So I think that gives the Islanders and Blues the best chance of getting Tavares, hopefulyl St. Louis, because the Islanders have shown that they can mess up anyone.
As for the playoffs, I think that the Wings will run out of gas after two years of deep playoff runs, just like Anaheim did last year. Thus leaving the West open, probably for the Ducks to take it. As for the East, I am going to go with the best story and have the Habs make their way out of the Conference in their 100th season, en route to a magical Stanley Cup victory. Yeah, I went there.
As for other predictions, I think that the individual awards will have some interesting competion.
Everyone expects the Art Ross Trophy to come down to Crosby, Ovechkin, and Malkin, and well I think that they are two-thirds correct. Crosby should reassend to the top of the pile and end up topping 120 points for the second time in his career, wich Ovechkin finishing second. I think that Malkin will have a bit of a drop off. His huge numbers last year were mainly because of how well he played in Crosby's absense, but Sid should be healthy all year. I think that Jarome Iginla will continue to carry his team and finish third in point totals.
As for the Rocket Richard Trophy, that is easily going to go to Ovechkin, as he should top 60 goals once more. Kovalchuck should be a distant second once more, as he gets more than 50 goals, despite having no support at all this year. I think that Kovalchuk's former linemate, Heatley, will end up topping 50 for the third time in four seasons, giving him the bronze in that trophy.
In between the pipes, this will once more be Brodeur's year. He'll get some competition from Nabokov, Luongo, Vokoun, and Lundqvist, but there is going to be no stopping Martin. This year he will no doubt pass two of Patrick Roy's records for most wins and most games played (in that order too, making it more impressive) and has an outside shot of passing Terry Sawchuk's record of most career shut-outs. Even if he doesn't end up having the best season, he should still end up with the Vezina as a legacy award for the amazing season he's going to have. We may just be watching the greatest goalie to ever put on skates. I think that Nabokov and Luongo will finish second and third on the ballot this year.
On defense, we may just see a changing of hte guard, as Niklas Lidstrom has won the Norris Trophy six of the last seven seasons. I think that he may just get knocked off of his perch in favour of Dion Phaneuf, as the youngsters time is finnaly now. As for the third, I will go with a surpise in Mike Green, who should lead all Defensemen in points this season.
As for coaches, I think that Guy Carbonneau will end up with the award that he was so close to getting last year, however he should get some competition from John Stevens in Philadelphia and Dennis Savard in Chicago.
The most important award, the Hart Trophy for league MVP is a bit of a toss-up. Granted, I feel that Crosby will win the scoring title and Ovechkin will get the Rocket Trophy, but I think that the player who contributes the most to his team will be Jarome Iginla. It is criminal that one of the best players in the league has never won that trophy. The man has all of the talent in the world and deserves to be recognized. That team would be absolutely nothing without him, and he brings so much to the table, he deserves the MVP in my books.
Again, a host of predictions that may be bold,daring or stupid. We will have to wait a few months to find out.
Until next time,