Can the Penguins repeat? Will Crosby, Ovechkin, or Malkin win the scoring title? Can the Wings go deep in the playoffs? Who will make the Olympic teams? Who will own the Coyotes?
I certainly don't feel like I can answer too many of those questions, but I can make some educated guesses as to where the teams will place in the standings. These are of course guaren-damn-teed*
*Guarantee not valid anywhere*
The last two seasons have seen a surprise Original Six Northeast Division team snatch the first seed, after the Habs and Bruins were able to pull it out the last two years. Logically that means that the Leafs will shock the hockey world and finish first in the East. Right?
Hang up the phone, don't call Vegas, and make that wager please. The Leafs should certainly be the most improved team in the Conference this coming season, and will be a lot of fun to watch for the first time in eight years or so. However, there have been a lot of proactive teams this off-season who should be able to tough it out past the Buds to make it in the Top 8.
The other Canadian teams have undergone similar make-overs, with the Habs having completely revamped their roster, and the Sens making slightly less drastic, but still noticeable changes. The Canadiens have one of those teams that is difficult to put your finger on. They could easily miss the playoffs, but could just as easily be in the Conference finals. Seriously. I'm going to lean towards the former, but if they get off to a hot start I'm changing my mind, and jumping on that band wagon. The Sens on the other hand, I am actually quite optimistic about. A full season with Pascal LeClaire gives them probably the most stability at goaltending that the team has had since the 1920s. Also, their offensive depth is pretty staggering as they have probably the best top 9 forwards in the Eastern Conference for a team that is not based in Pennsylvania. Their defense is questionable, but I think that Phillips and Volchenkov can more than shoulder the load. And if Cloughston can coach as well as he did near the end of last season, they should have a chance to play in the spring.
As for the rest of the Conference, obviously the main focus will be on Pittsburgh and Washington. Can the Pens repeat? Can the Caps make the next step? To be honest, I think that the answer to both of these questions is: no. The Pens have all of the talent on paper to make a run for a repeat, but I think that they may be lacking that extra special oomph to sip from the Mug once more, much like the Ducks a few years ago. The Caps have all of the offense but are lacking a bone-crushing defenseman, and Theodore and Varlamov are big question marks in net. They should have a successful regular season, but I just don't see them getting too deep in the playoffs.
I think that the three biggest usurpers stand to be the Philadelphia Flyers, the Carolina Hurricanes and the Florida Panthers. The Flyers have fantastic depth at forward, incredible defense, but a question mark in net. If Ray Emery can play like it's 2006 and not like it's 2007 then this team should be a Stanley Cup favourite. The two Southeast teams made huge strides last year and are still looking up, I think that the Panthers will finally end their playoff drought this year, with or without Bouwmeester.
As for the rest of the Conference. I think that the Bruins and Devils are still going to be a threat, while the Rangers lack of offensive depth hurts them down the stretch. The Sabres, have the talent to make it to the playoffs, but I think that they are going to suffer from playing in a tough division and will not quite be able to make the dance. The Thrashers and Islanders should toil in obscurity a bit longer, while the Lightning should improve, but not nearly enough. When it's all said and done I think that the Conference should look like this:
1. Boston Bruins
2. Washington Capitals
3. Philadelphia Flyers
4. Pittsburgh Penguins
5. Carolina Hurricanes
6. New Jersey Devils
7. Ottawa Senators
8. Florida Panthers
9. Buffalo Sabres
10. Montreal Canadiens
11. Toronto Maple Leafs
12. New York Rangers
13. Tampa Bay Lightning
14. New York Islanders
15. Atlanta Thrashers
With the Conference finals coming down wot the Bruins and the Flyers, with the Flyers pulling it out. Pronger always gets results in his first year with a new team.
And now things get interesting.
Let's start this out with something easy. The Red Wings and Sharks are going to be at the top of the pile. The Coyotes and Avalanche are going to be at the bottom of the pile. Everyone knows that. It's the rest that leaves a lot of question marks.
After a successful season expectations are high in Vancouver. Despite an injury to Luongo and Sundin doing not much, this team still won a very difficult division and made it to the second round of the playoffs for only the second time in a decade. The core of their team is still intact, and they added a lot of depth to their defense, and made a great signing in Michael Sammulson. But at the end of the day, I just don't buy it. Their defensive core of Bieksa, Mitchell, and Salo are always injured, so I wouldn't be shocked if they all miss substantial time this season. Also, and more importantly, the Canucks have to go on a record setting 14 game road trip in February because of the Olympics. If this team doesn't go at least .500 on this trip than their season could be in jeopardy in their ultra-competitive division. I know that the Canucks will make the playoffs, but I just don't see them clinching their division again. I instead see them competing with Chicago for the 4-5 spot.
That honour should instead go to the most proactive team of the summer, the Calgary Flames. They made a huge addition getting Jay Bouwmeester, which will give them the best defense in the league, bar none. Also, and probably more importantly, they made a big change behind the bench getting Brent Sutter behind the bench. Sutter deserves all sorts of credit for his work in New Jersey last year, guiding them to a division crown, despite the fact that Brodeur went down with an injury. He should be able to take this ultra-talented team and lead them to the top of the division.
The last Canadian team, Edmonton, is showing a lot of promise. Khabibulin should be an asset between the pipes, and they have a fantastic amount of depth up front, also Souray and Vishnovsky should still be solid powerplay contributors. I think that they will be in a grind with the likes of St. Louis, Minnesota, Anaheim, Columbus, LA, Nashville, and Dallas in the very nebulous 6-13 region of the Western Conference, which really could go anyway for any team.
As for that very large group of teams, I think that the Blues are in the best shape. They have the same great young team that they did last year, only their former-future-franchise Eric Johnson will probably not be injured in a freak golf cart crash. Add in another year of development for the likes of Perron, Backes, and Oshie, and an injury free season for Kariya and MacDonald and they should be a lock to be at the top of that pile.
I am not certain what to think about Minnesota and Anaheim who both made some pretty drastic changes in the off-season, both in terms of players and more importantly, in terms of philosophy. The Wild are trying to open up and the Ducks are thinking about rebuilding. As a Sens fan I know that it is foolish to count on Havlat to be both healthy and productive in the first year of his contract, so I think that the Wild will be disappointed, while I think that the Ducks will be just barely on the outside looking in.
Next up, there is the feel good story of the Blue Jackets, who made it to the playoffs for the first time last year on the backs of a rookie goalie. While this young team seems likely to make it back to the dance. However, I think that this is far too much pressure to put on a sophomore goalie, who is bound to undergo a few growing pains. Just ask Carey Price.
The Predators, Kings, and Stars seem easy to write off after last season, but that would be premature in all of these cases. The Preds have a long history of being better than the sum of their parts, and if their rumoured interest in Kessel was true, then they may be looking to actually increase their payroll, which could make them a challenging team. The Kings are once more one of the NHL's most promising teams, who should finally compete for the playoffs, but have too many questions in net to secure a spot in the Top 8 at this time. Lastly, there is the Dallas Stars. This is a team that one year ago had very lofty expectations, but fell severely short in the end. Some blame Sean Avery, some blame Marty Turco, and some blame Brendan Morrow's ACL. The truth is, it's probably a bit of all three. However, now Avery is gone, Morrow has been healed, and Turco has the opportunity to bounce back. I'm going to go out on a limb, again, and say that the Stars should be able to find their way back into the second season, to the surprise of many.
So it should look something like this:
1. San Jose Sharks
2. Detroit Red Wings
3. Calgary Flames
4. Chicago Blackhawks
5. Vancouver Canucks
6. St. Louis Blues
7. Dallas Stars
8. Edmonton Oilers
9. Columbus Blue Jackets
10. Los Angales Kings
11. Minnesota Wilds
12. Anaheim Ducks
13. Nashville Predators
14. Colorado Avalanche
15. Phoenix Coyotes
With the Conference finals coming down to San Jose and Calgary, and just like 2004 the Flames will come out on time. This leads to a showdown between Calgary and Philly. As much as I want to go with Calgary, Philly seems too good...ahh screw it, CALGARY IS WINNING THE CUP IN 2010!!!!!!
Crazy? Let's find out...game on!
Until next time,