There is a new NHL season starting, and there are plenty of things to watch for. With so many big name free agents changing teams since Aug. 1 and prospects having an extra year to develop, the whole league may be flipped around.
I’ll try to tell you what will happen this year in the following predictions, and I am by no means an expert, as you will no doubt see.
They will be followed by a brief explanation, and I am interested in hearing your comments on them.
1. Tampa Bay
8. New Jersey
11. NY Rangers
14. NY Islanders
I expect the Tampa Bay Lightning to repeat as Eastern Conference champions. They don’t have a number one goaltender but John Grahame is good enough to lead that team. People say that Nikolai Khabibulin is a winner, but what did he do before last season?
Philadelphia got all the big names this offseason signing Peter Forsberg, Derian Hatcher, Mike Rathje and Chris Therien, but I feel the defencemen they acquired are too big and not mobile enough to play in the new NHL. The Ottawa Senators made a statement, acquiring Dany Heatley for Marian Hossa, but I don’t think it is a move that will win them the Stanley Cup, as many people seem to think. They still have a question mark in goal, but if Dominik Hasek can play like he did in Buffalo, they will win the Cup. Pittsburgh is the team that improved the most this offseason. With Sidney Crosby, Jocelyn Thibault, John LeClair, Sergei Gonchar and Mark Recchi, the Penguins aren’t the team that had four balls in the lottery anymore. They might even be able to take out Philadelphia.
I am a Canadiens fan and expect to take a lot of heat for where I placed them in the Eastern Conference, but hear me out. Jose Theodore is one of the top-five goaltenders in the league, and their offense is small and speedy which will be important in the new NHL, but they lack size upfront which is important. If they can find a grinder to stand up for their small forwards, it shouldn’t be an issue. Saku Koivu, Richard Zednik and Alex Kovalev is a solid first line that should thrive on the chemistry they had in the playoffs and I expect a rookie like Tomas Plekanec, Marcel Hossa or Guillaume Latendresse to take the wing with Mike Ribeiro and Michael Ryder, instead of Pierre Dagenais, which is another improvement for the Habs. The third line of Radek Bonk, Jan Bulis and Nicklas Sundstrom is very strong defensively and they all have the potential to put up 15 goals this season. Their defense, people say, is weak. While it isn’t the best or biggest in the league, it is far from weak. Yes, they don’t have a true number one defenseman, but they have four number two-three defensemen in Sheldon Souray, Craig Rivet, Mathieu Dandenault and Andrei Markov. Add in Francis Bouillon, Mike Komisarek and Ron Hainsey or Mark Streit and they have a solid defensive corps. In the new NHL no one knows what will be going on. I expect the Habs to make up for their lack of depth on defense and their lack of size on offense with speed and goal scoring, but we will have to see.
Boston is lucky that they resigned Andrew Raycroft because their goaltending would have been in trouble without him. Even with him, teams will be able to exploit the weaknesses that the Canadiens exploited in their playoff series two years ago. Joe Thornton is good, but a lack of talent around him should concern Boston fans. The Maple Leafs will struggle to make the playoffs if Ed Belfour struggles the least bit, or worse, gets injured. The Maple Leafs have no goaltending depth and defensemen like Ken Klee and Bryan Marchment will struggle in the new NHL. Don’t even get me started on Eric Lindros and Jason Allison.
New Jersey will only make the playoffs because of Martin Brodeur. They lost Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens and Jeff Friesen, and Patrik Elias might miss the start of the season. Atlanta needs a big season from Ilya Kovalchuk to make it close to the playoffs and Florida needs goals for Roberto Luongo.
3. San Jose
6. Los Angeles
13. St. Louis
In the West, Calgary will be the favourite- how great does that sound? Led by Jarome Iginla and Mikka Kiprusoff, the Flames are the class of the West, by far. Detroit re-signing both Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg was huge, and they will be the class of their division once again. San Jose is building from within and should be good enough to win the Pacific division. Edmonton’s additions of Chris Pronger and Mike Peca automatically make them a much improved team and if they can get good goaltending from Ty Conklin, they are a good bet to finish high. Columbus has a great young core, and with Adam Foote and Bryan Berard, they should be a playoff team. Los Angeles has Jeremy Roenick and a bonafide number one goaltender in Mathieu Garon. Vancouver’s goaltending is holding them back from being a top-five team in the Western Conference. Nashville edges out Chicago by an inch for the last playoff spot in the conference. Nashville’s addition of Paul Kariya puts them over the hump along with Steve Sullivan and a solid blue line. Chicago, Anaheim, Phoenix and Colorado are all very good teams that should be in the playoffs, but I see the teams ahead of them being better. Chicago added Nikolai Khabibulin (who isn’t a huge improvement from Thibault), Adrian Aucoin and Martin Lapointe. Anaheim has a very young team led by Scott Niedermayer and Sergei Fedorov. Phoenix is led by Shane Doan, Brett Hull and Ladislav Nagy who are all solid players. I believe Curtis Joseph will return to the form he had back in his Toronto days, not his Detroit ones. Colorado lost key players and their goaltending and defense is weak. The Western Conference is definitely better than the East, at least on paper. But the game is not played on paper, as we all know.
My Stanley Cup prediction?
Calgary over Montreal