The Ducks might not be mighty anymore, but they are the best team in the NHL. The addition of Chris Pronger gives the Ducks two of the three best defencemen in the league. Both Pronger and Scott Niedermayer can play 30 minutes a game, so Anaheim can theoretically have either Pronger or Niedermayer on the ice at all times. Add that to emerging stalwart Francois Beauchemin and veteran Sean O’Donnell, two good goalies and a great young group of forwards and you have my Stanley Cup favourite.
Last year, Atlanta GM Don Waddell guaranteed a playoff spot. He fell short, but the team was one of the best in the second half of the NHL season. A dismal first half made it an uphill climb for the team, and they couldn’t recover. A healthy Kari Lehtonen, along with an offence that includes Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa, among others will lead this team to their first playoff appearance. If Lehtonen gets hurt, they will struggle for respectability.
One player doesn’t make a difference. I used to believe that. I hate to say this, but if they can get good goaltending out of Hannu Toivonen, they can challenge for a playoff spot. I love Zdeno Chara and feel that his presence alone on the ice will make the Bruins a different team for the better. I am not sold on Marc Savard, as he has been a locker room disaster everywhere he has gone. I do love the possible first line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Boyes and Marco Sturm though.
The Sabres were the surprise team of a year ago, and I feel they will be just as good despite losing several key players (Jay McKee, J.P. Dumont and Mike Grier). If they had a healthy defence in last year’s playoffs, they would have been the Stanley Cup champions. If they get repeat performances from Daniel Briere, Maxim Afinogenov and Ryan Miller, they could once again be going deep in the playoffs. Jaroslav Spacek, Brian Campbell and Henrik Tallander lead a young, but good defence.
The Flames are once again the class of the Northwest division. They are a defence-first team, and they have the best goaltender in the league. They were the lowest scoring team to make the playoffs last year, but that should change. The acquisition of Alex Tanguay gives them a very good first line, including a skilled player to play with Jarome Iginla, and not Darren McCarty. Daymond Langkow will centre that line. Their defence is also very good led by Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr among others.
The Stanley Cup champions have to be expecting some kind of hangover. They surprised a lot of people by winning the Cup, and now have a lot of doubters waiting to see if they will repeat. Cam Ward is now the undisputed starter, with John Grahame backing him up as an insurance policy. Eric Staal leads a young and very solid forward group, with Erik Cole, Andrew Ladd and veterans Cory Stillman, Scott Walker and Rod Brind’Amour. The Hurricanes have a lot of questions on the blueline with Aaron Ward a Ranger, and Frantisek Kaberle injured for most of the first half of the season.
Dare I say, the worst of the Original Six. The Blackhawks have looked good in the pre-season, but so did the Oakland Raiders. Nikolai Khabibulin has to play like a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender for this team to have any chance. Young blueliners Cam Barker and Brent Seabrook will lead this team for years to come, although Barker is currently injured. The acquisitions of Martin Havlat, Brian Smolinski and Michal Handzus make this team better, but they will be at the bottom of the Western Conference because the rest of the Conference is just so strong.
The glory days of the Colorado Avalanche are over. Yes, Joe Sakic is still around, but he has no help other than Milan Hejduk. Jose Theodore will never be the Hart and Vezina trophy winner again, but will be a top-15 goalie this season. The problem is that Colorado will need him to be much better than that to make the playoffs. Wojtek Wolski and Paul Stastny are future stars, but are not ready to step in and carry the team yet. Both should have solid contributions this season, though.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
This team will surprise a lot of people. Yes, Sergei Fedorov is hurt, but I think that they did enough to get some secondary scoring from people not named Nash and Zherdev. The pickups of Anson Carter and Fredrik Modin mean that this team will have a very good second line, and until Fedorov returns, look for Gilbert Brule to center Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev. Adam Foote leads a formidable blue-line and Pascal Leclaire has the number one spot all to himself in nets, with Marc Denis jettisoned to Tampa Bay.
The Stars will be a very good team this year, despite Mike Ribeiro. With Brendan Morrow, Mike Modano, Eric Lindros and Sergei Zubov, this team will be one of the best teams in the Western Conference, even though I have them third (behind Anaheim and San Jose) in their division. The fact that Marty Turco is their goalie, however, means that they won’t make it out of the first round.
DETROIT RED WINGS
Just as Colorado’s glory days are over, so are Detroit’s. They will not beat Nashville this season, and lost a major chunk of their team and leadership in Steve Yzerman, and Brendan Shanahan. Nicklas Lidstrom is still one of the top-three defencemen in the league, and Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen will lead the forwards. Both goalies won Stanley Cups with Detroit as starters, in Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood, but there will be no parade in Hockeytown this year.
Most people think that the Oilers are set for a major drop-off this season after losing Chris Pronger and Jaroslav Spacek from their Western Conference champion team, but they have one of the best forward groups in the league. Joffrey Lupul, Ryan Smyth, Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky, Raffi Torres and Fernando Pisani is a pretty solid top-six. Their defence does have question marks as Steve Staios, Jason Smith and Marc-Andre Bergeron will have a lot of pressure on them with the loss of Pronger. Dwayne Roloson will have to play like he did in the playoffs if this team has any shot.
Hard to believe, but I feel this team is better now than they were last year. Even without Roberto Luongo. Todd Bertuzzi will find his game again, youngsters Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss and Jay Bouwmeester will thrive under Jacques Martin without Mike Keenan, and the duo of Alex Auld and Ed Belfour is not as bad as some people would have you believe. They still will not make the playoffs, but they will play you hard every game.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
Marc Crawford and Dan Cloutier are together again. There was a reason Crawford got fired in Vancouver, and Cloutier was a part of that. The Kings have some great forwards in Craig Conroy, Alexander Frolov, and Dustin Brown but goaltending will remain a question mark as it was last year in Mathieu Garon and Jason LaBarbera. Mattias Norstrom and Lubomir Visnovsky are very good defencemen and Rob Blake returns to Tinseltown. The Kings will challenge for a playoff spot but will come up well short.
The Wild finally have some offence to complement Marian Gaborik. The acquisition of Pavol Demitra means that for the first time in Gaborik’s career, he has someone to play with. Manny Fernandez will thrive now that he doesn’t have someone breathing over his shoulder, and the defensive style Minnesota plays won’t hurt either. Kim Johnsson leads a young defence that includes Martin Skoula and Keith Carney.
The Predators opened a lot of eyes last year, and will continue to do so this season. The acquisition of Jason Arnott and J.P Dumont gives them a solid centre and winger with experience, and returning players such as Paul Kariya and Steve Sullivan give them a very good group of forwards. Kimmo Timonen and Marek Zidlicky lead a very good defensive corps and Tomas Vokoun needs to shake off concerns of a blood clot that sidelined him in the playoffs.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
The Devils better be thanking Alex Mogilny’s injury because it relieves their salary cap issues, and gives them a chance to be able to play games. Lou Lamiorello performed nothing short of a miracle to get all of his restricted free agents signed, including Brian Gionta and Paul Martin. Martin Brodeur is still one of the best goalies in the league, and Claude Julien is a good coach, but their lack of scoring will ultimately be their downfall. They will make the playoffs, however.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
General Manager Garth Snow has his work cut out for him. This team is stocked with talent, but it is lazy talent. A top line of Viktor Kozlov, Alexei Yashin and Miroslav Satan can be good, but it is unlikely. They also don’t have much of a supporting cast around them, and Rick DiPietro isn’t worth half of the new 15-year contract he signed recently. Brendan Witt and Alexei Zhitnik lead the defence.
NEW YORK RANGERS
They have to be the favourite in their division, and that kind of freaks me out. I am not sure they can duplicate their success from a year ago, but I have no reasons for that other than they are the Rangers. Henrik Lundqvist needs to be very good for them to be successful, and I think he will. Jaromir Jagr and newly-acquired Brendan Shanahan will lead the offence. Aaron Ward, fresh off a Stanley Cup win, Karel Rachunek and Sandis Ozolinsch will lead the defence.
Let me say one thing. I hate Martin Gerber. Despite that, I still think the Senators are the best (regular season) team in the East. Their defence, despite losing Zdeno Chara is one of the best in the league 1-6 in Wade Redden, Chris Phillips, Tom Preissing, Joe Corvo, Andrej Meszaros and Anton Volchenkov. Their offence is great at the top with Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley but after trading Havlat and Smolinski, their depth isn’t as good as in recent years.
The Flyers are entering their 40th season in the NHL with goaltender Antero Niittymaki just short of needing a hip replacement. Well, maybe just cortisone shots for now before seeking out replacements for Niittymaki who tied a Flyers record of 23 wins last season. Simon Gagne will return for his seventh season with the Flyers hoping to top last year’s career high 79-point season. Veterans like Peter Forsberg seems to be optimistic about the team’s chemistry, but with their 1-5-1 pre-season record head coach Ken Hitchcock may have to do some rearranging.
The Great One is returning for a second season behind the Coyotes bench, and I feel this season will be more successful than a year ago. The team added Ed Jovonovski, Jeremy Roenick, Nick Boynton and Owen Nolan, and with returning players Mike Comrie, Shane Doan, Keith Ballard and Curtis Joseph, this team should be close to a playoff spot, if not in one. The team needs a solid season from Joseph who played very well last season.
Yes, they are improved, but to say the Penguins will make the playoffs is at least two years too early. The core group of forwards in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Colby Armstrong, Jordan Staal and on defence with Ryan Whitney is very, very solid at defence. The team has a good mix of veterans and rookies, but they are too thin at defence and not good enough in goal.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
The Sharks are ready to attack. They have two very good goalies in Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala. Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo are ready to play a full season together and Mark Bell is the beneficiary to be the third member of that line. Patrick Marleau is the best second-line player in the league, and a defence of Christian Erhoff and Matt Carle, the Sharks look poised to be one of the top teams in the West, but the Standings rule will force them to be fourth despite finishing second in points to division rival Anaheim.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Ahh, the worst team in hockey. They are improving, though. Doug Weight, Manny Legace, Jay McKee and Bill Guerin all joined the team, but they will struggle to make it out of the cellar of the Western Conference. Barrett Jackman is a very good defenceman but has struggled with injuries the past few years and hasn’t been able to live up to the hype that had him named NHL rookie of the year. They are OK in depth at forward and defence, but the problem with that is the Western Conference is way too strong for OK teams to make a difference.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
A year after winning the Stanley Cup, the Lightning just squeaked into the playoffs. This year they will squeak in again, but they are improved from a year ago. They finally got their goalie in Marc Denis that they needed so badly last year after Nikolai Khabibulin went to Chicago. They had to give up Fredrik Modin, however, which hurts their depth at forward. Dan Boyle leads their defence, and not enough can be said about the trio of Vincent LeCavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis. Look for all three to rebound in a big way.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Andrew Raycroft is an improvement over the J.S. Aubin/Mikael Tellqvist battle, but not better than a healthy Ed Belfour. The Leafs signed Pavel Kubina and Hal Gill, while Kubina is a very good defenceman, Gill has yet to prove he can be good in today’s NHL. The biggest problem for the Leafs this season is that they are just not good enough at forward. Even if you give Darcy Tucker 30 goals and Mats Sundin 35, they will not have enough scoring to make the playoffs in the tight Eastern Conference.
Yes, they finally have a great goalie in Roberto Luongo, but the biggest problem facing the Vancouver Canucks is who’s going to score. As Canadiens fans found out long ago, Jan Bulis cannot be depended on to score goals consistently, and that is what he is going to be expected to do in Vancouver. The Sedins will play with Markus Naslund on the top line, leaving Brendan Morrison on the second line, and not much else. Losing Ed Jovonovski leaves a huge hole on defence, which is now Mattias Ohlund, Sami Salo and not a whole lot else. Luongo’s streak of not making the playoffs will continue.
Alex Ovechkin and Olaf Kolzig are two elite players in the NHL. Unfortunately, that is all the Capitals have going for them. Brian Pothier will be a solid defenceman for the Caps, but did they finally find someone to play with Ovechkin in Richard Zednik? Colour me unconvinced. The Capitals will struggle to score goals when Ovechkin is not on the ice, and they will struggle to keep pucks out of their net no matter who is in nets. I say they do better than most people expect, but they, like the Penguins are a year or two away from the playoffs.