Well, I guess it’s time for me to throw myself out there, out into that wilderness that pretty much everyone who writes about this wonderful sport is forced to explore at this time every year. Yes, it’s time for my predictions for the upcoming NHL season.
Now, this being the first time I’m actually putting my predictions down on paper (yes, I know this is not paper), I needed to come up with some sort of formula I would use to determine who exactly is best placed to come out on top this season, and who is ready to tumble.
What I’ve come up with are a few key factors that I’ve used to evaluate each team:
End of season record – I picked a date that came close to representing the midway point of the season and looked at how the standings would have shaped out had we started playing on Jan. 1. For instance, the Edmonton Oilers would have been fifth in the Western Conference and 11th in the NHL if the season began on Jan. 1. I feel this gives a sense of how well a team has jelled, which leads to my second criteria…
Roster stability – I feel this is very important for a team’s success. That’s not to say a few tweaks aren’t a good thing, but constantly changing the core of your team before any semblance of chemistry can be established will never lead to spring success. Just ask Glen Sather, he can tell you all about it.
Mix of veterans and youth – Every good team always seems to have just the right mix. Detroit last year had the older veterans in Lidstrom and Chelios, younger veterans in Zetterburg and Datsyuk, and young players in Franzen, Filppula and Hudler that made it work.
Goaltending – No explanation needed.
Gut feeling – This is unexplainable, and is simply based on my supreme wisdom or delusions of grandeur, take your pick.
We’ll start with the Eastern Conference today, so here goes, let the second guessing and name-calling begin.
1. Washington Capitals
OK, I also get annoyed when media types purposefully make shocking predictions just to get people’s attention, but this is one I truly believe will happen, and here’s why. First of all, the Capitals had the league’s fifth-best record after Jan. 1 (27-12-3), just two points back of Anaheim and Montreal, who led the way with 59 points apiece. The reason I believe the Caps will finish ahead of the Canadiens is the makeup of the Southeast division, giving Washington six games against each of Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Carolina and Florida. I know the question everyone is asking concerns one Jose Theodore, but I believe he’ll be up to the task in Washington. Theodore was actually one of the better goalies in the league over the second half of last season, compiling 21 of his 28 wins after Jan. 1 while allowing more than two goals in only 14 of his 37 games after that date. The Capitals have the most electrifying player in the league in Alex Ovechkin, a talented supporting cast of youth in Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Semin, along with a good veteran presence in Sergei Fedorov, Michael Nylander, Viktor Kozlov and Chris Clark. The blueline is young and iffy, but this team should score enough goals to overcome that.
2. Montreal Canadiens
This is not a knock on the Habs, but rather a compliment for the Capitals. It also has a lot to do with the way Montreal climbed to the top of the Eastern Conference standings last season. The Habs went 12-0 combined against the Bruins and Flyers last season, something that likely won’t be repeated this time around. Also, the Canadiens were spared by the injury bug in a big way last year, another X factor that may not come to pass this year. But regardless of whether they finish first or second or even third in the conference, the Habs have everything to succeed this year and there is no scenario under which I can see them failing to win the Northeast Division. The additions of Alex Tanguay and Robert Lang make the Habs a match-up nightmare, and the newly arrived Georges Laraque adds an element that’s been lacking in Montreal for too long. The combination of Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak in goal should be solid, the core of the team remains untouched from last season and the forward lines are littered with players capable of breakout seasons like the Kostitsyn brothers, Chirstopher Higgins and, yes, Guillaume Latendresse.
3. New Jersey Devils
I feel the Devils are the team that stands to benefit the most from Pittsburgh’s injury issues, and the goaltending of Martin Brodeur combined with the coaching of Brent Sutter should be enough for New Jersey to come out on top of a tight race for the division. Roster stability has never really been an issue in New Jersey, because the one guy the Devils need every year is always standing in the crease come puck drop. But adding Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik fills a serious void at centre, which allows Patrik Elias to move back to the wing and maybe climb his way out of Sutter’s doghouse. Zach Parise is on the verge of putting up some serious numbers, and other young players like Travis Zajac and David Clarkson fill valuable roles. The Devils had the seventh-best record in the NHL after Jan. 1 (25-15-4), a sign that Sutter’s message took some time to get through, but eventually did. The defence is a big question mark, but the Devils always find a way to get the most out of its defencemen, largely because of the guy tending the net behind them.
4. Philadelphia Flyers
The loss of Derian Hatcher probably costs the Flyers the division this season because they are thin on the back end, but the firepower up front will be enough to earn Philadelphia home ice in the first round of the playoffs. Mike Richards could very well put up 90 points this year – in addition to being an elite faceoff guy and penalty-killer – while newly-signed Jeff Carter should take his game to another level as well. Add to that guys like Daniel Brière, Simon Gagné, Joffrey Lupul, Scott Hartnell and even Scottie Upshall, and you have the makings of three very solid lines coming at you in waves. I’m not sure if the Martin Biron the Habs saw in the playoffs last year is the same one we’ll see this year, but he doesn’t have to be that good for the Flyers to win games. Teams should expect a steady dose of Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn, because there’s not a whole lot else after those two on defence.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins
There aren’t a lot of teams out there that could absorb the loss of their top two defencemen, and the Penguins will have to survive until Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney can come back. Luckily for them, they have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, so surviving for the Penguins means remaining in contention for the conference crown and not simply a playoff spot. The loss of Ryan Malone and Marian Hossa stings, only because their replacements are so uninspiring in Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko. If those two can draw any inspiration from watching Crosby work on a daily basis, there might be hope for them. The loss of Gonchar and Whitney puts a lot of pressure on Kris Letang, 21, and Alex Goligoski, 23, to fill the void on the power play, though it appears coach Michel Therrien will be using Malkin on the point a fair bit. Marc-André Fleury looks ready to finally realize the potential that made him a top pick.
6. Boston Bruins
Getting Patrice Bergeron back from a concussion is the best thing that happened to this team, as he is the ideal guy to play for Claude Julien. I’m still scratching my head over the money Michael Ryder got, but he’s essentially only played well for Julien in his career, so the $4 million a year may wind up being well spent. The Bruins showed last year they have a group of solid kids that are ready to take the next step, led by hulking forward Milan Lucic who should see top-six minutes this year. Marc Savard wouldn’t be my first choice as a first line centre, but you can’t argue with the guy’s production year in and year out. Having the option of throwing Zdeno Chara out there for nearly half the game also swings the balance in your favour, and Dennis Wideman is a good complement on the top pair, but beyond that the defence is not great. Can Tim Thomas continue to prove everyone wrong and overachieve? I say having Manny Fernandez in the picture this year will push Thomas even more than his doubters do.
7. Florida Panthers
This is a gut feeling thing, but I think the combination of having a new, young coach in Peter DeBoer, the departure of the walking trade rumour Olli Jokinen and a re-vamped back end will push the Panthers into the playoffs. Florida already had one key ingredient taken care of in Tomas Vokoun, but adding Bryan McCabe, Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton to complement Jay Bouwmeester – who might very well be my favourite player in the NHL just because I love watching him skate – makes Florida’s defence more than respectable, it’s actually pretty good. The loss of Jokinen will be felt up front, which means guys like Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss will have to stop being good, young players and become simply good players, because they’re not that young anymore. Personally, I wouldn’t have bothered with Cory Stillman, but he can still score you some important goals and has two Cup rings in a room completely lacking in that area. Shawn Matthias could be a breakout rookie to watch.
8. Buffalo Sabres
I’m a big fan of Lindy Ruff, and the Sabres first line of Derek Roy, Tomas Vanek and Jason Pominville could be the best in the conference. There’s depth up front, which is a necessity in Ruff’s high pace system, and this may be the year Drew Stafford busts out of his shell. In goal, Ryan Miller may not have to play 2,000 games this year with the arrival of a revived Patrick Lalime (short aside, but why do the Sabres insist on plucking the Blackhawks’ goaltending reclamation projects? First Thibault, now Lalime), but I say Miller will have to play at least 70 games this year. The beanpole should have no problem with that even though he ran out of gas at the end of last season. The problem in Buffalo is on the blue line, as it is in most of the conference, which is why I consider it a bit of wash. Adding Craig Rivet will help, and if Teppo Numinen can actually play this season at 40 it means the Sabres will have added a brand new defensive pairing in the off-season.
9. New York Rangers
Losing Jaromir Jagr will hurt more than I think people realize, and Sather’s decision to go grab Nikolai Zherdev and Markus Naslund to shore up the attack was questionable, at best. Having Scott Gomez and Chris Drury as a one-two punch is definitely a good thing, as is having Henrik Lundqvist in nets, but I don’t think it’s enough to get the Blueshirts in the playoffs. I’m not sold on the defence because Wade Redden’s best years are behind him, and Dmitri Kalinin wasn’t exactly a prized free agent acquisition. Sather probably would have been better served keeping the under-rated Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman instead. Marc Staal should be ready to begin asserting himself as a shutdown defenceman and Michal Roszival is solid, but I think this team has gone through too much change in too short a period of time.
10. Ottawa Senators
Beyond the first line, this team is full of question marks. Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson are good enough to keep the Sens in the playoff picture, but not good enough to get them in. I don’t see a whole lot of goals coming from the other forward lines, the defence is average, and the goaltending remains this team’s eternal problem. I know Ray Emery was a distracting element, but I feel Martin Gerber and Alex Auld may have people wondering why he wasn’t given a second chance. Stories out of Ottawa pinned their utter meltdown last year (15-2-0 start, 28-29-8 finish) on Emery’s shoulders, but I don’t buy it. There was – and still is – more wrong with this team than just him.
11. Carolina Hurricanes
Losing Justin Williams to injury and Erik Cole in the trade that brought in defenceman Joni Pitkanen from Edmonton were tough blows. The Hurricanes simply need too many stars to align this year for them to succeed. Can Rod Brind’Amour still bring it at 38? Can Sergei Samsonov be the impact player he was last year when GM Jim Rutherford salvaged him off the scrap heap? Can Cam Ward ever becoming the dominant goalie he looked like he would become in the 2006 playoffs? Can Tuomo Ruutu do the same? Too many of those questions have the potential for a negative answer, which means trouble for the ‘Canes.
12. Tampa Bay Lightning
You have to like what the new ownership group has done here, taking a miserable situation and adding some excitement to it. But this not how you build a winning team, and the Lightning will still struggle this season. A lot is being asked of goalie Mike Smith to play behind a defence that will keep him very busy all season, and too much is expected out of Steven Stamkos for this team to succeed. But they should be fun to watch.
13. Toronto Maple Leafs
It’s amazing to me how the Leafs are even bad at trying to be bad. Just when it looked like everything was falling into place and the Leafs would be in a position to draft homegrown talent John Tavares in the 2009 draft, GM Cliff Fletcher goes ahead and actually tries to improve the team. Adding Niklas Hagman and (don’t laugh) Jeff Finger in free agency, along with the acquisitions of Jamal Mayers, Ryan Hollweg and even Mikhail Gabrovski were all moves that weren’t necessary right now, but could very well cost the Leafs a shot at their future franchise player.
14. Atlanta Thrashers
This is a toss-up with the Islanders, but I think having Ilya Kovalchuk and the additions of Ron Hainsey and Mathieu Schneider on defence give the Thrashers the edge here. Otherwise, this team is horrendous, and will be paying for GM Don Waddell’s fool-hardy push for the playoffs at the 2007 trade deadline for years to come.
15. New York Islanders
Good evening Mr. Snow, on our Table d’Hôte this evening we have a 6-foot-5, 220-pound Swedish defenceman who can skate like the wind or a big, explosive winger from Ontario who can score from anywhere. Which will it be?