As we get ready to drop the puck tonight, I finally have to commit to my picks for this season. After making lists for a few weeks and watching teams tweak their line-ups over the last few days, here is my final version.
1. Philadelphia – Ray Emery will have a shot at the Masterton Trophy after he has his best season and the Flyers will lead the league in scoring and win the President’s Trophy.
2. Boston – Tim Thomas will have a fall-off from his Vezina season but the Bruins will still have enough weapons even without Kessel to get to 110 points.
3. Carolina – The Canes will pick up where they left off at the end of last season and be the surprise winner of the Southeast division. They are solid top to bottom and should get past the Caps by a small margin.
4. Pittsburgh – I expect a slow cup hangover start followed by a steady recovery. The team remains solid but saw their best year last season. There’s no chance of a repeat.
5. Washington – The Capitals will struggle a bit in goal and probably will not score at the same rate as last season but should do well in the weaker Southeast division.
6. Montreal – With the 100th year season over and a major re-tooling of the roster, the Habs will rebound this year and gel as the season progresses.
7. New Jersey – The Devils will be consistent as always under new coach Jacques Lemaire and should rise above some of the other mid level teams for a playoff slot.
8. Toronto – This is a bit of a surprise pick even for me. Brian Burke and Ron Wilson will be persistent in dealing to fill weaknesses and should squeak into the playoffs once Kessel returns.
9. New York Rangers – The Rangers remain in the middle of the pack in the East and will come close on the strength of Henrik Lundqvist in goal.
10. Ottawa – The Sens may be a surprise team that could finish higher and make a return to the playoffs. If the new players come together and mesh as a team, they could be a dark horse in the East.
11. Buffalo – The Sabres are not a bad team but I don’t see a return to the playoffs this season.
12. Tampa Bay – The Lightning should be improved on offense but still have questions in goal. They appear to be a year away from a run at the playoffs. Ownership distractions my play a role in the season as they did in the desert last season.
13. Florida – The Panthers have a young team with little veteran leadership and have fallen off in net. I have several friends that are Panther fans so I would really like to see them do better.
14. Atlanta – The Thrashers have two potent scoring lines but that will not be enough to overcome shortcomings in other areas. Opposing teams will feast when the Russian forwards are on the ice.
15. New York Islanders – The Islanders will improve this season but I don’t see whom they will be able to pass to get out of the cellar. Hopefully, the Lighthouse Project will get approved and set the stage for their future re-birth.
1. Anaheim – The Ducks have no visible weaknesses heading into this year’s season. They have two first line goalies, a solid D, and three scoring lines and can still bang the boards with anyone.
2. Vancouver – The Canucks will pick up where they left off last season and push the Ducks for the best record in the West.
3. Detroit – After two Cup finals, the Wings will start slowly but still win the tough Central Division. This will be a transition year where several youngsters will move into key positions in the line-up.
4. Calgary – The Flames should have a solid team with the potential to go deep in the playoffs under new coach Brent Sutter. Hopefully, Kiprusoff will play a few less games and be fresher at the end of the season.
5. San Jose – After picking the Sharks to go deep in the playoffs for the last couple of years, I am convinced that they will not have as good of a season as their fans have come to expect.
6. Chicago – Another team that may not live up to pre-season expectations is the Blackhawks. With Huet in goal, they will suffer over the long season. Other younger players may not react well if the team doesn’t get off to a fast start.
7. St. Louis – If the Blues remain healthy, they should have a better season this year but may not rise in the standings in the tough Central Division. Mason may have played to his full potential down the stretch last year.
8. Nashville – Call it a homer pick, but I am convinced that the Predators will be better from the start this season and with nine of the last thirteen games at home they should be able to finish strong to grab the eight spot.
9. Los Angeles – If the Kings young goaltending comes through, this could be the year that they make a run for the playoffs. Their young players should mature and benefit from having Ryan Smyth in the locker room.
10. Minnesota – The Wild were fairly average last season and could take a step back this season. The Havlat signing was not prudent, as he will return to his pre-last season injury prone nature at the first sign of a hangnail.
11. Columbus – The demolition that occurred in the playoffs will haunt the young Jacket team as the season starts. I do not see a repeat of the season that Steve Mason had last year and wins will be much harder to come by.
12. Dallas – The Stars did little to improve the average team that they were last season and the Pacific Division will be a tough place to play this year. Hopefully, Turco will resurrect his career and give the Stars a glimmer of hope.
13. Edmonton – Edmonton could be the dark-horse team in the West. If the team takes to the new coaching tandem, and plays within the system they could have a shot at the playoffs.
14. Phoenix – The Coyote fans will be happy that they still have a team which is a good thing because there is little reason to think they will make much of a run on the ice this season. If a new owner is found, the base will be in place for a playoff team in a couple of years.
15. Colorado – The Avalanche are building for the future as few of the old guard remain. This will not be the year in Denver, as fans will suffer through a long season.
In the post-season I see Philadelphia and Carolina in the East Finals and Anaheim and Detroit in the West. Beyond that, Chris Pronger will lead the Flyers over the Ducks in the Stanley Cup Finals in what will be one of the hardest hitting finals that hockey has seen in years.