After a rocky off season full of bankruptcies, controversies, changes at the NHLPA, a few player arrests and no live hockey, it’s time to get the game back on the ice where it belongs. 2009-10 should be an exciting season. Here’s a look at where each team will finish this season and why:
1. Boston Bruins: The B’s have plenty of talent and depth at all positions. Tim Thomas may be unorthedox, but he’s also very good. Zdeno Chara is one of the top three defensemen in the game. Even without Phil Kessel, there is plenty of scoring talent and most of it is young and still has the ability to improve. Boston should repeat as the top seed in the East, but can they go all the way this year?
2. Pittsburgh Penguins: The defending Stanley Cup champions have an excellent chance to repeat. Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby are exceptional talents and Marc-Andre Fleury plays his best when the stakes are high. If Sergei Gonchar stays healthy for a full season, the Pens could be even better than last year. They need to fill in a few spots on the blue line, but GM Ray Shero will take care of that by the trade deadline.
3. Washington Capitals: The Caps have arguably the best player in the game in Alexander Ovechkin and Mike Green is the best offensive defenseman in the league right now. Goaltending remains their biggest concern. Jose Theodore is inconsistent but Semyon Varlamov may not be ready to carry this team deep into the playoffs. The Caps will remain talented and exciting to watch but they seem to be missing something to make them top Cup contenders.
4. Philadelphia Flyers: Adding Chris Pronger has been a good luck charm for Edmonton and Anaheim: both reached the Cup Finals in Pronger’s first season there. Philly has scoring depth and a strong defense. The big question on Broad Street is about the goaltending. Is Ray Emery the answer? He certainly has the talent, but can he be a good teammate and keep his head in the game? If he can, the Flyers are among the league’s elite.
5. Carolina Hurricanes: The Canes locked up goalie Cam Ward to a long term deal and are a well coached group who tend to get more than the sum of their talent. Eric Staal is one of the better scorers in the game but scoring depth is an issue. The defense is steady and the Canes are overlooked but capable of making a nice playoff run.
6. New Jersey Devils: The return of Jacques Lemaire means two things: plenty of wins and precious little excitement. The Devils went back to the future by bringing back Lemaire. As long as they have him behind the bench and Martin Brodeur in net, they are capable of winning any game, but many of them will be low scoring affairs with a minimum of scoring chances and a lot of trapping. Zach Parise is one of the top young players in the game and has still not reached his peak. Paul Martin is an underrated defenseman who is largely unknown outside of New Jersey. Another playoff berth is likely, but don’t be shocked by another early exit.
7. Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres would probably have made the playoffs last season if Ryan Miller would have stayed healthy. Miller’s goaltending gives the Sabres a slight edge in the race for the last two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. Thomas Vanek, Tim Connelly and Derek Roy will score just enough to edge Buffalo into the postseason. The Sabres are also well coached, thanks to Lindy Ruff and that can make a difference in a tight race.
8. Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning still have offensive fire power with the likes of Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St.-Louis and Alex Tanguay. They revamped the defense in the offseason by acquiring Mattias Ohlund and drafting Victor Hedman. If the defense is improved and Mike Smith returns to form in net, the Lightning should eke out the final playoff spot in the East.
9. Montreal Canadiens: There is skill here but the Habs lack size and will need time to come together after the roster underwent a major overhaul over the summer. Bob Gainey‘s gamble is depending on Scott Gomez to become the number one center, a role he struggled to fill with the Rangers. At least Gomez has Brian Gionta, his former Devils teammate to compliment him on the top line. The key again will be Carey Price. I believe Price will become a very good NHL goaltender, but he may not be able to accomplish that in the glare of the Montreal spotlight.
10. Ottawa Senators: Well, Dany Heatley is gone but the Sens still have
the formidable duo of Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson to put the puck in the net. They added
Alexei Kovalev and goalie Pascal Leclaire. The ex-Blue Jacket starter
needs to return to his form of two years ago for the Sens to have a
chance to make the playoffs. Secondary scoring needs to pick up as
well although there is the potential for players like Jonathan Cheechoo
and Milan Michalek to pick up that slack.
11. New York Rangers: The Rangers have one of the league’s best goalies in Henrik Lundqvist, but there are too many question marks up front. Marian Gaborik is dynamic and a top offensive talent, but the Rangers need him to play 70 or more games and score 50 or more goals to have a chance and Gaborik has a long history of injuries. To make the playoffs, the Rangers also need increased offensive production from Brandon Dubinsky, Chris Higgins, Ryan Callahan, Chris Drury and Vinny Prospal and bounce back years from defensemen Wade Redden and Michal Rozsival. It may be too much to ask.
12. Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs are on their way back, but Brian Burke‘s rebuilding program is still probably a year away from bearing playoff fruit. Acquiring Phil Kessel will help the struggling Toronto attack, but the ex-Bruin will miss the early part of the schedule due to an injury and won’t be able to contribute right away. Jonas Gustavsson shows promise as a goalie but may need at least part of a season to adjust to the NHL. The Leafs will be a big, intimidating team to play against, but they will fall just short of the playoffs.
13. Florida Panthers: The Panthers are returning a very familiar lineup except for the departure of defenseman Jay Bouwmeester. Tomas Vokoun and Scott Clemmensen give the Panthers a solid one-two combo in goal. The Panthers lack a true number one scoring line and will be relying on too many players to elevate their game to previously unseen heights to truly contend this season.
14. New York Islanders: After a disasterous year last season, the Isles have nowhere to go but up. The maturation of young players like Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey will help as will this year’s top overall pick, John Tavares. In goal, the Isles have added two experienced NHL goalies in Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron, a big step up from Joey MacDonald and Yann Danis. If the Isles stay healthy, they should show some improvement but they are still at least a year away from contending for a postseason berth.
15. Atlanta Thrashers: The Thrashers added Pavel Kubina to help their blueline but it won’t be enough to make their defense a strength. Goalie Kari Lehtonen can’t seem to stay healthy long enough for the team to figure out if he’s the real deal or not. If the team starts slow, Ilya Kovalchuk will almost certainly be leaving at the trade deadline. It could be a long year in Atlanta if that happens.
1. San Jose Sharks: The addition of Dany Heatley gives the Sharks another weapon, but have they changed the culture? Winning the Western Conference’s top slot in the regular season is achievable for this talented bunch, but can the Sharks finally advance past the second round of the playoffs? GM Doug Wilson will make more changes before the trade deadline. Goalie Evgeni Nabokov has to prove he can elevate his game when the weather gets warmer and so do a number of Sharks stars like Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton. If they fail this year, the window may begin to close on this team.
2. Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks have a deep defense corps and one of the best goalies in the league in Roberto Luongo. They locked up the Sedin twins and added the underrated Mikael Samuelsson to add secondary scoring. There is great potential for this team to go far in the playoffs. A strange schedule may hurt them as they will go 44 straight days without a home game from late January to early March due to the Olympic break.
3. Detroit Red Wings: The Wings lost some important players during the offseason like Marian Hossa, Ty Conklin, Mikael Samuelsson and Jiri Hudler. They will be relying on Todd Bertuzzi and Jason Williams to pick up the slack. The biggest question may be in goal, where Chris Osgood rebounded in the playoffs after a terrible regular season. Without Conklin to back him up, Osgood will have to be better during the season. The Wings still have loads of experience and probably the deepest and most talented group of defensemen in the league and they remain among the top contenders for the Cup.
4. Chicago Blackhawks: Everybody is talking about ending the league’s longest Stanley Cup drought (1961). The Blackhawks have a lot of young talent up front and on the blue line but goalie Cristobal Huet remains a major question mark. Unless Huet proves he is ready to carry this team deep into the playoffs, adding Marian Hossa to the already dangerous group which features Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane won’t make a difference.
5. Calgary Flames: Adding Jay Bouwmeester to the blue line when you already have Dion Phaneuf and a very good defense corps is almost unfair. Miikka Kiprusoff had an off year last year and was still one of the league’s better goalies. The problem in Calgary remains goal scoring. After the first line, it gets pretty thin and that will keep the Flames from joining the league’s elite teams.
6. Anaheim Ducks: The addition of Saku Koivu should help the Ducks second line while Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry are already one of the league’s best trios and still haven’t reached their primes. Jonas Hiller and J.S. Giguere are both very good goalies. Depth on the blue line is an issue and it will take the Ducks time to adjust to the new personnel, but this team has the potential to contend in the West.
7. St. Louis Blues: There is so much young talent on this team. If enough of their young players mature, the Blues could move up in the conference standings. Chris Mason has to prove he is the real deal. In addition to maturity, the team should improve with the return of Erik Johnson, Andy McDonald, Eric Brewer and Paul Kariya from injury. The Blues don’t have a lot of depth, especially on defense, so they have to avoid the injury bug that felled them last year. John Davidson has this team on the right track.
8. Columbus Blue Jackets: Steve Mason was the story during the Blue Jackets first trip to the playoffs. Columbus can’t afford for Mason to stumble in his second season or they will miss the postseason. Rick Nash improved his all-around game and remains a dangerous sniper. Derick Brassard should continue to develop and the addition of Nikita Filatov adds another potential offensive weapon. The defense is underrated but very effective. Mike Commodore, Marc Methot and Fedor Tyutin don’t make headlines but they get the job done.
9. Nashville Predators: You have to feel GM David Poile and coach Barry Trotz. Each year, they are faced with the loss of key players due to a limited budget and each year they either barely make or barely miss the playoffs. Pekka Rinne and Dan Ellis are a solid goaltending tandum and Shea Weber is rapidly becoming one of the league’s best defensemen. Goal scoring is the big question in Nashville. Steve Sullivan needs to stay healthy and David Legwand and Martin Erat need to bounce back from subpar seasons. Even then, there may not be enough scoring depth.
10. Dallas Stars: The Stars look to rebound from a surprisingly bad 2008-09. Marty Turco had the worst campaign of his career and needs to regain his former form. Alex Auld‘s presence may allow Marc Crawford to give Turco more games off than he has in the past. The team will miss Sergei Zubov who will play in Russia this season but will benefit from the return of Brenden Morrow and Jere Lehtinen. A lack of defensive depth may be the biggest problem in “Big D.”
11. Los Angeles Kings: GM Dean Lombardi is developing a young and talented team that is probably a year away from contending for the playoffs. Coach Terry Murray did an excellent job last season getting the most out of his team and changing the attitude and atmosphere in Los Angeles. Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams were brought in to provide veteran leadership and badly needed goal scoring. The defense corps is young, deep and talented. Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier are highly regarded goalie prospects but neither has proven himself an NHL starter yet. The best is yet to come in LA.
12. Edmonton Oilers: Pat Quinn is hoping he can get more out of a roster that hasn’t changed much since last year and lead his team to the playoffs. Nikolai Khabibulin is a slight improvement over the departed Dwayne Roloson in goal but Khabibulin has a history of injuries and the Oilers need him to stay healthy if they hope to contend. Edmonton will need a lot of young forwards to have career years to get enough goal scoring. The defense is solid and deep but the Oilers will struggle to score.
13. Minnesota Wild: The Wild will probably not win more games this season than they have in recent years, but they should be a lot more entertaining to watch. Gone is the trapping style of Jacques Lemaire and new coach Todd Richards promises a more aggressive style of play. Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding are very good goalies and the defense features the underrated Kim Johnsson and Brent Burns. The loss of Marian Gaborik will hurt but Gaborik was rarely in the lineup anyway last season. This team is taking one step back with the hope of taking two steps forward.
14. Phoenix Coyotes: The offseason is mercifully over and for now, at least, the Coyotes are staying in Phoenix. The franchise’s uncertain future and how big a distraction that becomes over the course of the season will be an important factor for this young club. Wayne Gretzky is out and Dave Tippett is in as coach. Goalie Ilya Bryzgalov was less consistent last season than he was the previous campaign and the Coyotes need him to rediscover his groove. Shane Doan and Robert Lang add scoring and experience. The club is relying heavily on players like Taylor Pyatt and Radim Vrbata to provide offense and that may be asking too much. Nobody expects much from this team and a .500 season would be considered successful.
15. Colorado Avalanche: This team is deep in rebuilding mode. Gone are the retired Joe Sakic and Ryan Smyth, a dependable veteran who added grit and could score goals. Neither Craig Anderson nor Peter Budaj are proven starters although Anderson was considered one of the league’s best backups in Florida the past few seasons. Paul Stastny and Milan Hejduk are the only dependable scorers. Rookie Matt Duchene is mature for an 18-year-old but how much can he be counted on to provide as a rookie? The defense has experience but is far from an elite unit. The pieces aren’t in place just yet for this team to contend.
East Finals: Pittsburgh over Philadelphia
West Finals: Vancouver over San Jose
Stanley Cup Finals: Pittsburgh over Vancouver