Tuesday, October 5, 2010

2010-2011 NHL Season Preview

chicago blackhawks stanley cup
Last year’s NHL season was wacky enough that you could have consulted a Magic 8 Ball for your prognostications and you’d fair just as well as any reputed pundit. Phoenix and Colorado surprised everyone by making the playoffs, while pre-season favourites like Philadelphia and Boston didn’t solidify their spot until the last few games of the season.

Once the playoffs began even more madness took place. Montreal surprised everyone by defeating the President’s Trophy winners and the defending Stanley Cup champion, while the Flyers became only the third team in hockey to ever rally from a 3-0 deficit to win a series.

Predictions are a fool’s game. Accordingly, I won’t begrudge you if you are skeptical about the following predictions. If they turn out completely wrong I'll pretend a robot wrote this. However, don’t condemn me as a witch if they turn out with a supernatural accuracy.

If you attend a certain university in Southwestern Ontario this article might seem familiar. The difference between reading this on my blog, as opposed to the student newspaper, is that this will ramble on and I’m liable to piss more people off… starting now…

Even though Montreal fans enjoyed a surprising run to the Conference Final last season they shouldn’t bother planning their semi-annual riot.

Eastern Conference

Northeast Division: Boston Bruins

It’s amazing that the Northeast sent four teams to the playoffs last season considering how flawed each team is.

Both the Bruins and the Sabres made the playoffs scoring no goals all year and relying on their superb goalies to shut-out the opposition every night. Then to punish everyone they played each other in a snoozer of a first-round matchup.

The Bruins upgraded in the off-season by adding Nathan Horton and drafting Tyler Seguin, which is important considering Marc Savard’s health is questionable (the medical term is mush-head). Last season the Bruins were unfortunate to receive down-years from all their young players, which shouldn’t happen again this year. If Boston doesn’t win the division it’s likely Ryan Miller’s fault, however, Tuukka Rask’s ascension means that Miller isn’t necessarily the best goalie in the league and maybe not even in the division.

If Miller misses any significant amount of time with injury the Sabres are a lottery team. Their defence got worse over the off-season and the only two trustworthy defencemen are Tyler Myers (who is the second most important player next to Miller) and Craig Rivet. If Myers suffers a sophomore slump it is less devastating than a Miller injury, but significant enough that Buffalo could miss the playoffs. Also, the Sabres management was too cheap to make any upgrades at forward, which puts undue pressure on Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, and Tomas Vanek – whose point totals have declined every year since 2007-2008.

The three Canadian teams in the division are questionable to say the least. The Senators are a team in transition. They have two shaky goalies playing behind a defence without their best defenceman from last season. Daniel Alfredsson, Alexei Kovalev, and Sergei Gonchar are all over 35 and should have enough left to keep this team afloat, but I really can’t see why some analysts peg them as contenders for the division title. This is a bubble team, unless Jason Spezza wakes up, ignores the fans, and realizes he's capable of scoring 90+ points a year. If that happens they could win the division.

I wrote 3,500 words on the upcoming season for the Leafs and the Habs. I clearly see the Leafs as a playoff team, but I’m drinking the kool-aid, so I understand your skepticism. The Habs are very similar to the Leafs, even though Montreal fans don’t care to admit it. The Habs snuck into the playoffs last year only because Jaroslav Halak played incredibly down the stretch. If Carey Price is unable to handle the number one job the Canadiens are a lottery team. At least they will use their own draft pick, something the Leafs won’t have the luxury of doing if their season goes awry.

Southeast Division: Washington Capitals

Despite being bounced in the opening round of last year’s playoffs the Caps are still the class of the East (and possibly the league). They have the most explosive offense in the league and will score in bunches all season long. The Caps are hoping that touted prospects Karl Alzner and John Carlson will be internal upgrades to a suspect defence that will play in front of unproven goaltenders.

Aiding the Caps is their division. Specifically, playing in the worst division in the league. The Capitals are so good, and the rest of the division are so bad, that Washington finished nearly 40 points higher than the second best team last season.

The Lightning made enough improvements in the off-season that the Capitals shouldn’t win the division by 40 points again. In fact, the Lightning have improved enough to sneak into the playoffs as the seventh or eighth seed.

The rest of the division doesn’t even warrant mentioning. That’s how sick the Southeast makes me.

Atlantic Division: Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers’ goaltending situation is precarious; especially considering Michael Leighton will miss the start of the season due to injury. I wouldn’t bet on either Leighton or Boucher providing the Flyers with the same quality goaltending they did last season, except the Flyers are the deepest team in the league from the net out, so they can survive.

The Flyers essentially played last season with four quality defenceman because their third pairing couldn’t be trusted, so they spent the off-season upgrading this deficiency by acquiring Sean O’Donnell, Matt Walker, and Andrej Meszaros.

Expect a huge break-out year from Claude Giroux (at least my fantasy team hopes so) and a steady progression from James Van Riemsdyk. Freshly immigrated Nikolai Zherdev is a bit of a wild card on a team that already boasts an impressive top-6 of Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Danny Briere, and Scott Hartnell.

The Devils will always contend for the division and this year will be no different, especially since they signed Ilya Kovalchuk twice. There’s nothing else to say. They do it every year.

As long as the Penguins have both Malkin and Crosby they will always have a team capable of winning the division. Whether or not they are able to make a substantial run at the Stanley Cup with just those two players is another matter.

You shouldn’t expect anything from either New York this season. The Rangers have so many terrible contracts that it’s amazing Glen Sather still has a job. Marian Gaborik played 76 games last year, which is the third highest total of his career. He’s uber-talented, but he’s made of glass and I wouldn’t bet on him playing anywhere close to that amount again this season.

Unfortunately, the Islanders will have trouble improving from last season after both Kyle Okposo and Mark Streit suffered significant injuries during the pre-season.

Western Conference

Northwest Division: Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks are the class of Canada this year. Their line-up is stacked with the league’s MVP on the first line, a Selke Trophy nominee on the second-line, and an Olympic Gold medal winning goalie in net (who no longer has the pressure of being the captain). They’ve improved a defence that was already very good and have Cody Hodgson, one of the highest rated prospects, ready to make the team.

For some strange reason Darryl Sutter is still employed in Calgary. For even stranger reasons, he brought back both Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay, both of whom underachieved wildly in their original Calgary stay. A 7-0 pre-season has the fans talking, but whether this translates into regular season success depends largely on whether Jay Bouwmeester can live up to his lofty contract and whether someone other than Jarome Iginla can score some goals.

The Avalanche were the second most surprising team last year and will ice the youngest team in the league for the second straight year. There’s something about Colorado heading into this season that reminds me of the St. Louis Blues last year. The Blues, like the Avalanche last year, surprised many by making the playoffs in 2008-2009 and had big expectations heading into 2009-2010. Instead of improving on their surprising season they regressed and became major disappointments. I see this happening to Colorado.

Edmonton might end up in the lottery again (which will make them scary good in a few years), but they will at least be exciting in doing so. Edmonton fans are already pumped about Hall, Eberle, and Paajarvi, and so is every other hockey fan. Oiler fans should exhibit caution and not to get overly thrilled considering the young trio of Cogliano, Gagner, and Nilsson was hyped and hasn’t worked out too well. However, an amalgamation of those two sets of trios (minus the departed Nilsson) makes for a very interesting group of forwards - which doesn't even mention Ales Hemsky, Dustin Penner, and, ahem, Shawn Horcoff.

At least Minnesota has the Twins.

Pacific Division: LA Kings

The Kings are a young, energetic team in the mould of the Chicago Blackhawks, except they haven’t burdened themselves with bad contracts (Michael Handzus and Justin Williams come off the cap after this season). Drew Doughty is on the cusp of being recognized as the best defenceman in the league and they boast an impressive, if largely unheralded, forward group. If Jonathan Quick falters in goal the Kings won’t hesitate to go with Jonathan Bernier, who stonewalled AHL opponents last year.

The Sharks will contend for the division title as they do every year. This is essentially the same team that went to the Conference Final last year, except instead of a goalie prone to playoff choking, they have a Stanley Cup winner. The Sharks are good enough that their goalie doesn’t matter in the regular season. It’s Stanley Cup or bust for this team. How many shots does a team get before its window closes and you have to make drastic changes?

Phoenix was the league’s biggest surprises last season and they did it by playing good defence and receiving stellar goaltending. I honestly don’t know what to make of this team. Kyle Turris, the third overall pick from 2007, looks like he’s finally ready to stick with the Coyotes. It’s about time.

It seems strange that a team with Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan, and Ryan Getzlaf is so bad, but after Scott Niedermayer’s retirement in the off-season, that’s the truth. They should have kick started the re-build last season because beyond their top three players there is little else rouse excitement.

I’m not certain Dallas is as bad a team as they finished the last two seasons. If they make any sort of charge it will be because Kari Lehtonen finally lives up to the potential that enticed the Thrashers to draft him second overall in 2002. He’s 26-years-old. It’s now or never.

Kari Lehtonen reminds me of The Simpsons episode where Lisa becomes a vegetarian and ruins Homer’s BBQ - specifically, the part where the pig is rolling away and Homer keeps saying, “it’s just a little dirty; it’s still good, it’s still good”. For years Atlanta fans (fan?) kept telling themselves, “he’s just a little injured; he’s still good, he’s still good”. He’s making $3.5 million, so he better be.

Central Division: Chicago Blackhawks

The Hawks were gutted in the off-season as a result of a salary cap crunch, but didn’t lose any of their best players. Their lack of depth might be an issue if Kane, Toews, Keith, or Seabrook miss extended time with injury, but they still have enough firepower to compete with the best teams in the league.

Detroit will push the Hawks and it will likely come down to the last few weeks of the season, but the younger Hawks should edge them out. However, the Red Wings look like the Red Wings of old this pre-season. Their offense will receive a boost from a healthy Johan Franzen and the return of Jiri Hudler.

Nashville continually make the playoffs even though they consistently allow their unrestricted free agents to walk every off-season. This year they let Dan Hamhuis leave and traded Jason Arnott. Somehow they are still going to make the playoffs. Barry Trotz should receive consideration for the Jack Adams every year.

Look for the Blues to bounce back from last season and become the team everybody thought they would be after their surprising 2009 playoff appearance. They have a true number one goalie and their prospects are ready to deliver more than just potential.

Columbus also regressed last season after making the playoffs in 2009. This was largely because their goaltending was atrocious, which was surprising considering how good Steve Mason was in his rookie season. If the Blue Jackets hope to do anything this season they will need breakout years from Jakub Voracek and Derrick Brassard.

After LeBron James took his talents to South Beach and Grady Sizemore spent the last two seasons on the DL the best athlete in the state of Ohio is Rick Nash. I’m bitter Rick Nash didn’t break the hearts of everyone in Ohio like every other athlete and settle for being the best athlete in the province of Ontario.

Eastern Conference Final: Washington Capitals – Boston Bruins

Western Conference Final: LA Kings – Vancouver Canucks

Stanley Cup Final: Washington Capitals – Vancouver Canucks

Stanley Cup Winner: Vancouver Canucks

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