25 October 2006

Atlanta hockey - from Flames to Thrashers


Atlanta Hockey, Then and Now

In the fall of 1978, the city of Atlanta had seen six seasons of NHL hockey at the Omni – home of the Flames. Although they had made the playoffs in four of their first six years, including the previous three, the fan base was becoming restless and support was waning – a strong start to the season was needed. Led by Guy Chouinard (uncle of Vancouver Canucks center Marc Chouinard) and his 50 goals, Bob MacMillan’s 108 points, and future analyst Bill Clement’s savvy two-way play they got off to a torrid start, winning 12 of their first 15 games en route to a 41 win season. The Flames’ offense was a powerhouse that year, scoring 327 goals, which averaged out to just over four per game and good for third in the league. The team had an astounding nine players with 21 goals or more. Alas, those were the days of the brutal best-of-three preliminary round and in two quick playoff games they were bounced by the Toronto Maple Leafs and done for the year.

This could be the year that many – or all – old Atlanta NHL records are either beaten or put to rest. While to this date the Buffalo Sabres seem to be the elite team in the NHL, there are a number of teams right on their heels, and to me none are more surprising than the Atlanta Thrashers. With 15 points and at 7-1-1, the Thrashers sit comfortably in second place in the Eastern Conference. The question begs to be asked: how exactly are they doing it?

Clearly the discussion begins with Marian Hossa - on the short list of best players to date this season one would have to put Hossa near or at the top; Buffalo can make the case for at least three or four players, but on a less-talented team Hossa sticks out. In last summer’s huge Hossa for Dany Heatley deal, Hossa became a bit of an afterthought – mostly due to Ottawa being the far better team last season – but how does that trade stack up right now? Marian Hossa is – to me – playing with clearly less talent than Heatley but is lighting it up this year. With ten goals and fifteen points already, leading the league in both categories, he has a great shot at besting his career highs in both (45 goals, 92 points) and besting those 108 points Bob MacMillan put up for the 1979 Atlanta Flames.

Ilya Kovalchuk is an established superstar and got untracked with a hat trick on Monday night against the Panthers, and is now up to five goals and 12 points – he will be near the top of the scoring charts by the end of the season. Hossa’s linemate Slava Kozlov is off to a great start with 12 points as well. Scott Mellanby – who has been around so long he was a teammate of Chico Resch’s – is off to a surprising start with four goals, and Jonathan Sim has been another big contributor in chipping in five goals.

The power play and penalty killing units are both third in the league, but the true bedrock of the team lies in the crease, where Kari Lehtonen is becoming the superstar goaltender the franchise hoped he would be. The second overall pick in 2002 behind Columbus’ Rick Nash, Lehtonen has played all nine games so far and Atlanta will ride him to as many games as possible this year. Last year’s injury-filled rookie campaign limited him to only 38 games and may have been the difference between the team making the playoffs for the first time. Barring another disaster, former Atlanta Flames goalie Dan Bouchard can kiss goodbye his Atlanta-NHL record of 32 wins (recorded in the same 1978-79 season). Lehtonen owes a great deal of credit to his no-name defence in keeping the shots down - Lehtonen has only seen 28 shots per game, good for fifth-fewest in the league. None of the six defenseman is a negative, with Niclas Havelid and Andy Sutton both at +4.

Atlanta fans have never seen their NHL teams win a playoff round, with the Flames losing in the first round each of the six times they qualified for the playoffs from 1974-1980, and the Thrashers yet to qualify in six seasons. I will fully admit that I did not see this hot start coming – in my season preview article, I had the Thrashers finishing behind Florida, Carolina, and Tampa Bay in the Southeast Division. As I wrote, I did not see where the goals would come from after the obvious snipers. And to be honest, the evidence thus far does not counter that too much; sure, the team is third in the league in goals per game, but aside from Hossa, Kovalchuk, and Kozlov, I am still concerned about the offensive depth. For now I am discounting Mellanby and Sim - considering that it’s been over a decade since Mellanby was anywhere near a point per game pace, it’s safe to assume he will level off a bit, and Sim is the owner of merely 40 career goals in 239 games.

Finally, some quotes from a preview of those long-forgotten 1978-79 Atlanta Flames, courtesy of The Complete Handbook of Pro Hockey:

“…have seemed to be close to making a[n]…improvement for a few seasons…they are still only close”

“…they have several good wings…but the depth begins to thin out with a third and fourth line”

“…the defense will not provide much scoring depth”

Virtually what I have been saying about this year’s Thrashers club. Interesting to think that had that 1979 Flames team defeated the inferior Leafs in the playoffs and advanced to the final eight, it’s possible the entire history of hockey in Atlanta could be different – more fan interest leading to more ticket sales, and perhaps giving the owners more reason to stick it out in Atlanta. As it turned out, the next season was to be the Flames’ last in Atlanta, which ended in yet another first round defeat – the Flames moved to Calgary the following year where the team blossomed and made the semifinals in their first year.
That’s now ancient history - based on this year’s fantastic start, Thrashers fans are not only expecting a playoff birth, but may have reason to hope for something not yet seen in 14 years of NHL hockey in Atlanta: the second round.

ICE Experts League Update

In the interest of full disclosure (because you can be sure I’d be writing about it if I were in first place), this week finds me firmly in 12th place in the experts’ league – yes, that’s last place. I called myself the Dave Stapleton (only man in baseball history who’s batting average went down in seven consecutive seasons) of fantasy hockey as my points have gone down for at least five straight days. Call me crazy but I still like my squad – I’m having trouble trying to strike the balance between patience and not waiting too long to make a move. Getting Maxim Afinogenov for Anze Kopitar is already paying big dividends and, even though I am relatively low in offensive categories, it is all so tight that a hot day or two would vault me right back into the mix (example: I am eleventh in assists, but five more and I would be in fifth). Evgeni Malkin is making me look less and less ridiculous for taking him first, with a goal in each of his first four games. What’s killing me is goaltending – last in wins and goals-against, tenth in save percentage. Martin Gerber should have far more than one measly win and Alex Auld has been wildly inconsistent. I am debating whether to put Dan Cloutier in the lineup this week. The problem with a deep league like this is that you are pretty much stuck with the goaltending you drafted. I’m hoping to make some minor free agent pickups this week (Wednesday morning) but I don’t want to give anything away just yet.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

21 October 2006

Two Weeks In...NHL


Two weeks into a season is not often going to give an accurate reflection on how the year will end up for teams, but it is still interesting to take a look at which clubs are at either extreme of the standings so far. In the Eastern Conference, the top team cannot be considered a surprise, with the blistering Buffalo Sabres at 6-0 before Friday’s contest against rapidly improving Carolina. The bottom team has to be considered a shock though, and although it’s only October the Philadelphia Flyers look like they are in a world of trouble. Those two teams met on Tuesday night in Buffalo on national television in a rematch of last year’s first round series, and the 9-1 result was a lot like that playoff series in that the Sabres’ skill devastated the slower Flyers team. The surprises may have been that the Sabres are actually better than they were last year and the Flyers have obviously not properly addressed those playoff shortcomings discussed at length last spring.

Buffalo has six wins in as many games thus far and all over teams that made the playoffs last year. Last week against the Rangers and Flyers they erupted for 16 goals (both while wearing their fantastic old 80s uniforms – coincidence? Doubtful…) en route to 31 thus far which easily leads the league. Buffalo’s offence and goaltending were expected to lead them far this year, but the pleasant surprise has been the overall skill from their defensive corps. Jaroslav Spacek seems to have found the perfect home for his skills, as Buffalo now has six blueliners who excel at moving the puck quickly out of their zone and up to the speedy Sabres forwards. All in all, a fantastic start for the Sabres, who look to be capitalizing beautifully on last year’s success, and as a result have a good chance of playing to 100% attendance in Buffalo for the season since the original blue-and-gold sold out no less than seven straight seasons in the 70s.

For Philadelphia, the final score had a few red herrings – first of all, the shots were nowhere near indicative of the flow of the game. The Flyers actually outshot Buffalo, but shots are so often a meaningless stat (take a glance at the team shot totals this year and you will find a mediocre Toronto team with over 37 shots per game, leading the league. Buffalo has allowed the fifth-most shots but hasn’t lost yet). It’s also important to note that people shouldn’t start jumping on Robert Esche as being “yet another failed Flyers goaltender.” It may sound hard to believe if you didn’t see the game but Esche was perhaps the sole reason the Sabres didn't set an all-time record for goals in a game. Buffalo could have had at least 15 goals if not for Esche keeping it close early, and even playing well in complete garbage-time in the third (as well as Lindy Ruff giving increased ice time to Andrew Peters, who had multiple quality chances).

(Of course why Esche was kept in for the entire 60 minute beating is another question, and the easy answer might be that it was a response by Ken Hitchcock to Esche's comments about him earlier in the week - yet another ugly subplot of the early Philadelphia season.)
The Flyers were truly dreadful, with giveaway after giveaway in all zones – and while Maxim Afinogenov’s brilliant end-to-end rush was no doubt thrilling to the giddy Sabres faithful and reminiscent of a Gilbert Perreault classic, it was a complete embarrassment to the Flyers and especially Darien Hatcher, who once again is proving himself woefully overmatched in his rapidly decaying state. Hatcher is already a -7 and despite looking obviously overmatched last season is on his way to an even worse campaign this year.
My overworked point is that it's always easy to see 9-1 and blame the goaltender but there are far more troublesome reasons for Philadelphia's blowout – notably a highly immobile defence and a group of forwards that on paper looks dynamic but have all underperformed thus far. If things do not turn around in a hurry, we could be seeing a flurry of deals and firings – Bobby Clarke may finally have to answer for this one.
Out west, the top team is a pleasant surprise with Minnesota the only other undefeated team in the league, also at 6-0. Minnesota has been doing it partially in their traditionally stingy defensive style - only allowing 11 goals total - but this year they’ve added offence and become dangerous in all zones. Newcomer Pavol Demitra may not be producing in terms of goals (only one so far), but with seven assists and playing alongside snipers Brian Rolston and Marian Gaborik he’s helping to give the Wild the offence they’ve lacked throughout their short history. However, Minnesota is a good bet to come back to the pack a bit until they can develop a deeper scoring punch; right now Pierre-Marc Bouchard is their only other proven point producer but Mikko Koivu and Branko Radivojevic have shown some offensive flair to date. Of course, having one of the league’s best goaltenders in Manny Fernandez alone will keep them in playoff contention the rest of the year after their hot start.

On the flip side are the Phoenix Coyotes at 2-5. The Coyotes were not generally considered a playoff contender before the season. Right now they are on the verge of being considered a disaster, and looking at an array of numbers does not give a fan much of anything positive to latch onto. Note some basic team scoring stats for the Coyotes (all figures are as of Friday afternoon and are ranked out of 30 NHL teams):

2.29 goals per game – 24th

4.14 goals against per game – 30th

11.4% power play – 25th

75% penalty kill – 29th

In only three home games, they’ve been shorthanded a whopping 24 times. With a thus-far terrible penalty kill rate, that’s a quick recipe for losing. They’ve also been awful at even strength, giving up twice as many goals at five on five as they score.

This is a team and franchise without apparent direction – the surprising off-season free agent signing of Ed Jovanovski could be chalked up to the theory that by overpaying for a “name player” you’ll make that destination more attractive to prospective free agents in the future (something baseball’s Detroit Tigers did with the $40 million signing of Ivan Rodriguez a few years ago). I think it is a flawed theory in that the bottom line is winning, and that nobody will care about the big names if you continue to be a lousy team. In the case of the Tigers and their subsequent success, it really ends up being a logical fallacy to say that by signing Rodriguez it led to them winning the American League pennant this year; the biggest reason for the Tigers quick turnaround has far less to do with attracting big free agents and more to do with their young stable of pitchers suddenly blossoming this year. In today’s NHL (read: salary cap), teams do not have the luxury to keep a team intact for a long time. Therefore, it is imperative to build from within and try to develop a core of young talent that will grow together (as well as not necessarily pricing themselves out of the market before reaching team success). The modern-day GM’s challenge is to identify when those players are about to cross that barrier, and only then supplement the team’s talent with a key free agent signing or two. That’s the kind of club that should have signed the pricey Jovanovski ($6.5 million per season for five years), not one that doesn’t seem to have a prayer of seriously contending for a few years, by which time Jovo will be well past his prime and ability to contribute as effectively as before. Phoenix did not (and does not) have that core of talented 22-24 year olds yet, therefore they may have simply wasted millions of dollars on a player who is overrated anyways (as well as a health risk) and isn’t likely to be the sole difference between the team making the playoffs and not anytime soon.

The signings of Owen Nolan and Jeremy Roenick were a flat-out waste of $2.5 million better spent elsewhere on anything and can’t be defended on any level. At best at this point in their careers they could provide semi-mythical and non-measurable “chemistry” and “leadership” qualities to the team, which - if you believe in these traits - are quite obviously not working yet, in terms of on-ice success. At worst they both clog up the ice as well-past-their-prime former scorers (to date: three points combined) and even on the off-chance that they do end up having surprising years they would only be taking away valuable ice-time from potential prospects that Phoenix should be developing. It is a vicious cycle that will likely be repeated until someone in the Phoenix front office throws up their hands and makes the firm commitment to rebuilding as opposed to assembling a roster in a patchwork style. It doesn’t have to be a long-term process, but it does have to be a concrete decision – you can’t have it both ways.

ICE Experts League Update

After being out of the country for a week, I came back to find my team in tenth place (out of 12). A day later, I was in last. Uh-oh. Even though it’s still ridiculously early, and I’m realistically only a good day or two away from jumping right into the middle of the pack, it was time for a change, and I consummated the first deal of our season with RotoPass.com’s Pete Becker. My preseason Calder trophy pick of Anze Kopitar (full credit to SportsBlurb’s Hale Pulsifer, who was the first on his bandwagon as early as last season) has created a nice buzz for himself and I decided to sell high, dealing him straight up for Maxim Afinogenov, who will take Joffrey Lupul’s place in my starting lineup. This should be a great deal for me for two reasons: first with the return of Evgeni Malkin this week I would have had an extra center to deal with and second, Max gives me more of a sure thing for this year, and has the added “bonus” of a habit of taking a lot of penalties. He should help me in more categories than Kopitar will this year (although if this were a keeper league, I’d likely not have made this deal.). I’m still liking my roster in the long run (my goaltending stats are simply killing me; I can’t expect Ottawa/Martin Gerber to keep losing…can I?), despite my propensity for first and second year players – hopefully my trade will have “seasoned” my team a little in terms of age.

Yahoo has made this a public league so you will be able to track all of our movements and standings all year – check it out here.

My current roster:

C Daniel Briere, Evgeni Malkin, Nathan Horton

LW Mark Bell, Jussi Jokinen, Wojtek Wolski

RW Maxim Afinogenov, Chris Neil, Milan Michalek

D Nicklas Lidstrom, Marc-Andre Bergeron, Paul Mara, Lukas Krajicek, Jim Vandermeer, Alexei Zhitnik

G Martin Gerber, Alex Auld

Bench Joffrey Lupul, Jason Pominville, Zach Parise, Raffi Torres, Dan Cloutier

IR Jordan Leopold

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

07 October 2006

TalentedMrRoto.com Experts fantasy league


The first fantasy hockey league I was in was in 1984 – it was less of a “league” rather simply a goal-scoring pool, but it was a start. There were six of us, and we each picked 10 players, and at the end of the year we tallied up our top nine – simple. The only special league rule was our “Gretzky” rule: if you drafted Wayne Gretzky, he counted as two players. I probably made that one up after I didn’t get the first choice.

A year later, a friend and I joined our first mail-order fantasy league, this one a bit more complex. Using goals, assists, +/-, and penalties as stats, you would create a weekly lineup – mail it in – and would play head-to-head games against the other teams. I had my first run-in with another owner that year – for weeks I had tried negotiating a deal for Gretzky. Finally, a deal was struck – I don’t recall the particulars but it was at least seven or eight players and I was getting a guy in the middle of scoring an unthinkable 215 points that year. So I sent in my new lineup…and the following week I got my results in the mail…to find out that I had lost every game. “Even with Wayne?!?!?” I thought. As it turned out, the “other” owner got cold feet and never registered the deal. He kept Gretzky, kept him in his lineup, and screwed me. So in response, I sent a box of live rats to his house*.

*possible hyperbole

This summer I had the opportunity of joining what is thought to be the first-ever Fantasy Hockey Experts league, organized and created by Eric Maltais at TalentedMr.Roto.com dubbed the TalentedMrRoto.com ICE Experts League: Invitational Challenge of Experts. I’m not sure who they confused me with, but the opportunity to join what was essentially the equivalent of baseball’s Tout Wars was one I was not about to pass up. In May, during the Stanley Cup semifinals, a mock draft was held which was limited to nine forwards (three at each position), four defencemen, and two goalies. We were operating under the assumption that the league would be roto-style and using the following categories: goals, assists, plus/minus, power play points, penalty minutes, wins, goals against, and save percentage.

Back in May, we went 15 rounds (and had only ten participants) – here’s how the first round went four months ago:

Round 1

Pick Owner Player
1 Hockey News Sidney Crosby
2 SportsBlurb Alexander Ovechkin
3 RotoWire Jaromir Jagr
4 FantasyHockey.com Dany Heatley
5 RotoWorld Miikka Kiprusoff
6 Yahoo Joe Thornton
7 McKeen’s Ilya Kovalchuk
8 TalentedMrRoto Jason Spezza
9 TSN Eric Staal
10 Rotopass Brendan Morrow

Interesting, as there is not really a big surprise until you reach number ten, with Dallas’ Brendan Morrow. Morrow doesn’t excel in any category but is solid in all – last year with 23 goals, 65 points, +30, and 183 penalty minutes. If he could only get some power play time he would be hockey’s ultimate “five-tool” player.

* * *

A few weeks ago we had our “real” draft, using the same stat categories as above, but adding two defencemen and five bench players. We also have room for two injured reserve slots and will be making trades and waiver moves. Here are the league participants:

Eric Maltais - TalentedMrRoto.com

Pete Becker – RotoPass

Scott Cullen – TSN (The Sports Network) Canada

Darryl Dobbs – The Hockey News

Dan Dobish – CBS SportsLine

Michael Finewax – RotoWorld

Ray Flowers – Fantasy hockey.com

Gus Katsaros – McKeen’s

Jan Levine – RotoWire

Christian Peterson - Fanball

Matt Romig – Yahoo

Rob Aquino – SportsBlurb

It’s interesting to note how much different the “real” first round went – there were two more teams and a much greater depth was needed (22 man roster total. Starters: three each of center, left wing, right wing, six defence, two goalies). In this article, I have gone through the draft below so you can see how deep this league is – 12 teams, 22 rounds…. elite players run out pretty quickly, so you’ve got to take some educated reaches.

I sadly drew a very short straw and was saddled with the 11th overall pick. As you’ll see, while the order was different the first eight players selected were the same. So pretty much all of my top players were gone. For a first round, I feel like you have to make an impact. A big impact. Eric Staal and Morrow were available, as was every goalie not named Kiprusoff. So, naturally, I took a player yet to even see an NHL training camp:

Round 1

1. J. Thornton RotoWire

2. M. Kiprusoff RotoWorld

3. S. Crosby McKeen’s

4. A. Ovechkin TSN.ca

5. J. Jagr RotoPass

6. D. Heatley TalentedMrRoto.com

7. J. Spezza Fanball

8. I. Kovalchuk The Hockey News

9. D. Alfredsson Y! Sports

10. J. Cheechoo CBS SportsLine

11. E. Malkin SportsBlurb

12. M. Brodeur FantasyHockey.com

My rationale was this: I didn’t want to take a goalie. Kiprusoff is clearly the cream of the crop, both in talent and the fact that barring injury, he’ll play well above 60 games. Sure, Martin Brodeur can fit those claims, even if he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning. At the same time, I just didn’t want to take a goalie, let alone one who I’m quite confident has already had his peak years. So I went with Evgeni Malkin. The general sentiment from the rest of the league was pretty much summed up as: “wow.” I’ll leave you to guess my sentiment after Malkin’s collision with John LeClair in his first preseason game.

Round 2

1. R. Luongo FantasyHockey.com

2. N. Lidstrom SportsBlurb

3. M. Hossa CBS SportsLine

4. M. Naslund Y! Sports

5. C. Pronger The Hockey News

6. E. Staal Fanball

7. M. Fernandez TalentedMrRoto.com

8. B. Morrow RotoPass

9. H. Zetterberg TSN.ca

10. S. Niedermayer McKeen’s

11. B. McCabe RotoWorld

12. O. Jokinen RotoWire

My thinking in the second round was that after that top elite tier of forwards, there’s a larger B-pool, and I was quite confident I could get just as good (read: reliable, after my admittedly risky first round pick) a forward in the third or fourth round as the second, but nowhere near the same quality defenceman. Hence my choice to pick the best fantasy defenceman in the league in Nicklas Lidstrom was an easy one.

Round 3

1. M. Gaborik RotoWire

2. T. Vokoun RotoWorld

3. W. Redden McKeen’s

4. S. Gonchar TSN.ca

5. R. Miller RotoPass

6. R. Nash TalentedMrRoto.com

7. C. Ward Fanball

8. M. Turco The Hockey News

9. J. Iginla Y! Sports

10. P. Forsberg CBS SportsLine

11. M. Gerber SportsBlurb

12. T. Bertuzzi FantasyHockey.com

Here’s where I lost a little confidence. I was hoping Ryan Miller would somehow fall to me, and nearly banking on it, so when Pete Becker took him six picks ahead of me I foolishly didn’t have a strong backup plan and I wanted a goaltender. Martin Gerber’s last image in the public eye might not be a strong one; he started the playoffs as the Canes’ number one before being yanked for game three against the Canadiens following two losses. He did play again in the playoffs, and quite well, but was obviously overshadowed by Cam Ward’s Conn Smythe performance. I went with Gerber more on the basis of his team likely to win near 50 games again, and am hoping his performance mirrors that of his regular season last year.

Round 4

1. S. Gagne FantasyHockey.com

2. D. Briere SportsBlurb

3. P. Datsyuk CBS SportsLine

4. D. Phaneuf Y! Sports

5. M. Savard The Hockey News

6. H. Lundqvist Fanball

7. Z. Chara TalentedMrRoto.com

8. B. Shanahan RotoPass

9. K. Lehtonen TSN.ca

10. P. Elias McKeen’s

11. M. Schneider RotoWorld

12. B. Gionta RotoWire

I needed to grab a forward here that I could count on for points, and despite his playing in only 48 games last year, Buffalo’s Daniel Briere fit the bill for me. His 58 points put him on a 99-point pace, and his sports hernia injury appears to be a fluke (says his hopeful fantasy owner), as he had missed only four games over his previous three NHL seasons. Buffalo once again figures to be one of the higher scoring teams in the league and Briere is their leader and most talented offensive player.

Round 5

1. S. Zubov RotoWire

2. A. Tanguay RotoWorld

3. D. Roloson McKeen’s

4. J. Sakic TSN.ca

5. D. Hasek RotoPass

6. J. Pitkanen TalentedMrRoto.com

7. E. Cole Fanball

8. S. Doan The Hockey News

9. L. Nagy Y! Sports

10. V. Toskala CBS SportsLine

11. N. Horton SportsBlurb

12. B. Richards FantasyHockey.com

This was the round where I wanted to make another pick that may have been a little early, but in fantasy leagues I’d rather get my guy a round or two early than keep delaying and miss out as someone else grabs him. I’ve been high on Nathan Horton for years, ever since he was with the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League. A fantastic physical forward with great hands, I believe his 28 goals last year are a stepping stone to at least 35 this year on a Florida team that I think should make a strong playoff push. At times his style reminds me of a young Wendel Clark.

Round 6

1. P. Marleau FantasyHockey.com

2. M. Bell SportsBlurb

3. I. Bryzgalov CBS SportsLine

4. R. Blake Y! Sports

5. J. Bouwmeester The Hockey News

6. M. St. Louis Fanball

7. P. Demitra TalentedMrRoto.com

8. M. Nylander RotoPass

9. V. Lecavalier TSN.ca

10. T. Selanne McKeen’s

11. P. Kariya RotoWorld

12. M. Denis RotoWire

I was already set with starting centers so I knew I needed a winger here – and I was/am very excited about this pick – I first saw Mark Bell with the OHL’s Ottawa 67s and it was clear he had a great professional future - with 25 goals last year on a lousy Chicago team, I’m expecting the 26 year old to have a monster season playing alongside Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo.

Round 7

1. M. Havlat RotoWire

2. M. Zidlicky RotoWorld

3. T. Kaberle McKeen’s

4. M. Sundin TSN.ca

5. P. Boucher RotoPass

6. J. Arnott TalentedMrRoto.com

7. M. Hejduk Fanball

8. A. Hemsky The Hockey News

9. J. Theodore Y! Sports

10. J. Giguere CBS SportsLine

11. J. Lupul SportsBlurb

12. K. Timonen FantasyHockey.com

Something that is probably becoming apparent is my tendency to steer towards prospects and/or young players that have potential. Even though I’ve had success using this approach, it’s definitely killed me as well. Joffrey Lupul’s second NHL season was an impressive one, with 28 goals. Moving to his hometown team and one that is loaded up front may be a big move for him, as I see him being one of the Oilers’ big guns this year. I hope.

Round 8

1. M. Sturm FantasyHockey.com

2. A. Auld SportsBlurb

3. A. Meszaros CBS SportsLine

4. M. Fleury Y! Sports

5. K. Tkachuk The Hockey News

6. B. Rolston Fanball

7. H. Toivonen TalentedMrRoto.com

8. R. Lang RotoPass

9. Ju. Williams TSN.ca

10. M. Straka McKeen’s

11. S. Gomez RotoWorld

12. C. Huet RotoWire

Taking a shot here for my second goalie. I’m seeing the Panthers as a breakout team this year, but a lot of that is on Alexander Auld’s shoulders. While Ed Belfour is also on the Florida squad, his days as an impact goalie are over. I’m banking on Auld stepping up and being the main man on a young improving squad.

Round 9

1. J. Liles RotoWire

2. P. Bergeron RotoWorld

3. K. Calder McKeen’s

4. A. Markov TSN.ca

5. L. Visnovsky RotoPass

6. C. Armstrong TalentedMrRoto.com

7. D. Sedin Fanball

8. S. Horcoff The Hockey News

9. R. Getzlaf Y! Sports

10. J. Corvo CBS SportsLine

11. M. Bergeron SportsBlurb

12. R. Smyth FantasyHockey.com

I had only taken one defenceman to this point, so I was grabbing on here no matter what. The Oilers’ defence is tough but woefully bereft of offensive talent. Marc-Andre Bergeron is their only defenceman with a track record of moving the puck and getting some points, and I nabbed him based on the expectation that he will be the defensive point man on the Oilers’ power play. I’m just hoping they don’t decide to get crazy with a five-forward unit…

Round 10

1. B. Stuart FantasyHockey.com

2. J. Jokinen SportsBlurb

3. M. Svatos CBS SportsLine

4. M. Modano Y! Sports

5. J. Spacek The Hockey News

6. T. Preissing Fanball

7. N. Kronwall TalentedMrRoto.com

8. M. Afinogenov RotoPass

9. A. Kovalev TSN.ca

10. B. Rafalski McKeen’s

11. E. Jovanovski RotoWorld

12. S. Sullivan RotoWire

Last year’s shootout king, Jussi Jokinen played the first game this week on a line with Jere Lehtinen and Mike Modano, although in limited capacity (just over 11 minutes). If he stays with them, this could be a good pick, but in retrospect I think I might have been reaching here. Looking down the list, I really would have been safer (and likely better) taking Maxim Afinogenov (I had only selected one LW and one RW at this point); I feel like I blew this one.

Round 11

1. K. Johnsson RotoWire

2. M. Knuble RotoWorld

3. D. Boyle McKeen’s

4. T. Vanek TSN.ca

5. B. Boyes RotoPass

6. S. Avery TalentedMrRoto.com

7. M. Carle Fanball

8. D. Zubrus The Hockey News

9. S. Salo Y! Sports

10. D. Tucker CBS SportsLine

11. P. Mara SportsBlurb

12. A. McDonald FantasyHockey.com

Still needing to fill in my defence, it was starting to get a little thin. In the real world I like the fit of Paul Mara on Boston this season, and I’m hoping a little of that will rub off in his stats – his offensive game should fit in much better with the new-look Bruins than Nick Boynton did last season.

Round 12

1. D. Vyborny FantasyHockey.com

2. C. Neil SportsBlurb

3. B. Campbell CBS SportsLine

4. F. Beauchemin Y! Sports

5. M. Van Ryn The Hockey News

6. B. Pothier Fanball

7. G. Murray TalentedMrRoto.com

8. T. Holmstrom RotoPass

9. S. Weber TSN.ca

10. A. Brunette McKeen’s

11. S. Souray RotoWorld

12. B. Berard RotoWire

Yes, my goon pick – I’ve got a lot of small dancing finesse forwards – gimme some PIMs! I happen to think Chris Neil is a fairly decent hockey player (although I was planning on taking Sean Avery this round if he had fallen to me) so he could chip in a few points along the way to racking up 200+ penalty minutes.

Round 13

1. G. Brule RotoWire

2. S. Kozlov RotoWorld

3. A. Raycroft McKeen’s

4. R. Whitney TSN.ca

5. B. Seabrook RotoPass

6. K. Rachunek TalentedMrRoto.com

7. N. Zherdev Fanball

8. N. Ekman The Hockey News

9. R. Esche Y! Sports

10. S. Hartnell CBS SportsLine

11. M. Michalek SportsBlurb

12. M. Ryder FantasyHockey.com

Filling out my right wingers, I’m excited about Milan Michalek – playing on San Jose’s outstanding second line with Patrick Marleau; I’m looking for Michalek to be a 50+ point scorer this year on a strong team. His first game netted me two goals – nice start!

Round 14

1. B. Guerin FantasyHockey.com

2. W. Wolski SportsBlurb

3. F. Pisani CBS SportsLine

4. S. Bernier Y! Sports

5. R. DiPietro The Hockey News

6. A. Sutton Fanball

7. K. Ballard TalentedMrRoto.com

8. M. Rozsival RotoPass

9. M. Ohlund TSN.ca

10. R. Whitney McKeen’s

11. M. Satan RotoWorld

12. S. Samsonov RotoWire

Again with the young’uns. This pick finished my left wing starters; I have great confidence in Wojtek Wolski– with the loss of Alex Tanguay to Calgary, the offensive threats are rather thin in Colorado and they will be leaning on Wolski to fill part of Tanguay’s absence. He got over four minutes of power play time in the Avalanche’s first game this season, which should bode well for me in that category.

Round 15

1. D. Morris RotoWire

2. P. Bouchard RotoWorld

3. K. Huselius McKeen’s

4. R. Hamrlik TSN.ca

5. P. Prucha RotoPass

6. D. Hamhuis TalentedMrRoto.com

7. A. Frolov Fanball

8. A. Radulov The Hockey News

9. S. Fedorov Y! Sports

10. C. Stillman CBS SportsLine

11. J. Leopold SportsBlurb

12. K. Foster FantasyHockey.com

The only starting slots I needed to fill at this point were defencemen, and three of them. Very thin. I’m taking a reach with this one – Jordan Leopold’s numbers weren’t great last year with only 20 points but he did have a semi-respectable 33 the year before. I’m hoping the Avalanche put him in more of a featured role this season…of course he’s currently on injured reserve so this is a wait and see. He’s a candidate for an early drop.

Round 16

1. P. Kubina FantasyHockey.com

2. J. Pominville SportsBlurb

3. J. Modry CBS SportsLine

4. C. Ehrhoff Y! Sports

5. H. Sedin The Hockey News

6. E. Nabokov Fanball

7. R. Emery TalentedMrRoto.com

8. R. Salei RotoPass

9. J. Carter TSN.ca

10. J. Blake McKeen’s

11. D. Langkow RotoWorld

12. J. Lehtinen RotoWire

I was surprised to see Jason Pominville drop this low, and was excited to nab him here, even if my right wing slots were filled. Although his raw totals from last year aren’t eye-popping, he only was called up from Rochester midway through the season. Still, I thought that his series-clinching goal vs. Ottawa would have bumped him up in most peoples’ rankings – with the loss of J.P. Dumont, Pominville will be a major force in Buffalo’s powerful offence this year, and he gets quality power-play time.

Round 17

1. N. Khabibulin RotoWire

2. B. Morrison RotoWorld

3. M. Comrie McKeen’s

4. P. Leclaire TSN.ca

5. C. Kunitz RotoPass

6. O. Nolan TalentedMrRoto.com

7. P. Martin Fanball

8. N. Boynton The Hockey News

9. E. Lindros Y! Sports

10. M. Richards CBS SportsLine

11. L. Krajicek SportsBlurb

12. V. Prospal FantasyHockey.com

I think this could be a hidden gem in the big summer trade; not many people talked about other players than Roberto Luongo or Todd Bertuzzi but Lukas Krajicek has great skills and I’m hoping he’ll earn some special teams play as well. He got 19 minutes in their first game this week which is a good sign.

Round 18

1. M. Legace FantasyHockey.com

2. J. Vandermeer SportsBlurb

3. A. Niittymaki CBS SportsLine

4. F. Meyer Y! Sports

5. B. Sopel The Hockey News

6. C. Conroy Fanball

7. A. Ladd TalentedMrRoto.com

8. A. Semin RotoPass

9. A. Kotalik TSN.ca

10. S. Walker McKeen’s

11. S. McCarthy RotoWorld

12. M. Erat RotoWire

I haven’t been paying too much attention to penalty minutes (other than Neil and perhaps Horton and Bell) – with me needing a final defenceman and the lack of scoring out there, I went with Jim Vandermeer who I’m hoping gets mixed up in some major brawls this year. Not that I’d advocate that kind of behavior.

Round 19

1. A. Aucoin RotoWire

2. J. Langenbrunner RotoWorld

3. B. Witt McKeen’s

4. J. Stoll TSN.ca

5. C. Osgood RotoPass

6. F. Kuba TalentedMrRoto.com

7. C. Campoli Fanball

8. A. Yashin The Hockey News

9. R. Malone Y! Sports

10. S. Ozolinsh CBS SportsLine

11. A. Kopitar SportsBlurb

12. C. Phillips FantasyHockey.com

We’re down to filling some bench spots so there’s no harm in taking chances. I already had a strong fantasy-interest in rookie Anze Kopitar and by nearly all accounts Kopitar was the star of the entire Kings’ training camp. The 19-year old Slovenian has been clicking on a line with Alexander Frolov and looks to start the season with him.

Round 20

1. C. Joseph FantasyHockey.com

2. R. Torres SportsBlurb

3. N. Baumgartner CBS SportsLine

4. B. Clark Y! Sports

5. M. Biron The Hockey News

6. P. Eaves Fanball

7. J. Dumont TalentedMrRoto.com

8. D. Hatcher RotoPass

9. P. O'Sullivan TSN.ca

10. M. Fisher McKeen’s

11. D. Wideman RotoWorld

12. R. Fedotenko RotoWire

I think a really good pickup in the 20th round – Raffi Torres had 27 goals and should match or exceed that this year. He’s picking up a reputation as a bit of a pest as well – two years ago in the AHL he picked up 165 penalty minutes – I’m hoping he brings a little of that back this season.

Round 21

1. D. Penner RotoWire

2. F. Modin RotoWorld

3. M. Parrish McKeen’s

4. S. Staios TSN.ca

5. R. Schremp RotoPass

6. T. Ruutu TalentedMrRoto.com

7. M. Barnaby Fanball

8. C. Barker The Hockey News

9. J. O'Neill Y! Sports

10. M. Staal CBS SportsLine

11. D. Cloutier SportsBlurb

12. M. Malik FantasyHockey.com

Looking for a depth goalie, I could do a lot worse than Dan Cloutier. Another victim of the Vancouver goalie graveyard, new Kings coach Marc Crawford obviously saw more in him than Canucks fans did. In a fantasy goaltender you’re looking for a guy who will be the clear number one to get you wins – the job is Cloutier’s to lose this year.

Round 22

1. R. Zednik FantasyHockey.com

2. L. Smid SportsBlurb

3. C. Perry CBS SportsLine

4. R. Vrbata Y! Sports

5. S. Chistov The Hockey News

6. T. Thomas Fanball

7. P. Schaefer TalentedMrRoto.com

8. D. Afanasenkov RotoPass

9. A. Kaigorodov TSN.ca

10. M. Handzus McKeen’s

11. D. Aebischer RotoWorld

12. B. Jackman RotoWire

Last round, I’m taking a shot on a rookie defenceman. Ladislav Smid came over with Joffrey Lupul in the Chris Pronger deal and is expected to be a force for the Oilers in the future – this year may be a stretch.

* * *

A final note about the league – we each have $100 for a Free Agent Acquisition Budget for the year. Each week we can bid on a player using this “money” – I’ve made two moves: I needed another center to take Malkin’s place while injured (and why isn’t he on IR? killing me.) – Ladislav Smid, I hardly knew ye. Dropped him to get Zach Parise (cost me $3) who could put up huge numbers this year – I’m pretty surprised nobody grabbed him. I also had to put Jordan Leopold on the IR so I grabbed Alex Zhitnik for $1.

Here’s how my roster looks:

C Daniel Briere, Nathan Horton, Zach Parise

LW Mark Bell, Jussi Jokinen, Wojtek Wolski

RW Joffrey Lupul, Chris Neil, Milan Michalek

D Nicklas Lidstrom, Marc-Andre Bergeron, Paul Mara, Lukas Krajicek, Jim Vandermeer, Alexei Zhitnik

G Martin Gerber, Alex Auld

bench Anze Kopitar, Jason Pominville, Evgeni Malkin, Raffi Torres, Dan Cloutier

IR Jordan Leopold

Periodically throughout the season, I will give updates on the league, my moves (and inevitable mistakes), and any deals that go down.

04 October 2006

2006-2007 NHL Season Preview


For hockey fans, tonight marks the unofficial end of summer: the 89th season of the National Hockey League begins at 7:00 EST when the Carolina Hurricanes get to raise their Stanley Cup banner before hosting the Buffalo Sabres in a rematch of last year’s thrilling seven-game Eastern Conference final. It still seems surreal that the Hurricanes won the Cup – not that they weren’t worthy champions. It’s almost as if this buried the old Hartford Whalers ties forever.

When I was in college I went to a number of games at the Hartford Civic Center, a.k.a. “The Mall” - dubbed that because, well, it was in a mall. It was a great arena – the sightlines were pure old-school NHL, on par with the old Boston Garden, Quebec City’s Colisee, and Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium. Seats were relatively cheap at The Mall and you got to hear Brass Bonanza before every period and after every Whalers goal. Good times. One game I went to see the Buffalo Sabres and I saw them lose 9-0. NINE – ZERO. That means I heard Brass Bonanza 12 times. By the third period I embraced the clubbing that my team was taking and was screaming for the Whalers. There were and are good knowledgeable hockey fans in Connecticut and they deserved better than ownership that ignored the on-ice product for years. Just like most cities that see a team leave, they didn’t lose it because they were bad fans – the fans were tired of coming to support a franchise that was bad season after season.

Hartford’s best chances came in 1986 and 1987 – in the latter year they won the division and were bounced in the first round by the inferior Nordiques. In 1986 they lost in round two to the eventual Cup Champion Montreal Canadiens on a game seven overtime goal by rookie Claude Lemieux. Those were deep teams that if they had stayed together (hello Ron Francis trade, goodbye respectability) may have changed the franchise’s fortunes for good.

That’s the past, and the present is very good for the Carolina Hurricanes. Tonight they get what they deserved and will be celebrating the opening of the season on national television as defending Cup champions.

- - -

If you have seen the SportsBlurb.com Fantasy Hockey Sourcebook (and if not, please do), you know that – among other predictions - our hockey staff picked Calgary to beat Ottawa next spring for the Cup and Evgeni Malkin to win the Calder.

I don’t necessarily agree.

Space and the desire to sleep will prevent me from giving in-depth previews of every team (get those in the aforementioned Sourcebook) but I’d like to kick off the season with my own predictions for the upcoming season; where all 30 teams will finish and my best bets for the major end-of-year awards. I’ll also let you know which teams – with a little luck – could be this year’s surprise squads.

Without further ado, I present the Conference Formerly Known as Wales…

Eastern Conference

15. Washington Capitals

The cliché is that this team is Alexander Ovechkin and nobody else, and it’s not too far off from the truth. Not having Nicklas Backstrom come over from Sweden this year will hurt, but it’s not like they were winning the Cup with him. Finishing last overall this year is once again within reach (and earning the right to draft Angelo Esposito…which wouldn’t be a bad thing).

14. New York Islanders

Ted Nolan should have stayed in Moncton. A great guy and great coach, he’s going to need to stay strong this year to answer the endless questions about everything: poor play, how is it to work for Charles Wang and Garth Snow, whether Rick DiPietro is earning his absurd contract, are Alexei Yashin and Miroslav Satan working as hard as they should. This franchise is running in place – they’ll be ok on some nights and terrible on others, and unlike other bottom-dwellers don’t have that elite prospect to look forward to in a year or two. Much work to be done.

13. Atlanta Thrashers

I have to admit, I don’t get the hype here. The positives are obvious: Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa, Kari Lehtonen – three players any team in the world would be happy to build around. But after that the cupboard is dreadfully bare (OK, I’ll give you Slava Kozlov), especially in the center position - losing Marc Savard will have a ripple effect on the entire corps of forwards. I’d really hoped Bryan Little would make the team just for excitement, but if this team is relying on Bobby Holik or Steve Rucchin to be the top pivot, that’s a team that can be shut down. The defence is comprised of decent parts with nobody to step up and be a number one. Needs work.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins

This team showed a little improvement last year after a horrible start. Slow improvement as the kids gain a year and Sidney Crosby establishes himself as a veteran. Malkin’s presence will give opponents two skilled lines to contend with, but depth after the top six and a young defence (after Sergei Gonchar) will give Penguins fans constant growing pains. Marc-Andre Fleury must make a step forward this year in his first full NHL season. They’re not there yet, but in a few years look out.

11. Toronto Maple Leafs

While I don’t think this is a bad team, they’re a team in transition in that they appear to be finally committing to young talent. They have some skilled kids who will help the team this year: Kyle Wellwood, Alex Steen, and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Mats Sundin is the best 70 point player in the league – hopefully Paul Maurice will utilize his skills better than the departed Pat Quinn did. The defence is mobile with Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle, and Pavel Kubina. Depth and goaltending are what keeps me from thinking they’re a playoff team – clearly the Leafs are banking on finding the Calder-winning Andrew Raycroft rather than the poor showing he put forth last year - giving up Tuukka Rask was a big gamble that will only look good if Raycroft can lead them to the postseason.

10. Montreal Canadiens

My summary will take the form of many questions: Cristobal Huet was Vezina-worthy in the second half last year – can he remain that good over the long season or will David Aebischer push him out? Will Saku Koivu be effective after a horrible eye injury? Will Sergei Samsonov ever be more than a 60 point player? Was it worth giving up on the temperamental Mike Ribiero for the declining Janne Niinimaa? Does skilled rookie Guillaume Latendresse have the best name in the NHL? I want the Canadiens in the playoffs, it’s not right without them, but they’ll need positive answers to nearly all of these questions to make it.

9. New York Rangers

This was a hard one, and I think this is a testament to the top eight teams in the east when I state that the Rangers may not make the playoffs. They’re still a 90+ point team but looking at their roster – last year’s success notwithstanding, and the addition of the seemingly-ageless Brendan Shanahan – looks like a 1999 All-Star Game. It might be believing a lot to expect that crew to all duplicate their individual successes of a year ago. Outside of Michal Rozsival their defence needs to improve. Looks like they have a prize in net with Henrik Lundqvist and he certainly could be the difference to vault them into that 6-8 range, but I’m betting on other teams’ improvements being the main reason the Rangers take a step back this year.

8. Tampa Bay Lightning

Even though the Lightning made the playoffs last year, it wasn’t a worthy follow-up to winning the Cup in the previous season. Truthfully, I have little idea what to expect from this team. Marc Denis will finally get his first opportunity with a quality team and if he wins early and often, that confidence could affect the entire team – this team could finish anywhere from first to third in the Southeast. There’s no shortage of names, Brad Richards, Vincent LeCavalier and Martin St. Louis being the big three but Lecavalier and St. Louis in particular need to elevate their games and justify superstar status. I think there’s enough talent on this team to make the playoffs even if everyone doesn’t click, just like last year. But if Denis excels, Tampa wins this division.

7. Boston Bruins

A team that I think will show big improvement. Unlike everyone else in New England, I didn’t think the Joe Thornton trade was a complete disaster – the deal created payroll flexibility as well as giving them depth. Now with newcomers Phil Kessel and Marc Savard, they have the makings of an exciting top two lines. With new captain Zdeno Chara, Brad Stuart, and Paul Mara, the defence is completely overhauled from a year ago and much improved. Fans in Boston need to get over their eternal bitterness and watch this club, as it should be the most entertaining to hit the Fleet Center in a long time, with a good future ahead of them.

6. New Jersey Devils

It looks like Lou Lamoriello will at least come close to doing the impossible in putting the roster together under the salary cap. The Devils took the division in a mad sprint at the end of last year and should again make the playoffs this year but there are question marks – notably the defence which frankly looks quite weak. On offence, their top three will once again produce. Zach Parise will be a star, if not this year then next. Martin Brodeur is past his peak but still among the top goaltenders in the league. Approaching 100 points is possible again, but they don’t have the defence to make a playoff run.

5. Carolina Hurricanes

Out to prove that last year’s magical season was no fluke, they’ll be without a few major pieces to start the season, in Cory Stillman, Frank Kaberle and Bret Hedican. They suddenly look just a little vulnerable on defence, but there’s a ton of talent to make up for much of their losses. Veterans Ray Whitney and Rod Brind’Amour and youngsters Erik Cole and Eric Staal are forwards any team would love. Watch for Andrew Ladd – with icetime he’ll be a major player in the league this year. Will Cam Ward hold up over an entire season? All these minor questions make me think they may not have enough to win the division again this year, although if healthy by April another run is certainly a possibility.

4. Ottawa Senators

Although I pick them fourth in the conference (due to division winners getting the top three slots), they should finish neck and neck with Buffalo for the division title. There are losses from last year – Martin Havlat, Dominik Hasek, and Zdeno Chara being the most prominent. Yet Havlat only played 18 games last year and I think Martin Gerber and Ray Emery will handle the net duties just fine. They still have three of the ten best forwards in the league in Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and Dany Heatley. Ottawa gets little respect for such an elite team, due to their high-profile lack of success in the playoffs but this team is still second to none in overall talent. They’ll be in the mix.

3. Florida Panthers

My Eastern surprise. I differ from many pundits on this team – I love what they’re building here. The simple analysis is to point to the net and say they’ll be crushed without the talents of Roberto Luongo and I’d be a fool to say they haven’t lost a lot in that area. This pick does hinge on Alex Auld (I have no faith in Billion-Dollar Eddie Belfour) because in all other areas this is a team on the rise – Oli Jokinen and Nathan Horton will be the offensive foundation for years, Todd Bertuzzi has everything on the line this season playing with a one-year deal.

2. Philadelphia Flyers

I’ll admit this pick was made before Antero Niittymaki went down. Bobby Clarke may make a move as he might not be comfortable with Robert Esche as his number one goalie. Yet it’s a long season and many good goalies are or will be available. If they settle their goaltending situation by the playoffs, they could be dangerous, as their stable of forwards will be fun to watch. Former OHL rivals Jeff Carter and Mike Richards are a fantastic sophomore duo and I love the addition of Kyle Calder. The Flyers’ Achilles heel is still their defence – their orange colors were mistaken for pylons in their first round elimination by Buffalo last year and they’ll either need to improve or make a personnel addition to make it through the East this year.

1. Buffalo Sabres

It’s hard to write objectively about a team you’ve followed for decades, and I waffled on this pick for longer than I care to admit. In the end though, it’s quite easy to make the case for Buffalo to win the conference – four fast lines and a great power play, a defence that is six-deep and a potential franchise goalie. The only thing obvious that this team is missing is grit – they’ll miss Mike Grier but are hoping Adam Mair will play that role. Jay McKee is a loss but the addition of Jaroslav Spacek gives them yet another mobile puck-moving defenceman. Both co-captains - Daniel Briere and Chris Drury – are Buffalo’s best players and will be unrestricted free agents after this season – the time is now for the Sabres.

As I type the phrase Campbell Conference, all I can picture in my head is the classic beautifully-ugly orange all-star uniform, and I see Doug Wilson – no helmet, clearing the zone in front of Grant Fuhr

Western Conference

15. Chicago Blackhawks

Yikes, when will it end? They had to overpay for Martin Havlat, who will give them a legitimate offensive threat – likely, their only one. Brent Seabrook is an emerging force on defence leading an otherwise motley crew. Nikolai Khabibulin took a big contract and laid down on the job last year. This franchise is a long way from the excellent early 90s teams and is still a long way from earning respectability.

14. Phoenix Coyotes

At least they’re settling on more reasonable uniforms. I’m confused by this franchise - they have some talent on the team but not enough. And adding Jeremy Roenick and Owen Nolan is a major step back for a team that should be focusing on approaching the playoffs with young players who are on the upside of their careers, not stars from NHL ’98. Curtis Joseph started the year on fire but the team would have been better off dealing him when his stock was high. By the time this team is better, they’ll need a new goalie. There are good pieces here, but not a good team.

13. Columbus Blue Jackets

They should be marginally better with a decent offence. Rick Nash is a premier goal scorer and rookie Gilbert Brule should bring excitement to the second line. I’m not thrilled by their defence though – Adam Foote would be better off as a final piece to a contending team (Anaheim?). Pascal Leclaire needs to prove his high draft position was worth it. So many questions – if everything goes right they have a chance to improve simply because of the weakness at the bottom of this conference.

12. St. Louis Blues

After making the playoffs every year since 1979 the Blues finally hit rock bottom. As a response, they went on a binge, signing Jay McKee, Bill Guerin, Doug Weight, Martin Rucinsky, and Manny Legace. Not all of those are great signings, but they could bring dividends later in the year in deadline deals. This is the beginning of a long rebuilding process.

11. Dallas Stars

Call it a gut feeling but I’m sensing a drop-off here. I don’t like the vibe going into the season with Mike Modano being alienated by his captaincy being stripped away (and he didn’t even sleep in late ala Rick Vaive). I don’t think the addition of Eric Lindros improves them at all, and I’m not convinced that Marty Turco is the answer anymore. They have some good names but with most of the Pacific teams improving I think it leaves Dallas behind.

10. Vancouver Canucks

So Roberto Luongo finally is traded from the Florida Panthers…and ends up on a mediocre club that will struggle to make the playoffs. Sounds familiar. Not sure where the goals will come from – the Sedin brothers are more playmakers which leaves Markus Naslund, Brendan Morrison, and filler. They’ll miss Ed Jovanovski but did acquire a fantastic replacement in Lukas Krajicek. Another team in the tight race for the last few playoff spots, Luongo will likely play close to 70 games and will need to be healthy all year for the Canucks to slip into the seventh or eighth spot. Hopefully they’ll wear their blue retro uniforms all year.

9. Minnesota Wild

I like their top forwards: Brian Rolston, Pavol Demitra, Marian Gaborik. Pierre-Marc Bouchard has 80 point potential this year. Manny Fernandez will finally be the undisputed number one goalie. But this is another team that will go as far as their weak defence takes them, and I think it leaves them just short of a playoff bid.

8. Colorado Avalanche

A team that could drop much lower than eighth if Jose Theodore falters. He’s a great unknown right now, this year is crucial to him personally as well as the Avalanche. Joe Sakic can still bring the goods in his 18th year with the franchise and Milan Hejduk should rebound from a subpar year. Wojtek Wolski will be an impact rookie, having had success as a late-season callup last year. But this team differs from past ‘Lanche teams in that there’s no depth. Jordan Leopold helps a very thin defence. Rebuilding is just around the corner for Colorado.

7. Los Angeles Kings

I love where this franchise is heading. On the ice, the team has been treading water for much of the past decade, having reached the second round once since the 1993 finals. I love when teams patiently draft and don’t overreach when they’re not ready to contend. I love the trade of Pavol Demitra to Minnesota for Patrick O’Sullivan, and just this week stealing Michigan defenceman Jack Johnson from Carolina. I love Dustin Brown and Mike Cammalleri. I love Alexander Frolov and Lubomir Visnovsky. I love the veteran skill of Craig Conroy. Mostly, I love Anze Kopitar, who is about to become the first Slovenian to play in the NHL. This team is still very raw and still a few years from peaking. They could easily stumble but the bottom of the West is so bad I think they can surprise - within three years they will be the best team in the Western Conference.

6. Edmonton Oilers

While game seven of the finals last year is a painful memory for Oilers’ fans, game one is more of a heartbreak – losing a huge lead in the third period. But for that collapse, the Cup would reside in the City of Champions once again. In turn, the only way to improve upon last year would be to win it this year, and that will be a tall task. This should be among the most fun teams in hockey to watch, which isn’t necessarily to Craig MacTavish’s liking. Losing Michael Peca and Sergei Samsonov to me isn’t a big deal, especially getting the exciting Joffrey Lupul on board. Losing Chris Pronger and Jaroslav Spacek is a big deal. I expect a lot of offense in both directions during Oilers games.

5. Anaheim Ducks

One of the chic picks to come out of the West this year, I’m not convinced they’re there yet, but they will contend. They do sport the best defensive duo in ages in Pronger and Scott Niedermayer. Aside from a rejuvenated Teemu Selanne, the rest of the top six forwards are young and skilled – Ryan Getzlaf, Chris Kunitz, Dustin Penner, Andy McDonald. I’m not yet sold on Corey Perry, who has great offensive skill but needs a strong dose of fearlessness. My concerns are that beyond the top two defence (who will each approach 25 minutes per game, granted) they’re thin, and their relative inexperience in the scoring lines may not be enough. A team to watch though, for sure – if they make the right move for a power forward and tough third defenceman it could take them to the top.

4. Detroit Red Wings

The retirement of Steve Yzerman was a benchmark, and a good one. While certainly on a short list of greatest careers in history, last year marked one spent largely as the league’s most well-known spare part. Now they can move on and focus on youth; Detroit has gradually reloaded and should be set for years, and although the team had a disappointing flame-out to Edmonton in the playoffs, they should be right back near the top of the pack this season (especially that they get to play the three division dogs so often). Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are superstars surrounded by talent, including rookie Jiri Hudler. The only aged players on the team are still bringing it – the defence is anchored again by Nicklas Lidstrom and Mathieu Schneider (who had his best season statistically). Finally Dominik Hasek returns to tend net once again. If he’s healthy (a big if) he’s still one of the very best.

3. Nashville Predators

Not a perfect roster but this team is a legitimate challenger for the Cup. J.P. Dumont isn’t a superstar, but his signing was perfect in giving the squad a potentially lethal front line with Paul Kariya and Jason Arnott. Their top nine are so talented that there was no room for potential Calder candidate Alexander Radulov, who will start the season in the AHL. Their defence is highly skilled but could use some grit – they should deal a forward for a mean stay-at-home type. Nevertheless, with a healthy Tomas Vokoun behind who they have, Nashville will make serious noise.

2. San Jose Sharks

The line of Mark Bell, Joe Thornton, and Jonathan Cheechoo could be the best in hockey. The line behind them – Milan Michalek, Patrick Marleau, and Steve Bernier would be the best line on many other teams. A smart and tough third line makes this team as good a combination of skill and strength as any in the league. They can choose between Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala in goal and succeed. People love this lineup, but are forgetting the question mark: defence. Matt Carle might end up being their top talent but this will be his official rookie campaign. Scott Hannan and Kyle McLaren are quality defensemen but limited in moving the puck. It may still be enough, especially if a deal is made mid-season.

1. Calgary Flames

OK, in the end I am siding with the majority on our staff: I think Calgary wins the Cup this year. Winning hockey’s toughest division last year took a toll on the offensively-challenged Flames, bowing out to the Ducks in the first round. They addressed that need neatly by picking up Alex Tanguay for one of their many talented defencemen, Jordan Leopold. While that alone won’t make Flames fans think of the Theo Fleury/Doug Gilmour teams, they only need an average offence with this defence and goaltending. Their top four (Dion Phaneuf, Robyn Regehr, Rhett Warriner, Roman Hamrlik) are unparalleled, and Miikka Kiprusoff is the best goaltender on Earth. If Tanguay can help Calgary have two decent scoring lines, it should be enough for them to not only win the division, but move through the playoffs and close the deal on their second Stanley Cup.

Here are my preseason shots at the major awards:

Hart Trophy

Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins. I can’t believe the relatively rough press Crosby got last year – he was 18 years old, people. I actually like his vocal style – he cares. If you were a fan, isn’t that the kind of player you want on your team? He cares enough that he’s going to win the first of many Hart Trophies this year.

Art Ross Trophy

Crosby. Last year was merely the best season by an 18 year old in the history of the NHL. There are some parallels between Crosby and Mario Lemieux’s early career – joining a pitiful franchise and dominating from the start. Lemieux jumped from 100 points in his rookie year to 141 in the next – Crosby won’t get that many but will get enough to lead the league.

Norris Trophy

Jay Bouwmeester, Florida Panthers. This might be a bit of a reach, and in fact I’m not sure I really believe he’ll win this – no disrespect whatsoever to an outstanding player like Nicklas Lidstrom, but the Norris Trophy has had a tendency to occasionally parrot baseball’s Gold Glove award in that once you win it, it’s your trophy to lose. So for voters to not award this to Lidstrom, Pronger, or Niedermayer there has to be a major perceived fall in their play, and equally major press for a newcomer. I love Bouwmeester’s game – he’s been brought along slowly after a stellar junior career, and on my Eastern sleeper team he will both quarterback the power play and be the go-to guy in the last minutes of a one-goal lead.

Vezina Trophy

Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary Flames. I changed my mind on this one – I had Roberto Luongo winning it in an ultimately futile effort in Vancouver, but after considering what I believe their relative teams’ fortunes for this upcoming year, I keep coming back to Kiprusoff. Much of a goalie’s success hinges on the team (specifically the defence) in front of him, and nobody has a better defence than Calgary. Luongo is a great goalie who will play an outrageous amount of games this year but I’m not confident Vancouver will be good enough to help him get the numbers to win the award. Regardless, to me these are the two best goaltenders in the world.

Calder Trophy

Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings. Do I think Kopitar is better than Evgeni Malkin? Not necessarily. The Predators’ Alexander Radulov is just as good, but a victim of too much talent in Nashville. Awards are just as much about opportunities and Kopitar, who has wowed the Kings in preseason, is going to get at least a three week head start on Malkin. He and Alexander Frolov clicked in the preseason, with Kopitar scoring five points in four games – Anze will fly under the radar (is that possible in Los Angeles??) all year and end up as the top rookie.