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.

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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.

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