Oh yes it is back. And believe me after an offseason filled with tragedy, controversy, and soul-searching, the NHL will finally hit the ice and hopefully the focus will shift to the games on the ice. This has been quite possibly the worst offseason in NHL history with 3 players dying under mysterious circumstances and a plane crash in Russia where 43 people including 8 former NHL players were killed. So here’s hoping for no more tragedies. Let’s play hockey. My picks for the season.
1. Washington Capitals.
Yes the Caps are a great regular season. Yes the Caps were a flop in the playoffs again. So why the Caps in first? Motivation. But weren’t they motivated last year after the playoff disappointment from 2010 you ask? Yes they were. But the Caps made two move I really like. First was the free agent signing of goalie Thomas Vokoun. The Czech Republic native is highly regarded around the league, but has been stuck with mediocre teams throughout his career. Now that he’s with a contender, Vokoun will welcome the opportunity to shine. Second is the pickup of Joel Ward. The Toronto native is exactly what the Capitals need. A gritty hardworking forward who doesn’t mind doing the dirty work while chipping in the odd goal or two. Ward has also performed very well in the playoffs for Nashville which could be very beneficial for the Caps. Of course Alexander Ovechkin will provide the flash and excitement. The Great 8 is coming off a disappointing 32 goal season last year so he will be motivated (there’s that word again) to produce more for the Caps. I feel this is their year.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins.
The big question in Pittsburgh hockey circles is when will Sidney Crosby return to the ice? Sid the Kid has been battling post concussion syndrome since January and his absence hurt the Penguins dearly. Early reports suggest Crosby could be back in the lineup in mid October but you can never fully tell with concussions. One certainty for Pittsburgh is the return of Evgeni Malkin after the Russian tore out his knee last season. Malkin had a terrific training camp and is ready to bust out in Crosby’s absence. I feel that Crosby will return and have a positive impact on the Penguins. Like the old Bud Light commercial suggests: Beware the Penguin.
3. Boston Bruins.
The defending Stanley Cup Champions will ice a strong team yet again. Led by goalie Tim Thomas, the Bruins won Lord Stanley’s Mug for the first time in 39 years and are hoping for a repeat. It all begins and ends with Thomas. The Conn Smythe and Vezina trophy winner was nothing short of sensational last year and will have to be again for the Bruins to repeat. Towering defenceman Zdeno Chara anchors a young but talented blueline group. The forwards are deep and balanced. It’s always difficult to repeat though and the East is stronger this year. Still don’t count out the Bruins.
4. Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Bolts were one of the surprise teams in the NHL last season. Tampa were one win away from going to the Stanley Cup finals after missing the playoffs for 3 straight seasons. Sniper Steven Stamkos led the Lightning with 45 goals last season after scoring 51 the year before. Stamkos is a rising star who will be counted on by the Lightning to lead the charge. Veterans Martin St Louis and Vincent Lecavalier still showed they had some years left and both provide winning experience. The question will be can goalie Dwayne Roloson provide one more great season? The soon-to-be 42-year-old goalie was stellar last season but his age may catch up to him. I like watching this team and GM Steve Yzerman deserves plenty of credit for turning around the fortunes of the franchise.
5. Buffalo Sabres.
The Sabres were very aggressive in the offseason by signing free agents left, right and centre. Wait a minute. The Sabres? The Sabres signing free agents? Really? Yes the Sabres. After years of penny-pinching and number crunching, the Sabres found a new owner in Terry Pegula whose financial resources are helping out the Sabres in a big way. The additions of Ville Leino, Robyn Regehr, and Christian Ehroff gives the Sabres depth they haven’t had in many years. Still with all that, it still comes down to Ryan Miller. The MVP of the 2010 Olympic tournament is the backbone of the Sabres and he will be counted on to steal games for the Sabres. Miller gives the Sabres hope and with the new additions and more resources, the Sabres are poised to make a move.
6. Montreal Canadiens.
A season full of drama and excitement came to a heartbreaking end for Les Habitants. Losing game 7 in overtime to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions did little to soothe the passionate Montreal fan base. The Canadiens overcame injuries to Andrei Markov and Max Pacioretty to make the playoffs and push the Bruins to the limit. Carey Price had a bounce back season for the Canadiens, recording 38 wins and posting a 2.35 GAA. If Price can continue his form from last year the Habs will be in good shape. Also watch for PK Subban to develop into a star defenceman and newly acquired Erik Cole to give the Habs a physical presence.
7. Carolina Hurricanes.
The Canes were extremely disappointed in missing the playoffs last season but I think they will qualify for the postseason this time around. Why? First off, Cam Ward is one of the most underrated goalies in the league. Let’s not forget he won the Conn Smythe trophy in 2006 so this guy can play between the pipes. Secondly, Eric Staal is one of the game’s premier forwards. Despite not getting a ton of media attention, Staal has consistently posted solid numbers and has gained the respect of opponents around the league. Third is rising star Jeff Skinner. The Calder Trophy winner scored 31 goals and 63 points which was second on the team. The Canes are hoping that Skinner can post even better numbers in his sophomore season.
8. Philadelphia Flyers.
The Flyers went through some major upheaval in the offseason. Gone are Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, the two faces of the franchise. Also Villie Leino, Kris Versteeg and Dan Carcillo left via free agency. New in town are young centre Braydon Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, and goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. The most interesting and surprising arrival is Jaromir Jagr, who is attempting a comeback after a 3 year absence. The Flyers are also hoping Claude Giroux continues his ascendency. The diminutive right-winger led the team with a career high 76 points to the liking of the Flyers coaching staff. I just wonder though if the Flyers will miss Carter and Richards though. I think the Flyers will slip a bit this year.
9. New York Rangers.
The Broadway Blueshirts come into this season with many question marks. Yes the Rangers added Brad Richards in the offseason but Richards has been injury prone the last few seasons and his health will be a concern for the Rangers. Goalie Henirk Lundqvist was terrific again last season, but was overworked and fatigued by season’s end. King Henrik faded down the stretch and by the time the playoffs arrived, he had nothing left and the Rangers were bounced in the first round. Finally I just wonder will coach John Tortorella wear out his welcome in the Big Apple? His constant feuds with the media (more specifically Larry Brooks of the New York Post) and constant demanding will wear out his players. Sean Avery doesn’t help either but maybe putting him on waivers will be a good thing to the Rangers. But too many questions have the Rangers on the outside looking in.
10. Winnipeg Jets.
My team is back. Yes I am an unabashed Jets fan and I along with many other Winnipeg residents are thrilled the team is back. That being said the Jets will be in tough to make the playoffs. I do like the leadership of Andrew Ladd, the potential of Evander Kane, the defence corp led by Dustin Byfuglien and Zach Bogosian. I like Ondrej Pavelic in net. And I like first round pick Mark Schiefele who has been a star in the preseason. However a lack of scoring depth up front, plus a brutal travel schedule will keep the Jets out of the playoffs this year.
11. Florida Panthers.
When GM Dale Tallon arrived in South Florida he was expected to make changes to the Panthers. He did more than that. He overhauled the entire team. The Panthers were aggressive in the offseason picking up forwards Kris Versteeg, Scottie Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann, defenceman Ed Jovanovski, Brian Campbell and goalie Jose Theodore. Yes this is a new look Panthers team. But I think this team will need time to gel and I’m not sure about Theodore in the nets. The longest playoff drought in the NHL will continue to Florida.
12. New Jersey Devils.
Remember when the Devils were winning Stanley Cups? You know back in 1995, 2000 and 2003? The Devils were drinking cheap champagne from the Cup those years led by a stern defence and all world goaltending from Martin Brodeur. Seems like a long time ago for Devils fans. Brodeur is now 39 years old and rumours suggest that this may be his last season. The defence no longer has Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer patrolling the blueline. Now first round pick Adam Larsson is expected to lead the defence. It would also benefit the Devils if Zach Parise stays healthy. The star winger was injured most of last season and he needs to appear in more than the 13 games he played last season. With stories of the Devils nearing bankruptcy, this could be a long season in Newark.
13. Toronto Maple Leafs.
It’s all on James Reimer. Yes the rookie Leafs goalie played very well upon his arrival in Hogtown but there will be so much pressure on the youngster that he may crack under it. But goaltending isn’t the big issue. The Leafs still lack a big time centre to play with Phil Kessel. Many fans are hoping Nazem Kadri could be the guy but Leafs brass don’t have a ton of confidence in him. The defence corp is improving but Dion Phaneuf has to start showing his mammoth potential. The media pressure is intense in Toronto which usually is a disadvantage for the Leafs. It doesn’t help that GM Brian Burke can’t keep his big mouth shut either. No playoffs for Toronto.
14. New York Islanders.
What was once a proud franchise, the Islanders are now sinking faster than the Titanic. Yes there is some talent on this team. John Tavares is looking like the real deal up the middle, Matt Moulson and Michael Grabner are capable of scoring 30 goals a season, Mark Streit is a skilled puck moving defenceman. Rick DiPietro when healthy is a solid goalie and when he’s not, Evgeni Nabokov is a veteran who can handle the goalie duties. But the problems surrounding the arena issue, the distractions of the team possibly moving, along with an overall lack of depth means another lost season on Long Island.
15. Ottawa Senators.
The Sens were in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007. Now they have no idea what they’re doing. After Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson, there isn’t much to get excited about in the Canadian capital. Daniel Alfredsson’s best days are behind him and the same can be said about Sergei Gonchar. Goaltending is up in the air as Craig Anderson, Robin Lehner and Alex Auld will all battle for spots. Perhaps David Rundblad can help the blueline but the cupboard is rather bare right now in Ottawa.
1. Vancouver Canucks.
The Canucks were one win away from winning the Stanley Cup. Yet judging by the reaction of some fans you would’ve thought the Canucks were knocked out in the first round. Yes Roberto Luongo struggled in the Finals but he’s still a number one goalie that most teams crave. The Sedins will work their magic, Ryan Kesler and Alexandre Burrows are rising stars. The defence is solid. All the pieces are there. The question in Lotus Land is can the Canucks put it all together at the right time? Those questions won’t be answered until the spring.
2. San Jose Sharks.
The Sharks are a great team…in the regular season. San Jose has won 4 consecutive Pacific division titles but have failed to reach the Stanley Cup finals. The Sharks playoff failure can be attributed to a couple of areas. A lack of production from their top scorers and suspect goaltending have been the backbreakers for the Sharks. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and company have lit up the scoreboard in the regular season, but have failed to come up with the big goal in the playoffs. The Sharks were so frustrated with this, they traded underachieving Dany Heatley to Minnesota for Martin Havlat. The Sharks are hoping Havlat can produce in the playoffs, something Heatley struggled with in his time in the Shark Tank. Antti Niemi is a solid goalie, but didn’t have a good series against Vancouver. The Sharks are similar to the Canucks. The springtime will determine whether the Sharks are a success or a failure.
3. Chicago Blackhawks.
Coming off a Stanley Cup championship in 2010, the Blackhawks suffered a bit of a hangover last season. But it was to be expected with the defections of Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien and Antti Niemi. However after nearly completing a miracle comeback against Vancouver in the first round, optimism is abounding in the Windy City. The emergence of Corey Crawford as the number one goalie was the big story last year and if Crawford continues his stellar play, the Blackhawks will be Stanley Cup contenders. Being knocked out in the first round may have other advantages. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook should be ready to log 20-30 minutes on the blueline. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane should put up 75-80 points again. The additions of Andrew Brunette and Daniel Carcillo gives the Hawks veteran scoring punch and toughness respectively. The Hawks are looking to relive 2010 and they’re a team to beware of.
4. Los Angeles Kings.
For the past couple of seasons, the Kings have sat back and waited patiently for their young stars to develop. That changed in the offseason. Following a first round loss to San Jose, GM Dean Lombardi decided to shake things up. Acquiring Mike Richards from Philadelphia for Braydon Schenn and Wayne Simmonds was the biggest trade in the offseason and it sent a message to the rest of the Western Conference. The Kings also added veteran Simon Gagne to help bolster the offence. The defence is led by Drew Doughty who just linked a long-term deal with the Kings. Jonathan Quick will start as the number one goalie but Jonathan Bernier is waiting in the wings. The Kings have plenty of depth and are a young exciting team. Can Richards put them over the top? I wouldn’t be surprised if he did.
5. Detroit Red Wings.
The Red Wings have been rolling for many years but I see some loose parts in this otherwise well-oiled machine. Yes the Wings still have talent up front. Pavel Datsyuk might be the purest skilled forward in the world. No one can handle the puck like the smooth skating Russian. Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen are still productive players up front. The ageless Niklas Lidstrom keeps on going at the age of 41. Lidstrom should still be considered a Norris Trophy candidate. Niklas Kronwall provides a physical presence in the back end. Jimmy Howard has established himself as the number one goalie.But the team’s core is a year older and after back to back playoff losses to San Jose, many questions remain as to whether the Wings are still legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
6. Anaheim Ducks.
The Ducks made the playoffs last year largely due to Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry. The Peterborough Ontario native was the only player in the league to net 50 goals last season as he emerged as a superstar in the league. Ryan Getzlaf also had a superb season as he produced 80 points and was a proven setup man for Perry. Teemu Selanne will come back for one more season hoping to give the Ducks another Stanley Cup run.The defence is lacking depth and is the weak spot for Anaheim. While Toni Lydman and Lubomir Visnovsky are quality defencemen, neither are top-tier blueliners yet they will lead the team in minutes played. Jonas Hiller had a great season but a battle with vertigo cut short his season and really hurt the Ducks down the stretch. Anaheim will score plenty of goals. But they will give up just as many goals the other way.
7. Nashville Predators.
The Predators made history last season by winning their first playoff series in franchise history, disposing of Anaheim in 6 games. Nashville was eliminated by Vancouver in round two but still it was a successful season in Music City. Plenty of credit must be given to coach Barry Trotz, the only coach in franchise history. The Predators have always been competitive under Trotz and should be in the mix again. Pekka Rinne emerged as a goalie to keep an eye on. The Finnish netminder was brilliant in the Anaheim series and was just as good albeit in a losing cause to Vancouver. Shea Weber anchors a solid blueline core but rumours persist that this might be Weber’s last season in Nashville. A restricted free agent at the end of the season, Weber wants a huge raise but Predators’ management hasn’t budged. Dan Ellis is ready to make an impact in Nashville and could be a rookie of the year candidate. The Predators don’t score many goals but are expecting a breakout season from Mike Fisher whom they acquired from Ottawa midway last season. Somehow though the Predators find a way to make the playoffs and I expect the same again this year.
8. Columbus Blue Jackets.
For years the Blue Jackets have been Rick Nash and not much else. GM Scott Howson decided to shakeup the roster by adding centre Jeff Carter via a trade with Philadelphia. Carter gives the Blue Jackets a number one centre the team has desperately has been yearning for. Columbus wasn’t done as they added winger Vinny Prospal and defenceman James Wisniewski via free agency. The Jackets are hoping for goalie Steve Mason to have a bounce back season. Mason struggled last year but I’m gambling that he will provide the Jackets with steady goaltending. Watch for rookie centre Ryan Johansen to make the team and give the Jackets much-needed depth up the middle.
9. St Louis Blues.
I picked the Blues to make the playoffs last season but injuries and underachieving play derailed those thoughts. I’m not quite sold on St Louis to make the playoffs this season. Jaroslav Halak was OK for the Blues but much more was expected from him after a stellar playoff for Montreal in 2010. Halak will have to prove that he’s a long-term number one goalie. The defence is young and rather shaky. I do like Barret Jackman to log heavy minutes and Alex Pietrangelo is improving every year. But the rest of the blueline is suspect. The forwards are solid as David Backes is a proven 30 goal scorer. Chris Stewart and Alex Steen will produce decent numbers as well. But the Blues are stretching with the addition of Jason Arnott who might be past his prime. I just don’t see enough from the Blues to garner them a playoff spot.
10. Dallas Stars.
The Stars just missed the playoffs last season and are hoping they can return to the playoff dance this season. They’ll have their work cut out for them. Losing Brad Richards leaves a major hole up front. Mike Ribeiro, Loui Eriksson and newly acquired Michael Ryder will be asked to supply the offence while captain Brendan Morrow will lead by example. The defence struggled last season. While Stephane Robidas will eat heavy minutes and Alex Goligoski will move the puck the rest of the blueline needs fixing up. The Stars are gambling that Sheldon Souray can find the fountain of youth and help out the Stars. In net Kari Lehtonen is solid but at times inconsistent. If the Stars want to make the playoffs Lethonen must be more consistent. The Stars are close but the blueline concerns me enough to have them miss the playoffs again.
11. Calgary Flames.
When Darryl Sutter resigned as GM of the club in January, the Flames went on a tear and things looked promising in the Stampede City. Alas the Flames ran out of gas and missed the playoffs. This is a critical year for the Flames as Jarome Iginla is set to become an unrestricted free agent at seasons’ end. There were rumours circulating that Iginla was on the trading block but new GM Jay Feaster quickly squashed the talk. However if the Flames are out of playoff contention by the trade deadline, the trade talk will get noisy. The other question in Calgary is can Mikka Kiprusoff regain his form? The man they call Kipper was decent last season but decent isn’t good enough anymore. Kiprusoff has to be better for the Flames to return to the playoffs. Calgary is hoping Mikael Backlund will finally emerge as a top line centre as this is a make or break year for the young Swede. However the Flames don’t have enough depth and the blueline is lacking overall. No Red Mile in Calgary.
12. Colorado Avalanche.
The Avs have a long way to go to reach the glory years of 1996 and 2001. But the foundation is set thanks to rising superstar Matt Duchene. Duchene is set to become one of the best players in the NHL and the sky’s the limit for his talent. Duchene is teamed with Paul Stastny, Ryan O’Reilly and first round pick Gabriel Landeskog to provide Colorado with a young and dynamic group of forwards. The defence is led by the towering Erik Johnston who is looking to find his game in the Rocky Mountains after a disappointing spell in St Louis. The question mark is in the crease as the Avs have all new goalies. Colorado picked up Semyon Varlamov and veteran J.S. Giguere via free agency in order to improve their shaky goaltending. Neither will remind fans of the great Patrick Roy but they should be a steadying influence. The team is on the rise and while not ready for a playoff run yet, they will be a team to watch in the future.
13. Edmonton Oilers.
Another team with plenty of young talent, but has a long way to go before they can start thinking about the playoffs. The Oilers are loaded with young guns such as Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Sam Gagner, and first overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The Oilers also welcome back Ryan Smyth who returns to the team after being traded away by the club in 2007. The defence has some holes though and this area will need an upgrade. Tom Gilbert and Ryan Whitney are the best on the blueline but they aren’t good enough to carry heavy minutes. The Oilers are hoping Nikolai Khabibulin has one more season in him while Devan Dubnyk continues to develop. The jury is still out on Dubnyk though. The Oilers are slowly improving but have much work ahead of them.
14. Minnesota Wild.
The Wild are stuck in the middle. For years, Minnesota was known for tight checking, defensive hockey. It worked in 2003 when they advanced to the Western Conference Finals. But now, after missing the playoffs for 3 straight seasons, the Wild are trying to reshape the image of the team. A more attacking style is the preferred choice of coach Mike Yeo and GM Chuck Fletcher. To that the Wild acquired troubled sniper Dany Heatley in a trade with San Jose in hopes that Heatley can find his game in the land of 10,000 lakes. Heatley will have the clever Mikko Koivu to feed him the puck and speedy Pierre-Marc Bouchard to supply the offence. The Wild also picked up Heatley’s teammate Devin Setoguchi from San Jose in order to help the offence. The blueline lost Brett Burns to San Jose in the Heatley deal but are hoping Nick Schultz can pick up his game. Niklas Backstrom will be the man between the pipes but has struggled to find his game. The Wild are caught in transition and this group will need time to gel. Plus with Heatley being a rumoured cancer in the locker room, things don’t look bright in Minny.
15. Phoenix Coyotes.
You have to give coach Dave Tippett credit. Despite all the chaos surrounding the ownership debacle and the rumours of the team’s inevitable move, Tippett has guided the Desert Dogs into the playoffs the last two seasons. However I see this trend coming to an end this season. The holdout of Kyle Turris is bringing down to what is an already anemic offence. Captain Shane Doan will need some support as he was the only Coyote to notch 20 goals last season. Players such as Ray Whitney, Radim Vrbata, and Martin Hanzel will have to step up their games. The blueline is decent as Keith Yandle is developing into one of the most underrated defenceman in the game. Newly acquired Mike Smith and Jason LaBarbera will share the goalie duties. With all the distractions of the ownership and possible move, the Coyotes will finally hit rock bottom and I see a very long dry season in the desert.
Eastern Conference Final. Washington over Boston
Western Conference Final. Los Angeles over Chicago.
Stanley Cup Final. Los Angeles over Washington.
Stanley Cup Champions. Los Angeles Kings