Oct 152008
 

The reds have caught the US capital by storm. Literally. With a completely turnaround midway through the season leading to the club’s first division title in 7 years, the Capitals have completely swept the people of DC off their feet. Hockey in DC is as popular as ever, and backed by an owner who isn’t afraid to throw some money around or change conventional thinking, and a general manager who isn’t afraid to pull the trigger, the Caps are back.

No other player in the NHL is as exciting as Alexander Ovechkin. The Russian phenom just came off a 65-goal campaign and has since been named as the city’s mayor for one day and launched his own clothing line. The charismatic (and not coincidentally the league’s most marketable player) goal-scoring machine may not have mastered the English language, but his passion for the game is second to none, and it shows. Under Bruce Boudreau, the Caps moved towards a relentless forechecking game, a fantastic strategy given the Caps’ foot speed and size up front. Over the years the Caps have toiled, but George McPhee and Ted Leonsis have remained patient, and after hoarding draft picks over the years, the players have started to blossom. Nicklas Backstrom showed flashes of playmaking brilliance that will surely figure into an outstanding career, while Alexander Semin has really become a sniper of sorts. Even the forgotten draft picks and free agents the Caps have picked up, namely David Steckel, Matt Bradley, and Brooks Laich, have all found their respective niches in Boudreau’s system. Mix in a couple of savvy veterans in Sergei Fedorov and Michael Nylander some grit in Chris Clark and Donald Brashear, the Caps have a very well-rounded and well-coached forwards corps. Especially with captain Clark healthy for a full season, the Caps could very well improve on their offense (ranked 8th last year) and powerplay (9th).

Mike Green is a microcosm of the Caps’ turnaround. The former 1st round pick (in 2004) was almost forgotten before he exploded onto the scoresheets last year after spending 5 years in the WHL with Saskatoon. Green was never short on talent – in his first full season as a pro with Hershey of the AHL he managed to pot 43 points in 56 games, and another 18 points in 21 playoff games, earning a late call-up and finished with 22 NHL games under his belt. His first full NHL season saw him post just 12 points in 70 games, and it seemed (for a little while) that Green was another one of those talented players who could never translate his skill game to the NHL level. When Boudreau replaced Glen Hanlon early in the season, and with a strong familiarity between the two, Green exploded and went on to lead the league with 18 goals. Hailed as the Caps’ new go to defenseman, he’s well supported by a veteran group led by Brian Pothier (currently injured) and Tom Poti, but also by a core of young players that will no doubt be hoping to replicate Green’s success, including Shaone Morrisonn, Jeff Schultz, and Milan Jurcina. As much offense as the Caps’ defense can generate, their defensive play as a whole is still a little suspect. The team doesn’t feature a shut-down guy, much less a shut-down pair, so it might be a little optimistic to think the Caps’ defense will improve over last year’s, especially with so much uncertainty in net.

The Caps wanted to keep Cristobal Huet, but when negotiations weren’t going anywhere the French goalie bolted to Chicago where the grass was greener, and the Caps had no choice (and I really mean no choice) to settle for Jose Theodore. Top goalie prospect Simeon Varlamov is still a couple years away from making the jump, and despite his inconsistencies and the mental baggage that Theodore seems to carry around with him, he’s an adequate short-term solution (he’s only signed for 2 years). Brent Johnson is more than capable as a backup, but the Caps are still hinging on Theodore to at least show flashes of his former MVP form in order for them to stay competitive. Ovechkin and Green and the rest of the crew may be able to score a lot of goals, but you can’t win if you can’t stop them either. With the Southeast Division filled with hotshot snipers, perhaps with the exception of Florida, defense and goaltending will be key to winning the division. The Caps are leading in those categories, but it’ll have to hold for 82 games, something which may be a bit of a stretch.

Their division is fairly weak, and by virtue the winner of the division will get home-ice advantage in the first round, but that doesn’t mean the Caps will be the underdogs going in. If all goes well, the Caps may very well end up as high as first (yes, first) in the conference. With Ovechkin finally getting a taste of the playoffs, you can bet that the exuberant Russian wants more, and the Caps may not disappoint at all this year. They’re not quite Cup favourites yet, but they don’t have to wait long before that happens.

Lineup:
Alexander Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – Viktor Kozlov
Alexander Semin – Sergei Fedorov – Brooks Laich
Tomas Fleischmann – Michael Nylander – Chris Clark
Donald Brashear – David Steckel – Matt Bradley

Shaone Morrisonn – Mike Green
Jeff Schultz – Tom Poti
John Erskine – Milan Jurcina

Jose Theodore – Brent Johnson

Coach: Bruce Boudreau
GM: George McPhee

Predicted finish: 1st Southeast, 3rd East

Oct 142008
 

Like the Lightning, although to a much lesser extent, the Canucks are heading in a new direction, and it couldn’t be more definite than letting long-time captain Markus Naslund walk. The Canucks were hoping to make a splash this year, and offered Mats Sundin an eye-popping $20m offer over 2 years. Sundin ended up not signing (obviously), but that didn’t deter new GM Mike Gillis from bringing in his own crop of players. Management made bold promises over the summer, and while the Canucks are off to a hot start, it’ll be interesting to see where this team finishes. Some believe Dave Nonis was fired because he wasn’t ownership’s man, but with such drastic changes in the front office, the team still has his thumbprints all over it.

Scoring has been a problem for quite some time for the Canucks. After a injury-riddled and disappointing season, Gillis and Alain Vigneault publicly promised a more exciting brand of hockey – in other words, more offense. But with the departures of Brendan Morrison and Naslund, on paper it doesn’t seem like Gillis has solved anything. Even with the addition of Pavol Demitra and to a lesser extent Kyle Wellwood, the offense doesn’t seem to be more dangerous than last year’s – which means that once again the offensive load will rest on the shoulders of Henrik and Daniel Sedin. The Swedish twins are one of the best duos in the league, but the Canucks’ exhaustive search for a right winger to play with them after Anson Carter‘s departure prompted them to deal for Steve Bernier – a big bodied winger with room to grow, but definitely still rough around the edges. While the top two lines hasn’t changed any, and remains a weakness in the Canucks’ overall lineup, the Canucks may boast the best bottom six group in the league. They’re highlighted by Ryan Kesler, who is fast developing into the league’s premier two-way players, and Alex Burrows, arguably the league’s most hated agitator. Joined by new recruits Ryan Johnson and Darcy Hordichuk, the Canucks have great speed, grit, and character on the checking lines. The Canucks did lead the league in misconducts last year, but the knock against them was that they were still soft, and bringing in Hordichuk helped in that regard. Asides from the Sedins, the Canucks are deceptively fast, with none other than the fleet-footed Mason Raymond leading the way. The former Minnesota-Duluth Bulldog left school after just two seasons, including an outstanding sophomore season in which his 46 points was 15 higher than team’s second top scorer. Raymond was a surprise pick in the second round in 2005, but has managed to quiet critics and 25 goals this year isn’t completely out of the question.

When healthy, the Canucks six-man group, although it doesn’t boast any all-stars, is as deep as any. Mattias Ohlund once again leads the way with his consistent play, while a healthy Willie Mitchell and Kevin Bieksa provides one of the better shut-down tandems in the league. When healthy, and it’s not often enough, Sami Salo possesses one of the best point shots in the league. The most intriguing of the bunch, however, is Alexander Edler. The Swedish youngster was plucked up by the Canucks in the third round of the 2004 draft, amidst strong rumours that drafting machine Detroit was going to pick him soon. Edler was a revelation on an injury-riddled Canucks blueline, and management is hoping he continues to improve. Edler has been hailed as the Canucks’ next Ohlund, perhaps with better mobility and puck skills than Ohlund when he was at his age. With Rob Davison, Shane O’Brien, and Lawrence Nycholat, the Canucks have plenty of depth.

A lot has been made about Roberto Luongo, but the truth is there isn’t anymore that anyone can say about him that the whole world doesn’t know – he is the best goalie in the West. While he can give Martin Brodeur a good run for his money, the big elusive prize has eluded Luongo thus far. The new captain is the franchise’s best goalie in its history and with him in net the Canucks will always remain competitive.

Because Gillis handcuffed himself by putting his offer to Sundin on the table for much of the summer, and because of offer sheets to David Backes, the Canucks didn’t spend all their money. This isn’t anything to worry about, however, as it just means that the Canucks won’t have to worry about keeping under the cap come trade deadline day. The money could come real handy this summer as well, when the Sedins become unrestricted free agents, and rumour is that they’re both seeking $7m/year. Gillis’ legacy as the Canucks GM will be determined this summer when he will be forced to negotiate with the Sedins, and depending on the outcome, it could completely change the outlook of this team. The same problems that plagued the Canucks last year are once again problems this year, and while they are off to a hot start, there’s no denying that scoring 11 goals over the first 2 games is a bit of an anomaly.

Lineup:
Daniel Sedin – Henrik Sedin – Steve Bernier
Mason Raymond – Pavol Demitra – Taylor Pyatt
Alex Burrows – Ryan Kesler – Jannik Hansen
Darcy Hordichuk – Ryan Johnson – Rick Rypien

Mattias Ohlund – Alex Edler
Willie Mitchell – Kevin Bieksa
Shane O’Brien – Sami Salo

Roberto Luongo – Curtis Sanford

Predicted finish: 4th Northwest, 10th West

Oct 142008
 

I think David did a great job summing up the Leafs. Read it here.

Lineup:
Jason Blake – Nik Antropov – Alexei Ponikarovsky
Jiri Tlusty – Mikhail Grabovski – Niklas Hagman
Nikolai Kulemin – Dominic Moore – Alex Steen
John Mitchell – Matt Stajan – Jamal Mayers

Tomas Kaberle – Luke Schenn
Carlo Colaiacovo – Pavel Kubina
Jonas Frogren – Mike Van Ryn

Vesa Toskala – Curtis Joseph

Predicted finish: 5th Northeast, 12th East

Oct 132008
 

The National Hockey League announced today that 19-year old Alexei Cherepanov has passed away. The Russian winger was hailed to be the next coming of Pavel Bure, and was drafted by the New York Rangers in the 1st round, 17th overall in the 2007 draft.

Cherepanov collapsed on the bench in a KHL game. An investigation is underway to determine the cause.

We at HockeyAnalysis send our deepest condolences.

Oct 132008
 

No team in the league went through as much turnover as the Lightning this summer. Spearheaded by a new ownership group led by Oren Koules and Len Barrie, who have made many headlines this summer, the Lightning have promised their fans an exciting brand of Lightning hockey and a replication of success they enjoyed in 2004. The Lightning enter the season with much intrigue, as many fans and experts are wondering what sort of Lightning team that features as many as five new key players and a coach that hasn’t worked in the NHL for a decade, will show up.

It wasn’t too long ago that John Tortorella realized he made a mistake naming Vincent Lecavalier as captain and took the ‘C’ away from him. Now that he’s more mature (and really there really isn’t anyone else as qualified), new coach Barry Melrose has returned the captaincy to him. Make no mistake, Lecavalier is one of the top five centres in the league. His size and scoring ability makes him dangerous offensively, and along with Martin St. Louis they form the best scoring duo in their division. The re-addition of Vaclav Prospal and being able to land some of this summer’s best free agents in Ryan Malone and Radim Vrbata, and not to mention Steve Stamkos (who surprised me with his defensive plays), the Lightning have a lot of firepower. How well the new additions will mesh with Jussi Jokinen and Jason Ward will be interesting, as it’s hard to believe the locker room isn’t suffering from loyalties to the old and new regime. However, it was a great move to bring in both Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi, whose veteran (and perhaps intimidating) presence may keep the Bolts in line. Scoring shouldn’t be a problem, but if Stamkos can’t put up the numbers or keep up, the Bolts will find themselves without a legitimate number two centre. Depth on the wings is a luxury the Bolts have, but with Barrie and Koules’ spending this summer it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out, positively or negatively.

The Lightning forwards will do fine with Lecavalier and St. Louis. However, if the Lightning want to win the division, they’ll have to do more than put pucks in the net. They’ll have to do a damn good job of keeping the puck out in a high-scoring Southeast Division… and with the current corps they have, it’s going to be a battle. When Andrej Meszaros is your best defenseman, you know you have a problem. That’s not taking anything away from Meszaros though – he’s talented and will be a good defenseman for years to come, but it speaks volumes about a team’s six-man group when Meszaros is your alternate captain and minutes eater. Matt Carle, acquired from the Dan Boyle trade (which I believe was an awful move on their part), is still young and still has tons of room to grow. In fact, the Lightning defense was so bare that they had to sign journeyman Jamie Heward just days before their opener in Europe. The Bolts’ puck-moving abilities and responsibility were so awful that the Lightning have already pulled the trigger and opted for a more mobile Lukas Krajicek over the tougher Shane O’Brien. One defenseman that can really surprise, however, is Janne Niskala. The smooth skating defenseman potted 19 goals in the AHL last year and judging by his play early on could supplant Meszaros or Carle as the new powerplay quarterback. Considering that the Lightning don’t have a particularly strong tandem in net, signing Marek Malik, which they are rumoured to do, would give this defense a much-needed boost.

Mike Smith played well in the season opener, but when your defense is average you’re going to have to steal a lot of games to remain competitive. Olaf Kolzig didn’t relish his job as backup in Washington, but seems okay with it for now. The Lightning have gotten off to a bad start, but the goaltending has remained fairly solid with a porous defense and snoozing offense. The Lightning will most likely continue to split duties, perhaps 60/40 between the two. Kolzig seems happy to play second fiddle for now, but I wonder if that’ll change once the losses start to pile up (and they will for stretches). Kolzig was enjoying a much deserved success last year in Washington and feels a bit better they aren’t including him as part of their plans going forward.

Perhaps all these inconsistencies and holes can be plugged with Melrose, but I hardly think so. The Rangers weren’t great in Europe either, but the Bolts as a whole looked slow, a bit ironic considering the Bolts’ website advertises Melrose as the “Coach to Ignite Us.” Judging by Melrose’s first press conference, in which he indirectly called out his forwards, is strangely reminiscent of Tortorella’s. A lot of Tampa’s success will hinge on Melrose’s adjustments during the season, and it’s hard not to assume that he’s still shaking off a lot of rust after being more than a decade away from the game. The series against the Rangers definitely showed that the Lightning have much work to do – so much so that they may not gel as a team until it’s too late.

Lineup:
Ryan Malone – Vincent Lecavalier – Martin St. Louis
Vaclav Prospal – Steven Stamkos – Radim Vrbata
Jussi Jokinen – Evgeny Arthyukhin – Mark Recchi
Gary Roberts – Chris Gratton – Adam Hall

Vladimir Mihalik – Andrej Meszaros
Matt Carle – Lukas Krajicek
Janne Niskala – Jamie Heward

Mike Smith – Olaf Kolzig

Coach: Barry Melrose
GM: Brian Lawton

Predicted finish: 3rd Southeast, 10th East

St. Louis Blues

 St. Louis Blues  Comments Off
Oct 132008
 

Like the Islanders and Thrashers, the Blues just never seem to be able to commit in a singular direction. After being one of the West’s powerhouses for two decades, including a string of 24 consecutive playoff appearances, the Blues are undergoing a youth movement and building the team up piece by piece. However, for a team that’s been dedicated to rebuilding, there is little to build upon in terms of young talent other than Erik Johnson. Sure, the Blues have some talented youngsters, but none of their forwards come with the same pedigree as Johnson, which could prove to be a big problem.

Don’t expect the Blues to be any better offensively than they were last year (26th). The Blues’ offense isn’t anything to be scared of, and if it wasn’t for Brad Boyes their offense could’ve very well finished dead last. Paul Kariya, their big free agent splash, had a disappointing year last year and proved to be a marginal factor to their success. The team’s counting on him to improve on last year’s campaign, but for a team that lacks a veteran leader on offense, Kariya’s a curious choice for the coaching staff to expect to shoulder the load. Kariya isn’t short on talent, that’s for sure, but he has stopped shooting the puck less and less every year and even during his glory days in Anaheim he was never touted as a leader. The same goes for the other veteran on the squad, Keith Tkachuk. Another one of the Blues’ surprise (27 goals were the most since the lockout, not to mention the only other player on the squad to pot 20+), Tkachuk has never really relished or excelled in a leadership role either. That means that the Blues will have to rely on their youngsters’ maturity to really improve themselves. Andy Murray is a methodical coach and isn’t the best guy to help along players with their ups and downs, but he makes his players accountable, not to mention he had reasonable success with a relatively young Kings squad as well. There will be growing pains for sure, especially for Jay McClement and Lee Stempniak, both of whom took a backwards step in their sophomore seasons. With so many question marks in the air, it means that Patrick Berglund and TJ Oshie will have to chip in regularly, and given the signs and noise they made during the preseason, it shouldn’t be too difficult, although it’s tough to gauge exactly how well the Blues’ youngsters will do until roughly 25 games into the season.

If the Blues have any strengths on their squad, it’d be on defense where, thanks to Murray’s X’s and O’s, the Blues’ penalty kill ranked 7th overall in the league – a stark contrast to the other aspects of their game, in which none were ranked higher than 21st. Eric Brewer and Barret Jackman return as the shut-down and franchise pair, and are expected to provide much leadership, on and off the ice, for the team, especially when the team’s two best prospects, Johnson and Alex Pietrangelo, are defensemen. Jay McKee hasn’t been the same shot-blocking robot since his Buffalo days, and injuries have shortened his games played in a Blues jersey, but when he’s in the lineup the Blues’ defense is as tough as any to get shots on net. The Blues will have plenty of young defensemen to choose from as the season goes along, and will very much have a defense-by-committee approach to the other three spots. Pietrangelo has started the season but it remains to be seen if he’ll stick around for the entire year.

Manny Legace isn’t starting material, and with Marek Schwarz‘s development coming along at a snail’s pace, management opted to sign Chris Mason, another goalie who isn’t quite number one material, to back up Legace. Neither goalie is expected to take this team anywhere, but merely stopgaps until the Blues can find a permanent situation to the problem, especially if Schwarz continues to struggle at the pro level. Legace played 66 games last year with a winning record, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Legace-Mason tandem pans out, and Murray may instead to opt for going with the hotter goalie, meaning it may result in a 50/50 split, which Legace won’t be too thrilled about, after having been backup for many a seasons.

The Blues aren’t challenging for anything, and the best part of it is, Larry Pleau and John Davidson know that. They’re not going to give up any young players for a shot at the Cup, and spending money for a short-term fix. They’re too smart for that. The Blues may not be a dangerous team (yet), but management has drafted well enough over the years to keep their pipeline stocked with some good talent. However, it’ll be a long re-building process, and perhaps another 3-4 years before we see the Blues return to the playoffs. Johnson and Pietrangelo are going to be fantastic defensemen, but nobody else in their pipeline in goal or up front come with the same pedigree. They still have a lot of work to do, but they’re definitely going in the right direction. The Blues are perhaps one top 5 draft pick away from seriously contending down the road, and this summer may be the summer the franchise forward lands in their lap.

Lineup:
Paul Kariya – Patrick Berglund – David Perron
Lee Stempniak – Andy McDonald – Brad Boyes
Keith Tkachuk – TJ Oshie – David Backes
Chris Porter – Jay McClement – Cam Janssen

Steve Wagner – Eric Brewer
Barret Jackman – Alex Pietrangelo
Roman Polak – Jay McKee

Manny Legace – Chris Mason

Coach: Andy Murray
GM: Larry Pleau

Predicted finish: 5th Central, 14th West

Oct 132008
 

- Marian Gaborik‘s name will be a fixture in the rumour mill from now on, and I can safely say that at least 10 teams are seriously interested in his services. The sniper has recently rejected a multi-year contract (6+ years) at around $8m/season (although the folks at Hockey Central don’t believe this rumour). The Gaborik camp is reportedly looking for a contract that will pay him $10m/season, or somewhere close to that neighbourhood. Doug Risebrough isn’t a man who just throws money around – he did lose Pavol Demitra and Brian Rolston this summer after all – but if there’s any player he should throw money at, it’s at Gaborik. The franchise player is the key to the Wild’s offense, but growing frustration with management and coaching strategies means that Gaborik may bolt at the first sign. I don’t think the Wild will deal him anytime soon, hoping that a good season may help Gaborik change his mind. I think the earliest Gaborik will be moving is at the deadline.

- Brendan Shanahan continues to work out at the Rangers’ facilities, but the Rangers are currently on a tear and is not too keen on moving bodies right now to accomodate him. Shanahan has voiced a strong preference to re-sign with the Rangers, and reportedly has had other offers from around the league and KHL but he doesn’t seem too interested. It’ll be awhile before anything new pops up, but as of now Shanahan has a better chance of returning to the NHL than Mats Sundin.

- I wrote earlier this year about the Bolts’ inexperienced and below average blueline. It looks like they’ve finally caught on and Marek Malik, a former Ranger, is expected to practise with the Lightning on a tryout basis. Rumour is that there is a 1-year, $1m contract on the table, but nothing is for sure. If signed, Malik will bring experience, stability, and leadership to the squad, all three of which are unsurprisingly lacking on the Bolts’ blue line.

Oct 102008
 

Unless you have been living under a rock I am sure you know about the current economic crisis in the U.S. and around the world. There is seemingly no doubt that the U.S. is going to enter into a recession, if it is not already there, but the depth and duration of that recession is still anyones guess. Even the best economists are admitting that no one really knows how bad things will get and for how long and how much the U.S. woes will spread into Canada and around the world.

I am no economist or even a business guy but one has to wonder how this is going to effect the NHL, which although things have stabalized a bit post lock-out, there are still a number of franchises that are not that stable. The Nashville situation is a complete mess and several other teams are likely teetering on the edge of serious problems. For example, the Atlanta Thrashsers season ticket renewal rate has been reported to be as low as 40% and if they as a team stink on the ice this season like they did last one has to wonder if fans will give up on them completely. One has to wonder if the situation is going to be much better in Florida or Carolina or Tampa or Phoenix, or even in Columbus where there is concern that the fans are going to start fading away if they can’t soon make the playoffs for the first time in team history.

But the situation may soon not be so rosey in Canada as well. Most Canadian teams have been doing fairly well financially and hve been able to spend close to the salary cap every season since the lock out. But if you have been watching the financial markets the past week you may have also noticed that the Canadian Dollar has dropped significantly as well. This morning it dropped to just over 84 cents U.S, the lowest it has been since the end of the lock out. Through the 2007-08 NHL season, the dollar averaged close to parity. I don’t know where the dollar will average this season but if it stuck around the 85 cent mark that would mark a close to 15% drop in revenues for the Canadian teams. That is certainly going to impact the smaller teams like Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton.

The drop in the Canadian dollar is also going to impact the salary cap. There are no definitive reports as to what percentage of league-wide revenue comes from Canada but the talk is that it is upwards of 30%. If 30% of league revenue gets impacted negative 15% by the drop in the Canadian dollar, that would slash league revenues by 4.5%. If that in fact happened it would almost certainly put a halt to the rising salary cap. In fact, if the Canadian dollar stays low and ticket sales dry up in some of the U.S. markets because of the hurting economy, it is possible that the salary cap might even drop.

If the salary cap drops, that will in turn help out those small U.S. markets because it would mean the salary floor would also drop meaning they could reduce their expenses. It’s interesting how some teams may in fact benefit from a falling Canadian dollar and slowing economy. But if the salary cap stays where it is or falls slightly, where will that put teams that have committed long term to a lot of big contracts. The Philadelphia Flyers have committed $45 million to players for the 2009-10 season already and they don’t have a goalie signed and only 4 defensemen signed. They have $37 million committed for the 2010-11 season to just 7 players. Several other teams aren’t in much better situations.

On top of all this economic turmoil is the fact that the players have the right to opt out of the existing CBA after this NHL season. Most people don’t expect them to opt out outright, but if the economic conditions slow down revenue growth the result could be that the players salaries get clawed back in order to get total player compensation down to the players share of total revenue. If they players start seeing their salaries clawed back by 5% or more they might investigate the benefits of opting out of the CBA. Until they decide to officially pick up their option to continue operating under the existing CBA for 2 more seasons, no one can really be sure what rules the NHL teams will be operating under next season.

In summary, the business side of the NHL is in a state of significant turmoil. A slowing economy, a falling Canadian dollar, unstable ownership in a few NHL franchises (particularly Nashville) and an uncertain CBA mean off the ice this is going to be one interesting season.

Oh, and if all this sounds confusing, just imaging what it would be like if the NHL had a European division playing in 6 different countries with 6 different economies and currencies. Wrapping your head around the business side of hockey then will be near impossible.

Oct 082008
 

The knock against San Jose has always been that they’ve never been able to go deep in the playoffs. A regular season wunderkind, the Sharks always lose their bite (excuse the poor pun… and alliteration) in the postseason, and their star players always seem to disappear, despite numbers that suggest otherwise. With a new head coach in place, and after begging management to keep the core for another year, the players have vowed to exceed all expectations and perhaps bring the Cup back to sunny California.

At first glance, the Sharks seem to have a great offense, with big Joe Thornton as the anchor. However, it may surprise some (or many) that the Sharks only managed a 19th ranked offense last year. A common misconception is that the Sharks are a high-scoring team, but due to inconsistency issues, they’re really not, although they can be. Patrick Marleau had one of the most disappointing seasons in his career, and never more has the captain endured more harsh words from critics. Now set to lineup on Thornton’s left wing, Sharks fans hope Marleau can re-find his scoring touch. Jonathan Cheechoo, a former 56-goal scorer, also needs to re-find his scoring touch, and will be counted on to provide a lot of goals. His goal output dipped for the third straight season last year, and new coach Todd McLellan is hoping he can inject some life into the former Richard winner. All is not lost, however, if neither Marleau or Cheechoo can regain their form. Youngsters Torrey Mitchell and Joe Pavelski are also expected to step up their play, especially Pavelski, who is expected to improve on his 19-goal total. The third-year player played himself onto the squad and didn’t hit the dreaded sophomore slump, and is slotted to be the team’s new second line centre, while Mitchell will handle the third-line. Milan Michalek is also another player that saw his point total dip last year, but once again is expected to chip-in some substantial points. Ryane Clowe rounds out San Jose’s offense, after being sidelined early last season, only to come back in time for the playoffs and became arguably the Sharks’ best player, with 9 points in 13 games. Also another player to watch out for is the speedy Devin Setoguchi. The former Saskatoon Blade standout scored 11 in just 44 games last year, and 20-25 goals is not completely out of the question. The ever colourful Jeremy Roenick (who you can bet is one of the players who begged Wilson to keep the squad together for another year) will be hard-pressed to top his 10 game-winners, but the Sharks won’t complain if he manages to equal, or even top, that total. If a slumping offense can take the Sharks to a division title, could you imagine what would happen if they realize their full offensive potential? Hopefully McLellan can turn loose a formerly defense-first team.

The Sharks’ defense doesn’t boast a bit a name as its offense, but the players worked cohesively as a group and finished with a third ranked defense and first ranked penalty kill. However, in order to push the Sharks over the bump, Doug Wilson decided to shake up his defense by adding former Cup winners Dan Boyle and Rob Blake. The two new anchors for the Sharks defense bring experience and mobility to the Sharks’ offense after they struck out on re-signing Brian Campbell, but most importantly, they bring Cup-winning experience. While both players are excellent offensively, defensively they’re not as sound as Craig Rivet or the recently waived Kyle McLaren. However, along with Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Blake and Boyle can hopefully further ignite a snoozing Sharks offense and provide some spark on their tenth ranked powerplay. The underrated Christian Ehrhoff, Doug Murray, and veteran Brad Lukowich, also acquired in the Boyle trade, round out a deep top six.

Evgeni Nabokov emerged as the West’s best last year, and some pundits have argued that he should’ve won the Vezina as the league’s best goaltender. Even without Vesa Toskala pushing him, Nabokov still managed to finish tops in all the goaltending categories. Brian Boucher won’t challenge for the number one spot anytime soon, but will be enough to give Nabokov a little push should he need it.

The Sharks have been competitive for a long time, but the writing’s on the wall for Wilson. With Ron Wilson gone, and if the Sharks find themselves exiting the playoffs early, he may be following Ron out the door real soon. New coach McLellan comes from a great team in Detroit, and hopefully is the missing piece for them. The Sharks won’t be turning any heads in the season, as they’re expected to win their division once again, but they really need to win when it counts most or otherwise potentially face a major roster shake-up.

Projected lineup:
Patrick Marleau – Joe Thornton – Devin Setoguchi
Milan Michalek – Joe Pavelski – Jonathan Cheechoo
Ryane Clowe – Torrey Mitchell – Mike Grier
Tomas Plihal – Marcel Goc – Jeremy Roenick

Christian Ehrhoff – Dan Boyle
Marc-Edouard Vlasic – Rob Blake
Doug Murray – Brad Lukowich

Evgeni Nabokov – Brian Boucher

Coach: Todd McLellan
GM: Doug Wilson

Predicted finish: 2nd Pacific, 2nd West

Oct 082008
 

I believe we are in for some serious surprises in both conferences as I don’t think there are many teams that are sure bets to make the playoffs and in both conferences, particularly the west, there are several younger teams ready to make a push for a playoff spot. All that means that some teams expecting to make the playoffs won’t.

Eastern Conference

1. New Jersey Devils
2. Montreal Canadiens
3. Washington Capitals
4. New York Rangers
5. Pittsburgh Penguins
6. Buffalo Sabres
7. Ottawa Senators
8. Boston Bruins
9. Philadelphia Flyers
10. Tampa Bay Lightning
11. Carolina Hurricanes
12. Florida Panthers
13. Toronto Maple Leafs
14. Atlanta Thrashers
15. New York Islanders

I think the Devils may have made the best off season acquisition by bringing in Brian Rolston from the Minnesota Wild. Rolston is a perfect fit for the Devils and will bring them some much needed offensive balance which I believe will push them into top spot in the eastern conference.

The Montreal Canadiens had a breakout season last year and will once again challenge for top spot in the eastern conference but I don’t believe Kovalev will have as good of a season and that will drop the Canadiens back a spot or two.

The Washington Capitals are the class of the southeast division and should get the third seed and I believe the Rangers and Penguins are good enough for fourth and fifth seeds. The Penguins would easily be ranked higher if it weren’t for the two long term injuries to Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney.

This is where things get interesting. If the Ottawa Senators found a way to add a top 4 defenseman to the mix and get consistent solid goaltending they would easily compete for the top several spots in the eastern conference. But as it stands now I think the Senators will once again struggle for consistency in goal and I don’t like any team that has an aging Jason Smith as their #4 defenseman and Lee and Picard as the third defense pair with a combined 98 games experience. If one of Phillips, Volchenkov or Kuba gets injured for a lengthy period of time this team could miss the playoffs.

I believe the Buffalo Sabres will be a surprise team this year. They have an excellent young set of forwards that learned a lot last year having to take over leadership roles with the losses of Briere and Drury. They are now ready to step up their games and take the Sabres to the playoffs once again.

The Bruins, Flyers, Lightning and maybe the Hurricanes will all struggle at times this year and any of them could miss the playoffs. I am just not sold on any of those teams having the defense and goaltending to really be a top team in the NHL. Some of you may be surprised that I include the Flyers in this group but I am still not sold on Biron being a top level goalie and I think they could use some help on defense as well with the loss of Derien Hatcher. Problem is, they don’t have much cap space to add such a defenseman. The surprise in the east could be the Flyers missing the playoffs.

The final four probably won’t get many disputes. The Panthers, having traded Jokinen, probably don’t have the offense to compete though their defense and goaltending is more than solid. Toronto could probably end up a bit higher in the standings, but I don’t think that is a goal of theirs and are likely to continue trading away players and playing youngsters over veterans, even if the veterans are better right now. The Thrashers and Islanders are just plain bad with little or no signs of life this year or in the future.

Western Conference

1. Detroit Red Wings
2. Anaheim Ducks
3. Minnesota Wild
4. San Jose Sharks
5. Dallas Stars
6. Edmonton Oilers
7. Calgary Flames
8. Chicago Blackhawks
9. Phoenix Coyotes
10. Vancouver Canucks
11. Colorado Avalanche
12. Nashville Predators
13. Columbus Blue Jackets
14. St. Louis Blues
15. Los Angeles Kings

No surprises at the top of this list as the Detroit Red Wings are the class of the league. They only question is whether they will suffer the Stanley Cup hangover that so many teams do. Being a veteran team who have gone through this before I don’t think they will and should easily be the best team in the western conference and the league.

Next up are the pacific division trio of Anaheim, San Jose and Dallas. All look to be very solid teams but I think Anaheim’s defense should allow them to take top spot followed closely by San Jose and Dallas not too far behind.

The Northwest division is real tough to predict because they all seem to have holes in their lineups. The Wild have lost Demitra and Rolston and I am not convinced bringing in Brunette and Nolan is enough to offset that loss. Calgary looks solid but only if Kiprusoff rebounds from an off season. In fact, Kuprusoff’s career is in a downward trend as his save percentages have dropped 4 seasons in a row from .933 to .923 to .917 to .906 last year. If he drops any more, the Flames could drop out of the playoffs. The Vancouver Canucks seem to be in a bit of a holding pattern as well not looking any better than last year. The Colorado Avalanche didn’t do much to excite me this off season and I am not at all sold on a goaltending tandem of Budaj and Raycroft, which has the potential to be among the worst in the league. The aging avalanche are also injury prone and that combination will likely see them drop out of the playoffs. The only team definitively on the rise are the Edmonton Oilers who look to make a jump to the playoffs.

The other two young teams looking to make their jumps into the playoffs are the Phoenix Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks. Both will challenge for a playoff spot but probably only one will get in. I am putting the Blackhawks in because I believe the Coyotes need another year or two to develop their young players and they Phoenix is in a much tougher division.

In the playoffs, I am predicting San Jose will face New Jersey in the finals with New Jersey winning the cup. Regular Season MVP will be Alex Ovechkin, Norris Trophy will go to Dion Phaneuf, Vezina will go to Martin Brodeur and coach of the year will be Brent Sutter of the Devils. The top rookie will be Derick Brassard of the Columbus Blue Jackets.