Nov 082008
 

Everyone knew that the Lightning’s defense would have a hard time keeping up with the rest of the league. After a poor offensive start, the Lightning did a little shake-up by swapping the tougher Shane O’Brien for Lukas Krajicek to get more mobile on defense. It was assumed that Andrej Meszaros, Paul Ranger, and Matt Carle, one of the key pieces in the Dan Boyle deal, would handle the puck-moving duties. However, the three of them have only combined for 9 points and a harmless -1 rating. Meszaros has yet to score this year, and Ranger and Carle both have one each. Tampa’s third-last 27 GF total is embarrassing, especially after the amount of offensive talent the Lightning horded this year – Boyle (9 points in 14 games) and the Sharks, on the other hand, have almost double that total with 50 GF.

While the problem on defense remains, it doesn’t help when your offense can’t get going either. Vinny Lecavalier has a pedestrian 10 points and Martin St. Louis has 9 – even if these two get going there’s still no indication of how well the rest of the team can do. Highly touted Steve Stamkos has started off slow, while Ryan Malone has only 3 points, all of them goals, in 12 games, and Gary Roberts has yet to register a point. Ironically, it’s Jussi Jokinen, who was planned to be dealt over the summer, and the forgotten acquisition Mark Recchi that are the ones chipping in offensively.

So, figuring that their offense requires an extra boost in (only) just 12 games, the Bolts decided to give up on the promising Carle in exchange for a chippy Steve Downie and less-mobile Steve Eminger. Eminger and Carle are both already on their second team this year. First, this is a great trade for the Flyers, because they got rid of a prospect they don’t need and who has a checkered history and a depth defenseman for a young player that could turn out to be really, really good. Carle will immediately take off some pressure off Kimmo Timonen (he’s averaging in the high-20s in ice-time) on the puck-handling duties, while I don’t really see how either Eminger or Downie are supposed to make the Lightning any better.

The Lightning are actually a modest 4-4-4 on the season, and there’s no indication that they’re in for a free fall either, considering the play of Mike Smith and how Stamkos is finally getting some quality ice-time to showcase his abilities. The only reason I can theorize is that Brian Lawton (probably under orders from Len Barrie and Oren Koules) pushed the “panic” button. There’s no upside in giving up on a young player just 12 games in to the season, especially if the players you get in return don’t have half the potential of Carle’s.

Considering how early this trade went down I would not be surprised if the Lightning made even more moves regarding their defense, but judging by their roster moves I can’t help but think the next one will be yet another sideways step. Already we’ve seen three new faces in twelve games which mathematically speaking means that we’ll be seeing 20 different defensemen to wear a Lightning jersey this year. This team needs more time to gel, and every time they acquire a new player it’ll set them back. The Lightning are becoming, if not are, the laughing stock of the league.

Congratulations to Mark Parrish, who successfully makes his comeback to the NHL with a hat trick in a 5-2 win over the Ducks. The former Minnesota forward is the second player this year (the other being, surprise, teammate Fabian Brunnstrom) to make his season debut with a hat trick. The Stars have been one of the worst teams thus far this year and scoring isn’t a problem, but if Marty Turco can’t pick up his play they’re not going anywhere fast, although it should help when Jere Lehtinen and Sergei Zubov come back later next week.

EDIT: Just giving both teams a quick cap space run through and it amazes me how Philly continues to pile on the salaries even they have less a million in cap space. How are they going to fit Carle in? Is Randy Jones headed toward the LTIR? With Carle it’d put the Flyers roughly $2m over the cap.

Oct 312008
 

1 – Alexander Semin had some choice words for the NHL’s poster boy, Sidney Crosby. The Caps forward is off to a hot start and with the team being hailed as favourites to win their division again, didn’t hold back any punches. In short, Semin believes Crosby’s overrated – and that Chicago’s Patrick Kane is the superior player. He believes that stats, in particular Crosby’s, have made him out to be a better player than he actually is. I’m never turned off by some good sound bytes, but this sort of personal trash talk doesn’t really stoke any fires for the Pens-Caps rivalry, and I also believe that the Caps needs to reach the finals before they say anything more.

2 – Adam Proteau at THN thinks Gary Bettman needs to go. I agree… as do many others. Does Bettman?

3 – I think Doug Weight‘s hit on Brandon Sutter was clean. I don’t think Weight had any other choice than to lay him out – if he hadn’t it would’ve created an offensive rush for the Canes. Sutter’s concussion was unfortunate, and I hate to say it, but it was his fault. He had his head down in a prone position, reaching for the puck in the neutral zone. What did he think was going to happen? The players have to protect themselves – I don’t think there’s an easier way to put it, and getting rid of the instigator rule is a step in the right direction.

4 – Marian Gaborik‘s been a staple in the rumour mill since the end of last year. However, despite losing him to injury, the Wild are 6-2-1 and at the top of their division… which makes you really wonder if Gaborik is worth the reported $85-100 million the Wild have apparently offered him. There’s no mistake that Gaborik’s a world-class player, and even though I am attributing Antti Miettinen‘s recent scoring surge as a flash in the pan, I don’t think the Wild need him, especially at that price. Jacques Lemaire plays a system that doesn’t require a bona fide offensive player, although it is nice to have one. The Wild are just as happy winning games 2-1 than 6-1. Gaborik has proven himself to be injury-prone and seems to be intent on testing the waters on the market, and if that is indeed the case the Wild should just trade him.

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 022008
 

Much ado has been made about the Canucks making Roberto Luongo their captain. The move was very surprising, considering goalies are not allowed to wear the traditional ‘C’ on their jersey and there hasn’t been a goalie captain since Bill Durnan in the 1940s. One of the reasons it became illegal was because of the inefficiency of being both a captain and a goalie. Captains are designated by their respective teams to provide an on-ice voice for the team with the refs, and because the game is so fluid and the refs are constantly moving, it made it very difficult for goalies to talk to them, in part because of the very small area on the ice the goalie patrols. They can’t wander the length of the ice as most players do, and if the referee was at the other end of the rink it would be impossible to talk to them, since goalies cannot cross the red line.

I can’t help but think this move by the Canucks is a ploy to show Luongo that this is his team. Willie Mitchell has been named as the guy who would talk to the refs on a nightly basis, but the Canucks still elected to give Mitchell an ‘A’, even though he would be fulfilling the traditional duties of a player wearing the ‘C’. It goes without question that this is Luongo’s team – no one else in the league is as crucial to their team’s success as Luongo. By officially naming him captain is a mere formality that really doesn’t carry much substance, other than re-affirm the fact that Vancouver wants Luongo to stay, and will do anything to please him and accomodate his needs. But it also means that no one in the Vancouver locker room has really stepped into the captain’s void left by Markus Naslund, which has led to a committee of three players wearing A’s on a nightly basis: Mitchell, Ryan Kesler, and Mattias Ohlund.

Perhaps at the end of the day the letters don’t quite mean anything – Mitchell will talk to the refs and Luongo continues to stop the pucks. The world keeps spinning.

EDIT: The Lightning have named Martin St. Louis and, surprisingly, Andrej Meszaros as their alternate captains for this year. The Rangers have yet to name a captain, although all signs point towards Chris Drury and Mike Richards is the front-runner in Philadelphia. The Wild and Sabres are expected to continue their rotating captaincy. The Panthers, Kings, Thrashers, and Leafs have yet to name their captains for the upcoming season.

EDIT #2: The Rangers have officially named Drury their captain, while Markus Naslund and Scott Gomez will serve as the alternates. May I also add that all three players may potentially play on the same line?

Minnesota Wild

 Minnesota Wild  Comments Off
Sep 262008
 

No other player in the league holds as much stake in a hockey team’s future as Marian Gaborik. The oft-injured Slovak sniper is in the last year of his contract worth $7.5m and had a career season last year, to one’s surprise, because it was the first year Gaborik played more than 70 games since the 2002-03 season. After GM Doug Risebrough committed to re-signing Brian Rolston over Pavol Demitra, it was speculated that Gaborik was not happy with the organization’s decision to not re-sign Gaborik’s closest friend and teammate. Risebrough’s plan backfired and he ended up losing both, much to Gaborik’s dismay, adding speculation to Gaborik’s departure at the end of the season. Risebrough has made it clear that their number one priority this year, on-ice product aside, is to re-sign Gaborik to a long extension. Should Gaborik refuse to sign, Risebrough would have a very big hole to fill and may potentially cripple the Minnesota franchise in a tough Western Conference.

Gaborik’s 83 points was 20 higher than the next point getter, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, but has remained consistent and improved his point production. Rolston and Demitra finished third and fourth, and after that it’s defenseman Brent Burns with 43 points. Suffice it to say, this is a rather offensively-challenged team, although the argument has been made that Jacques Lemaire‘s teams have always stressed defense over offense. The Wild offense ranked a surprisingly average 18th for a team with an offensive dynamo in Gaborik and Mikko Koivu, who had 42 points in 53 games last year. Even with the additions of Andrew Brunette (59 points) and Antti Miettinen (34 points), and a healthy season from Koivu, it’s still not quite enough to replace the productions of Rolston and Demitra. Sophomore James Sheppard and rookie Benoit Pouliot are being tapped to make a jump into the NHL, but neither have many NHL games under their belts and will no doubt be given limited ice time until Lemaire feels more comfortable sending them out for regular shifts. Sheppard averaged almost 11 minutes of ice-time, while Pouliot averaged almost 9 minutes a game. The Northwest Division isn’t known for its high-octane offense, and the Wild are banking on Gaborik for another healthy season to be the go-to guy.

The Wild got more mobile over the summer, replacing the slow Keith Carney and Sean Hill with Marek Zidlicky and Marc-Andre Bergeron. The obvious downside is a lack of size and grit. Brent Burns is big at 6’4″ and 210 lbs., but after a career season in which he scored 15 goals, he will used more in an offensive role and will see ample time on the powerplay. Kim Johnsson and Martin Skoula also provide some nice options on the powerplay, and the hard-shooting Kurtis Foster, sidelined early last year with a broken leg, is expected to be back in January after it was believed that his hockey career was likely over. The defensive aspect of the game now shifts squarely onto Nick Schultz‘s shoulders, who was third amongst defenseman on the team with just over 20 minutes of ice-time per night. This defensive corps, while talented, might have trouble containing the West’s bigger forwards, especially with the additions of Steve Bernier in Vancouver, Darcy Tucker in Colorado, Todd Bertuzzi in Calgary, and Erik Cole in Edmonton.

Goaltending is a strong point in the Wild’s team structure, with Niklas Backstrom as the starter. Like Gaborik, Backstrom is entering the last year of his contract worth $3.1m, and with another good season he could double that on the open market. The Wild are currently busying themselves trying to get Gaborik sign an extension, and if the talks don’t produce anything substantial the Wild may move on to Backstrom and wait until the end of the season to re-sign Gaborik. Josh Harding returns to back-up Backstrom, and should Backstrom leave, it would leave them with another gaping hole to fill, as it doesn’t look like Harding is ready for full-time duty yet.

The Wild have roughly $4m to play around with and have one of the younger teams in the West, with an average of 27.8 years. It seems that the Wild don’t intend on making anymore moves before the season starts, and that cap room may come in handy should Pouliot, Sheppard, or Cal Clutterbuck reach their bonuses. Asides from Gaborik and Backstrom, the Wild don’t have any significant players heading into free agency, as Koivu, Bouchard, Schultz, and Burns are all signed to long-term extensions.

The Wild have a lot of holes up front, but it can all be made up with great coaching under Lemaire. He doesn’t always get the most talented group of players to work with, but Lemaire’s an excellent x’s and o’s guy, so expect this team to once again finish tops in the league on special teams, obviously key to a winning team. The defense has become more mobile, but it remains to be seen if this is the more suitable type of defensive corps under the new CBA. The Ducks won the Cup without the most mobile defense asides from Scott Niedermayer, while the Wings’ Nicklas Lidstrom, Niklas Kronwall, and Brian Rafalski are all fantastic skaters. The Wild defensemen can cover a lot of ice with their quick feet and make great breakout passes, but when they’re forced to play a more physical game it remains to be seen if the team can step up.

Predicted lineup:
Andrew Brunette – Pierre-Marc Bouchard – Marian Gaborik
Antti Miettinen – Mikko Koivu – Owen Nolan
Stephane Veilleux – Eric Belanger – Benoit Pouliot
Derek Boogaard – James Sheppard – Craig Weller

Nick Schultz – Brent Burns
Kim Johnsson – Marek Zidlicky
Martin Skoula – Marc-Andre Bergeron

Niklas Backstrom – Josh Harding

scratches: Erik Reitz, Cal Clutterbuck, Colton Gillies

Coach: Jacques Lemaire
GM: Doug Risebrough

Predicted finish: 2nd Northwest, 7th West

Sep 202008
 

The Thrashers were interested in Mathieu Schneider, but felt that given the veteran’s price tag and current skill set it was just too expensive. Don Waddell claims that Schneider’s age was not a factor in the decision.

Nikolai Khabibulin is looking forward to the start of the season, but admits he was surprised when the Hawks signed Cristobal Huet to a multi-year deal. He also admits that even though he hasn’t been at his best, he didn’t have a “championship calibre” team in front of him either. Not exactly the words management wants to hear, but Khabibulin has to make do with what he’s got in front of him (and it’s not bad) and hope to land another fat contract. Meanwhile, veteran Keith Carney has been invited to camp.

The Jackets are prepared to possibly enter the season with rookie Derick Brassard as their new number one centre. Ken Hitchcock reportedly liked Brassard and Kristian Huselius on the top line with Rick Nash, while the second line consisted of rookie Jakub Voracek, RJ Umberger, and Fredrik Modin.

The Stars have also tinkered with their lineup, with Mike Modano lining up to the left of Brad Richards and Sean Avery. It gives Modano some playing time in the top six and getting him away from the checking line role that’s better suited for someone else.

Marian Gaborik certainly isn’t helping his own case after being listed as day-to-day with a pulled right quad. The sniping winger is expected to land a lucrative contract this summer – whether it’s with the Wild or someone else remains to be seen. The injury-prone winger has to have another healthy season if he wants to cash in big time.

It’s obvious, so don’t expect Martin Brodeur to play 77 games like he did last year. Both Brodeur and Brent Sutter admitted that the games took a toll on the veteran goalie, and that Avery didn’t help in that department either. Look for Kevin Weekes to do a little more than usual last year to collect his six-figure paycheque.

Tom Renney and the Rangers remain mum on Brendan Shanahan, and says that his focus is now on training camp.

Derian Hatcher‘s career seems to be in jeopardy due to a bum knee, and Wayne Fish believes that it’ll really hurt the team’s chances this year (I beg to differ), but claims that with the addition of Ossi Vaananen and camp invite Bryan Berard it should lessen the pain (Fish is comparing the “irreplaceable” Hatcher to two journeymen? Okay.)

The Sharks are ready to open up their camp with the following lines:
Marleau – Thornton – Clowe
Michalek – Pavelski – Cheechoo
Goc – Mitchell – Grier
Plihal – Roenick – Setoguchi
Ron Wilson also had Patrick Marleau on Joe Thornton‘s wing in order to get his game going last year, but it didn’t last.

The Blues kicked off their training camp with a snooze, and I daresay that the rest of the season wouldn’t be too different. Coach Andy Murray suggested that the Blues could start the season with rookie Patrick Berglund on the top line with Paul Kariya. Murray also acknowledged that the losses of Ryan Johnson, Jamal Mayers, and Bryce Salvador, all three great locker room guys, means that veterans Kariya and Keith Tkachuk, neither been known as vocal captains, will need to step up.

Move aside “Seen Stamkos.” It’s time for “WWGRD?” in Tampa. Now that wunderkind Steve Stamkos is officially signed the focus moves to training camp. For the Lightning, who had a major overhaul in its front office staff and approach to the new season, it’s a chance to capitalize on a resurgence of interest in Lightning hockey. Just ask yourself, What Would Gary Roberts Do?

The Caps are excited and raring to go. So much so that they had to ask sophomore Nicklas Backstrom, who was early and the first on the ice, to get off after half an hour for precautionary reasons. When your rookies are that excited, you know your team is in good spirits, and for the Caps, why shouldn’t they?

Aug 202008
 

Losing Pavol Demitra and Brian Rolston hurt. Doug Risebrough was obviously disappointed that both chose to leave for greener pastures, after being optimistic that Rolston, or possibly both, would be back in Minnesota next year. While Demitra’s in Vancouver wondering when Mats Sundin will be his linemate and Rolston’s in Jersey wondering if he could potentially lead the team in goals (Zach Parise was the only player to top 30), Risebrough wasted no time in making sure that he wouldn’t be letting Marian Gaborik go without a fight. The oft-injured Gaborik had a career season last year, posting 42 goals and 83 points. The year before saw Gaborik post amazing point-per-game numbers, including 30 goals in 48 games, but only to be sidelined for nearly half the season. When healthy, Gaborik is as dangerous as any forward in the league with game-breaking scoring ability. The slick-skating Slovak forward will be an UFA next summer and is currently contemplating testing the free agent market.

Since the departure of his best friend Demitra, there has been numerous reports about Gaborik’s supposed disappointment in that he doesn’t play on a more offensive-minded team. Being Minnesota’s most valuable and talented player, some were suggesting that Risebrough offer the winger the max compensation of roughly $11m/year, but Risebrough has denied any intention of giving Gaborik the league maximum. However, Risebrough has expressed a strong desire to retain the forward, flying to Trencin to gauge Gaborik’s interest in staying with the Wild. Both sides have reportedly started off on a good note, and Risebrough is ready to make a long-term offer, anywhere from 4-7 years, with as much as $8.5m/year, making him one of the most highest paid forwards in the league.

I think Demitra and Rolston’s departure sparked Risebrough into early negotiations with Gaborik. He knows that he cannot lose the key piece to his offense, and he’s willing to break the bank to do so. At this point both sides are just touching bases, and despite Demitra’s departure and Gaborik’s lack of enthusiasm of the Wild’s system, I would be shocked if Gaborik doesn’t stay in Minnesota for a long time. Of course, other than the dollar numbers, I’m sure Gaborik would also be pushing for Risebrough to get some extra offensive help.

Aug 162008
 

The Hockey News’ Rankings in the Yearly Yearbook were released, and for the West they’re as follows:

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

Detroit at the top is an absolute no-brainer. They won the Cup and somehow got better by adding Marian Hossa. They’ve got Pavel Datsyuk locked up for awhile, and it’s hard to see Henrik Zetterberg not follow suit. Niklas Kronwall, and to a lesser extent, Jonathan Ericsson, look to take over Nicklas Lidstrom‘s mantle when he retires. They’re going to remain a powerhouse for years to come.

I have a hard time believing Minnesota will finish atop the Northwest Division. They lost key offensive pieces in Pavol Demitra and Brian Rolston, and replaced them with two aging veterans (Owen Nolan, Andrew Brunette) and a mid-level winger in Antti Miettinen. Their biggest acquisition is Marek Zidlicky, but the Flames have improved more – Calgary’s the early division favourite.

I don’t think the Oilers will finish that high. Adding Lubomir Visnovsky was huge, but they will miss Jarret Stoll‘s shot on the PP. Erik Cole was also another nice add, but I don’t think Visnovsky and Cole makes them better than the Coyotes. Their biggest question mark remains in net, and with some quality goaltending in the West that might be their downfall.

The Coyotes to me are a playoff team – they’ve got a talented forwards, a responsible captain, a respectable defense highlighted by a rejuvenated Ed Jovanovski, and good goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov. The dogs have tons going for them, and with Kyle Turris expected to make the squad out of training camp the team will be loaded with offense, led by the newly-acquired Olli Jokinen, who might get his first taste of playoff hockey this season.

How the Kings are ahead of the Avs and Blues is beyond me. Technically, they don’t even exist in the NHL because they’ve yet to reach the salary floor. Even with they do be re-signing all their RFAs, their team is laughable at best, and just might win the Calder Cup. This team needs at least two more season to grow before they’re even a playoff contender – it looks like they’re going for the John Tavares sweepstakes and rebuilding Pittsburgh-style.

The Avs, even without Joe Sakic for most of the season, remained competitive until the late stages of the season. Should Sakic retire, they don’t have a player to take over as captain or offensive dynamo yet, although Paul Stastny comes close. A healthy Ryan Smyth and having Adam Foote for a whole season, with some of Darcy Tucker‘s toughness, will make them a respectable squad, but like the Oilers, their biggest question mark remains in net.

Stay tuned for the East.

Aug 112008
 

Mark Parrish and Glen Murray may find a new home soon. The Predators counted on Alexander Radulov entering the season as one of their main scoring threats, but now that the emerging sniper has returned to Russia, it leaves a big hole on their offense. Although the Preds have decent offensive punch, without Radulov they really lack a game-breaker forward. Even with Steve Sullivan back, their wingers remain largely undersized and only above average. The Preds have never blown teams away with their offense, but rather with their grit and determination (losing Darcy Hordichuk will hurt, trust me), deep defense, and good goaltending. Neither Parrish or Murray, especially the latter, are the big goalscorers they used to be, but if the Preds are looking for depth they might be the answer. It is a much better option than trading away valuable assets on their blueline (they’ve already lost Marek Zidlicky to the Wild) for the Lightning’s unhealthy excess of forwards. Parrish has publicly stated that he is considering the Preds as one of his potential destinations.

The Kings have suddenly jumped back onto the NHL news wire, after remaining very quiet during the free agent frenzy. The purple and black have reportedly signed prospect Drew Doughty to an entry-level contract. The second overall selection in this year’s draft was a key player for Canada in the WJHC’s, being named the tournament’s top defenseman. The Kings have clearly got a very poor defensive corps, and although Tom Preissing has been respectable , he’s not exactly first pairing material. Should Doughty make the team out of training camp, I highly doubt he’ll be getting top four minutes. Preissing, Jack Johnson, and Matt Greene will be their top three, with potentially Denis Gauthier or Peter Harrold rounding it out. Doughty, because he’s so impressive, does not deserve to play only 10-15 minutes a game. Defensemen, as a general rule of thumb, take longer than forwards to develop, and I don’t think another season at Guelph would hurt. He is clearly heads and shoulders above the rest of the competition, but I’d rather see him log 25 minutes with the Storm rather than riding the pine in the NHL. He’s still got tons of room to improve and sitting on the bench won’t help. I think the Kings are going to let him play 9 games and then send him back to the OHL. Anything less or more is a waste of time for all involved.

Sep 262007
 

Calgary Flames
Strengths:
-Excellent depth at forward and defense
-Top tier goaltending with Kipprusoff
-Excellent size and physical play
Weaknesses:
-No true #1 center
-No proven backup goalie if anything happens to Kipprusoff
Question Marks:
-How will the players get along with new hard-nosed coach Mike Keenan
-Can Huselius repeat his stellar season last year which was well beyond the typical Huselius season.
Outlook:
-The Flames have an excellent mix of skill and toughness, forwards and defense, experience and youth and in my mind should be one of the best teams in the NHL. That didn’t quite work out last year but one has to believe things might be different under a new and extremely experienced head coach in Mike Keenan. The key will be weather the players buy into Keenan’s antics. I suspect they will because they Keenan isn’t likely to be all that different than former coach and now GM Darryl Sutter. The Flames should make the playoffs and be a force in the hunt for the Stanley Cup.

Colorado Avalanche
Strengths:
-A lot of skill on their top 2 lines and should score a lot of goals.
-Leadership ability in Sakic and Smyth
-An underrated defence that is deep
Weaknesses:
-Budaj had a decent year last year but is still not proven as a top starter in the NHL.
Question Marks:
-Can Budaj take his game to the next level?
-Can last years rookies Stastny and Wolski repeat or improve on their seasons?
-Can Svatos return to his rookie year performance.
Outlook:
-The Avalanche made a great late season run at the playoffs last year and nearly made it but in the end just missed. This year should be different as they come back with pretty much the same team but have added 30+ goal scorer Ryan Smyth and defensive defenseman Scott Hannan. They should be a lock for a playoff spot this year and if Budaj pick up his game a little and last years rookies repeat the Avalanche should challenge for the Stanley Cup.

Edmonton Oilers
Strengths:
-Souray, Pitkanen and Tarnstrom give them some PP quarterbacks that they didn’t have last year.
-Dustin Penner should replace most of Smyth’s offensive production.
-Alex Cogliano and Sam Gagner could bring some youthful talent and enthusiasm into the lineup.
Weaknesses:
-With Ryan Smyth and Jason Smith gone they lost a lot of leadership for the young forwards and defensemen respectively.
-Lack a true offensive star up front.
-Questionable defensive defensively.
Question Marks:
-Can one of their forwards step up and take the team under his wings much like Smyth did for all those years.
-Will Pitkanen finally develop into a star defenseman like everyone has expected.
-Can Gagner and/or Cogliano make a big impact with the Oilers this year.
Outlook:
-The Oilers should be a much improved team this year with the additions of Pitkanen, Souray, Tarnstrom and Penner. The improvement will largely come in the areas of offence where the skilled defence trio of Pitkanen, Souray and Tarnstrom should help with the transition game and the power play. Also, Matheiu Garon gives the Oilers the best goalie tandem they have had in several years. If the Oilers were in the eastern conference I would suggest that they might contend for a playoff spot. Problem is, the Oilers play in the better/deeper western conference and more importantly the best division in the NHL. That is going to leave them on the outside come playoff time but I think Oilers fans are going to see some improvement and positive signs for the future of the franchise.

Minnesota Wild
Strengths:
-Excellent coaching and proven defensive system the players buy into.
-Gaborik and Koivu are just entering their prime
-Brian Rolston is one of the most underrated players in the NHL
-A deep defence with experience.
Weaknesses:
-Goalies Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding have combined for just 48 games experience.
-Not a lot of secondary scoring.
-Lack a true #1 defenseman
Question Marks:
-Can Nicklas Backstrom repeat last seasons success over 65 games this year?
-Can Marian Gaborik remain healthy?
-Can Kim Johnsson rebound after a weak season (especially offensively).
Outlook:
-If Nicklas Backstrom can repeat his excellent year last year over 65+ games this season the Minnesota Wild’s playoff chances look good. The Wild would definitely be a top 8 teams in terms of talent and ability but if their inexperienced goalies struggle at all then they may fall back into a tight playoff race with teams like Nashville and/or St. Louis who play in a much easier division. Unfortunately for the Wild there may not be a lot of room for error in such a tough division.

Vancouver Canucks
Strengths:
-They have the best goalie in the NHL
-When healthy they have a pretty good group of 6 defensemen
Weaknesses:
-They don’t have much offensive punch after the Sedin’s
-Sami Salo is starting the season injured with a fractured wrist.
Question Marks:
-Can the Sedin’s continue to improve or have the reached their career potential?
-Will the downward trend of Markus Naslund’s career continue or can he turn it around?
-Can Bieksa repeat what was a stellar season in 2006-07?
-Can Taylor Pyatt score 20+ goals again?
Outlook:
-Let’s be honest here. The Canucks are very similar to the Dallas Stars and depend significantly on defence and goaltending to win games. That isn’t necessarily a bad thin as New Jersey has had a lot of success doing that over the past dozen years but it does mean the margin for error is slim as the Canucks will probably win a ton of one goal games. If Luongo or either of the Sedin’s suffer a long term injury the Canucks playoffs hopes could fizzle away. But if their big guys stay healthy and perform as expected the Canucks should make the playoffs relatively easily and once there almost any team can ride a hot goalie to the Stanley Cup.