Â“Where did the summer go?Â” is a question you’ll hear quite often in the next few weeks. Any hockey fan knows the appropriate response to that question comes in the form of another one: Â“Who cares?Â”
Not me, that’s who. In fact, I’m all atwitter at the prospect of another NHL season, and the trades, capades and charades that go along with it. In fact, I’m jacked and ready to do a season preview right now.
Well, maybe not a full-on season preview, with playoff team predictions and the like. But I do want to give a twice-over to each team, and attempt to decipher how the divisional standings will look come April.
In the spirit of fairness to fans of both conferences, let’s break it down into divisions and look at them in alphabetical order. Next week I’ll examine the Central, and then, after a two-week, vacation-based hiatus, the other four will get the microscope treatment in September.
ATLANTIC DIVISION (in predicted order of finish)
Coming: Dany Sabourin, Darryl Sydor, Petr Sykora
Going: Eric Cairns, Nils Ekman, Josef Melichar, Michel Ouellet, Ronald Petrovicky, Chris Thorburn
Why 1st? Because Sidney Crosby’s career trajectory still is in the skyrocket position, and Pens GM Ray Shero is surrounding him with a well-balanced mix of young stars (Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Ryan Whitney) and productive veterans (Gary Roberts, Mark Recchi, Sergei Gonchar, Sykora).
The biggest trouble spot Pittsburgh faces this coming season will be the same one that got them into trouble in the 2007 playoffs Â– getting consistent performances from goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Sabourin doesn’t provide a wealth of confidence as Fleury’s newly-signed backup, but Shero will have a few months to judge and adjust that situation, perhaps bringing in a proven veteran (Ed Belfour or Curtis Joseph) as a short-term stop gap.
However, if Sydor’s experience and grit filters throughout the defense corps early on in the season, there may be no need to take such a measure. And if they do get solid performances from the back end, a first-place finish in the Eastern Conference Â– as well as an Eastern Conference post-season championship Â– is not far-fetched whatsoever.
New York Rangers
Coming: Chris Drury, Scott Gomez, Andrew Hutchinson
Going: Matt Cullen, Brad Isbister, Michael Nylander, Jed Ortmeyer, Sandis Ozolinsh, Karel Rachunek, Kevin Weekes
Why 2nd? Because, despite the tremendous acquisitions of Drury and Gomez, there’s the small matter of a bland, run-of-the-mill blueline that has yet to be properly addressed. And losing Nylander and Cullen may hurt more than team brass believes.
As well, though a potential first line of Gomez centering Jaromir Jagr and Martin Straka has the potential to be the league’s most offensively potent, once you get to the third-and-fourth-liners, the drop-off in talent is severe and worrisome.
Therefore, if the Rangers want a high playoff seeding, their power play (tied for sixth-best in the league last year) is going to have to be just as good, and Henrik Lundqvist will need to be equally spectacular in net. Fortunately for Blueshirts fans, I think history has an excellent chance of repeating in those regards.
Coming: Daniel Briere, Scott Hartnell, Joffrey Lupul, Jason Smith, Kimmo Timonen
Going: Niko Dimitrakos, Robert Esche, Todd Fedoruk, Joni Pitkanen, Geoff Sanderson, Mike York
Why 3rd? Because the Devils and Islanders took steps back, and the Penguins and Rangers remain better squads, at least on paper.
As noted in an earlier Screen Shots column, there’s no questioning the strides the Flyers have taken since bombing like a polka band at the Apollo Theater last year. Paul Holmgren has quickly re-jigged the roster, adding as much sandpaper (Smith and Hartnell) as skill (Briere and Timonen).
Much of their playoff hopes depend on goalie Martin Biron, but I think the real key will be the performance of a trio of youngsters (Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Lupul) who were sizeable disappointments in ’06-07. If two of those three rebound with potential-realizing results, the pressure on others will be greatly alleviated, and they’ll be dancing in the post-season once again.
New Jersey Devils
Coming: Arron Asham, Karel Rachunek, Vitali Vishnevski, Kevin Weekes, Dainius Zubrus
Going: Scott Gomez, Brad Lukowich, Brian Rafalski
Why 4th? Because you don’t replace Gomez and Rafalski with Zubrus and Vishnevski and not lose a hell of a lot in the process.
Now, odds are any team with Martin Brodeur and Patrik Elias on the ice Â– and noted whip-cracker Brent Sutter behind the bench Â– is going to be competitive. But this team reminds me somewhat of the ’06-07 Flyers, who had their veteran core slowly whittled away in prior years before imploding right out of the gate.
If that happens, regardless of how quickly Uber-boss Lou Lamoriello acts to correct the Devils’ course, teams such as the Avalanche, Blues and Panthers proved last year that an early-season hole is nearly impossible to climb out from.
New York Islanders
Coming: Mike Comrie, Ruslan Fedotenko, Bill Guerin, Jon Sim
Going: Arron Asham, Jason Blake, Eric Boguniecki, Mike Dunham, Sean Hill, Viktor Kozlov, Ryan Smyth, Alexei Yashin, Richard Zednik
Why 5th? Need you ask? No matter how optimistic their fans may be that GM Garth Snow and coach Ted Nolan will pull another rabbit out of their collective hat, few league observers believe a second bunny is on the way.
The Isles’ blueline frightens no one, their forward unit is comprised of other teams’ castoffs and mid-tier veterans, and their top prospects are a few years away from contributing significantly. Would you say such a team should be expected to make the post-season? If so, might I interest you in purchasing some magic beans?
Adam Proteau’s Screen Shots appears every Thursday only on thehockeynews.com. Want to take a shot at Adam Proteau? You can reach him at email@example.com or through our Ask Adam feature. And be sure to check out Proteau’s Blog for daily insight on the world of hockey.
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