Sometimes, when I feel as if I haven’t been sufficiently denigrated (or had my mom’s marriage status at the time of my birth questioned) by denizens of cyberspace, I remind myself, “Proteau, hang tight for a few more days/weeks/months, because soon enough, it’ll be pre-season prediction time.”
Lo and behold, that time has arrived. As always, these predictions are mine and mine alone (i.e., they shouldn’t be confused with THN’s official predictions made in our Yearbook). They reflect the expectations I have for each franchise, after talking with NHL GMs, players, coaches and scouts.
Furthermore, in no way am I suggesting that any team isn’t capable of surpassing or falling below those expectations. Finally, please understand that these picks are meant as fodder for debate. I don’t believe any member of your family, nuclear or extended, wears Army boots, so do some lightening up before you read on.
(Eastern Conference picks were posted last week; you can read them here.)
The Winged Wheel Warriors may no longer be a juggernaut that’s head-and-shoulders better than the other 14 teams in the West. Nevertheless, the return from the Kontinental League of Jiri Hudler, as well as the addition of Mike Modano, made an already-formidable group of forwards that much more so (and gives them arguably the league’s best third line). If collective team health isn’t a major issue as it was last season, there’s no excuse for them not to be as competitive as any team in the conference.
Yes, THN’s Yearbook has the Canucks in first overall in the West – and also winning the Stanley Cup. I was one of their biggest advocates for that Cup pick (and I still am), but I’ve got a hunch Vancouver will fall one or two points short of top spot in the conference (and that referee Stephane Auger will have nothing to do with it). Come playoffs, though, their depth and bitter feelings from two straight second-round exits should push them to greater heights. And if Roberto Luongo fudges up a few key goals en route to a disappointing finish, look for him to admit – with a gun between his shoulder blades – his contract extension was a blatant circumvention of the salary cap.
In terms of their own history, at least, the Sharks overachieved in last spring’s playoffs, making it to the conference final before bowing out to Chicago. Yet even if they make it that far this post-season, it will seem like a letdown. Some think the loss of veteran and captain Rob Blake will knock San Jose down a few pegs in the standings, but Sharks management believes Jason Demers and other youngsters will fill that void. They’ve also got a nice collection of assets GM Doug Wilson can use to address any in-season deficiencies. San Jose will be judged by what happens after Game 82, but up until then – and with a solid new netminding duo in Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki – they’ll be fine.
To anyone who would argue the off-season, salary-cap necessitated whittling down of the Blackhawks roster will result in them missing the playoffs, I say, ‘wean yourself off the boozy liquids.’ I also say the same thing to people who think Chicago won’t miss a beat from last season. Something tells me they’ll be in the same type of situation Detroit was in ’09-10: struggling for stretches and in no position to thrive after a few key injuries, but ultimately too experienced/talented to be counted out.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are the most intriguing Eastern Conference team for me this year – and the Kings are the Western team I’m most interested in. The intra-squad showdown between incumbent goalie Jonathan Quick and prime prospect Jonathan Bernier will be fascinating enough, but so will the development of burgeoning superstars Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar. Alexei Ponikarovsky and Willie Mitchell aren’t anybody’s idea of the final pieces of a championship puzzle – but really, they don’t have to be. The guys already on the roster have that capability.
From the newly acquired Jaroslav Halak to Erik Johnson to T.J. Oshie, David Backes and David Perron, the Blues aren’t lacking for NHLers who can turn around last season’s wishy-washy performance. I think the departures of veterans Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya will help them – if only in the sense that now St. Louis’ young core should be able to build their own collective identity. If coach Davis Payne can maintain the NHL’s best penalty kill in 2009-10 and turn around their sub-par power play, this team is going to be a handful and then some.
Did I just put four Central Division teams in my mix of playoff teams? I did. Am I one of the few pundits to have Nashville on the inside of the post-season bubble looking out? I am. Do I think the additions of Matthew Lombardi and Sergei Kostitsyn are enough to make Preds fans forget about the departures of Jason Arnott, Dan Hamhuis and Dan Ellis? I do. Is it getting tiring figuring out a new auxiliary verb to keep this paragraph going? It is.
That the Coyotes were able to finish fourth in the West (and fourth overall) with the league’s third-worst power play (14.6 percent) is a testament to the defensive prowess of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov and the tactics of coach Dave Tippett. But even with the signing of power play whiz Ray Whitney, I doubt they’ll be able to climb back to those heights this season – not with stalwart blueliner Zbynek Michalek now in Pittsburgh and Lombardi in Tennessee.
Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan and Jonas Hiller are good players. Saku Koivu, Teemu Selanne and Lubomir Visnovsky have been good players, but are approaching, if not finishing, the back nine of their careers. Beyond that, the Ducks are employing a dog’s breakfast of developing talent and veterans that should keep them in the race for a lower playoff berth. I just don’t know how you can lose Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer off your blueline in successive seasons and not miss the playoffs both those years.
Many an NHL GM would kill to have the core of NHLers (including Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene, Chris Stewart and Peter Mueller, among others) possessed by Avs GM Greg Sherman. Still, it’s easy to forget exactly how young this group really is – and how easy it can be for blossoming players to stumble a little along the way. Colorado’s defensemen leaned far too heavily on goalie Craig Anderson last season; by the looks of it, they’ll be in the same predicament this season.
I’d love to be as high on the Flames as I was last season. I’d also love to have seen (a) Calgary GM Darryl Sutter not clutch his pearls and deal away Dion Phaneuf in one of the biggest panic moves in recent NHL history; (b) former Flames Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay remain former Flames; and (c) at least a sliver of salary cap space to use during the year. Calgarians’ love for their team may be a splendored thing, but I think they’ll be singing a lot of J. Geils karaoke this year.
While many will focus on the impact and progression of franchise cornerstone and captain Mikko Koivu (and his brand new seven-year, $47.25 million contract extension), the Wild may rise or fall on the strength of veteran winger Martin Havlat, whose point production fell by 23 in his first season with Minnesota. The free agent signing of Matt Cullen certainly won’t hurt; however, when a team is giving a 33-year-old a three-year, $10.5-million deal in this economic environment, it is telling you its depth and experience are not at ideal levels.
Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk is a smart guy whose mere presence makes you feel good about the direction of the Stars. However, his brainpower isn’t strong enough to make you look at the roster and not conclude their defense corps and goalie depth is questionable. Considering Dallas finished 23rd in the league in goals-against average last season (2.98), their only additions (Adam Burish, Andrew Raycroft and Brad Lukowich) do not lead me to believe that will change to the degree it has to.
Given my experiences with the fine people of Ohio and the many great members of the Blue Jackets organization, it pains me this much to slot Columbus here. Problem is – and in spite of respected new coach Scott Arniel – I can’t find many people who think they’ll be better than anyone else in the ultra-competitive Central Division. Unless all five of those teams make it, I fear it may be another tough slog for Jackets backers.
By now, Oilers fans probably are numb when it comes to pre-season expectations. If so, good, because to imagine that this team is a lock to be fighting for a playoff spot is to set oneself up for disappointment. With some of their younger, talented players – and with a defense corps and goaltending situation that, at best, has its share of troubling questions – this group could be instant offense. At both ends of the ice.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears regularly, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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