Yes, it’s that time of year again – pre-season prediction time.
In one of our many continuing traditions, The Hockey News has already debated the merits of all 30 NHL teams and decided on the order of team finishes, in both conferences, for the upcoming regular season.
The complete list will be available in THN’s 2009-10 Yearbook edition, available for purchase at the end of August. But this year, as a special bonus for our online audience, we thought we’d do things a little differently and reveal parts of our predictions a day at a time on THN.com.
Starting Thursday, we’ll unveil our predictions for the 15th-ranked teams in each conference, as well as short explanations explaining our rationale for the decision. Each day thereafter, the next two teams will be posted online, until we get to Aug. 19th, when our two picks for conference champions are unveiled.
Discuss and enjoy!
15 NEW YORK ISLANDERS
15 PHOENIX COYOTES
Why: The John Tavares Era begins this year on Long Island – but unfortunately for Islanders fans, too much of their lousy past remains. Their thin pools of talent at just about every position and their ultra-tough competition in the Atlantic Division, featuring the defending champion Penguins, improved Flyers and always tough Devils, makes a playoff spot this year highly unlikely.
Why: The news for hockey fans in Arizona is horrendous on virtually all fronts, from the dragged-out soap opera regarding the Yotes’ ownership to the seemingly perpetual on-ice rebuilding job. Phoenix has some nice components, but in the Pacific Division and Western Conference, they’ve got an outside shot – at best – for a playoff berth.
14 ATLANTA THRASHERS
14 COLORADO AVALANCHE
Why: After Ilya Kovalchuk there’s a serious drop-off in talent at forward. The defense does have some promise with a passable top-four, but goaltending remains a trouble spot, even if the oft-injured Kari Lehtonen is healthy. With ownership still fighting over control of the team, there’s little chance of an economic boost anytime soon.
Why: Some believe Joe Sakic may not have retired if the Colorado Avalanche iced a Stanley Cup-contending team this year. Management’s off-season rebuilding of the roster rendered that option moot – and also severely hampered the Avs’ hopes at a playoff berth. They’ll need at least a couple years to hope to regain past glories.
13 NEW YORK RANGERS
13 MINNESOTA WILD
Why: This is a max-spending team with just one skater worthy of max money – and Marian Gaborik can’t stay healthy. The Rangers’ best player is their goalie, a good thing, but their No. 1 center is Brandon Dubinsky and the suspect defense is expensive, two bad things. The Rangers are a rebuilding team, but refuse to admit it.
Why: The Wild is not afraid to admit it’s rebuilding. Trap-happy, defense-first hockey has gone the way of the Dodo in Minnesota. The problem is Minnesota doesn’t have the horses to run and gun. A healthy Martin Havlat will help, but a big year from a number of kids is needed for Minnesota to have any chance of success.
12 FLORIDA PANTHERS
12 LOS ANGELES KINGS
Why: Like every Florida team of recent memory, this year’s lineup is full of youth and promise…but it’s also full of too many “ifs” – if the youngsters produce, if the defense is as good without Bouwmeester, etc. Until upper management dedicates itself to winning, Florida will continue to flounder in the wrong half of the standings.
Why: Full of so much future firepower and home to the deepest core of prospects in the league, the Kings are popular dark horse pick year in and year out. The problem is, the Western Conference is stacked with playoff-worthy teams, so the Kings are having a hard time navigating a winning season. But it will come.
11 TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
11 EDMONTON OILERS
Why: The good news is, for the first time since the lockout Leafs fans are getting excited for the hockey they will witness this season. The bad news is, the hockey they will witness this season will be exciting in a physical fashion, not a game-breaking one. Not much improvement in the points department this season.
Why: One old goalie has been swapped for another, but it’s the same cast of skaters who’ve missed the playoffs for the past three seasons after the ’06 Cup run. The new two-headed coaching monster in Pat Quinn and Tom Renney could provide gains, but the Oilers are still far off the West’s A-list.
10 TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
10 NASHVILLE PREDATORS
Why: The gale-force winds that blew this ship off course last year have calmed down somewhat, so the team has been able to start building towards a playoff berth. Ownership squabbling aside, the drafting of Victor Hedman and the signing of Mattias Ohlund improve a questionable defense core to compliment a respectable group of forwards.
Why: After four-straight post-season appearances from 2004 to 2008, the Preds are finding out that good coaching and a shoestring budget no longer cut it in the ultra-competitive West. Nashville has an all-star caliber goalie and a young, skilled, bruising D-corps. But with no scoring stars up front, the Preds are destined to fall short of the playoffs.
9 OTTAWA SENATORS
9 ST. LOUIS BLUES
Why: Thanks to mid-year replacement head coach Cory Clouston, the Senators provided hope to their fans at the end of the 2008-09 season. They’ll likely challenge for a low-seed playoff spot, but unless new additions Pascal Leclaire and Alexei Kovalev step up in a huge way, we see them on the outside of the post-season picture for the second straight campaign.
Why: With a strong youth core, veteran presence and an introductory playoff appearance, the Blues are on the verge of something special. However, it is common for teams built around kids to take at least a little step back after a season of exceeding expectations. The Blues will be a challenge, but the Western Conference is a beast.
8 MONTREAL CANADIENS
8 COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Why: GM Bob Gainey's big makeover of the roster was controversial, but it’s hard to see the Habs missing the post-season with their rebuilt offense: Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta will take the pressure of the Kostitsyns and Tomas Plekanec, and the goaltending duo of Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak will hold up their end of the bargain in net.
Why: The Blue Jackets made their first playoff appearance last season and will need to battle just as hard to return to the post-season dance this year. Their developing youngsters (Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek, Nikita Filatov) hope to make that task easier, but ultimately, they’ll need Steve Mason and Rick Nash to lead the way again.
7 BUFFALO SABRES
7 DALLAS STARS
Why: The Sabres will return with essentially the same cast of characters from 2008-09, but the big difference in Buffalo – we can only assume – will be a healthy Ryan Miller in goal. Miller was 34-18-6 last season, his backups were 7-14-3. A full season from Tim Connolly will help, too, as will the continued maturation of the forward corps.
Why: One year ago the Stars were coming off a run to the Conference final and were pegged as contenders for the Cup. Injuries, among other things, hit the team in key positions and Dallas never got its act together. However, all the parts that made this team a threat are still in place and they’re hungry for redemption.
6 CAROLINA HURRICANES
6 ANAHEIM DUCKS
Why: The great thing about the Carolina Hurricanes is their lineup rarely changes, so success comes down to execution. On the strength of Eric Staal up front and Cam Ward in net, Carolina has two game-breakers. The defense got tougher thanks to the addition of Andrew Alberts and the repatriation of Aaron Ward, so look for the Canes to be another tough out in the 2009-10 playoffs.
Why: Not long ago, Anaheim was an aging team facing considerable salary cap hurdles. Luckily for Ducks fans, the deft work of GM Bob Murray steered them out of financial trouble and back into the West’s upper echelon. Defense may be a concern, but if goalie Jonas Hiller and center Ryan Getzlaf continue the dominance they demonstrated last year, look out
5 NEW JERSEY DEVILS
5 CALGARY FLAMES
Why: Defense-first coach Jacques Lemaire is back with the team he had his most success with, winning the Stanley Cup in 1995. With Martin Brodeur in goal and an underrated — if unspectacular — blueline, the Devils are poised to be competitive again in the East this season. But the offense will likely suffer under Lemaire, meaning New Jersey will fall some.
Why: Already loaded with front-end talent, the Flames brought in the biggest fish available in the summer by acqiuring Jay Bouwmeester. While the defense is one of the league’s best and a world-class goaltender backs it up, Calgary’s weakness will be offense, but with Jarome Iginla leading the way the Flames are still a contender.
4 PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
4 DETROIT RED WINGS
Why: The addition of Chris Pronger turned an emerging blueline into one of the NHL’s top units. New goaltender Ray Emery has a chance to be a big upgrade over Martin Biron, assuming the ex-Kontinental Leaguer keeps his head about him. The Flyers are now even tougher to play against and remain deep at forward, especially down the middle.
Why: After an eight-year run as Central Division champs, a changing of the guard is set to take place. Detroit still boasts perhaps the league’s deepest lineup up front, but you can’t lose the likes of Marian Hossa and Jiri Hudler without taking a hit. That said, another 100-point season is in the cards.
3 PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
3 VANCOUVER CANUCKS
Why: Thanks to a roster that sports two of the game's top stars, the Penguins once again will be excellent, but the wear-and-tear of a Stanley Cup run likely will preclude them from winning an Eastern Conference regular-season title. If Jay McKee and one of Pittsburgh’s young blueline prospects can’t fill the skates of departed veterans Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi, the season may be more of a challenge than first suspected.
Why: Vancouver won the Northwest last year when Roberto Luongo played just 54 games. The Sedins will be another year better, as will young forwards Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond. With the additions of Mikael Samuelsson and Calder-candidate Cody Hodgson, the forward corps is deeper. Mattias Ohlund will be missed, but not enough to see the Canucks fall.
2 WASHINGTON CAPITALS
Why: Alex Ovechkin and his mates are the most electric team in the NHL. The Caps have lost some veterans to the Kontinental League, but none were the straws that stir the drink. Last season’s crushing playoff loss to the Penguins taught hard lessons about team defense, ones that will resonate this season and keep Washington near the top of the East.
Why: Sure, UFA acquisition Marian Hossa will miss the first chunk of the season, but the Hawks were fourth in the league in goals-for last season, so it’s not as though they’ll struggle to tickle the twine. An easy target on this team is the goaltending, but Cristobal Huet had good numbers in 41 games last season and the Hawks have options in Niemi and Crawford.
1 BOSTON BRUINS
1 SAN JOSE SHARKS
Why: After falling short of the Stanley Cup final last season, look for the powerful Bruins to keep their foot on the gas and win the East again this year. Featuring the NHL’s reigning best defenseman (Zdeno Chara), goaltender (Tim Thomas) and coach (Claude Julien), the B’s also boast a potent, deep offense and plenty of toughness.
Why: The defending Presidents’ Trophy winners, despite their inability to cash in in the playoffs, are a good bet to repeat as regular season champs after a summer of little roster turnover. Look for sophomore bench boss Todd McLellan to have his troops better prepared for the stretch run, where they struggled badly in 2008-09.