It's that time of year again when everything is put on the line and prognostications are made for the upcoming season.
In keeping with a THN tradition, we have already debated the merits of each organization and after much back-and-forth, settled on our rankings from 1-15 in each conference.
The complete list will be available in THN’s 2010-11 Yearbook edition, available for purchase at the end of August. But like last year, as a special bonus for our online audience, we thought we’d reveal parts of our predictions a day at a time on THN.com.
Starting Monday, we’ll unveil our predictions for the 15th-ranked teams in each conference, as well as short explanations of our rationale for the decision. Each day thereafter – excluding weekends – the next two teams will be posted online, until we get to Thursday, Aug. 26th, when the top two from each conference are announced.
Discuss and enjoy!
15 FLORIDA PANTHERS
15 EDMONTON OILERS
Why: With GM Dale Tallon at the helm it's a new era in Florida. The Panthers have seen Nathan Horton and Keith Ballard moved for younger pieces and the team also had three picks in the first round of the draft. Of course, while this means the team is headed in the right direction, it also means it'll be a long, losing season with probably many more moves in store.
Why: How much impact will the arrival of Taylor Hall have? Not enough to get the lowly Oilers out of the basement. New coach Tom Renney has a daunting task ahead of him to bring the fractured franchise back to respectability. Can Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano figure it out? Can Ales Hemsky click once again with Dustin Penner? There are still many questions to be answered before the Oilers are ready to strike.
14 NEW YORK ISLANDERS
14 COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Why: When your highest paid player is playing in the Kontinental League, you know your team isn’t a Stanley Cup contender. Alexei Yashin will make $4.75 million against the salary cap in 2010-11 and Rick DiPietro, who played only eight games last season, weighs in at $4.5 million. John Tavares, Josh Bailey, Kyle Okposo and the rest of the kids will take another step forward, but there are still too many holes in the depth chart for the whole team to take a leap.
Why: The rookie sensation from 2008-09, Steve Mason slid off considerably in 2009-10 and the Blue Jackets franchise went from playoff team to lottery hopeful. The Jackets are still in desperate need of a legitimate first line center to set up Rick Nash and his goal scoring prowess and they also need someone to move the puck from the blueline. There are a lot of good young pieces in place, but in the extremely difficult Western Conference there is no room for error.
13 NEW YORK RANGERS
13 MINNESOTA WILD
Why: Missing the playoffs on the last day of the regular season must still be stinging the Rangers and it won’t help we’ve slotted them in at unlucky No. 13 for 2010-11. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist is about the only reason the Rangers are still afloat and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who believes Marian Gaborik will make it through another season untouched by injury.
Why: A new era behind the bench was supposed to usher in more offense, but the Wild scored at the same rate in 2009-10 is they did the season before. The off-season acquisitions of John Madden, Eric Nystrom and Matt Cullen were made with an eye towards the defensive end. With Martin Havlat and Mikko Koivu counted on as the offensive leaders, it looks like the same old-NHL story in Minnesota.
12 TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
12 DALLAS STARS
Why: The Maple Leafs struggled through 2009-10 with shoddy goaltending and only enough offense to outscore four teams in the league. Off-season acquisitions Colby Armstrong and, especially, Kris Versteeg were made with an eye on correcting the team’s offensive deficiencies, but neither has proven so far to be much more than a 20-goal scorer. A full year with the tandem of Jonas Gustavsson and J-S Giguere in net can’t hurt and the deep defense is bound to bounce back, but the Maple Leafs are still a few moves away from getting back to the playoffs.
Why: It was an official changing of the guard in Dallas this summer, with mainstays Mike Modano and Marty Turco leaving via free agency for Detroit and Chicago and Jere Lehtinen still unsigned. Offense isn’t the problem in ‘Big D’ as Brad Richards seems to have found his former assist-happy self and the next wave of scorers – Loui Eriksson, James Neal, Jamie Benn – are improving and settling into a groove. The major obstacle here is the defense, where Trevor Daley and Matt Niskanen have to step up, and goaltending, where Kari Lehtonen needs to figure out a way to get through a season healthy.
11 ATLANTA THRASHERS
11 ANAHEIM DUCKS
Why: With a new GM (Rick Dudley) and coach (Craig Ramsay) in place, the Thrashers are remodeling the team in a new direction in hopes it’ll get them back to the playoffs. While the addition of Chris Mason as goalie is an upgrade over Kari Lehtonen and Brent Sopel and Dustin Byfuglien bring a winning pedigree, Atlanta lost a few pieces they’ll miss. Pavel Kubina’s offense from the blueline could only possibly be filled by Zach Bogosian if he can continue his ascension and, say what you will about Maxim Afinogenov’s drive, he still put up 61 points last season. The Thrashers finished a distant second in the division last year and since they didn’t make any real significant upgrades, they’ll be in tough to leapfrog other teams that did.
Why: While Anaheim scored the seventh-most goals in the league last season they still allowed more than they got and were second-worst in shots against per game. The retirement of Scott Niedermayer will exacerbate those stats, though the acquisitions of Toni Lydman and Andy Sutton were the Ducks’ best attempt to address the issue. Teemu Selanne returns for at least one more season with the expectation the Ducks will be in the post-season, but nothing about the off-season gives us any reason to believe the team will be better defensively. Jonas Hiller is a good goalie with the potential to have a great season, but the West is deep with playoff-caliber teams and Anaheim just isn’t one of them yet.
10 OTTAWA SENATORS
10 NASHVILLE PREDATORS
Why: Unrestricted free agency cost the Senators a tough-as-nails defensive defenseman, but they gained one of the best, albeit aging, puckmoving blueliners in the game. Sergei Gonchar was brought in to help out the league’s 21st-ranked power play next to youngster Erik Karlsson. Without any other off-season moves to address a shaky situation in goal, however, it will be a touch-and-go year in Canada’s capital. Without an extravagant 11-game winning streak in 2009-10, the Sens wouldn’t have finished as high as they did and a run like that can’t be expected again.
Why: Proficient at piecing together rosters on a dime, the Nashville Predators and GM David Poile were cutting cost again this summer. Captain Jason Arnott was traded back to New Jersey, defenseman Dan Hamhuis was traded to Philadelphia and Dan Ellis was lost to free agency. In their place come speedster Matthew Lombardi who has settled in as a 45- to 55-point man, the underwhelming potential of Sergei Kostitsyn and young defenseman Ryan Parent who couldn’t find a permanent role with the Flyers. You can never underestimate the Predators, but this edition will find the Western Conference a tough trek.
9 CAROLINA HURRICANES
9 COLORADO AVALANCHE
Why: The Hurricanes won only five of their first 27 games last season, putting them behind the eight ball right off the bat. The team turned it around from there, but was too far back to ever make a real go at the playoffs. Rod Brind’Amour retired and Ray Whitney signed on in Phoenix, so it’s the beginning of a new age in Carolina. Defensive prospect Bobby Sanguinetti was acquired from the Rangers and Joe Corvo was brought back for another tour of duty on this underrated defense corps. A point of contention in the THN offices, the Canes couldn’t convince enough staffers of their legitimacy, so they are hanging on the edge of the post-season in our predictions.
Why: The young Avs didn’t make any franchise-altering moves, but lost shot-block specialist Brett Clark to free agency. Colorado is relying on the same players it did last year when the team surprised everyone with a playoff appearance: Matt Duchene, THN cover boy Chris Stewart, T.J. Galiardi, Peter Mueller and more brought this team along last year and will be counted on to do the same. Craig Anderson had a terrific 2009-10, but in this volatile goalie age can he live up to expectations he didn’t have a year ago? After we saw another young team – the St. Louis Blues – burst onto the playoff scene only to fall back a little the year after, we’re anticipating much of the same from the Avalanche.
8 MONTREAL CANADIENS
8 CALGARY FLAMES
Why: The biggest news from Montreal this summer was the trading of playoff hero Jaroslav Halak. The move indicated the club is going all-in with Carey Price as the No. 1 starter and Price, who is of yet unsigned, has many doubters in the city to prove something to. After the Habs’ miraculous run to the Eastern Conference final, it’s easy to forget how close they came to missing the post-season altogether. A small team with plenty of pizzazz, the Habs didn’t get any bigger, but added some gritty depth in Dustin Boyd. Nothing about them screams improvement, so they slot right in where they finished last season.
Why: A contentious pick for sure, considering the perception the team has fallen off the map, but it’s hard to pick a team with such a strong defense and backed up by such a stellar goalie to miss the post-season. The only thing the Flames failed to do successfully last season was score goals and generate offense; they had the fifth-lowest GAA and allowed the seventh-fewest shots-against per game. The re-acquisitions of underperforming Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay may be a sign of desperation, but the fact is they will help improve an anemic offense that was second-last in the league to begin with.
7 TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
7 PHOENIX COYOTES
Why: There’s finally a feeling of stability in Tampa Bay with a new owner (Jeffrey Vinik) and GM (Steve Yzerman). With that came off-season movement in the right direction. Simon Gagne was acquired from a salary-dumping Flyers team for little more than Matt Walker, whose place on the blueline was easily filled by free agent acquisitions Brett Clark and Pavel Kubina. Another free agent signing, Dan Ellis, was brought in to secure a goaltending tandem with Mike Smith. Not to mention the coaching staff overhaul, led by new head coach Guy Boucher, who comes from the American League’s Hamilton Bulldogs and is regarded as player-friendly. Combine those changes with the established (Lecavalier, St-Louis) and still blossoming (Stamkos, Hedman) talents already on the roster and Tampa Bay, on paper, is dangerous.
Why: The Phoenix Coyotes struggled mightily to score in 2009-10, but were the most defensively disciplined team going. Shane Doan led the team in scoring (amongst those who spent all season in the desert) with a mere 55 points. Ilya Bryzgalov had the season of his career and if not for the flawless display from Buffalo’s Ryan Miller, would have won the Vezina Trophy. Not much has changed in this year’s edition, either. Ray Whitney was brought in via free agency as a replacement for Lee Stempniak, a late-season addition who immediately hit a hot streak. The loss of speedster Matthew Lombardi makes way for 2007 third overall pick Kyle Turris, while Oliver Ekman-Larsson could take the place of Zbynek Michalek. Because the Coyotes exceeded expectations so greatly last season, they’re bound for a step back…but they’re still a playoff team.
6 BUFFALO SABRES
6 ST. LOUIS BLUES
Why: Where this team ultimately ends up clearly depends on goaltender Ryan Miller. When the reigning Vezina Trophy winner is healthy, the Sabres are lethal; when he’s out of the lineup, well, the Sabres struggle to maintain a place in the top eight. Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder were the noteworthy losses in the off-season, though free agent signee Jordan Leopold should replace at least some of Lydman’s offense and Shaone Morrisonn should step in nicely for Tallinder. Rob Niedermayer was brought in to provide some depth on the forward lines, but it’s the headliners Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Derek Roy who need to find their production from a few years ago. Also, if Tyler Ennis can continue what was a promising performance at the end of the season and in the playoffs, Buffalo will have another source of offense.
Why: The Blues will be back in 2010-11 after falling off a little. The young team will be looking for continued improvement from its defense corps, led by Erik Johnson. Alex Pietrangelo is expected to make the team full time and will add more offense and size to the line. Andy McDonald’s 57 points led the team, but the Blues got points from just about everyone and had the 17th best offense despite the seemingly low numbers. Of course, the big off-season news in Missouri was the arrival of Jaroslav Halak. If the 25-year-old plays anything like he did during Montreal’s playoff run, the Blues will be a major hurdle in the West. And considering Halak has a career .919 SP, his post-season play wasn’t an aberration.
5 NEW JERSEY DEVILS
5 LOS ANGELES KINGS
Why: Aside from the Ilya Kovalchuk-sized elephant in the room, the New Jersey Devils bolstered their lineup with experienced depth off the free agent market and through trade. Jason Arnott, a one-time Stanley Cup champion with the Devils, was acquired from Nashville for futures and will provide New Jersey with a big body down the middle. Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov, the most highly touted defensive specialist on the market, were added to a defense corps that allowed the second-fewest shots-against per game last season. In Zach Parise, Patrik Elias, Jamie Langenbrunner, Travis Zajac and perhaps Kovalchuk, the Devils know exactly what they’re getting and will continue to be the force they always are. Martin Brodeur is aging, but still has a few more good years left.
Why: The Kings weren’t nearly as active in the off-season as many thought they would be. After initially losing out on the Kovalchuk sweepstakes, the Kings signed Alexei Ponikarovsky instead for second line scoring. If any other team lost out on Kovalchuk and watched Alexander Frolov leave via free agency they might be a popular pick to step back, but the Kings are anything but. Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown will continue their ascension up front, while Drew Doughty will take another step towards a Norris Trophy. In net, Jonathan Quick will be challenged by Jonathan Bernier, who is fresh off carrying the Manchester Monarchs to the semifinal of the Calder Cup. A young team with tremendous upside, the Kings learned through a first round playoff exit last season and have too many pieces in place to not improve.
4 PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
4 CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
Why: Fresh off a trip to the Stanley Cup final, the Flyers aren’t going anywhere in 2010-11 and actually, will improve on their regular season standing. The defense, which was in the top five in the league last season, is still intact and was bolstered at the bottom by the acquisitions of Andrej Meszaros and Sean O’Donnell. Where the Flyers really shine, though, is up front, where a deep collection of skaters can wear down most teams. Simon Gagne was traded in a salary-dumping move that had to be made because of the cap and could be made because of their depth. Nikolai Zherdev was brought back from Russia, but expectations for what he’ll bring are tepid. The real question remains in goal where Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher will again try and piece together a winning season.
Why: The team with the most summer turnover, Chicago GM Stan Bowman did well in trading, given the position he was in. Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, John Madden, Brent Sopel, Andrew Ladd and Adam Burish were among the players moved out, but none are recognized as integral for regular season success. With the core collection of skill still in the lineup, the Blackhawks filled in the holes with Fernando Pisani and Viktor Stalberg and have room to promote prospects such as Jack Skille. Chicago’s defense far and away allowed the fewest shots on goal per game and with the blueline looking much the same it should help Marty Turco adjust to his new team. The loss of Antti Niemi isn’t a good thing, but Turco, though he has struggled the past couple of seasons, is a veteran capable of doing the job. And just in case he isn’t, Corey Crawford is itching and ready for his opportunity.
3 BOSTON BRUINS
3 DETROIT RED WINGS
Why: The Bruins made an early splash in the summer when they acquired Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell from Florida a few days before the entry draft. Coming off a year in which they had the league’s worst offense, the Bruins were trying to create a spark with that move. David Krejci had a 21-point regression, while offensive catalyst Marc Savard missed half the year due to injury. Despite these shortcomings, the Bruins got incredible goaltending from Tuukka Rask, who ended the season with the Roger Crozier Saving Grace Award for the league’s best save percentage. With a few weeks to go until the new season, Boston is still over the cap by more than $3 million, so some roster manipulation is still to come. However, the Bruins have been emerging as a powerhouse for a couple years and are only two years removed from a 116-point season. While they’ll be hard-pressed to capture that magic again, Boston is still a team to be reckoned with.
Why: A model of consistency, the Red Wings still put up more than 100 points in what many considered a down year for the team. Pavel Datsyuk had his lowest point total since before the lockout and the team was hurt by injuries to Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen and Valtteri Filppula. In the off-season, the Wings aimed at adding more depth to their staunch defense corps by acquiring Ruslan Salei and also brought in hometown boy Mike Modano to add experience to the forward unit. Jiri Hudler, a 23-goal, 57-point scorer two years ago, came back after spending a year in the Kontinental League. Age seems to always be a concern with the Wings, but it never seems to slow them down. Goaltending is the other annual concern, but after posting 37 wins, a 2.26 GAA and .924 SP Jimmy Howard is calming those waters. With the major turnover in Chicago, Detroit is poised to take the Central crown back and are still serious contenders for the Stanley Cup.
2 PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
2 SAN JOSE SHARKS
Why: Who needs team depth when you have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal down the middle of your lineup? The Penguins have grown accustomed to relying on those three to carry the load, while filling in winger holes through deadline deals or cheap free agent pickups. This off-season the Penguins bolstered their defense with Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek after a failed attempt to sign Dan Hamhuis. For a team that makes its name on offense, it might be surprising to some they had the sixth-lowest shots-against per game in 2009-10. After back-to-back Stanley Cup final appearances, Pittsburgh fell short last season, but you can’t win it every year and the Penguins are just as prepared as ever to take another run.
Why: The biggest loss to the Sharks was the departure of goalie Evgeni Nabokov to the Kontinental League. The move was expected as the team needed a bit of fresh air and a little change. Surprisingly, Antero Niittymaki was signed as Nabokov’s replacement. A backup or tandem goalie for the duration of his NHL career, Niittymaki has shown flashes of being a No. 1 goalie, but a lack of consistency is his main flaw. Nevertheless, the Sharks still have a formidable offense led by Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley, while Joe Pavelski is ready to assume a larger, more productive role. The loss of Rob Blake to retirement will sting the blueline a little, but the Sharks expect to see more out of youngsters Jason Demers and Derek Joslin. Expectations have settled down a little, but the Sharks are still a force in the West.
1 WASHINGTON CAPITALS
1 VANCOUVER CANUCKS
Why: The Capitals stayed quiet in the summer, but will see a few promotions from within. John Carlson will stay with the team full-time and Karl Alzner also has a very real chance of sticking on the blueline. The departure of Jose Theodore was expected and little cause for concern despite the fact he had a 30-7-7 record. Semyon Varlamov showed in 26 games last year he’s capable of handling a big-league load, while 2009 Calder Cup playoffs MVP and back-to-back champion Michal Neuvirth will look for split duty. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom will be in the running for a few awards and the Capitals, who ran away with the Eastern Conference by 18 points last season, may very dominate in the same fashion. Once playoff season rolls in, however, the team will be looking for redemption.
Why: After a franchise-best regular season in 2009-10, the Canucks and their fans are riding high. Henrik Sedin won the Art Ross and Hart and that was without his brother in the lineup for 19 games; imagine what damage the two can do if they stay healthy for 82 games. While the Sedins lead on offense and Selke nominee Ryan Kesler provides a sturdy defensive presence on the second line, the Canucks overhauled the blueline corps. Willie Mitchell was lost to free agency, while Keith Ballard was brought in via trade and Dan Hamhuis via free agency; rumors of Kevin Bieksa being on the trade block won’t go away. What stung Vancouver last season was a lack of toughness and leadership on the depth lines, so Manny Malhotra was brought in to solve that dilemma. Mason Raymond stepped up in a big way last season and the Canucks hope Jannik Hansen can do something similar this year. In net, Roberto Luongo has gained a lot of detractors for his post-season play, but he still puts up good numbers in the regular season and is more than capable of bringing this team to the top.
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