We'll start with the Western Conference. First, though, a caveat. For the simple reason that nearly all of the West's games are on at an impossible time for us, we barely see any of them during the season. In addition to that, the West was incredibly tight last year, and if anythnig. will be even tighter next year. Last year, Colorado grabbed the last playoff spot with 90 points; Minnesota was in 13th place with 84. Six points, six places in the standings. With this being the case, I'm happy to pick division winners, and tell you which teams won't make the postseason dance, but beyond that, it's a complete mystery to me.
* San Jose Sharks. With their goaltending overhaul, the Sharks are my pick to win the conference. They have one of the most underrated goaltenders in the league in the Torino Olympic MVP, in tandem with last year's Cup winner, and the two-man team should be a great improvement over the excellent but overworked Nabokov. The Sharks must be hungry after coming so close last year, and with pretty much the same team coming back for another shot, I expect the Sharks to win the conference title and represent the West in the final. The trouble is, pretty much everyone expects them to do well, and with the ghost of past playoff failures haunting them, will they rise to the expectations? I hope so.
* Detroit Red Wings. The Detroit machine is still impressive, and two years of harsh playoff defeats ought to give the Wings something to prove. We're incredibly happy that the Wings picked up Mike Modano after he was disgracefully discarded by the Stars, and he'll be an excellent addition to an already fearsome team. I expect the Wings to do well, but come playoff time, will they be hungry?
* Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks beefed up their defense in the off-season, making an already impressive team that much better. The Canucks are Canada's only hope for a Stanley Cup, and they'll win the Northwest and put up a good fight in the playoffs. The Canucks wouldn't even be an impossibly long shot to win the whole shebang.
*Los Angeles Kings. A real up-and-coming team, the Kings did well enough in the playoffs last year to raise hopes. Their time is now, with a great crop of young players hitting their prime; if the Kings don't take the next step, they'll start losing guys to free agency. Letting Frolov go was the right thing to do; what the Kings will need to do this year is round out the team with some veterans to make a determined Cup run in the next couple of years. This year, I expect them to do well in the Southwest, and land a playoff spot. Jonathans Quick and Bernier have the crease well in hand, and with great young players like Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty, the Kings will be a force to be erckoned with.
* Chicago Blackhawks. It'll be interesting to see the new Hawks after the summer's clearance sale. It'd be easy to be skeptical, but nobody gave the Hawks much credit a year ago, either. Losing Niemi won't matter nearly as much as some people seem to think, because to be quite honest, he really wasn't that great last year, especially in the playoffs. However, Marty Turco and Corey Crawford will share goaltending duties, which is a bit of a risk; Turco's best years are behind him, and if Huet really leaves, Crawford may not be ready for that much responsibility. Also, like I said, I expect the Central Division to be tough this year, so the Hawks' season can go either way. I expect them to make the playoffs, though.
*Colorado Avalanche. Who knows what the Avs will do? Most people expected them to tank last year, and instead they made the playoffs. They're returning with pretty much the same roster, so maybe they'll do it again. With an impressive bunch of youngsters, the Avs might be the dark horse team of the West. Then again, they might just fail.
*St. Louis Blues. In what was perhaps the second-silliest trade of the offseason, the Blues ended up with the best goalie of last year's playoffs on their roster. Another interesting up-and-coming team, the Blues have a lot going for them, with excellent young players like Erik Johnson, who'll hopefully stay the hell away from golf carts and solid special teams, which took them tantalizingly close to a playoff spot last year. Losing Paul Kariya for the year is a setback, and the Blues' defense remains weak, but with the addition of Halak, St. Louis is going to make the race in the Central Division very tough.
*Phoenix Coyotes. It's nothing short of miraculous for the Coyotes to finish last year in the playoffs, despite the ongoing ownership brouhaha, and the team is solid enough that I expect they'll at least contend for another playoff spot this year. The combination of a solid goaltender, dynamic young forwards and a surprisingly good blue line took them to Game 7 against Detroit last year. On the one hand, it's encouraging; on the other, they're no longer a dark horse as they'll be expected to do well again this year. Coming in as an underdog is easier, so it's possible the ride will be bumpier for the 'Yotes this time around.
*Calgary Flames. Ever since their trip to the finals before the lockout, the Flames have been a constant disappointment. Despite having one of the best goaltenders in the league, the Flames have kept failing when it counts. A disastrous visit from Mike Keenan seemed to totally wreck the Flames' team defense, while the GM pulled a panic trade in giving up the potentially formidable Dion Phaneuf for peanuts. Jay Bouwmeester has been disappointing, while management continues to pair Iginla with center after center in the vain hopes of recovering his pre-lockout form. Next year, it'll be Olli Jokinen again, after a slightly bizarre round of trades; unless Jokinen is dynamite, that particular switcheroo is going to catch a lot of flak. I don't think the Flames have what it takes, but margins will be so small in the West that it's impossible to count them out.
*Nashville Predators. Over the last few years, Nashville has turned into a surprisingly solid team, but they'll struggle next year, as several other teams have improved more than them. They'll find the Central Division tough going, and the unimpressive blue line, with the considerable exception of Shea Weber, will mean a lot riding on Pekka Rinne's shoulders. I don't expect the Preds will make the postseason, but again, it'll be too tight a race to make any definite predictions yet.
*Anaheim Ducks. As much as I want Teemu Selänne and Saku Koivu to make the playoffs and more, it's a long shot. The blueline keeps getting less and less impressive, and the forwards will have to work extra hard to compensate. Frankly, I don't think Scott Niedermayer's retirement makes that much of a difference; he didn't win the Conn Smythe trophy by actually being the Ducks' playoff MVP when they won the Cup, and his defensive play was so appalling that with him gone, the Ducks' team defense will probably be better. They'll have to recover some of the mojo that took them to the big games in order to even challenge for a playoff spot this year, and like I said, it's a tall order.
* Minnesota Wild. Fortunately, the trap won't cut it these days, so the scoring duo of Mikko Koivu and Martin Havlat are going to have to work some world-class magic to put the Wild in the playoff race. If we're all lucky, the most boring team in the league will make a beeline for the summer vacation.
* Dallas Stars. In the West, I'm particularly reluctant to place any team in this category, because it looks like it's going to be another incredibly tight playoff race. But the Stars are treading water. We're delighted that Kari Lehtonen seems to be making a comeback, but swapping Marty Turco for Andrew Raycroft is going to put the load squarely on Lehtonen's shoulders. However, we're hoping that the disgraceful way they treated their former captain and franchise player Mike Modano will bring down the curse of the hockey gods on Dallas, landing them squarely in the West's basement.
*Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets are doing a lot better than many people would have given them credit for, building a solid fan-base and icing a decent team, but with a lackluster offense and poor, if not catastrophically bad, defense, the odds are that the Jackets will lose the very tough Central Division.
* Edmonton Oilers. Edmonton is the Toronto of the West, at least in the sense that they always go into the season and over the mid-season mark with ridiculously high expectations. Their forwards aren't all bad, but with the off-season mess both their goalie and blueline got in, and their overall weakness even without the extra complications, I'm looking forward to some improbably high-scoring games at both ends when the Oil is in town. But the playoffs are beyond hope.
* Washington Capitals. We expect the Caps to win the division, the conference and the league, only to flame out again in the playoffs. I've been going on and on about this for over a year: the biggest obstacle to the Caps winning the Cup is their defense. Last year, it all got blamed on the goaltending again, but the fact is that the Caps' blue line can't stand up to a determined offense or crack a well-executed trap.
So regular season dominance, followed by a playoff bust. In short, they're the Sharks of the East.
Last year, the Caps did nothing at the trade deadline, and followed that up by doing nothing in the off-season. Maybe the management thinks they can win with this team; I don't. Of course, as this is sports, anyone can win; Carolina and Pittsburgh did prove that, but looking at the roster, the Caps don't have a winning team. There's one obvious move they could and should make next season: trade Alex Semin. He's an unrestricted free agent after this year and clocks in at a $6m salary. He's played well enough in the regular season, but is next to useless in the post-season, and that's where the Caps need to improve. Trading Semin for a proven post-season performer, either a defenseman or a two-way forward, would significantly improve the Caps' chances.
* New Jersey Devils. This will be the most tightly contested finish, with the Flyers or Penguins perfectly capable of grabbing the top spot. I think the New Jersey machine will keep on rolling through next season; they played solid enough last year, and the losses to free agency weren't significant enough to affect that. A quality backup keeper in Johan Hedberg will mean Brodeur gets the occasional night off, too.
I expect big things from Ilya Kovalchuk in New Jersey. He's going to have a top-notch center in Zach Parise, or Zubrus or Arnott, and that's a league first for him. Most people still see Kovalchuk as a pure goal-scorer, which is a little misleading these days as he plays a more complete game, so the numbers may not be shocking, but Ilya's still got one of the scariest shots in the league. The Devils' power play clocked in at 18.7% last season, and having Kovalchuk on board for the whole year should improve that decisively.
* Boston Bruins.
This year, it's the Northeast that will be the dullest division, and I expect Boston's finely honed trap to take them to a division title. It'll be fun to see if Milan Lucic decides to show up again after a subpar season, and hopefully Tyler Seguin will make Toronto rue the Kessel trade. When it comes to the playoffs, though, so far the trap hasn't gotten it done in the post-lockout postseason, and for the sake of hockey, we hope it won't this year, either.
* Pittsburgh Penguins. There's no real reason the Pens can't beat the Devils for the top spot in the Atlantic, but I think the more solid Devils will take it. The Pens will be settling in into their new arena, and coping with the loss of Sergei Gonchar from the point. The defensive corps is easily the Penguins' least impressive area, and although Paul Martin will be a real asset, goals against will remain a weakness, especially with the overrated Fleury in net.
Year after year, the Penguins' power play remains weak given the caliber of the scorers on the roster, and for some reason this is always held up as "surprising". It isn't, and neither was the Penguins' total inability to break through the Montréal trap last year, as in the end these things come down to puck-moving defensemen. It remains to be seen if the Pens have improved by swapping out Gonchar or not.
Other than that, the roster just isn't very impressive, but the Pens will roll on into the playoffs, and with the kind assistance of the officials, probably go to at least the second round again.
* Philadelphia Flyers. The Broad Street Bullies are back. It was a pleasure to watch good, hard-hitting Flyers hockey again last season, and it isn't out of the question for them to make a real push for the division title this season. Andrej Meszaros will be a positive addition to the blueline, and I look forward to the dynamic duo of Richards and Carter dominating games again. I remember watching Ville Leino play in the Finnish league, and I have to admit that he's a total mystery to me. When he's at his best, he's excellent, but he also regularly pulls a vanishing trick, especially in the regular season. I have no idea how he'll do next year. If he could play anything like he did in last year's post-season with just a little consistency, I'd be a lot less worried about Team Finland's chances at the Sochi Olympics.
The only real question is the goaltending. After last year's musical goalies, Leighton and Boucher will most likely share next season. Philadelphia's goalie woes have been consistent since after the lockout, and as I've said before on this blog, a lot of it comes down to Philadelphia's poor team defense. Strangely enough, the leaky defense has remained constant ever since the lockout, in spite of personnel and coaching changes. If something lets them down, it will be the blue line again, while any goaltending mishaps will reawaken that controversy all over again.
* Tampa Bay Lightning. This is officially when I jump on the Tampa bandwagon. The minute Steven Stamkos shook off the pressure of being overhyped, he turned into the best young scorer in the league, and the team around him is looking more and more solid. As has been pointed out, Vinnie Lecavalier's production hasn't really dropped: it's returend to normal. He's still a top-notch player, as is Martin St. Louis, who's found some excellent chemistry with Stamkos. Rounding them off are the surprising Steve Downie, who went from an oft-suspended Broad Street goon to an excellent forward, and one of the best power forwards in the league, Ryan Malone.
With Niittymäki being replaced by Dan Ellis, the goaltending is a bit of a question mark with the impressive but streaky Mike Smith shouldering the load. Most of Tampa's defensive woes are down to the blueline, though, and with no significant improvement, they will probably be the Lightning's downfall. But all in all, Tampa are an exciting young team, and even if they don't make the big show this year, they have a solid core of young players for the future. The Lightning are definitely a team to watch.
* The Quebec Federalists, I mean Montréal Canadiens. A combination of a solid trap, impressively gutsy play and a fantastic campaign from Jaroslav Halak were enough to make the Habs shock the hockey world by making it to the conference finals. They're back with pretty much the same roster, minus the post-season MVP Halak. I'd say pretty much everyone who's been following the Habs knew that when it comes down to Price or Halak, the Habs will go with Price, whether it's the right choice or not. Based on the last couple of seasons, I'd say there's no question at all that trading Halak for Lars Eller (!) and Ian Schultz (!!) is a joke. Swapping Halak for never-beens Alex Auld and Curtis Sanford, oddly enough both former number-two men in Vancouver, is the opposite of an improvement, and the Habs will miss Jaro.
Unless their diminutive offense works miracles, the Habs will be on the playoff bubble with a bunch of other teams. They're well coached, with impressive special teams and good chemistry, which makes it really hard to say how well they'll do. In my opinion, a repeat of last year's heroics is incredibly unlikely.
* New York Rangers. I can't get very excited about the Blueshirts, but then again, I didn't really try. They do have a couple of impressive young blueliners in Michael Del Zotto and Marc Staal, and Marian Gaborik is, well, himself, but on the whole I can't see the Rangers putting together a hugely impressive campaign. Making the playoffs would be exceeding expectations, and I see them as another team right on the playoff bubble.
* Ottawa Senators. Ever since their last trip to the finals, the debate has gone on: should they blow up the team or make a second run? With the acquisition of Sergei Gonchar, it's definitely plan B again next season. The Sens have an interesting roster, with up-and-coming players like Peter Regin and Erik Karlsson, along with some seasoned veterans like Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Neil and our favorite player, Jarkko Ruutu.
The Sens will be knocking on the door of the playoffs, and I personally expect them to make it. A lot is resting on Pascal Leclaire, though, and if he can't get the job done, the goaltending falls on young Brian Elliott. The Sens will fight it out with the Rangers and Sabres for the last playoff spots.
* Buffalo Sabres. Remember a few years back, when the Sabres managed to win the President's Trophy and get to the conference finals? That's all in the past. Nearly everyone from that team is gone, and they haven't been replaced by anyone worth mentioning. The team rode Ryan Miller to the playoffs, and when Miller's good, he's really good. On the other hand, when he decides to inexplicably let in a nearly zero-angle shot that has no business going in, he does.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the madness that is offer sheets. For my money, Thomas Vanek is one of the best goal-scorers in the league, which is why the Oilers made a huge offer to him when he was an RFA. The knee-jerk reaction in the NHL is to match any offer sheet, but in my opinion, it's not necessarily a wise choice. I can't argue with John Grigg's logic: "If they had allowed Vanek to go to the Oilers, the Sabres would have Hall, Eberle, Paajarvi [sic] or other top prospects and another high pick to come to complement Myers, Ennis, Kassian and everyone else in the fold. That’s a trade I’d make in a heartbeat."
In other words, if the Sabres had let Vanek go, they'd have a bright future ahead of them. Right now, I don't see it. There are a few good prospects, notably Tyler Myers, who won Tuukka Rask's Calder Trophy, but the Sabres will struggle to make the playoffs.
* Carolina Hurricanes. This is the diciest pick; they could make the playoffs easily, they might lose the league. Looking at that roster, I don't see how they can make the postseason, and the last time I said that, they won the Cup. In all honesty, I don't know. The Cup-winning team had an excellent mix of veterans and young stars, and now it remains to be seen what direction the youngsters take.
We're particularly interested in two Finns on the roster. In the Finnish league and on the national team, Jussi Jokinen was a phlegmatic, underachieving happy-go-lucky player; last year, on the back of an excellent postseason, he scored 30 goals. What people may not remember is that without that postseason, he would probably have been packed off to Europe after being dumped by both the Stars and the Bolts. What will he do this season? Who knows?
Also on the Carolina roster is one of our favorite players, Tuomo Ruutu. His career has been plagued by injuries, to say the least, but when he's on form he's a terrific player. We hope he finally finds his groove and has a solid season.
* Toronto Maple Leafs. I'm sorry, but it's not going to happen. Despite what Burke & Wilson say, the team is in full rebuild mode with the youngest roster in the league. The inexperience showed badly last year, with Toronto dead last in the league in both power play and penalty killing. Sure, they were the beneficiaries of one of Darryl Sutter's panic trades in receiving Dion Phaneuf, and once they hit their stride they'll make a determined push up the standings in mid-season that will get the Canadian media talking about a playoff spot. Like so many times, though, it won't happen.
The rebuild will be somewhat delayed by the fact that Burke gave away the Leafs' first round pick for next year as well, in return for Phil Kessel's 30 goals last season. Last summer, they would have got Tyler Seguin.
* Atlanta Thrashers. If you want a long-odds pick for a playoff team, this is it. They caught Dustin Byfuglien from Chicago's post-Cup salary explosion, and word has it he's moving back to the blueline. With fellow Chicago cup-winner Ben Eager, former Maple Leaf Nik Antropov and blueliner Johnny Oduya, the Thrashers will be an unpleasant team to play against, if nothing else. Since Kari Lehtonen left, Ondrej Pavelec struggled to take over as #1, so Chris Mason's arrival, with something to prove, will help the goaltending a lot.
All things being equal, the Thrashers won't be anywhere near the playoffs. This is sports, though, so if you want a good wildcard pick, they're it. If some young stars (anybody remember Angelo Esposito?) step up, and Bryan Little gets back on an upward trajectory, a playoff spot isn't impossible.
Not that I'd be willing to put money on it. Which is why they're in this category.
* New York Islanders. They'll be in contention: with Toronto for the last spot in the league. The ongoing goaltending comedy of Rick DiPietro's thousand-year deal and the musical chairs being played in his absence don't help, and neither does the uncertain future: the Islanders' arena lease is up in 2015, and owner Charles Wang is allegedly so frustrated with his hopeless efforts to get the city on board with a new arena that the team may move. The Islanders played a preseason game in Kansas City a year ago, just to show that they can.
There are some very promising players on the Isles' roster, especially U-20 Worlds star Nino Niederreiter and Kyle Okposo, and some excellent players in John Tavares and the superb Mark Streit. Sadly, their efforts are lost in the general indifference of the roster. The Islanders may make a surprise rally for a playoff spot like they did last year, but their odds of actually making the playoffs are slim at best.
* Florida Panthers. A franchise that has been treading water ever since their only trip to the finals in 1996. The Panthers have missed the playoffs nine seasons in a row, and next year they'll make it ten. Mike Keenan's monstrous decision to trade Roberto Luongo to Vancouver didn't help the Panthers one bit, but on the whole Florida has totally failed to leverage their decade of failure into any kind of forward momentum. They have what is probably the best goaltending duo in the East in Clemmensen and Vokoun, and Vokoun especially has been phenomenal, but with the lackluster play and forgettable roster, this is effectively a moribund franchise.
That's it! All in all, I expect a really tight season, so quite a few of these guesses may end up being dead wrong. Hey, at least writing this has made me look forward to the season...