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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Western Conference 2008-09 Breakdown

With the full North American NHL season about to open up later this week, it’s about time to continue the predictions and breakdowns. Let’s just jump right into the Western Conference.

Central Division

#1 – Detroit Red Wings – If it was possible for this team to get better than the team that dominated its way to the Stanley Cup last season, they found a way. Marian “Judas” Hossa turned down a long-term deal with the Penguins to sign a one-year deal with the Red Wings.

Sounds like a guy desperate for a ring to me, but that’s his own prerogative.

Also new to the mix is the backup goaltender from the runner-up Pens in Ty Conklin. I don’t necessarily agree with this move. The Wings have a great young goaltender in the farm who is probably ready to at least be a backup in Jimmy Howard.

The absence of the now once again retired Dominik Hasek freed up a roster spot for Conklin who can expect to get between 15-20 starts behind the aging Chris Osgood. If Osgood gets hurt and the load falls on Conklin and Howard, the Red Wings might be vulnerable. Outside of that, expect another near wire to wire division title and long playoff run.

#2 Chicago Blackhawks – I’m surprising myself with this one too. However, with the young core on this team and a solid goalie in net this doesn’t seem too farfetched.

Sensations, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp are back to terrorize the league. The Hawks signed Cristobal Huet in the free agent market and have placed last season’s starter Nikolai Khabibulin on waivers. Expect him to be moved or bought out soon.

They also brought in free agent defenseman Brian Campbell who decided to take the money and run from the Sharks.

Young teams are dangerous in the new NHL and in this incredibly weak division, Chicago fans may once again be reminded of what hockey is.

#3 – Nashville Predators – There are a lot of question marks with this team this year. Alexander Radulov is gone. So are Marek Zidlicky, Martin Gelinas, Darcy Hordichuk, Jan Hlavac and goaltender Chris Mason.

What they were able to do is lock up Shea Weber and Ryan Suter who will now patrol the blue line for years to come. Not a bad move, but can this team rebound with the loss of all the guys listed above?

Dan Ellis will be the main man in goal this season and if something happens to him, rookie Pekka Rinne will have to step up.

The Preds shocked me last year by making the playoffs with a depleted roster, but I don’t think we’re going to be experiencing déjà vu this Spring.

#4 – Columbus Blue Jackets – The Jackets made a ton of offseason moves and on paper have a much improved team over last year’s squad.

The problem here is the guys they landed aren’t exactly A-quality players. The best move they made was acquiring Raffi Torres from the Oilers.

The also added Christian Backman, Fedor Tyutin, Mike Commodor, R.J. Umberger and Kristian Huselius.

The Rangers won’t lose sleep over the loss of Tyutin, but Backman could be a very solid physical defenseman. Commodore is another good signing and Umberger and Huselius will need to prove that their success wasn’t just a fluke due to the lines they were on in Philadelphia and Calgary respectively.

The other question I’m having trouble with is about goaltender Pascal Leclaire. He put on a very good show last season and was a surprisingly good fantasy pickup for GAA and save percentage. Is he for real? Are the new acquisitions for real? Could this be the season that the Jackets make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history?

These guys could challenge for a playoff spot, but there will be no playoff hockey for the Jackets this year.

#5 - St. Louis Blues – Woof. It does not look good for the Blues at all this season. There is a youth movement going on and with any youth movement, there’s a learning curve of a couple seasons before you see results.

Welcome to the beginning of the youth movement in St. Louis.

Blues fans will have to wait another season to see defenseman Erik Johnson again, who tore two ligaments in his right knee in a freak golf accident.

The Blues were able to go out and sign Steve Bernier away from the Canucks and he should help contribute on the offensive side of things.

For this team to have any success whatsoever, Bernier, Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya are going to have to take the team under their wings. Don’t expect much in St. Louis this year, but looking down the road a couple years should make Blues fans smile.

Northwest Division

#1 – Vancouver Canucks – Is this the year the underachieving Canucks finally take a run at the Cup? Not sure, but I do see them winning this wide open division.

The major knock against this team was the lack of offense they had. Basically if you scored 3 goals and some could argue even 2, you would win against these guys.

They are going to be without Markus Naslund who left for Broadway, Brendan Morrison and Trevor Linden.

At the draft they snagged Kyle Wellwood away from Toronto in a brilliant move. This kid is going to be a stud in the league for years to come. They also added veteran Pavol Demitra to the mix. If Demitra can stay healthy, he’s a proven scorer and could ignite some more guys to get in on the act.

The best aspect of this team is their defense and especially in net with Roberto Luongo. Look, Luongo is a fantastic goalie, but he needs help. If the Canucks can find the back of the net, Luongo can lead them to the promised land.

#2 – Edmonton Oilers – This was one of the busiest teams in the league during the summer. They acquired a major threat on the blue line in Lubomir Visnovsky from the Kings. To make room for Visnovsky, the Oilers shipped Joni Pitkanen to Carolina for Erik Cole and sent Torres was sent to Columbus for Brule.

They are returning with a young core of guys including Dustin Penner and Ales Hemsky who will need to continue to put up big numbers.

Sheldon Souray is returning from an injury plagued season and I would think he would play with Visnovsky. I’d be afraid to skate into the zone with those two on the ice. Seriously, keep your head up.

A lot of people are taking these guys to win the division. I’m not totally sold yet, but I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen so far.

#3 – Calgary Flames – I’m not so sure about the moves they made this summer. They allowed guys like Eric Godard, Owen Nolan and Alex Tanguay to get away.

They then went out and got Mike Cammalleri Curtis Glencross nd Rene Bourque. I like those acquisitions for the most part and thought they were on a war path to the division title.

They follow this up by adding in glassjaw Andre Roy and inexplicably go out and sign Todd Bertuzzi. I don’t understand the Bertuzzi move at all considering we are only a few years removed from one of the most horrific moments in NHL history, which ironically happened between two teams in this division. Now he’s back in the division with a different squad.

Anyway, the Flames do have one of the better goaltenders in the league in Miikka Kiprusoff. However, Kipper has looked a little old over the last couple seasons. Maybe it’s the lack of consistency the team has shown that’s getting to him, but we’ll see.

It will be up to Jarome Iginla to spark the team and if the new guys step up and produce, this is another team that could win the division.

#4 Minnesota Wild – This is kind of low for a playoff team from last season, I know. However, these guys lost some very key guys and are on the verge of losing another.

Gone are forwards Brian Rolston and Demitra. Mark Parrish is also gone after being bought out. The one guy who may be on his way out? Marian Gaborik. The Wild and Gaborik are trying to get a long-term extension worked out and if that doesn’t happen expect a blockbuster trade to happen sooner than later.

If Gaborik leaves town, that would mean the entire top line from last year is gone and a big chunk of the second line is gone as well.

The new additions of Nolan and Antti Miettinen from Dallas will help, but they’re not Demitra, Rolston and Gaborik.

This is shaping up to be a bad season for the Wild, but I didn’t expect them to do as well as they did last year either. Maybe they’ll do it again, but it’s going to be very tough.

#5 Colorado Avalanche – This is a team that just keeps getting older and as a result it’s going to be a long year in Denver.

Joe Sakic has returned and the team brought in Darcy Tucker from Toronto. They also locked up defenseman John-Michael Liles to a long-term deal. Those moves are solid and all, but what did they do to help the biggest weakness being goaltending?

Not a whole lot.

Peter Budaj will be the number one guy and he’s either on or he’s not. They lost Jose Theodore to the Capitals and replaced him with Andrew Raycroft. Razor was basically exiled from Toronto after his sub-par play with his big contract and is looking for another fresh start. I wouldn’t expect to see these guys in the playoffs, but stranger things have happened I suppose.

Pacific Division

#1 – Dallas Stars – Fresh off a Western Conference Finals appearance, the Stars are back and are poised to make another deep playoff run.

The Stars made a somewhat peculiar move in letting Miettinen walk and replaced him with super agitator Sean Avery.

Brad Richards was acquired at the trade deadline for goaltender Mike Smith and was a pleasant surprise during the stretch run and playoffs for Dallas. Now that he’s had a chance to play with the club and get used to his new surroundings, look for a big year out of Richards.

Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen are another year older, but bring a veteran presence that you can’t put a price tag on. This division is the polar opposite of the Northwest, which is wide open due to mediocrity. The Pacific is wide open because there are 3 powerhouse teams and any one of them is deserving of this No. 1 spot.

#2 – San Jose Sharks – I don’t think any team improved its defense more than the Sharks this summer. I’m still in awe of what they were able to get.

They had Campbell who they got at the trade deadline. I was a bit puzzled to see the Sharks just let him leave town and not lock him up. Then they go out and land veteran Rob Blake from the Kings.

In addition to Blake, the Sharks made a trade and landed fantasy stud Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich from the Lightning. That’s 3 guys who will vastly improve this defense and could very well shake the playoff curse that hangs over the Shark Tank.

Evgeni Nabokov proved he is a workhorse last season starting 77 out of 82 games last season and winning 46 of them. Maybe this time around the Sharks will tone his load back a little to keep him fresh for the playoffs.

Should that happen and Joe Thornton continue to light the way for the Sharks, this could be the year they give Stanley a tan.

#3 – Anaheim Ducks – At face value, this is the exact same team as last year’s roster. The only major acquisition was Morrison from the Canucks.

However, last season both Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer delayed retirement and joined the team late in the season. This time around, both are signed and ready to go on opening night. They’ll have their skating legs under them and regardless of what they have in the tank still, you know they will produce.

Jean-Sebastien Giguere is once again the main guy between the pipes and I must say, a very solid fantasy choice. He finished last season with 35 wins in 58 games with a 2.12 GAA and .922 save percentage. You’d be crazy not to pick him in your drafts.

Either way, the Ducks have a ton of young talent with Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and former number-two draft pick Bobby Ryan. Ryan should be on the opening night roster and if the hype about him is correct, he could make a huge impact.

#4 – Phoenix Coyotes – The Fighting Gretzky’s just missed out on the playoffs last season and could very well be in the hunt again this year. The biggest problem for them is that they’re in a division with the Stars, Sharks and Ducks.

The Coyotes improved by subtraction this offseason. Gone are defensemen Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton, both dealt to Florida for Olli Jokinen.

I absolutely loved this move. Jokinen figures to be a top line player and they unloaded two defensemen, who are average at best. Yes, they’re physical guys but I would have done the same thing to get Jokinen.

The other move that could end up looking more brilliant than it was last season, is the signing of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov who will need to be solid once again for this team to have a shot.

#5 Los Angeles Kings – Well, the good? Anze Kopitar, Alexander Frolov, Patrick O’Sullivan and Dustin Brown are a very nice core to have. Defensemen Jack Johnson is also a nice commodity to have on you team, even with how young he is.

The bad? That’s about all that’s on this team. Rob Blake and Visnovsky are gone from the top defense pairing, another scoring threat in Cammalleri is also gone and they have no goaltending to speak of. Jonathan Bernier is still a year away or so, but unless he gets a defense to play in front of him, it will be a rough go of it.

Jason Labarbera and Erik Ersberg may not be bad goaltenders on paper. However, there’s a saying that a goalie is only as good as his defense. In this case, these guys are in trouble.

Baring a miracle of Biblical proportions, the only thing the Kings will be battling for in the Spring is the No. 1 draft pick.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Eastern Conference 2008-09 Breakdown

Well a new season is upon us finally. As you all know, I’m a Penguins fan so that’s why you haven’t heard from me in a couple months.

I spent the summer in seclusion searching for answers on how to get over the sting of seeing the Stanley Cup paraded around on our home ice. What I came up with is that NHL 09 is the greatest hockey game ever created. Seriously, if you haven’t played it yet go get it.

Until that came out I did my very best to avoid all things hockey to try and forget that series with Detroit even happened. The girlfriend tried to offer condolences, but there’s not much worse of a feeling than seeing your team come that close only to come up short.

Now that the season officially begins this weekend and with the pain almost fully subsided, it’s time to look ahead and see how this season may turn out. I’m going to try something different this year and go by each division and rank the teams in the division.

Let’s start in the Eastern Conference:

Northeast Division

#1 Montreal Canadiens – The defending regular season Eastern Conference champs are back with some new toys. The Habs were able to bring in very solid scorers in Alex Tanguay and Robert Lang. They also added tough guy Georges Laraque in a move I as a Pens fan wish would not have happened.

In net, Carey Price returns as the number one guy after taking a stranglehold on the job last year. They also have a capable backup in Jaroslav Halak so there shouldn’t be as many question marks in net this season.

With a playoff run under Price’s belt there’s no question the Habs are the favorite to win this division.

#2 Ottawa Senators – This might be a sucker’s bet considering how well they’ve done over the past couple seasons. The vicious cycle may once again repeat, but when you have guys like Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza in a weak conference, it’s not a bad pick.

One thing that has changed with Ottawa is the defense corps. Jason Smith comes to town to fill the void left by Wade Redden who bolted to Broadway. Also new to the team are Filip Kuba and Alexandre Picard. I must say, I’m still not shaking in my boots about that defense and it still leaves a lot of questions to be answered.

The goaltending situation is still a bit of a mystery as well. Martin Gerber will no doubt be the number one guy, but with Ray Emery out of the picture Gerber might actually be able to focus on playing net and not worrying about Emery’s shenanigans. That can only be a good thing for a streaky goalie like Gerber.

#3 Buffalo Sabres – Yes, I’m serious. This team could very well turn heads this season. They have a very strong core of guys with Maxim Afinogenov, Thomas Vanek, Steve Bernier, Derek Roy and Jason Pomminville.

They brought in Craig Rivet and re-signed Teppo Numminen who is out to prove he’s still capable of playing at this level.

NEWSFLASH: The Sabres retained a highly valued free agent for once. Ryan Miller is locked up for another five years. Rejoice Sabres fans, things may be changing in Buffalo.

This is a team that missed the playoffs last season by four points. With a pretty solid defense corps and a maturing offense, this team could very well make the playoffs this season.

#4 Boston Bruins – Ok ok, I know they made the playoffs last season as the 8-seed and almost knocked off Montreal in the first round. It was a valiant effort. Really, it was. However, what did these guys do to improve the weakest areas of their team?


Their defense is still atrocious and their goaltending situation isn’t much better. Granted Manny Fernandez is back, but if history repeats itself he’ll be out for the season by the end of October and the load will fall squarely on the sometimes broad shoulders of Tim Thomas.

Zdeno Chara is a great asset to have on offense, but he’s a major liability against the rush. He is a great player don’t get me wrong, but there’s other guys I would rather have who can actually skate.

A positive for this team though is who they did bring in. Michael Ryder has been an absolute stud in Montreal and will no doubt be productive in Boston. Another positive for the Bruins is that Patrice Bergeron is back and ready to go for opening night. His return will provide an emotional lift which could take this team places. Especially if they decide to bring in a top tier defenseman.

#5 Toronto Maple Leafs – Sorry Cheech, but even you know this is a forgone conclusion. As of right now, Mats Sundin still hasn’t decided if he wants to return for another season. My guess is if he needs the money, he’ll be back. If not, he’s heading home.

The Leafs do have a lot of young raw talent, but like the Penguins a few years back, it’s largely under developed. The next couple of seasons will be rough in Toronto, but the future is quite bright.

One positive is that Vesa Toskala is patrolling the crease. Don’t let his mediocre numbers from last season fool you. He has the ability to be an elite goalie in this league. He just needs a half decent team in front of him to do so. Seeing Bryan McCabe leave can’t help matters even though he’s been criticized for his defensive play and sometimes categorized as only an offensive defenseman.

Of all the decisions I had to make with this division this was the easiest by far.

Atlantic Division

#1 – Pittsburgh Penguins – Is this a homer pick? Of course there will be people out there who say that, but that’s fine. If you look at this team even with the injuries to two of our top defensemen in Ryan Whitney (foot surgery, out until at least December) and Sergei Gonchar (shoulder surgery, out just as long if not longer), they are still arguably the best team in the Eastern Conference.

I won’t go into particulars here because I just spent a ton of time working on a full season preview for the Pens for a couple different sites. You can find that article here.

#2 – New York Rangers – This one was a bit tougher for me to pick. The Rangers added some more offensive weapons, but in my mind they still need some solid defensemen. The addition of Wade Redden is nice, but he’s more offensive minded. Marc Staal is a solid young player, but it just seems to me that defense should have been a priority.

The defense was instantly improved with the departure of Marek Malik who was much maligned during his tenure in New York. (Just ask Gopher, he’ll tell you. In fact here’s a direct quote: “We would’ve been better if he was playing defense for the opponent during our power play... that way when he centered the puck in the defensive zone we could’ve benefitted.”

Goaltending may be an issue here and I highly stress the word “may.” I’ve been hearing and reading rumors that Henrik Lundqvist may have an undisclosed knee injury that may require surgery. According to Eklund, the Rangers may be in talks with the Blackhawks to acquire Nikolai Khabibulin who has just been placed on waivers. Stay tuned and hold your breath Ranger fans.

#3 –Philadelphia Flyers – If this team didn’t have as many injuries as they did last year, they could have easily finished second or third in the division. They are fresh off an Eastern Conference finals loss to the Penguins so you know these guys are not the laughing stock they were two years ago.

On defense Mike Rathje and Derian Hatcher are both on the long term injury list. That alone makes the defense corps better. The brought in Ossi Vaananen which can only help out as well.

Their offense should still be very productive and if Simon Gagne can stay healthy, these guys could be fighting for the division title.

The major question is whether or not Martin Biron is the real deal or not. I tend to think he is, which is why he’s also on the fantasy roster this season.

#4 New Jersey Devils – The major knock against this team last season was a lack of offense. So what did the Devils do in the offseason? Not much. They went out and brought back former New Jersey cup winners Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik.

Holik is coming off a 34 point (15G 19A) season and yes he played all 82 games. Granted it was with Atlanta, but I’m pretty sure they have Ilya Kovalchuk and had a guy named Marian “Judas” Hossa until the Pens landed him at the deadline.

The other factor I weighed in this decision is that Martin Brodeur is another year older. If you watch his games closely over the past couple years, you can see a change in his play. He’s still probably the best puck moving goalie in the league, but shots from the point seem to find twine more often now. He seems to be losing pucks in crowds more than he used to and you can see him get visibly rattled at times, which you never saw before.

They may still fight for a playoff spot despite this low ranking because I still feel that this is the best division in the Eastern Conference.

#5 New York Islanders – This team could turn heads. Could. Should the young core of players they have, led by Kyly Okposo, learn quickly and mesh together this group could fight for a playoff spot.

They added defenseman Mark Streit, which is a brilliant pick up. They also added gritty veteran Doug Weight to join Bill Guerin. The biggest problem for this team is that they lost one of their best scorers and one of their best two-way players in Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko. Both went to Pittsburgh to play with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

The other question will be the health of goalie Rick DiPietro, who’s signed until the next century. DiPietro had hip surgery, again, and all eyes will be on him. If he can stay healthy, he has shown signs that he can carry a team.

There is a youth movement happening on the Island, but I still think they are a couple years away from contending.

Southeast Division

#1 Washington Capitals – The Caps are fresh off a playoff appearance and a division title. The first of many I’m sure for young Alexander the Great. They pushed the Flyers to seven games before bowing out in front of their own fans. There is a buzz in D.C. now about hockey that hasn’t been there for many many years.

As far as offseason moves go, the Caps didn’t do a whole lot. They locked up some of their younger players and core players to keep the team intact. The move that puzzles me the most is the goaltending situation.

At the trade deadline, the Caps dealt for Cristobal Huet from the Habs. This gave them two very capable goalies as Olaf Kolzig was already in town. For some reason unknown to me, both Huet and Kolzig left the nation’s capital and the Caps brought in Jose Theodore. Personally, I would have kept Huet as Theodore hasn’t been himself since he left Montreal.

The Caps on paper are the clear favorite to win this division again and the Penguins proved that a little playoff experience can go a long way. If Theodore returns to form, the Caps could be raising some big silver trophy in June.

#2 Carolina Hurricanes – This division is still the weakest in the East and might even be the weakest in all of the NHL. That said, the Hurricanes are not going to forget the collapse they suffered last season when they missed out on the playoffs by two points.

The Canes blue line will look a lot different this season as Glen Wesley and Bret Hedican are gone. They shipped Erik Cole to Edmonton for defenseman Joni Pitkanen and signed Josef Melichar and Anton Babchuk.

They also locked up Eric Staal long-term (not as long as the lifetime deal DiPietro signed, but long enough).

The Canes are very capable of winning this division, don’t get me wrong and it could come down to goaltending. Cam Ward returns and if he plays anything like he did during the Canes Stanley Cup championship run, it could very well happen.

#3 Tampa Bay Lightning – This team had a major overhaul this offseason. New coach, plethora of new faces and the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft.

Starting with the coach, Barry Melrose gave up his cushy 1 hour a week of on-camera work at ESPN to return behind the bench as a coach in the NHL. I am very happy to see him back and will miss his insight on the off-chance ESPN remembers that hockey exists.

As for the new faces, three Cup runner ups from this past season migrated south. Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts and Adam Hall. I think the Bolts overpaid for Roberts and Malone, but more power to them. All three of those guys will fit in well, but I still don’t see these guys making the playoffs this season.

Steven Stamkos will make his NHL debut against the Rangers in the NHL’s tour d’Europe to start the season. This kid is electric and very well could make a lot of fantasy owners cringe that they passed him up.

Goaltending remains a concern as Mike Smith will be the main man with Kolzig backing him up. Smith is more than capable, but he’s never been the starting guy. If he passes the test the Bolts will be the most improved team in the league. Shouldn’t be hard after an NHL worst 31 wins and 71 points.

#4 – Florida Panthers – Where to begin with this mess? How about the departure of captain Olli Jokinen who was sent to the Coyotes for Nick Boynton and Keith Ballard. The Panthers also brought in McCabe to help out the blue line.

They may have one of the best blue line corps in the division, but depth up front might be an issues. Stephen Weiss and Nathan Horton will be the focal point of the offense now with Jokinen gone and I don’t think those guys are ready to carry a team yet.

In goal Tomas Vokoun will be a rock like usual. Don’t expect a monster win total, but his GAA and save percentage should be nice for a backup fantasy goalie. The Panthers are still a couple years away, but they do have a solid core to build around and could become a force in this weak division soon.

#5 Atlanta Thrashers – Oh boy. Outside of Kovalchuk what is there on this team? I feel bad for Erik Christensen and Colby Armstrong who were traded for “Judas” Hossa. The Thrashers brought in Jason Williams and Marty Reasoner, but outside of those guys who can score?

Tobias Enstrom was a pleasant surprise on the blue line last year and can only get better. This team is in shambles right now with no depth to speak of and seeing star after star leave town by trade or free agency.

In goal Kari Lehtonen is a solid choice and will keep his team in games, but any goalie facing upwards of 40 shots a night can only do so much. There’s not much to say about this team other than, I hope there’s a lot of fan giveaway nights in Atlanta or else there’s going to be a lot of empty seats in the Philips Arena this year.