Thursday, October 1, 2009

NHL Preview: Contenders and Pretenders

The Contenders

15. Toronto - Brian Burke hasn't quite elevated the Leafs into 'contender' status, but he has changed the culture and expediated the rebuilding process. The D is arguably the deepest in the league but the the lack of scoring up front remains a glaring weakness. Toronto will attempt to be a 'scoring by committee' team, but it might end up being a 'non-scoring by committee' team. At least they're going to beat up a lot of teams on the way. And I've almost forgotten the horror that was Cliff Fletcher.

14. NY Rangers - What is the earliest a team has ever quit on a coach? Game one? The preseason? It will be fun to watch Marian Gaborik, Chris Drury and Wade Redden underperform while John Torterella contemplates going on a five state killing spree.

13. Carolina - Eric Staal has missed one game in his five NHL seasons. One single game. I know some people who used to miss a day of work each week. I'll leave their names out (Thane, Ryno) but they could learn from Staal.

12. Columbus - The pressure is on Steve Mason to prove that his spectacular rookie season (10 shutouts) wasn't a fluke. After Rick Nash and Mason, coach Ken Hitchcock is the 3rd most valuable piece of the team. Honestly. Look at the roster. No way this team should be anywhere near the playoffs but Hitch will have them in there.

11. Vancouver - I can't shake the feeling that the gap between Roberto Luongo (and Martin Brodeur) and the rest of the goalies in the league has closed considerably. That 7 goal performance in the Canucks playoff exit has to be lingering, as do the negative feelings from the Sedins, who requested long-term contracts that were denied only to watch as Luongo signed a 12 year deal during training camp.

10. Anaheim - The Ducks might have the top line in the league if they decide to play Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan together and with the additions of Saku Koivu and Jeffrey Lupul to play on the second line with the ageless Teemu Selanne, they probably should do it. You hear that Randy Carlyle? Play the big three together. (Written on behalf of every fantasy owner who drafted Ryan.)

9. Chicago - The Hawks are a sexy pick to topple the Red Wings in the Central, but I think they might struggle somewhat during the regular season, particularly in the early part of the schedule. Last year was special, it almost felt like a storybook season with the Winter Classic, the reawakening of the Chicago hockey crowd, the fan acknowledgment and it culminated with a month of ridiculously entertaining playoff hockey. So I expect there might be a bit of a letdown. But their top 10 players are as good as anyone's and they'll be heard from again in the playoffs.

8. Boston - No way Boston repeats last year's regular season performance when everything went almost perfectly for them. The list of players who had career years last year is incredible (Krejci, Wideman, Wheeler, Kessel) and virtually everyone else played at least up to their ability. That surely will not happen again. The B's are still a very good squad, but they aren't going to put together another stretch of only 5 losses in 40 games.

7. Calgary - The most underrated pick-up of the offseason was the Flames poaching one of the top five coaches in the league from New Jersey. Brent Sutter will have Calgary focused defensively and ready to play every night and the Flames will run away with the Northwest division.

6. Philadelphia - I'm not at all concerned about the Flyers handing over goaltending duties to bad boy Ray Emery, in fact I can't believe more teams weren't pursuing him. The guy is only 26 and beat out Dominik Hasek to lead his team to the Stanley Cup final a few short years ago. Sure he had some issues off the ice, but so have numerous other players who continued to perform. I'm particularly excited to see Emery drop the gloves at some point in front of a delirious Wachovia Center crowd. You know it's coming.

5. New Jersey - The Devils have gone through seven coaches (Ftorek, Robinson, Constantine, Burns, Julien, Lamoriello and Sutter) and made nine coaching changes (Robinson and Lamoriello both went behind the bench on two separate occasions) since Jacques Lemaire left in 1998. In that time they've never finished with less than 95 points. The coaches change, but the results don't. This is the Teflon franchise, nothing can stop them.

4. Washington - The Caps have increased their point totals from 70 to 94 to 108 the last three years and I fully expect them to capture their third straight Southwest division crown. Of course with the lack of competition in the Southwest, that's like predicting Tiger Woods would win a junior golf tournament.

3. San Jose - Is Dany Heatley a crying, whining baby? Yes. But he's also one of the premier snipers in the game and a guaranteed 40 goal scorer. The Sharks absolutely ripped the Sens off in this trade and it's shocking that Bryan Murray isn't being shredded by the media. Cheechoo and Michalek combine to make $7 million this year PLUS Ottawa paid Heatley his $4 million bonus on July 1st meaning San Jose gets Heatley for only $4 million this season. In other news Patrick Marleau has a maximum of 82 games left as a Shark.

2. Pittsburgh - Sid and Geno continue to be the top 1-2 punch in the NHL, but after injuring his knee in the finals and then having his groin act up again during the preseason, serious questions have to be raised about the continuing health of Crosby. Still, the Pens have to be considered the odds on favorite to reach their third straight Stanley Cup Final.

1. Detroit - Although they lost several big pieces from last year's team (Hossa, Samuelson, Hudler) no franchise is better at developing players and transitioning them into the roster. Darren Helm is ready for an expanded role and Ville Leino and Justin Abdelkader aren't far behind. Another President's trophy is on the way, but will Stanley follow?

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