Sunday, August 07, 2005

The new NHL: Picking favourites

MSNBC Sports, that great bastion of hockey knowledge and the home to the NHL, has a set of polls on its website that asks who will win each division in the coming season. The sample sizes aren’t huge at the moment — some of the polls have as few as 100 votes — but they do give an idea of who hockey fans think will be the league’s new (or in some cases, old) powers.

Yes, with all of the free agents still on the market it’s early to be forecasting, but waiting for something as conventional as ‘rosters’ isn’t my style.

Who will win the Pacific Division?
Dallas 29% , San Jose 24%, Los Angeles 23%, Phoenix 14%, Anaheim 10%

The votes side with a traditional power in the Stars, who haven’t had any huge subtractions since 2003-04 and have brought Martin Skoula into the fold on defence. Provided that key RFAs such as Arnott, Kapanen and Morrow return, Dallas will be a playoff club once again.

That said, I’d take the youthful Sharks in this division, despite the loss of behemoth Mike Rathje on defence. San Jose has a ton of key RFAs to get under contract, but even then they should still have cap room with which to lift whoever is left from the free agent pool.

Towards the low end, while the Kings did pick up key cogs in Demitra and Roenick, the team stands to lose a ton of players to free agency, including starting netminder Roman Cechmanek. In Phoenix, aside from the additions of Hull, Ricci and Nedved, the team will look remarkably similar to the one that finished 13th in the West in 2003-04. Brian Burke has his work cut out for him in Anaheim, where due to the signing of the Niedermayers, the new GM has just under $7-million to fill eight roster spaces.

Who will win the Central Division?
Detroit 68%, Columbus 10%, Chicago 9%, Nashville 8%, St. Louis 6%

The Red Wings remain the conventional favourite, as they have for the past decade in this division (despite a few strong seasons from the Blues). If Manny Legace plays the way he’s capable in the starring role, I don’t doubt Detroit wins yet another division title.

The rest of the Central is certainly interesting, with the Blues taking a step back and everyone else at least attempting to move forward. Personally I see the Predators as the only team who will challenge for the top spot (and who will certainly improve on an 8th place finish in the West last time around).

Who will win the Northwest Division?
Colorado 35%, Calgary 24%, Vancouver 20%, Edmonton 12%, Minnesota 9%

Old favourites die hard in the Northwest, as the Avalanche faithful are still banking on them to come away with their 10th division title in the past 11 years. Subbing in Pierre Turgeon for Peter Forsberg and Patrice Breeze-by for Adam Foote, however, aren’t moves that scream improvement.

Calgary is my favourite to take the Northwest this season, as they’ve retained the core group that took them to the finals in 2003-04 and added depth in Tony Amonte and Darren McCarty. If all their RFAs re-sign as expected, the Flames won’t lose anyone of consequence.

The Northwest should be the most heavily contested division in 2005-06.

Who will win the Southeast Division?
Tampa Bay 44%, Atlanta 20%, Florida 14%, Washington 13%, Carolina 9%

Not surprisingly, the defending champions are the favourites here, although some improvement from the Thrashers will at least offer somewhat of a challenge. Of the six divisions, however, this will be the easiest to predict, as Washington and Carolina will continue to struggle (to put it mildly). The Panthers are sure to make some inroads, but likely not enough to make the playoffs if Keenan sticks with his current roster.

Who will win the Northeast Division?
Boston 35%, Ottawa 23%, Toronto 19%, Montreal 12%, Buffalo 11%

The Bruins will look radically different than in 2003-04, yet whether this ragtag assembly of free agents can outperform the likes of the Senators is unlikely. Ottawa stands to lose few major pieces from the team that had 102 points the last time around. If Hasek can hold the fort, they’re my pick to take the Northeast.

This season will be bad news for Leafs and Sabres fans, however, as neither have been heavily involved in the free agent market and will take a step back (for those who recall, Buffalo were only one spot removed from the final playoff position in the East in 2003-04).

Who will win the Atlantic Division?
Philadelphia 57%, New Jersey 19%, Pittsburgh 15%, NY Rangers 8%, NY Islanders 1%

That’s a pretty ringing endorsement for Philadelphia GM Bob Clarke in the Atlantic. The Flyers are solid in goal, on defence and up front, but they did lose key pieces in Recchi, Leclair, Amonte, Roenick and Ragnarsson, making them far from a lock to win the division. Still, I think with the Devils in transition, Clarke has positioned his team well enough to win the Atlantic.

Pittsburgh will certainly make strides, but not to the extent some are predicting. Even with the additions of Recchi, Palffy, Gonchar and Crosby, this is a roster full of holes and inexperience. At the moment, the only defenceman signed by the Penguins aside from Gonchar is Ric Jackman. Enough said.

On a final note, it seems the voting public isn’t exactly enamoured with ‘Mad’ Mike Milbury’s additions of Satan, Sopel and York.



At 11:07 a.m., August 08, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

As usual, I say Go Flames! I would also like to ask that Tampa Bay be steamrolled by a team from a place where ice is a natural occurance. Go Flames.

At 1:23 p.m., August 08, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Somebody sounds bitter.


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