Mirtle's 2005-06 Predictions
This post was due. This is where I lay it bare and predict how your favourite team is going to fare (thereby pissing off Penguins and Blackhawks fans). Here are my thoughts — I expect to hear yours in the comments section. (* - denotes division winners)
- *Philadelphia — Admittedly there's little separating them from the Senators atop the conference, but I like the Flyers revamped roster from top to bottom. Esche is a proven No. 1 goaltender, Forsberg gives them a superstar up front and they have one of the league's deepest bluelines. Throw in the fact that they play in a weak division, and it'll be a good year for Philly.
- *Ottawa — Another solid team from top to bottom, the main question facing the Senators is 'Can Hasek hold up?' If The Dominator plays over 50 games, they'll be one of the league's top teams. If the reins are given to rookie Ray Emery, it's anyone's guess how he'll fare. After 117 points in the AHL last year, this will be Spezza's NHL coming out party.
- Boston — Not having Nick Boynton signed should be a concern, but veteran Brian Leetch is more than capable of (still) manning the powerplay. Depth on defence should be their main concern, with or without Boynton. The Bruins attack, ranked 15th in the league in 2003-04, has been nicely complemented with hardworking veterans like Shawn McEachern and Dave Scatchard, and Alexei Zhamnov could mesh nicely with speedy youngsters Samsonov and Bergeron.
- *Tampa Bay — The Lightning aren't the same team that won the Stanley Cup. I like the goaltending duo of Grahame and Burke (Grahame, after all, had better numbers last year than the outgoing Khabibulin), but the club's defence isn't nearly as strong without Lukowich and Cullimore. They'll benefit from playing 32 games in the once again weak Southeast division.
- New Jersey — I've made my stance clear on the Devils previously, and I heartily believe the moves Lou Lamoriello made will more than compensate for the losses of Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens (who played less than 40 games last year) and Patty Elias (out to start the season with hepatitis A). With Larry (Big Bird) Robinson back behind the bench, this will be a difficult club to play against. Goals may be hard to come by, but they still have a strong collection of blueliners in front of Martin Brodeur.
- Montreal — Six rookies made their squad this season, and they'll join other NHL neophytes, the 'Three Mikes,' in Mike Ryder, Mike Ribeiro and Mike Komisarek. The Habs showed in the 2003-04 playoffs that they're a fiesty team and losing a much-maligned player like Patrice Brisebois will only elevate their level of play. While it's a bit much to expect a repeat from Sheldon Souray, a full year with Alexei Kovalev should help offensively.
- Toronto — The Maple Leafs of 2005-06 offer an interesting mix. Living in the city, it's often hard to get past the ever-optimistic expectations 'Leafs Nation' has for its team. On the flip side, outside of Toronto people are overly pessimistic about this team's chances for success. That said, the only way this isn't a playoff team is if Ed Belfour suffers a serious injury. Coach Pat Quinn has finally gone with somewhat of a youth movement, keeping on the likes of Alex Steen and Andy Wozniewski, and their enthusiasm should benefit a club long stuck in the veteran rut. Alexander Khavanov was a masterful pickup by GM John Ferguson (a former assistant GM for the Blues, Khavanov's former club), and if Jason Allison can play 70 games, they'll be downright scary on the powerplay.
- Carolina — In my estimation, there are only seven solid bets in the East. The eighth playoff spot is going to be a dogfight from the next four or five teams, and I believe a Southeast team may sneak in due to the high number of games they play against one another. Carolina's a club everyone is picking to be awful, but I see three solid forward lines and an improved blueline with the addition of Oleg Tverdovsky, Frantisek Kaberle, Mike Commodore and Andrew Hutchinson. Coach Peter Laviolette led this team to a near .500 record in a half season, so if Martin Gerber can hold up as the starter, they may surprise some.
- Buffalo — I like the Sabres as a young club that narrowly missed the playoffs in 2003-04. They had a strong preseason this year, and coach Lindy Ruff, the league's longest-serving bench boss, has to know this is his final chance. Look for Ryan Miller to take the starting job in goal, and Thomas Vanek to make a run at the Calder Trophy.
- NY Islanders — I expect more of the same from the Islanders. Losing the likes of Mike Peca, Adrian Aucoin and Scatchard will hurt, but at least Alexei Yashin finally has a legitimate sniper to play with in Miro Satan. There are pieces here for a successful club, but poor team morale will likely hold them back again (even though Mike Milbury tried to jettison those critical of Yashin).
- Pittsburgh — Yes, I'm predicting a disappointing season for Sid the Kid and company. The Penguins have looked uninspiring in preseason play, and their defensive depth is virtually non-existent. This team will score a lot of goals and be exciting to watch, but if Mario goes down early, expect the team to deflate quickly. I'm expecting big things from Ryan Malone this year.
- Florida — New coach Jacques Martin is really going to help this club, and I like that they've brought in dependable veterans like Gary Roberts and Martin Gelinas to help the youth movement up front. The Panthers defence still looks porous, especially if Jay Bouwmeester's struggles from his AHL season continue, which means another long year for Roberto Luongo.
- Atlanta — A ton of readers will disagree with me on this front, but I unfortunately don't see the Thrashers earning their first postseason berth this year. They'll certainly be contending for a spot into late March, but inexperience in goal and on defence will hold them back. This will, however, be a team to watch in the future.
- NY Rangers — Expect more of the same for the Rangers, who will definitely put more pucks in the net with the likes of Martin Straka, Jaromir Jagr, Michael Nylander and Martin Rucinsky up front. The team that was 27th in goals against in 2003-04, however, will once again been one of the league's worst on that front. I'll print this page out and eat it if Marek Malik can lead the league in plus-minus on this hapless club.
- Washington — Much has been made of how terrible the Capitals will be this season, so I won't pile on. Instead, I'll point to the gains players like new captain Jeff Halpern, rookie phenom Alexander Ovechkin and defenceman Steve Eminger will make logging big minutes for the NHL's worst club. On paper, it doesn't get any uglier than this (poor Ollie Kolzig).
- *San Jose — The West is going to be an absolute dogpile this season. My guess is that only a handful of points will separate the top six teams, and spots seven through 11 will be just as tight. That said, I'll take the Sharks on top simply because a) they are a young team coming off a strong year, b) they play in a weak division c) their roster has remained relatively static from 2003-04. The loss of Mike Rathje to the Flyers will hurt the backend, but Evgeni Nabokov has arrived as one of the league's top goaltenders. This is also a well-coached, well-managed team.
- *Colorado — Again, I suspect this is a controversial pick. The Avalanche came within a point of winning the Northwest division in 2003-04, and aside from Adam Foote and Peter Forsberg (who played fewer than half the games last season), all of the pieces that made that happen are still here. David Aebischer proved last season he's a capable starting netminder, and I like the additions up front of Andrew Brunette and Pierre Turgeon. Depth at forward has been a problem for the Avalanche for a few seasons (which accounts for much of the reason they were 16th on the penalty kill in 2003-04), but newcomers Antti Laaksonen and Ian Laperriere will help address those issues. Answer this: Is a top six blueline of Blake-Brisebois-Vaananen-Skrastins-Boughner-Liles really that weak compared to other clubs? I say no.
- Vancouver — Losing Malik and Brent Sopel has opened holes on the Canucks backend, ones that Tom Benjamin has rightly pointed too in the offseason as areas of concern. The Canucks will score a ton of goals, especially considering that the Sedin twins are ready to take the next step in that regard, but unless Bryan Allen and Steve McCarthy both have career seasons (and the blueline avoids injuries), this team will take a step back this year. Dan Cloutier isn't a concern — in the regular season.
- Calgary — Keeping in mind that this was a club that finished in sixth in the West last season, a jump to fourth spot is an improvement over 2003-04. A full year with Miikka Kiprusoff in net, the additions of Daymond Langkow, Tony Amonte and Roman Hamrlik, and a healthy Steve Reinprecht are all reasons for optimism. This isn't a team I'd want to matchup with in the first round of the playoffs.
- *Detroit — Another perennial Western power that many are predicting to fall precipitously, the Red Wings are going to benefit from playing in the conference's weakest division. It's unfortunate rookie blueliner Niklas Kronwall will miss four-to-six months due to knee surgery, because with the AHL's top blueliner from last year, Detroit's backend looked strong. Even still, goals against won't be a problem. Many pundits miss the fact that, even without Scotty Bowman, this remains a well-coached team, one that will again be one of the top penalty killing squads in the league. That, combined with big seasons from Bob Lang, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg will be enough to keep them on top.
- Nashville — Paul Kariya may be getting the headlines, but this is Tomas Vokoun's team. As the Czech netminder goes, so will the Predators, and given his phenomenal play in 2003-04, I'm placing my bets that Nashville takes yet another step forward this season. Coach Barry Trotz will also have the benefit of being able to deploy the most underrated — and deceptively nasty — defense pairings in the league.
- Los Angeles — You wouldn't know it from their record, but the Kings are one of the best coached teams in the league. The problem has been that coach Andy Murray's troops have been made of glass. Los Angeles has lost 1,165 games to injury the past two seasons, both of which set records. In comparison, the Lightning lost only 34 in 2003-04. This year, with a vastly revamped cast, I expect Murray to push this club back into the postseason on the back of its scoring abilities. Alexander Frolov is the NHL's next superstar, and the thought of him lining up with already established sniper Pavol Demitra should give opposing coaching staffs fits. With solid leaders Jeremy Roenick and Craig Conroy, talented youngsters Dustin Brown and Mike Cammalleri, and an underrated defence anchored by Aaron Miller and Mattias Norstrom, this is a playoff team. Don't overlook last season's AHL goaltender of the year, new Kings backup Jason LaBarbera.
- Minnesota — Think the trap is dead? Think again. Coach Jacques Lemaire's trapping style of play is based more on speed and positioning than hooking and holding, and by adding the likes of speedster Brian Rolston, his club has only increased its defensive prowess. This team was 4th in goals against in 2003-04 with one of the league's best goaltending tandems. With Marian Gaborik playing a full season, they should be able to score more goals.
- Anaheim — I think GM Brian Burke is the smartest man in hockey, so I don't take predicting his new club out of the postseason lightly. That said, he's aiming for this previously trapping team to be molded into an offensive dynamo overnight, something I doubt is going to happen. The strong play of rookies Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf is encouraging, but I'm expecting a few growing pains for new captain Scott Niedermayer and the Ducks.
- Edmonton — Yes, you've got Chris Pronger and Mike Peca. And, yes, Shawn Horcoff looks to shortly become one of the NHL's next great young talents. But then there's Cory Cross. And Ty Conklin. The best move the Oilers made last season was to jettison struggling netminder Tommy Salo, but it's not as if he was the team's only weak point. Youngsters Ales Hemsky and Raffi Torres will have to pick up considerably more of the scoring slack than they offered with their 34-point seasons from a year ago. There's just not enough here to best hockey's strongest division.
- Dallas — I fully expect Mike Modano to have a rebound season, but even if that's the case, the Stars are lacking depth at forward and on the blueline. The Stars are going to play in a lot of low-scoring games this season, so it could go either way (and if any team's fate will be decided by how well they perform in shootouts, this will be the one). That said, one injury to a key defenceman or forward, and there's just not enough not enough depth to compensate for the loss.
- Columbus — They're better, sure, but by how much? Jan Hrdina is the club's top centreman, Rostislav Klesla and Luke Richardson will be counted on for key minutes on defence and sophomore Nikolai Zherdev is going to be relied upon to pickup a lot of the offensive slack. I don't like their chances to tackle the teams in front of them.
- St. Louis — A lot of pundits are picking the Blues to be the conference's worst team, but after a surprisingly inspired preseason, I'm not ready to write them off quite yet. Despite his propensity for letting in Joe Nieuwendyk floaters at inopportune times, Patrick Lalime is as strong a netminder as St. Louis has had in years. The team is also employing a lot of hardworking veterans up front who have something to prove. One of the most troubling things with the Blues is Barret Jackman's continued shoulder problems, which held the promising young defender to just 15 games last season.
- Phoenix — The Coyotes have all of the pieces to be a playoff team, but as a combined effort, they look as terrible as ever. The worst team through the preseason, Phoenix spent their free agent dollars unwisely, investing in the likes of Brett Hull and Sean O'Donnell, both of whom have slowed in recent years. If they play like they have been so far, coach Gretzky won't last more than a season.
- Chicago — Let's say you have $14-million to spend on three free agents this offseason — one forward, one defenceman and a starting goaltender. Who would you add? If you answered Martin Lapointe, Aucoin and Khabibulin, you fail the 'Mirtle Seach for a GM Quiz' and have to go sit with Mike Milbury in the corner. Aside from last season when regular starter Jocelyn Thibault was injured, goaltending has not been the Blackhawks problem. It's everywhere else that they can't seem to get it together, and I can't see that changing this season. Aucoin does provide some stability on the blueline, but considering how woeful the backend was already, well, he's not a miracle worker. Some of the 'Hawks young forwards will be fun to watch, but they are overmatched even in their weak division. One last thing to keep in mind: Before Khabibulin's huge playoff performance, the Lightning were seriously considering trading the underperforming keeper. He's no saviour.