Mirtle's 2006-07 Predictions
Here they are: my thoughts on who will finish where this season in the NHL. I expect to hear yours in the comments section.
Last season in this space, I said the Carolina Hurricanes would make the playoffs and was mocked far and wide. They won the Stanley Cup.
So, hockey nerdom, take note: The Bruins are coming back.
- Ottawa — All off-season, we've heard the talk of the Senators demise. After all, the division rival Buffalo Sabres sure made them look rather beatable in the playoffs last spring. Still, there's always been a strong divide in Ottawa between regular-season success and what happens in April, and all the pieces are here to keep this team on top. Bringing in Martin Gerber ensures the team has a goaltender who's won in the conference before, and Tom Preissing and Joe Corvo, if nothing else, increase the mobility on the Sens blueline. With a couple breakout candidates upfront (Patrick Eaves, Antoine Vermette), what's not to like?
- Philadelphia — At the halfway point last season, the Flyers were 27-8-6 and the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. That, was before the Olympics, before a slew of injuries wiped out the team's experienced blueline and before Philadelphia really seemed to lose its way. Year 2 for players like Jeff Carter and Mike Richards is going to be a big one, and newcomer Kyle Calder is going to mesh well with the pair on a strong second line. The Flyers forward depth is the strongest in the NHL, and if Antero Niittymaki is healthy, he's got the potential to breakout. Both Mike Rathje and Derian Hatcher have vowed for a rebound campaign, and that would mean good things for Ken Hitchcock and Co.
- Tampa Bay — Welcome to the Southleast Division. The past two seasons, the Southeast has been made up of four weak teams and one contender, but this time around we've got four average clubs and the still-rebuilding Washington Capitals. What the Lightning has going for it is a strong top-end cast up front, one that underperformed last season, and some solid goaltending in Marc Denis. If Brad Richards, Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis can all put up big numbers, Tampa will be in the thick of things with Carolina, Atlanta and Florida, none of whom should scare any of the other top teams in the East.
- Buffalo — The Sabres are probably actually the conference's second-best team, but the NHL's lopsided divisional-opponent heavy schedule is going to make it tough for every team in the Northeast Division. Losing Jay McKee, J.P. Dumont and Tim Connolly (concussion) shouldn't hurt given the amount of depth here, and it'll be interesting to see the likes of Tom Vanek, Derek Roy and Jason Pominville step up into larger roles. It certainly won't be a shocker if the Sabres finish ahead of Ottawa for the division lead.
- N.Y. Rangers — There was some loading up in the Big Apple, which is a good thing given coach Tom Renney squeezed a bit more out of his cast last season than most expected. Brendan Shanahan, Aaron Ward and Matt Cullen are all excellent pickups, as is Grade A grinder Adam Hall. Henrik Lundqvist is a huge key here, but he's been lights out in the preseason and looks to have regained his rookie season form.
- Boston — No team improved as much as the Bruins this summer. I like Peter Chiarelli. I like Dave Lewis. I like Zdeno Chara, Marc Savard, Paul Mara and even Mark Mowers and Shean Donovan. Phil Kessel has the kind of talent where he can contribute on offence at age 18, and Brad Stuart showed No. 1 defenceman potential last season when he was thrown into the fire. Patrice Bergeron put up better than a point a game after Joe Thornton was dealt last season, and is ready to take flight, and if Savard can get Glen Murray going, this is a team that will score a lot of goals. If Hannu Toivonen works out in goal, this should be the surprise team of 2006-07.
- Carolina — What'd this team get — a two-week off-season? And talk about hardship and bad luck. One almost expects an anvil to fall on Eric Staal's head prior to the club's season opener, if only to balance out the Hurricanes' IR. Frank Kaberle is out until February. Corey Stillman's gone till January. There's no more Marty Gerber to bailout Cam Ward, who may or may not play as poorly in the regular season as he did last time around. There's a ton to like here, and I do think this is one of the better teams in the East, but everyone's going to be gunning for them this time around and there's a lot of limp in the line-up. It's not a good combination.
- New Jersey — If GM Lou Lamoriello can get all his pieces in order, sign Brian Gionta, Paul Martin, David Hale and a backup netminder, and do it all under the salary cap, he'll be a genius. He'll also be accomplishing something technically impossible, at least if one of the conditions is that he has to retain all his key pieces. Someone big has to leave this line-up, and the Devils simply don't have the prospects and/or depth to replace such a loss. Who it is that leaves makes a big difference in how well this club copes, but even with Patrik Elias for a full season, this is a club that will have difficulty scoring goals. Last season, the Devils managed nine fewer goals than the Pittsburgh Penguins, and we all know where they finished in the standings.
- Montreal — How healthy is Saku Koivu? How will Cristobal Huet play this season? Is Tomas Plekanec ready for the second-line centre role? And can anyone aside from Andrei Markov provide offence from the defence? There are a lot of questions on the Habs. On one hand, this could be a very solid playoff team, the one that blazed to a 19-9-3 record into the postseason last year, but on the other, who knows? They will certainly need more than 65 and 53 points from Alex Kovalev and Sergei Samsonov.
- Florida — The Panthers are far better everywhere but in goal. That's certainly not a surprise given who they lost, but you have to question if the upgrades upfront (Todd Bertuzzi) and on the blueline (Rusland Salei, Bryan Allen) are enough to offset that. Florida finished 21st overall last season, and I think they're improved from that mark — but probably not enough to make the postseason. Still, there's a remarkable collection of young talent here now, and it's only a matter of time before Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss, Rostislav Olesz and Jay Bouwmeester put something special together. If Ed Belfour and Alex Auld hold up in goal, this could be that year.
- Atlanta — No upgrades on defence. A big loss down the middle. But at least Kari Lehtonen is here for the long haul (or so Bob Hartley hopes). I almost feel bad for the beleagured Thrashers coach, who has squeezed a lot from a little on his blueline for a while now. As solid as Andy Sutton and Niclas Havelid are as NHLers, they're not a top pairing on a playoff-bound team. And if GM Don Waddell thinks this club is going to ride 35-year-old Steve Rucchin to glory, they're all in trouble.
- Toronto — I can certainly imagine a scenario under which the Maple Leafs make the playoffs, but it always ends with flashbacks to last season, watching Bruins games where Andrew Raycroft was incorrigibly awful on many nights. If he and fellow ex-Bruin Hal Gill bomb out early, the cat calls will be merciless in Hogtown, and GM John Ferguson Jr. won't last the season. That said, I like a lot of the elements on this team, and there are a lot of underdog types that I know I'll find myself cheering for this season (Kyle Wellwood and Ian White come to mind). The championship drought continues.
- Pittsburgh — This isn't last season and new GM Ray Shero isn't under any illusions just what his team is. They're rebuilding, albeit with a few extra pieces, and growing pains are going to be the order of the day on many nights — especially on that oh so green blueline. Ryan Whitney was phenomenal under the conditions last season and former Harvard captain Noah Welch looks like a keeper, but there's still zero veteran presence on the Pens defence aside from Sergei Gonchar (who really looks like he's come to play this year). Upfront, Sidney Crosby is still main attraction — and maybe even one of the opening acts — but he needs more help than Shero's given him. Losing Evgeni Malkin, if only for 10 games, is a big hurt, and Marc-Andre Fleury's struggles in the preseason should really worry everyone involved. The fact Nils Ekman is slated to play on the first line doesn't excite me at all.
- N.Y. Islanders — It's not as if there aren't talented players here. And new coach Ted Nolan has won wherever he's been. But it's hard to ignore the off-season silliness and think that's going to translate into wins on the ice. My guess is Nolan either kickstarts Alexei Yashin and Miroslav Satan or it blows up in his face, and either way I'm not so sure there's enough here to make the postseason. When you're picking up defencemen the Florida Panthers bought out (Sean Hill), that's a problem.
- Washington — I picked the Capitals to finish last overall last season, and they surprised me by rocketing to 27th in the NHL. And that was with a heckuva lot of things going right in D.C. I've got all the faith in the world in Alex Ovechkin, but the rest of this group is made up of castoffs (Donald Brashear, Richard Zednik) and second-tier prospects (Brian Sutherby, Tomas Fleischmann, Eric Fehr, etc.). Owner Ted Leonsis is obviously looking to collect his revenue-sharing cheque for a second season, as the Capitals just barely floated over the cap minimum during the summer.
- Calgary — In a tough, tough division, the Flames are the cream of the crop. Make no mistake, Alex Tanguay is an elite-level talent, a player who has posted a 1.10 points per game the past two seasons and is still just 26 years old. His presence alone makes Calgary a far more dynamic offensive team (not hard to do given how aenimic they've been) and if any of the kids here can step it up, they'll be difficult to beat. Of course, things begin and end with Miikka Kiprusoff, who is on his way to becoming the franchise netminder of the new NHL.
- Detroit — Their division is still flat-out awful. When the question of who will win the Central begins and ends with placing ahead of the Nashville Predators, you're in safe territory, and the Red Wings moderate upgrades in the summer should keep them safely at the top of the conference. Brendan Shanahan's the biggest loss, but it was high time that players like Jiri Hudler and Johan Franzen had a chance to play more of a scoring role. The addition of Danny Markov and a full season with Niklas Kronwall on the blueline makes this a tough team to play against, and even if Dominik Hasek goes down early, there are plenty of netminding options available to GM Ken Holland.
- Anaheim — The Pacific Division is the up-and-comer in the West, but GM Brian Burke has built a team that is really going to dominate many nights. The Ducks prospect system is the envy of 29 other NHL teams, with NHL ready talent like Ryan Getzlaf, Dustin Penner and Corey Perry joined this season by Bobby Ryan and defenceman Shane O'Brien. The Chris Pronger/Scott Niedermayer combo is obviously what's going to draw most of the attention, but Anaheim was only outscored by five teams through the preseason, and a lot of the growth is going to come from the youngsters. What team wouldn't like a veteran like Todd Marchant on their fourth line?
- San Jose — The preseason pundits' darlings so far, the Sharks are the team absolutely everyone is picking to dominate this season. Given the obvious assets here, with the most impressive being the 1-2 punch at centre, let me focus on what's missing, perhaps as a way to point out the veritable chinks in San Jose's armour. For one, the loss of Tom Preissing necessitates that the team's third most experienced blueliner will be Christian Ehrhoff, he of 105 career NHL games played. Of course, rookie Matt Carle will make a smooth transition, but that's a ton of minutes to hand out to such a green cast. The only other issue is a lack of depth beyond the top two lines, although if Jonathan Cheechoo can pot 56 goals again, that won't matter.
- Nashville — The Predators have the exact same issue as the Sharks in that they'll employ one of the most nonbattle-tested bluelines in the league. Other than Kimmo Timonen, no Nashville defender this season has played more than two years in the NHL, and even then only Marek Zidlicky fits the bill. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are impressive youngsters to be sure, but learning on the fly hasn't traditionally been a winning strategy for teams' defence cores. You also have to wonder who fills the second-line centre here, as Josef Vasicek hasn't impressed anyone since he led an awful Carolina team in scoring in 2003-04.
- Edmonton — Here's my layman's take on what's going to happen with the Oilers blueline: GM Kevin Lowe will start the season with the cast he's got, and if the team wins, he'll stand pat. If not, out the door goes a Raffi Torres type and in comes another blueliner. Even still, I think Edmonton's going to be fine, if only because with Petr Sykora quarterbacking the power play, they'll score a ton on special teams. This will be a hardworking, hard-checking team and it should be great to watch. My guess is Dwayne Roloson really comes to play.
- Dallas — The regular season is really this team's domain, and I'd be shocked to see the Stars miss the playoffs. Even still, given how the Pacific Division improved all throughout last season, Dallas is going to need to step up their game as well. It seems a little much to think a 36-year-old Sergei Zubov can duplicate what he did last season, and Jaroslav Modry and Darryl Sydor are moves that head in the wrong director age wise. I wouldn't be surprised to see Dallas run into all kinds of injury troubles, starting with the likes of Eric Lindros and Patrik Stefan — both no strangers to the infirmiry.
- Minnesota — Pavol Demitra and Kim Johnsson are, indeed, impressive additions, but this is a team that lost four key blueliners. Given coach Jacques Lemaire's playing style, one that didn't translate so well to the new NHL last season, that might not be a problem, but this team desperately needs to find a way to score on the power play. Demitra will help there, to be sure, but this is a team who's fourth-leading scorer had just 40 points and was named Randy Robitaille. They simply couldn't score last year, didn't score in preseason, and a lot of it falls to Manny Fernandez to again be phenomenal or this all goes in the toilet.
- Colorado — It really, to me, comes down to Jose Theodore. If he can play good, or even well, then I think this team will do fine. Losing Rob Blake and Alex Tanguay is obviously ungood, but there's scoring depth here in strange places, and Joe Sakic always seems to rally the troops in Denver. Last season was the team's worst-ever since moving down south, and it's going to be a matter of pride for the newcomers to keep that afloat. All I know is that it'll be a dogfight in the Northwest.
- Vancouver — No one likes the Canucks, especially not after the way they went out last season. And given how dramatic the roster overhaul was, it's hard to feel the pieces will just suddenly fall into place. Vancouver struggled in the preseason scoring goals, and that's going to be a theme all year given coach Alain Vigneault has chosen to play the Sedin twins with the team's lone other offensive threat, Markus Naslund. Jan Bulis might be a decent 25-goal, 50-point option, but beyond that? Roberto Luongo's going to have to be terrific for 70-plus games, but it's hard not to find parallels between what this Canucks team looks like and those struggling Panthers teams he's played for in the past. It'll be interesting to see just how hard this team plays, given how lacklustre the work ethic has been in recent years.
- Los Angeles — Mudcrutch called this a team that didn't know if it was building for now or the future, but I think it's pretty clear — aside from the move to bring in Rob Blake — that Dean Lombardi sees this as a two- to three-year plan to get the Kings back into contention. He's got a few exciting pieces in Alex Frolov and Lubomir Visnovsky, but the team's offensive depth took a big hit when Pavol Demitra was dealt at the entry draft. Los Angeles was tied for 17th in goal scoring last season with Demitra, and just who's going to score this time around is completely up in the air. That said, Marc Crawford is an excellent coach when his team has the puck, and manufacturing offence might not be as big a problem as what happens when Brent Sopel is on the blueline in front of his old pal Dan Cloutier in goal. We've seen this show before.
- Chicago — This team's been so awful for so long that you have to find the positives in quiet, little places. Leading the league in the preseason is one of those. Will the Blackhawks make the playoffs? No, no they won't, but what they should be aiming for is to best their Central Division rivals (the bad ones), as that's certainly an attainable goal. Nikolai Khabibulin looks far better prepared for this season than he was last time around, and with veterans like Martin Havlat, Michal Handzus, Bryan Smolinski and Adrian Aucoin all ready to play, Chicago should at least be difficult to play against this season. At least if you're the St. Louis Blues.
- Columbus — GM Doug MacLean is on the verge of killing his play thing, and I think it's a real testament to how strong the passion for hockey is in Ohio that they keep supporting this dog of a team. Losing Sergei Fedorov in preseason was a tough blow, as rookie Gilbert Brule simply isn't ready for a starring role, and you have to question what Anson Carter's going to bring other than another quiet 55-point campaign. Still, goal scoring should at least improve somewhat from last year. Where you really have to wonder is in goal, with Pascal Leclaire getting the reins by default (this was a team so desperate for competition in goal that they signed Ty Conklin this summer), and on defence, where, aside from Adam Foote, MacLean's idea of depth includes Rostislav Klesla, Bryan Berard, Duvie Westcoff and Aaron Johnson. Another lost season.
- Phoenix — If GM Mike Barnett knows what he's doing, we're still waiting for the evidence. Grabbing Ed Jovanovski was a decent enough move, although he came at a ridiculous price, while Barnett's other upgrades came in the form of Hail Mary attempts in broken-down veterans Jeremy Roenick and Owen Nolan, both of whom haven't hit even 50 points since 2002-03. Last season was a ridiculous carousel of player movement all year long, and after the Coyotes have struggled through the preseason, we could be in for another year of watching the transaction wire in Arizona. I haven't a clue what Phoenix has in mind if 39-year-old Curtis Joseph goes down (and from the looks of things, neither does Barnett). Steve Reinprecht may be one of the lone bright spots this time around.
- St. Louis — Give John Davidson an 'A' for effort: He did all he could to improve this team as quickly as possible. The thing was, he was building from absolutely nothing, and trying to woo free agents who had no interest in joining what was a train wreck of an ownership situation last season. That's changed, but on the ice, things will still be ugly — especially if the team's greybeards (Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight and Bill Guerin) can't put the puck in the net. There's not a single top-end prospect upfront, and those that exist on the blueline are going to be forced into far too many minutes for them to impress. Manny Legace won't have to worry about hanging himself in the playoffs this time around.