Thursday, October 02, 2008

NHL season preview
2008-09 Predictions

In my opinion, the last thing you should do when it comes to an NHL season preview is simply take last year's standings and shuffle teams around a spot or two. If we've learned anything postlockout, it's that this is a league of incredible parity, which means even the best teams are an injury (or bad break) or two from bottoming out.

That said, the East seems a lot more volatile than the West, and we could see some real shifting in the higher-scoring conference. I'm going off the board on some of these picks, but here's how I see it:

Eastern Conference
  1. *New Jersey — Might as well start off with a surprise. The Devils had the deck stacked against them early last season, with a new building's late debut forcing them to wait until Game 10 before playing at home, and injuries to Colin White and Jamie Langenbrunner handcuffed new coach Brent Sutter to start the year. Once Langenbrunner returned to the lineup and took the captaincy, however, they went on a roll in putting up a 105-point pace after mid-November. Factor in that they lost no one of consequence in the off-season and added a player that averaged 32 goals a season the last three years in defence-first Minnesota, and New Jersey is going to battle for first in the East. (As long as Martin Brodeur's healthy, that is.) Key player: Brian Rolston

  2. *Washington — Toss out the first 21 games of the season last year, and this was one of the best teams in the league. Whether or not that's sustainable over a full season, and with Jose Theodore in goal, remains to be seen, but there's no question that the Capitals have more than a few burgeoning stars still on the rise. We've yet to see the best from Nicklas Backstrom, for instance, and full seasons from Alex Semin, Chris Clark, Sergei Fedorov and Michael Nylander (if he sticks around) will only help. That Ovechkin's pretty good, too. Key player: Jose Theodore

  3. *Buffalo — The storyline on the Sabres' demise last year revolved entirely around the loss of both Danny Briere and Chris Drury, but Buffalo was the fourth-highest scoring team in the league last season — and that was with key cogs like Tim Connolly and Maxim Afinogenov battling injuries. Where it went wrong was defensively and in goal, something that should be rectified with the additions of Craig Rivet, Teppo Numminen and Patrick Lalime. This team remains loaded up front and Ryan Miller should be much more effective if he plays 10 fewer games. Key player: Ryan Miller

  4. Montreal — There's going to be a ton of distractions in Montreal this season with the 100th anniversary celebration, but this is a solid team — especially with the addition of Alex Tanguay up front. The Canadiens were incredibly fortunate on a number of fronts last season, however, getting a huge comeback year from Alex Kovalev and hardly battling any adversity on the injury front. There could be more challenges to face this time around.
    Key player: Alex Kovalev

  5. Philadelphia — Another high-scoring team in the East, the Flyers have terrific depth up front — especially with Simon Gagne back in the mix. On a team like Atlanta, for example, rookie Claude Giroux could likely step into a top-line role, but here he's going to spend time in the minors to start. Where Philadelphia will have some growing to do this season is on the blueline, as with Derian Hatcher out of the picture, Randy Jones becomes the team's No. 3 defender and there are some question marks in terms of depth there. A major injury to either Kimmo Timonen or Braydon Coburn would be tough to overcome. Key player: Braydon Coburn

  6. Pittsburgh — It's going to be very difficult for the Penguins to rise above losing their two top players in terms of minutes played last season, and an awful lot of responsibility is going to be given to the young stars here. Pittsburgh desperately needs breakthrough campaigns from Jordan Staal and Kris Letang, a Hart Trophy season from Sidney Crosby and good health for Marc-Andre Fleury. The runner-up curse strikes again? Key player: Kris Letang

  7. Boston — The Bruins are a tough call. The team's top two goaltenders are 34 years old, with Tim Thomas coming off what could be an aberrational year, and the blueline is once again going to rely very, very heavily on Zdeno Chara (who is coming off off-season shoulder surgery). They need more goals this season — they finished 25th in the NHL in the category last time around — which is always a dicey proposition under Claude Julien. Trading Marc Savard, something that has been rumoured lately, would be a mistake. Key player: Zdeno Chara

  8. Florida — Yeah, again I'm going to take a flyer on the Panthers. Tomas Vokoun was phenomenal last season, one of the top five netminders in the league, and the blueline in front of him has improved drastically with the additions of Keith Ballard, Bryan McCabe and Nick Boynton. What they desperately need is some more scoring, and it's going to have to come from the kids. Pete DeBoer has the potential to get this team playing over its head — and could be a Jack Adams candidate if he does. Key player: Stephen Weiss

  9. Ottawa — My biggest concern with the Senators is what's happening on the blueline, where Filip Kuba and Jason Smith will fill the No. 3 and 4 roles despite really struggling last season. Depth's a problem all around, and the choice of Craig Hartsburg as coach, given his previous go-rounds, is a risky one. After the way they ended last season, Ottawa's a bubble team. Key player: Martin Gerber

  10. N.Y. Rangers — Huge roster makeovers are tough to deal with sometimes, and the Rangers definitely underwent one this off-season. Putting them 10th may be a bit of a reach, but the rumours that Henrik Lundqvist's health may not be 100 per cent continue to persist, and the news on newcomer Wade Redden's play so far hasn't been all that positive. Beyond their top-line players, New York is relying on a ton of youth, and depth (and leadership) could be a problem if injuries strike. Key player: Wade Redden

  11. Carolina — There's been a really interesting shift on the Hurricanes' blueline in a short amount of time, a transition that's going to see Joni Ptikanen, Tim Gleason and Joe Corvo play huge minutes this season. And while that will translate to an improved power play, it's going to create headaches elsewhere, and netminder Cam Ward's going to have to be far better this time around. (The good news is he has a better backup in Michael Leighton.) Losing Justin Williams for most of the season will sting. Key player: Cam Ward

  12. Tampa Bay — Good luck to these guys. What I see is question marks in terms of coaching, in goal, on defence and depth up front. Who plays the defensive minutes here at even strength? On the penalty kill? If there's an injury on the blueline, can they recover when the options are Vladimir Mihalik and Matt Smaby? And how will Vinny Lecavalier and Paul Ranger play coming off of major shoulder injuries? Key player: Mike Smith

  13. Atlanta — John Anderson's a great coach, there's no question, but this is a very difficult situation to step into. Team morale in Thrashersville hit a big-time low last season when Marian Hossa was finally dealt away, and it's going to take a real culture change to keep this team competitive. They really need Kari Lehtonen to stay healthy and newcomers like Jason Williams, Colby Armstrong and Mathieu Schneider to have a big impact. Key player: Slava Kozlov

  14. Toronto — There's pretty much zero expectations on this team, and that's probably a good thing. Watching them get waxed by St. Louis 7-3 in preseason Wednesday looked like a preview of the near future, where we'll see Alex Steen on the first line and Jamal Mayers picking up the biggest minutes of his career. It looks like a tank job, even with Ron Wilson at the helm, and I fully expect to see anything resembling a veteran tossed overboard come the trade deadline. It could get ugly — although that's probably not a bad idea. Key player: John Tavares

  15. N.Y. Islanders — Scott Gordon's troops have scored four goals in four preseason games so far, and that kind of nonexistent production is going to be the norm this season. There's so little to work with here that it's possible, for the second year in a row, no Islander tops 50 points. They'll need a rebound campaign from Rick DiPietro to avoid embarassment. Key player: Victor Hedman

Western Conference

  1. *San Jose — I really like what the Sharks did in the off-season. Dan Boyle may be horribly overpriced, but he's still a Grade A power-play quarterback, and his presence will go a long way to bumping San Jose up among the league leaders in play with the man advantage. Another good move was last year's late-season acquisition of Brian Boucher, who should take some of the pressure off Evgeni Nabokov and allow him to have a breather once in a blue moon. San Jose really struggled to score last season, the result of injuries (Ryane Clowe) and horrible slumps (Patrick Marleau), and it'll be interesting to see what new coach Todd McLellan coaxes out of some of his more browbeaten stars. I bet they shine. Key player: Dan Boyle

  2. *Detroit — It seems unlikely there'll be any Stanley Cup hangover here. The Red Wings look tougher on paper this season than last time around, and the only real potential hiccup I can see is if Chris Osgood struggles with the starting duties. Even that, however, is a pretty minor quibble considering how easy Detroit makes life for its netminders. The addition of Marian Hossa gives this team a triple threat up front that could potentially see three 90-point scorers on the same team — and when's the last time we could say that?
    Key player: Chris Osgood

  3. Dallas — The Stars are a pretty well-balanced team these days, able to provide offence and prevent goals against, and a full season with Brad Richards in the mix gives them a really nice mix down the middle this season. The question marks come back on the blueline, where, with Sergei Zubov battling injury again, a lot of duties are going to fall to the likes of Matt Niskanen, Nicklas Grossman and Mark Fistric. Even so, that group proved its mettle in the postseason last year. Key player: Sergei Zubov

  4. *Minnesota — Yes, long-time key cogs in Pavol Demitra and Brian Rolston are gone, but this has never been a team built around a high-flying offence and batting in another 220 goals shouldn't be a problem. Where the Wild improved the most is on the back end, as the addition of Marek Zidlicky gives coach Jacques Lemaire some real options offensively. Brent Burns's arrival as a Norris Trophy candidate will also help in the goal-scoring department, and Mikko Koivu showed last season he's ready for the top-line duties. Key player: Marian Gaborik

  5. Anaheim — Even minus Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne for huge portions of last season, this was one of the strongest defensive teams in the league last year (they finished second in goals against behind Detroit) and Randy Carlyle's stingy system and J-S Giguere's play in goal will assure it stays that way. Having Niedermayer, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan with the NHL club all season will help, but a playoff spot is by no means assured. There's little room for error in the West this season. Key player: Chris Pronger

  6. Edmonton — How much of last season's 14-5-1 finish was a mirage? And what leaps forward can we expect from the Oilers' Kid Line this season, given the way they ended last year? In terms of personnel, Edmonton picked up some nice pieces in Erik Cole and Lubomir Visnovsky, and some better luck in the injury department should see them right in the mix for one of the final three playoffs spots this season. Key player: Mathieu Garon

  7. Chicago — The big additions of Cristobal Huet and Brian Campbell are going to get the headlines, but the Blackhawks' biggest steps forward stand to come from within. New captain Jonathan Toews has the potential to score 35 goals this season if healthy, and on the blueline, it's finally time for Cam Barker to settle into a major role. Dealing Robert Lang has opened a big hole at centre, however, and if the team also moves out Nikolai Khabibulin, there's a bit of a question mark should Huet falter. It remains to be seen if this team can improve enough in the goals against department to make the postseason. Key player: Jonathan Toews

  8. Colorado — There's no question Peter Budaj's a risk as the starter in goal, especially with Andrew Raycroft as his backup, and that's the gamble that the Avs' season hinges on unless they add another 'tender at some point. Elsewhere, the roster should be very competitive, however, as they really missed Paul Stastny and Joe Sakic at times last season and could see a bounce back from Ryan Smyth up front. Having Adam Foote in the fold for a full season, even at his advanced age, is going to really help the penalty kill — although they may miss Kurt Sauer and Jeff Finger. Key player: Joe Sakic

  9. Calgary — Minus both Kristian Huselius and Alex Tanguay and putting Todd Bertuzzi into a scoring role is a troubling switchup for a team that was right in the middle of the pack in terms of goals for last season. But the real cause for concern here has to be the play of Miikka Kiprusoff. If he returns to form, there's no question this is a playoff team, but otherwise? Key player: Miikka Kiprusoff

  10. Columbus — This is a very, very important year for the Blue Jackets from a front-office perspective, as fans in central Ohio are beginning to stay away as the playoff drought stretches into its eighth year. Columbus could finish dead last in attendance this season if the team struggles early on. The good news is that Ken Hitchcock is going to coax as much as possible out of this ragtag bunch, and for the first time in a long, long time, there are some offensive weapons to pair with Rick Nash up front. The bad news? Even their best might not be enough in the West this season. Key player: R.J. Umberger

  11. Nashville — The Predators' high-profile loss was an unexpected one, with Alex Radulov's defection to the KHL while under contract, but there are other subtractions to consider. Gone are Marek Zidlicky, who potted 25 points on a dismal power play last season, and the insurance in goal, where Dan Ellis is now going to have to prove his dream rookie season as a 27-year-old wasn't a mirage. The team's forward depth took a hit, too, with Martin Gelinas and Jan Hlavac moving on. Nashville's one of the best-coached teams in the league and has some really unheralded talent on the blueline, but they're going to be battling tooth and nail for a playoff berth again. Key player: Dan Ellis

  12. Vancouver — I suppose we'll see how much preseason means when it comes to the Canucks, who after pasting the Flames on Wednesday night are the last undefeated team left in exhibition hockey. Scoring will continue to be an issue in Vancouver, but even by potting as many goals as they have the past two years, a playoff berth is possible if Roberto Luongo returns to form. A breakthrough from an unexpected source — and a break in the injury department — would go a long way toward improving their playoff chances. Key player: Steve Bernier

  13. Phoenix — Adding Olli Jokinen up front instantly gives Phoenix the first-line centre it's been seeking for ages, but the cost in terms of defensive depth could prove this team's undoing. Beyond the top four, which played exceptionally well last season, there are definite question marks, and any prolonged injuries to the blueline would be disastrous. The Coyotes are getting closer to a breakthrough, however, and are going to continue to become more of a threat offensively as Peter Mueller and the other youngsters mature. Key player: Ilya Bryzgalov

  14. Los Angeles — Even with the addition of Sean O'Donnell, this has to be the greenest crew on the blueline we've seen a team ice postlockout. Jack Johnson is going to play primo minutes, and it remains to be seen if, at 21, he's up to the challenge on a team that's going to have a lot of them this season. Where the Kings should have some strength is on offence, as they ranked 12th last time around and could progress even higher should Patty O'Sullivan finally sign a contract and players like Teddy Purcell and Brian Boyle get a chance in a scoring role. There's potential for the goaltending to be decent, but if it implodes, look out: The lottery's not far off. Key player: Patrick O'Sullivan

  15. St. Louis — The Blues were looking to lean pretty heavily on Erik Johnson this season, especially on the power play, and now that he'll miss the whole season after playing golf-cart bumper cars in preseason, they're in a bit of a jam on the back end. St. Louis is going to get some breakout performances from the likes of David Perron and David Backes in the near future, but this is a team that finished near the basement in goal scoring and on the power play last season even while getting 43 goals from Brad Boyes and 27 from an aged Keith Tkachuk. There's not a lot of margin for error here. Key player: John Tavares
*- division leaders



At 4:28 a.m., October 02, 2008, Blogger Bob Arctor said...

Edmonton and Calgary could probably be interchangeable in position based on the goal tending they receive. Good on you to recognize the Wild as eventual winners of the Northwest. Even if they've dropped off somewhat from last year, they'll still be good for 45+ boring wins.

At 5:08 a.m., October 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

in a team with Crosby, Malkin, Fleury; since when is Kris Letang a key player? I don't get it. Because of Gonchars injury? Then Gonchar is still the key player. Injured, but key. Injured key player. Yes, that does exist.

At 8:06 a.m., October 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You picked the Sharks to finish ahead of Detroit? Couldn't bring yourself to do it, could you? Even if all things were equal on the ice, Detroit doesn't have to face Dallas and Anaheim as often as the Sharks. Factor in that Detroit has a bit of an edge in scoring potential with Hossa added to the stable and probably the best top 4 D in the NHL, and its a tough conclusion to support. ;)

At 8:19 a.m., October 02, 2008, Blogger FAUX RUMORS said...

1) Out West Phoenix will surprise many this season in a positive way, and in the East our 'surprise' team are the Senators who don't see as a playoff team this season
2) We agree that an injury or two to a few key personell(espcially a starting goalie) throws a monkey wrench into any prediction

At 8:45 a.m., October 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fatso is too old and out of condition to lead the Devils beyond 6th at best.

At 8:45 a.m., October 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John Tavares is destined to become the Phil Kessel of this year's draft. Too much hype for too long. Not that having a "kessel-type" is a bad thing, but I don't see him as the 2nd coming.

Of course, if the opportunity presents itself, the Leafs would snap him up at #1 in a heartbeat. Any other team will do their due diligence, and he'd likely go 2nd or 3rd.

At 8:51 a.m., October 02, 2008, Blogger P.O. said...

dude... the Red Wings will not finish behind the Sharks... they are going to absolutely crush the regular season and then suffer a shocking loss in the second round (sound familiar??) also, the Pens finishing BEHIND the Flyers? Seriously? Please stop drinking Puck Daddy's Kool Aid

At 9:59 a.m., October 02, 2008, Blogger saskhab said...

The Caps will scratch and claw their way into the playoffs thanks to shoddy D and goaltending.

Somehow getting on your case about the Habs at 4th doesn't have the same effect, James. You got cold feet.

Edmonton won't make the playoffs. Did everyone forget that their entire playoff run last year was only possible due to a freaky shootout record dependent on Mathieu Garon having a regular save % in (as in, same save % on breakaways as in a full game)? They'll sniff around the playoffs, but they won't make it. That back end is still incredibly injury prone.

Tampa Bay will win the SE just to spite us all.

San Jose will struggle out of the gate. Boyle and Blake anchored 2 of the worst 5 D's in the NHL the past 2 seasons, and it'll be a lot different learning a new game plan with those 2 making errors all the time. They're smart and talented, though, and they'll work there way back into that 4/5 slot. I like Dallas a lot in that division.

You and I pick 7 of the same 8 teams to make the playoffs in the East, and 6 of 8 in the West. I honestly don't know what to make of Colorado right now.

At 9:59 a.m., October 02, 2008, Blogger Fred Poulin said...

Common James, the Sabres in front of the Habs? When Craig Rivet is your best d-man you're in real trouble!

At 10:27 a.m., October 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love the fact that the Rangers are not getting love this year. I am not going to say they win the east. But, I will guarantee that alot of the "experts" eat their words with the Rangers come May/June.


At 11:12 a.m., October 02, 2008, Blogger Adam C said...

Nice write-up, James. I liked your key player identification - I think it was bang on.

I do think that Nashville and the Rangers will be more resilient than you've given them credit for, but I'm not surprised you took the Habs fourth and Pittsburgh sixth. I think Gainey's nervous about repeating success too, which is why he picked up Tanguay and made such a serious run at Sundin.

It's hard for a team to follow up on a huge single year improvement; which is why I think Washington will still be on the bubble this year.

At 11:37 a.m., October 02, 2008, Blogger Flicktron said...

In regards to Pittsburgh, I somewhat do disagree with how we lost two of our key players.

We lost Hossa, who played more than two handfuls of games, and then Malone who was effective, but didn't score like he did when he was a rookie. I think the Pens look better. Unfortunately Gonch and Whitney are gone for a long time.

The only problem that I could see hampering them is the defence, but the depth there is fairly decent as well.

The key players is a nice piece, pretty much dead on.

At 11:59 a.m., October 02, 2008, Blogger saskhab said...

In regards to Pittsburgh, I somewhat do disagree with how we lost two of our key players.

We lost Hossa, who played more than two handfuls of games, and then Malone who was effective, but didn't score like he did when he was a rookie. I think the Pens look better. Unfortunately Gonch and Whitney are gone for a long time.

Based on what he said (in terms of tops in minutes played), I believe James was talking about losing Gonchar and Whitney, not Hossa and Malone.

At 12:09 p.m., October 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

dude... the Red Wings will not finish behind the Sharks... they are going to absolutely crush the regular season and then suffer a shocking loss in the second round (sound familiar??)

Familiar like last year? Or the year before that?

I beg to differ. The inevitable second-round collapse is the nearly exclusive domain of the San Jose Sharks.

Detroit may very well get upset in the playoffs, but it will be because guys are injured or they just don't play well - not because they choke from the pressure. Not every team that loses actually "chokes," and it's a symptom of lazy thinking to use the term as a catch-all.

At 12:10 p.m., October 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've seen three Rangers' games so far and they look very average. If that.
Naslund is over the hill, Gomez is over paid and Lundqvist has bad knees.
No playoffs for this group.

At 12:36 p.m., October 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Camalleri has no effect in Calgary in replacing Tanguay and Huselius?

At 12:47 p.m., October 02, 2008, Blogger Jeremy said...

The Northwest Division seems almost impossible to call this year. I'd agree that only two will make the playoffs, but I think they're pretty much interchangeable. Injuries will likely be the difference.

At 1:20 p.m., October 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sabres ahead of the Habs? Don't quit your day job, cuz predictions aren't really your "thing."

At 4:14 p.m., October 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i guess you really are kinda daft, i don't see how buffalo is better than montréal, or, really, how buffalo is better than ottawa or boston, either. i suppose you haven't paid attention to what's happened in phoenix, either. but, so be it. i guess the point of the net is that any eejit with an opinion can have a blog, so kudos to you, mr. mirtle.

At 4:20 p.m., October 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The addition of Marian Hossa gives this team a triple threat up front that could potentially see three 90-point scorers on the same team — and when's the last time we could say that?

Uhh, way back in 2005-2006. I know that's a loooong time ago, but perhaps because two teams (OTT & ATL) managed the feat, it wasn't special enough for you to remember?

At 4:39 p.m., October 02, 2008, Blogger Adam C said...

...and any eejit with no spine can post anonymous comments.

"I don't understand... you must be stupid..."

At 4:40 p.m., October 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey look! Two anonymous idiot Habs fans!

If the Sabres' backend solidifies behind their 4th ranked offence (top ranked the year before) then they'll be above the habs, the sens, the bruins, and the Leafs (well...regardless).

At 4:46 p.m., October 02, 2008, Blogger Aaron said...

these might be the best pre-season predictions out there. props for taking some guts to make some real predictions.

At 7:56 p.m., October 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fatso has never been fat and he's entered training camp in better shape then ever.

Gotta love ignorant Rags fans and can't wait to see then fight for 8th place this year. Welcome back to reality Rags fans, I hope you enjoyed your big 1st round win over the Devils last year because things will return to normal with NJ domination of your forever underachiving franchise.

Go Devils

At 9:10 a.m., October 03, 2008, Blogger yoyogurl said...

Okay, seriously. What the hell does Chris Osgood have to do to get some respect? I know he backstopped an awesome team last year but the dude had 27 wins, came in cold in the playoffs and played solid the whole way. Does he have to win EVERY game he plays and then win the Cup with the Wings only playing three players in front of him? Either his play mattered or it didn't, in which case the Wings could apparently put me in goal and still win.

At 11:00 p.m., October 05, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This list is terrible.

At 11:01 p.m., October 05, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

NJ at 1
Buffalo at 3???
Give me a break.


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