Another week, another slate of National Hockey League games in the books.
As we steam towards November, I’ve now had the opportunity to see every Canadian NHL team play at least once. And now more than ever, I’m convinced the Stanley Cup will be residing south of the border for at least another year.
It’s not that I think the six Canadian teams are bad—it’s quite the opposite actually, most of the Canadian squads are better than the league average.
It’s just that none of the teams are quite good enough to win it all.
Last week I examined half of the squads that reside in the Great White North (the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, and Montreal Canadiens)—offering my predictions on where they would finish during the regular season and how they’d fare in the playoffs.
This week, I give you the final three sets of predictions—in alphabetical order—as well as my pick to hoist Lord Stanley’s mug come next June.
Keep in mind that a lot can happen between now and the end of the season (some general manager might panic and give away the next league MVP), so these predictions are by no means absolute.
Having covered myself adequately, here are the predictions:
< *c>Ottawa Senators
I’ll preface my analysis of the Senators with this one statement—I am a fan.
And like any good fan, I find it difficult to think rationally when discussing the team into which I’ve invested a great deal of time, energy, and money. I’ve often said that being a fan is a lot like riding a roller-coaster—the highs are high, the lows are really low.
Sadly, when it comes to the Ottawa Senators these days, I find myself mired in a depression not seen since Alexandre Daigle and Alexei Yashin were the squad’s top guns.
The window for a championship with this current group of Sens’ players is most definitely closed. In fact, I laughed most cynically prior to the season when Las Vegas once again listed the Senators as an odds-on favorite to win the Cup.
It’s not going to happen—at least not with this group.
After years of making shrewd off-season moves, the Senators’ front office fell completely on their collective faces this summer.
Let’s quickly recap:
•Just about the only player who played well in the Buffalo series last May was goalie Ray Emery. So how did the Senators’ front office repay him? They went out and signed Martin Gerber to a three-year, big-money contract.
•Zdena Chara wanted to stay in Ottawa. In fact, he’s gone on record as saying he is considering retiring in Ottawa after his playing days are over. Chara made it perfectly clear he was willing to take a home town discount to remain a Senator.
So what did management do? Nothing. They didn’t even bother to call him in the days leading up to free agency, thus prompting him to leave for Boston.
•It’s early in the season but it has become abundantly clear the Sens lack scoring on their second line. Sadly, the solution to their secondary scoring woes walked out the door this past summer in the form of Martin Havlat.
•Ottawa is terrible in their own end. It’s almost comical what passes for defensive zone coverage in Hockey Country.
So what did management do to address the situation? They signed offensive-minded blueliner Joe Corvo and traded for Tom Preissing. Neither is what you’d call defensively reliable.
The Sens now are a team with a burgeoning goalie controversy, that lack consistent secondary scoring threats, and anything resembling a defence.
But don’t worry Sens’ fans—THIS is the year it all works out.
•Prediction: Finish the season as the seventh or eighth seed. Eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
< *c>Toronto Maple Leafs
I’ll never understand Leaf fans.
Last season, Toronto backers went into the season extremely optimistic about the Buds’ chances. This despite the fact the team was old, slow, and poorly-suited for the new style of play in the NHL.
This season, the mood in Toronto appears subdued even though they have the makings of a pretty good squad. I really like what Toronto did this off-season with one huge exception (more on that in a minute).
The first stroke of genius was giving Paul Maurice the head coaching gig. The Leafs knew they were going to have to go young this year and who better to lead them than the man most familiar with the majority of the players in their minor league system.
Maurice is a winner and he’s willing to adapt his coaching style to suit the new brand of NHL hockey—something his predecessor most certainly was not willing to do.
The next positive was the draft day deal that saw Andrew Raycroft join the Leafs from Boston in exchange for goalie prospect Tukka Rask.
Keep in mind Raycroft is one year removed from winning the Calder Trophy as the top rookie in the league. Granted, he struggled last season but he had one of the worst teams in the league playing in front of him.
Leaf management also has the luxury of goalie prospect Justin Pogge in their system. If Raycroft falls on his face, management need only suffer through another two years of Raycroft until Pogge is ready to assume the netminding duties.
Last season, the Leafs were woefully thin on talented blueliners. The addition of Pavel Kubina should help ease some of the burden shouldered by Bryan McCabe and Thomas Kaberle.
The blueline also will be helped by an influx of young blood. For years Leaf management have allowed young defence prospects to rot in the American Hockey League, preferring instead to sign aging veterans to act of the club’s rear-guard.
This season, the Buds’ have a plethora of young, talented defencemen—Brendan Bell, Jay Harrison, Ian White, and Andy Wozniewski—contributing to the squad.
The last piece of the puzzle for Toronto was the realization that captain Mats Sundin is still a pretty good hockey player.
Two of Maurice’s best decisions in the pre-season were to increase Sundin’s playing time and to give him a talented winger with which to work—Kyle Wellwood.
So far the move is paying great dividends. The talented duo have combined for 19 points through the team’s first nine games.
My only bone of contention with the Leafs right now was the decision to sign Hal Gill. Apparently, the Buds’ need at least one pillion on the roster every season (see Aki Berg).
•Prediction: Finish the regular season anywhere from the fourth to the sixth seed. Eliminated from the playoffs in the second round.
< *c>Vancouver Canucks
The biggest trade of this past summer’s off-season undoubtedly was that which saw Roberto Luongo dealt to Vancouver for a package that included Todd Bertuzzi.
A message to general managers everywhere: never, and I mean never, trade a world-class goalie. I don’t care if the team on the other end of the phone offers to reveal the meaning of life as part of the package.
Goalies win Stanley Cups and there are only a handful of elite level goalies to be found in the NHL right now. The Canucks just stole one from the Florida Panthers in the form of Luongo.
As an aside, I bet Mike Keenan would love a do-over on that deal right about now. I wonder if that trade keeps him up at night?
The fact of the matter is, the Canucks just went from having shaky goaltending—Dan Cloutier and Alex Auld—to being set at the position for the next decade.
I’m sure Luongo will have to get used to not facing 55 shots a night in Vancouver. However, if his early-season performance (2.30 goals against, .920 save percentage) are anything to go by, he’ll be just fine.
The rest of the Vancouver roster is a nice mix of proven veterans, emerging players, and talented youngsters.
Markus Naslund had a tough season last year due in large part to a string of injuries. But the Canucks’ main offensive threat looks to have made a complete recovery and is off to a decent start with nine points in 10 games.
The Sedins—Daniel and Henrik—finally are starting to live up to all the hype. The pair have not missed a beat despite the loss of former linemate Anson Carter to Columbus in free agency.
The defence corps lost stalwart Ed Jovanowski in the off-season but remains a competent bunch thanks to the steady play of Sami Salo, Mattias Ohlund, and Lukas Krajicek.
This year’s version of the Canucks will not score goals like they have in the past but with Luongo between the pipes, they won’t have to. That having been said, I think they’ll try and add a veteran goal scorer at the trade deadline to help in the playoffs.
•Prediction: Finish the regular season somewhere between the fourth and sixth seed. Eliminated from the playoffs in the Western Conference finals.
So who’s going to win the Stanley Cup? My best guess: the Anaheim Ducks.
Another week, another slate of National Hockey League games in the books.