Canadian teams good, not great

All right, it’s time.
The National Hockey League has been back in action for two weeks and while it’s extremely early in the season, I thought I’d take a quick peek at the six Canadian teams and try to forecast their chances for success.
Some of you are probably wondering why I didn’t do this two weeks ago prior to the start of the season? The answer: I needed to see the teams play games that actually count towards the standings.
It never ceases to amaze me that a multi-million dollar industry exists based solely on people’s excitement concerning the start of hockey season.
Think about it. Magazines across North America, and especially in Canada, make an absolute killing every year with their NHL season preview editions. The minute the publications hit the stands, usually in August, hockey fans snap them up in the hopes that the “experts” are pegging their team for success.
And while I hate to be the bearer of bad news for both my peers in the media and those fans who plunked down their hard-earned bucks on one of these publications, I feel it’s my duty to offer this piece of insight—the books are never right.
How can they be? The magazines are written and published before a minute of meaningful hockey is ever played.
Who cares how a team looks in the pre-season? The reality is that most of the guys who are getting big pre-season minutes either won’t be on the team or will be logging time on the third or fourth lines if they crack the roster.
The preview magazines are simply educated guesses. No more, no less.
However, five regular-season games are more than enough to determine whether this is going to be the first year Lord Stanley’s mug comes back to Canada since the Canadiens managed the feat in 1993.
All sarcasm aside, I give you Part One of my best guesses concerning the fortunes of the Canadian teams this season. Part Two will appear in next week’s column.
< *c>Calgary Flames
The “new NHL” has received near universal applause by players and fans alike.
Most can’t stop talking about how great the crackdown on obstruction has been, how wonderful it is that the skill players are racking up points at a dizzying pace, and how exciting it is to see games with scorelines that resemble those found in Major League Baseball games.
The one exception to the league-wide optimism can be found in Calgary.
The Flames appeared on the verge of greatness following their improbable Stanley Cup run just prior to the lock-out. They were tough. They worked hard. And they’d stolen a championship caliber goalie from the San Jose Sharks in a trade.
Life was good.
Then came the rule changes. The crackdown on obstruction meant the Flames no longer could smother the opposition in their own end unless they wanted to spend the night in the penalty box.
The Flames suddenly needed their offence to score three or four goals a game if they were going to be competitive—and they quickly found out that it simply wasn’t up to the task.
The end result wasn’t pretty—the Flames were bounced in the first round by the Anaheim Ducks last spring.
Looking to address the scoring problem during the off-season, the team traded for Colorado Avalanche forward Alex Tanguay on draft day. With the move, Flames’ management hoped they’d finally found the man to play opposite Jerome Iginla on the team’s top line.
So far it hasn’t quite worked out as planned.
The Flames have managed just nine goals in their first five games and, to make matters worse, Tanguay—one goal and one assist thus far—was dropped to the second line for Saturday night’s game versus the Leafs.
Barring another major deal for more offensive help, the Flames are in trouble.
•Prediction: Finish between sixth and eighth in the West; eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
< *c>Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers have been reading from the same script for years—fight like crazy all season, sneak into the playoffs as one of the lower seeds in the West, scare one of the top seeds in the first round, get eliminated, lose some quality players in free agency, rebuild with younger players, repeat.
The cycle appeared to have finally been broken last season with the introduction of the salary cap.
As such, the Oilers got aggressive last summer knowing they couldn’t be drastically outbid by the richer teams in the league and their efforts netted them two of the best players available in Chris Pronger and Mike Peca.
Edmonton made another deal for goalie Dwayne Roloson at the trade deadline and rolled through the Western Conference playoffs before eventually losing to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup final.
Oilers’ fans—hurt by the Stanley Cup loss—took heart knowing their team would return most of the roster.
And then the weirdness started. Pronger—an absolute stalwart in the playoff run—announced he wanted out of Edmonton for personal reasons. The Oilers acquiesced and dealt him to Anaheim for native-son Joffrey Lupul and four prospects.
Mike Peca and Jaroslav Spacek them jumped ship in free agency.
Faced with the prospect of losing all the key players he’d worked so hard to bring into the fold, Oilers’ general manager Kevin Lowe overspent to retain Roloson—an aging goalie with a bad knee.
Heading into this season, Oilers’ fans found themselves asking the all too familiar question: will the young players produce enough for this team to win?
Offensively the Oilers should be fine. Shawn Horcoff, Ryan Smyth, Ales Hemsky, and Peter Sykora will score.
However, I worry about the defence. The Oilers are going to need to get something out of young and inexperienced players like Matt Greene, Jan Hejda, and Ladislav Smid.
If Roloson isn’t able to play at the same level he did down the stretch last year, Edmonton fans will be disappointed.
•Prediction: Finish between sixth and eighth in the West; eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
< *c>Montreal Canadiens
First the good news for fans of arguably the most storied franchise in Canadian sports—the right people are in charge.
General manager Bob Gainey has proven himself to be as shrewd an executive as he was a player. He has an eye for young talent and is not afraid to make a tough decision if he feels it’s necessary (see the Mike Ribiero for Janne Niinimaa trade).
First-year head coach Guy Carbonneau will have the team playing solid defensive hockey and should be more than adept at handling the oft-difficult Montreal media.
The future looks bright.
Now for the bad news—the future is not now.
The Canadiens are forced to compete in the Northeast division. With the new schedule format, that means they have eight games each against the Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres, and Boston Bruins.
Ouch.
The Senators, Maple Leafs, and Sabres all possess talent superior to that found on the Canadiens’ roster. The Bruins also should be tough once their numerous off-season acquisitions get accustomed to playing together.
Any time Radek Bonk is one of your team’s top two centres, you know you’re not knee deep in talent. Add into the equation the uncertainty surrounding whether David Aebishcher and Cristobal Huet is really a number-one goalie and you have a recipe for mediocrity.
The Canadiens will undoubtedly play tough this season, but ultimately will come up a bit sort.
•Prediction: Finish out of the playoffs.
acruickshank@fortfrances.com

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