By Mitch Calvert
This has got to be the best time of year to be a sports fan. The NFL is in full swing, baseball is in the thick of the playoffs, and the NHL is back on rinks across North America.
Normally every hockey pundit on the globe likes to chime in with their biased—and usually incorrect—predictions on how the standings will unfold.
I am no different.
(And even if I’m completely off base, by the time the season is settled, this column will be a distant memory. So what do I have to lose?)
In the Western Conference, last year’s Stanley Cup champs only have gotten better, so the Detroit Red Wings should cruise to the President’s Trophy. Marian Hossa gives them two legitimate scoring lines, and if Johan Franzen gives them even half the goal pace he was on through the final third of last season and playoffs, they’ll be downright scary.
Having two of the best two-way forwards in the game—Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg—certainly doesn’t hurt, either.
2. Anaheim Ducks
Yes, many experts think this team will fall off this season, but they still have the best defensive tandem in Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger. Teemu Selanne will prove he has plenty left in the tank and J.S. Giguere gives them a solid option in goal.
3. Calgary Flames
Goalie Miikka Kiprusoff should rebound from an off-year by his standards a season ago, and additions Mike Cammalleri and Todd Bertuzzi better fit the Flames’ style than departing forwards Alex Tanguay and Kristian Huselius did.
4. San Jose Sharks
Dan Boyle fills the void left by Brian Campbell on defence, and expect bounce-back years from Patrick Marleau and Jonathan Cheechoo now that former coach Ron Wilson has left.
5. Dallas Stars
A full season from Brad Richards and the addition of agitator Sean Avery should help this team win as many, if not more, hockey games than they did last season. Marty Turco is no slouch between the pipes, and Brenden Morrow has that rare combination of leadership, grit, and skill to will his team to victory.
6. Chicago Blackhawks
Adding Brian Campbell helps the power play, and sophomores Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane only will get better after their standout rookie campaigns. Cristobal Huet should give them good enough goaltending to make the playoffs.
7. Edmonton Oilers
A healthy Sheldon Souray and the addition of Lubomir Visnovsky give them a solid one-two punch from the back end on the power play, and the youngsters (Sam Gagner, Robert Nilsson, and Andrew Cogliano) will provide plenty of energy all season long. Goaltending is a bit of a question mark, but they should score enough goals to sneak in.
8. Vancouver Canucks
This spot will be a dog fight to hold on to all year long, but the additions of Pavol Demitra and Steve Bernier should give them just enough scoring to win games with Roberto Luongo and a premiere defence keeping pucks out of their own net.
9-15: The Phoenix Coyotes will be close, but have too many youngsters to make the jump this season. Columbus, Minnesota, and Colorado should all be in the thick of things down the stretch, and I expect Nashville, St. Louis, and L.A. to be fighting for last place.
Over in the Eastern Conference, I see the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup final. A healthy Simon Gagne adds even more depth to their offence-rich squad, and Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen both can log upwards of 30 minutes a night on defence.
Martin Biron proved last season he has the wherewithal to be a No. 1 goalie.
It’s the 100th year of the Canadiens’ franchise, and nothing short of a Stanley Cup win will be acceptable. I don’t think they have the team toughness (Georges Laraque is a sideshow enforcer and nothing else) to make it to the final, but they will put together plenty of wins during the regular season.
I only put them here because the three division winners get the top three seeds, and the Capitals are better than any other team in the Southeast. Alex Ovechkin can win games on his own, and Mike Green will lead all defenceman in NHL scoring this season. They’ll win plenty of 4-3 and 5-4 games, so Jose Theodore won’t have to be relied on to stop 40 shots a night.
4. N.Y. Rangers
They made plenty of noise in the off-season adding forwards Nikolai Zherdev and Markus Naslund, and newly-acquired defender Wade Redden gives them a proven power-play quarterback that was lacking last season.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins
I would’ve pencilled them into first place prior to the injuries to Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney, but they no longer have a legitimate power-play QB. Miroslav Satan is not Hossa.
6. New Jersey Devils
Always a sound defensive team, the addition of Brian Rolston will help skilled forwards Zach Parise and Patrik Elias improve on last season’s numbers and give the Devils a much-needed scoring threat.
7. Boston Bruins
I think a healthy Patrice Bergeron goes a long way to improving this team. Their “lunch pail” team-first style of play got them into the playoffs last year, and they should be better this time around.
8. Carolina Hurricanes
Losing Justin Williams to injury hurts, but what else is new? I think Joni Pitkanen will help to give them scoring from the blueline while Cam Ward should continue to progress in goal.
9-15: The Ottawa Senators’ defence looks shaky and obviously goaltending will be an issue again. Florida is on the cusp, but their forward corps is pretty young and new to one another. The Tampa Bay Lightning are a mish-mash of skilled forwards and inexperienced defencemen while the Buffalo Sabres continue to lose players and not replace them.
Toronto, Atlanta, and the N.Y. Islanders all look like cellar-dwellers to me.