By Ricky L.
As we roll into the dog days of both the summer and the off season, hockey fans are starved for any news pertaining to the sport. This leads to some of the more “creative” minds (COUGH, Eklund, COUGH) stirring up ridiculous and asenine rumors that no intelligent fan would give credence to. Fortunately, I’ve busted out the old crystal ball, and is going to take a look into the future to reveal how the 2011-12 NHL season standings will turn out. Just remember- these predictions are totally guaranteed to happen, and there is no way they will be wrong. It’s E5.
1: Washington Capitals- The Caps lost supplementary pieces to free agency in Jason Arnott and Marco Sturm, but locked up core forward Brooks Laich to a long term deal, which provides them with a power forward they would have sorely missed if he signed elsewhere. Washington also vastly improved their goaltending position by signing Tomas Vokoun (a very underrated goalie who puts up good numbers on terrible teams every year) to a very manageable contract. This puts him in a position to mentor Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby, making the Caps’ future in net very bright.
2: Boston Bruins- The Bruins, much like your beloved Rangers, rarely win on skill alone. The secret to the B’s success starts from the net out, namely with Tim Thomas. Thomas will likely be a great contributor to any of the Bruins’ feats this upcoming season, but it will be quite difficult to reproduce or surpass his NHL record .938 Save % or 2.00 GAA that he achieved this year. Luckily, Boston has Tuukka Rask , who was their starter in ’09-10, and he can eat up at least 35 games this year. Look for Tyler Seguin to be a regular in the lineup, newcomer Benoit Pouliot to be a solid contributor, and prospect Jordan Caron to make the team out of camp.
3: Pittsburgh Penguins- The Pens, like it or not, will take the Atlantic Division title next year. With the shakeup in Philly, they are the kings of PA, and have the skill no other Atlantic Division team has right now. The Pens did not drastically change this off season, so it would appear that the main goal is having Sidney Crosby healthy by training camp. As much as he whines and is Gary Bettman’s BFF, he is without a doubt the best player in the NHL, and has a work ethic to match. He and (relatively) new arrival James Neal have not played together yet, so the hope might be that he and Crosby mesh as line mates.
4: Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning are out to prove that 2010-11 was no fluke, and logic would indicate that it was not. Steve Yzerman has done a fantastic job so far, as he finally found a goalie in Dwayne Roloson and improved the defense by trading for and signing Eric Brewer. The big story here is Steven Stamkos. The 21 year old has emerged as one of the game’s top talents, scoring 98 goals in the last two years and winning a Rocket Richard Trophy along the way. If he and wingman Marty St. Louis can keep putting up points, the Bolts could be a dark horse to come out of the East in the playoffs.
5. Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers have been the talk of the league since their overhauling just before this year’s draft. By trading away Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, Paul Holmgren changed the face of his team by getting rid of his captain and resident 46 goal scorer. In return, they received Brayden Schenn (who was rated the #1 prospect in the NHL by the Hockey News), Jake Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Sean Couturier, and a second round pick in this year’s draft. That is a massive change, and while Filthadephia may fall in the standings this year, they will be stacked for years to come. The majority of the pressure this season, however, will fall squarely on the shoulders of Russian goalkeeper Ilya Bryzgalov, the franchise’s latest in a long line of “franchise” goalies. Bryz choked in the playoffs with Phoenix this year, where about 2,000 people show up at a game, and the fans are casual at best. He better not choke again in Philly, or he will be asking a lot of fans “Why you heff to be mad?”
6: New York Rangers: The Adam Proteau inside me is telling me that the Rangers once again went for the quick fix via free agency by signing Brad Richards. But this is not the case. Richards is a very good center (not ELITE, mind you. He is no Pavel Datsyuk) who will make the players around him better. He does not turn the Rangers into champions, but he provides a much needed service as a first line center to play with Marian Gaborik, who looks to redeem himself after last season’s debacle. At least for the first period of Opening Day, at which point John Tortorella will change the lines. Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, and Artem Anisimov should all make a 10 point jump on the stats sheet, and Derek Stepan should get a shot at playing on the top line, provided he does not fall victim to the dreaded Sophomore Slump. The Rangers have got to get to the second round at least, but a trip to the Conference Finals is not out of the question for this team.
7: New Jersey Devils- Let me just say now that spots 7-10 are a little hazy in my crystal ball, so these spots could very well be interchangeable. These four spots will be separated by five or less points, and will be sorted out in a mad dash for points at the very end of the season. As far as the Devils go, they are an interesting case. Last season, this team showed both how horrifically atrocious and utterly dominant they could be. This team is certainly not as bad as they were in the first half of the year. That malaise can be attributed to the injury of Zach Parise, the failure of head coach John MacLean, the sub par play of $100 million man Ilya Kovalchuk, or any combination of the three. That said, there is no way that the Devs could be as dominant as they were towards the end of the season. They will be a mix of the two, and it will translate into a playoff spot. This is a team in transition, leaving the old championship days of Martin Brodeur and Patrik Elias, and trying to win new ones with the likes of Parise and Kovalchuk. Brodeur is getting older, and while he is still a good goalie, he is a shadow of his former self and will need to give 25-30 games to Johan Hedberg if New Jersey has any hope of making the playoffs.
8: Buffalo Sabres- Like the Canadiens, the Sabres have a great goalie, but not a whole lot else. Ryan Miller is the most talented goalie in the game, but after a down year last season, he needs to bounce back and play as well as we all know he can. Buffalo made a few big changes through free agency, thanks to the deep pockets of new owner Terry Pegula. No matter how incredibly long Christian Ehrhoff was signed for or how grossly overpaid Ville Leino is, the fact remains that they both improve the skill level of the team. The departure of frequent headache Tim Connolly might be addition by subtraction, as his history with injuries and inconsistency has gone across the border to Toronto, to the relief/joy of most Sabre fans. Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek hope to step in and contribute, giving the Sabres some extra skill up front and reclaiming their spots as the squad’s true stars.
9: Montreal Canadiens- I was going to put the Habs in a playoff spot, but then I realized- who do they have aside from Carey Price and PK Subban? Scott Gomez? Brian Gionta? Hal Gill? Maybe 5 years ago that would be acceptable, but not now. Look up and down this lineup, and no one stands out as a game changer. PK Subban is good, but he is not at a level where he is a superstar. Give him a few years and he will be a premier D man, but he still needs more experience. Price will once again have to carry this team with another Vezina caliber season if they want to get into the post season, but something tells me they miss out by a few points.
10: Toronto Maple Leafs- The Leafs are a team that has largely been a disappointment under Brian Burke. He has signed and traded for 2nd and 3rd line players and expected them to be stars on a team that clearly needs more. Since the massive overcompensation for signing Phil Kessel, Toronto finally has begun building through their youth. Rising star James Reimer overtook the starting job in net from JS Giguere late last season and won 20 games. Trading Tomas Kaberle for Joe Colborne, drafting Tyler Biggs, and getting Cody Franson shows a new commitment to the future of the organization. New addition Tim Connolly adds first line skill, but can be maddeningly frustrating with inconsistency and injuries, often being invisible for games at a time. Toronto’s gritty style of play makes them a tough team to play against, but this is not their year. This could be a playoff team in 2012-13.
11: Carolina Hurricanes- The Hurricanes won’t necessarily be a doormat this year, but they won’t make the playoffs. They have core players that any team would envy: reigning Calder Trophy recipient Jeff Skinner, captain and top 10 center Eric Staal, and Conn Smythe winning goalie Cam Ward. Complimentary pieces such as Chad LaRose, Jussi Jokinen, and Joni Pitkanen should make the Canes a decent team, but not a playoff bound one. The problem with Carolina is their lack of depth behind their key players. The 3rd and 4th lines are nothing to write home about, and the defense is average at best, giving up 239 goals in ’10-11, 10th worst in the league. Free agent signing Tomas Kaberle should boost the power play, but he will be looked upon to lead the defensive corps in Carolina, something that did not work well in Toronto.
12: New York Islanders-This is where I see a drop in points in the Eastern Conference. Carolina should be within reach of the 8th seed, but New York will be at least 10 points out of that spot. Goaltending is always a factor on Long Island, as the team went through six goalies last season. The Islanders could very well go with a three Goalie rotation, much like they did in ’09-10 with Rick DiPietro, Dwayne Roloson, and Martin Biron. This year, it could be DP, Al Montoya, and sporadic appearances from either Kevin Poulin or Anders Nilsson as call ups from Bridgeport. I will be generous and say DP will play 25 games spread over the course of the year. Montoya will play about 40 games, and the other 17ish games will be played by one of the two previously mentioned Bridgeport goaltenders. Matt Moulson appears to be for real, reaching the 30 goal plateau for the second time in two years, and Michael Grabner is only going to get better with age. Along with regulars Josh Bailey, John Tavares, Travis Hamonic, and Andrew MacDonald, and prospects Nino Neiderreiter, Kirill Kabanov, Calvin DeHaan, and Ryan Strome, the Islanders are only a year or two from making the playoffs again. If they could sign good free agents, they would be in the playoffs this year.
13: Winnipeg Jets- The Jets are spending this season in the Southeast Division before heading to the Western Conference. In other words, they have one last year to make the playoffs in the easier Eastern Conference before the superior skill of the Western Conference grinds them to a bloody pulp. It ain’t happening. In the early stages of ’10-11, the late Thrashers (RIP) were actually challenging the Capitals for the division lead. This was all well and good, until other teams keyed in on Dustin Byfuglien and Ondrej Pavalec crumbled to dust. When the Capitals decided to stop playing around, the Thrashers fell to 12th place in the East, and were subsequently sold and relocated. Much of the Jets’ future is invested in Evander Kane and Alex Burmistrov. The former is a good power forward with skill to match his physicality (who could forget his famous beat down of Matt Cooke? How friggin great was that?), and the latter is an undeniably gifted player who has amazing offensive ability and creativity. Also paramount to the Jets 2.0′s success is Tobias Enstrom. He is a good defenseman with underrated offensive abilities, and he clicked with Buff last year.
14: Florida Panthers- Oh, the Panthers. Since losing the Cup to Colorado in 1996, life has gone downhill for the Cats. After not making the playoffs for 10 years, one would figure that their fortune would have to turn at some point. Not this year. Much akin to the Maple Leafs in 2009-10, marginally skilled players mixed with overpaid free agents does not equal success. GM Dale Tallon certainly has very little to work with from within, so he had no choice but to be active in the free agent market. Fans can find solace in the fact that Tallon is trying to make his team better by any means possible, but Brian Campbell, Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg, and Nolan Yonkman, among others, are not the answer. Rather, prospects like Erik Gudbranson, Jonathan Huberdeau, Jacob Markstrom, and Rocco Grimaldi are. Markstrom could make the squad after spending last year in the AHL.
15: Ottawa Senators- Let’s look at the positives for the Sens. They have a really good shot at the 1st overall pick next June. They have a good goalie prospect waiting in the wings with Robin Lehner, who will most likely play for the Binghamton Senators in the AHL this year, and one of the best prospects out there in David Rundblad, the offensive defenseman who tore up the Swedish Elite League last year. The negatives: They are not good at all. Daniel Alfredsson is over the hill. Craig Anderson very well could be the latest member of the famed Ottawa Goalie Graveyard, where goalies’ careers go to die. His stock is obviously very low after being traded straight up for Brian Elliott, the Senators’ former third string goalie. The talent level in Ottawa is nearly nonexistent, so hope is invested in the future. But that investment might be worse than one made in Lehman Brothers in 2008.
1: Vancouver Canucks- There is no denying the fact that the Canucks are one of the most talented teams in the league. The Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler, and Alex Burrows are all very skilled players who can play two way hockey, killing penalties just as well as they score on the power play. But what really sets this team apart is their depth. Guys like Christopher Higgins, Manny Malhotra, Mikael Samuelsson, Jannik Hansen, Mason Raymond, and Cody Hodgson really make this team a powerhouse and tough to beat. Also, when a team has a defense that can afford to lose a player like Christian Ehrhoff without batting an eye, you know you have a stacked team. Depth was how the Blackhawks won the Cup two seasons ago, and it was how Vancouver got to the Finals in June. The Canucks can easily make the Cup Finals again, but Roberto Luongo will have to maintain his mental composure. This is a goalie that has all the talent in the world, but constantly psyches himself out and creates his own personal hell. As any goaltender knows, the game is 10% physical and 90% mental. Vancouver goes only as far as Luongo will take them, but if he has a media circus following his every move, they won’t get too far.
2: Nashville Predators- It may seem as if this is going way off the board with this pick, but you look at the facts, you will see it’s not that outlandish. If the division winner automatically gets a top three seed in the conference, this puts Nashville right in the middle with the second of three spots. Nashville had 44 wins and 99 points last season, which was three wins and five points less than the Central Division champion Detroit Red Wings. Nashville has done nothing to get any worse this off season. In fact, having Mike Fisher on the team for the entire year could add up to a few more wins this year. It’s not unrealistic to think that Fisher could be the Preds’ leading scorer this year. That, and the fact that his wife Carrie Underwood is the best hockey wife in the game, makes him a very valuable player on the Predators. But Nashville is not known for its offensive prowess, but rather its solid team defense. Shea Weber is obviously a great defensive defenseman with a bomb from the point, and Ryan Suter is a budding young defenseman who represents the futures of the franchise, but Vezina finalist Pekka Rinne is the rock in net that holds this team together.
3: San Jose Sharks- Despite their previous shortcomings in the playoffs, the Sharks are shedding the title of post season choke artists. Having made the Western Conference Finals two years running, the Sharks look to make the next step and reach the Cup Finals for the first time in team history. There is no doubt that this is a very good team- they have won four straight division titles and a President’s Trophy in 2008-09. The Pacific Division is a tough one, but San Jose has made moves this offseason to give them a leg up on the competition. GM Doug Wilson made two separate trades with the Wild, sending Devin Setoguchi, their top prospect Charlie Coyle, and a 2011 1st rounder (Zack Phillips) for Brent Burns, and then swapped Dany Heatley for Martin Havlat. Coyle will be missed by the Sharks, as their farm system went from weak to barren, but Setoguchi was expendable due to the Sharks’ surplus of forwards. Heatley was a frequent frustration as he never was as dominant as he once was in Ottawa. Burns was costly, but he should bolster an already impressive defense. Havlat should have a good year, benefitting from other offensive weapons and having less opposing defenders focusing solely on him.
4: Detroit Red Wings- The only thing standing the Red Wings way is Father Time, and that didn’t stop them last year. But it ended the careers of a few Wings, as Brian Rafalski, Chris Osgood, and Kris Draper all hung up the skates in the offseason. Fortunately for Detroit, their captain and current Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom decided to stick it out for another year. At the age of 41, he is no spring chicken, but he was good enough to rack up 62 points in the 2010-11 campaign and lead his team to a division title. Detroit isn’t going to miss the playoffs this season, or any seasons in the near future, because of their star forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. These are two premier talents in the NHL who can match up with any players in the league, both offensively and defensively. Datsyuk and Zetterberg scored a combined 47 goals and 139 points in 136 total games last year. Goalie Jimmy Howard has enjoyed success in Detroit over his two years in the league, sporting a 2.53 GAA and a .916 Save % over his career, and Ty Conklin was brought in to fill the void left by Osgood, so Detroit has their goaltending situation figured out for this year. While the Wings won’t be any worse this year, finishing first in the division is not a given anymore.
5: Chicago Blackhawks- There is little doubt that last year was a severe disappointment for the Blackhawks. Going from Stanley Cup Champions to making the playoffs in the 8th seed on the last day of the season (and only because the Stars lost their final game) was not the type of title defense Chicago was looking for. Granted, no other team in NHL history has had to depart with 11 players of their team one month after winning the Cup. Regardless, the Hawks still have one of the most talented teams in the league. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook are all players that can dominate a game based on sheer talent. But talent can only carry a team so far, and when talent didn’t win games for the Blackhawks last year, nothing did. But GM Stan Bowman made some very shrewd moves in the summer, signing the likes of Andrew Brunette, Jamal Mayers, Sean O’Donnell, and Dan Carcillo. Brunette may skate like he is going through mud, but he gets to the dirty areas of the ice, like the opposing crease. He could score 20 goals on a line with Sharp and Hossa. Mayers is a good soldier who can grind it out for his team, and if he doesn’t work out he can be sent to Rockford of the AHL. Former Flyers Sean O’Donnell and Dan Carcillo are also low risk options, with O’Donnell playing in the third defensive pair, and Carcillo playing a bottom six energy guy. Like him or not (not), Carcillo does his job well, namely piss off the opposition with a smile on his face. Bowman also jettisoned Brian Campbell to Florida for Rostislav Olesz, who’s body is held together by Scotch Tape, paper clips, and chewed gum. People outside of Chicago might not realize the impact that Campbell’s absence might have on the Hawks. While he was overpaid and could never earn his $7+ million a year, he provided veteran leadership on a young team, something Chicago did not have a lot of last year. He also was a 2nd pair D man who could take the puck up the ice, allowing Duncan Keith to rest and not play 40 minutes a night. This puts a huge amount of pressure on young Nick Leddy to be that reliable offensive guy, something he might not be ready for. All in all, there is no reason that the Blackhawks’ playoff hopes should come down to the wire like they did last season, but they aren’t going to win the Presidents Trophy by any stretch.
6: Los Angeles Kings- LA has a good shot at making a long playoff run this year. GM Dean Lombardi’s philosophy on building a great team revolves around the concept of having strong goaltending, solid defense, and top centers. He appears to have achieved all of these goals this summer. Starting in net, the tandem of Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier has worked wonders for the Kings so far. The aptly named Quick displays a tremendous amount of athleticism in his game, and it translated into a 2.24 GAA and .918 Save % last season. Bernier will look to dethrone Quick as the starting goalie, even though LA has stated that Quick will be the starter come October. The defense, led by Drew Doughty, has been the Kings’ bread and butter. Doughty has certainly been one of the Top 5 defenseman in the league, combining offensive prowess and stifling defense in a way that few others can. As the Kings’ forwards go, they finally got their second center in Mike Richards. The Kings have been looking for another first line forward since the 2010 free agency, when they lost the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes to the Devils. LA was thought to be interested in the services of Brad Richards, but Lombardi instead traded for Mike Richards. The price of Wayne Simmonds, Braden Schenn, and a 2012 2nd rounder is a small one to pay for an established star. The signing of Simon Gagne also gives the Kings a sniper on the second line, and even though he had a down year with Tampa Bay, he could emerge as a legitimate secondary threat for the Kings, something any championship caliber team needs. LA is definitely in a “win now” state of mind, and they just might have the tools to do it in the near future.
7: Anaheim Ducks- The Ducks had an average season last year, but catapulted from 12th place in the West to the 4th seed thanks to a herculean effort from Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry. Perry potted 25 goals in the Ducks’ last 30 games, and finished with 50 goals and 48 assists. Playing on a line with Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby “Silver” Ryan doesn’t hurt, either. But solid play from that trio is a constant. One uncertainty for the Ducks is whether Teemu Selanne decides to come back for another year. As a 40 years old with a bum knee, retirement may seem imminent, and his 31 goals and 80 points will be hard to replace. Without Selanne, the Ducks’ would have to find extra offense in other places, like Andrew Cogliano. Cogliano has been mostly a disappointment for the Oilers, who traded him to Anaheim for a 2013 2nd round draft pick. But he has the talents to be a solid contributor to Ducks’ offense. Two other sources of offense will actually come from the blue line, in the forms of Lubomir Visnovsky and Cam Fowler. Visnovsky looks to build on last season’s success, in which he had 50 assists and 68 points. This might be hard to replicate, but he could still be expected to score at least 50 points. Fowler showed the 11 teams who passed over him in the 2010 draft what they missed out on by scoring 40 points in his rookie campaign, but that -25 +/- will have to improve if he wants to be a star in the NHL. Another concern for Anaheim is the health of goalie Jonas Hiller. An All Star last year, Hiller was sidelined for half of the year with bouts of vertigo, leaving the net to the tandem of Ray Emery and Dan Ellis. They didn’t resign Emery, which means two things: Hiller is either fully healed, or Ellis will have to be the starting goalie if Hiller is unable to. That is a mighty big gamble, but one the Ducks seem willing to take. Anaheim will make the playoffs, but the path there might be even more arduous than last year’s.
8: St. Louis Blues- Remember the old saying, ‘If you and your friend are being chased by a bear, you don’t have to out run the bear- just your friend’? Same principle applies for the Blues. It’s not that the Blues are a great team and deserve to get in the playoffs, but out of all the teams vying for the 8th seed next year, they are just better than the others. This is an off the board choice, sure, but it is not a stupid one. The main problem with the Blues last season was a terrible rash of injuries that crippled them for the season. If anyone recalls, the Blues actually were 9-1-2 after they defeated the Rangers on November 7th, so it’s not as if they are a terrible team. They have a goalie who can win games with Jaroslav Halak, who looked like a Vezina candidate early in the season. Midway through the season, the Blues and Avalanche made a surprising trade that caught nearly everyone in the hockey world off guard, sending former 1st overall pick Erik Johnson, Jay McClement, and a 2011 1st round pick (Duncan Siemens) for Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk. Although Johnson hasn’t exactly reached the potential that the Blues thought he would reach, it seems odd that they would send him packing at the tender age of 22. But Stewart and Shattenkirk are great young players and well worth the price St. Louis paid for them. Stewart is a power forward who has plays a game very similar to that if Jarome Iginla, and has 40 goal potential. Shattenkirk is an offensively gifted defenseman who can replace Johnson on defense and on the powerplay. If players like David Perron and TJ Oshie can remain healthy, the playoffs should be attainable for the Blues.
9: Phoenix Coyotes- The problems in Glendale obviously run deeper than the Coyotes themselves, with the constant threat of relocation, the indifference of local fans, the lack of an owner not named Gary Bettman, and the inability to sign high profile free agents. This year could be a crucial one, as a failure to reach the postseason could mean relocation. Sadly, I don’t believe that the Coyotes can make the playoffs this year. It’s a real shame, but Phoenix is not a true contender in the Western Conference, where last season’s 4th seed and 10th seed were separated by five points. They have some great young players, like Kyle Turris, Mikkel Boedker, Martin Hanzal, and Keith Yandle, but the fact remains that this team isn’t going anywhere this season. The main reasons for this are their goalies. Not being able to sign Ilya Bryzgalov was a huge loss for the Yotes, who only got a 2012 3rd round pick, Matt Clackson, and future considerations in return. The Coyotes attempted to fill the gap Bryzgalov left by signing Tampa Bay goalie Mike Smith. GM Don Maloney must have liked what he saw when Smith relieved Dwayne Roloson several times in the playoffs, but to think that a goalie who had the starting job taken from him by Dan Ellis and Roloson (and neither of whom are exactly Patrick Roy) can play to the level which Bryzgalov had is absurd. This isn’t to say that Smith will be a sieve. In fact, there are games where he can be lights out, but he is wildly inconsistent and often loses just as many games a he wins for his team. Smith will probably see about 45 games, while backup Jason LaBarbera plays the other 35 or so games. Phoenix is counting on this tandem maneuver to pay dividends, but two backup goalies splitting time together doesn’t equal success. The Coyotes will be close to the playoffs, but as they say, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
10: Dallas Stars- Dallas better show that they can win some games this year, or GM Joe Nieuwendyk will have a lot of explaining to do. Having the choice at the trade deadline to trade Brad Richards, who at that point was almost guaranteed to hit free agency, or keep him and try to go deep in the playoffs in an effort to convince Richards to stay, Nieuwendyk chose the latter. This choice came after he completely over priced Richards, reportedly asking the Rangers for a package of players involving Marc Staal, Derek Stepan, Brandon Dubinsky, and Ryan Callahan. The Rangers rightly refused, and the Stars retained Richards, only to miss the playoffs by two points on the last day of the season. When Richards refused to waive his no trade clause before the draft, the Stars really screwed themselves because they got absolutely nothing for the coveted center. Had Nieuwendyk sold lower, he probably could have gotten an NHL player, a prospect, and maybe a pick. But by not being sellers at the deadline, Dallas has only Loui Eriksson, Jamie Benn, and Mike Ribiero to carry the offense. The only problems with this are that Ribiero has been marginal at best in recent years while playing a style of hockey that is Downy soft, Benn is too young and hasn’t been a dominant force for the Stars, and Eriksson will be the only consistent offensive factor on the team. Kari Lehtonen seems to be a nice bridge from Marty Turco to Jack Campbell, and he gives Dallas a chance to win, but Dallas will squander quite a few of those chances this year en route to missing the playoffs again.
11: Minnesota Wild- Let me start by just reiterating how bad the Northwest Division will be this year. Of all the teams in the division, only the Vancouver Canucks will make the playoffs, and many of their points this season will come from beating their laughingstock division rivals. It’s similar to the Southeast Division, where the Capitals are the only good team in the division, and 100 point seasons are almost a given. That said, the Minnesota Wild will finish second in the Northwest this season. The Wild will have to count on an improved forward corps, courtesy of the San Jose Sharks, if they hope to improve on last year. Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi will help a team that is looking to a bunch of goals this season. Heatley is probably more talented than Martin Havlat (whom he was traded for), but never was the 50 goal scorer for San Jose that he was in Ottawa. Mikko Koivu should thank his lucky stars that he no longer has to be the sole provider of offense on the Wild, and in fact will have other scoring threats to distract opponents while he quietly puts up a 25 goal and 80 point season. If Pierre-Marc Bouchard can play at least 60 games (that’s a big if), he can be expected to score around 40 points. The big hole for this team is on defense, because trading away Brent Burns left them without a #1 defenseman. This will be the Wild’s downfall, and a major reason why they won’t make the playoffs.
12: Calgary Flames- Calgary will slide down two spots in the Western Conference standings, and it will only get worse in coming years. Sure, the Flames may have traded away bruising defenseman Robyn Regher. It may hurt, but it won’t cripple them for years to come. Yes, both Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kipprusoff may both be another year older. That is going to leave the Flames in a bad spot, but aging is to be expected. What really screwed Calgary is their farm system. After the Tim Erixon trade, which sent an NHL ready first round defenseman to the Rangers, the Flames parted with their top prospect; but the kicker is that he was their only good prospect. At least they got Roman Horak in the deal, but he is not destined for much more than a bottom six NHL forward. It’s a possibility that Sven Baertschi could become the team’s top forward when Iginla retires, but he will have no help around him, and the Flames will sink into obscurity and futility in coming years.
13: Colorado Avalanche- The 2011-12 season will not be a kind one to the Avs. After losing the race to last place to the Oilers, Colorado picked up Kitchner Rangers’ captain Gabriel Landeskog in the 2011 draft. Landeskog has a definite chance to play in the NHL next year, given his physical maturity, innate hockey sense, and natural leadership skills. He will be a cornerstone for this franchise in the future, and may don the “C” one day, but this year he can expect to score 40 points. He will be given every chance to succeed this season, seeing sone time on the first line, power play, and even penalty kill. Matt Duchene and Paul Stasny will be looked upon to lead this team in offense, and Erik Johnson looks to be the rock on defense. But the real upheaval in Colorado is in the crease. Craig Anderson, the previous starting goalie, was sent to Ottawa for Brian Elliott. Elliott and Peter Budaj were not resigned by Colorado, so GM Greg Sherman traded a 2012 1st round pick and a 2012 or 2013 2nd round pick for Semyon Varlamov. The Avalanche traded for the disgruntled Russian because he was unable to resign in Washington and was about to sign in the KHL, and Colorado thinks he can be the goalie that leads them to a championship. In addition, JS Giguere was signed as a backup/mentor for Varlamov. This tandem could work for the Avalanche, but the fact remains that this will not be a good season for the Avs. They will finish one spot higher in the conference because they get the benefit of the doubt that they are a better team than last year’s injury ravaged team was, but they will still be cellar dwellers in 2011-12.
14: Columbus Blue Jackets- The Blue Jackets shook up their roster this summer via a trade with Philadelphia, sending Jakub Voracek and their 2011 1st rounder (Sean Couturier) in exchange for Jeff Carter. The upside to this trade is that the Jackets get a first line center to play with Rick Nash, finally giving Nash a line mate skilled enough to keep up with him. The downside to this is the fact that Carter is not a playmaker. Nash plays a sniper’s game, and Carter plays the same way. The two do not compliment eachother, rather, they are two of a kind. It is possible that a player to the effect of Vinny Prospal can be the passer on a Carter-Nash line. It could help, and if that is the case, it could be a very potent line that keeps opponents on their toes. Outside of the Carter-Nash Connection, the defense and goalies have been shaky at best. On the 2011 trade deadline, Columbus traded Rostislav Klesla (the first ever Blue Jackets draft pick) for Scottie Upshall. Klesla, Jan Hejda, Mike Commodore, and Sami Lepisto all will not be playing for the Jackets this season, leaving the defense in a very fragile state. Combine that with the fact that Columbus’s starting goalie, Steve Mason, has been a huge letdown since his Calder Trophy winning rookie season. Mason put up eerily similar numbers in the past two seasons, with a 3.03 GAA/.901 Save % in ’09-10 and a 3.05 GAA/.901 Save % in ’10-11. Backup Mark Dekanich has exactly 50 minutes of NHL experience, so if Mason flops or gets injured, there is no telling whether the Blue Jackets will be able win games with Dekanich between the pipes.
15: Edmonton Oilers- Edmonton is on the rise, even if it doesn’t happen this year. Their forwards have incredible talent, and the sky is the limit for all of them. That will happen when you have two 1st overall picks in two drafts. Taylor Hall, last year’s top draft choice, is living up to the expectations of the collective city of Edmonton. He will be top dog in Edmonton for years to come, and should be able to score 80-90 points one day. This season, if healthy, he should get around 55 as the Oilers top offensive force. Yeah, that’s about as good as it’s going to get in Oil Country this year. But with a supporting cast that involves the likes of Jordan Eberle, Linus Omark, Magnus Paajarvi, and possible NHLer Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, offense will be the least of the Oilers’ problems. It will still be a problem, because after those guys the team had almost no one else, but it will be the least of them. This really speaks to just how bad the Oil’s defense and goalies are. On defense, Ryan Whitney is the best the Oilers have to offer. While Whitney is not a bad player by any means, he is not a first pair defenseman. The lack of defenseman is why they traded Dustin Penner to the Kings for a 2011 1st round pick (Oscar Klefbom) and Colton Teubert, both of whom immediately became Edmonton’s top defensive prospects. Some thought that in the 2011 draft the Oilers could have traded down and swapped picks with Florida, who had wanted the top pick, and taken Adam Larsson. Larsson was the top defender in the draft, but GM Steve Tambellini chose to stand pat and take the obvious #1 player in Nugent-Hopkins. The goalie situation in Edmonton is the worst. The Oilers thought they were getting their go to guy when they signed starting goalie/felon Nikolai Khabibulin in 2009, but they obviously did not realize that he had been replaced by Patrick Lalime a few years earlier and again by Cristobal Huet- before Huet had ever played a game for the Hawks. Now the trashed tender will miss a month of training camp to serve a prison sentence for a DWI bust in Phoenix last season. If only poor Khabby blew the Breathalyzer as well as he blew games for the Oilers, he would have been set free. Now I’m no expert, but I think a goalie with a drinking problem is a very poor investment. But this could explain a lot, actually. The average goalie only has to focus on stopping one puck, but the “Boozin’ Wall” probably saw two or three pucks and just didn’t know which one to stop. Behind the Russian, there is Devan Dubnyk, the only other goalie in the Oilers’ system who has played in the NHL. Your reaction may be, “Who?”. Exactly. The playoffs are a long ways away for the Oilers, but when they get there, look out.