Every year you see hundreds of so called sports analysts on TV and in print that try to predict how the regular season will shake out. As was recently pointed out by rabid Leafs fan Down Goes Brown, this is impossible. In fact anyone who says they can do it and have an iota of accuracy is a filthy liar, I'm looking at you Pierre McGuire and Bob McKenzie. So instead of pretending that I have some sort of hidden hockey knowledge that no one else has, I'm going to give out my predictions of the final standings at the end of this year's regular season, and tell you right off the bat it's going to be completely made up. It may be ridiculously wrong by April, but I'm going to give reasons for my predictions that I think many people would agree with. I'll start with the Western conference to build the suspense as most people who read this will be Habs fans. So take that, I'm making you wait!
15th Hamilton Blackberries... err... I mean Phoenix Coyotes - Montreal fans know all too well how offseason distractions can mess with a season. What we dealt with last year however is absolutely nothing comparatively to what the young and fragile Coyotes team will be going through in the coming season. With ownership in flux and the stability of the franchise in severe doubt, it's going to be very tough on the roster that is almost entirely filled with young, inexperienced players. Shane Doan will likely be the rock that he always is, a lunch pale super star who does all the difficult things every night, but as we've seen for the last few years, he can't do it alone. The Phoenix organization isn't strong in any area, from management to coaching right down to player personnel. Young players like Mueller, Turris, Boedker, Yandle, Hanzal and more have been rushed forth into the league because of management's refusal to add established players worth their weight in paper, yes I said paper. Despite knowing the game better than possibly any player in history, Wayne Gretzky is not a good coach, he hasn't helped the development of his young players and at this stage in the Coyotes' rebuild that's about the only major thing that's important. Look for Phoenix or by then perhaps Hamilton to be drafting Taylor Hall.
14th Los Angeles Kings - The Kings have prospects out the rear, and they're certainly headed towards a competitive team in the future, however with a very young defense headed by Drew Doughty, this is not the year they'll break out and make the playoffs. Management went the wrong with this summer with Ryan Smyth, and although he will provide grit and leadership on the young team, his usefulness is in the playoffs, and in close games on a winning team. Jack Johnson has been an utter disappointment in the NHL, and with players like Drew Doughty, Thomas Hickey and Colton Teubert in the system on defense, he is either destined to be a 5th or 6th defenseman, or he will be moved soon. I don't believe he has it in him to become the force scouts once thought. Goaltending remains a major concern in LA, although Jonathan Quick seemed to grad the reins last year and play well, I find it hard to fully believe he'll capture that same magic in his sophomore season on an overall weak team. Up front there will be enough solid scoring to move up in the rankings, but only if Quick suddenly becomes Patrick Roy. Frolov, Kopitar, Smyth and Dustin Brown will be good enough to make games against LA a difficult endeavor, but they'll come out on the losing side anyway more often than not.
13th Nashville Predators - Once again the future is bright for this franchise, with solid blue chippers like Collin Wilson, Jonathan Blum and Ryan Ellis, this team is going to recuperate fast. However at the present time the Predators are a team with no scoring depth up front, and depending on a repeat season from Shea Weber, and a rebound season from Ryan Suter. Up front there's definite concern with with secondary scoring, as outside Jason Arnott and JP Dumont there's something to be desired. Legwand is still a third line center getting paid like a 1st liner, and Steve Sullivan is not the same player as he was before his back injury, and remains fragile despite having the heart of a lion. The defense has a solid top three in Weber, Suter and Hamhuis, but outside them it gets really thin really fast. Barry Trotz has all the respect in the world as a coach, as he's pulled some clunker Nashville teams into the playoffs, but his magic can't work every year, especially with this severely lacking forward cast. However the biggest problem I see for the Predators is in goal, even though it's purely speculation. Pekke Rinne is very likely to follow in the footsteps of the last new starting goaltenders in Predators history, and flop this season. If that happens, nothing Trotz can do will fix this team over 82 games.
12th Colorado Avalanche - The Aves will be improved this season with a better goaltending tandem that doesn't include Andrew Raycroft, and a new coaching staff as the (in my opinion) inept Tony Granato has been shown the door in favour of a coach who's worked his way up the minors, Joe Sacco. However this the positives mentioned comes some glaring problems; face of the franchise Joe Sakic has retired, and offensive depth is nowhere near what Colorado fans have been used to since the franchise was moved (*cough* stolen!) from Quebec. Wojtek Wolski and Marek Svatos haven't worked out as well as top 6 forwards as management expected, with the loss of Smyth and the aging of Hejduk there seems to be very little depth up front, especially if Stastny goes down to injury again this season. Stastny is a super star among perimeter players, so his point production may not get up to a point per game this season. The defense is solid in their own end this season, but the Avalanche are still lacking a true shooter to quarterback the powerplay. They went out and acquired Preissing and Quincey who are both passers, who along with Liles makes one wonder where they all fit. The defense is also a little slow, which will probably cause problems when the Avalanche play puck possession teams like Detroit, and the faster teams in the Eastern Conference. It's going to be another long and dreary season in the mile high city this year, and even the addition of Matt Duchene won't help much.
11th Minnesota Wild - The Wild waited until their biggest star was gone to finally style the team in a way that would suit his playing ability. Then to make matters worse they signed another injury prone star with less skill. If hockey history can teach anyone anything, we should all realize last year was an aberration for Martin Havlat, and he'll likely play far fewer games due to a variety of odd injuries. Mikko Koivu is emerging as an excellent player, but outside him and Havlat nearly everyone else at the forward position is disappointing. Wild management decided it was time to abandon defense first hockey and treat the fans to fire-wagon style, but they don't have the tools to pull it off. Brent Burns will likely rebound from a dismal season last year, and together with Marek Zidlicky will provide two good puck movers from the back end, but there aren't enough top tier or even second tier offensive talents on the team to get away with fire-wagon hockey and no be exposed. Niklas Backstrom will likely be left to stand on his head on many nights this season, and we'll see if he's really the goaltender many people believe him to be, or just an average NHL starter who benefited from Jacques Lemaire's brilliant defensive trap.
10th Edmonton Oilers - This season should be a make or break year for Edmonton. They haven't made the playoffs since they went to the cup finals against Carolina, and that is unacceptable in the so called city of champions. The young players absolutely must step up this year if there is any hope of making the playoffs, let alone making an impact. The offensive contingent of the defense is stellar, perhaps one of the best top four in the league, and if the young guns on the Oilers can keep up on the power play, Edmonton can do some major damage. With a coaching tandem of Pat Quinn and Tom Renney, there will be much less scapegoating in the media as we saw so much from the classless MacTavish in the last few seasons. The biggest uphill battle for edmonton this season is going to be insulating Khabibulin. Although he had a great year last year, he statistically has trouble adjusting to new teams, and let us not forget that Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook also had career years and were stellar in their own zone. Edmonton doesn't have a legitimate shut down pairing, and that could expose Khabibulin as the season wears on. Edmonton also has no backup plan in goal, as it seemed clear from last season that Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers is not ready to be an impact goaltender in the NHL.
9th Columbus Bluejackets - A disappointment is inevitable this season for the Blue Jackets. Like Pascal Leclaire before him Steve Mason massively over-performed last season, and will not be able to repeat. There are too many ifs on this team for me to believe that they'll make it back into the playoffs. The future is still extremely good with a bona-fide superstar in Rick Nash, and some top tier centers finally coming up through the system in Brassard and Filatov, which Columbus has lacked since the franchise began. But on defense the team is thin at best, and incredibly weak at worst. Ken Hitchcock is a very good coach, but he has a bad habit of sitting back at the end of games where he has a small lead, which can implode a team quickly, which many Canadians saw first hand in the World Hockey Championships in Quebec City in 2008 (which I attended), as Russia stormed back to tie and eventually win the game. The Blue Jackets are going to be as good if not better as a team this coming season than they were last season, but improvements to other teams will leave them on the outside looking in.
8th Calgary Flames - The Flames have had an odd summer in my opinion. Calgary, who's struggled mightily to score on a consistent basis outside of Jarome Iginla, let Mike Cammalleri walk, signed no one to replace him and instead opted to improve their defense. The addition of Jay Bouwmeester is by no means a bad thing, in fact he's a great defenseman, but he's perhaps the most overrated defenseman in the NHL, largely due to TSN's hype machine Pierre McGuire. Miikka Kiprusoff is one player I tell anyone who will listen to stay away from in fantasy leagues unless your goalies only count wins. His goaltending statistics have gotten worse every year since he landed in Calgary. He consistently comes into camp overweight and chain smoking, not a guy I want to be the last line of defense on my team. He get way too much credit because he's an acrobatic goaltender with good recoverability, and he had a couple spectacular seasons in Calgary and one amazing playoff run. But lets look at his statistics to prove my point: 03-04 [GAA 1.69 - S% .933], 05-06 [GAA 2.07 - S% .923), 06-07 [GAA 2.46 - S% .916], 07-08 [GAA 2.69 - S% .906], 08-09 [GAA 2.84 - S% .903]. This is a massive problem for a competitive team, and if you think the Flames don't know, you're out to lunch, there was a reason they bolstered their defensive corps. I still think the Flames will make the playoffs this year, because new coach Brent Sutter is an excellent motivator, and he'll get the best out of most of the players, but don't expect anything from Calgary in the post season, they're destined to continue the pathetic continual first round knock out. On a side note however, the Flames organization shows some massive class by inviting recently reinstated Theoren Fleury to training camp. Fleury has been a troubled case the last 10-12 years or so, but he's battled through adversity his whole life, and I'm sure he'll find a way back into the NHL.
7th St. Louis Blues - These guys impressed me last season. A young team with grit coming out their ears and talent oozing from every pore. With a healthy Paul Kariya back in a contract year, they'll likely get some great scoring out of him. Erik Johnson is also healthy this season, and hopefully won't be rolling any more golf carts. Johnson was extremely solid in his rookie season with a bullet from the point and should be at least as good this season. His potential has probably been hampered a fair bit, and he won't be nearly as good as if he'd been playing last season, but either way he's a more than solid addition to the roster. The team is still young and at this point seems to be stocked full of second line talent, so I don't expect them to challenge for the division, but they'll be solid. The question mark here for me is goaltending. Chris Mason was spectacular down the stretch for the Blues, and aside from a weak goal in overtime of an elimination game, he was even better in the playoffs. But Mason has done this before with Nashville, and the next season he was terrible. I don't know if Mason can duplicate his performance, and there isn't much for depth in the goaltending position in St. Louis as Ty Conklin is just not a starting goaltender.
6th Dallas Stars - The equation for Dallas' resurgence this year is extremely simple, no Sean Avery and a healthy Brendan Morrow makes this team jump up considerably. Dallas played very good hockey almost as soon as Avery was sent off to the glue factory. Marty Turco is a better goaltender than he was last season, and with more chemistry throughout the lines he'll have less to deal with. The young guns on the team should take a step forward this year in consistency and take pressure off the aging Modano. The only major problem I see is the defence is either very young or aging (assuming Zubov returns). Stephane Robidas is a journeyman and works his tail off every night, but he can't be counted on to have as good of a season this coming year as last. Another major reason for a jump in performance this year for the Stars is as a possibly last hurrah for Mike Modano. His contract is up and he's no longer a top 6 player in spite of his foot speed. Zubov and Lehtinen are also near the end of their usefulness as NHL players, so it may be an extremely motivated Stars roster to do some damage in this one season.
5th Detroit Red Wings - Yes, I know. How dare I place the mighty Red Wings so far down the standings, but every giant must eventually fall. Ken Holland is a genius, but not even he could hold together the powerhouse team that Detroit has had the last 2 seasons. Hudler, Hossa, Kopecky and Conklin have left, and Detroit's depth has been severely damaged. Up front they still have Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen, Filppula and Cleary on long term contracts, but outside that and unlike last season there isn't much to be excited about. Tomas Holmstrom's back is destroyed, he's no longer an affective top 6 player. Kris Draper's speed and durability is wearing down as he gets older. Patrick Eaves, Todd Bertuzzi and Jason Williams are desperation moves and stop gap measures. None of the three represent anything close to the players that Detroit couldn't re-sign in the off season. In goal they're offering Dan Cloutier of all people a try out instead of promoting Jimmy Howard, which I imagine is a bit of a smack in the face to poor howard, who's been patiently waiting out his time in the minors. Dan Cloutier, despite Detroit's amazing coaching and beyond stellar defense is not an adequate back up for an aging Chris Osgood, who will once again likely only show up for the playoffs. To couple with the softening of Detroit's hold on the Western conference, the Central division has gotten much stronger. St. Louis, Chicago and Columbus are no longer instant wins, in fact they're now very strong teams. Nashville has taken a step down, but they're still very tough to play against. The cake walk is over for Detroit, and after long playoff runs for three seasons straight the veterans are going to get tired this season.
4th San Jose Sharks - A chronic playoff disappointment and regular season powerhouse, nothing has really changed this off season, at least for the better. Christian Ehrhoff and Brad Lukowich were traded away for spare parts and no name prospects, Ehrhoff being the bigger loss by a long shot. The top end defense on the Sharks is still solid with Boyle, Blake and Vlasic, however losing Ehrhoff is nothing to scoff at. He's an excellent defenseman who was young and efficient. Up front San Jose is basically the exact same, losing Moen to free agency, but the scoring lines shouldn't be overly affected. San Jose will still be a dominant regular season team, although according to Coach McLellan the power play is changing strategies. Last season the Sharks' power play was focused on the talent of Blake and Boyle running the play from the points, this season the plan is to shift the focus back to Joe Thornton controlling the play from the corners and behind the net, which should see a marked increase in his point production from assists. Evgeni Nabokov will likely continue his great GAA, passable S% and excellent wins total, but anyone who's watched any hockey lately could tell you that. I wish there was more to say about the Sharks and where they'll end up this season, but they just aren't an interesting regular season team. Are they dominant? Yes, but they're boring, and massive choke artists.
3rd Chicago Blackhawks - The Hawks are poised to do damage this season. With the improvements they made during the off season I'm tempted to put them even higher than 3rd, but they're in the toughest division in the west now. There are a lot of people that think Cristobal Huet isn't good enough to be a starting goaltender in the NHL, let alone on a contending team, but any Montreal fan will tell you different. Huet had a difficult time adjusting to the Blackhawks' system last year, but he showed in his brief playoff appearance that he's ready to help Chicago out. His performance in the last game against Detroit was perhaps the best single game by any goaltender in last year's post season. Is he overpaid? Yes, but so was Khabibulin last season, and I didn't hear many Chicago fans complaining. The defense is filled with rising stars in Barker, Keith and Seabrook along with offensive threat and defensive liability Brian Campbell. They also have a few second tier guys who are very solid in Brent Sopel, Aaron Johnson and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Top to bottom it's a very good defensive corps. At forward Chicago also has a glutton of ridiculously good young guys in Toews, Kane, Versteeg, Sharp, Bolland, Byfuglien and holy crap do they have more after that? Add free agents Hossa, Kopecky and Madden and the forward corps is insanely deep. Hossa will be out for almost half of the season, but when he comes back it just makes the Hawks much more dangerous. The biggest problem with this team is that it's become a rush, Dale Tallon, although deserving of credit for turning a joke of a team into a resurgent powerhouse, he's handed out long term big money contracts to whoever asks for them, and Chicago is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Next season Chicago will have at least 10 million to spend under the cap, and they have to re-sign new faces of the franchise Kane and Toews not to mention #1 defenseman Duncan Keith. Those are just the superstars that Chicago can't afford to let go, but one of them is probably going to move on. The Brian Campbell deal is looking worse by the minute, and it makes this a make or break season for Chicago, so expect a motivated club.
2nd Vancouver Canucks - Forward depth seems to be about the same this season, although Sundin is not likely to be back. Aside from that I don't expect Kesler or Burrows to repeat their seasons statistically, but Vancouver won't have as much of a tough time scoring due to a much better defensive corps offensively, and an increased power play efficiency. Ehrhoff and Schneider coming in to join Edler, Salo and Bieksa gives the Canucks 5 competent to really good offensive threats from the back end. Although I guess it's really 4 when taking into account that Salo will likely spend most of the year as usual on the injured list. With a better blue line manning the power play I'm expecting the production of the Sedin twins to go up to career high levels to go with their big new contracts. The pressure is on Henrik and Daniel this year, and it's time for them to live up to it. They proved last year that they could finally contribute in the playoffs, but they fell asleep a bit in the second round against a young Blackhawks team that Vancouver should have beaten. Vancouver is also going to benefit this year from the weakest North West division in the last 5-6 years at the very least. They're the only team in the division that has a chance to get out of the first round. The biggest reason for me placing Vancouver so high in the standings however is just a single person, Roberto Luongo. Last season he was injured for a good chunk of the season and the Canucks weren't even close to a playoff team without him, but this year I'm expecting he won't be so unlucky to suffer a massive injury. Last year Luongo was embarrassed in his last game. Lit up by Chicago in an elimination game, he was in tears afterwards during post game interviews after feeling he'd let his team down almost single handedly. Roberto Luongo is a very competitive person, and he doesn't like being embarrassed like that, he's going to come back on a mission this year. My fearless prediction is that he runs away with the Vezina by a mile.
1st Anaheim Ducks - I'm sure many are surprised by this placement, and it's tough to justify with the loss of Pronger and Beauchemin in the Western conference where defense is the rule. However the additions in Anaheim this summer outweigh the losses in my opinion, because Anaheim has changed it's culture completely with a couple fell swoops. The Ducks happen to have two excellent goaltenders, and I don't believe for a second that Giguere is done as a goaltending in Anaheim. He and Hiller will likely split the games and the hot hand will get the starts and be ridden into the playoffs. The defense still has the ever efficient and smooth hands of Scott Niedermayer, and Ryan Whitney will continue to develop along the same path that he had in Pittsburgh, this injury plagued, sub par season will be an aberration for him. Outside of the top two the defense is no longer elite, but with the two stellar goaltenders as last line of defense, and one of the best top two lines in the league, it doesn't need to be. In a defense first conference the Ducks are going to be offensive juggernauts with Getzlaf, Ryan, and Perry on one line, Koivu, Selanne and Lupul on another. Lupul played his best hockey under Randy Carlyle, and he'll likely have a career year there with Koivu and Selanne's chemistry rubbing off. Koivu was written off as "too old" and "fading" in Montreal this summer, but only the most ignorant hockey fan can look at his statistics and believe this. Koivu has always been injury prone, but despite those injuries he still put up solid numbers last year in a diminished role. Playing with Selanne will likely re-energize Koivu along with improve Selanne's goal scoring from last years downturn. This second line is bordering on elite, and the first line is undoubtedly elite. A running theme in this prediction has been mentioning motivation as a big reason for success, and Selanne's announced retirement after this season will likely light a fire under the Ducks entire line up. This is likely also the reason why Koivu signed a one year contract, as he's a family man and probably wouldn't want to move every year unless it was for a good reason. The Ducks have a very legitimate shot at the cup this year, I would not be surprised at all to see them take it for the second time in 4 years.
So there you have it, predictions that probably won't come true but surely could. Next up is the East!