Central Division (projected order of finish and records; points)
Detroit Red Wings (51-23-8; 110)
A lot of people have jumped on the Blackhawk bandwagon, but I still think that Detroit is the team to beat in this division and ultimately in the conference. They lose one of their best players to that divisional foe, but they still have several of the best players in the game in Datsyuk and Zetterberg, and one of the conference’s better defense pairings in Lidstrom and Rafalski.
Osgood had a lousy regular season, but a good postseason, and even though his age might become a factor, this team is still among the best in hockey.
Chicago Blackhawks (47-27-8; 102)
Chicago may have the most talent on paper of any team in either conference, but they still have to prove they can beat Detroit in a playoff series to overtake them in my book. They add Hossa (a ludicrous contract), to a good young core that features Kane and Toews, among others. Their goaltending is easily their main concern, but their unbelievable depth at defenseman should be enough to hold down the fort.
The Blackhawks will be one of the league’s best teams if they can avoid the hiccups along the way.
Columbus Blue Jackets (44-32-6; 94)
One of the league’s biggest surprises (not to me) last season made the playoffs with flying colors behind the great play of rookie goalie Steve Mason and explosive star Rick Nash. Their emergence epitomizes this division that is the best in the West and behind Ken Hitchcock should only be getting better. I don’t think the teams that would challenge them for a playoff spot have gotten much better, and I see Columbus reaching the postseason quite comfortably. Keep an eye on Columbus come postseason as well.
St. Louis Blues (38-38-6; 82)
A team that absolutely skyrocketed its way into the playoffs last season seems as if it caught fire at exactly the right time, looking to be more of a fluke rather than a true indication of their ability. They were outmatched and overwhelmed come playoff time, and after adding next to nothing this offseason, by my estimation, will fall back into NHL
mediocrity this year.
The situation in net isn’t very promising, and though they get Kariya and Erik Johnson back from injury, the Blues aren’t very good and won’t be a playoff team.
Nashville Predators (35-40-7; 77)
The league’s most non-descript, vanilla, unidentifiable team falls back to even a worse position this season with what was the 24th ranked offense last season, and though financial constraints held them back this offseason, they didn’t do much to make themselves better coming into this year. Aside from their underrated defense, led by Weber and Suter, Pekka Rinne could be a bright spot in goal, but if they can’t score, they won’t win, making it more and more likely that Nashville won’t be going anywhere in 2008-09.
Northwest Division (projected order of finish and records; points)
Vancouver Canucks (49-26-7; 105)
Though it looks like offense might be a concern for the Canucks, they made it a point to bring back the Sedins, who put up very consistent offensive numbers year in and year out. Luongo is still among the best, if not the best in goal, and their defense was actually very solid as they competed in the postseason. Vancouver’s secondary scoring should be propelled by a group of little-known, but solid roleplayers, making the Canucks one of the hardest working, and also one of the most dependable teams in hockey.
Minnesota Wild (42-32-8; 92)
It’s a whole new world without top scorer Marian Gaborik and long time coach Jacques Lemaire, but the outlook in Minnesota isn’t as bleak as many are making it out to be this season. Their second and third line players need to mature on the offensive end, but Martin Havlat is undoubtedly a stabilizing veteran presence. Niklas Backstrom has quickly become one of the league’s top goalies, and though their roster doesn’t stand out, the conference isn’t very good, and the Wild have a history of surprising.
Calgary Flames (41-33-8; 90)
Replacing Keenan with Sutter as head coach may be the most important improve Calgary made in the offseason as this team clearly needs a change of culture and attitude. They have a top-flight defensive pairing in Phaneuf and Bouwmeester, and they wouldn’t be the Flames without Iginla and Kiprusoff. Their scoring attack alongside Jarome looks to be a collection of misfits who are either too old or not old enough, and though there will be growing pains under this new regime, they’re good enough to make the playoffs.
Edmonton Oilers (38-36-8; 84)
Not a whole lot changed from a squad that finished 11th in the conference last season, which is the recipe for the same result. I can’t decide whether Khabibulin is a upgrade in goal in not, but that won’t matter much as the offense is very top heavy with young talent in the form of Cogliano and Gagner; after that: not so good. The Oilers don’t have issues with talent on the blue line, but the same can’t be said for toughness on that same front, as this will be one of a number of issues keeping the Oilers home in the spring.
Colorado Avalanche (27-43-12; 66)
The retirement of Joe Sakic hit Colorado pretty hard this offseason, leaving them with pretty much the worst team in hockey. There will be a lot of fresh, new faces on this roster of a franchise that has without interruption plummeted to the bottom of the league from its once elite status. Their goalie is a guy I’ve never heard of, and guys like Hejduk and Wolski will need to ramp up the production if Colorado has any hope of being halfway decent. That would be a full-scale pipe dream as the Avalanche is a cellar lock.
Pacific Division (projected order of finish and records; points)
San Jose Sharks (48-27-7; 103)
With a starting unit of Thornton, Marleau, Heatley, Blake, Boyle, and Nabokov, how are the Sharks not the best team of all-time? They very well could be, but ghosts of playoff past come to haunt them every April. They lost as No.1 seed last season as they were not able to get over that ever-elusive postseason hump yet again. With some luck, they will be able to stay healthy this season, but I haven’t been sold that they can win in the postseason, and that will definitely be in the back of the minds come this spring.
Anaheim Ducks (45-30-7; 97)
The decision to trade away Chris Pronger was a major detriment to the Ducks’ blue line, but the Ducks feature a bunch of tough, two-way forwards, headlined by Getzlaf and Perry, and even though they have some uncertain in net, I find it hard to believe Giguere will be sitting on the bench all season long. They always prove to be a naggy postseason opponent no matter where they finish, proving so as the last team in this past season. They are only three seasons removed as champions, so big things might be in order.
Dallas Stars (39-34-9; 87)
Stars fans are hoping that least season was a fluke, marred by injury, chemistry problems, and a slow start, but by the looks of it, the Stars aren’t as good as they’ve been in years past. A lot of young players amassed high goal totals, but it also may have been a textbook case of young players playing over their heads. They’re not a very tough team, and a little bit of age could wear on them in Modano and Morrow. Turco’s career has been on a steady decline, just one factor contributing to disappointment in Big D.
Los Angeles Kings (31-39-12; 74)
Slowly but surely, the Kings are definitely improving and possibly creeping into the Western Conference playoff picture. Nor would it be particularly surprising if the Kings land back in the dearth of the Western Conference. Everything has to go right, and the biggest question is in goal with no proven commodities on that front. They added a little bit of veteran experience in Smyth and Scuderi, but that will not put Los Angeles over the top.
They still will be pretty bad, but not nearly as bad as we’ve seen over the past few years.
Phoenix Coyotes (31-42-9; 71)
The good news is that the Coyotes have some young players that might turn into something one day, but it might not be in Phoenix. The franchise won’t be able to do anything on the ice or in the front office if they continue to have financial problems and bankruptcy hanging over their heads. When it comes to the team, they will be among the worst in the league, and though Shane Doan is still the main man, he is not surrounded by much. It’ll be a long process for the Coyotes, as this could be their last year in the desert.
All Western Conference First Team
F - Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit
F - Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit
F - Marian Hossa, Chicago
D - Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit
D - Dan Boyle, San Jose
G - Roberto Luongo, Vancouver
All Western Conference Second Team
F - Rick Nash, Columbus
F - Daniel Sedin, Vancouver
F - Joe Thornton, San Jose
D - Dion Phaneuf, Calgary
D - Duncan Keith, Chicago
G - Niklas Backstrom, Minnesota
All Western Conference Third Team
F - Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim
F - Dany Heatley, San Jose
F - Jonathan Toews, Chicago
D - Brian Rafalski, Detroit
D - Jay Bouwmeester, Calgary
G - Steve Mason, Columbus