Baseball is over (my Cards checked out from the season three weeks ago), my fantasy football season is already lost (Curse you, Tom Brady!), and the air has gained an unmistakable crispness. Training camps are just around the corner, and that means NHL hockey is drawing near.
Here is what I'm excited to see from the Western Conference teams:
The continued progression of one of the up-and-coming lines in the NHL in Chris Kunitz, Corey Perry, and a player I fell in love with during their Cup run in 2007—Ryan Getzlaf. (Side note: I can't help but imagine Donald Duck saying "Getzlaf". Tee hee.)
The Flames in the Pengrowth Saddledome. One, I'm absolutely in love with those home jerseys; and two, I've never seen a team or a city so consistently and so avidly sport the team colors. You see it in the postseason all the time, but you can watch a Flames game on a weeknight in January and still see the arena in solid red. Beautiful.
How can you not be excited to see this team? They're young, they finally have a competent management group behind them, and their jerseys are the best in sports. It will be interesting to see how the Huet-Khabibulin situation works out, because while it's never bad to have a competent back-up goaltender, $6 million is a lot to pay a guy who's riding the pine. Kane and Toews are superstars in the making.
How will they play with an unusual mix of youngsters and seasoned veterans, including Toronto castoffs Darcy Tucker and Andrew Raycroft? Joe Sakic is always a wonder to watch, and Paul Stastny is becoming a very solid goal scorer in the league.
Columbus Blue Jackets
How will the Jackets look after shaking up the roster, which includes shipping off disappointing youngsters like Nikolai Zherdev, and Gilbert Brule and bringing in R.J. Umberger, Kristian Huselius, Raffi Torres, and Fedor Tyutin? I'm also interested to see how rookies Derick Brassard and Jakub Voracek perform, and if Pascal Leclaire can build on his impressive 2007-08 season.
Can the Stars keep the Red Wings from repeating as Stanley Cup champions? Adding Fabian Brunnstrom and Sean Avery will only help a team that made it to the conference finals last year. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better trio of centers in the league on one team than Mike Ribeiro, Brad Richards, and Mike Modano—and Marty Turco also played very well last season.
Detroit Red Wings
It's rare that the defending Cup champions get better the next season, but with the signings of Marian Hossa ($7 million for one year? Holy smokes!) and Ty Conklin, the Wings have improved on last year's President's Trophy campaign.
I'll be watching with my mouth agape as Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Marian Hossa suffocate teams on the defensive end, slice them up in the offensive end, and make a beautiful goal look routine. I'll also watch to see if Johan Franzen and Niklas Kronwall build off of impressive postseason performances.
Can Mathieu Garon play well enough for this team to make the playoffs? There's a lot of well-deserved excitement surrounding this team, and the acquisitions of Lubomir Visnovsky and Erik Cole will only make them better. The pieces are there if Garon holds up in net.
Los Angeles Kings
Patrick O'Sullivan, Anze Kopitar, Jack Johnson, Drew Doughty, and Alexander Frolov are great building blocks for a franchise, and it will be interesting to see if the Kings can start to play competitively with these talented youngsters.
What will happen with Marian Gaborik? Entering the final year of his deal, it appears he's not happy in Minnesota. He's unquestionably the go-to guy for the Wild, and Doug Risebrough may be forced to deal him for something to avoid the risk of losing him for nothing. I still expect the Wild to be very strong in their end of the ice.
Will there be another soap opera-worthy event in Graceland? Between a potential relocation, the purchase of the team by a local group headlined by disgraced William "Boots" del Biaggio, and the controversy surrounding Alexander Radulov, it's easy to forget about the on-ice product.
Despite not having won a playoff series yet, Barry Trotz should be safe behind the bench based on the wonderful job he did last year.
Will the desert dogs take the next step? Coach Wayne Gretzky has possibly the most exciting team in the league—and one that got a lot better with the trade for Olli Jokinen, who has toiled in mediocrity with the Panthers. I'm giddy to watch the best collection of young kids in the league (Peter Mueller, Martin Hanzal, Daniel Carcillo, Kyle Turris, and Mikael Boedker).
San Jose Sharks
How will the team play under new head coach Todd McLellan? The talent, experience, and hunger is in place at the Shark Tank, but can the success Coach McLellan brings from Detroit translate to this group of perennial underachievers? Dan Boyle should help to offset the loss of Brian Campbell.
St Louis Blues
Are the kids any good? The Blues are my team, and I'm hoping to see the whippersnappers like Patrik Berglund and T.J. Oshie can pick up some of the scoring load. It would also be really nice to see Lee Stempniak and Jay McClement provide more of a scoring touch to complement the top line of Paul Kariya, Andy McDonald, and breakout star of 07-08, Brad Boyes.
Oh, and the power play has to improve from their last-place finish last season.
How will this revamped team look? New GM Mike Gillis inherits a team that will be very different from any Canucks team in recent memory, as franchise standouts Brendan Morrison and Markus Naslund moved on to different teams and Trevor Linden hung up the skates. Roberto Luongo is still one of the best goaltenders in the league, and will keep Vancouver in a ton of games this season.
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