Okay, with the East out of the way, let's get rolling with the West:
Wow, this team is good. Let me reiterate that—WOW this team is good.
Detroit was the class of the league last season and in the playoffs as the Wings looked nearly unstoppable en route to the Cup. Unfortunately for the rest of the league, that doesn't look to change, as the Red Wings will ice almost the exact same team this year.
Oh wait, one difference is they signed top free agent Marian Hossa. I'm sure that won't help out an offense that already led the West in goals last season.
Seriously, does anybody else think that Ken Holland might be a witch? There is no way any person should be as good at their job as he is. Mike Babcock, who has been one of the best coaches in the NHL year in and year out, will once again coach a team many believe to the best puck-possession squad since the Soviets.
On top of that, the Wings have an absurd amount of talent. Two of the best all-around players in Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk will lead a forward group that consists of Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula, Tomas Holmstrom, Dan Cleary, Jiri Hudler, and recently Hossa.
On the back end, future hall of famer Nicklas Lidstrom leads an equally-impressive supporting cast featuring Brad Suart, Niklas Kronwall, Brian Rafalski, and Chris "Look ma! I found the fountain of youth" Chelios, among others.
All in all, Detroit has the best GM in the sport, one of the best coaches, and one of the best rosters. How could anyone bet against them?
I know San Jose is the sexy pick to win the Pacific—as they have been for the past few years—but I like Dallas to come out of the incredibly tough division.
Everyone keeps saying what a tough team Dallas was to play against, and how they play a gritty, in-your-face style. While those are accurate statements, I feel most have failed to assess that Dallas can also put up some points. They finished second in the West last year and there is no reason to expect them to drop from that perch.
With Mike Ribeiro and Brenden Morrow, the Stars have at least two potential 30-goal scorers. Add to that the impressive two way play of Mike Modano and trade-deadline acquisition Brad Richards, along with agitators Steve Ott and Sean Avery—who, as people learned last year, can actually play hockey—and the Stars will be a formidable team up front.
We know the defense is solid led by perennially-underrated Sergei Zubov, and Marty Turco is among the upper echelon of goalies.
Assuming Avery fits in as well as he did in New York, Fabian Bruusntrom produces like he's believed to be able, and Richards fully adapts to the Stars' style, Dallas will compete for the division title.
This was a tough one. The Northwest is tight conference—though not as good as it was last year.
Although Minnesota and Edmonton will be right with Calgary, I'll give Calgary the slight edge due to the fact that last year they were still adapting to Mike Keenan's system. This year, they should have it down from the get go—and as a result, shouldn't have such a tough time getting going.
Calgary mainstays Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf, and Mikka Kiprusoff are the backbone of this team, and they should all do well in the upcoming season. Kipursoff had an off season last year, but I'm gonna assume it was the exception rather than a new pattern.
I like the Flames' chances of winning the division even more if Mikka is limited to under 70 games, since he seemed tired as the season closed. I think Iginla will once again hit the 100-point mark this season, primarily thanks to the offseason addition of Mike Cammalleri, who I think will thrive in a hockey-mad market like Calgary.
The departures of Kristian Huselius and Alex Tanguay will hurt the offense, but the continuing emergence of Matthew Lombardi, along with the additions of Curtis Glencross and Rene Bourque should be able to plug that hole, if not fix it entirely.
4. San Jose
Will this finally be the year that San Jose lives up to their playoff potential and gets past the second round? Well, if they don't, they won't have Ron Wilson to blame it on.
For a team that has been a Cup favorite for a few years now, the time to get things done is beginning to run out. Luckily for Sharks fans, all the praise this team has received wasn't unmerited.
San Jose is a very good team. They're big, fast, and can play physical or finesse hockey. Joe Thornton is one of the best forwards in the game, and is considered by many to be the premier playmaker in the league. Milan Michalek, Joe Pavelski, and Devin Setoguchi provide good secondary scoring, while players like Mike Grier are great in the corners.
Last season, both Johnathan Cheechoo and Patrick Marleau had subpar years by their standards, and the Sharks will need them to bounce back if they are going to contend in the ultra-competitive Pacific.
On defense, the departure of Brian Campbell and Craig Rivet was met by the arrival of Dan Boyle and Rob Blake. Though I think that's actually a step back, most would disagree—so we'll see how that plays out.
Both Boyle and Blake missed considerable time last year. If that happens again, look for the Sharks hopes to rest on Vezina-nominee Evgeni Nabakov. Nabby played terrifically last year—and that solid play continued into the playoffs in which he made two of the nicest saves of the year against the Stars.
Everything said, expectations are high in San Jose.
I almost bumped them down to a further spot due to their lack of offensive production, but I was swayed by their stellar defense. With Scott Niedermayer back for the whole season and the continued presence of Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin, the Ducks sport one of the better blue lines in the game.
However, the departure of Mathieu Schneider—assuming Burke doesn't pull another rabbit out of his hat—will hurt Anaheim more then people seem to think. Schneider was a plus-22 last season, second among defensemen behind Kent Huskins—who predicted that one?—with the three other defensemen already named all ending the season in the minus.
In the crease, J-S Giguere can be expected to be as solid as always—but if he gets injured or needs to take a rest, Ilya Bryzgalov won't be there anymore to step in.
Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Chris Kunitz must continue to develop into the leaders the Ducks need them to be, while Samuel Pahlsson and Rob Niedermayer should continue to stifle opponents' best lines.
If Teemu Selanne returns, Bobby Ryan emerges, and Giguere plays the whole season, the Ducks could be a scary team come playoff time.
Well—finally a change from last year's playoffs!
Kevin Lowe did a great job this offseason in bringing in Erik Cole, Lubomir Visnovsky, and Gilbert Brule. Cole can put up the points as well as play responsibly in his own zone. His experience and leadership should be a welcome addition to a young locker room. Visnovsky should help solidify the defense.
But the talent at the forward position is Edmonton's real strength. Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff should both be point-per-game players this season, while the rapid growth of Sam Ganger, Dustin Penner, Robert Nilsson, and Andrew Cogliano will give the Oilers a real shot at winning their division.
The goaltending could be a real concern if Mathieu Garon can't shoulder the load, although Dwayne Roloson should be a good-enough option to at least keep them competitive.
Edmonton ended last season with a sensational stretch. If they can get out of the gate quickly this year, they should be back in the playoffs after years of watching from home.
Another young, emerging team that didn't miss the playoffs by much last season.
Chicago will be led by youngsters Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, both of whom excelled in their rookie season and should continue to do so in the upcoming year. Patrick Sharp is a solid 30-goal scorer who doesn't seem to merit much press, but that doesn't appear to affect his play.
One of the many interesting subjects in the Windy City this year is whether Martin Havlat can stay healthy. Past experience doesn't bode well, but maybe this year Havlat will finally be able to display his tremendous talent.
The free-agent signings of Cristobal "Hip Hip" Huet and Brian Campbell, while financially questionable, greatly benefit on the ice. Campbell is a great puck moving defensemen who should more than fill the loss of Lang on the PP as well as bring leadership to a blue line as talented as they are young.
How Duncan Keith remains a mystery to some people is beyond me—but noticed or not, he is a defensive stud.
The signing of Huet seemed to set the stage for the Hawks to move underachieving Nikolai Khabibulin, but as things are Chicago will start the season with two No. 1's. Khabibulin may respond to Huet's arrival with great play, but it doesn't make sense to have $12 million locked up in goaltending.
Whatever happens, one thing is for sure—hockey is finally back in Chicago.
Okay, this slot was hard for me to fill. When a team nobody is confusing with an offensive powerhouse loses two of its top four point getters in Pavol Demitra and Brian Rolston, it's difficult not to write them off.
Additionally, if franchise player Marian Gaborik isn't re-signed by the time the season gets underway, the situation in the dressing room may take a hit.
Overall though, there is plenty to like with the Wild. Contract or not, Gabby has an absurd amount of talent. Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Mikko Koivu, and Brent Burns—another emerging talent flying under the radar—are quickly advancing in their development, and should ease the pain of losing Rolston.
The additions of Marek Zidlicky and familiar face Andrew Brunette will give a boost to the scoring department, while in the crease, Niklas Backstrom is silently solid and should continue to be pushed by prospect Josh Harding.
Combine all this with Jacques Lemaire's defense-first style of hockey and some of the best fans in the sport, and Minnesota will not be an easy place for opposing teams to come to play.
Possible Bracket Buster: Phoenix
Colorado, in my mind, took lateral steps. Although Joe Sakic coming back is huge, I don't see a combination of Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft getting it done.
Vancouver will once again live and die by Roberto Luongo, while Nashville lost one of their best young players in Radulov—though Barry Trotz seems to overachieve every single year.
As for Columbus, assuming their goals against stay about the same, do their offseason acquisitions add up to at least 35 or 40 extra goals? My money is on no.
Phoenix seems the most likely to make a push. A strong goaltender for a whole year and talented youth gives them a big step in the right direction—but lack of offensive depth, along with the loss of key defensemen Keith Ballard, make the playoffs an uphill battle.
Well, those are my predictions. Thanks for reading, and enjoy the season!
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