I really hate reading pre-season predictions because, for the most part, they're just useless.
Seriously, how realistic is it to pick a team in September, during the first week of preseason games (when it's mostly rookies vying for spots on a team) to win a division/conference/championship? There's a season to be played, injuries to be dealt with, and, of course, the second best part of hockey season: the trade deadline.
Keep it in perspective: back before the MLB season started, nobody predicted the Tampa Bay Rays to finish any higher than fourth in their division (as of this writing their magic number to clinch the American League East is two), and Steve Phillips, Baseball Tonight's resident 'genius', predicted a first place finish for the Seattle Mariners (currently on track to finish with either the worst or second worst record in baseball) in the AL West.
The point is, doing things like this is really an exercise in futility, so keeping that in mind, I'm doing this with my tongue firmly planted in cheek.
And this isn't exactly the order I expect them to finish (except that the Islanders will be in last, that's one you can take to the bank).
Pittsburgh Penguins: The one-two (or one-one A) punch of Crosby and Malkin is still there. So is Brooks Orpik (back at a hometown discount) and Marc-Andre Fleury. Questions abound on the defense, however, with Ryan Whitney out at least three months following surgery on his left foot (insert Daniel Day Lewis joke here), and there's still no word on the extent of the injury to Sergei Gonchar's shoulder, injured during Saturday's preseason game against Tampa Bay.
Take those two out of the lineup, and you're left with Orpik, Hal Gill, Daryl Sydor, Rob Scuderi, Mark Eaton, and, if he's ready for prime-time, Alex Goligoski.
For all the talk of them losing Marian Hossa, the bigger key is the loss of Ryan Malone. Malone was a key part of this teams' season-long surge; Hossa was a rental player who came on board for the last month and played a grand total of twelve games. If he'd stayed, an already dangerous offense would looks even scarier.
Losing Malone, Hossa, Roberts, Laraque and Ruutu, and replacing them with Fedotenko, Satan, Cooke, and Godard...err....that's a downgrade.
Still too dangerous to write off, but from appearances, they look poised to take a step back. How far a step back is to be determined, but there's no reason to expect them to miss the playoffs....yet....
Philadelphia Flyers: Ahhhh, Philly. A sports town starved for a championship (currently, it's a total of 134 years combined since the four major teams last won a title), and who go out of their way to show their respect for opposing players.
2008 marked a quick return to respectability for the Orangemen, though, as they bounced back from a horrific 2006-07 season to make it all the way to the conference finals, dispatching the Washington Capitals and top-seeded Montreal Canadiens along the way.
Of course, my hockey-watching was done by that point, and asking me who I prefer to win between the Penguins and Flyers is like asking me if I prefer gonorrhea or herpes (answer: neither).
One positive for the Flyers is the possible retirement of Derian Hatcher. The big, plodding, slow-footed defenseman might see his spot taken by Bryan Berard, who even with one eye is a marked improvement. Of course, losing Jason Smith hurts, and leaves Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Ossi Vaananen, Steve Eminger, and others to shore up the defence. It's not a strong suit of this team.
Up front, Mike Richards figures to only get better, having exploded into a top notch second tier player last season, and a healthy season out of Simon Gagne couldn't hurt, right? Paired with Daniel Breire, they'd go a long way to carrying the Flyers' offensive load. There's a lot of mid-level scorers beyond them in the forms of Joffrey Lupul, Scott Hartnell, Mike Knuble and Jeff Carter. Oh, they'll miss R.J. Umberger, without question, but there's enough depth among forwards to keep this team in games during the season.
Between the pipes, Martin Biron gives the Flyers something they haven't had in quite a long time: hope. Gone are the days of the revolving door-new goaltender/flavor of the month every season. Brian Boucher, Sean Burke, Robert Esche, Antero Niittymaki, Jeff Hackett, John Vanbiesbrouck....it's been a long decade in goal for the Flyers faithful so far, but Biron was always capable of being a top-flight goaltender while in Buffalo. Does he keep it up this season with the defensive questions? I'm gonna have to say yes.
New York Rangers: Before I do this one, let me get this out of the way.
I am not a professional. I am a fan. And I'm a Ranger fan.
Okay, I've said it.
I'm also a realist, so I'm not pronouncing this the best team in the division, conference, league, world, etc...
Yes, we all know about the changes. And I'm not of the opinion it was for the worst.
The Czech-mates were all about playing an East-West game, puck control, cycling, and waiting for Jaromir Jagr to take over the game. And in 2005-06, that method worked. But you can only watch your defensemen cycle in their own zone for so long before you need to make changes.
Wade Redden needed a change of scenery after the last few years in Ottawa. How he handles the spotlight of New York remains to be seen. One new player on defense that I don't think will make it to January is Dmitri Kalinin, who will either injure himself or cry himself out of town as the new Marek Malik whipping boy of the Garden. Fedor Tyutin is gone to Columbus, leaving returnee Michal Roszival, Dan Girardi, the emerging Marc Staal, and Paul Mara. Bobby Sanguinetti will get a long look in camp, but it looks like Corey Potter might make the team as a seventh d-man, and will likely move up to sixth once Kalinin melts down.
Up front, the gamble is on speed and the expected breakout of Nikolai Zherdev. Paired with Scott Gomez, they're all about speed, and will be joined by Markus Naslund on the top line (presumably). Brandon Dubinsky has been a force in two preseason games so far, and could center a third line with Ryan Callahan and Nigel Dawes. Chris Drury figures to wear the captain's C and man the second line, though linemates are still a question mark. The real key, though, is how Zherdev handles the bright lights of Broadway: if he plays up to or past his potential, it's a brilliant trade; if he's the second coming of Alexei Kovalev (in New York, not Pittsburgh or Montreal), they'll be a lottery team.
In goal, Henrik Lundqvist has vaulted into the league's elite, and figures to remain there this season. He's backed up by seventeen-foot Steve Valiquette, presumably because Glen Sather couldn't find a better backup.
The big question is chemistry, and with this team having a longer-than-normal travel schedule, they'll either gel before the home opener October 11th or tank soon after.
New Jersey Devils: Hall of Fame goaltender, problems scoring goals. Solution? Bring back 35 year old Brian Rolston and 37 year old Bobby Holik.
I can see the promos now: "Hey everybody, risk a mugging to come to our great building in Newark to see two of our former Cup winners skate in mud every night!"
The defense's best hope for offense comes from Paul Martin. Yeah, that's a bad sign.The rest of the corps is rounded out by Colin White, Bryce Salvador, Mike Mottau, Johnny Oduya, and whoever makes it as a sixth defenseman. Man, that's a long way from the mid-late 90s lineup. Remember when the Albany River Rats were touted as producing the best defensive prospects? I think it's safe to say the rats have abandoned the ship. I'll be here all week, thank you, try the veal!
Up front, figure the bulk of the scoring to come (again) from Patrik Elias, Zach Parise, and Brian Gionta. John Madden is still one of the best defensive specialist forwards in the league, and he'll need to be, because if an opponent pots more than two goals on Marty, the fifty people who show up at the Rock can head for the exits before it gets too dangerous.
Ahhh, Martin Brodeur....the happiest guy in the league now that Sean Avery is playing in Dallas. How much longer can he remain an elite level goaltender, especially behind a team that's in as rapid a decline as the Devils seem to be? Best case, they're the third best team in the division if the Rangers don't pull it together, worst case, they'll be fighting off the Islanders for the fourth spot in the division and clawing for a playoff spot.
New York Islanders: Do I seriously need to include them on this list?
You know what'd be cool? If the NHL adopted a format similar to the English Football Premiere League, where bottom feeder teams in the NHL were relegated to the AHL, and the top AHL teams got promoted to the NHL.
There's all kinds of semantics to figure out, but one thing's for sure: the Islanders would be a lock to finish last in the AHL, too.
Doug Weight? Bill Guerin? Hello, 1998 US Olympic team.
Their top scorer last season was Mike Comrie, who led the high-scoring Islanders with 49 points.
Rick DiPietro is in year three of his 36 year contract, and provided his hip doesn't give out, figures to get the bulk of the playing time over backup Yann Dennis.
They got Mark Streit to man the power play at a fairly discounted rate, possibly because they don't know he can't play defense.
Rookie head coach Scott Gordon will, if nothing else, solidify this team forever more as Gordon's Fishermen.
There. Take that, print it, and line your birdcages with it.