NHL 2008-09: Teams to Watch
Since everyone else who writes anything about sports feels the need to give their predictions for the NHL season, I figure—what the heck—might as well share mine too.
Last season was an exciting overall season in the NHL, but I have a feeling that it will be nothing compared to this season.
The salary cap (for all of its faults) has definitely achieved one of its main goals by accomplishing parody across the league. Now teams who were once unable to compete with teams who could spend and spend and spend some more, finally can not only compete night in and night out, but also compete for the Stanley Cup.
It would be easy to pick a perennial favorite like the Detroit Red Wings to win the Cup for a second straight year. However, recent history has shown us that it has become nearly impossible to repeat as champions (in any sport for that matter.)
So aside from the usual suspects, like the Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings, Anaheim Ducks, ect., who are the teams that could surprise everyone and win it all?
There are a number of teams poised to make the playoffs and possibly do some damage and go all the way.
In the west, the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Chicago Blackhawks are three teams that everyone should pay attention to.
Out east, the Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning and—drum roll—the Boston Bruins (that’s right, the Boston Bruins) are three teams in the east who may not be on peoples radar yet, but by season’s end, will have made their presence felt.
The Western Conference is definitely going to be a dogfight this season.
The Red Wings won’t be able to steam roll through the central division anymore due to the emergence of the Chicago Blackhawks. Last season the league got a taste of what is to come with Calder Trophy winner Patrick Kane and his running mate Jonathan Toews.
In addition to these young budding superstars, the ‘Hawks have some premium talent up front with the likes of Martin Havlat (if he can stay healthy) and Patrick Sharp. On defense the ‘Hawks got a lot better with the free agent signing of Brian Campbell. He’ll be joining a talented young group with the likes of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
The only real question mark for this team could be in goal. If Cristobal Huet can continue his play as he has the last season and a half, Chicago should be rock solid in that regard. Backing him up will be Nikolai Khabibulin. If Huet gets off to a bad start or gets injured, “The Bulin Wall” will get a chance to show that he’s still got what it takes. In all likelihood, Huet will play well enough and the Blackhawks should not only make the playoffs (likely in 6th to 8th place) but have the talent to be a possible “Cinderella” team.
Many “hockey experts” have predicted the Flames to battle it out for the Northwest Division title this year.
Calgary was active in the off-season and have addressed some of their biggest needs. The Flames added to their lineup the likes of Mike Cammalleri and Todd Bertuzzi up front. Cammalleri is expected to regain his form of 2006-07 when he scored 30 goals and had 80 points. The Flames are hoping that Bertuzzi will be able to get back on track to be the 25-30 goal power forward he once was. There are a few questions offensively with the Flames aside from superstar Jarome Iginla, but if the additions they made up front work out they should be dangerous enough on any given night.
Defense and goaltending have long been the strength of the Flames and this year’s club will be no different. Star blueliners Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr lead a strong defense that includes Jim Vandermeer, Cory Sarich and youngster Mark Giordano.
Should the opposition break through the Flames’ tough defense they only have to beat perennial Vezina Troph candidate Mikka Kiprusoff which is never a small task. Regardless of where the Flames finish the season—as long as they can avoid any key injuries—they will be in the playoffs and could very well make life miserable for any team they face.
Three hours north of Calgary is the home of likely their biggest competition for the Northwest Division title: the Edmonton Oilers.
The Oilers, much like the Blackhawks, have some young stud forwards who showed glimpses of brilliance last season.
The line of Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Robert Nilsson almost single-handedly led the injury riddled Oilers to the playoffs last season. This year they are expected to continue their great chemistry. Although, now with the addition of Erik Cole and a healthy Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky, the Oilers will have two potentially high octane scoring lines. Goal scoring shouldn’t be a problem for the Oilers up front or on defense.
In addition to a healthy Sheldon Souray, the Oilers added one of the best offensive defensemen in the league, Lubomir Visnovsky. With no lack of talent on the backend, Edmonton also has youngsters Tom Gilbert and Denis Grbishkov. Throw in some grit with the likes of Steve Staios and Jason Strudwick and the defense has become a strength for this young Oiler team.
Edmonton has some questions in goal however.
Mathieu Garon is their number one goalie going into the season and if he is able to pick up where he left off last year, the Oilers will be in great shape. The concern is that Garon has only started over 50 games in a season twice in his career and some people are unsure if he can play 65 plus games. Right now, the Oilers are carrying three goaltenders with 38-year-old Dwayne Roloson and 24-year-old Jeff Deslauriers backing up Garon. Nobody expects Edmonton to carry three goaltenders.
So they have a choice of either risking Deslauriers not clearing waivers if they send him down or trading Roloson and having an unproven backup. In all likelihood the Oilers (as long as the injury bug doesn’t strike again) will be one of the top five teams in the Western Conference and could prove to be serious Cup contenders by season’s end.
The Eastern Conference is every bit as much a question mark as the West this season.
Washington showed last season that they’re a real team on the rise. There isn’t much to dislike about a team that features one of the most exciting players in the league: Alexander Ovechkin. Add to that a healthy Michael Nylander, veteran two-way forward Sergei Fedorov, and young star-in-the-making Nicklas Backstrom, and the Capitals are as deep down the middle as anyone. Mix in talented wingers Alexander Semin and Chris Clark and the Capitals boast one of the most underrated and explosive offenses in the league.
Washington’s defense is young and unheralded, but not without skill. Tom Poti, Matt Green, Shaone Morrisonn, and Milan Jurcina have the ability to both play well in their own end and chip in their fair share of offense.
Goaltending just needs to be solid for this team to make the playoffs. This job lies solely in the shaky hands of Jose Theodore. Theodore spent a number of years as pretty much a goal scorers dream—a sharp contrast to the form he showed years ago that won him the Hart trophy back in 2000-01. Last season however, Theodore had his best season in a long time playing for Colorado. The Capitals are hoping that he really has regained his form and can keep just enough pucks from reaching the back of the net. If Jose Theodore falters, the Caps will only have career backup Brent Johnson guarding the net.
With the offense they have and a steady season from Theodore, the Washington Capitals could build on last season success and go deep into the playoffs.
No team in the NHL underwent as many changes in the offseason as the Tampa Bay Lightning. The new ownership wasted no time in replacing their coach and outright overhauling their team.
Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis may have a lot of new teammates, but these two superstars finally won’t have to shoulder the weight of the entire team. With the additions of Ryan Malone, Adam Hall, Jussi Jokinen, Gary Roberts, and No.1 overall pick Steven Stamkos, the forward corps of the Lightning is much deeper than it has been in past years. Scoring goals shouldn’t be a huge problem for the Lightning this year.
Tampa’s defense isn’t the best, but is quite strong with the likes of Matt Carle, Lukas Krajicek, and Andrej Meszaros leading the way.
In goal, the Lightning are pinning their hopes on Mike Smith, who showed a lot of talent in Dallas. Should Smith get injured or hit a rough patch, Tampa will be able to turn to Olaf Kolzig. At 38-years-old, “Ollie the Goalie” is no spring chicken but is definitely a valuable insurance policy.
Tampa Bay could likely squeak into the playoffs in possibly eighth place. You can’t count out a team that is lead by Vincent Lecavalier, and has a host of veteran leaders like St. Louis, Roberts, Recchi, and Prospal.
The team that everyone is likely wanting an explanation for being mentioned with these other potential contenders is the Boston Bruins.
This team seems to have flown under many people’s radar and for good reason.
At first glance, the Bruin’s lineup doesn’t exactly jump off the page. However, when you look a little closer Patrice Bergeron is back at 100 percent and will likely get back to being a 70 point player. With his speed and skill, Bergeron could finally reach the potential that Bruins fans have long waited for and become an 80 or 90 point player.
Along with Bergeron, the Bruins have good skill in Marc Savard, Milan Lucic, Michael Ryder, Phil Kessel and David Krejci. Their forwards are definitely oozing will youth, skill, and potential. If they are able to put it all together the Bruins should be able to trade goals with any team in the league.
Defensively, Boston is quite deep with Zdeno Chara, Mark Stuart, Andrew Ferrence, and Aaron Ward. Chara is definitely one of the top defensemen in the league and Stuart is on the rise. The rest of the defense is as steady and reliable as most teams in the league.
Goaltending (yet again, has anyone noticed a trend?) is one of the question marks for this Bruins team. Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez could very likely share the bulk of the load unless one really outshines the other. Both have shown over the years that they can win games, so regardless of which goaltender is in net, the Bruins should be in a lot more games than not.
This team has enough talent that they will most likely make it into the playoffs. Depending on who they face and the confidence their young players gain, the Boston Bruins could very likely grind their way to playoff success.
None of these teams are without their own issues and deficiencies. Nevertheless, the perennial favorites around the league will have a tough time night in and night out when facing them.
Come playoff time, any of these teams could be capable of making long runs. Of the six teams I’ve talked about here, I truly believe that three of them could likely make the Conference Finals.
Write it down: One of these six teams will make it to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Obviously, being an Oilers fan at heart, I want to believe that it will be the Oilers. Having said that, if I were going to be placing a bet right now, my gut is telling me that Washington is the most likely choice to make it all the way.
Hopefully this will generate some discussion. By all means disagree, but come season’s end, don’t be surprised if these teams aren’t all being talked about and raved about.
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