Oct 12, 2010 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
Cold weather is starting to seep into our collective consciences. Polo shirts, sandals and shorts are out. Sweaters, boots and flannels are in. And the National Hockey League’s eight-month marathon is underway again.
Much of the off-season talk centered, as usual, around contracts. Especially the 15-year, $100-million monster the New Jersey Devils gave to Ilya Kovalchuk that was signed, voided, then signed again as most of the other franchises watched in horror.
Granted, talking about a player and a contract sure beat the Phoenix nightmare of a year ago, but given that the Coyotes turned into a big surprise in 2009-10, maybe having drama will serve the Devils well once the puck drops for real.
Division-by-division, here’s how it lines up:
Northeast – Only now will we find out if Boston has healed from blowing that 3-0 playoff lead to Philadelphia. If the hangover doesn’t persist, the Bruins should win the division. If it does, Buffalo, fully restored to its old-school jerseys (much to the relief of Sabres fans), can finish first behind Ryan Miller’s expert goaltending. Montreal’s stunning run to the final four isn’t likely to repeat itself with Jaroslav Havak out of the picture. Toronto is rebuilding the right way, but contention is a year or two away. Ottawa has redefined itself, too, but can the Senators defend?
Atlantic – Really, it’s a Keystone State narrative here. Philadelphia went from making the playoffs at the last moment to the epic Bruins comeback to getting within two wins of the Stanley Cup. The Flyers shouldn’t be as schizophrenic this season, but Pittsburgh, with the Crosby-Malkin combo, is still more potent and now has a new arena to replace the Igloo. In New Jersey, the whole story is Kovalchuk, and whether he’s worth that kind of money. The Rangers still throw bad money around, and won’t contend again until they stop. You’ll hear a lot of rumors about the sad-sack Islanders and a possible relocation. ANY place would be better than Nassau Mausoleum – er, Coliseum.
Southeast – Washington rules the regular season, thanks to Alex Ovechkin and his whirlwind charges. But the playoffs are another matter, culminated by surrendering a 3-1 lead to Montreal a season ago. Part of the problem is that the Caps never get much competition in this division, though that may change with the vast improvements Tampa Bay (new ownership, new coach, new GM, lots of new talent) have made. Everyone else, from Carolina to Atlanta to Florida, is far behind, with only the Hurricanes harboring realistic playoff hopes.
Central – Chicago celebrated its first Cup victory in 49 years by letting half the players go. As the likes of Antti NIemi and Dustin Byfuglien scattered across the land, the Blackhawks could take heart in the fact that Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Mirian Hossa are still around to fend off Detroit. Injuries killed the Red Wings a season ago, and a healthy group can make Chicago sweat. St. Louis stands a fair chance of improvement, while a modest budget keeps Nashville from addressing its constant offensive woes. At least the disciplined Predators can ponder a playoff return, something that seems far away in Columbus, where major rebuilding is underway again.
Northwest – They are expecting nothing less than the Cup in Vancouver, where reigning Hart Trophy winner Henrik Sedin rules the front line and Roberto Luongo stops shots. More importantly, the Canucks don’t have to go through that two-month, Olympics-enforced road trip. Colorado just can’t surprise everyone again, so expect a step or do back from the Avalanche as Minnesota keeps searching for offense. Any game between Calgary and Edmonton is fun, and while both might miss the playoffs again, remember the name Taylor Hall. Up in Alberta, they’re talking about this new Oiler as if he’s like some guy that wore 99 up there and had a fair amount of success.
Pacific – It says something that Dallas, an NHL power not that long ago, has fallen far down the interest level here. San Jose finally won some playoff series, and hope some new goaltending (hello, Niemi) puts them over the top. Los Angeles is ready to really step up, led by the league’s next great defenseman in Drew Doughty. Many people in this area will have more interest in Anaheim’s progress, now that the Syracuse Crunch are affiliated with them. As with Colorado, it’s hard to imagine Phoenix sneaking up on folks again. The Stars are in the midst of a reshaping that might take a couple of years to complete.
So when 82 games and two months of playoffs are done, who will hoist Lord Stanley’s precious hardware?
My hunch is that the Penguins, fired up by a new building and refreshed after a genuine off-season, go back to the finals and reclaim the top prize at the expense of….the Kings. Yes, L.A. can move all the way up, past Chicago and Detroit and San Jose to the top. Between the Kings and Lakers, they might end up very busy at the Staples Center next June.