Monday, October 02, 2006

NHL '06-07 Preview: Sabres and Predators To Star In Epic Slug Battle

It's only been a year since the new cap era kicked off. However, if it's anything like last season which resulted in the surprising Hurricanes winning their first ever Cup in seven over Edmonton, expect the unexpected.

Once again this past summer, big names moved around as teams scrambled to address their rosters in hopes they too could go from playoff outcast to bonafide contender. None of the NHL's final four which also included Anaheim and Buffalo even qualified for the postseason under the previous CBA. Such are now the endless possibilities in this new era which rewards well thought out personnel strategy instead of just the old mighty buck.

If the games are anything like last season, the best teams will have enough speed to continue taking advantage of the new rules which put more of emphasis on special teams and allow for precision passing leading to quicker transition and odd-man rushes.

So, who will emerge?

Eastern Conference

1.Buffalo Sabres- Only injuries prevented them from beating the Hurricanes and probably winning their first championship. Can an ugly slug logo keep them from competing this year? Though Jay McKee, J.P. Dumont and Mike Grier are gone, they still should be extremely formidable. Daniel Briere and Chris Drury lead perhaps the deepest forward corps. The defense will still be solid with the addition of Jaroslav Spacek to a blueline which already has Teppo Numminen, Henrik Tallinder, Toni Lydman, Brian Campbell and Dmitri Kalinin. With Ryan Miller in net and Martin Biron backing up, Buffalo is primed for another deep run. If Tim Connolly returns from a concussion, watch out.

2.New Jersey Devils- After GM Lou Lamoriello performed more miracles to get under the cap and out of the league's wrath, he's provided new coach Claude Julien with a roster which should challenge for the top of the conference. A healthy Patrik Elias should team with Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta to form a deadly scoring line. Youngsters Zach Parise and Travis Zajac could provide depth. Brian Rafalski, Colin White and Paul Martin lead a steady blueline. They also boast the game's best goalie in Martin Brodeur. Not only will they be stingy but should be able to score more goals. The growing question in light of how all his unsigned players patiently awaited him to get out of that cap mess, just how much spiked Kool Aid did Lamoriello serve them? That's what opponents will be saying in hardly the same fashion.

3.Carolina Hurricanes- The defending champs took it on the chin this offseason with the losses of Matt Cullen, Aaron Ward, Doug Weight, Mark Recchi and Martin Gerber. They'll also start the season without Frantisek Kaberle, Bret Hedican and Cory Stillman. Kaberle and Stillman could miss the entire first half. With pressure to repeat, GM Jim Rutherford rolled the dice by dealing top prospect Jack Johnson and dumping Oleg Tverdovsky to Los Angeles in exchange for Eric Belanger and Tim Gleason. If they perform well, nobody will care. The Canes replaced Gerber with John Grahame, who will serve as the team's backup to Conn Smythe winner Cam Ward. With superstar Eric Staal leading the way up front along with team captain Rod Brind'Amour, Erik Cole and Justin Williams, the Canes should still be good enough to win the Southeast. If there's a weakness, it could be the blueline until they get healthy.

4.Ottawa Senators- So how did everyone's favorite perennial playoff choker respond to another bitter disappointment? By letting towering D Zdeno Chara walk to a division rival and not bringing back Dominik Hasek. They also shipped talented forward Martin Havlat to the NHL's version of Siberia in Chicago. He should have plenty of fun with Bryan Smolinski while cashing a $6 million-a-year salary with a team that loses 45-50 games. Despite losing Chara, GM John Muckler might have made his blueline even deeper with Tom Preissing coming over from San Jose along with signing Joe Corvo and re-signing Wade Redden. Gerber will replace Hasek in net and split time with Ray Emery. The growing question is did the Sens lose too much offense? They could rely more on Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson. But gritty players such as Mike Fisher, Peter Schaefer and Patrick Eaves are overlooked. Is it enough to finally deliver when it counts? Don't bet on it.

5.New York Rangers- After finally making the postseason for the first time in nine years, they were unceremoniously swept out by nemesis New Jersey. Remarkably, they collapsed by dropping their final nine to blow the Atlantic and end a promising season. With superstar Jaromir Jagr needing offensive support, GM Glen Sather went out and added proven finisher Brendan Shanahan along with Cullen and Ward from the Cup champion Hurricanes. They're hoping the 38 year-old Shanahan can continue to light the lamp regularly on a second line with the underrated Cullen and second-year sniper Petr Prucha. If they can provide more offense, the top unit of Jagr, Martin Straka and Michael Nylander shouldn't feel as much pressure. Ward should provide more physicality to a blueline which broke down. Ranger fans will soon discover that Tom Poti's replacement Karel Rachunek will resemble a traffic cone. Hopefully, Henrik Lundqvist isn't taking more pucks out of his net as a result.

6.Philadelphia Flyers- It's the same old story on Broad Street. Solid regular season but goaltending and D let down in postseason. They were embarrassed by Buffalo. With Peter Forsberg back for the season to give the top line of Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble a boost, they should be set up front. Especially with promising sophomores Jeff Carter, Michael Richards and R.J. Umberger. GM Bobby Clarke also took a risk by swapping two-way pivot Michal Handzus for Kyle Calder. Calder is talented but will he fit in? The biggest questions as usual are in net and on the blueline. With Antero Niittymaki not 100 percent due to a torn labrum, Robert Esche should get the nod to start the season. Both netminders are capable of big saves and softies. Ah. Can't you hear a Flyer fan already? They should be more troubled by their D. Outside of Freddy Meyer and Joni Pitkanen (injured), it won't be a treat watching Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje chase forwards. This team should score plenty and be fun to follow as usual. Any team that has the human IR machine in Forsberg and Jekyll & Hyde goalies along with a schizo GM is as entertaining as the circus. They'll be good again but just not good enough.

7.Boston Bruins- Let's see: Added impact defenseman in Chara. Check. Added bonafide playmaking center in Marc Savard to help offense. Check. Added budding offensive defenseman in Paul Mara to run the power play. Check. And signed number one draft pick Phil Kessel, who made the club and will do quite well. Check. These things all add up to what should be a return to the playoffs for the new look Bruins. To top it all off, new GM Peter Chiarelli also hired new coach Dave Lewis. Lot of new perssonel here added to the dangerous top line of Marco Sturm, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Boyes. Did we mention that we'll take Bergeron in a big spot over Joe Thornton anyday? The only question could be chemistry. If they click under Lewis' system, all systems should be go. Of course, how will second-year netminder Hannu Toivonen respond to such pressure? Or will it fall on veteran backup Tim Thomas' shoulders? Either it could fall apart here or Boston's hired guns just might be able to inject some life into a dead Original Six franchise. Just don't make me look at Lewis' Adolph Hitler-esque mustache.

8.Florida Panthers- Okay, okay. Ex-GM Mike Keenan (now he's losing his job before a season starts) dealt franchise goalie Roberto Luongo to Vancouver in a five player trade which landed troubled power forward Todd Bertuzzi, Alex Auld and Bryan Allen. And this makes them better? No question Luongo was an elite netminder. But the lingering questions surrounding whether he'd re-sign during this season would've been a huge distraction. Auld isn't a bad goalie by any stretch. We're just not sure it's a good thing that now Coach/GM Jacques Martin brought in ageless Ed Belfour as well. How long before his back gives out? That aside, the Panthers boast some talent up front in star captain Olli Jokinen and rising youngsters Nathan Horton and Rotislav Olesz. If supporting cast players such as Chris Gratton, Joe Nieuwendyk, Jozef Stumpel and Martin Gelinas perform well, there should be a nice mix. A healthy Stephen Weiss also could do wonders. Rising D Jay Bouwmeester anchors the blueline with Mike Van Ryn. They added Ruslan Salei for grit. If Branislav Mezei returns to form, along with Allen and Steve Montador, Florida should be alright. It really depends on how Martin manages the goalies. A motivated Bertuzzi would help too.

9.Montreal Canadiens- They didn't really do much this offseason. Sergei Samsonov is a nice player and might mesh well with countryman Alexei Kovalev but the Canadiens are entering this season with team leader Saku Koivu questionable. They traded Mike Ribeiro for soft defenseman Janne Niinimaa. There just isn't much here that screams excitement. Chris Higgins and Michael Ryder are nice players. Guillame Latendresse is a nice story but is he ready for primetime? Defenseman Sheldon Souray just doesn't seem to instill fear in opponents anymore with this new NHL. I still have visions of Spezza going around him for that highlight reel OT winner. Unless former first rounder Mike Komisarek suddenly develops, the Habs' D will make life very difficult on Cristobal Huet and David Aebischer. Unless they perform miracles once again, it's hard to envision this team making the cut.

10.Atlanta Thrashers- They have superstars in Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa. A potential stud in net with Kari Lehtonen. They also boast the underrated Slava Kozlov. But any team with Bobby Holik and Steve Rucchin as their top centers isn't going anywhere. GM Don Waddell must've lost his mind when he let Savard leave and decided those two along with a trade of Patrik Stefan for Niko Kapanen was enough to transform this team into a playoff one for the first time. Their D is not scaring anyone with Greg de vries and Niclas Havelid. Andy Sutton and Vitaly Vishnevski will keeps opponents honest but there's something missing. Will Waddell be making anymore idiotic guarantees?

11.Tampa Bay Lightning- So they'll be able to score goals with Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Vinny Prospal, Ruslan Fedotenko and even Ryan Craig. But will they be able to score enough to see the postseason with a D which includes Luke Richardson and now has Cory Sarich playing major minutes due to Pavel Kubina's departure? While GM Jay Feaster added puckmoving D Filip Kuba, there just isn't much to keep pucks out of their zone. Dan Boyle is probably their best defenseman. Acquired for Fredrik Modin, new netminder Marc Denis will have his work cut out for him on a team which will resemble his former Blue Jackets. It says here that Tampa will play a lot of shootouts but just won't win enough.

12.Toronto Maple Leafs- GM John Ferguson finally smartened up and let go of Belfour and vets Jason Allison and Eric Lindros. Popular enforcer Tie Domi called it a career. He also hired ex-Canes boss Paul Maurice to run the bench in place of Pat Quinn. Will it work? After committing a lot of years to Bryan McCabe, he went out and overpaid Kubina and Hal Gill to solidify the blueline. Problem is those big men just might not be good enough to keep up. How many times will each wind up in the box? Ferguson also is banking on ex-Bruin Andrew Raycroft to rediscover the form that saw him win the Calder in '03-04. If not, it won't be pretty in Leafs Nation. Outside of aging star Mats Sundin and superpest Darcy Tucker, the Leafs do have some talented forwards in Alex Steen, Kyle Wellwood and Matt Stajan. It's just that they're still relying on too many vets such as Michael Peca and Jeff O'Neill. Over the grind of an 82-game season, that's not going to work. Expect mixed results.

13.Pittsburgh Penguins- How can you not love the Pens? They boast the game's next superstar in Sidney Crosby and a month from now, Evgeni Malkin will provide a solid 1-2 punch which people will be talking about for years. Even more encouraging is that second overall pick Jordan Staal made the roster and will get valuable experience before probably being sent back to juniors after nine games. There are some other talented forwards in Colby Armstrong, Michel Ouellet and Ryan Malone. They also added ex-Ranger pivot Dominic Moore in a three-team deal with Nashville. Moore will provide solid checking and energy. Vet Mark Recchi is also back along with John LeClair. Jarrko Ruutu is there for toughness. Questions remain on D and in goal. Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney comprise the top pair and Brooks Orpik is still learning. Mark Eaton was added from Nashville. There's just not enough here to help out Marc-Andre Fleury or Dany Sabourin. This team will be exciting and compete hard. Expect Crosby to put up 130 points. Wait another year or two.

14.New York Islanders- So owner Charles Wang hired and then fired GM Neil Smith in just 40 days and replaced him with backup goalie Garth Snow? And for an encore, two months later he gave netminder Rick DiPietro an NHL record 15-year contract worth $67.5 million??? The same cocky former number one overall pick who hasn't proven he can take the next step. Makes plenty of sense from an owner who once handed out a 10-year $90 million contract to classic underachiever Alexei Yashin. So what does this team have going exactly other than a future job getting Wang's coffee? Well, bringing back exiled Coach Ted Nolan is a start. He'll get them to play hard and make everyone accountable. They'll have more physicality on the blueline with Brendan Witt and Sean Hill but both are heading downhill. They'll try to get more out of ex-Ranger Tom Poti and ex-Devil Viktor Kozlov. Chris Simon will provide some beef. There just isn't much here to get excited about. Players like Mike York, Jason Blake and Shawn Bates will do well. But unless Yashin performs, it will be a long year in Long Island.

15.Washington Capitals- We love rating Calder winner Alexander Ovechkin. He's got personality, grit and immense skills. If only he had a supporting cast. Bringing back Alexander Semin is a start. If they team up, that could be a lot of fun to watch. GM George McPhee did trade for Richard Zednik but he's coming off a dismal season with Montreal. Dainius Zubrus has always had ability but is the classic tease. So what is there to get excited about outside AO? Donald Brashear will keep opponents honest. The Caps did add Bryan Pothier to the blueline but he'll soon discover he's not employed by Ottawa. Steve Eminger is a guy we like on that D who should get better. Shaone Morrisonn is still young. If there's one other guy we like up front, it's Brian Sutherby. He plays extremely tough and makes things happen. Got to feel sorry for Olaf Kolzig. The likeable netminder deserves better. If he was on a good team, we're betting he'd still be one of the better goalies in the league. Oh well.


1.Anaheim Ducks- Teaming Chris Pronger with Scott Niedermayer on the blueline is a stroke of genius by GM Brian Burke. Two franchise defensemen who have won Norris' trophies and can dictate a game in their own unique way. Oh my. They're going to be extremely difficult to beat. Francois Beauchemin is also solid and can contribute offensively. So, what could go wrong? Outside of Teemu Selanne, they're relying on a lot of young forwards and gave up Joffrey Lupul to Edmonton as part of the deal. Still, with a crop that consists of Andy McDonald, Chris Kunitz, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Dustin Penner, they'll be formidable. Vets Rob Niedermayer, Todd Marchant and Samuel Pahlsson provide depth. Former prospect Stanislav Chistov is also back and should find the quicker game better. The biggest question seems to be who will be the number one goalie. Ilya Bryzgalov or former 2003 Conn Smythe winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere? It's a good problem to have. These Ducks are poised for another deep run and maybe even their first ever Cup.

2.Nashville Predators- This team continues to improve all the time. Had number one goalie Tomas Vokoun been healthy this past Spring, they win their first ever playoff round. Like Anaheim, they're going with a lot of young talent. Ryan Sutter and Shea Weber come to mind on the blueline as does budding third-year star Dan Hamhuis. Overlooked due to talented vets Kimmo Timonen and Marek Zidlicky, he's poised to improve on his 38 points last season. There's an awful lot to like about their D. Just as promising is the crop of forwards which features stars Paul Kariya and Steve Sullivan. With center Jason Arnott signed from Dallas, that should be a lethal top line. This will allow David Legwand to move into a secondary scoring role with the underrated Martin Erat and possibly Scott Hartnell. They also added ex-Sabre J.P. Dumont, who should provide more punch. Josef Vasicek was also acquired from Carolina for Scott Walker. This should give Nashville more depth at center. One prospect to keep an eye on is Alexander Radulov. Though he had a good preseason, he was sent down to Milwaukee but could be back soon. Of course, how far the Predators go depends on Vokoun. If healthy, he's a top five goalie. It's time for this franchise to take that next step.

3.Calgary Flames- GM Darryl Sutter might no longer be behind the bench but new coach Jim Playfair will continue Sutter's model of playing a disciplined brand of hockey. How that benefits former Av Alex Tanguay remains to be seen. The talented playmaking left wing was acquired for Jordan Leopold to bolster the Flames' offense alongside Jarome Iginla. They'll team up with Daymond Langkow to comprise a solid top unit. The question is can Jeff Friesen really be relied on for offense? His best years came under Sutter playing back in San Jose. He hasn't been the same player since even if he did score a few big goals helping New Jersey to a Cup in 2003. The Flames will need solid contributions from Chuck Kobasew and Kristian Huselius. A healthy Matt Lombardi should help. They shouldn't expect too much from Tony Amonte. If former Western Canada product Jamie Lundmark could harness his talent, that would help. If anything, the Flames should take solace knowing their stingy D led by Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr should be rock solid. Rhett Warrener and Andrew Ference are no picnic either. Neither is Vezina winner Miikka Kiprusoff to get the puck by. The more things change...The only question is do they have enough offense to take them far?

4.San Jose Sharks- After acquiring Joe Thornton from Boston last year, the Sharks were one of the best teams in the league which allowed him to take home the Hart Trophy. Thornton is an immense talent and got the most out of sniper Jonathan Cheechoo, who led the league with 56 goals. This offseason, GM Doug Wilson went out and added ex-Hawk Mark Bell via a three-team deal with Ottawa. Bell should complete the league's best line. Hopefully, he'll stay out of further trouble off the ice. The dilemma for opponents is that the Sharks can comeback with Patrick Marleau, Milan Michalek and Steve Bernier. They also added grit in ex-Sabre Mike Grier to a mix that includes Ville Nieminen, Curtis Brown and Marcel Goc. Despite parting with Tom Preissing in the Bell deal, the D should still be good with Matt Carle supplying the offense while Scott Hannan and Kyle McLaren supply the beef. Christian Ehrhoff gives them a solid top four. In net, Vesa Toskala will most likely be the number one with vet Evgeni Nabokov backing up. Nolan Schaefer also is there as insurance. This is a very skilled team with lots of speed. But it's up to either Toskala or Nabokov to shine in the postseason.

5.Detroit Red Wings- For the first time since 1982-83, the Winged Wheel will be without emotional leader Steve Yzerman. But with new team captain Nicklas Lidstrom and 44 year-old vet Chris Chelios anchoring the blueline, the transition should be smooth. While they're old on D also with Mathieu Schneider, Niklas Kronwall should continue to improve. Vets Danny Markov and Andreas Lilja round it out. Up front, Henrik Zetterberg is an emerging superstar and Pavel Datsyuk isn't too far behind. Robert Lang can center the second line and Tomas Holmstrom will provide the usual grit in front. If there was a surprise last season, it was the play of Mikael Samuelsson and Jason Williams. They'll be looked to again for offense. Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby once again team up as one of the league's best checking units. If there is a question, it might be how long veteran netminder Dominik Hasek stays healthy for? If he goes down, Chris Osgood backs up. Question nobody wants to hear in Hockeytown: Is this the year some of those vets finally show their age?

6.Minnesota Wild- It took GM Doug Risebrough a few years to finally open the vault and spend. With criticism coming down even from superstar Marian Gaborik who he wisely re-signed long term, Risebrough packaged prospect Patrick O'Sullivan to the Kings for Slovak Pavol Demitra. He also inked sniper Mark Parrish and added defenseman Kim Johnsson as well. Parrish should provide grit and work well with Brian Rolson and possibly Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Johnsson will be looked to for offense and stability on the blueline after they lost Filip Kuba to Tampa and Andrei Zyuzin to Calgary. Johnsson is returning from a concussion. So it was a risk. Kurtis Foster can provide offense while Keith Carney and Brent Burns can supply some physicality. Is this the year Mikko Koivu plays a more prominent role up front? Meanwhile, Manny Fernandez comes in as the clearcut number one goalie and should be ready to backstop the Wild back to the postseason. Looks like they might have fun at the Excel Center.

7.Dallas Stars- Gone is Arnott but still around are key cogs Mike Modano, new team captain Brenden Morrow, Jere Lehtinen, Sergei Zubov, Phillipe Boucher and Marty Turco. During the offseason, GM Doug Armstrong replaced Arnott with Eric Lindros and Jeff Halpern. He also swapped Niko Kapanen for Patrik Stefan and recently added even more depth at the pivot by sending Janne Niinimaa to Montreal for Mike Ribeiro. Throw in emerging Finns Jussi Jokinen and Antti Miettinen and they look pretty balanced. Matt Barnaby and Steve Ott provide energy. On the blueline, 1999 Cup hero Darryl Sydor returns. Jaroslav Modry and Stephane Robidas provide depth. Everything looks good. So what could go wrong? Modano and Zubov show age and Lindros suffers yet another injury. It really is sad what's happened to the Big E. Then there's Turco in net. Can he really get it done when it counts? He's flopped badly so far in his playoff career. That assumes they get there which isn't a given. They should but it will be close.

8.Vancouver Canucks- If big acquisition Robert Luongo doesn't get them here, then he really is an overrated goalie. Sorry. That's just how it should be. Yes. The Canucks lost Ed Jovanovski to Phoenix but considering that he's an accident waiting to happen, that's addition by subtraction. GM Mike Nonis went out and signed Willie Mitchell, who is younger and should provide physicality and actually play more than half the schedule. Mattias Ohlund will anchor the D. Sami Salo is a sound number three. After that, it gets thin. They really need Lukas Krajicek or rookie Luc Bourdon to step up. If either does, they'll be fine. Offensively, it falls on the shoulders of captain Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison to rebound from down seasons. They're probably better off without Todd Bertuzzi. The Sedin twins have emerged as solid NHLers. Matt Cooke is underrated and Jan Bulis supplies depth at center. After Nonis whined like a baby after matching Bobby Clarke's offersheet to Ryan Kesler, Kesler needs to prove his worth. It would help if Taylor Pyatt emerges. He never really played much in Buffalo. If Luongo answers the questions in goal, the Canucks should be able to squeak back in the playoffs.

9.Edmonton Oilers- This is tough but when you look at GM Kevin Lowe's new look D after Pronger and Jaroslav Spacek left, it's hard to see them making the cut. Captain Jason Smith is still there along with Marc-Andre Bergeron. So is Steve Staios but they never did well with him as a number three. Why will it be any different now? Daniel Tjarnqvist is nothing special and Matt Greene really needs to show a lot more than he did this past June. They'll need Ladislav Smid to be a reliable top four D. That's what the former Duck prospect was projected as before the Pronger deal. We'll see. Up front, we love Lupul and Ales Hemsky to have big seasons. Ryan Smyth, Shawn Horcoff and Jared Stoll should enjoy playing with them. Vet Petr Sykora should be able to finish enough. The pressure will be on Fernando Pisani to duplicate his postseason. Ethan Moreau is underrated. Up front, they're solid. The question marks on the blueline could make life difficult for Dwayne Roloson. If he's under siege routinely, will the vet turned miracle worker crack?

10.Colorado Avalanche- Is this the year the Avs finally miss the postseason? With the losses of Rob Blake and Tanguay, they'll be hardpressed to get in again. Of course, ageless wonder Joe Sakic will once again be there to try to silence the doubters. So too will Milan Hejduk, who needs about the same bounceback season ex-Av Teemu Selanne had with Anaheim. Second-year sniper Marek Svatos returns from shoulder surgery and must be healthy. The Avs are pinning their hopes on free agent pickup Tyler Arnason to provide scoring. He has talent but is a headcase. Rookie Wojtek Wolski has lots of promise and could become the latest Av to emerge up front. Also keep an eye on former 2005 second rounder Paul Stastny. Can gritty center Ian Laperriere repeat his career season? Meanwhile, John-Michael Liles leads the charge from the blueline along with underrated defenders Karlis Skrastins and Ossi Vaananen. Patrice Brisebois can provide offense but is offensive in every sense in his own end. And Ken Klee was awful with New Jersey. Better hope Leopold gets back soon. There are many questions and that continues in net with former Hart and Vezina winner Jose Theodore. Is he an elite netminder or severely overrated? Don't rule out second-year goalie Peter Budaj unseating him. They'll be interesting but the playoff streak has to end some time. As Al Pacino once said to Keanu Reeves at the end of Devil's Advocate, "You can't win'em all."

11.Los Angeles Kings- With the recent acquisition of prospect Jack Johnson along with salary dump Oleg Tverdovsky in a deal which sent Eric Belanger and Tim Gleason to Carolina, it appears new GM Dean Lombardi plans to rebuild. Why else would he dump Demitra on the Wild for O'Sullivan? That's why it's hard to make sense of the Dan Cloutier signing. Maybe it was ex-Canucks' coach Marc Crawford's influence but come on. What are they doing? Rebuilding or trying to win now? Or is it both? Could that also be why they brought back Blake for their blueline to team him up with Lubomir Visnovsky? They also added vet Brent Sopel to a D which includes captain Mattias Norstrom and Aaron Miller. Plus team ornament Tverdovsky. Outside of Visnovsky, they're old. It's a different story up front where Alexander Frolov, Michael Cammalleri, Dustin Brown, superpest Sean Avery, O'Sullivan along with former first rounder Anze Kopitar comprise a youth movement. There's also vets Craig Conroy, Derek Armstrong and Scott Thornton. So what can be expected from them? Is Cloutier that much better than Mathieu Garon? That remains to be seen. This team either could surprise or finish where we're picking them.

12.Columbus Blue Jackets- You would think by now the Blue Jackets would finally be on their way up but it doesn't look that way. Now that GM Doug MacLean has re-signed Nikolai Zherdev, offensively, they should be good with the young Russian talent teaming up with power forward Rick Nash and the underappreciated David Vyborny. Adding Fredrik Modin and Anson Carter should give them two solid lines. But without veteran Sergei Fedorov to start the season, they're lacking in the middle. Unless Alexander Svitov or Dan Fritsche step up, the offense could stagnate. Manny Malhotra is a solid third liner. If someone emerges, it could be former first round pick Gilbert Brule. He is solid overall and has the skills to go with it. They'll also look to Jaroslav Balastik for offense. Even with Adam Foote and Bryan Berard, the D is weak. Ron Hainsey can contribute and David Westcott is decent. But who outside the aging Foote will keep opponents honest? If you say reject Anders Eriksson, you lose. And this is what new number one Pascal Leclaire has in front of him? Like a classic Weezer song, "Say It Ain't So."

13.Phoenix Coyotes- If you look at this roster, it's not awful. However, it seems like a classic tease for Coach Wayne Gretzky to try to bring respectability back to. Shane Doan is a solid power forward and Ladislav Nagy is a gifted finisher. After that, it gets thin quick. Can Mike Comrie really be relied on as a top pivot? Aren't Jeremy Roenick and Owen Nolan washed up? Outside of Steve Reinprecht, there's nothing to get excited about. Heck. Team enforcer Georges Laraque looks good. No wonder they gave him a no-trade clause. We wish we were kidding but it's no joke. It would help when Fredrik Sjostrom returns to the lineup. So, this is what Jovanovski chose? Now, the blueline he joins isn't putrid. Keith Ballard and Zbynek Michalek (try saying that name 10 times fast and get back to us) are solid and can contribute offensively. Nick Boynton who was acquired for Paul Mara is a steady stay-at-home defender. Derek Morris is okay but not as good as he once was hyped to be. Last season, veteran Curtis Joseph played out of his mind in the first half but predictably broke down. He's one year from 40 and well traveled backup Mike Morrison is on his third team in less than a year. What was Gretzky pal GM Mike Barnett thinking? This team was so much better in Winnipeg. Even if there wasn't much success, at least there was an identity.

14.St. Louis Blues- First former MSG boss Dave Checketts took over as team owner. Then he brought in pal and expert NHL analyst John Davidson to run the show as Team President. No question JD knows his stuff but can anyone explain why he added so many veterans? Doug Weight. Bill Guerin. Martin Rucinsky. Dan Hinote. Radek Dvorak. Jay McKee. Manny Legace. The new Blues roster should come with an NHL map. Look. No question they hit rock bottom last season after being in the postseason every year spanning almost three decades. A remarkable accomplishment. How much mileage does a Weight or Guerin have left? They'll most likely team up with Keith Tkachuk to form a vintage Team USA line from 1996. That's 10 years too late. Davidson overpaid for McKee but needed some stability on the blueline. If Barret Jackman ever stayed healthy, they'd be much tougher. Eric Brewer will look to rebound from a nightmarish first season in St. Louis. If you look past all the experience, Petr Cajanek, Lee Stempniak, Christian Backman and Doug Wideman provide hope for the future. Backing up Legace will be the tandem of Curtis Sanford and Jason Bacashihua. So, can this team be competitive? They'll be better than last year but not by much.

15.Chicago Blackhawks- Same old song and dance for Bill Wirtz' Original Six franchise. Do they even count anymore? When is the last time the Hawks were relevant? And we're not talking about that playoff cameo a few years ago where they got swept out by St. Louis. I remember a time when they had a young Eagle, JR, Steve Larmer, Christian Ruutu and even a young Chelios and Gary Suter all on NHL '94. That was Blackhawk hockey! Now, they just suck. What makes anyone think the additions of Martin Havlat and Bryan Smolinski from Ottawa are going to change that? Yes, Havlat is a dynamic talent who should still produce. And the deal of Kyle Calder for Michal Handzus might work as long as Zeus returns to form after offseason surgery. But these are the Hawks. Where overpaying free agents such as Nikolai Khabibulin and Adrian Aucoin turns them into mere mortals. Is there some talent on this roster? Sure. Defensemen Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith both have ability. Former number one Cam Barker will eventually return from injury and get his chance. Center Tuomu Ruutu is an enormous talent but once again will start the season on IR. And left wing Rene Bourque is decent. But when you look at this mix, it seems like they just flipped a coin. If you're pathetic, shouldn't you tear the whole thing up? Can the Bulin Wall rebound? If not, Brian Boucher is the backup. How did Michael Leighton not make the roster? But instead, they have Patrick Lalime as their third stringer. Hawks hockey at its finest.



Conference Quarters

Sabres over Panthers in 5
Devils over Bruins in 6
Hurricanes over Flyers in 7
Senators over Rangers in 7


Sabres over Senators in 6
Devils over Hurricanes in 6


Sabres over Devils in 7


Conference Quarters

Ducks over Canucks in 6
Predators over Stars in 5
Wild over Flames in 6
Sharks over Wings in 6


Ducks over Wild in 5
Predators over Sharks in 6


Predators over Ducks in 6


Sabres over Predators in 7


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10:36 PM  
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11:08 PM  

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