Monthly Archives: August 2011

While we are stuck in the waning parts of the summer, left to contemplate the effect of free agency, the rises or stagnations of young players and all things between the pipes, I feel it is as good a time as any to reflect upon some of the better and worse Stanley Cup Finals that we’ve seen in recent years.
I’ve read about and familiarized myself with the lineal history of the league, but I don’t have many chronological memories of given playoff years before the magical spring of 1994. As a nine year-old kid, I found myself trying to beat chants of “1940” out of my head during random parts of pretty much every day from May on. The Rangers’ crowd was intense during those playoffs, and fed upon the growing hysteria of the idea of taking back the Stanley Cup for the first time since that year that it kept chanting. The tone of the chants seemed to change as the playoffs went along, with it starting more as a reminder of the franchise’s impotence over the last half century. The chant grew to have a touch of controlled anger, meant to not only convey the fans’ pain and suffering, but also to motivate the group of star players that would cement their legacy at the end. By the end, the chant was pure joy, but that’s only because the Cup was already in hand, since even with 1.6 seconds left in Game 7 of the Finals against Vancouver, the Rangers still had to avoid a defensive zone faceoff disaster. The Rangers were able to dig the puck to the corner, and the ensuing celebration in the arena might put to shame anything that we’ve seen since. It, along with the playoff run itself, made a lifelong fan out of my then six-year-old brother.
Photo via here

But as beautiful as those playoffs were, in today’s world they may not have ever happened. The 1993-94 season was played without a collective bargaining agreement, and that situation manifested itself into the 1994 NHL lockout, which carved the 1995 season into a rapid-fire 48-game season that saw the playoffs start in May for the first (and hopefully last) time. Since that first lockout we’ve been lucky enough to see a statistically strange amount of Finals series go seven games, but not every Stanley Cup Finals lives up to the hype inherent in the fourth round of any bracket-style tournament. Here’s a look at the best and worst Finals from the standpoint of an objective third party, who either supported a team that was previously eliminated or just a casual fan without a dog in the fight to begin with. These series are rated based on excitement coming in, the teams and story lines involved, watchability and actual results, and are of course all my opinion.
The Good
5. 1997 – Detroit d. Philadelphia 4-0
I know, I know. How can a sweep be considered among one of the best series in any time frame? But remember that there were key story lines coming in for both teams, and that the Red Wings were decided underdogs prior to the drop of the puck in Game 1.
For Philadelphia, the story was supposed to be the punctuation on the Eric Lindros trade as one of the better moves in franchise history, and the first opportunity to reverse what happened the year before. For those that don’t know or remember, Lindros very publicly indicated that he would never play for the Quebec Nordiques, who drafted him #1 overall in 1991 anyway. Among Lindros’ reasons for refusing to play for the club was reportedly that he did not want to have to learn French, which is kind of funny in today’s age of baseball players with translators and the like. Lindros stuck to his guns though, and the Nordiques fielded two trade offers for his rights. One was from the New York Rangers, and the other from the Flyers. New York threw the following at Quebec for the rights to Lindros: Doug Weight, Tony Amonte, John Vanbiesbrouck (apparently the biggest city in the USA didn’t like American players much), Alexei Kovalev, three consecutive first-round draft picks from 1993 to 1995, and $12 million in straight cash, homie.
Luckily for New York, the arbitrator deciding on the two offers ruled in favor of Philadelphia’s deal instead. The Flyers sent the following to Quebec: Peter Forsberg, who by himself made the deal a stinker for Philadelphia and a boon for Quebec (or rather, Colorado), Ron Hextall, Chris Simon, Mike Ricci, Kerry Huffman, Steve Duchesne, a 1993 first-round pick that became goaltender Jocelyn Thibault, a 1994 first-round pick that was later traded to Washington, and $15 million. Quebec moved to Colorado in the summer of 1995, and that Avalanche team won the Stanley Cup in its first year, largely thanks to the contributions of the players sent over from Philadelphia.
Photo via
Lindros with the ’97 Prince of Wales Trophy. It would be the only team trophy he’d win with the club.
One of those players was not Hextall, who got himself traded to the New York Islanders after one season in Quebec. He was then shipped back to Philadelphia, which brings us back to the 1997 Finals. Hextall was a Flyer through and through, and Lindros was expected to cement himself as the legend that he was expected to be all along. He had already won a Hart Trophy as league MVP in the 1995 shortened season, and now was to come the Cup. Lindros and the Flyers destroyed everyone in their path en route to the Finals, going 12-3 in three consecutive five-game victories. To add hype to the already legitimately-based expectations, Lindros had two linemates that teamed up with him to actually have a universally recognized nickname — the Legion of Doom. The line of John LeClair, Mikael Renberg and Lindros tallied 225 goals in the previous two regular seasons alone. They would tack on 41 in those two playoffs, but it ultimately wouldn’t be enough and the line was broken up after the sweep at the hands of Detroit.
So while we look back and understand that this was the one and only chance at glory for Lindros and that era of Flyer hockey, at the time the mood was much different. They were rolling, had a player that people were actually calling the best in hockey, and were favored to win the Stanley Cup over a Detroit team that was known for “choking,” playoff disappointments and a “lack of toughness” that was coded language for “too many europeans.” Ah, the days of nationalism. Glad we’ve moved on and matured. Oh, wait…
The expectations and general feeling surrounding the Red Wings were very different back in the spring of 1997, however. It’s hard to remember now, but four Stanley Cups ago the Red Wings were seen as a team of regular season heroes who didn’t have it in them to close the deal and win hockey’s biggest trophy. While the Flyers were a three seed on an uptick, the Red Wings were a three seed coming off two Presidents’ Trophies in 1995 and ’96 that were mocked by solid beatings at the hands of New Jersey and Colorado. In fact, that 1996 season saw the Red Wings set a record with 62 regular season wins; that record still stands today. But it ended in the conference championship series when those Avalanche handily dispatched of Detroit with those players gained from the trade with Philadelphia. Coming into the ’97 playoffs, it was expected that Colorado should be able to get back to the finals as the winners of their very own Presidents’ Trophy that year.
All signs pointed to another season of Colorado’s dominance over Detroit until a game in late March changed the fortunes of both franchises. Remember that Claude Lemieux rearranged Kris Draper’s face in the ’96 conference finals. The Wings had already played against and lost to Colorado three times in the 1996-97 season, and were reinforcing their reputation for being too soft (read: european) by doing absolutely nothing to anyone on Colorado’s roster. That final meeting changed everything, and allowed Detroit to win the first of two Stanley Cups in a row.
It started when Forsberg took a swipe at Igor Larionov, who aside from having one of the most awesome daughters in the world today, also showed some mettle in getting involved in a wrestling match with Forsberg. That “fight” itself wasn’t much, but it set off a chain of events that delayed the Avs’ second Cup by four years and gave the Red Wings the forum they needed to jumpstart the franchise’s ultimate success. Darren McCarty beat Lemieux into the doctor’s office, and Patrick Roy came flying up center ice before being intercepted by a clothesline by new acquisition Brendan Shanahan. Roy eventually got up and challenged Detroit’s smaller goaltender, Mike Vernon, to a fight that saw Roy put on his back. It was the first time Detroit had gotten over on Roy since they hung 11 goals on him in a game that forced his way out of Montreal and into the Cup-ready hands of Colorado, and it was the first time the team had collectively addressed the illegal hit that could have ended the career of their young teammate ten months prior.

Video via HockeyFightsdotcom’s Youtube page
Pass Sports’ coverage of the March 26, 1997 brawl.

After a six-game upset of Colorado that ended at Joe Louis Arena and felt like a revelation of how to play hockey in the playoffs, the Red Wings found themselves underdogged for the second series in a row, and in the finals again after being swept by Lemieux and his New Jersey Devils in the conclusion to the lockout-shortened season of ’95. So after finally getting over on Lemieux and the team that the Flyers arguably handed the ’96 Stanley Cup to, Detroit had its chance to end a 42-year drought of its own. Let’s also not forget that while Vernon played in the most important regular season game in franchise history, it was actually Chris Osgood who played 47 games to Vernon’s 33. Osgood’s GAA and save percentage were better than Vernon’s through the regular season, and therefore head coach Scotty Bowman probably set himself up for criticism if Vernon didn’t come good and bring the Cup to Detroit right then and there. But, of course, he did.
The games themselves were pretty compelling early on, as the Red Wings played nearly perfect road hockey games to take a 2-0 series lead to Detroit. But it looked shaky early in Game 3, and the Flyers took their first lead at any point in the series in the first period. But the hope was short-lived, as Steve Yzerman tied the score on the power play two minutes later. Another two minutes after that, Sergei Fedorov made one of his best deke moves to put the Wings ahead. By the end it was a 6-1 Detroit victory that left fans’ jaws on the floor. By the time everyone had picked up their jaws, it was time to move on to piling on Lindros and the Flyers. That was perhaps unfortunate, as nobody will remember that the Flyers actually kept their heads and played Game 4 down to the wire; albeit they trailed by two goals throughout the third period until Lindros scored his first and only goal of the finals with just 15 seconds to go. Detroit held on for the 2-1 win and answered announcer Gary Thorne’s very appropriate question from three hours earlier, which was whether or not it was, at long last, time for a coronation.
Full Game 4 highlights, for your viewing pleasure.

The Wings went on to roll through the Washington Capitals in the 1998 Finals, which were utterly forgettable other than the Caps’ incredible collapse in Game 2 and the Brian’s Song-esque scene where fallen defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov was rolled out onto the ice in his wheelchair and made into the centerpiece of the team victory photo. Since that series wasn’t worthy of the top 5 or bottom 5 (based on the Konstantinov / repeat / major franchise story lines), I figured I’d make note of it here.
4. 2008 – Detroit d. Pittsburgh 4-2
Yeah, the Red Wings were the victors in both of the finals that I’ve picked so far, but it’s hard to argue against the magnetism of the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals. On one side, we had a Detroit team that won the Presidents’ Trophy and had relatively little resistance from either Nashville, Colorado or Dallas on their way to the Finals. The Avalanche were by this time a shell of their former strength, and the Dallas series only went six games after the Red Wings went up 3-0 in the series before people remembered that blowing a 3-0 series lead was possible (see, I really don’t hate the Flyers).
The only real event of controversy for Detroit came prior to Game 5 of the first round series against Nashville, when after losing both road games Dominik Hasek was benched in favor of Osgood, who grabbed the reins and never let go. Osgood went all the way and won his second Cup as a starter (1998) and third overall, including that ’97 title as the playoff backup. Henrik Zetterberg won the Conn Smythe and the Wings were finally certain that they had successfully transitioned from the Yzerman, Shanahan & Co. era.
But the real intrigue of the series came from the runners-up. The Penguins finished dead last in their division from 2002 – 2006, and loaded up on high draft picks due to those terrible seasons. The Pens made the playoffs in 2007, but were eliminated in the first round by the deeper and more mature Ottawa Senators, who went on to win the east. But the 2008 playoffs put those negative memories in the past, and the three series wins had the hockey world questioning whether this 20 year-old Sidney Crosby kid was just too good. With Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Marc-Andre Fleury and plenty of more-than-capable older players like Marian Hossa at his side, Crosby was trying to start a dynasty for team owned by the man who was housing him. But the Penguins played too similar a style to Detroit, and did so as less developed puck controllers. It’s long been an idea to fight fire with fire, but that strategy only works if your fire is as big as your opponent’s. Pittsburgh’s puck possession game was very good, but not as practiced and dominant as Detroit’s.
It almost didn’t matter though, as the Penguins were within inches of scoring the game-tying goal in Game 6 against a sprawling Osgood. Pittsburgh had already stolen Detroit’s first opportunity to raise the Cup when Max Talbot tied Game 5 with just 35 seconds left in regulation. The Penguins went on to win in triple-overtime and took the series back to Pittsburgh, which had people getting excited and wondering if we could be in for one of the best finals series in recent memory. A 3-1 Detroit lead was cut in half with 1:27 left in the game, and for those moments the Penguins had the feeling of a possible team of destiny. But in a scene that would be almost exactly reversed the following year, Crosby, Hossa and the team in black ran out of time in Game 6 and the Wings raised the Cup on the road.

Pittsburgh’s final rush can be seen around the 2:35 mark.

3. 2011 – Boston d. Vancouver 4-3
This year’s final really was very good. Aside from the obvious fact that it went seven games, we had rumblings of a goalie fight, a couple of crushing injuries (which are unfortunate, but add questions and intrigue), a contrast of styles and two droughts that had lasted 40 and 39 years. This series is still fresh and the fallout is still unknown as far as the Canucks go, so a long writeup as if it were a new concept is unnecessary. If you want to know what I thought about the series, check out the June archive of this blog.
2. 2001 – Colorado d. New Jersey 4-3
As a 16 year-old Red Wings fan, I couldn’t think of a matchup between two teams that I’d rather see lose, but this series was a great one for hockey. These two teams, along with Dallas, had owned the three-year gap between Detroit’s second and third Stanley Cups. Colorado had lost the western finals to Dallas on the road in Game 7 in both ’99 and 2000, but surprisingly the Stars were swept in the second round by St. Louis. The Avs had no problem with the Blues, and finally got back to the finals after those two losses on the brink to Dallas, which were preceded by a blown 3-1 series lead against 7th-seeded Edmonton in ’98 and that conference finals upset loss at the hands of Detroit in ’97.
The team they faced was the defending champion Devils, who had beaten Dallas the previous season in a final series that we’ll get to. New Jersey had always seemed like an overachieving team, as they weren’t favored to win the Cup in their previous two finals appearances in 1995 or 2000 — but they won in four and six games despite being the road team in the series. The Devils again had to do this thing on the road, and it ultimately may have been the difference that led to the Devils finally losing a final series.
The big story throughout the season was the Cup pursuit of legendary defenseman Ray Bourque, who came to Colorado for one last shot at the title that had eluded him for twenty years of that drought for Boston that only just ended in June. After both teams traded road wins in Games 2 and 3, the Avalanche surrendered all advantages by getting smashed at home in Game 5 by a score of 4-1. The game had people wondering if there was just something about the Devils style of play and organization that lent itself to winning championships, and if Bourque would be shutout and kept off the Cup as a player for all eternity. That was not to be, however, as the Avalanche focused and put on a clinic in New Jersey for a 4-0 win that put them squarely back on the podium as favorites to grab the Cup back at home in Game 7.
They did just that, and after doing so captain Joe Sakic took the Stanley Cup over to Bourque so that the 22-year NHL veteran could be the first to lift the Cup that night. It was Patrick Roy’s fourth championship and second as an Av. He won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP for the third time, which is something that still has never been done by any other player. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that Colorado won the final two series of the playoffs without Peter Forsberg, who was sidelined for over a year following the bursting of his spleen after 2001’s second round victory over the L.A. Kings. The lack of Forsberg took away from the beauty of the ’01 Finals, but his absence only highlighted the fact that the Avalanche were a great team, and one of the best of the era.
This series brought a merciful end to the Dallas-Colorado-New Jersey three-year round robin of sorts that was bookended by Red Wings titles in 1997, ’98 and 2002.
1. 2009 – Pittsburgh d. Detroit 4-3
As a fan of the Red Wings, this is the one that I think I’ll always remember. Subjectively, this series brought on all the emotions like a truly well-done story can. But objectively, this series had everything that a third party fan can ask for. It had a defending champion going up against the very team that it had denied the season before. It had a young challenger that made a few modifications to try and accomplish what it could not one year prior. It even had an element of treason to it in the form of Marian Hossa leaving Pittsburgh in the summer of 2008 and heading to the very Detroit team that beat the Pens in the ’08 Finals.
And don’t forget that all of this was played out in the cities of Pittsburgh and Detroit less than a year after the crash of the U.S. stock markets. A big rallying cry in Detroit was that the Red Wings needed to do it for the city and its struggling people. Two of the big three automakers had just filed for bankruptcy and employment was skyrocketing while the housing market closely resembled the equal and opposite reaction of something skyrocketing. The Tigers made a fluke World Series in 2006 but threw it away quickly, and hadn’t been back to the playoffs since (and still haven’t). The Pistons had just failed to qualify for the conference finals for the first time in seven years, and everybody knew in which direction that thing was trending. And the eight-year tenure of Matt Millen as head of the Lions front office had finally ended, but the team had little hope of quickly picking up the pieces of the worst eight-year record in modern NFL history (31-97). The city still had it’s Red Wings though, and the mood of the town felt desperate if not defiant. This was the last thing going right in the lives of many of those fans, but the team had to find a way to hold off the charging and maturing Penguins again if Detroit was to hold its title as kings of the hockey world and defend the Stanley Cup for the first time since, well, the Red Wings did it in 1997-98.
Doing so would have made a prophet out of ultra-talented but as-of-yet Cupless forward Marian Hossa, who in many ways led the Red Wings to the ’09 Finals. But in what was either an “english as a second language” misinterpretation or one of the greatest and most unnecessary digs ever, Hossa sat on the bench after Game 2 and told NBC that the reason he jumped ship is because he wanted to see what it was like to play with the top organization in the league. While I think I understand what Hossa was trying to say, it came off as ill-willed and shocking, since many figured the Penguins would rise to the top of the NHL soon, if not in that very series. Of course, they did, but Hossa’s embarrassment lasted only one season, as he immediately signed a long-term deal with Chicago and won the Cup the following year.
For my emotional retelling of how I spent my day and night on Friday, June 12, 2009, refer to this post that was meant to encourage fans of the Canucks and Bruins in the lead-up to their big one this past June.
But as far as the series went, it seemed like it might be a stinker early, or at the very least a long series of uncompetitive games. Detroit won both of its home games, just as it did the season before. Both games went to the Wings by a score of 3-1. But what didn’t follow 2008’s model was a series score of 3-1. Where Pittsburgh failed to get back on serve the year before, the Penguins actually managed to sway the opinions of many by producing back-to-back 4-2 wins to even the series and make it a best-of-three for the ultimate prize.
What happened in Game 5 was perhaps the most intentionally misleading slight of hand that I can remember in a playoff series. If we were watching the series as a film, Game 5 would have been seen as either a piece of writing and directorial genius or a liberty so unbelievable that it’d have us throwing overpriced fountain drinks at the screen. Back at Joe Louis Arena in a game that Detroit lost the year before, the Red Wings embarrassed the Penguins. The Pens seemed to come unglued in the 5-0 loss that had them picking fights about nothing and looking utterly stumped by the return of Pavel Datsyuk, who had missed the first four games of the finals with a foot injury. By the end, over 20,000 people were piling on and letting the Penguins know exactly where the city boy was from. The scene looked every bit like a proof. If the teams were relatively even before, and now Datsyuk was back and rolling, the Wings simply had to be better than the Pens.
But like most if-then arguments relating to sports, this proof turned into just another failed hypothesis. Pittsburgh locked down in Game 6 and made sure not to watch the Wings lift the Cup in Mellon Arena again. Dan Cleary was in all alone late in the third period, but was unable to lift the puck and got stoned by Fleury, who saved 25 shots in a 2-1 win to force Game 7 and give Pittsburgh a game to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in 19 years.

And for as much as Detroit was struggling at the time, let’s not forget that this is a Penguins franchise that had to file bankruptcy itself in the late ‘90s, and had to fight through relocation rumors for a while before patron saint Mario Lemieux stepped in to turn the huge amount of money that the Penguins owed him into equity, and bought the team less than four months before Y2K hit. So as much as Detroit wanted to keep its grip on the one thing it still felt it had to hand onto, one can forgive Pittsburgh for not assuming the role of the overfunded tycoon that was beating the life out of the poor small business that had four Stanley Cups since the Pens had their last one.
Game 7 began with this, and ended with this. In between, Sidney Crosby got injured and Max Talbot scored the biggest brace of his career before Fleury stoned Nicklas Lidstrom as time expired. The Penguins won 2-1 again and the cinematic reversal was complete. It’s a loss that the Red Wings haven’t fully recovered from as a team yet, no matter what anyone might say. The quest to win another Cup in 2011-12 is as much fueled by the craving to banish the feelings of inferiority from three years before as it is by the fairy tale desire to send Lidstrom off in the ultimate style.
Pittsburgh’s playoffs have been disappointing since, as they bowed out early in both 2010 and 2011, to Montreal and Tampa Bay, respectively. Both series saw the Pens as the home team, and they’ve now lost their last five games when entering with the opportunity to clinch a series, with three of those games at home. That in itself has been a reversal from what they did inside the Joe on the 12th of June, 2009. They hope to stop the skid, but a lot of that depends on the health of Crosby, who even eight months after last playing doesn’t sound like a man who’s able to fully prepare for a hockey season. We’ll see what happens to both of these teams when the puck drops in just over a month, but for now we’ll have to settle for the memories they gave us from the best Stanley Cup finals since the first lockout.
The Bad
3. 2000 – New Jersey d. Dallas 4-2
It feels a little unfair to dub this series “bad,” since the level of play was pretty high and it had the defending champions in it. But episode two of the Colorado/Dallas/New Jersey round robin was hard to embrace as a third party observer. Maybe it was the slushy ice in Dallas’ hot summer. Maybe it was the Devils’ trap style of play. Maybe I was still at that age where I needed Detroit to be in the finals. Whatever it was, this series didn’t hold my attention and awe like any of the five listed above, or even like any of those that won’t end up on either list.
There were story lines that developed, such as Jason Arnott being traded to Dallas after beating them in this series. That trade famously brought over Jamie Langenbrunner and franchise legend and current GM Joe Nieuwendyk, and another Stanley Cup in 2003, to New Jersey. Dallas, meanwhile, has never fully recovered from that deal that put an end to their western dominance.
The goalies were Eddie Belfour and Marty Brodeur. The bone-crushing defensemen (and captains) were Derien Hatcher and Scott Stevens. But there’s just something about a series with one home win in six games that lacks continuity, and I never did feel like anybody could figure this one out. Maybe all of this made the series great. Maybe I need to go back and watch the 2000 Finals again. But comparing it with the other 15 finales since 1995 doesn’t allow it to finish high on the list.
New Jersey won in double overtime on the road on Arnott’s goal. The Cup was the Devils’ second and came between the two in 1995 and 2002-03. This series set up the third final in the round robin in 2000-01, when New Jersey entered the finals as the defending champion against Colorado. That series was #2 in “The Good” list above.
2. 2007 – Anaheim d. Ottawa 4-1
One franchise had finally gotten back, while the other had finally gotten there. Anaheim was a surprise entrant in the 2003 Cup finals and took New Jersey all the way to seven games, where the Ducks succumbed to the better Devils despite Anaheim goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere winning the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP. Ottawa had beaten two recent nemeses in Buffalo and those very Devils to get to the finals. Daniel Alfredsson had the chance to be the first european captain to ever win the Stanley Cup (Nick Lidstrom would become that just one year later).
Unlike 2003, the Ducks were heavily favored to win this Stanley Cup Finals appearance, and unlike ’03, they did. In fact, outside of the obligatory Game 3 that every home team wins when it’s down 0-2 if it even remotely resembles a good team, there was no real drama to this one. You could argue that Anaheim’s first three wins were sort of dramatic because they were all by one goal, but the games looked like what they were: a matchup between a relative dream team and its less tough, junior varsity version. By the time the series got interesting it got over, as the Ducks cleaned up the mess from the game before with a 3-2 road win in Game 4, which set up a 6-2 drubbing and coronation at home.
Anaheim’s roster is almost laughable when you go down the list, but it was the first Stanley Cup for a lot of them besides captain and Conn Smythe winner Scott Niedermayer, whose career accomplishments provoke more laughter than the ’07 Ducks roster. The smooth-skating defensemen won all three of those New Jersey titles (’95, ’00 and ’03) as well as this one; he won two Olympic gold medals (2002 and ’10), a world championship (2004), a world junior championship (1991), the Memorial Cup (1992), and a Norris Trophy in 2004 to go with the Conn Smythe in ’07.
While Ottawa had a story of redemption to get to the finals, the team was unable to score the ultimate prize, and quickly fell apart afterward. Dany Heatley would request and be granted a trade just two years later, while goalie Ray Emery was waived in the summer of 2008. Jason Spezza remains on the team, but not without much rumor surrounding his impact on the locker room and desire to remain on what’s left of a once-contending team. Alfredsson tore his MCL in the ’08 playoffs, and has battled the aging process to try to find that form that took the Sens through the east in ’07. And in what was one of the worst decisions made, the Senators chose to re-sign free agent defenseman Wade Redden over Zdeno Chara in the summer of 2006, which was not an after-effect of losing the ’07 Finals, but it helped to ensure that the Sens would never get back, even as Chara polishes his ’09 Norris Trophy and ’11 Stanley Cup.
1. 1996 – Colorado d. Florida 4-0
This plain sucked. Not because Colorado won a Stanley Cup in its first year after relocation; not because Claude Lemieux got a title for smashing Kris Draper’s face in; not because it was a contest between a third-year franchise and a first-year team relocated from Canada to the western United States. This series sucked because this was like watching one of those private school vs. public school football games early in a high school season where the only questions of consequence are the winning margin and how many injuries piled up.
Florida had an amazing run to get to the ’96 Finals, largely on the back of goalie John Vanbiesbrouck. The fans decided to try to make a staple out of throwing toy rats onto the ice, and like the first few innings of the Anaheim Angels’ playoff run in 2002 where thunder sticks became all the rage, for a while the ritual was kind of cool. It was almost even acceptable.
But the magic died quickly when the Cats ran up against that Avalanche team that was honed by the Lindros trade with Philadelphia. Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Lemieux, Patrick Roy and the many other big names were too much for Florida, and the series ended mercifully as soon as it could have: in Game 4 on the Panthers’ ratless rink.  Colorado won the total goal count in the series 15-4. Plain sucked.

Even a rival winning in a sweep is exciting when it’s Cup-clinching.
The Ugly
Didn’t think you were gonna get this bonus category, did you? Well, these ones weren’t “bad” so much as they were ugly for one reason or another.
3. 1999 – Dallas d. Buffalo 4-2
This one was intriguing enough, and the competition was better than most people expected. The underdog Sabres had Dominik Hasek in net, and therefore had a chance to beat anybody. The Stars were expected to take this one though, as the western conference was seen as simply tougher after Colorado and Detroit had swept through the previous three finals.
Not only did Dallas fail to sweep Buffalo though, they actually needed one of the more controversial overtime goals to finish the series off in six games. In the spirit of competition, there’s no way Brett Hull’s goal should have been anything but a season-winner. But this was that two-year period where every single goal was under review and seemingly half of them were disallowed because a toe was in the crease on the opposite side of the goaltender. For this one, Hull was all up in the crease, but he kicked the puck out of the blue paint, which meant that it had to have come from there, which meant that being in the crease was allowed. Got that? You’re instincts are correct, the crease rule was destroying hockey and it was finally done away with (or just drastically altered) after the ’99 playoffs seemed to end a couple weeks late due to booth review.
So while the hockey was acceptable enough to avoid being one of the three “bad” series, any time you have a team celebrating with the holiest of sports trophies while the commentators are legitimately questioning whether there’s more hockey still to be played, that qualifies as ugly.

2. 2004 – Tampa Bay d. Calgary 4-3
There was a lot of beauty to this series. On one hand there was the Red Mile, in support of an upstart six seed led by one of the most beloved first-year captains league history, Jarome Iginla. On the other hand, there was the desire to spread hockey to the American south and build brands and tap into a mostly untapped hockey market. And there was the knowledge going into the series that this might be the last NHL hockey that any of us got to see for a long time.
Tampa Bay won the Cup at home in Game 7 by a score of 2-1, with Ruslan Fedotenko scoring both goals much like Max Talbot would five years later. But the team was powered by players like Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards, 1998 top overall draft pick Vincent Lecavalier, winger Marty St. Louis, and younger versions of defenseman Dan Boyle and goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who really justified the “Bulin Wall” nickname with his outstanding 1.71 GAA and .933 save percentage in the ’04 playoffs. And on top of that, the Lightning were captained by Dave Andreychuk, who mirrored Ray Bourque’s ’01 triumph by winning his first and only Stanley Cup in his 22nd season of NHL play.
But again we had controversy, as Martin Gelinas appeared to have scored what might have held up as the Cup-clinching goal in the third period of Game 6. Certain camera angles appeared to show the puck crossing the line by the slimmest of margins before Khabibulin kicked it out, but the play was to go on. St. Louis ended the game just 33 seconds into overtime, and spoiled the Flames’ chance to win the Cup on home ice. But more importantly, we again had controversy determining a “true winner” after a questionable play in front of, or this time just behind, the goal line. To make the situation even uglier, there was no hockey for another sixteen months, as what could have been Alex Ovechkin’s true rookie season was lost to the lockout.

Here is a link to a video recap of the series.

1. 2005 – Season Cancelled
Come on, there’s never been a Stanley Cup Finals worse than this one. To the credit of everyone involved, the system needed fixed and it got fixed (as far as we all understand). But that doesn’t change the fact that we all had to swallow the mud for an entire year. Turning 21 in what should have been the lead-up to the all-star game may have allowed me to legally quell my heartache for a time with that sweet medicine, but nothing short of winning the Mega Millions could truly offer an even trade off.
The good news is that the puck will be dropped on October 6, and the games will start to count again. The bad news is that the current CBA is set to expire on September 15, 2012. But I am optimistic that a new agreement can be reached before that date, and even if one is not, the current CBA is set to continue on a year-to-year basis until one party notifies the other of a termination at least 120 days before that date. That would be in the middle of the playoffs at the latest, and if such a written notice of termination is delivered by either side in 2012 I’d be close to stunned.
There you have it — the Good, the Bad and the Ugly Stanley Cup Finals from the past 17 years and 16 seasons. I had to give that one final twist into the 2004-05 lost campaign. Enjoy the rest of your summer, and check back periodically before the puck drops for real on October 6.

The Central Division should be the most competitive from top to bottom in the entire NHL in 2011-12. Two teams from the Central made the second round of last year’s playoffs, another won the Stanley Cup in 2010, and the other two teams did so much to try to improve their squads this year that it’s hard to pick any team to finish fifth. It’s nearly impossible for every team in any division to make the playoffs, but I don’t feel that any specific team from the Central has any real excuses not to qualify this year. There are only five playoff spots given to non-division winners, and with the existence of the Pacific Division teams it’s hard to see four of the five spots going to the Central, but I would bet that nobody in the Central finishes lower than 11th in the west this year.

I think a return to playoff success is in line for the Central as well. Last season was the first since 2005-06 that the Central Division was not represented in the western conference finals. With the Blackhawks, Red Wings and Predators all pushing for certainly nothing less than a league final four appearance coupled with the Vancouver Canucks having to deal with getting their teeth kicked in to close the last campaign, I would be somewhat stunned if we had another western conference final that was contested only in the pacific time zone.

Regarding the regular season in the Central, let’s see what we’ve got.

1st: Chicago Blackhawks 2010-11: 97 points, 3rd in division

Tuco Ramirez has a classic line in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly that he delivers from the comfort of a bubble bath after having just shot an intruder who had finally tracked Tuco down and was reveling in the poetry of his impending redemption. The bit player rambles on about how he lost his right arm thanks to Tuco, that he had been looking for him for eight months, and how he was now going to shoot the Ugly dead in his bathtub with the gunman’s left hand. But the hardened fugitive survives again, this time because he was bathing with his gun in one hand. After the screened shot ends the rambler, Tuco rises, shoots one last time, and calmly professes, “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”

I have a feeling we are all going to look back on 2010-11 as the season when the Chicago Blackhawks were in the bathtub. All of these western conference teams had their chance to shoot. The Canucks got to the Finals after squeaking by the weakened Hawks, but they couldn’t consolidate that into a Stanley Cup. The Red Wings and Predators finished 1-2 in the division but couldn’t get past either Vancouver or San Jose in the conference semifinals. Well, the soapy, sudsy shots have been fired in the forms of a roster that has trimmed some of the salary fat off, while also adding a couple contributors to a young team that is one year older and not complacent in the least. The season will tell whether the Blackhawks are able to stand up out of the water and fire the finishing shots on the rest of the division, conference and league.

It wasn’t all benefits and no losses, however, as Brian Campbell was shipped off through the Hawks’ pipeline to the Florida Panthers. Some insane Chicago fans who either don’t watch hockey or don’t care to think critically took to the internet after the trade to blast Campbell and insinuate that the Blackhawks were better off without him. That’s not true on any level, but the Hawks needed to do something to improve their cap space going forward in order to comfortably sign versatile forward Patrick Sharp to an extension. Campbell is entering the fourth year of an eight-year deal that sees him cost his club $7.14 million a season, which is a number that also contributed to the wrath of some lesser-thinking fans who disguise themselves as fantasy GMs. Not surprisingly, the Sharp extension has now been finalized and goes for five more seasons beyond the current one.

But losing Campbell is something that Chicago can overcome thanks to three key factors. First, their goaltender appears to be a rock. Corey Crawford will enter only his second NHL season (he’s played in five separate seasons, but only saw time in eight total games prior to last year), but he’s shown all the signs of a great one. His 2.30 GAA as a rookie tells us most of what we need to know (that was paired with a .917 save %).

Second, Chicago’s bottom four defensemen aren’t asked to do nearly as much as their counterparts on other teams, thanks to the fact that Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook skate nearly half of the game (Keith had an ATOI of 26:53; Seabrook’s was 24:23). Campbell skated the third most time on the entire team last year, so he will have to be replaced, but the Hawks have the luxury of being able to do that by committee, rather than needing to plug an unprepared guy in for 23 minutes when he’s used to skating 19. If not for Keith and Seabrook chewing up game time, there would be almost no way to avoid overplaying the other defensemen, and that would probably be detrimental to Chicago’s goals allowed total and possibly to the players’ developments.

The third reason losing Campbell is okay is that Chicago scores a ton of goals. They placed fourth in the NHL last year in scoring, and that was with Sharp missing eight games, Patrick Kane missing nine, and Marian Hossa and Campbell each missing 17. Sure, injuries happen, but the Blackhawks were able to outscore everyone in the west except Vancouver and Detroit despite missing these key offensive players and having to completely rebuild the team chemistry after losing forwards Kris Versteeg, John Madden, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager and more following the Stanley Cup victory. And that says nothing of having a rookie netminder.

This season’s version of that offense should be just as murderous, if not more so. Kane, Sharp and Hossa are all indisputably star scorers, and they’ll now be joined up front by left wing Andrew Brunette, who seems like a Blackhawks player before ever donning the jersey. Brunette has given his teams relatively consistent production since becoming an NHL regular in 1998-99, and his goal and point totals have ranged from decent to very good, with a peak offensive season in 2006-07 with Colorado in which Brunette had 27 goals and 56 assists (both career highs). Brunette has missed only two games in the previous eight seasons, and as a 38 year-old this season, brings some more veteran leadership to a team that already knows what it can do after winning the Cup just 14 months ago.

But the Chicago forwards all pale in comparison as hockey players to captain Jonathan Toews. The 23 year-old center has won everything there is to win in hockey, save I suppose for a regular season MVP award, which is something that probably doesn’t mean too much to most hockey players anyway given that it is an individual award that is largely based on certain dynamics that are out of most players’ control. Besides, Toews has won individual awards at the highest level anyway: the Conn Smythe Trophy as NHL playoff MVP and being named Best Forward at the Olympics, both in 2010. Following gold medals at the 2007 World Championships and 2010 Olympic Games, that 2010 Stanley Cup made Toews the youngest player to ever enter the Triple Gold Club (surpassing Peter Forsberg). But awards and trophies don’t always tell the whole story, and if you haven’t had the chance to watch and focus on Toews as a hockey player, you probably should. He’s certainly one of the best in the league, and his leadership and production are really the beginning to what puts Chicago on the short list of Stanley Cup contenders. While Toews should have his running mate Kane on his right side, many assume it will be Brunette who is the first-line left wing this season.

Playing on the left side of second-line center Sharp could be Viktor Stalberg, although most of Chicago’s left wings seem like third-liners on most teams. But Stalberg had periods of impact last year, and it is very hard for anyone to fail playing alongside Sharp and Hossa. Below the top six are a lot of guys that you wouldn’t want to cross in any situation. The Blackhawks added tough guys in Daniel Carcillo and Jamal Mayers to play on the fourth line, and bring back Bryan Bickell and Dave Bolland to presumably skate on the third line. Playing regularly should be rookie right wing Ben Smith, who scored three goals against Vancouver in the playoffs last year, including that big OT winner in Game 6 over an anchored-at-the-stomach Roberto Luongo. The last piece of the puzzle is right wing Michael Frolik, who unsurprisingly was acquired from Florida last year (remember the pipeline) and has speed to burn. Frolik is listed as Chicago’s third right wing, but that’s mainly because the top two (Kane and Hossa) are unassailable. If the Hawks were really looking to maximize scoring on the top two lines they could try to move Frolik to left wing and have him take Stalberg’s spot on the second line, but ask the New Jersey Devils how trying to change players’ positions in the name of stacking top lines works out.

The defense certainly will miss Campbell, but they did acquire Steve Montador from Buffalo, who should skate with Niklas Hjalmarsson on the second pairing. If anyone needs to step their game up in the absence of Campbell it is Hjalmarsson, who has had about as many excuses made for him as has Tim Tebow. Hjalmarsson’s skill is there, which is not as big as his hitting presence but still needs to translate to some more benefits for Chicago. Hjalmarsson’s defense has come into question somewhat frequently, but he did post a plus-13 last season to give him a plus-24 for his young NHL career. Also expected to play on Chicago’s blue line are Nick Leddy and Sami Lepisto. Leddy was the 16th overall pick in the 2009 entry draft by his hometown Minnesota Wild, who then traded Leddy’s rights to Chicago in exchange for defenseman Cam Barker. Many people within USA Hockey have had the 20 year-old Leddy pegged as potentially one of America’s best defensemen for a few years now. The Hawks also have John Scott at their disposal, who can be counted on for about two penalty minutes per game, which means another tough guy to inflict punishment on opponents when necessary. Scott played 40 regular season games as well as four playoff games for the Hawks last year, which were needed after Vancouver injured Seabrook.

There aren’t many question marks for the Blackhawks in net this year, and don’t figure to be for quite a long time. Corey Crawford came good last year in his long-awaited rookie season, and in doing so vindicated Blackhawks brass after it cut ties with 2010 Cup winner Antti Niemi. Crawford can be counted upon to be in the top 15 in both main peripheral statistics, with the potential to be near the top in either or both. Crawford will likely be backed up this season by 24 year-old Alexander Salak, who came over with Frolik from Florida this February.

2nd: Detroit Red Wings 104 points, 1st in division

Looking at Detroit’s offense, it would be easy to peg them to repeat as division champs. I considered doing so, and I think that the divisional race will go back and forth with respect to each slot, but at the end of 82 games I expect that the Blackhawks should finish slightly ahead of the Red Wings.

As a Wings fan, I could say that we’ll be injured as always, but that’s a cop out and ignores the fact that every team goes through injuries. What I really think will hurt the Wings is their inability to keep the puck out of the net consistently. While Detroit averaged just slightly more goals per game than Chicago last year, the Red Wings allowed way too many goals. Sure, they won the division anyway, but giving up 2.89 per game doesn’t usually cut it in the long term. Detroit was 23rd in the NHL in goals allowed, while Chicago was 12th. Both teams lost one big time defenseman; Chicago lost Campbell to Florida, while Detroit lost Brian Rafalski to retirement. The possibility of allowing even more than 2.89 goals per game is there for Detroit this year, but they must find a way to bring that number down if they are to outlast the Blackhawks in the Central this year.

Up front, the Red Wings are as talented as any team in the league. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have heard all the superlatives, have been nicknamed the Eurotwins, and have led the team in scoring one way or the other in every season since the lockout. Barring injuries to both players, nothing will change this season. Datsyuk and Zetterberg can be counted on to score around a point a game, and place in the top 15 in league scoring assuming they play the requisite games by avoiding injury. Skating with them is often times Tomas Holmstrom, who has been the best crease worker of his era and has four Stanley Cup victories to show for it.

The second line usually changes over the season (as it does with most teams), but based on age and recent results it can be assumed that Dan Cleary and Valtteri Filppula should get the start alongside Johan “The Mule” Franzen. There’s no need to evaluate Franzen’s game, other than to say that the Red Wings desperately need him to be able to play when it counts. Cleary gets a lot of credit for working hard, and I think sometimes that leads talking heads to say that he is more offensively talented than our eyes tell us he is. Cleary frequently has pucks jump on him, and sometimes looks a little too excited, but it’s hard to really criticize a player who has played his role well and had success on the team in recent years. Filppula is in my mind a more talented offensive player than Cleary, but with seemingly less consistency. I blasted Filppula during the playoffs for thinking he was Pavel Datsyuk, but then he came out and actually showed why he acts like a talented offensive player: because at his best, he is. Filppula hunkered down and played very good, responsible hockey in the comeback attempt against San Jose, and if he can channel that and turn it into consistency, then I expect he should be able to stick in the top six and finally come good on what most Wings fans have been waiting for.

The third line is arguably more of a scoring line than the second, given the right centerman. Todd Bertuzzi has been a dream for the Red Wings in his second stint with the team, which started in 2009-10. In these past two years, Bertuzzi has given the Red Wings 89 points in 163 regular season games, while turning it up for 17 points in 23 playoff games in the two series each against Phoenix (wins) and San Jose (losses). At 36, Bertuzzi is more effective playing third-line minutes, but when he does play he’s not that much of a subtraction from the Bertuzzi who lit up the NHL from 2001-03 before the Steve Moore incident derailed his career for a while. He’s certainly not the same player, but the Red Wings wouldn’t trade him and his less than $2 million cap hit for any third-line winger in the league.

Bertuzzi’s other wingman will probably be Jiri Hudler, whose game is different from Filppula’s but comes with many of the same disappointing lack of consistency soundbites. Hudler returned to Detroit last year after a season in the KHL, and the drop off couldn’t have been more obvious. Hudler left the NHL following three successful seasons with Detroit, the latter two of which ended with Stanley Cup Finals against Pittsburgh. Hudler was key in the 2008 championship by notching 14 playoff points, and he followed that up with a career-best 57 points in the 2008-09 regular season. Hudler was solid, with 12 points in the playoffs in that losing effort to the Penguins in ’09. But last year Hudler regressed, scoring just 37 points in 73 regular season games before commonly being scratched in the team’s playoff games. When he did get to play, he didn’t play overly responsible hockey, and was dogged on national television in Game 4 against San Jose when he let Dan Boyle glide right past his back and deposit an easy one. Hudler still may have something left to improve, as he is still only 27, but without some returns to his pre-KHL days, Hudler will remain a disappointment on the Red Wings roster.

The third-line center (arguably second-line center) should be Darren Helm. The man is not just a fan favorite, but also is one of the few Red Wings forwards who isn’t afraid to smash an opposing player anywhere on the rink (legally, at that). Helm has scored eight playoff goals in his limited playing time, and it feels like all of them have been big. He twice played more playoff games than regular season games in a campaign, and centered the fourth line during the Red Wings’ 2008 Cup championship. Also in the mix at center is Justin Abdelkader, who plays something of a similar style to Helm, although without quite the success and production in any area of the game.

The final regular wingers are expected to be Drew Miller and Patrick Eaves. Miller was a  college teammate of Abdelkader for one season at Michigan State, and is the brother of Sabres’ goalie Ryan Miller. Eaves has the asset of speed, and can create scoring opportunities when he gets room to use that speed. Also worth following are Cory Emmerton, Tomas Tatar and Jan Mursak, who each had one goal for the big club in limited time last season.

On defense, the Red Wings desperately needed captain Nicklas Lidstrom to return for another year, and they got that wish on June 20 when the Swede declared that he was ready to sign another one-year contract. Lidstrom won his seventh Norris Trophy last season, and should have at least a crack at tying Bobby Orr’s record of eight this season. I wouldn’t expect him to win it, but only because it’s usually dumb to bet on one player against the entire field. Regardless of subjective acclaim, Lidstrom will anchor Detroit’s defense once again this year, but will have to do so without the help of the retired Rafalski. The Red Wings’ second-best defenseman is probably now Niklas Kronwall, who while also Swedish, plays a style more similar to one of Lidstrom’s former running mates, Vladimir Konstantinov, than Lidstrom himself. Kronwall can more than contribute offensively, but he is best known for his bone-crunching hits. Brad Stuart could (maybe) be considered a poor man’s Kronwall, although Stuart’s hit totals are higher than his perceived hitting prowess. Stuart blocks a lot of shots as well, but won’t contribute nearly the offense that Kronwall should. Stuart can be expected to score in the low 20s as far as points, and will need to skate around his total for last year of 21:31 per game.

Playing with Stuart could be new addition Ian White, who shoots right and provides more offensive help than Stuart does. White comes over from San Jose, who no longer had need of his services after acquiring Brent Burns from Minnesota. White’s pairing with Stuart makes sense, and makes for an acceptable although not world-beating second pairing.

The rest of the defenders will be anchored by Jonathan Ericsson, who signed a new three-year deal with the Red Wings in July and now has to play with consistency that has so far escaped his game. Ericsson turned in some solid games against San Jose in the ’11 playoffs, and the Wings need more of that and less of his turning the puck over style that has plagued him for most of his short Red Wings career. Ericsson has been expected to be something of an offensive contributor, although the stats have not yet matched up with that expectation, as his 15-point effort last year was his career high.

Playing with Ericsson should be new signing Mike Commodore, who has been known more for his jersey number fake controversy than his potential impact on the team. But it should be noted that Commodore’s status on the Red Wings’ third defensive pairing allows them the time to decide on prospect Brendan Smith. Without Commodore signing this year for pennies on the Blue Jackets’ dollar, the Wings would have had to go find someone else or just be prepared to roll with Smith. A 2011-12 pairing of Ericsson and Smith could be the stuff of many a highlight reel, just not in favor of the Wings. Another D man who could potentially rip that sixth spot is Jakub Kindl, who played 48 games for the Wings last year. Kindl and Smith were first-round picks in separate summers for the Red Wings; Kindl went 19th overall in 2005, while Smith went 27th in 2007. The Red Wings can certainly be considered to have some depth on defense, but the question will be how effective the new top four will be coming off a pretty bad defensive season and dealing with the loss of Rafalski.

Detroit can’t be completely certain what they have in goaltender Jimmy Howard, but he has been a workhorse over the past two seasons and has shown the fight and push-back necessary to be a winner in the Motor City. The greatest statistical goalie in the history of Hockey East’s Maine Black Bears, Howard was so impressive in his rookie season in 2009-10 that he earned nomination for the Calder Memorial Trophy. But his numbers went considerably in the wrong direction last season, save his won-lost record and games played totals, which were nearly identical. A 2.26 GAA became a 2.79, and a stout .924 save % was followed up with a pedestrian .908, which was good for 31st among qualifying goalies in the NHL. Goaltenders can’t solely be to blame for peripheral numbers, but the fact remains that Detroit needs to keep the puck out of the net more consistently, and although I think Howard is doing fine and at times great, he needs to find a way to do more throughout the season if the Wings are going to win the Central this year. But then again, winning the Central isn’t truly their goal (or Chicago’s), and everyone knows that.

3rd: Nashville Predators 2010-11: 99 points, 2nd in division

The dichotomy between Central rivals Detroit and Nashville couldn’t be much more stark. While the Red Wings rely on scoring in the top three in the entire league to earn its points and advance in the playoffs, Nashville tries to accomplish its goals by not allowing any. The Predators had the league’s 2nd best defense last year, but countered that with an offense that finished tied for 21st in scoring. While they finished higher than Chicago last year and got to the exact same point that Detroit did, I wonder about Nashville’s ability to sustain the effectiveness of their playing style moving forward. This year should be another to build upon for “Predators hockey,” but their system is heavily reliant on three guys: Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne — all of which are free agents at the end of this season.

Weber and Suter make up one of the best defensive pairings in the NHL, and set the tone for the rest of the blue liners as far as playing what coach Barry Trotz has referred to as “Predators hockey.” They are both under contract for this season after Weber’s huge arbitration win, but one has to wonder if harmony will remain through the trade deadline and beyond. After all, the Preds are amongst the league’s lowest payrolls despite having what seems like a pretty committed fan base. Their attendance totals were below average last season, but not by a whole lot. Whatever the reason for Nashville’s low payroll this season, it makes me wonder if they can convince all three of their star players to commit their careers to a franchise that they might not be sure about.

I think Suter may prove to be the hottest trade deadline player next February, but if that’s the case then either he has given Nashville indications that he will not re-sign, or the Predators probably aren’t finishing in the top three of the Central. Assuming he and Weber do play the full season with the Preds, it’s hard to call for a big fall from this team. Their forwards look mediocre and their blue line depth is a little questionable now, but this team plays a style that gets points out of games, and that makes playoffs.

Beyond the top pairing on defense, Nashville could really use American kids Jonathan Blum and Blake Geoffrion to take the next step and become regular full-time NHLers this season. I think that should be expected to come true, as each guy played in every playoff game for Nashville this spring. Aside from Rancho Santa Margarita’s Blum and hometown Geoffrion of Brentwood, the Preds have a solid hitter / blocker in Kevin Klein, who plays something of a similar game to Detroit’s Brad Stuart. Klein will never be talked about on Versus, but if you pay attention you’ll see that he is exactly a fit for the Predators’ style of play. Nashville also has Jack Hillen on the roster, who comes over after three years with the Islanders.

The Predators’ forwards are questionable as far as NHL averages go, but that’s why they were below average in goals scored last season, and that suited them just fine. Center Mike Fisher was a big acquisition for Nashville last season. Fisher was traded from Ottawa, which prompted at least one radio station in Canada’s capital to ban the playing of songs by Fisher’s wife and former American Idol winner Carrie Underwood. Joining Fisher on the top six should be wingers Martin Erat, Patric Hornqvist, Sergei Kostitsyn and Niclas Bergfors. Centering the second line will be Predator lifer David Legwand. Nashville will need younger players like Matt Halischuk and Colin Wilson to become regulars and join forwards like Jordin Tootoo, Cal O’Reilly, Nick Spaling and possibly Jerred Smithson on the lower lines of the Nashville offense.

In net is Rinne, who was a finalist for the Vezina last year and had peripherals in the top three in the league (second in save percentage). He lost out on the Vezina to Tim Thomas, and was bounced from the playoffs by the other finalist, Roberto Luongo. But Rinne has been as good as they get recently, and at 28 is entering his prime. I can see hardly any situation in which Rinne is traded this season, but the Preds have to find a way to lock the Finnish goaltender down for many years to come. Assuming he has another very good year, Rinne will have suitors if he becomes UFA next July 1, so Nashville knows they would be best off to make something happen before next summer comes. Backing up Rinne is fellow giant Anders Lindback, who was solid with a .915 save percentage in 22 appearances for Nashville in his debut season last year.

The Predators have set their sights high this year after winning the franchise’s first playoff series in April over the Anaheim Ducks. But I really see more possibility for a move down than a move up, as St. Louis and Columbus have rosters that aren’t giving anything up to Nashville, while Chicago and Detroit look a head above. I think the status quo would be a third-place finish for the Preds in 2011-12, but would warn that a fall to fourth would be more likely than a repeat of second. They have their work cut out for them, both on the ice and in the front office.

4th: St. Louis Blues 2010-11: 87 points, 4th in division

By this point, my Blue Jackets readers are considering death threats, but I’m leaning in favor of St. Louis to finish ahead of Columbus this season by a slim margin. Again, I think the Central is the best division this season from top to bottom, and the Blues and Jackets are both hoping to avoid that bottom, but a higher percentage of me likes St. Louis this year than Columbus.

The reason I have the Blues and Jackets as the bottom two in the division again this year starts in net. I’m not saying that Jaroslav Halak and Steve Mason are the two worst starters in the division, but given that I like Chicago and Detroit very much, and I don’t think either Halak or Mason can compare with Rinne right now, I have to assume these teams finish in these spots. Halak came over from Montreal following that dreamlike playoff run in 2010, but he fell off in his first season with the Blues, and now enters the second season of a four-year deal trying to prove that he wasn’t a mistake. His $3.75 million cap hit demands stats that are better than his 30th-best .910 save percentage, although it should be noted that his 2.48 goals against average was good for 15th in the league and the Blues overall goals allowed figure was a middle-of-the-road 9th in the western conference. But like Howard in Detroit, Halak needs to find a way to get a little bit more out of his play this season. He certainly wasn’t awful, but the Blues could use an increase of just a couple spots in overall defense. If they get that, I think the playoffs are certainly a legitimate goal for this club in 2011-12.

St. Louis’ playing style could be referred to as ugly at times, but that might be easier to say coming from people who don’t actually watch this team that’s stuck in the middle of the continent and usually the standings. I think the Blues are certainly going to have to rely on some grit given that their best forwards, David Backes and Chris Stewart, play a rough style. Adding elderly forwards Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner to the third line can only help to give the Blues more skill, leadership and quiet toughness. Arnott and Langenbrunner have something of a funny history, as they were traded for one another back in 2002 in the deal that gave New Jersey another Cup in ’03 and set Dallas back quite a bit. Langenbrunner was shipped from Dallas along with current Stars’ GM Joe Nieuwendyk to the Devils for Arnott and Randy McKay. Remember that Dallas won the Cup in 1999 and lost in the Finals to New Jersey in 2000. Arnott and Langenbrunner also started last season together with the Devils, before that ship needed to start being blown up. The pair should be able to give the Blues a third line that is actually formidable, assuming they are able to stay on the ice.

Joining Backes and Stewart in the top six should be Andy McDonald, Matt D’Agostini, T.J. Oshie and second-line center Patrik Berglund. Backes has been a fantasy dream in recent years as he does absolutely everything that they keep stats for. Stewart came over from Colorado in the trade that Peter Stastny said “destroyed the [Avalanche].” He’s a very Backes-like player, except with possibly more offensive skill. Berglund emerged in the second half of last season as a real up-and-comer, scoring 52 points in his third NHL season. The 6’4” Swede seems to have figured out how to use his frame to push things forward, which fits him in nicely with Backes, Stewart and the entire Blues offensive identity. Oshie is coming off yet another injury-riddled season. He’s only managed 58+ games in one of his three NHL seasons thus far. If he isn’t ready to play like a second-line winger, expect Alex Steen to jump in. Steen was third on the team in scoring last season behind Backes and Berglund, despite missing 10 games.

The fourth line should consist of newly-acquired tough center Scott Nichol and wingers Vladimir Sobotka and B.J. Crombeen. Sobotka spent some time riding the Berglund train last season before the center was moved up on the line chart. Crombeen led the Blues in penalty minutes last season.

The St. Louis defense will be led by Alex Pietrangelo, who led the Blues in assists last year and becomes the de facto #1 defenseman after the team traded away Erik Johnson (to “destroy the Avalanche”) and former captain Eric Brewer (to almost send Tampa Bay to the Finals). Barret Jackman and Roman Polak are both defensive defensemen who are counted on for hits and technical defense more than offensive contributions. Carlo Colaiacovo can chip in on the offense, but averaged only 18:08 per game last year. Kevin Shattenkirk is possibly the Blues defenseman with the most upside, at least after Pietrangelo, but he is entering only his second NHL season after spending three years with Boston University. Shattenkirk was another part of the trade that brought Stewart to St. Louis. Kent Huskins and Nikita Nikitin should battle it out for the final spot, and each should see a fair amount of games.

Brian Elliott was acquired by the Blues to backup Halak. Elliott isn’t much of a shift from last year’s backup, Ty Conklin, who is now back with Detroit. Halak will need to bring that save percentage up from .910 to around .917 to give the Blues a chance to meet those defensive goals and return to the postseason.

A lot of the talk last year was about how injured the Blues were, and the talk wasn’t wrong. I certainly understand a team getting the injury bug, but at the same time it’s proven foolish to assume that the same team will magically avoid injuries the following season. The Blues will need to do so in order to challenge for the playoffs, but if they do lose a lot of man games, I would suspect a fifth place finish may be in order. Best of luck to them.

5th: Columbus Blue Jackets 2010-11: 81 points, 5th in division

Oh, the hate mail. I even asked my brother his order of finish last night, and he did not have Columbus in last this year. The Jackets dropped tons of salary on Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski, and all the talk is about how Rick Nash finally has a center and the Jackets’ goal is nothing short of returning to the playoffs. Fan interest should be on the rise now that the team appears to have finally moved into the aggressive stage its young existence. I wouldn’t expect the spending to stop now, but as it stands I still think this team needs some work on the lower end, and I don’t know if anyone feels completely confident in unassailable starting goaltender Steve Mason.

I’m not sure what kind of monarch contract Mason’s been given, but it seems as if the Jackets are trying to create an image of a rock solid goalie the way Diddy used to try to make real-life pop groups out of average people with no real charisma. Then again, he kind of succeeded, at least for a while, and so maybe there is hope for Mason. He had a fantastic rookie season in 2008-09 that saw him win the Calder Memorial Trophy. But Mason has followed that rookie of the year season with two consistently bad campaigns. His save percentage has been .901 in each of the last two seasons, and the goals against numbers have been 3.05 and 3.03. As always, it’s worth pointing out that GAA is dependent upon the skaters in front of you, but another season of allowing three every time out has to be viewed as a problem. Mason is only 23 years old and has a lot of life ahead of him to either grow or stall, but he needs to show improvement if I’m to believe that he can be an above average starter in the future. But really, who cares what I think. It’s the wins and losses that matter.

Up front, Nash and Carter will be joined on the top six by the likes of R.J. Umberger and three more centers in Derick Brassard, Antoine Vermette and Vinny Prospal. In fact, if the latter three all make up the second line, I would expect that line to lead the league in getting tossed out of the faceoff circle, since nobody but another center would take the original guy’s place. Might lead to some solid faceoff winning percentages, which could lead to an extra goal here and there. This is the most dangerous the Jackets top six has been since I can remember, but they’ll need all of them to actually produce and live up to potential.

The bottom six doesn’t knock my socks off like the Blues’ third line has the potential to do. Columbus sports Samuel Pahlsson and Derek MacKenzie at center, with tough guys Derek Dorsett and Jared Boll to their right. Matt Calvert and Maxim Mayorov could round out the left wings. Mayorov is one of Columbus’ young hopes, along with center Ryan Johansen. Both should be given every shot to be a regular this year. It should be noted that Columbus will at some point get winger Kristian Huselius back after surgery on his chest. Huselius isn’t a strong forward, but he is quick and has good hands, and at his best would be expected to play on the Jackets’ top two lines. It may take him a while after coming back to knock any of the top six down, and so perhaps Huselius ends up being the guy to make Columbus’ third line a threat. If not him, then probably the guy he replaces.

Despite adding Wisniewski, I think there still have to be some question marks on the Columbus blue line. They let Jan Hejda and Anton Stralman go, and added Radek Martinek from the Islanders. Fedor Tyutin is probably in line for another season of top-line minutes, while Grant Clitsome should be ready for his first full-time NHL season at the age of 26. Marc Methot and Kris Russell can be expected to join Wisniewski, Tyutin, Martinek and Clitsome on the Jackets’ list of opening night defensemen, with Methot playing more time than Russell. The wild card here is John Moore, who was a first round pick in 2009. Moore tallied 24 points last season with AHL Springfield, but was a cringeworthy minus-27. I don’t know enough about Moore’s game specifically, but the last thing the Jackets need in a season of trying to change the team’s image and mentality is to bring in a rookie who is going to directly lead to pucks getting behind Steve Mason.

All in all, the Jackets are right to believe they have a shot at the playoffs this season. But to me, everything has to go right for them. They have to avoid injuries because they aren’t very deep. Mason has to bring it back closer to neutral. Carter has to give Columbus everything he’s supposed to, and he has to find a way to bring Nash’s production up to the level of an elite winger in the league. The talent is there, but Nash has always had the excuse of not having a real top-line center. I’m not sure he does even now, but everybody else is, so let’s see it. While I love the passion that Jackets fans are showing and the response the front office has given, I think that for this specific season too much is still in doubt. Part of building a team is just that — building. It will take time, and I think Columbus knows that. The franchise is moving in the right direction, and certainly should set the goal at nothing less than fourth in the division because that is without question attainable. But right now when I look at the rosters and numbers, more of me favors the Blues than the Blue Jackets over an 82-game season.

So there you have it, the sixth and final installment of Premature NHL Prognostication. I hope you got something out of it, and I appreciate the readership. Now, let’s all get this crap out of our heads and prepare for some real games that will be played out everywhere but on paper.

It’s time to prematurely prognosticate the NHL’s Northwest Division for 2011-12. I wanted to write this about as much as you want to read it, but if you bear with me, we should all come out on the other end a little bit smarter (and older).
Let’s take the title race off the table right now. There’s almost no combination of cosmic events that can lead to anything but a Vancouver Canucks division championship for the fourth straight year, and fifth in six seasons. And by saying “almost,” I’m accounting for the possibilities that war cancels the season, the Canucks’ plane crashes (sorry, that joke might never be acceptable), the Flames unite the deathly hallows, or that professor Brian Cox and the rest of the scientific world has woefully underestimated the life span of the universe, and entropy maxes out around the time of the all-star break, leaving the universe as a silent nothingness with no life or hockey arenas in which to finish the season. Of course, this last possibility wouldn’t really keep the Canucks from the division title anyway, since they should have the division locked up by the all-star break.
But each of the other four spots in the Northwest appear to be up for grabs, so let’s do what we do and take an early look at why things should shake out a certain way.

1st: Vancouver Canucks 2010-11: 117 points, 1st in conference
The only way the Canucks fail to win this division, outside of those examples listed above, is if they suffer a combination of injuries and a general emotional malaise that can follow a person or group of people when they work so hard and get so close to their goal, only to see it ripped away from them at the last minute. Vancouver didn’t lose the Stanley Cup in the last minute, but they did go into both Games 6 and 7 with the opportunity to hoist and parade for the first time in franchise history, only to lay two eggs and get comprehensively beaten by Boston. Even if there is a hang over, I still think the Canucks can be counted on to win this division and contend for the top seed in the conference.
The only real loss of consequence in the offseason was defenseman Christian Ehrhoff to Buffalo. The Canucks knew they couldn’t keep both Ehrhoff and Kevin Bieksa, and the franchise chose the guy that fit what they wanted their identity to be. Of course, they wouldn’t necessarily have had to choose one over the other if they weren’t on the hook for four more years with Keith Ballard, but we all make mistakes.
Even without Ehrhoff this year, the defense should be pretty good. Bieksa returns along with Dan Hamhuis, who was very noticeably absent from the Finals in June. Vancouver convinced Sami Salo to re-sign for another year, and the team also Alex Edler to play top-four minutes. Andrew Alberts, Aaron Rome and Chris Tanev are all back for the Canucks as well, which means that coach V has seven options before he even has to think about playing Ballard, the $4.2 million man. Losing Ehrhoff hurts, but if Edler, Alberts, Rome and Tanev are able to step their games up, they can fill the hole. Salo probably isn’t getting any better at his age, but he still can help the offensive side of the game, something that will need to be done after the loss of Ehrhoff.
Vancouver should have nothing to worry about in net. Everyone wants to pile on Roberto Luongo, and I admit that I’ve made fun of him and his mental makeup in the past, but the guy was a Vezina finalist on the backs of some really great numbers and he also backed it up in the playoffs by winning Game 7 against Chicago when few people thought the Canucks could stop their slide, and then scoring two 1-0 shutouts in the Finals in that losing effort against Boston. Sure, Luongo didn’t do enough in the four losses, but the Canucks scored a combined three goals in those four games. Two of those goals came in Game 6, which left two Canuck losses as shutouts. You can’t blame Luongo for losing games in which Vancouver scored zero goals.
As far as a tandem goes, Luongo said himself that he and Cory Schneider were the best tandem in the league, and it might be hard to argue against that point if it’s something that the two of them truly believe. Schneider must be chomping at the bit to become an NHL starter, but as long as the two of them can coexist and put team ahead of ego, they should be lights out again this year. The real question will be whether Vancouver keeps Schneider on the roster through the trade deadline. He is in the final year of his contract, but will only be a restricted free agent next summer, which pretty much means the Canucks will have the option as to whether or not Schneider stays on. If the Canucks somehow tank this year, then that could justify a Schneider trade, as having the great tandem only helps if you’re going to win the title, although you’d have to think a tanked season would mean little or no confidence in Luongo moving forward.
It should be noted that the Canucks also have goalie Eddie Lack in the fold, who they (and a lot of hockey people) are crazy about. He’s 6’5” tall, 23 years old, and had a great year in the AHL last year. After going undrafted in 2009, Lack spent the ’09-10 season backing up Florida Panthers’ uber-prospect and fellow Swede Jacob Markstrom with Brynas IF. Lack is also entering the final year of his entry-level deal, and like Schneider, is set to become RFA next summer. Vancouver has some decisions to make, but it must be nice being in a position to have to make them. Just ask Washington GM George McPhee (also a former BG Falcon).
Offensively, the Canucks will be fine again. The Sedin twins regularly lead the league in stuff (yes, that’s the scientific term). Last year, Daniel and Henrik placed first and fourth in overall point totals in the NHL. The year before, Henrik led the league and Daniel was on pace to tie Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin for second with 109 points, but Daniel’s season was interrupted due to injury and he only played 63 games (and still finished 11th in points). In 2010, Henrik won the Hart Trophy as league MVP. Last year, Daniel won the Ted Lindsay Award (formerly Lester B. Pearson Award) as the MVP of the league as voted by the players. There’s not a whole lot to talk about with these guys. Haters say they’re soft, that they don’t rise to the occasion, etc. The Sedins are great hockey players, and without them the Canucks would be a team lost in the middle (and I mean middle, not just the annual 3 seed that loses in the second round, which somehow people have adopted to mean “middle”). In fact, without the Sedins, the Canucks would look and play a lot like the Minnesota Wild.
After the Sedins, Vancouver will rely on a couple of their scorers to return well from playoff injuries. Ryan Kesler was a shadow of his normal self after tearing his labrum in the final game against San Jose in the conference finals. He had no goals in the Finals, after scoring 41 in the regular season. Mikael Samuelsson is also coming back from injury, as he had sports hernia surgery following his unfortunate fall in Game 5 against Nashville. Samuelsson is best known for winning the 2008 Stanley Cup with Detroit, and also giving one of the greatest quotes of all-time in the lead up to the 2010 Olympics regarding being left off of Team Sweden’s roster. Samuelsson told the Canadian press just days after Christmas ’09, “I pretty much have one comment and maybe I’ll regret it. But they can go fuck themselves. That’s what I really think.” Brilliant.
The Canucks also must wait on winger Mason Raymond, who went ass first into the boards and fractured a vertebrae. Bruin defenseman Johnny Boychuk was on the giving end of the hit, although it looked more like a freak play given Raymond’s body positioning than a malicious play on Boychuk’s part.
Vancouver still has Alex Burrows, who scored timely goals, bit fingers and is responsible for the most-read post on this blog. On the bottom lines should be Manny Malhotra and Maxim Lapierre at center, and Jannik Hansen, Victor Oreskovich, Marco Sturm and Chris Higgins at wings. Raymond’s injury leaves one spot available, which could go to a number of players, including those who normally play center since Vancouver is set with their four in Henrik, Kesler, Lapierre and Malhotra.
All in all, too much firepower and not enough contention from the other four teams. Vancouver is the team in the Northwest that has the best combination of talent and maturity. Calgary may be very mature, and Edmonton appears to be extremely talented, but no team in the division can match the combination that Vancouver has right now.
2nd: Calgary Flames 2010-11: 94 points, 2nd in division
At first I thought picking Calgary to finish second in this division was an emotional response, but then I really looked at the other three teams behind them and it makes sense. I used the word “vomit” countless times early last season to describe the Flames’ skaters to my brother, and the twelve-and-six did very little to disprove my evaluation. But the team stepped its game up late in the season, and even saved face with a 10th place finish in the west (only 3 points behind 8th-place Chicago). I wanted to take Calgary second because I love Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff, as well as the scene that is the Red Mile, but really this pick is justified by the lack of readiness of Edmonton and Colorado, as well as my perceived lack of improvement from Minnesota.
Despite the Flames suspect offense, the team has been able to depend on one man as much as any team can depend on any one player. Goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff turned in another time card that saw a laughable amount of overtime. What’s funny is that while Kipper’s 71 starts were third in the NHL, that number was actually his fewest number of games since the lockout ended in 2005. Kiprusoff’s peripherals suffered a little bit last season, but he trended upward along with the results of the team. It has appeared for a while now that as Kip goes, so go the Flames. The only problem with this situation is that Kiprusoff will turn 35 early in the season. The positive is that he’s been a great bounce back goalie, and that’s what he’ll need to do from the outset in order to give the Flames a shot at a playoff spot. Henrik Karlsson is back as Kiprusoff’s backup, and provides some stability given his lack of playing time.
At forward, the Flames still look pretty limited. Iginla is a pure stud at right wing, but after him the list of Calgary’s forwards reads like a balance sheet from Enron. Six other forwards will count against the Flames for $3 million or more this year, five of them have some sort of no-trade clause, and none of them have really earned their money. Olli Jokinen tweeted this week that he’s really excited about the new season. Calgary fans may have tweeted back that they were really excited to trade him to the Rangers in 2010 and didn’t expect to see him back. In Jokinen’s defense, he’s a very talented player who appears to be upset at his lack of recent production, and so there’s at least hope for his resurgence. Alex Tanguay was solid last year, coming in second in team scoring ahead of Jokinen and behind Iginla. Calgary’s second line could consist of Curtis Glencross, Rene Bourque and Brendan Morrison. Daymond Langkow should also be back for the Flames after suffering a scary injury (puck to back of neck). He finally made it back on April Fools’ Day this year, and as far as I know is ready to continue playing after beating his “50/50 odds” of ever playing again.
The Flames also have forwards like Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman and other various players that look like they were born to play foot hockey on a cement rink. For a while these two were putting up actual numbers for Toronto, but I watched them play and their point totals didn’t make sense. Last year may have been more of the norm, as they went for 31 and 27 points, respectively. I must give a shout-out to Hagman, however, for scoring a huge $210 goal for me in the third period of a scoreless 2010 Olympic game against the Czech Republic while playing for his native Finland. Like most of Hagman’s goals, this one didn’t make sense, but I loved it.
Calgary’s blue line has never been the same since trading away Dion Phaneuf in one of the worst trades since the Lindros deal. The Flames sent Phaneuf, Keith Aulie and Fredrik Sjostrom to Toronto in exchange for Stajan, Hagman, Ian White and Jamal Mayers (only Stajan and Hagman remain from the deal). That was a bad one, but it was predicated upon the Flames’ belief that Jay Bouwmeester was interchangeable with Phaneuf. That belief was based on JayBo’s huge size and gifted hands and feet, but it didn’t take into account what many describe as a lack of passion to get to the top. I’m not going to criticize an NHL player’s desire, as it must always be tough to get to The Show. But Bouwmeester is almost 28 years old now, and it’s time to take the training wheels off. Most analysts think it’s a lost cause, and they’re probably right, but the Flames absolutely need Bouwmeester to figure out whatever it is that’s holding him back and just go out and play every game like it’s his last.
Aside from Bouwmeester, who at least gives the Flames 26 minutes of ice time a night, Calgary has a real stud in Mark Giordano. The idea of a grown Giordano playing with Phaneuf must give Flames fans a real case of conflicted emotions. But it wasn’t to be. The next defenseman on Calgary’s depth chart has to be Anton Babchuk, who the Flames re-signed in the offseason. The fourth spot is unclear to me, as it should probably be Cory Sarich based on both production and salary ($3.6 million this year). The Flames want to get T.J. Brodie up, but he may spend another season headlining the AHL’s Abbotsford Heat. If Brodie does not make the Flames this year, that probably means that two of Chris Butler, Brett Carson and Brendan Mikkelson do (or all three, with one being the scratch).
3rd: Minnesota Wild 2010-11: 86 points, 3rd place
A new coach, a new leading scorer, and a new top defenseman all total up to… I’m not sure. I think third place is the safest prediction for the Wild this year, and I think it’s the spot in which they will actually finish.
Minnesota traded leading scorer Martin Havlat to San Jose for Dany Heatley, who should instantly replace Havlat as the Wild’s top scorer this season. If Heatley has a bad enough season to not lead the Wild in goals this season, third place may be a little out of Minnesota’s league.
The reason I don’t like Minnesota to make the playoffs this year is that I don’t feel they adequately replaced their departing players in a way that makes them four spots better in the west. Aside from losing Havlat, the Wild also lost Andrew Brunette, who should play a key role in Chicago’s attempt to win another Stanley Cup, and also Brent Burns, who skated a smooth 25:03 per game last year while tying for third on the team last year in points and fourth in goals despite being a defenseman. In fact, Brunette was third on the Wild with 18 goals, and Burns came in just behind with 17. Replacing that scoring will need to be not only Heatley, but also the other former Shark, Devin Setoguchi, who has scored 20 or more in all three of his full seasons in the NHL.
At top-line center is Mikko Koivu, who is a really solid player all the way around. He wins a lot of faceoffs, has good size and speed and creates many of the Wild’s chances. Koivu could be flanked by the two former Sharks, although Pierre-Marc Bouchard may get the call at top-line right wing ahead of Setoguchi. Matt Cullen is also likely to be a top-six center, although he and Kyle Brodziak had similar point totals last season despite Cullen’s 2:15 of extra play per game. It’s unclear who the final winger will be on the Wild’s top two lines, but the argument could be made for moving Bouchard to second-line LW, which would allow Setoguchi and Cal Clutterbuck to be the two RWs. Clutterbuck perennially leads the league in hits, but was also second on the Wild with 19 goals last season. He fits the mold of a third-line player, but given the Wild’s roster and Clutterbuck’s inarguable production, it’s probably worth it to move the tough guy up.
Also at forward for the Wild are Guillaume Latendresse, Eric Nystrom, Darroll Powe and others. Gone are right wings Chuck Kobasew and Antti Miettinen, as well as center John Madden. Madden has been a great penalty killer his whole career, while Miettinen appears to be a decent scorer to those who don’t actually watch him play. The guy has had to be benched for long stretches during his career for basically pulling a Keith Ballard. Miettinen will continue his career in the KHL. Nystrom is not only a former captain of the Michigan Wolverines (2004-05), but is also the son of legendary New York Islander Bob Nystrom, who won four Stanley Cups in the ‘80s with the club and also has his number 23 retired by the team. The elder Nystrom had nicknames that included “Mr. Islander” and “Thor.” The younger Nystrom and I shared words in a hallway in early 2005 regarding the antics of Nystrom’s Wolverine teammate T.J. Hensick, who is currently a member of the St. Louis Blues organization.
The loss of Burns appears to cripple Minnesota’s blue line, but they had to at least think they had something with the youngsters on the club. Playing top-four minutes will probably be Marek Zidlicki, Nick Schultz and Greg Zanon. The fourth D man to join them could be Clayton Stoner, although the Wild have a trio of up-and-comers who may be ready to take the next step in Marco Scandella, Justin Falk and Tyler Cuma. To add some depth, the Wild also signed 24 year-old Mike Lundin, who played 69 regular season games for the Lightning last year before skating in all 18 playoff games. The squad should be alright, but whether the Burns deal was a good one this year will depend on the success of the top three and the progress of the young three.

In net, starter Niklas Backstrom will resume his regular duties, but without the backing up of Jose Theodore, who now looks like the starter in Florida. It is assumed that Josh Harding will once again be the Wild’s second stringer after missing the entire 2010-11 season with ACL and MCL tears in his right knee. Harding showed promise in 2008-09 before taking a step back the following year, which of course was followed by the injury that brings us to today. Expect Backstrom to go 65+ games if he can, although he’s only been able to top 60 games once in his career (2008-09).
4th: Edmonton Oilers 2010-11: 62 points, last in NHL
I don’t expect the Oilers to kill it right out of the gates this year, but by the end of the season I trust their 82-game body of work more than Colorado’s. Edmonton looks like one of the most talented teams in the league. Unfortunately, they’re not competing in the under-20 world championships against similarly-aged teams.
There are a lot of questions surrounding the Oilers this year, but one I’m interested to follow is whether this is the year the team finally anoints Devan Dubnyk as the starting goalie. The 6’6” native of Regina, Saskatchewan is now 25 years old, and outperformed starter Nikolai Khabibulin last season anyway. The Bulin Wall went 10-32-4 last year with a 3.40 GAA and .890 save percentage. Those numbers are amongst the worst of the modern era (since players stopped putting up ridiculous 2+ points-per-game figures fifteen years ago). Dubnyk, by contrast, sported a 12-13-8 record for the worst team in hockey. He had a much leaner by comparison 2.71 GAA and .916 save %. Those numbers were good for 29th and 17th in the league, which isn’t that bad when we remember that the guys in front of Dubnyk simply did not constitute an NHL squad last year.
But aside from the fact that Dubnyk probably gives the Oilers a better chance to win games now anyway, I think there’s another element at play that demands the ascension of the younger goalie. People often cite team chemistry as an important factor in winning, and can often look at a core of players that grew together as a team. The most comparable example to what Edmonton looks like now would be the Pittsburgh Penguins in the middle of the last decade. Not only did they draft Fleury, Malkin, Crosby, and Staal from 2003-06, but they actually let those guys play together from day one. Maybe the Pens would have made the Finals in 2008 had they sat Fleury in 2006 and ’07 the way the Oilers are doing to Dubnyk, but I don’t think they would have. On their album Oracular Spectacular, MGMT has a song called “The Youth,” in which they reveal that the title group is “starting to change, together, together, together, together…” Regarding the Oilers, what is the point of letting the skating youth change together, but leave their capable peer of a goalie on the sideline to pick his hangnails? There is no point, and although I love what The Wall has done in his career, it’s time for the Oilers to do what they need to do in their crease.
In front of Dubnyk and Khabibulin could be a surprisingly capable group of defensemen. I’m not saying “very good,” I’m saying “surprisingly capable.” The Oilers should get Ryan “Un-fit-ney” Whitney back this year, and in him a guy that is able to skate big minutes and help out offensively. Whitney had 27 points in 35 games with Edmonton last year before succumbing to a right ankle injury just before New Year’s. Alongside Whitney will be the best #1 defenseman that nobody knows / talks about, Tom Gilbert. I understand that nobody talks about Gilbert because he plays on a team that has not warranted discussion recently, but I’d like to see the silence on Gilbert stop this season. Like Whitney, Gilbert is 6’3”, but carries himself as if he is even bigger. Gilbert’s right-handed shot is a perfect compliment to Whitney’s more common left-handed stick. The two could combine to be one of the more difficult top pairings to play against from a standpoint of trying to score on big players and also trying to shut down Whitney’s offensive eye (and Gilbert’s isn’t awful either).
After the clear top two, Ladislav Smid awaits a second-line partner. Most assume it will be one of two newly-acquired bit hitters — Cam Barker or Andy Sutton. Barker’s upside is probably higher, but Sutton’s actual hockey game is probably just as good right now. For some reason Theo Peckham appears to have hit his ceiling on the third pairing, despite arguably playing better hockey than either Sutton or Barker last season. Perhaps he fights too much — Peckham had a cool 198 penalty minutes in 71 games last season for the Oilers. It will likely be Barker, the 3rd overall pick in the 2004 entry draft, who joins Smid on the second line. Sutton and Peckham should make for a meaty third pairing. None of this includes the possibility that Jeff Petry makes the club, but that is certainly a possibility. The Michigan State product played 35 games in his rookie season last year, and placed third on the team in average ice time. It is arguable that Petry can and should beat out one of the guys assumed to be part of the six Oiler defensemen.
The Oilers are something of a tale of two prototypes at forward. They have their young and extremely talented group, and they have their older, solid group that bleeds blue and orange but has a lower point ceiling than that of the kids’ futures. The top line will probably be made up of the latter group, as Shawn Horcoff should center the first line, and be flanked by Ales Hemsky and Ryan Smyth. The Oilers get Smyth back from Los Angeles, and he is a good one. Smyth was an Oiler from 1994 to 2007, and played a huge role in getting Edmonton to within one win of the Stanley Cup in 2006. He’s a physical power forward-type, but Smyth has some finesse to go with his bashing style. He’s been a 30-goal scorer four times in his career, and has scored at least 22 goals in each of the last three seasons. What’s more important is that he wants to be an Oiler. I can’t think of a more appropriate winger to teach the kids the ropes than Smyth, who captained Team Canada in the World Championships a record six times, winning gold in 2003 and ’04. Smyth also won Olympic gold in 2002, which leaves only the Stanley Cup to enter him into the Triple Gold Club. While he may never get the same chance that he had in 2006, it would be neat if his career came to a close right as the kids paralleled the title-ascending story of the Penguins.
Speaking of those kids, the second line should feature two sophomores in Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle. It’s even possible that they are centered by rookie and 2011 top overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but that’s unlikely given that Sam Gagner has probably earned the right to be second-line center over a guy with zero professional experience. It’s assumed that if Nugent-Hopkins does not win the second-line center job that he will start his career in the AHL, as Edmonton is confident in Gilbert Brule and Eric Belanger as bottom-six NHL centers. Additionally, it may benefit the kid more to play a whole season on the top line in the AHL than to play lowered minutes and miscast as a third or fourth-line NHL center.
The lower-line left wingers for Edmonton should be sophomores Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson and Linus Omark. The last two right wings will likely be newly-signed 2010 Cup winner Ben Eager and 2008 Hobey Baker Award finalist Ryan Jones, whose legendary flow lost out to fellow CCHA star Kevin Porter of Michigan (Jones played all four years with Miami University, and ended the collegiate careers of my favorite class of Falcons in the 2008 CCHA playoffs).
The Oilers lineup will again be among the least experienced in the league, but not only will they have some sparse veteran leadership, they will also be able to continue to change. Together, together, together…
This is a team that is looking to grow, improve, and set themselves up for future seasons. I love coach Tom Renney and many of the players, but for the love of hockey, start Dubnyk in goal for at least 42 games (more than half).
5th: Colorado Avalanche 2010-11: 68 points, 4th in division
On paper, the Avalanche should not finish last in this division this year. On paper, they have two very good offensive centers, a bunch of huge defensemen, and two proven NHL goaltenders. The problem is that on paper they also have their management team. And while teams can overcome bad leadership on a year-to-year basis, I cannot believe the continued incompetence that’s been par for the course in Denver recently.
I know Joe Sakic’s on board now, and maybe he’ll have the same influence and success that his long-time rival, Steve Yzerman, did behind the scenes. But who can love what they’ve seen so far?
Colorado had the worst goals allowed number in the NHL last year by a staggering 19 goals (288 to Atlanta’s and Edmonton’s 269; no other gap between any two adjacent positions was even close to 19 (one was 10, the next largest was 5 GA)). They had a good goalie in Craig Anderson, but he intelligently didn’t want to be there and had all his dreams come true when he was dealt around the deadline to Ottawa, where he signed a big four-year extension. Backing up Anderson, and even inexplicably starting ahead of him for prolonged periods of time was Peter Budaj, who had numbers almost as bad as Khabibulin last year. Budaj, one of the better guys in the league, got an opportunity to continue his career as Carey Price’s backup in Montreal for the upcoming season. Brian Elliott started some games for Colorado after coming over in the Anderson trade, but really he was just an alright goalie who caught fire during a memorable winning streak for Ottawa in 2009-10.
To solve their goaltending mess, the Avalanche went out and traded for a solid young player who has charted in the top-five of peripheral categories while shouldering a smaller workload. Semyon Varlamov’s time with the Washington Capitals had clearly come to an end after they refused to play him for a single second of their embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Game 4 was the night after Game 3, and despite the quick turnaround and an 0-3 series deficit, Varlamov didn’t get a sniff. He was ready to continue his career in his native Russia until Colorado made the move for him. But it’s the price that the Avalanche paid that has everyone talking. They gave up a future first and second-round pick for the 23 year-old goalie, even though signing Varlamov to an offer sheet would have only cost them a second-round pick, and Washington almost certainly wasn’t going to match any offer sheet since they were ready to let him walk away to Russia for free. But, like I said, continued incompetence.
The Avalanche also got 2007 Stanley Cup champion and 2003 Conn Smythe winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere to join the club via free agency. Giguere and Varlamov make a very interesting 34 and 23 year-old tandem, although I’m not sure how much Varly will learn from the trophy winner. Additionally, it’s unclear as to whether Colorado even has a goalie coach, as a few in the know have reported that they do not, despite Varlamov’s belief in early July that longtime Canuck netminder Kirk McLean worked for the Avalanche. I’m not sure what to make of intra-organizational misinformation, but again, continued incompetence.
There are a couple of roster-related stats concerning the Avalanche that blew my mind. First, the team has 23 players signed to NHL contracts, but still remains nearly $3 million beneath the salary cap floor. Needless to say, Colorado stands right now as the team with the lowest payroll in the NHL. Additionally, 17 of the 23 players under contract have deals that expire at the end of the upcoming season. If this were a video game, the financial freedom would look enticing. But this is real life, and we know that the Avalanche aren’t going to score Zach Parise, Nicklas Lidstrom, Alex Semin and the rest of the 2012 free agent class like they might in a video game. So it would be interesting to know what exactly the plan is for the Avalanche moving forward. I foresee a repeat of the 2011 summer for the Florida Panthers, which is to say, sign a bunch of third-line players to laughably inflated deals in an effort to reach the cap floor because that’s what you need to do to convince players to go somewhere that cannot yield them a Stanley Cup.
Moving along, those big defenders who will skate in front of Varlamov and Giguere should be led by Ryan O’Byrne and Erik Johnson. O’Byrne has earned playing time with his efforts last season, but inevitably Johnson will be given the lion’s share of minutes due to his status as the 1st overall pick in the 2006 entry draft. Never mind the fact that the St. Louis Blues were doing jumping jacks when they were able to unload Johnson to get Av’s power forward Chris Stewart and defensive prospect Kevin Shattenkirk. Continued incompetence. In fact, that trade was so good that it prompted center Paul Stastny’s father, Peter (Hockey Hall of Famer) to weigh in on the continued incompetence of the Avalanche front office, saying they “destroyed the team.” Too bad his son is one of only six players signed beyond this year.
Along with Johnson and O’Byrne are Kyle Quincey and Ryan Wilson, who probably will be second or third-liners. Gone is John-Michael Liles, and in to replace his role is Jan Hejda from Columbus, who will skate in the top four with Johnson, O’Byrne and that fourth defenseman to be determined. Also on the roster are newcomer Shane O’Brien and Matt Hunwick, while Kyle Cumiskey continues to be a restricted free agent at this moment. The Avs have a couple young defensemen that they’d like to bring along in Tyson Barrie and Stefan Elliott, but it doesn’t really look like the spots are open given that the team already has seven D men signed without Cumiskey.
The forwards are headlined by centers Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene. The latter is entering his third season in the big leagues, and has scored 55 and 67 points in his two seasons thus far. Duchene was the 3rd overall draft pick in 2009 and came straight to the big club afterward. His 67 points led the team in scoring last year. Coming in second in team scoring was Stastny, who had a disappointing 57 points. It could be that the guy sees things the way his father does, but I’m just speculating as to what is almost certainly true. Stastny could make a great trade deadline acquisition for a contender that needs a top-six center, but first he has to force his way out, which might not be his style. Before we feel too bad for Stastny, he is scheduled to receive $6.6 million for each of the next three seasons, before he’ll be an unrestricted free agent in 2014 at the age of 28. That could be the start of Stastny’s real hockey career, if he hasn’t depressed himself out of the league by then.
Surrounding Stastny and Duchene on the wings for Colorado will likely be David Jones, Peter Mueller, Milan Hejduk and “room for error.” I think Kevin Porter (remember from the Oilers’ section of this post that Porter won the ’08 Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s best player) should get the opportunity to play top-six minutes as a left wing, but we’ll see. Jones has been solid in his four seasons with Colorado’s organization. Last year was his first full season, and Jones scored 27 goals and 18 assists in 77 games. Hejduk is the other right wing, and he played a key role in the Avalanche’s 2001 Stanley Cup victory. Yeah that’s right, he’s still playing top-six minutes, and actually acquitting himself very nicely. Mueller would normally be on one of the top two lines, but he is returning from a concussion that sidelined him for all of last season, so you never really know how ready he’ll be to play big minutes.
Aside from the six mentioned, Colorado has wingers T.J. Galiardi (from St. Louis in the trade that “destroyed the team”), Cody McLeod, Daniel Winnik and newly-signed Chuck Kobasew from Minnesota. Right wingers Brandon Yip and Joakim Lindstrom could also see time for the Avs. At center, Colorado is rounded out by Jay McClement and Ryan O’Reilly.
Colorado has the players to make the playoffs. They have the combination of youth and experience that can yield just as much or more success than any team in this division outside of Vancouver. But I’ve followed and watched closely for the last couple of years, and I find myself more on board with Peter Stastny than Avalanche brass.
This may come as a surprise to some, but the Pacific Division was by far hockey’s best from top to bottom last season. Dallas brought it up the rear, but still came in ninth in the west, and that was only after losing on the final evening to miss out on the final playoff spot (which went to Chicago out of the Central).
But the Pacific failed to perform in the playoffs, as the division went 1-3 collectively in series against teams from other divisions (San Jose beating Detroit in seven games was the lone series victory). This season, I expect the Pacific to have two teams in contention for the conference crown, while there are two other teams that I think are set up to take a step backward. Let’s get to the meat.

1st: San Jose Sharks 2010-11: 105 points, 1st in division
This was tough. I typed out two paragraphs about why the LA Kings will win the Pacific in 2011-12 before I came to the conclusion that I don’t believe they will. On paper, I think the Kings might be the better team, but there’s something to be said for a group of players that have won four division titles in a row and knocked their new challengers out of the playoffs last year.
Of course, these Sharks won’t be the same team, as they shipped Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi to Minnesota in separate deals that landed them winger Martin Havlat and defenseman Brent Burns. But the Sharks are good enough in their top six, four, and one that I think it’s slightly more likely that they win the division than it is that LA does.
That top six is indisputably led by center Joe Thornton, who has been maligned by some for failing to yet win a Stanley Cup. But putting blame aside, Thornton should be evaluated as a supremely gifted hockey player. He is a 6’4” center with hands like few who’ve ever played the game, and he’s listed at 230 pounds. Because he’s fast for his size and can protect the puck with his frame and strength, Thornton can play pretty much any type of game he wants. And it’s not like everyone didn’t already know he was a freak — he was the #1 overall pick in the 1997 entry draft. At 23 years old he was the captain of the Boston Bruins. The Bruins traded Thornton to San Jose in 2006, and Thornton was named league MVP after splitting 81 games between the two teams. Thornton had 125 points that year.
Perhaps the best reason why Thornton is not thought of as a prodigy the way seemingly every #1 overall pick is these days is because of the timeline of the internet. We all remember the outpouring of joy the Pittsburgh Penguins showed when they were awarded the #1 pick to draft Sidney Crosby with in 2005. He wasn’t even legal yet, but he had a nickname (“The Next One”), and we all knew it largely thanks to the internet. As the internet has evolved, everyone’s access to amateur player rankings has increased, and it has gotten to the point where we have to assume who the top pick will be, and why all of the bad teams need him. We had the attempt to dub the Edmonton Oilers’ abysmal 2009-10 season “the fall for Taylor Hall” that rightfully never really caught on. But as solid as most of these #1 picks always are, I don’t think there should have been more hype surrounding guys like Taylor Hall and John Tavares than there was around Joe Thornton. At 32 years old, Thornton only has a few more years left before his game could drop off a little bit, so the time for him to finally make good on this incredible hockey gift he’s been given has just about come.
Surrounding the elite centerman in the Wild’s top six will be Patrick Marleau, Martin Havlat, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe and Logan Couture. All of these players offer different strengths (and in some cases, weaknesses), and that’s what could make San Jose’s top two lines a couple of the more intriguing in the NHL this season. It will be interesting to see how the Sharks fare without Heatley. He is regarded as a top-notch scorer in the league, but he only scored 26 goals last season, and hasn’t reached 40 in a season since 2007-08. The Sharks sent him to Minnesota in exchange for Havlat, who offers a salary that is $2.5 million less than Heatley’s. If Havlat can keep from kicking players or being immortalized in one of the greater parodies / diss songs of all-time, there’s no reason he can’t pour in at least 20 goals and give the Sharks a more physical presence than Heatley did. But of course, Havlat must stay interested, which he says he will now that he’s on a team that should be participating in playoff hockey. Of course the last time Havlat played some playoff hockey, he got Kronwalled.
San Jose landed smooth-skating defensemen Burns, also from Minnesota, in a separate trade with the Wild. Burns fits San Jose’s playing style perfectly, as he has no qualms using his superior skating to get involved offensively, a la Sharks D man Dan Boyle. Burns should skate with Marc-Edouard Vlasic on the second line, behind Boyle and hard-hitting Douglas Murray. I think Vlasic is the man who could be upgraded, but he’s good enough not to lose games. The Sharks aren’t great on their third defensive pairing, but then, who really is? They will probably skate out Jason Demers and newly-signed Jim Vandermeer.
In goal, Antti Niemi consolidated his 2010 Stanley Cup victory with a steadily improving second season last year. Niemi started out so bad that many were calling for Antero Niittymaki to take the starting job. But Niemi corrected, avoided the crash-and-burn, and actually ascended higher than ever before his season ended at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks on one of the weirdest goals in NHL playoff history. Niemi can be expected to be in the top ten in peripherals this season, as he was 11th and 12th last year with his 2.38 GAA and .920 save percentage. Those stats were clearly hindered by his awful start, and it should be safe to assume that Niemi should come out of the gates better than last year.
2nd: Los Angeles Kings 2010-11: 98 points, 4th in division
Those two paragraphs I had written about why the Kings should win the Pacific started with the fact that they should be improved from last season thanks to some key acquisitions and returns to health, and included the idea that it is possible that San Jose did not upgrade their roster through their own moves. We’ve evaluated the Sharks, but there shouldn’t be nearly as much of a question surrounding whether the Kings improved from last season to this one.
LA started by trading center Brayden Schenn, hockey’s ultimate prospect, along with Wayne Simmonds and a 2012 second round draft pick to Philadelphia for center Mike Richards, who not only captained the Flyers, but also played a key role in helping Canada win the 2010 Olympic gold medal. Outside of acquiring Schenn and freeing up some cap space, it’s unclear why the Flyers would trade Richards. Many have assumed that he must have been a problem in the locker room, but we really don’t have any publicly known facts to base that off of. Regardless of the validity of people’s suspicions, I don’t think there’s any reason to assume that Richards will blow up the Kings’ chemistry, which needs to grow anyway.
Richards joins a team that already has a star center in Anze Kopitar. The first Slovenian to play in the NHL will turn 24 later in August, just like Sidney Crosby. People have been calling for Kopitar’s breakout season for a couple years now, but he was sidelined at the end of last year with a broken ankle. The Kings were ousted by San Jose in six games without the services of Kopitar (or, of course, Richards). Some article that I didn’t read on ESPN insider called for Kopitar to win the MVP this year, which I think is probably a bit much considering he has never averaged a point per game in any season, although he’s been very close in three of the five he’s played in the NHL so far. There are some similarities between Kopitar and big Joe Thornton, starting with size, but Kopitar’s game is a little more forward-skating and a little less creative, although neither player gives up a whole lot to the other. I’d suspect Anze can finally break the point-per-game barrier this year, but I wouldn’t expect more than 90 from the big man.
Part of the reason I’m curbing my expectations for this so-called MVP candidate is the LA wingers need to step their games up a bit. The one true exception is Dustin Brown, who I think is one of the premier right wings in the league. Aside from being third in the league with 300 hits, Brown led the Kings with 28 goals and added 29 assists, good for fourth on the team. The stud from Ithaca, NY has been the captain of the Kings for three years, and does a fine job in that role. Brown will turn 27 in November.
The other right wing is Justin Williams, who matched Brown’s 57 point output despite missing 9 games to injury. Williams was solid, but the Kings need even more if they’re going to win the division and/or enjoy playoff success this year. Williams needs to stay on the ice (maybe even play more than 17:15 a night) and continue to improve his offensive game because the Kings need the goals.
Opposite Brown and Williams on the left side will be Dustin Penner and Simon Gagne, neither of whom were Kings when the calendar flipped to 2011. Gagne has tallied only 40 points in each of the last two seasons, but both were shortened by injury. Perhaps more importantly, Gagne has played in 34 playoff games in those seasons, which means his teams enjoy some playoff success. He didn’t just phone it in either; Gagne was able to score 14 goals in the last two playoff years with Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, respectively. That pace would translate to 33 goals over an 82 game season, but Gagne hasn’t kept that pace during the regular season nor kept his health since 2008-09. If he can give the Kings a full season, the offensive numbers should be better than last year, when LA only outscored Columbus, Minnesota and Edmonton in the west.

Penner, on the other hand, appears to be stalling somewhat. After being traded to LA on deadline day this past season, Penner had two goals and four assists in 19 games. He added a goal and an assist in the first round loss to San Jose. People say he underachieved, but I’m not sure everybody realizes exactly what kind of a player Dustin Penner is. Because of his size and 32-goal season in 2009-10 for the Oilers, everyone assumes he has to be a top-six forward in the NHL. I’m not sure it wouldn’t be better for him to play third-line minutes and get into that grinding mentality. Unfortunately, the Kings don’t have the luxury of trying that out right now, as Penner and Gagne are, until further developments, the best two left wingers on the team.
Defensively, the Kings should be alright on the top four, but any injuries could expose their lack of depth. One way or another, Drew Doughty is going to play hockey for the LA Kings this year, unless they choose to trade him at some point. He’s waiting on a big contract, and talks could progress now that Shea Weber’s situation has been sorted out and there’s a dollar figure attached. Whether the Kings should shell out crazy terms for Doughty long-term is another matter, but in terms of 2011-12, Doughty is a much-needed piece of the Kings’ puzzle. Along with Doughty are Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi, who play some pretty good defense. Rounding out the top four is Jack Johnson, who plays defense like he’s chilling on a beach with an acoustic guitar, singing about rabbits. He’s not that Jack Johnson, but he is no more of a defensive success than the musician. Johnson hits a good amount of guys and skates some high minute totals, but he’s never seen a minus-1 that he didn’t like. But, he poured in 37 assists last year, so he’s great. On the last line of defense, the Kings have basher Matt Greene and then a slew of options at sixth defender. Many assume that spot will go to Alec Martinez.
The Kings’ goaltending situation doesn’t need a lot of previewing. Jonathan Quick has now gone 3-for-3 in having good seasons, and turned in his best one yet in 2010-11. Quick’s .918 save percentage tied Marc-Andre Fleury for 13th in the league, while his 2.24 GAA was good for fifth. Behind Quick is fellow youngster Jonathan Bernier, who had a Niemi-like season, except that he made his turnaround over only 25 appearances. Both goalies are entering the penultimate years of their contracts, with both (especially Quick) looking for a payday come summer 2013.
Los Angeles has the goaltending, centermen and team defense to win this division in 2011-12, but I’m leaning slightly in the direction of the San Jose Sharks.
3rd: Anaheim Ducks 2010-11: 99 points, 2nd in division
This prediction has two conditions: 1) Jonas Hiller must be ready to play hockey, and 2) Teemu Selanne must want to continue to play hockey. If either of these conditions are not met, especially condition #1, I’m picking Anaheim fourth. Let’s examine why.
Everybody knows and loves the Ducks’ top line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan. And why not? It’s a great line. They do it all, and more impressively, all of them do it all. But after them, Teemu Selanne is absolutely needed on the roster in order for the Ducks to score the goals to overcome those that they statistically should give up. Selanne is considering retirement after kind of shocking the hockey world with an 80-point season in 73 games last year. The Finnish Flash is 41 now, but he’s still needed for this Anaheim offense.
The reason why Selanne is needed might lie with Hiller’s condition. The Twitterverse is abuzz with photos of Hiller skating recently, so it looks like the left-handed goalie should be ready to return from his season-long bout with vertigo. If he is fully recovered, the Ducks are solid at starting goaltender. If he’s not, this could be a grease fire. Anaheim was 10th in the west last year in goals allowed, and surprisingly were only 7th in goals scored. That’s an average of 8.5, which makes the Ducks a borderline playoff team, which is what I believe they will be this year. Hiller’s backup appears to be Dan Ellis, which begs the question, “Why the hell didn’t Anaheim give Ray Emery a new contract?” Whatever the reason, they didn’t, and now if Hiller suffers a relapse of vertigo or comes down with any injury at all, the Ducks will be left with Dan Ellis to hold down the fort. Forgive me for not loving a repeat of Anaheim’s second-place finish in the Pacific.
The Ducks have a well-defined top four on defense consisting of Lubomir Visnovsky, Toni Lydman, Francois Beauchemin and Cam Fowler. Visnovsky led all NHL defensemen with 50 assists last season, and was second amongst blue liners with 18 goals (losing out only to Dustin Byfuglien, who is a converted winger). The guy was a power play leader, tallying 31 special teams points, as well as skating over 24 minutes a night. Visnovsky was plus-18, which was only bested on the Anaheim roster by Lydman, who was an appalling plus-32 (the league lead was plus-33 (Zdeno Chara)). Lydman did the rest too, as he had 141 hits and 178 blocks. That block total was bested only by Beauchemin for the Ducks, who also had 122 hits of his own. The biggest question mark in Anaheim’s top four will be Fowler and the commencement of his second season. Last year, the 10th overall pick in the 2010 draft lit it up offensively, scoring 10 goals and 30 assists. But the rookie turned in a minus-25 for the year, which screams of some liability. Granted, plus/minus is not the best stat to use to grade a player’s helpfulness to the team, but Fowler needs to cut that minus in half if his second season can be seen as a rightful improvement to a young career that seems to have no limitations.
After those four, the Ducks can probably feel comfortable rolling Luca Sbisa and Kurtis Foster as the third defensive pairing, but we’ll see if those two hold their spots.
Anaheim’s offense beyond the top line is worrisome if Selanne hangs them up. Centering that line is Saku Koivu, who while aging can still hold his own and at times show flashes of his previous self. But the fact that anyone is debating whether he or Andrew Cogliano will be the second line center kind of says a lot. And let me just say, it has to be Koivu.

Also in the top six is Jason Blake, who has never really lived up to the humongous contract he signed in 2007. Blake will count for $4 million against the cap for Anaheim this year before the Ducks will be out from under that one. He contributed 16 goals and 16 assists in 76 games last year. If Selanne does not round out the top-six, the Ducks may be inclined to increase the role of former Bowling Green Falcon Dan Sexton, whose scoring totals would need to increase drastically in order to soften the blow of a Selanne retirement from scorched earth to mere meteorite collision.
While I really like Anaheim’s defensemen at the top, I don’t think the Ducks have enough depth in any aspect of the game to get back to the top (or second) of the Pacific Division. And if Jonas Hiller is unable to resume regular starting duties, watch out.
4th: Dallas Stars 2010-11: 95 points, 5th in division
I discovered something while doing the research for this write-up: I actually like the Dallas Stars. I blasted them about a month ago for not trading Brad Richards, and while that has left them in shambles at the center position, they are actually above average at wing and on defense. Who knows what goalie Kari Lehtonen will bring to the table this year, but the former #2 overall pick certainly has the talent to also be above average, which I would call the top 15 goalies in the NHL (30 teams, but account for the fact that some use two goalies frequently).
Let’s start with the things I love about the 2011-12 Stars. If Sheldon Souray can give Dallas anything, literally anything, then he makes the Stars’ defensive corps good. Not above average, but good. How that translates to the goals allowed stat remains to be seen, but Dallas has every reason to trust its defensemen.
Stephane Robidas is one of my favorite players in the NHL. The guy had 216 hits and 135 blocks last year, as well as 30 points (17 on special teams) while skating 24:31 per game. He’s a fantasy gem for leagues that calculate stats like those — you know, stats that translate to on-ice team success. And now he’ll have a true #1 running mate in Alex Goligoski, who I touched upon in the preview of the Atlantic Division under the section on the Penguins, who traded the D man last season for James Neal and Matt Niskanen. More on Neal’s departure later. But Goligoski could be a game changer for Dallas.
The University of Minnesota product put up 46 points last season with both teams, skated 22:14, blocked 106 shots and played a quarterback-type role on the power play. Pittsburgh could afford to lose that latter aspect of Goligoski’s game thanks to already having Kris Letang, but the PPQB is something that Dallas needed desperately. Robidas can handle those duties, but he’s better off being the second most offensively talented defenseman on the ice.
Also on the blue line are Trevor Daley, Nicklas Grossman, Mark Fistric and Adam Pardy. One of the above will be the odd man out, unless it’s Souray. Daley and Grossman could start out the year as the second pairing. Daley had 27 points and 124 blocks last year while skating over 22 minutes; Grossman hit 161 guys. Both finished last season a plus-7. I’ll admit my ignorance on Pardy’s game. He looks to me like the strongest candidate for healthy scratch-dom, but he’s got to have this $2 million cap hit for a reason, right? Either way, we’re debating third-line defensive pairings at this point, and I already like what Dallas has going on in front of that, so let’s move on.
The Stars are worthy of envy at the wings. Left winger Brendan Morrow is heading into his sixth season as the captain of the Stars, and his game is worthy of wearing the “C.” Watching him play usually makes me think of Clint Eastwood’s characters, which can only be taken as a great compliment. The guy does everything, complains about nothing, and has gold medals for Team Canada from the 2010 Olympics and 2004 World Championships. He has only the Stanley Cup left to join the Triple Gold Club, although I don’t think there’s any way that happens in Dallas in 2012. But, the Stars may be on the right track if they can add some centers.
Aside from Morrow, the Stars have a couple wingers with great hands who actually make that translate into scoring goals. Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn are supremely talented offensively. Having these wingers, specifically Benn, is the biggest reason the Stars could afford to trade away James Neal in order to get that much needed defensive piece in Goligoski.
The biggest question will be whether Benn and Eriksson will have a center who can set them up, or if they’ll be added to the class of Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik and all of the other sharp-shooting wingers who had to do it alone. It should be noted that neither Nash nor Gaborik will have that continued excuse anymore. Perhaps Benn and Eriksson will become the new poster boys for that club.
A guy who looks like he should be able to score with Benn and Eriksson is the freshly crowned champ, Michael Ryder. The enigmatic right wing seems to have all the tools but none of the consistency, as he has yet to reach the 60-point mark since his rookie season in 2003-04. It could be that we overrated his talent, or it could be that scoring in the 50s is a perfectly acceptable output for a second-line forward. But Ryder failed to approach even that number in his last two seasons in Boston, amassing only 74 points while playing all but three games since puck drop ’09. That’s an average of 37 points, and Dallas will want (need?) at least 10 more than that this year if they want to finish third in the division and have a shot at a return to the playoffs.
Below these four, Dallas has a couple wingers who can play center in Steve Ott and Vernon Fiddler. Both are good on faceoffs and physical in open play. The Stars may need one of them to center the second line, as they really have nobody after top center Mike Ribeiro thanks to the free departure of Richards on July 2 to New York. Dallas also has tough guy Adam Burish, who won the Cup in 2010 with Chicago and can be counted on to keep opponents from taking too many liberties on the rest of the talented Stars. Their lower lines are pretty much your stock NHL lower lines, although I really like Fiddler joining this team. He may play on the fourth line, but he tends to get things accomplished in his brief playing time. Watch him play and you’ll see how an average talent can make a career out of working hard and playing smart.
In goal, the Stars need Kari Lehtonen to just take ownership and get it done. He didn’t have the best team in front of him last year, but he certainly didn’t have the worst either. Lehtonen went 2.55 / .914 last year, good for 17th / 23rd in the league. There’s nothing wrong with having average peripherals while shouldering the bulk of the load for a team, but Lehtonen can do so much better. His career is starting to take a Van Wilder arc, as the guy with all the gifts who can’t seem to put it all together and ascend to world-class status. In his defense, last year was his first injury-free season since 2006-07, and there is still time for the 27 year-old to get the steady flow of games under his belt and show his improvement. But the time may be now, as he only has two years left on his contract at $3.55 million per, and in order to get another big one he’s going to need to play well.
Another reason he’ll need to play well is the lack of a competitive backup. Andrew Raycroft returns as the second stringer in Dallas, and while he’s fine, he’s not going to push for a sizable chunk of starts. I expect Lehtonen to start around 68 games, and I expect top 15 peripheral numbers at the least. Anything short of that, and the Van Wilder arc continues. Anything within that realm, and Dallas has an excellent shot at supplanting Anaheim and Phoenix as a playoff team out of the Pacific. Although, it would be nice if they could find the money (they’re around the cap floor) to go get a legitimate center.
5th: Phoenix Coyotes 2010-11: 99 points, 3rd in division
I spent the spring bowing down to the Phoenix Coyotes and lamenting fans and observers for failing to see the beauty with which the ‘Yotes played. So, I’m an idiot. The Coyotes sputtered, gave up the fourth seed to Anaheim (and fifth to Nashville), and were the only team to get swept out of the first round of the playoffs. Subtract the starting goalie, a top-line defenseman and my beloved Vern Fiddler, and I can’t see the Coyotes getting back to the playoffs for a third straight season.
The biggest bright spot on the team might be defenseman Keith Yandle, who skates smoothly and distributes the puck with precision. He had a cool 48 assists last year along with 11 goals, putting him at the A-table as far as offensive defensemen go in the NHL today. Derek Morris and Adrian Aucoin are serviceable top-four defensemen who can get their hits in. Aucoin can still contribute some points despite having just turned 38. Morris added 136 blocked shots last year.
It appears as if the fourth piece is going to again be Michal Rozsival, who was alright splitting time last year between the Rangers and Coyotes. What’s staggering is his $5 million cap hit this year. Either pick up your defense, pick up your scoring, or skate the hell out of some minutes. Rozsival was in the low 100s in hits and blocks last year (100 and 108), scored 21 points and only skated 21 minutes. Those are fine numbers for an NHL defenseman. That’s actually chipping in. But at $5 million, the Coyotes need a lot more from the man who has seen a decline in his play since signing that big four-year contract that is finally set to expire next summer. The Coyotes are rolling out this top four after losing Ed Jovanovski to Florida last month. Jovo was a big reason why the Coyotes qualified for the playoffs two years in a row.
Shane Doan led the Coyotes last year with 20 goals. Somehow, a team that had only one 20-goal scorer managed to place 8th in the west in total offense. This offense-by-committee squad of forwards is mostly returning, with the exceptions of Eric Belanger and Fiddler. Phoenix added lower-line forwards Raffi Torres and Boyd Gordon. Center Martin Hanzal is a Doan-like player, and should be fun to watch in his fifth NHL season. But in total, the Coyotes would need another season of contributions from everyone in order to stay afloat, and with the loss of Jovanovski I don’t think the team is more apt to create scoring chances. Then again, maybe it’s time for BizNasty2point0 to take his rightful spot on an NHL team’s second line…
…And we’re back. On top of needing at least the same offensive output, the Coyotes might need substantially more offense to win games given the loss of starting goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. They brought in Mike Smith from Tampa Bay, who had a really great end to his season, but I’m not positive that being able to string together some heady starts as the bona fide backup translates into certainty that Smith has figured out the mental side of being an everyday starter in the league. He had countless opportunities to be just that in Tampa Bay before Steve Yzerman decided that they needed to trade for Dwayne Roloson in the middle of last season, but Smith never consolidated any of his breaks. I will say he looked like a calm man this past spring, and I hope he has finally figured out what he needs to do to be consistent in the league, but I don’t think anyone can be certain that he has. Even if he has, how is a consistent Mike Smith automatically an equal to what Bryzgalov has given the Coyotes over the past few years? It’s not automatic, probably not even likely, and so I guess I have to continue to be a skeptic.
All things considered, Phoenix looks to me like the best candidates for last place in the Pacific this season.