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Over the summer I popped off about the disappointment that Ottawa Senators’ center Jason Spezza has been since the team snatched lottery pick status from the jaws of Stanley Cup contendership.
I said that Spezza hadn’t done enough to keep the Sens out of the basement — specifically, he wasn’t able to stay on the ice last year. But injuries happen, and I shouldn’t have blamed the guy for picking one up.
I then took it further, saying that Spezza’s once promising career was sliding into irrelevance, and that his uninspiring play almost led one to reconsider the 2001 trade that sent pariah Alexei Yashin to Long Island in exchange for (amongst other things) the #2 draft pick that was used on Spezza.
The ignorant rant continued with a reference to The Big Lebowski that could best be summed up by saying that Spezza was quickly and quietly succumbing to his fate as a losing hockey player. Interestingly, I started by saying that Spezza was “one of the few players I’m more tired of talking about than Phil Kessel.” (League leaders, anyone?)…
Fail.
Not Spezza’s fail, my fail. I failed in a way that approaches the shouting distance of epic.


Jason’s succeeding beyond anyone’s expectations, at least outside of the organization. I will take a second to plug my recovery by saying that at our draft on October 2nd, I drafted Spezza relatively early despite what I wrote about him just over two months prior and the fact that he doesn’t hit anyone (those that read me know how much I hate fantasy leagues that don’t factor in hits or blocks). I don’t know why I picked him. Maybe I just wanted to believe that my summer attack would be a fantastic case of sports psychology, since I know he read the piece a dozen times.
Jason Spezza: “Hey Tram, eat shit. Who you calling a loser? Loser.”

But one thing is clear: Jason Spezza believes. He believes in his talent, he seems to believe in his body finally, and perhaps most shockingly, he really looks like he believes in his team. Let’s not push this to the side and give the standard line, “Every professional athlete should believe in his (or her… stop laughing) team,” because the obvious fact is that not every player does believe in his team.
And Spezza has every reason to not believe in his team. He has every reason to let the downward pressure take over and send him plummeting to the bottom. Every reason to say that he made a Cup Final and did his best, but now doesn’t have the support to accomplish anything on the ice. And he has 7 million reasons to look like he’s just playing for the paycheck.
Instead, Jason Spezza has turned in 11% of what is looking like by far the most impressive season of his nine-year NHL career. Sure, he had 71 assists in 2005-06, and 34 goals in each of the following two seasons, but the situation now is totally different. The Sens started approximately 43 rookies on opening night this season, and through the first six games it showed. Ottawa was 1-5, and had given up an astounding 30 goals in those games. But Craig Anderson has gotten it together, as expected, and Spezza has led the team to three straight wins.
Photo via bleacherreport.com
I unashamedly love this man. Craig Anderson might be hockey’s Gareth Barry.

As I said in that July post, Spezza’s talent was never in question. The man is a puck boss with great passing vision and creativity. What has come into question over the seasons since the lockout is his character and dedication to the team. Nothing seems to have ever been corroborated, but people closer than myself often cited a riff between Spezza and former head coach Bryan Murray during those successful years in the middle of last decade. I am not alleging anything other than that rumors existed. We do know that goalie Ray Emery was bought out of his contract in the summer of 2008, and we also know that Emery feuded with anyone from coaching to traffic cops. We also know that more recent coach Cory Clouston feuded with Dany Heatley, and Heatley was subsequently traded (albeit after Heatley’s own trade request). So, maybe the rumors of Spezza’s dissatisfaction with coaching were overblown or entirely false.
But even the classiest of players would probably look at the Sens’ lineup and sigh. Still only 28, Spezza is one of the elder statesmen on a team that is in no way close to contending for a Stanley Cup. Spezza is due to become an unrestricted free agent upon the conclusion of his current contract, but he’ll be 32 years old by the time that day comes. Who knows if his body will still allow him to play at a level high enough to crack the top six on a contending team in the year 2015 and beyond?
Given this circumstance, Spezza had three options: mail in the usual 58-game season, finish near last place, and make $7 million this year, embrace the idea of completely rebuilding the only franchise he’s ever played for and lead by example for a team that maybe, possibly, is three years away from the possibility of a conference final, or put in a trade request and hope to be some other team’s missing piece.
Proving once and for all that he is a true hockey player, Spezza chose the second option, and has been the key skater in all nine of the team’s games so far this year. Sure, they’ve taken a couple on the chin in blowout losses to Colorado and Philadelphia, but Spezza has scored on his attempt in both of Ottawa’s shootout wins, including last night’s game-winner, despite coming into the year something like 11-for-33 in shootouts for his career.
Those goals don’t count for stats, but Spezza’s doing just fine in that department anyway. He’s on the board with five goals and seven assists so far, which, if you’re wondering, is a 109-point pace. Will he finish with that amount of points? Probably not, but only because he’s likely to miss some games at some point. But after seeing the way he’s led from the front, I don’t think it really matters if Spezza misses some games this year due to bumps and bruises. Sure, a serious injury would be devastating, but minor hurts come with playing hockey, and this team isn’t scheduled to make the playoffs this year anyway. What’s important is that Spezza continues his inspiring play on the ice when he is on the ice, with the assumption that when this team is ready to ascend in a few years, their likely captain can be counted on because he was with the youth every step of the way.
By 2014-15, current captain Daniel Alfredsson will probably be retired. But that happens to be the contract years for both Spezza and Anderson, who by then will be playing for a new contract and with what many assume will be one of the best goalies of the next decade: Robin Lehner. If enough of the kids progress, circle that season. And when Ottawa’s golf season starts a month or two later than usual, remember that the first 11% of 2011-12 foreshadowed all of it.
Photo via crashthenet.ca
With Jacob Markstrom currently killing it in Florida, is fellow Swedish goaltender Robin Lehner now the best player in the world not in the NHL?

To wrap, I want to apologize for all of the negative things I wrote in July about Jason Spezza’s career trajectory. There were two more items from that post about the Senators that make me look foolish: 1) That I bundled Spezza with Kessel as players that I’m tired of talking about (Kessel leads the NHL in goals and points, while Spezza is second in points); and 2) that I wrote that Ottawa winger Milan Michalek “isn’t a top-six NHL forward.” Nice call, dumbass.

Anyway, I hope my good calls (Kari Lehtonen, the Dallas team, Ryan Callahan, Jacov Markstrom, etc.) outweigh the bad (Avalanche sucking, Canucks having the division clinched by the all-star break, Panthers finishing in 15th again) and that you look forward to some more calls throughout the season. I look forward to hearing your feedback.

And in case you want to read the July 25th blast I refer to in this post, click here!

The Colorado Avalanche have proven me wrong.

My continued digs at the front office and the lack of direction on the ice have obviously been out of touch with reality. Folks, as I sit here writing this today, the Avs are a 5-1-0 hockey team after playing only one home game.

Get your playoff tickets now.

How have they done it? It’s simple — they’ve went on the road and dominated hockey’s best teams. After opening the season with a 3-0 home loss to Detroit (2-0 with an empty-netter), the Avalanche started their road trip with a stunning 1-0 shutout in the building of the overworked and not-yet-worried-about-it Stanley Cup champions, the Boston Bruins. Never mind that the game was one of those 1:00 p.m. games, and on a weekday no less. We all know home teams and their crowds are always intense while the sun is high in the sky…

On a side note, I’ve done nothing but praise new goaltender Semyon Varlamov. Perhaps his goodness can outweigh the franchise’s badness. Wait, no! This is a good franchise!

Since the inspiring shutout in front of a baseball crowd, the Avs have gone on to win four more roadies in a row. The opponents leave nothing to be desired either. Colorado has won shootouts over Columbus and Montreal! On top of that, they pulled off a real overtime win at Toronto last night. And somewhere in between, there was a 7-1 demolition of the… wait for it… Ottawa Senators!

What’s that you say? Those four teams are 17th, 22nd, 25th and 30th in a 30-team league in goals against per game? Get out of here with your stats and objectivity! The Colorado Avalanche are a great team, and if you don’t get that, then you just don’t know hockey!

Wait, what now? It’s only six games of an 82-game season? Now you’re just grasping at straws. You’ll say anything to avoid giving the Avs and their captain-less collection of contract-year players coached by the great Joe Sacco their due.

I say it’s division title or bust at this point. How can you live with yourself if you get off to a 5-1-0 start only to squander it over the final 76 games of the season?

Those final 76 games begin with a home-and-home against the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday and Saturday. If by the end of the weekend the Avs are a 7-1-0 hockey club, I may have to reissue a more honest apology. Thank goodness they have to play a real hockey team for the next two games.

The Edmonton Oilers were the last team to get its season started, but the opponent Sunday night could not have been more appropriate.

The Pittsburgh Penguins rolled into Rexall Place coming off road wins against the “better” western Canadian teams, Vancouver and Calgary. To qualify, the Pens were without Evgeni Malkin on Sunday, who is apparently suffering from a lower-body injury. Of course Sidney Crosby was also out, as he has been for a long time despite the inane daily questions about his return. Marc-Andre Fleury was spelled by backup netminder Brent Johnson.

But the actual game was well-played by both teams, and it was something of a measuring stick for the rebuilding Oilers, who make it difficult to not compare them with those Penguins of the mid-2000s. That team was famously bad for a good while, which allowed them to draft in consecutive summers:

2003: Marc-Andre Fleury (first overall)
2004: Evgeni Malkin (second overall)
2005: Sidney Crosby (first overall)
2006: Jordan Staal (second overall)


The Penguins grew together and let their stars mature, and the results turned around strikingly quick. The team of course made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007-08, and won the Cup the following season. Most pundits agree that a hockey team is better off being strong down the middle of the ice than on the outside (if you have to pick only one), and having three centers of the ilk of Malkin, Crosby and Staal was something that proved to be a winning formula.

Fast forward a few years and we take a look at the Edmonton Oilers. The team has been locked in various levels of the basement since making that stunning run to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2005-06. That run was led by Chris Pronger, who was granted a trade to Anaheim just weeks after the Oilers lost Game 7 to Carolina. Pronger and the Ducks went on to win the Cup the very next season, while the Oilers finished 25 points out of fourth place in the division.

The awfulness that has taken place on the ice in Edmonton since has not been without some silver lining though. Being very bad means drafting very high, and here’s what the Oilers have done with their first-round picks since that dreadful season of 2006-07:

2007: Sam Gagner (6th overall)
2008: Jordan Eberle (22nd overall)
2009: Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson (10th overall)
2010: Taylor Hall (1st overall)
2011: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (1st overall)

All five of these players are still with the Oilers, and the most recent four all played Sunday night against the Penguins. Nugent-Hopkins scored a backhanded rebound to tie the game with under five minutes to go. The assist went to Hall, who was very threatening throughout the game, although was unable to beat Brent Johnson with any of his team-leading five shots on goal. The Oil’s version of Crosby and Malkin skated together through much of the game with fellow former first-rounder Ales Hemsky (13th overall in 2001), who has long been Edmonton’s best scoring threat when healthy, and accounted for the shootout winner.

You may notice that unlike the run of high picks in Pittsburgh, there was no goaltender on this list of depression era first-rounders in Edmonton. That’s because Sunday night’s winning tender was selected by the Oilers in 2004 with the 14th overall pick. Devan Dubnyk finally got his shot to work the crease on an opening night, and he was nothing short of excellent, allowing just one goal — an early power play blast by Kris Letang. Dubnyk spent last season playing in far too few games thanks to the big money contract on the books for Nikolai Khabibulin, who played 47 games to the tune of an embarrassing .890 save percentage to go along with a 3.40 GAA and a 10-32-4 record.

Conversely, Dubnyk made the most of his 35 starts by posting a respectable .916 save % to go with a slimmed down 2.71 GAA and a record of 12-13-8. Based on the numbers of each goalie, there is absolutely no case that can be made for Khabibulin getting a 47-35 split. None. It was insane then, it is insane now, and it will be insane if Dubnyk isn’t given at least 50 starts this season. The Wall may have only been starting because of his contract figures, but the outcome wasn’t necessarily bad for Edmonton, as his league-worst numbers allowed them to lose the games necessary to end up with the top overall pick (Nugent-Hopkins), which just happened to save the day last night and will be a huge factor in determining whether the Oilers are able to follow the blueprint left by those Penguins.

I’m not saying that Edmonton is going to win the Stanley Cup in the next three seasons, or even make the playoffs this year, but they have the high-end pieces in place that allows them to have a higher potential ceiling than teams that are forced to develop stars out of lesser draft picks. When healthy, Hemsky is one of the best scoring right wings in the league. We don’t know how good Hall and Nugent-Hopkins will be or how quickly they’ll get there, but last night showed more than just flashes of brilliance.

And on defense, the team is still awaiting the return of their smooth-skating high point total man Ryan Whitney, who coincidentally was a high draft pick himself: fifth overall in 2002 by, yep, you guessed it, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Whitney was traded during the season that the Pens went on to win the Cup, but he was a solid part of their resurgence. In his absence, normal playing partner Tom Gilbert will have to step his game up much like Dan Girardi will for the Rangers in the absence of Marc Staal. Big minutes, blocked shots, solid checking and offensive support are the plan for Gilbert, and I think the big man can cover the void just fine for a while. The promoted man in Whitney’s absence is Theo Peckham, who is a physical fan’s delight. Peckham’s offensive game is not much to speak of, but he is the kind of defenseman that makes opposing forwards no longer eager to play against Edmonton, and every team needs a guy like that.

A final parallel to the Penguins of old is the fact that the Oilers are in the midst of a very important deal for a new arena. The waters have been muddied, but most in the know expect the deal to get done sometime soon. Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun wrote a very good article detailing the situation, and how Oilers’ owner Daryl Katz may be a hindrance to the deal getting done by using bully tactics. I’m not going to pretend to know Katz or anything about what’s going on upstairs, but the Jones article is a recommended read for those interested.

I very much enjoyed the Penguins – Oilers game last night, and expect both teams to deliver a lot of entertaining hockey this year and for years to come.

Here is my predicted order of finish for the western conference, followed by the mandatory blurb.


Western Conference
  1. Vancouver
  2. Chicago
  3. San Jose
  4. Detroit
  5. Los Angeles
  6. Dallas
  7. St. Louis
  8. Nashville
  9. Calgary
  10. Anaheim
  11. Minnesota
  12. Phoenix
  13. Edmonton
  14. Columbus
  15. Colorado
The only division winner I’m unsure about is San Jose, who will have to deal with what looks like a very good L.A. Kings team. Because I believe the Northwest is so much worse than the Central and Pacific, I am making Vancouver the default number one seed based on all of the easy wins they’ll get that Chicago and San Jose won’t.
Detroit and L.A. look like the clear rest of the top five in the west along with the Canucks, Blackhawks and Sharks. There is a large incentive to win divisions this year, because no team really wants to have to play in that 4-5 matchup in the first round. Whoever finds themselves in that spot will have to go through three of the other four “top five” teams in order to get to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Over the summer I didn’t have the stones to take Dallas over Anaheim in the Pacific, but as time has gone on I’ve completely fallen in love with Dallas’ blue line. I had this spot pegged before last night’s home win over Chicago, but that certainly did nothing to change my mind. I don’t think Dallas has enough depth at forward to be as good over the long haul as the top five teams, but they’re not giving anything to anyone else in this conference if you break down rosters.
I flip-flopped St. Louis and Nashville because the Predators’ forwards don’t do it for me, and I still think the house of cards situation in Nashville is scary. If it plays out as I wrote that it could, the Preds will be looking at a 10th-or-worse finish.
The Flames are a team that I strongly considered taking over Nashville, but if the rosters remain the way they are today, I think the Preds’ defensemen and goalies have enough to finish a point ahead of the Flames over an 82-game season. The catch is that Calgary plays in that weaker division, and so their ticket to the playoffs is going to be punched only if they can have a tremendous record against Edmonton and Colorado — I’m talking something like 9-2-1 collectively. Minnesota should be better with a new coach and Heatley and Setoguchi from San Jose, but the loss of Brent Burns may hurt worse than Wild brass thinks it will.
Anaheim has that great top line, and even a second line that got things done last year, mainly thanks to Teemu Selanne, but I don’t know about their depth or the idea that if their starting goalie falls back into problems with vertigo or any other injury, they have no plan. Gone are J.S. Giguere and Ray Emery, which leaves the backup duties to Dan Ellis, who is on his third team in 16 months for good reason. The Ducks need MVP candidate seasons out of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, and can’t suffer a dip in form by Selanne or fellow elderly Finn Saku Koivu. It’s all a little much for me to believe in, and I think Anaheim takes a step back this year while their young blue line matures. The health of the organization is not in question.
Phoenix is a team that is easy to dog, since they lost their starting goalie and replaced him with Mike Smith — the man who went back and forth with Dan Ellis last year, and not because of quality play by either. Then there’s the impending move that everyone thinks is happening, which by most accounts should be to Quebec City. But the Coyotes’ skaters are actually pretty solid, and if they can put all of the off-ice stuff out of their heads, and Smith and backup Jason LaBarbera actually play well for most of the season, this team can still make the playoffs. I don’t think they will because I just don’t think they’re better than the eight teams I picked to make it, but the ‘Yotes don’t suck.
Edmonton should be exciting to watch, with all of their rookies and sophomores paired with the returning Ryan Smyth and Oiler mainstays Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff. The goalie situation is strange, as the team seems to ignore statistics and results and resist rolling Devan Dubnyk as a normal NHL starter. Much of my projecting them ahead of Colorado is dependent upon the team realizing that Dubnyk is their man and going with him for at least 52 games this year, ahead of Nikolai Khabibulin. I’ve never liked a blue line that allowed 269 goals as much as I do that of Edmonton. Once Ryan Whitney returns, he will join Tom Gilbert in playing huge minutes and forming something of a poor man’s Suter & Weber. I would have said Keith & Seabrook, but Duncan Keith doesn’t play the kind of defense that the rest of these guys do. Go ahead, mock me. He doesn’t. I watch the games.
Picking Columbus for 14th was the choice made with the least conviction. It almost seems that because the front office cares so much about winning soon that it will just happen, but I know better. The top line of Rick Nash, Jeff Carter and Vinny Prospal is sweet. They were great last night against Nashville. But the rest of the team can’t do anything, and the blue line has to deal with the absence of new hire James Wisniewski for another seven games. I’m not sure who is going to do the job in his absence, but I’m leaning toward nobody. It’s unfortunate for one of the two new hotshots to get himself suspended for 10% of the season before it even starts, but that’s what Wiz has done. You could blame him or new NHL sheriff Brendan Shanahan, but not many fifth-place teams can get better by not having its best defenseman for the first 10% of the new campaign. I’ve written about Steve Mason’s inconsistency before, and don’t wish to bury the kid. He’s got potential and a new goalie coach, so maybe that will be good enough. I’m just not sure the D men in front of him will be.
I never get tired of pointing out the flaws in the Colorado Avalanche franchise, and they start at the top. Many of it is documented, but let me just ask, why they don’t have a captain named yet? I wrote a few weeks ago about the options the team had, and the logical choice would be the one big time skater that is signed beyond this season: Paul Stastny. Well, he doesn’t have a “C” on his jersey, or at least nothing has been announced. To me, there are only two reasons the Stast Man doesn’t have the captaincy of the team. Either 1) the team wants Matt Duchene to be the face of the franchise, or 2) Stastny doesn’t want to captain the team. If it’s the latter, then that probably means that he doesn’t want to even be there, but unfortunately he’s got four years left on his contract. If it’s the former, then Duchene should already have been announced as the captain.
Could Stastny’s father’s comments on the front office destroying the team last year be lingering? Does the team want to wait to re-sign some more players before deciding on a captain? Is Erik Johnson even possibly in the mix? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I also know that the question of why Stastny isn’t the captain of the Avalanche is one that nobody else is willing to ask.
I think this team is in disarray, as evidenced by their play over the last season and a half. Everyone likes to talk about their “talent,” but I see a team that has a bunch of players who probably want the fates of their brethren Craig Anderson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Chris Stewart, Tomas Fleischmann and others: to get out. If I’m wrong, then some players will sign extensions this year. Time will tell. I don’t like what I see, although I personally do like new goalie Semyon Varlamov. I just don’t think it’s a good situation for the young Russian. We’ll see how it pans out.

The National Hockey League drops the puck on another season tonight, but all headlines will be dwarfed by news of the death of Steve Jobs at age 56.
In the spirit of an open culture, and to avoid being a hindsight oracle, here are my picks for order of finish in the eastern conference, which will be followed by a blurb, mainly meant to explain changes from my premature projections over two months ago.


Eastern Conference
  1. Washington Capitals
  2. Philadelphia Flyers
  3. Boston Bruins
  4. Pittsburgh Penguins
  5. Buffalo Sabres
  6. New York Rangers
  7. Tampa Bay Lightning
  8. Montreal Canadiens
  9. Carolina Hurricanes
  10. New York Islanders
  11. Toronto Maple Leafs
  12. New Jersey Devils
  13. Ottawa Senators
  14. Winnipeg Jets
  15. Florida Panthers
Eastern Conference Blurb:
Over the summer I took the Flyers for third in their own division. But now that I’ve seen some preseason games and had a look at all of the teams, I think Philly’s stable of defensemen is deeper than Pittsburgh’s or New York’s, especially after the Pens traded Alex Goligoski to Dallas and the Rangers are having to start the season with their best blue liner, Marc Staal, on the IR with post-concussion syndrome.
In net, I think all three Atlantic contenders are as solid as can be, with starters that can contend for awards and backups that can fill the gaps. It should be noted that Philly is weakest at backup goalie, as Sergei Bobrovsky fell off at the end of his rookie season last year, while Brent Johnson held the Penguins together at the start of last year when Marc-Andre Fleury was dealing with a serious lack of form. At MSG, Henrik Lundqvist should have the luxury of resting more this season thanks to a healthy Marty Biron, who posted a nasty 2.13 GAA before breaking his collarbone last season.
And offensively, the acquisition of Jaromir Jagr already looks like a winner. He ripped up the Rangers in a preseason game and is said to have budding chemistry with Claude Giroux, which given their physical statures might be worthy of a Rocky and Bullwinkle reference. I expect James van Riemsdyk to come good this season, and the added physical presences Wayne Simmonds and Max Talbot bring to a team that already has Scott Hartnell up front should give the Flyers enough offense to compliment their exceptional top five defensemen (Pronger, Timonen, Meszaros, Carle & Coburn) and newfound stability in net (Bryzgalov).
I think the Sabres will finish right around where everyone expects them to: second in the division and about fifth in the conference. The additions have been talked about for a while now, but I want to reiterate that I think the most important player that Buffalo will have this year that they didn’t for last year’s playoff run is a guy who was already on the team and scoring at a point-a-game pace, center Derek Roy. While everyone else fawns over Ville Leino, Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr, watch Roy closely. He has the speed and agility to be amongst the second tier of leading scorers in the league (read 80 – 90 points).
The Rangers themselves are tricky, because I want to love their growth and development together with guys like Staal, Dan Girardi, captain Callahan, Brian Boyle and all of the other, more offensively gifted forwards. On top of that, they have the goalie I believe to be the best in the world in Lundqvist. And then there’s the Brad Richards signing. But a lot of my belief that the Rangers are an up-and-coming team is dependent upon their big-minute players actually playing, and this Staal concussion thing has me skittish. We all have seen what has transpired with Sidney Crosby, and now I’m hearing the term “five-hour migraines” attached to Staal’s name. If the man is unable to play for long stretches of the season, a whole lot more will be asked of Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and new guy Tim Erixon. Although I love players with big hits and blocks totals, I did notice Girardi putting passes on the wrong side of the tape in that game against Philly over a week ago. There’s a time and a place to put the puck on a teammate’s backhand, but it’s not when their standing still with their hips squared up to you. That’s just what I saw.
Regarding the Lightning coming in seventh, I think their division is a little bit better than last year (how could it not be), and I’m also a little concerned about their depth on defense and in goal. Trading for Eric Brewer at the deadline was brilliant, and Victor Hedman should take a big step forward this year. But I don’t see the depth on this blue line that some of the other teams in the east have. I mean, Washington’s starting with a third pairing of Dennis Wideman and Mike Green. I’ve been very critical of Green in the past, but that was largely based on this assumption that he’s a great defenseman and a top-liner. Once upon a time Dennis Wideman was thought to be that very same thing with Boston. But as a team’s fifth and sixth defensemen, that’s a hell of a group, and that’s something that I don’t see with Tampa Bay in the Matt Gilroys, Brett Clarks and Bruno Gervaises of the world. But hey, what do I know?
And then there’s Montreal. I picked them eighth solely because I’m sick of telling people that I think they will fall off every September only to see them punch above their weight and get into the playoffs. And often times it doesn’t stop there, as we saw last year when they went to overtime in the seventh game against the eventual champs. Or the year before when they eliminated Washington and Pittsburgh en route to the eastern conference finals. I’m sick of picking them to miss the playoffs and looking like a moron, so I’ve got them eighth.
As far as hockey goes, the Habs have two key new faces this year in winger Erik Cole and D man Andrei Markov. I know, Markov’s not new, but he didn’t really play last year, so give me the Derek Roy Corollary here and let’s add him to what the Habs already accomplished last season. Carey Price was fantastic in net last season, and I don’t foresee a huge dropoff. On a positive note, he’s no longer backed up by Alex Auld. The downside is that he now starts in front of Peter Budaj. It seems the Habs are vehemently against the idea of allowing Price to rest for more than 12 games a season, after trading away Jaro Halak and giving Price the likes of Auld and Budaj. I think there is upside with this team, and they could go as high as probably fifth. More importantly, they are playoff tested and know what it takes to win important games. Montreal will be a tough opponent 70 times this season; in other words, the games that Price starts.
Carolina lost Cole to Montreal and didn’t really replace him, but they have a lot of young players who are supposed to be good, and the league leader in games played between the crease. While Cam Ward can be counted on to play a million minutes again this year, he (unlike Carey Price) may not have to. The Canes added Brian Boucher, who as a backup is not a bad option at all. Carolina also added Tomas Kaberle, who should help the team offensively at least. Up with Kabby are hitter/blocker extraordinaire Tim Gleason and one of the best D men in the league that nobody talks about, Joni Pitkanen. And to be clear, he’s both one of the best D men in the league and a player that nobody talks about, not just “the best of the rest.” But if I’m going to call out Tampa Bay’s defense as thin, then it would be irresponsible not to note the same caveat in this Carolina team. And this team doesn’t have the luxury of a dynamic offense like Tampa does, although Eric Staal remains one of the best centers in the NHL.
The New York hockey Islanders. This one is probably the one that will draw me the most criticism, and I understand why. Over the summer, I bashed team owner Charles Wang and said that while the team had the pieces to be good, that no group of men could succeed under that kind of leadership. Well, I studied up and put the Isles’ roster up against New Jersey’s, and I actually think there’s a good chance NYI finishes ahead of NJ. The Isles have a ton of young talent at forward, led by John Tavares, and at least “options” in net in Al Montoya, Evgeni Nabokov and Rick DiPietro. I know those three don’t inspire Stanley Cup visions, but if they can find their one good one, and it could end up being Montoya, then that would just be another problem solved for the club that has had so many in the last decade. But the two players to watch if you want to see how to positively impact hockey games from the back are newly-anointed captain Mark Streit (who, like Markov, is returning from a missed season) and huge Slovakian national Milan Jurcina. If both Streit and Jurcina can stay healthy for the most part — which it should be noted is something that neither accomplished last season — then the Isles will be so much the better for it on both ends of the ice.
And regarding the Devils, there are certainly ways that they can make the playoffs this season. Marty Brodeur could return to Vezina contending form; Zach Parise could get happy with the franchise and start inspiring his teammates to do their best Montreal impression; Ilya Kovalchuk could play two-way hockey. But ultimately I don’t like the smell coming from that direction, and Parise being on a one-year deal with the ability to become an unrestricted free agent next summer is kind of akin to granting someone a pity date. Sure, maybe the date will go amazing and the loser will raise his game and convince the hot girl to date him again, but more likely is that the date will come and go, the loser will act either defeated or desperate, and the whole thing will be a scene from a memory for the one granting the pity date. Let’s get the cast straight here — Parise is the one granting the pity date; the Devils are the ones who know this is it, now or never.
But even if Parise likes what he sees and buys into Kovalchuk as a higher paid teammate who plays the same position and plays inspired hockey, I still don’t think the Devils’ roster is very good. Aside from their two left wings and Patrik Elias, they don’t have a forward worth a damn in the NHL unless some of their entry-level guys show readiness from the beginning. I don’t even want to talk about their defense. Anton Volchenkov has to start earning his huge contract in year two with the Devils. Actually, no he doesn’t. And that might be the problem. Andy Greene is always going to be Andy Greene, and I’m tired of trying to convince myself otherwise. And then there’s the rest of them… prove me wrong Devils.
I want to buy into the Leafs, and I love their defensemen right now, but I think they’re just too weak systematically and in goal to rise up this season. The offense is alright, and Tim Connolly should give them something as the second-line center along with Phil Kessel. That is, if he doesn’t piss everyone off around him first. The real top line of MacArthur, Kulemin and Grabovski should be fine, although last year was the first time those guys did what they did, so maybe there’s a question of consistency. But the blue line is where this team is good, so logic would follow that they have to win games that way. Maybe they can with a rejuvenated Dion Phaneuf, freshly signed Luke Schenn and newly acquired J.M. Liles and Cody Franson (who incidentally is scratched for tonight’s opener). But in the end, I don’t predict the Leafs to have consistent above-average play in net, and until I can rely on that I can’t take them to the playoffs with the forwards in front of James Reimer & Jonas Gustavsson.
Ottawa should be a fun team to watch this season. Most people completely write them off, but those people don’t fully understand the beauty of Craig Anderson. I’ll keep saying this ‘til the day I die, but go back and watch Game 3 of the 2010 first round between Colorado and San Jose, all the way through the post-game if you can. If that isn’t enough, check out Craig’s first game with the Senators on February 19 of this year. It was a 1-0 win over the Maple Leafs, and it embodied what my brother and I have seen in Anderson for a few years now: the guy has an uncanny ability to win games with the game’s second-best group of skaters in front of him. That situation will present itself a lot this year, but watch what a professional does. And sure, he got his way out of Colorado, but can you blame him? Wouldn’t you do anything to get out of a burning building? Anderson did, and while noobs will compare Ottawa to Colorado negatively, I am 100% certain that Anderson is in a better situation now, and he knows it. The Sens are truly rebuilding, while Colorado sits without a captain, without hardly any players signed beyond this year, and without a whole lot of IQ points in the room. Anderson was too smart to be on the Avalanche, and the Senators are better off for it.
I really am saddened to pick Winnipeg for 14th, and I really can’t explain why I did so. They have a decent enough goalie in Ondrej Pavelec, some pretty good defensemen (at least on the offensive score sheet), forwards that should be good enough to at least compete for eighth, and one of the best home-ice advantages in the league. But I just don’t see enough there, and I think that once realignment is official, the team will start looking forward to next season in the western conference, when its travel will go from awful to just a lot. I really do like Pavelec as a starting goalie in this league, but I think his time is still coming, and the team may not be able to score enough goals to account for what I view as a less-than-stalwart defense.
And last but not least, the Florida Panthers. I think they’re trying, and I think there should be some more signings next year (at least there better be). I am a huge fan of winger David Booth, and I love what they did bringing defensemen Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski into a team that had to meet the salary cap floor. But as far as most of these forwards making $3 million or more on new contracts, I don’t think many of them are worth their weight in lead and I don’t see how the loss of goaltender Tomas Vokoun can be glossed over. Vokoun went out and killed it for an awful team. He kept to his grind and continually turned in top-level performances. Now, the Panthers are supposed to rely on Jose Theodore to get it done? Beyond him, there’s Scott Clemmensen, but he’s not even healthy, and to throw all-everything prospect Jacob Markstrom into the fire could do more harm that good, although I actually think he seems like a mentally strong kid who could handle a 3+ GAA. 
Aside from Booth and the two new D men, one player to watch closely is blue liner Erik Gudbranson. I wrote about him in my summer predictions, but the time has come to see how much he’s improved his game. The sky is the limit for this kid, and the limit for the team should rise every year. But for purposes of this year alone, I don’t see the top-level talent or the depth necessary to compete for anything beyond a double digit finish in the east.

Picks for the west are in, and post will be up before all the action really gets going this weekend.