(1) Vancouver Canucks: An excellent balance of experience and youth, with many core players entering their prime. The Swedish Choir surprises me time and time again with its ability to survive in the Western Conference. An excellent season last year, some key defensive additions, and the insertion of some valuable role players will earn the Canucks 50+ wins this season. Above all, this team is no fun to play against.
(2) San Jose Sharks: Improvement in the goaltending position, coupled with the best line in hockey will take this team to the top tier once again. The Sharks will play 82 games worth of additional preseason, and will be judged solely on what takes place from April onwards.
(3) Chicago Blackhawks: I applaud Stan Bowman for his restructuring of this team through the offseason. Forced to cut bait with several key depth players, Bowman simply went out and replaced these positions with even more youthful energy. The core will continue to dominate, and the likes of Pisani, Stahlberg and Kopecky will exceed expectations in depth positions. Most importantly, the addition of Turco will actually prove to be an upgrade.
(4) Detroit Red Wings: Detroit made the playoffs last season despite a wave of injuries last season, illustrating the stability of its puck-possession system. If the team can stay healthy this season, the Wings will continue to roll. Need I explain further?
(5) St Louis Blues: Young gifted forwards, a mix of experience and skilful youth on the blue line, and a playoff hero between the pipes will prepare St Louis for a break-out season.
(6) Los Angeles Kings: Much like St Louis, the youth in LA is ready to take a step forward. Unlike many teams in the league, one year of aging is actually a positive for this team. Both the high-end skill (Kopitar, Doughty, Brown) and the role players (Stoll, Simmonds, Smyth) will build on a solid 09/10 campaign.
(7) Phoenix Coyotes: The team’s overall depth is weak, but very willing to do what it takes to win. Bryzgalov will continue to improve, and the team’s established system will continue to stifle the opposition. Tough to expect an encore from last season, but the Coyotes will grind out some important wins. Most importantly, Dave Tippett could coach a PeeWee team into the NHL playoffs, so all is well in Phoenix. Oh yeah, except the ongoing ownership issues.
(8) Calgary Flames: Okay, I’m biased. While aging, I feel this team has too many solid veterans to miss the playoffs. Kiprusoff will be reliable, the defensive core will remain consistent, and offensive components (Jokinen, Iginla, Tanguay, Bouwmeester) can only improve on career worsts last season. By no means will the Flames take the West by storm, but the team can only improve on an underachieving 09/10 season.
Some bolder predictions in the East:
(1) Philadelphia Flyers: a fantastic combination of skill and grit. One area of concern is goaltending, but that concern is shared by half of the league, and the Leighton-Boucher tandem will bring out the best of both goalies. The shut-down defensive core will remain solid, and the Flyers offense will sit top 10 in goals for.
(2) Boston Bruins: The energy of Tyler Seguin, the skills of Nathan Horton on the top line, and the growth of Tuukka Rask will bring this team to the top of the Northeast Division. The Bruins boast solid depth of playmaking centermen, as well as solid secondary scoring potential. In addition, Chara and his cannon of a slapshot are in a contract year. Should be a great season in Boston.
(3) Washington Capitals: While less dominant, the team will remain a top offensive power in the league, and the goals against totals will be unimpressive yet again. Let the 6-5 wins continue in D.C.
(4) New Jersey Devils: Ridiculous contracts intact, New Jersey will build on its consistent performances – only in a slightly different way. With greater emphasis on offense, and a contract year for Parise, the Devils will remain in the top half of the Eastern Conference.
(5) Pittsburgh Penguins: The team got younger by letting Gonchar walk, and bringing in solid defensive pieces in Martin and Michalek. That guy Sidney Crosby is on the team, but Fleury will continue his inconsistency between the pipes, and Mike Comrie will not fill the void of the injured Jordan Staal. Look for this team to hit the highlight reels once again, but perhaps lose its ‘contender’ title – for now, anyway.
(6) Tampa Bay Lightning: Thanks to a bounce-back year for Lecavalier, and some clever moves by Yzerman, the top-six forward group in TB will be scary. Accompanied by the addition of some key role players and more consistency between the pipes, Tampa is set to have a solid year.
(7) Atlanta Thrashers: Is anyone surprised? I hope not, because thanks to an active offseason, this team has a ton of young offensive potential. With components from the Kovalchuk deal and half the roster from the cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks, Atlanta’s offense will bring a nice combination of skill and grit. I see the Thrashers as being this year’s version of the Colorado Avalanche. In addition to a young offense, improved consistency in net and a solid top 4 on the blue line (Bogosian, Enstrom, Hainsey, Oduya), the Thrashers will bring a level of stability never before seen in Atlanta.
(8) Toronto Maple Leafs: Thank goodness for “truculence.” While this team can be an absolute circus, the Leafs now boast a very solid blueline, and capable goaltending from two sources that do not include Vesa Toskala. This team is young and fast up front, and have added some much-needed offensive potential in the past year (Kessel, Versteeg, McArthur) along with some solid two-way options (Armstrong, Caputi, Bozak). Most importantly, this team will be tough to play against, rather than the push-over Leafs of the recent past. Once Ron Wilson is fired in early December, this team will turn it around and make the playoffs on a late surge. I think the team is poised to turn some heads, and I’m not even a Leafs fan.
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