The NHL season is upon us again and that means Canada’s GDP will drop by half a percentage point for the next few quarters.
I reckon that only a handful of teams, parity notwithstanding, have a legitimate shot at winning what many regard as the toughest trophy to win in North American sports – the Stanley Cup. The big question this year is whether we will see the free-wheeling NHL we saw in the year following the lock-out or a return to defensive and physical hockey that marked the league prior to it.
I’m not one much for prognostications – seriously, how can anyone really know? Yet, here are some thoughts on selected teams that are garnering attention.
Let’s begin with the defending champs Anaheim Ducks: This just in: There are no plans to change their name to the Los Angeles Ducks of Anaheim. Even with the loss of youngster Dustin Penner, and veteran quacks Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne – the Ducks are legitimate favorites to repeat. Brian Burke is a slick GM who would fit right in as cast member of Law & Order and Randy Carlyle – a former Norris trophy winner – is a good coach. On that note, will the Ducks do as so many teams in the modern sports era and not make the playoffs after winning or reaching a final? Or will they be the first team to win back to back Cups since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings?
Let’s follow them with the finalists the Ottawa Senators: Last year was finally a breakthrough year for the Senators. Interestingly, they achieved this with arguably less talent than previous Senators editions and with an unproven goalie to boot – or skate. Whatever. They also reached the Stanley Cup final with their top defenseman, Wade Redden having an off year. Look for the silky, smooth Jason Spezza to be even more of an offensive threat this year. Hail, Caesar! Or is it Hail, Stephen Harper?
Never mind the bollocks, the Pittsburgh Penguins are hogging all the attention for this season. Sidney Crosby this, Evgeni Malkin that. Jordan Stall this, Ryan Whitney that. Rick Kehoe this…enough of that. While they are still a work in progress, the Pens are a “dynasty” in the making (a dynasty to the extent the salary cap era will allow it). If they are not a dynasty, they are a definite Stanley Cup contender.
Other Legitimate contenders? Hmm, how about the San Jose Sharks? They don’t quite have the level of grit needed but if they find their edge watch out. TheTampa Bay Lightning are too talented to ignore but easily forgettable for some reason, the Calgary Flames (assuming head coach Mike Keenan doesn’t lose his last marble and trade goalie Mikka Kiprusoff– remember Roberto Luongo? Anyone?), and New York Rangers are also teams to be wary of.
In the "who knows?" corner, we bring you the Philadelphia Flyers: Yeah, they made a big splash in the off season but will it be enough? Simon Gagne is the new face of Philadelphia Flyers hockey and he’s prettier than Bobby Clarke. More importantly, can Martin Biron become Philly’s first stable goalie since Ron Hextall? The Detroit Red Wings remain a power but the team has looked for an identity since the retirement of legend Steve Yzerman. Talent or coaching is not the issue in Hockeytown: it’s the age and lack of grit. The Buffalo Sabres, hockey’s version of the Oakland A’s, lost the bulk of their scoring and leadership in Daniel Briere and Chris Drury in the off season. However, they never cease to surprise. Lindy Ruff is an elite NHL coach – with a soft spot for conspiracy theories – and there’s enough depth on this team to for someone to step up.
Most likely to rebound? Try the Carolina Hurricanes who did the no-show thing last season after winning the Stanley Cup in 2005-2006. Eric Staal’s dramatic drop off in points from 100 to 70 and Cam Ward’s dip from his playoff form in the nets was a symptom of all that went wrong for them. Now they have a fresh start.
Don’t forget: the Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars. Both are disciplined, diligent and tenacious machines. Wild head coach Jacques Lemaire is the hidden coaching gem in the NHL.
On the rise: Los Angeles Kings: Lotsa young talent to get excited about in LA. Question: Are they ready for the San Fernando valley or Beverly Hills? Colorado Avalanche: There’s a new deputy in Denver and his name is Paul Stastny – son of the great Petr. It’s always a nice thing to have a legend like Joe Sakic to help guide things along. Chicago Blackhawks: Things-are-a-changin’ in Chicago. The fiercely unpopular owner Bill Wirtz has passed away and for many this is a metaphor for better things to come. Maybe even local television blackouts may be lifted. Doormats, the St. Louis Blues may no longer be. A consistently successful franchise with a strong fan base, the Blues have fallen on hard times in recent years. They have reloaded and boast a solid core of youth and experience. While we’re at it, the Washington Capitals may be better than people think.
Don’t under rate: New Jersey Devils. New Jersey has been the most consistent and successful club in hockey since 1995 when they won their first cup. Led by the mad genius, Lou Lamoriello they have won the cup three times and earned four trips to the finals in 12 seasons. Don’t count ’em out even with the loss of Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski. If Lou-Lou doesn’t pull the rug from under him, new head coach Brent Sutter can make a difference.
How can we leave out the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens? The short of it is that there are too many “ifs” surrounding these two classic clubs.
The Habs, however, have a better nucleus of talent to look forward too. The most successful of all hockey franchises the “Dynasty” has fallen on hard times in recent years. But the youth movement is alive and well once again. The problem with Montreal is off the ice with excessive expectations and a parochial and hyperbolic media that seems to have a negative effect on the team. The treatment of classy, but utterly dry, captain, Saku Koivu has been nothing short of spectacularly mean-spirited.
The Leafs for their part have some positives here and there. What they miss in talent, they make up on physical play – something the Habs sorely lack. Where they can’t make miracles is with their lack of speed. Does Mats Sundin deserve better? And what to make of the Boston Bruins? Your guess is as good as ours. Good talent yet there’s something missing. Anyway, with the New England Patriots playing like they are and the Red Sox in the baseball playoffs, Boston fans may be willing to shrug at the Bruins until they get it together.
As for the rest, Columbus Blue Jackets (starring dead weight maestro Nikolai Zherdev), Florida Panthers (gotta like Ollie Jokinen's name), Edmonton Oilers (they'll always have the mall), Atlanta Thrashers (I would change the name to 'Wedding Crashers'), Nashville Predators (who are more like prey these days given the ownership problems), New York Islanders (back at the bottom you go), Phoenix Coyotes (this pack is young and needs to learn how to hunt) and Vancouver "Roberto Luongo" Canucks, don’t take it personally, there’s just not enough space to insert everyone.