Monday, December 31, 2007

Midseason awards

With half the 2007-08 NHL season over, it's time to hand out first-half awards. In terms of statistical distinctions, Vincent Lecavalier is the first-half Art Ross Trophy champion, Ilya Kovalchuk is our half-year Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy winner and Chris Osgood and Dominik Hasek share the William Jennings Trophy through half the season. Now, my picks for the more interesting trophies:

Hart Trophy -- Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit. This season more than ever, the Hart Trophy is a decidedly difficult pick. Players that have been some of the brighter lights this season (Vincent Lecavalier, Ilya Kovalchuk) are tearing it up for teams out of playoff position, while the likes of Sidney Crosby and Jarome Iginla are playing well, albeit for clubs struggling to claw their way to eighth place. In such a scenario, the primary option is to choose the best player on the best team, and that's Lidstrom. The ageless wonder for the dominant, first-place Red Wings proved on a recent road stretch more than ever why he's so invaluable: despite injuries to key forwards Henrik Zetterberg and Tomas Holmstrom, the Wings continued to run up the score against solid opposition, largely thanks to Lidstrom. With a gorgeous +29 that leads all defensemen in the NHL, Lidstrom is on pace for an impressive 75 points along with his usual share of rock-solid defense. On a mesmerizing team loaded with stars, Lidstrom, at least through the first half of the season, has been the standout. Runners-up: Dany Heatley, Ottawa; Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit.

Vezina Trophy -- Evgeni Nabokov, San Jose. It's been 38 games, 38 starts for the Russian netminder. On a grossly underachieving Sharks team, Nabokov has, many nights, been the lone bright spot, bailing the team out with key saves and being an integral cog in the Sharks' second-ranked penalty kill. And with a fairly nondescript defense corps, it's Nabokov who deserves most of the credit for San Jose's 87 goals against, second least in the NHL. After a few years of sharing his crease with Vesa Toskala, Nabokov has thrived in the Finn's absence with play reminiscent of ex-Shark netminder Miikka Kiprusoff's Vezina season with the Flames two years ago. Runners-up: Henrik Lundqvist, NY Rangers; Roberto Luongo, Vancouver; Pascal Leclaire, Columbus.

Norris Trophy -- Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit. After picking Lidstrom for the Hart Trophy, it's hard to justify giving the Norris to anyone else. For many of the same reasons I believe Nick to be the league MVP through the first half, he has also been the most outstanding defenseman, but not without competition. Sergei Zubov is enjoying a career rejuvenation with the overachieving Stars, while Chris Phillips has quietly been a big reason why Ottawa leads the Eastern Conference. Runners-up: Sergei Zubov, Dallas; Chris Phillips, Ottawa.

Lester B. Pearson Award -- Ilya Kovalchuk, Atlanta. While the Pearson tends to be misinterpreted as league MVP as voted on by the players, the actual criteria is the league's most outstanding player. And noone has been more outstanding than Ilya Kovalchuk. With 32 goals in 39 games, Kovalchuk is on pace to become the league's first 60-goal scorer since Mario Lemieux pulled it off eleven years ago. Runners-up: Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay; Jarome Iginla, Calgary.

Selke Trophy -- Sami Pahlsson, Anaheim. As difficult as it is to quantify a good defensive forward, Pahlsson is easily the best in the game. He was robbed of a Selke (and arguably a Conn Smythe) last year, and after getting a close-up look at his play during the Sharks' recent three-game mini-series against the Ducks in which he kept Thornton completely off the scoresheet, I'm confident, at least through the season's first half, Pahlsson deserves the Selke this year. Runners-up: Patrick Sharp, Chicago; Mike Fisher, Ottawa.

Lady Byng Trophy -- Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit. With just 18 penalty minutes on the season as a defenseman along with his usual role as ambassador for the game, Lidstrom, through one-half of the season, is the frontrunner for what has unfortunately come to be known as hockey's least desirable award. Runners-up: Daniel Alfredsson, Ottawa; Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit.

Calder Trophy -- Patrick Kane, Chicago. It's quite likely that the influx of rookie talent in the NHL the last few years is unparalleled by any such advent of talent in league history. This year's rookie class is just as distinguished, headline by the deadly duo of rookies leading the resurgence in Chicago. Although Toews will likely be more of an impact player in the future, Kane has torn it up this season, scoring 36 points in 37 games, tops among rookies. While Kane has been the top rookie through the first half of the season, Toews, Atlanta's Tobias Enstrom, Washington's Nicklas Backstrom and Montreal's Carey Price have all staked their claims to the Calder Trophy as well, which sould make for an intriguing race down the stretch. Runners-up: Jonathan Toews, Chicago; Tobias Enstrom, Atlanta.

Jack Adams Award -- Mike Babcock, Detroit. After losing their entire second line along with defenseman Mathieu Schneider to free agency and beginning the season with an injury to goaltender Dominik Hasek, not many in the hockey world could have predicted that the Red Wings, halfway through the season, would have a stranglehold on the top spot in the West. While Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk certainly have been big parts of that, Mike Babcock is most deserving of the Jack Adams at this point of the season for his terrific work behind the bench in Detroit. Runners-up: Andy Murray, St. Louis; Claude Julien, Boston.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sharks Gameday: Third Time's the Charm?

I'm not too keen on game-day posts, but the Sharks' third and final matchup against the Anaheim Ducks in a week is shaping up to be the biggest of all on many different levels. The Sharks held a two-hour players-only meeting yesterday, no doubt to discuss the team's failures in the late stages of Thursday's debacle against Phoenix in which the Sharks gave up a tying goal with less than a minute to play on a shot by Shane Doan eerily reminiscent of the goal scored by former Red Wing Robert Lang last Spring to tie Game 4 in San Jose and turn the tide against the Sharks.

Earlier on in the season, many of the Sharks' defeats were due to the opposition lulling San Jose into a false sense of security, then pouncing for a goal or two and quickly tightening up the defense. While this method is still being employed against San Jose, as evidenced by the last meeting between the Ducks and Sharks Tuesday night, the Sharks now find themselves losing games in which they simply did not demonstrate a will to win, a trend that began two weeks ago against the Buffalo Sabres, continued last week against Dallas and recurred Thursday against the Coyotes. Simply wanting the victory isn't going to cut it against an upper echelon team like the Ducks, but it's certainly a good start.

But what the Sharks really need to beat this Anaheim team is production. Through four games this season against their Southern California rivals, the Sharks have potted a measly five goals (with one of them a shootout winner), a far cry from last season's total of eleven goals in their first four meetings against Anaheim. Their lack of secondary scoring has been their primary problem all season long, with Patrick Marleau turning invisible and Jonathan Cheechoo dogged by injuries, but uber-checker Sami Pahlsson has negated the Sharks' only overall form of putting the puck in the net: Joe Thornton. Tuesday night, at even strength alone, Pahlsson was on the ice for 11:30 of Thornton's 13:03 total 5-on-5 icetime. It is inexcusable that, despite having last change as the home team, Thornton spends that much time on the ice and that's decidedly a coaching problem. If Wilson can shield Thornton from Pahlsson's line and the recent line changes, which include a reuniting of the famed Michalek--Marleau--Bernier line, can finally create some secondary scoring, then I think the Sharks should have a good chance to win this one. If not, I think it's time for Ron and/or Doug Wilson to shake things up in order to inject some life back into this team before it's too late.

Photo: PJ Swenson, Sharkspage

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Live-bloggin': Sharks @ Anaheim, 12/16

So I'll be live-blogging tonight's game between the Sharks and Ducks, a contest mostly notable for Scott Niedermayer's 2006-07 debut. Doug Weight, whose acquisition from St. Louis in exchange for Andy McDonald on Friday was instrumental in freeing up tagging space for Niedermayer's return, is also slated to make his Ducks debut. The Sharks, meanwhile, are coming off a wildly entertaining, yet eventually dissapointing loss to Dallas, leaving them two points behind the Division-leading Stars, but with two games in hand. Almost every game between San Jose and Anaheim over the last year or so have had playoff-level atmosphere and with so many additional storylines in play tonight, this should really be a good one.

4:56 FSN Bay Area has opted to run "Best Damn Sports Show" re-runs in lieu of any form of pre-game show, so I suppose I'll share some insight before the game. Doug Wilson is indisputably one of the smartest general managers in the NHL, but the contract extension he handed Matt Carle last month is one he will likely live to regret. Carle has been spending the last week or so largely in the press box and when he does get into the action, like yesterday, he has been atrocious. Now sophomore slumps are far from uncommon, but Wilson's decision to extend Carle far before he even became an RFA seems questionable nonetheless. We'll see how the rest of the season plays out for him, but I believe this deal will shape up as one of the few low-lights in Wilson's managerial career.

5:03 Randy and Drew talk about the ridiculousness of the Ducks' defense. Mike Chen had a post earlier this week comparing the Ducks' top three of Chris Pronger, Niedermayer and Mathieu Schneider to the Avs defense of yore, which boasted Ray Bourque, Rob Blake and Adam Foote and that's certainly a fair comparison, but in my opinion, Anaheim's blueline is superior, especially when factoring in Francois Beauchemin and underrated stay-at-homer Sean O'Donnell. We'll get a first-ever look at this unit tonight. I'd assume Randy Carlyle would re-unite Beauchemin with Niedermayer, and allow Pronger a more stay-at-home role if paired with Schneider, but we'll see.

5:08 Nabokov will be making his 32nd straight start. 50 more to go, Nabby!

5:09 Apparently Ron Wilson reads this blog as Carle is a healthy scratch.

5:10 Nabokov's play with the puck early has been precarious. The Sharks are lucky Nabby's turnover to Corey Perry didn't result in something more significant.

5:13 Whereas the Sharks started with tremendous intensity and reckless abandon last game, it's been dump-and-chase hockey thus far in this one.

5:14 Alert the media! George Parros has shaved the mullet! I repeat, Parros is sans mullet! The stash is apparently still there, however.

5:15 Mathieu Schneider apparently still thinks he's in Detroit, attempting to play caroms off the board every other shift.

5:21 Goc has been looking far more like a former first-rounder in the last few games, centering a line with Patrick Marleau and Steve Bernier.

5:22 The most penalized team in the NHL will be heading back to the penalty box and the Sharks get their first power play of the night.

5:23 Michalek slashes Chris Pronger and that's the end of that man advantage.

5:27 Shane Hnidy gets owned by Rob Davison.

5:29 After the Sharks get a slew of chances in close on Giguere, Weight throws it to Bobby Ryan and it's 1-0 Anaheim.

5:30 Randy Hahn isn't having one of his better games at the booth. After referring to a Sharks' 4-on-4 chance as shorthanded and calling Steve Bernier Sandis Ozolinsh, Hahn used "A Ryane Clowe goal puts the Ducks up 1-0" as a segway into a commerical break.

5:32 These wireless poll questions are getting tiring. Tonight's asks a Sharks fan-dominated audience who will win the Pacific.

5:33 Sharks get their second power-play of the night with a great chance to tie the game.

5:36 A failure to get to the front of the net (or "penetrate the box" as Remenda puts it) renders the Sharks largely listless, but it looks like they'll get another chance with Corey Perry headed to the box.

5:38 Well, this is bullshit. Perry punches McLaren on the Sharks bench and somehow Sandis Ozolinsh ends up with the penalty. Insane.

5:41 Michalek is tripped up on a breakaway and is awarded a penalty shot.

5:42 A pathetic excuse for a penalty shot attempt by Michalek is stopped by Giguere but the Sharks will get their fourth power play of the period on a subsequent play.

5:44 The bulk of the man-advantage time, however, will come in the second period as the first period ends with the Ducks holding a 1-0 lead. The Sharks didn't show much semblance of the urgency that was their MO against Dallas, but they limited the Ducks to very few scoring chances.

6:02 Second period about to get underway and the Sharks will start with about 1:51 of power play time. This would be an opportune moment for the Sharks to get on the board.

6:05 Another horrible power play that generates far more chances for Anaheim than San Jose.

6:07 Ducks showing terrific jump in the second period and have dominated San Jose. The Sharks need to start getting bodies to the net rather than the incessant dump-in strategy RW seems to be employing.

6:09 Michalek takes a high-sticking penalty and the Ducks' power play is back on the ice.

6:11 SCOOOOOOREEEEE!!! Torrey Mitchell with a beautiful highlight-reel goal. Mitchell is shaping up to be a Duck-killer with three goals in three career games against Anaheim, this one coming shorthanded. It's 1-1.

Bertuzzi gets called for holding to neutralize the remainder of the Ducks' power play.

6:15 Sharks' power play has looked even more futile than usual tonight, but it looks like they'll get a brief 5-on-3 here.

6:20 The Sharks had their chances, but came up empty on the double minor to Marchant.

6:22 For not having played for the Ducks before tonight, Doug Weight is developing tremendous chemistry with Bobby Ryan and Todd Bertuzzi.

6:33 Kyle McLaren and Corey Perry, who have been going at it all night, threaten to drop the gloves, with Travis Moen coming in for Anaheim and Evgeni Nabokov inexplicably throwing a punch or two at Perry. Suffice to say, things are starting to heat up.

6:37 Sharks end up with a power play after all that, which will carry over to the third period. Overall, a solid second period for San Jose, although they weren't able to generate many more chances than the Mitchell goal. It stays 1-1 heading into the third.

6:55 Sharks get a Craig Rivet shot to the net early on the power play but are having more setup trouble.

7:00 The Sharks have certainly shown more jump in the third period, but it's been fruitless so far.

7:06 Bernier with a near-breakaway, but the Sharks forward opts to curl back at the blueline rather inexplicably.

7:13 Scott Niedermayer will take a trip to the penalty box after hooking Milan Michalek and the Sharks' listless power play will take the ice for a sixth time.

7:16 A much better looking power play yields solid chances by Milan Michalek and Joe Pavelski.

7:19 What was arguably the best Sharks power play of the night ended without a goal, but it looks like they'll be going back on the man advantage.

7:22 Apparently it's the Ducks who will be going on the power play, but their man advantage has been equally fruitless tonight.

7:28 For the third consecutive Sharks-Ducks contest, we'll go to overtime as Nabokov overturned a flurry of Ducks chances late in regulation. The Sharks looked to have some momentum generating directly preceding that final push by Anaheim, but this is decidedly a poor outcome for the Sharks, who, with the exception of a shootout win in Dallas earlier this season, have been futile in games that go to the extra period.

7:31 Both teams with great chances early in overtime, but both goalies have stood strong thus far.

7:36 Horrible play by the Sharks late in overtime and they'll like be punished with a shootout loss. If I'm Ron Wilson, I go completely off the charts with something like Rob Davison, Torrey Mitchell and Steve Bernier. The usual fare of Patrick Marleau, Milan Michalek et al has not even remotely cut it this season. We'll see what RW does.

7:40 Todd Bertuzzi will shoot first for Anaheim. A beastly backhand puts the Ducks up 1-0 in the shootout.

7:41 Torrey Mitchell fails to respond for the Sharks and the Ducks have a chance to take a stranglehold on this shootout.

7:42 Doug Weight is stoned by Evgeni Nabokov and it stays 1-0.

7:43 JoePa goes five-hole and it's 1-1.

7:43 Ryan Getzlaf hits the post and the Sharks can win on a goal by Setoguchi.

7:43 Giguere makes the save to prolong the shootout.

7:44 Corey Perry with a great goal cutting wide initially and the Ducks take a 2-1 lead.

7:44 MARLEAU! And the Sharks tie the shootout 2-2.

7:45 Bobby Ryan's shot goes a country mile wide.

7:45 Rissmiller stopped on his first career shootout attempt.

7:45 Chris Kunitz shoots the puck wide once again.

7:46 BIG JOE!!!! And the Sharks win a game that they performed rather underwhelmingly in. Definitely a huge win for the Sharks. It pulls them back into a tie with Dallas for the division lead with the chance to build a lead upon the Stars when the Ducks visit San Jose on Tuesday. It certainly wasn't an all-around great effort, but the Sharks got it done and win just their second shootout of the season.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

When is less more?

In case you weren't aware, scoring is down in the NHL for a second straight season.

Both the blogosphere and MSM outlets alike are abuzz with apocalyptic predictions in response to a recent press release from the league citing a decline in goal-scoring. Suggestions to rectify this ostensibly grave threat to hockey as we know it have ranged from a reversion to wooden sticks to the advent of larger nets to a seeding system rewarding offensive teams.

But precious few have espoused the idea that lower-scoring games aren't necessarily a bad thing. Sure, nobody wants to see a league littered with impersonations of the New Jersey Devils circa 1995 but, at the same time, a grind-it-out chess match can sometimes be as thrilling, if not more so, than a 6-5 shootout.

Of course, this viewpoint is largely based on rudimentary analysis combined with my own conjecture -- there is no statistical way to gauge the decidedly subjective "excitement level" of a particular hockey game. But take, for example, Game 2 of last year's Stanley Cup Finals between Ottawa and Anaheim. Easily one of the more exciting games I've seen, yet the contest's final score was 1-0. This once again brings us back to the argument that scoring chances and the overall flow to a particular game are more integral facets of a game's excitement than the amount of pucks that cross the goal line.

So while Gary Bettman may be convinced that the only way for the league to make an impact in the American television market is to increase scoring, a sentiment apparently shared by many in the hockey world in light of the myriad complaints and suggestions stemming from the aforementioned press release, it's really the level of fluidity present in the product that establishes a hockey game as exciting. For the most part, and once again this is just my observation, games continue to maintain some semblance of flow.

However, I'm far from optimistic as the growing predominance of zone defense in the league is, as Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff put it, "killing the game." Many individuals in the hockey media are beginning to describe the play this season as similar to the pre-lockout days, and that's at least somewhat true. But aggregate goals scored is not that accurate of a measuring stick to determine the decline in excitement of the game, as evident in the fact that lower-scoring contests can sometimes be as enthralling as their scoreboard-friendly counterparts.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Brett Hull to replace Armstrong as Stars GM

Brett Hull, scorer of the biggest (and most controversial) goal in Dallas Stars history, along with some dude named Les Jackson, were named Interim Co-General Managers of the Stars earlier today in the wake of Doug Armstrong's dismissal as Dallas GM. Yeah, a 7-7-2 start is nothing to write home about, but I don't think anyone expected this year's Stars to be any more than a bubble team. This roster certainly doesn't hold a candle to the Dallas teams of yore, which consisted of guys like Hull, Joe Nieuwendyk, Jason Arnott and Bill Guerin.

Obviously, Armstrong and his scouting staff haven't exactly been magicians at the draft table. Since 2002 when Armstrong ascended the helm, Dallas' first-round selections have been Martin Vagner, Mark Fistric, Matt Niskanen and Ivan Vishnevskiy, a groupfrom which only Niskanen has played in the NHL. And it's true that much of the Stars' success during Armstrong's tenure can be attributed to former GM Bob Gainey. But it's still fairly puzzling that a GM who has overseen two division titles during his tenure is fired with the season underway. Yes, the team hasn't won a playoff series in over four years, but if that's the purpose of this firing, you'd think the Stars would have pulled the plug following Dallas' first-round defeat at the hands of the Canucks last April. And, yes, Armstrong was dormant during the off-season, but Stars president stated in a Summer press release that the decision not to make any big-ticket signings was intentional, so that can't be the reason.

Regardless, the Brett Hull era begins tomorrow night in Dallas and the Sharks will be there attempting to build on the momentum generated from their 5-0 drubbing of the Coyotes at home Monday night.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Four Sharks on All-Star Ballot

The NHL today released a list of players on the 2007-08 NHL All-Star Fan Ballot, a process which will commence November 13th and allow fans to electronically select starting lineups for both the Eastern and Western Conference All-Star squads from both the 104-man released ballot and a pool of write-in candidates.

The Sharks were well-represented on the Ballot, with Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Cheechoo and Evgeni Nabokov all eligible to be selected for the All-Star Game starting lineup, a season after Thornton, Marleau and Cheechoo played in the game, with Thornton and Cheechoo being voted onto the starting lineup.

As things stand now, I would pick Rick Nash, Henrik Zetterberg, Jarome Iginla, Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Zubov and Pascal Leclaire in the West, with Ilya Kovalchuk, Sidney Crosby, Daniel Alfredsson, Andrei Markov, Brian Campbell and Henrik Lundqvist out East.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Sharks 3, Kings 1

Maddeningly inconsistent as of late, the Sharks were finally able to pull together a 60-minute effort, defeating the Los Angeles Kings in the second game of a home-and-home against LA, after dropping game one 5-2 at home. The Sharks are once again establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with on the road. Their six wins away from San Jose are tied with the Red Wings for the league lead. However, their pattern of turning in lackluster efforts at the Tank seems to have carried on from last season as well, as their lone home win is matched in futility only by the Thrashers, Canucks and Coyotes.

Still, the Sharks have reclaimed the Pacific Division lead after briefly relinquishing it to the Kings following Friday night's loss. However, with a measly three points separating the Sharks from the fifth-place Coyotes, the month of November, in which San Jose will play 11 games against divisional opponents, may be the defining portion of the season for the entire Pacific.

As for Saturday night's win, a strong shift late in the third period by the struggling Jonathan Cheechoo, in which the Sharks forward blocked an Alexander Frolov shot, then advanced the puck up ice before one-timing a pass from Joe Thornton capped a solid 3-1 victory over San Jose's rivals to the south. Jeremy Roenick was also able to stick one to his former team, netting his 499th career goal in the second period, which proved to be the game-winner. Speaking of players exacting revenge on their ex-teams, former Shark Brad Stuart scored the lone Los Angeles goal, which tied the game in the first after Joe Pavelski gave San Jose a 1-0 lead with his power-play goal.

Friday, November 2, 2007

It's official: Sharks sign Ozolinsh

We all knew it was coming. Ever since Doug Wilson signed defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh (whose play can most flatteringly be described as "high-event") to a tryout contract in the preseason, it was apparent that the former Shark would inevitably make a return in teal.

It appears the inevitable has become reality, as the San Jose Sharks are reporting that Ozolinsh has signed a one-year contract with the team. Terms were not disclosed, but it's doubtful the salary is anywhere above league-minimum. This move, much like the Roenick signing, would be completely out of left field if not for the fact that we've known about the tryout contract for a while now. Douglas Murray and Rob Davison have been doing a fine job tying up the sixth defensive spot and in terms of offense from defense, the Sharks lead the league in that category a week ago.

While Matt Carle is enduring somewhat of a slump offensively, at least compared to his magnificent start last season, there really is no need (or room, for that matter) for Ozolinsh on this roster, but according to David Pollak, Ron Wilson is on record saying that the Latvian blueliner will start tonight against the Kings.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Setoguchi, Kaspar to debut against Stars

With Ryane Clowe and Rob Davison on injured reserve, two former San Jose first-round picks, Devin Setoguchi (8th overall in 2005) and Lukas Kaspar (22nd overall in 2004), will make their NHL debuts Monday night, when Dallas hosts the Sharks, reports David Pollak.

Setoguchi finished third in NHL preseason goal scoring, compiling five goals and seven points in six preseason games for the Sharks, but a leg injury prevented him from starting the season on the active roster, allowing him to rehabilitate in the AHL. In six preseason games, Kaspar regsitered four assists, good for second on the team, and eleven shots on goal. In 160 career games for the Worcester franchise, Kaspar has scored 27 goals and 51 assists for 78 points. Setoguchi has been held off the scoresheet in three games for Worcester this season, but in 255 career WHL games for Saskatoon and Prince George, has scored 118 goals and 125 assists for 243 points, along with 19 goals and 14 assists in 29 playoff games.

But enough statistics. Setoguchi and Kaspar are obviously being counted on to jump start what has been a tepid offense the last two games for the Sharks, with Kaspar likely to flank Patrick Marleau and Steve Bernier on the team's second line and Setoguchi to play right wing on the third line with Patrick Rissmiller and the team's other rookie, Torrey Mitchell. While Kaspar's offensive statistics are fairly underwhelming for a first-round draft pick, he has developed into an all-rounded two-way player in the AHL and will likely be counted on to bring speed and defensive conscience to Marleau's line and, with Mike Grier continuing to nurse a groin injury, may see some time on the penalty kill. Setoguchi developed considerable chemistry playing with Mitchell in the preseason and having the speedy center as his pivot once again should help Setoguchi adjust to the NHL.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Blue Jackets 2, Sharks 1

It has gotten to the point where "It's early" is no longer a palatable excuse.

The Sharks have suffered a weekend from hell with losses to Detroit and, earlier today, the Blue Jackets. The consecutive losses mark the Sharks' first losing streak of the season and serve to further underscore how dissapointing this young season has been, with San Jose having compiled a mediocre 5-5-1 record through 11 games. Perhaps most embarassing is the fact that the Sharks hit the net just 28 times in their back-to-back defeats.

To give credit where credit is due, however, the Blue Jackets definitely look like a team on the upswing with a legitimate chance to qualify for their first ever postseason berth. They have thoroughly bought in to Ken Hitchcock's conservative system and Rick Nash looks more like a superstar now than he did when he lead the league in goals during the 03-04 campaign.

Of course, that isn't to make excuses for the Sharks' lackluster play against Columbus. The supposedly high-powered offense is teetering precariously on the brink of anemic, with Patrick Marleau and Jonathan Cheechoo continuing to make as much of an impact on the scoresheet as Ron Wilson. And speaking of Wilson, the Sharks coach's constant shuffling of lines, as noted in a previous entry, seems to be compounding the Sharks' problems. With Dallas and Los Angeles winning tonight, the Sharks fall to third in the Pacific Division, well out of playoff positioning and Monday's tilt against the Stars has become as close to a must-win as it gets in October. Evgeni Nabokov, who had another excellent game against the Jackets, highlighted by a larcenous stop on David Vyborny, has been the team's lone bright spot and the reason the embarassing losses to Detroit and Columbus weren't downright humilating.

It's true that we have yet to approach Halloween, but with the Sharks' season quickly coming off the tracks, it's safe to say that it can no longer be considered "early."

Red Wings 5, Sharks 1


The Sharks were utterly dominated last night, there really is no other way to put it. Alexei Semenov's late goal salvaged the shutout, but for all intents and purposes, this loss was every bit as bad as last December's 8-0 drubbing at the hands of the Coyotes, which has now become the gold standard for Sharks futility.

It's true that, due to flight delay, the team hadn't taken the ice in four days, but even exiting from a decade-long hibernation would have been no excuse for the effort (or, more accurately, lack thereof) the Sharks put up last night. They were thoroughly obliterated by a team that just seemed to want the win more. Ron Wilson can shuffle the lines as much as he damn pleases, but I honestly don't think it's going to change a thing. Simply slapping players on different units not only fails to combat the team's primary problem, the lack of a will to win, but it may actually be counterproductive as, through ten games, no one has been able to generate any semblance of chemistry with anyone else.

I hate to jump on the anti-Marleau bandwagon, but the Sharks captain, with four points and a +0, has been invisible through ten games. Of course, as explained above, San Jose's problem is not one that is limited to a single player. In fact, it's a miracle the team has five wins and the division lead (the latter of which can likely be attributed to Anaheim's endless string of injuries and Dallas' inability to score) because no one on that roster has put up a consistent effort.

Of course, to say this is solely an emotional problem would be quite shallow. The offense was incapable last night, and have been too many nights already in this young season, of sustaining a forecheck and generated fewer than five legitimate scoring chances, meaning they really had no chance to win this game no matter who was in net for the Red Wings. The defense has been far better than any of us could have predicted, but gaffes by forwards on the backcheck (Steve Bernier a culprit last night on the Andreas Lilja goal) have made our blueline look bad as well. Overall, too many questions, too few answers for the Sharks, and as Wilson said after the game, perhaps the most difficult challenge will be to put this game behind them and prepare for this afternoon's affair with the Blue Jackets.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sharks 2, Blackhawks 1

Chicago rookie Jonathan Toews scored his first career goal on his first career shot in his first career game, but that didn't prevent the San Jose Sharks from dominating on the shot clock and turning in one of their more complete performances of the young season.

Milan Michalek potted two power play goals, the second of which he tipped past Nikolai Khabibulin with just 3:31 remaining in regulation time to give the Sharks a 2-1 win over the youthful Hawks. Definitely a far better all-around performance from the Sharks than their 6-2 drubbing at the hands of the Avalanche Sunday, but the Sharks are in dire need of getting more traffic to the front of the net, which they finally accomplished on Michalek's game-winning goal.

Joe Thornton seemed to be laboring somewhat in this game, but no word of an injury whatsoever. He's gotten off to a bit of a slow start by his lofty standards, with two goals and an assist through four games but there's no doubt he'll rebound. One facet of his game that he's improved tremendously however is faceoffs at 73.9%.

Three Stars:
1. Milan Michalek: 2G
2. Jonathan Toews: 1G, +1
3. Craig Rivet: 2A, 22:56TOI

Sharks split up top line

Well that didn't last long.

The experiment of placing Joe Thornton, Jonathan Cheechoo and Patrick Marleau on an uber-stacked top line has officially been put on hold, as Ron Wilson is now utilizing the intriguing combination of Ryane Clowe, Thornton and Cheechoo on the team's No. 1 unit, with Marleau centering Milan Michalek and Steve Bernier for a familiar trio that dominated in the 2006 playoffs.

While splitting up the three is definitely part of the answer to the Sharks' problems in Denver Sunday night, the placement of Clowe alongside Thornton and Cheechoo doesn't make too much sense to me. While Clowe has tons of skill and is big and physical, it has been proven time and time again that a fast left winger works best with the Sharks' dynamic duo. That line needs a natural left wing (i.e., not Marleau) who can open up space for Thornton and Cheechoo. Michalek is obviously custom made for this role, but Wilson, for whatever reason, has yet to play the Czech forward on the big line.

Now Clowe could still be a palatable option if he uses his size to clear room for Thornton and Cheechoo to work their magic, and the trio was actually reasonably effective for a brief stretch last February following an injury to Marleau. According to the afore-linked Working the Corners blog, Joe Pavelski centered Torrey Mitchell and Mike Grier on the third line, while Jeremy Roenick was inexplicably placed at left wing on the fourth line alongside Marcel Goc and Curtis Brown, presumably making Pat Rissmiller the odd man out when the Sharks face Chicago tomorrow. Honestly, the early stage of the season is partially about trying different combinations, seeing what works and finding chemistry. And for that very reason, I would be much obliged if Wilson fulfilled my pipe dream by putting Mitchell on the second line with Marleau and Michalek, instantly giving the Sharks the fastest line in the NHL. Pretty please?

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Avalanche 6, Sharks 2

As Sharks commentator Randy Hahn astutely noted on the telecast, not since the Coyotes drubbed the Sharks 8-0 last December has a Sharks loss been this embarassing. San Jose was able to use that rout as motivation to turn their season around, and it paid off in a big way last year as the team posted a great record down the stretch. Hopefully they can put the same positive spin on this 6-2 loss to the Avs.

There's definitely not much I liked about the Sharks this game. Their power play was atrocious as the team simply refused to shoot the puck with the man advantage. The defense persistently turned the puck over, with Craig Rivet in particular having a lackluster game on the back end. Up front, the Clowe--Pavelski--Bernier unit was the only Sharks line with any semblance of offensive pressure, an issue Ron Wilson certainly seemed to notice when he swapped Jonathan Cheechoo with Torrey Mitchell on the top line.

Everyone knew it would be a tough road stretch to open the season for the Sharks, but for a team many have pegged to win the Stanley Cup, they sure haven't been dealing with adversity very well. They'll have a bit of a break after playing three games in three different states in two different countries in four nights, with their next contest Wednesday against the Blackhawks, which should help the team focus. Wednesday also marks the first day training camp tryout Sandis Ozolinsh will be eligible for signing. The offensive-minded defenseman traveled with the Sharks to Denver and with the recent power-play issues, it's entirely plausible that Doug Wilson inks him to a bare-bones contract similar to the one Jeremy Roenick signed in September.

Overall, a brutal game for the Sharks, but kudos to the Avs who can more than mask their mediocre goaltending and defense with contributions like this from Paul Stastny, who is quickly making a case to be considered alongside Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin as the league's next breed of stars. Hopefully, the Sharks can learn from this early-season experience that talent doesn't immediately translate into wins and play a more well-rounded game from here on out.

Three Stars:
1. Paul Stastny: 1G, 4A, +3
2. Milan Hejduk: 2G, 1A, +3
3. Ryan Smyth: 1G, 1A, +3

Week 1: NHL Power Rankings

Unless I get lazy, I'll try and post power rankings of the 30 teams each Sunday. This week's rankings are obviously a bit premature, but I've ranked the teams weighing their record and strength of opposition and have presented who, in my opinion, has been the team's MVP thus far.

1. Nashville -- So what if Paul Kariya, Peter Forsberg, Tomas Vokoun, Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell are gone, Steve Sullivan and Shea Weber are injured and the very status of the Predators' formerly-completed sale is in question? The Preds haven't missed a beat, outscoring Colorado and Dallas 9-1 and going 2-0 in their first two contests. MVP: Chris Mason

2. Ottawa -- Averaging upwards of 24 minutes a game, captain Daniel Alfredsson has been downright beastly, scoring four goals in the team's first three contests, the latest a convincing 2-0 win over the Rangers on Saturday. MVP: Alfredsson

3. NY Islanders -- Many in the hockey blogosphere, including this blogger, mocked the Islanders for replacing their top line of Ryan Smyth, Jason Blake and Alexei Yashin with Ruslan Fedotenko, Mike Comrie and Bill Guerin. Well, look who's laughing now: The trio has combined for five goals and eleven assists as the Isles swept Buffalo in their season-opening home-and-home series for a 2-0 record. MVP: Comrie

4. Washington -- Very convincing wins over Carolina and Atlanta, the Caps are showing many why they will contend for a division title this season. Also, Alex Ovechkin will be the fastest player to hit 100 career goals since Eric Lindros if he scores in the next 15 games. MVP: Ovechkin

5. Tampa Bay -- For some reason, Vaclav Prospal has alternated between mediocre seasons and awesome campaigns for the last five years or so. Coming off a dissapointing year, Prospal has three goals and four points in two games as Tampa Bay has gone 2-0 with wins over New Jersey and Atlanta. MVP: Martin St. Louis

6. Edmonton -- 5-3 victory over Philadelphia almost as impressive as shootout win against Sharks. With a speedy, youthful forward corps and an underrated defense, the Oilers might surprise people this year. MVP: Ales Hemsky

7. San Jose -- Shootout loss to Oilers was ugly, but once the Sharks got their legs under them, they were able to steamroll the Canucks in Game 2. MVP: Joe Thornton

8. Minnesota -- Yeah, they've got four points, but a pair of one-goal wins against Chicago and Columbus are nothing to write home about. MVP: Brian Rolston

9. Montreal -- Choked on a third-period lead against the Leafs, then couldn't capitalize on two OT power plays before losing on a man-advantage goal against. Still, they're 2nd in their division. MVP: Saku Koivu

10. Detroit -- Did they really blow a three-goal lead against the Havlat-less Blackhawks? Their shootout win over Anaheim is also looking less impressive by the day as the Ducks stumble. MVP: Henrik Zetterberg

11. Toronto -- Pushed Senators to OT in opener, then lost by only one in Game 2 before OT win against Habs. MVP: Mats Sundin

12. Chicago -- Despite Havlat injury, defeated Wings in shootout. MVP: Nikolai Khabibulin

13. Columbus -- 4-0 win over Anaheim doesn't look as good anymore, but still impressive. Didn't look bad in 3-2 loss to Minny. MVP: Rick Nash

14. NY Rangers -- Yeah, they lost to Ottawa, but Chris Drury sure looked good against Florida and a team with this much skill can't stay down for long. MVP: Chris Drury

15. New Jersey -- Didn't look bad in loss to Tampa and blew Panthers out of the water. MVP: John Madden

16. Philadelphia -- Nice win over Calgary to start the season, but a poor showing against the Oilers. MVP: Daniel Briere

17. Vancouver -- Were terrible for the most part against San Jose, but found a way to win in Calgary. MVP: Daniel Sedin

18. Pittsburgh -- Pens looked listless against Carolina, and looked porous defensively despite a win over the Ducks. And where is Sidney Crosby? MVP: Petr Sykora

19. Colorado -- 4-0 loss to Nashville drags down the Avs, but an OK showing against Dallas to start the season. MVP: Paul Stastny

20. St. Louis -- Showed resiliency against the Kings, but loss to Coyotes really drags this team down. MVP: Erik Johnson

21. Carolina -- 4-1 win over Pittsburgh nothing to scoff at, but the Canes looked bad against Montreal and worse versus Washington. MVP: Eric Staal

22. Boston -- Yeah, they won a game, but it was against Phoenix and they looked terrible against the Stars. MVP: Marco Sturm

23. Phoenix -- This is the last time this team will be .500 this season. I guarantee it. MVP: Shane Doan

24. Anaheim -- Oh, how the mighty have fallen. 4-0 loss to Columbus -- are you kidding? MVP: Corey Perry

25. Los Angeles -- Started season with impressive win over Ducks that doesn't look so impressive now, followed by a bad loss to Anaheim which looks even worse now and finally a blown lead against St. Louis which looks bad no matter how you look at it. MVP: Anze Kopitar

26. Dallas -- One win in three games, and that was against the Bruins. MVP: Philippe Boucher

27. Calgary -- Only team in West without a win. MVP: Daymond Langkow

28. Buffalo -- They could have really used Drury and Briere in two-game sweep at hands of the Islanders. MVP: Jaroslav Spacek

29. Atlanta -- Showed little pulse in losses to Washington and Tampa. MVP: Marian Hossa

30. Florida -- A preseason darling, Panthers have been listless thus far. MVP: Nobody

Friday, October 5, 2007

Sharks 3, Canucks 1

Now that's more like it.

Jeremy Roenick took a quantum leap toward No. 500, scoring twice as the Sharks exorcised any demons that lingered from the team's shootout loss to the Oilers the night before.

Stifling defensive play, exceptional goaltending from Nabokov and keenly capitalizing on their chances lead San Jose to a 3-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks, placing the Sharks (albeit prematurely) first in the Western Conference. There's still room for improvement, however, as the team's power play -- its strong suit for much of last season -- looked poor, going 0-for-7, although Roenick's first goal was less than a second after a four-minute man advantage. San Jose could also be accused of taking the foot off the gas early in the 3rd period.

Torrey Mitchell registered his first NHL point on that Roenick tally, and has easily been one of the team's best forwards through two games, even with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau playing excellent hockey. Douglas Murray has also cemented himself as the team's 6th defenseman. After displaying his physicality during a fight with Raffi Torres in Edmonton, Murray registered a career-high two assists against the Canucks, along with his patented brand of gritty play.

Looking towards Sunday's contest against Colorado, the Sharks will probably looking for Jonathan Cheechoo, who has so far been the weak link of the team's phenomenal top line, to contribute a little more on the scoresheet. Milan Michalek's production should also improve if his linemates Mitchell and Roenick continue to make an impact.

Three Stars:
1. Jeremy Roenick: 2G, 0A, +1
2. Evgeni Nabokov: 22S, 1GA
3. Douglas Murray: 0G, 2A, +3, 20:20TOI

Sunday, September 30, 2007

2007-08 NHL Season
Western Conference Predictions

With the 2007-08 season finally upon us, it's time for predictions where I'll attempt to use my unprecedented sense of foresight to prognosticate what the regular season standings should look like next April. I ask that you don't hold me to any of these predictions, but gloating following the upcoming campaign is certainly welcome if your team proves me wrong. Without further ado, my Western Conference predictions:

1. Detroit* -- The Red Wings are arguably incrementally worse than the team that a season ago won the Western Conference regular-season title and went on to advance to the conference finals. They've lost the decidedly lazy, yet somewhat productive trio of Robert Lang, Todd Bertuzzi and Kyle Calder to free agency, a group that comprised the club's second line for the latter half of the season and through much of the playoffs. On defense, Mathieu Schneider and Danny Markov have been replaced with Brian Rafalski and Brent Sopel, which I'll call a wash. However, what's far more significant regarding my ranking of the Wings as the No. 1 team in the West is the rest of the Central Division. The Nashville Predators, Detroit's only serious competitor for the division title since the lockout, has been ravaged this off-season, leaving Detroit as far and away the class of the Central, which is populated by rebuilding teams in St. Louis, Chicago and Columbus. And despite the losses on offense, Detroit still boasts two of the best rising forwards in the NHL in Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, and has valuable youth in the likes of Valterri Filpulla and Igor Grigorenko ready to step in. It's impossible to write about Detroit without mentioning five-time Norris Trophy winner and arguably the Wings' regular-season and playoff MVP last year, Nicklas Lidstrom, who has proven he can carry a mediocre team in a competetive field on his back. This time around, he'll be asked to help carry a great team with the assistance of Zetterberg, Datsyuk and the ageless Dominik Hasek against a poor division. The Red Wings have a track record of not losing the easy games, and they'll have at least 32 of those this coming season.

2. San Jose* -- The majority of hockey pundits, following the Sharks' second straight semifinals flameout last May, cited the Sharks' defense as a prime reason why for their elimination. While San Jose certainly wouldn't mind adding a puck-mover on the backend, it was mental toughness that did them in last postseason, not an inept defense. In fact, the team ranked 5th in the NHL last year in defense and while credit is certainly due to Evgeni Nabokov, who will have the comfort of receiving the majority of the starts this year with Vesa Toskala shipped to Toronto, Ron Wilson's system, which encourages defense by committee, was a large factor as well. Of course, this team is built around its offense. Specifically, the Sharks' luxury of boasting two top-notch centers on their roster in former Hart Trophy winner Joe Thornton and two-time All-Star Patrick Marleau. If Jonathan Cheechoo can rebound from an off year, Milan Michalek can continue to blossom into a lethal two-way threat and the team's seemingly endless string of young forwards like Steve Bernier, Ryane Clowe and Joe Pavelski can continue to develop, San Jose will once again be one of the most high-flying offensive squads in the West. Combine that prolific offense with a solid, if unspectacular defense corps capable of playing Coach Wilson's system to perfection and an elite starting goaltender in Nabokov with the losses endured this off-season by defending Stanley Cup and Pacific Division champions Anaheim and you've got a recipe for the Sharks franchise's third division title.

3. Anaheim -- Let's face the facts. Scott Niedermayer, even if he didn't exactly deserve that Conn Smythe Trophy, was undoubtedly one of the best defensemen in the league last year and is a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer who will be credited with revolutionizing the defense position. Teemu Selanne, even if he wasn't the same force in the playoffs that he was all regular-season long, holds the NHL record for most goals in a rookie season and most goals in a season by a player 35 years or older, the second of which was set last year, phenomenal bookends to what should also be a Hall-of-Fame career. Even though neither player has officially declared his retirement, Niedermayer has been suspended by the Ducks, giving him time to mull it over and Selanne, an unrestricted free agent, remains unsigned. Thus, the Stanley Cup champions enter the season with a significantly different roster, especially when one factors in the loss of Dustin Penner to the Edmonton Oilers via RFA poaching. Beyond the obvious result of Selanne and Niedermayer's absences -- that they won't be there -- three Ducks are likely to be particularly affected. Chris Kunitz and Andy McDonald were unspectacular players in checking-line roles before Selanne came along, resulting in their blossoming into bona fide NHL scoring threats. While the new NHL was definitely a factor in their breakouts, you have to wonder how effective they'll be without the Finnish Flash. Defenseman Francois Beauchemin was a seventh defenseman on Columbus before being sent to Anaheim in the Sergei Fedorov trade, where he has perfected his craft as a quiet, minute-munching blueliner alongside Niedermayer. Without his right-hand man, will Beauchemin be as effective? Questions abound in Disneyland this season, without too many answers. So you're probably wondering why I picked this team to finish as high as I did. Despite the losses of Selanne and Niedermayer, several pieces from the Ducks' Cup run are still in place, the most important being superstar defenseman Chris Pronger. Goalie J-S Giguere, re-signed over the Summer, will also don the Ducks jersey this year, as will burgeoning young forwards Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. There's still plenty of reasons why the Ducks will challenge for the Pacific Division title, but subtract two Hall-of-Famers in Niedermayer and Selanne, a rising young power forward in Penner and lose Selke finalist Sami Pahlsson to injury for 3-5 weeks and the defending Champions will have quite a task ahead of them defending their spoils.

4. Vancouver* -- Technically, you could pick any Northwest Division team save for Edmonton to win the pennant and probably avoid humiliation. The top four teams in the conference were separated by only ten points last season, and that included the Colorado Avalanche, who missed the playoffs. Frankly, the Northwest has emerged since the lockout as the league's most cutthroat division and that trend appears to continue this year, especially with the Avalanche re-loading. But Vancouver has the added advantage of having arguably the best goalie in the NHL at their disposal in Roberto Luongo. A Vezina candidate who, in this blogger's opinion, would have won the award if it weren't for the early bedtimes of East Coast-based members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association, Luongo set a franchise record for wins last regular-season with 47, and posted a 2.29 goals-against average and .921 SV%. However, his stock raised dramatically in the playoffs, when the netminder set an NHL record with 76 saves in his first ever playoff game, a 5-4 win in quadruple overtime and went on to singlehandedly carry the offense-starved Canucks to a second-round appearance against Anaheim. With Luongo in net and the defensive stylings of Jack Adams-winning coach Alain Vigneault, Vancouver will never be hard-pressed to prevent goals, but the club made further improvements to the back end, re-signing key parts Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo and Lukas Kraijicek and adding veteran Aaron Miller to a stacked blueline corps that ranks among the most well-rounded in the league. However, all that defense comes at a price and in Vancouver's case, it's the offense. Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison have never been the same since the lockout, leaving the entire Canucks offense in the hands of Henrik and Daniel Sedin. The twins can work magic, but they're about the only Vancouver forwards who can, a lack of depth that was painfully exposed against Anaheim last postseason. Even still, if Luongo's magical playoffs is a sign of things to come and the defense looks as good on ice as it does on paper, this team shouldn't need more than two goals from its offense to win games, something that's definitely as obtainable for this club as a Northwest Division title.

5. Colorado -- The Avs were one of the NHL's best teams the second half of the season, with the clutch play of Joe Sakic, the remarkable point streak of Paul Stastny and the timely saves of Peter Budaj pushing them oh-so-close to a playoff berth, before the team eventually fell short. But after adding some much-needed grit over the offseason in the form of tip-in artist Ryan Smith and defensive warhorse Scott Hannan, the Avalanche are locked and loaded, determined to put the franchise's first non-playoff spring since arriving in Denver behind them. Colorado boasts what is easily one of the best top-six forward units in the Western Conference, with the ageless Sakic and Calder-nominee Stastny joined by newcomer Smyth, former Rocket Richard winner Milan Hejduk, Andrew Brunette, who come out of nowhere to score 80 points last season, and talented young forward Wojtek Wolski. The offense doesn't end there with the third line boasting the likes of Marek Svatos and Tyler Arnason. The team's rather unheralded defense corps is tremendously well-rounded as well, with power-play quarterback John-Michael Liles leading a group that includes bruising blueliners Hannan, Karlis Skrastins and Brett Clark along with the finesse of Jordan Leopold. Yes, the only chink in this club's armor is the facet that their three primary Northwest Division competitors list as their biggest strength: goaltending. While Vancouver has the luxury of Luongo, Calgary boasts Miikka Kiprusoff between the pipes and Minnesota has Jennings-winning Niklas Backstrom minding nets, the Avs will rely on the relatively unproven Budaj, with Jose Theodore a decided backup plan, thanks to terrible seasons the former Hart Trophy winner has enjoyed since the lockout. However, if Budaj, who was spectacular down the stretch for Colorado, pans out, this team has the explosive offense and balanced defense to take the Northwest.

6. Calgary -- There's no two ways about it, the Flames grossly underachieved last season. Despite having a stacked line-up that included the likes of Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff, Dion Phaneuf, Alex Tanguay et al, former coach Jim Playfair was unable to motivate his troops, leading to an eighth place finish with the Flames clinging on for dear life as the Avs closed in on them late in the season and an unspiring first-round playoff exit, the team's second straight since falling to Tampa Bay in Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals. Instead of doing the logical thing and replacing Playfair himself, GM Darryl Sutter found Playfair what he believed to be a suitable replacement and what the rest of the hockey world believes to be a head case: Mike Keenan. With a track record of disliking Europeans, mishandling young players and humiliating skill forwards, Keenan appears to be a terrible replacement. However, Keenan's ability to motivate players is undeniable, and there really is noone better at "winning now," which is exactly what the Flames need to do. Focusing on players, Calgary enters with an almost identical forward corps as they did last season, with the addition of worn-out veteran Owen Nolan the only wrinkle. Their blueline, however, experienced significant turnover. Brad Stuart bolted to Los Angeles, Roman Hamrlik signed with Montreal, Andrei Zyuzin was traded to Chicago for Adrian Aucoin and Mark Giordano left for Russia. They were replaced by former Lightning defenseman Cory Sarich and ex-Blue Jacket Anders Eriksson. Aucoin could see his career resurrected in Calgary, but there's about an equal chance of him continuing to turn in sub-par defensive efforts. Sarich is not going to live up to the monster contract Sutter handed him, but he's a reliable veteran in his own zone. Essentially, this is a team with the potential to win the Northwest Division, particularly if Iginla improves upon an amazing 94-point season, and Tanguay, Daymond Langkow and Keenan-hater Kristian Huselius build after setting career-highs in points last season, but it remains to be seen whether the Keenan factor will work with or against the team.

7. Minnesota -- The Wild's offseason was nowhere near as eventful as their last one, which saw GM Doug Risebrough acquire the likes of Pavol Demitra, Kim Johnsson and Mark Parrish, but Minnesota still made some key acquisitions, replacing departed free agent center Todd White with Eric Belanger and, more importantly, shoring up their goaltending situation by shipping out embattled netminder Manny Fernandez and re-signing Niklas Backstrom, who came out of nowhere (technically, the Swedish Elite League) to lead the league in goals-against average and save percentage last season, followed up with brilliant goaltending in the playoffs despite a first-round loss to Anaheim. Despite the player movement, there is but one key to Minnesota's season, an ultimate factor which, if it turns out favorably, could bolster the club to the Northwest Division title: Marian Gaborik's groin. Easily one of the fastest, most exciting players in the game, Gaborik scored at a prolific rate last season, a clip that would have projected out to 51 goals -- second in the league -- had the Wild forward played 82 games, rather than 48. If the Slovak can stay healthy, he and countryman Pavol Demitra will wreak havoc upon Western Conference defenses, proving that Minnesota is a conservative defense squad no longer. However, if Gaborik's groin gives out again, Minnesota will be fighting tooth and nail to qualify for the playoffs. Still, this is a club with decent offensive and defensive depth and, more importantly, a foolproof defensive system developed by coaching mastermind Jacques Lemaire. It remains to be seen, though, how well Backstrom can perform over the course of an entire NHL season and while the defensive system is sound, the blueline corps itself is largely unspectacular, with the likes of Johnsson and Martin Skoula being asked to shoulder the load. Even still, Minnesota is a playoff team and have the potential to win the division if Gaborik can avoid the injury bug.

8. Dallas -- Gone are the glory days of Dallas hockey, at least in the regular season. But it's never been about the regular season for the Stars, whose first-round flameout streak reached three seasons last April. This time around, however, Marty Turco was far from the goat: the usually choke-prone Dallas goaltender pitched three shutouts -- and still lost! This was mostly due to a nonexistant offense, a problem that will continue to plague the Stars this season. Nobody on this team, apart from maybe defenseman Philippe Boucher, can be relied on to score goals. Mike Modano is too old to remain effective, Brenden Morrow will provide grit and leadership, but, even if his season isn't riddled with injuries, which in itself would be an accomplishment, the Stars' captain can't be relied on for more than 60-odd points, Mike Ribeiro is too soft to score more than 60 points -- the list goes on and on. So despite boasting a tremendous goaltender and a great defense headlined by superstar blueliner Sergei Zubov, Boucher and trade deadline pickup Mattias Norstrom, the Stars will once again be hard-pressed to score goals, something that should prevent them from challenging for the Pacific Division title. The Stars are probably a playoff team and, with a few deadline acquisitions, could make noise in the postseason. But they'll be clawing for a playoff berth come April and their anemic offense is a big reason why.

9. Nashville -- The Predators underwent one of the most disastrous off-seasons of any team in NHL history. They lost their entire first line in leading scorer Paul Kariya (signed with division rival St. Louis), future Hall-of-Fame center Peter Forsberg (unsigned free agent in limbo regarding retirement) and young, gritty winger Scott Hartnell (picked up by Philadelphia), their captain and No. 1 defenseman Kimmo Timonen (also signed with the Flyers) and starting goaltender Tomas Vokoun (traded to Florida). Those losses combined with persistent rumors regarding the team's imminent move to Kansas City/Hamilton/Las Vegas would logically make the Predators a lottery team. However, the Preds organization is so deep that, while they have no chance at finishing with the third-best record in the West again, will remain competetive for a playoff spot. They still have the makings of two very good offensive units, particularly if young forward Alexander Radulov steps up and Steve Sullivan doesn't sustain too many injuries and have an above-average defense corps centered around burgeoning blueliner Shea Weber. In goal, despite the loss of Vokoun, the team still has Chris Mason, who was great during Vokoun's injury last season, but largely remains a question mark. I expect the Predators to challenge for a postseason berth, but in a conference where teams need a competetive edge, Nashville lacks one -- their once high-flying offense has been replaced to two second-tier lines, their defense is unimpressive and their goaltending is average.

10. Los Angeles -- There's a reason Dean Lombardi was one of the most coveted among unemployed GMs last Summer, when the Los Angeles Kings hired him to fill their vacant position. Despite a few questionable moves during his first off-season in SoCal (trading for Dan Cloutier being the primary one), he quickly reshaped his reputation with his steal of a deal that landed him uber-prospect Jack Johnson from Carolina. This summer, he astutely stayed away from handing out big money and bigger term to the likes of Daniel Briere, Chris Drury and Scott Gomez -- instead opting to sign a collection of second-tier free agents, including Michal Handzus, Ladislav Nagy, Tom Preissing, Brad Stuart and Kyle Calder. The additions of Stuart and Pressing in particular, combined with the development of Johnson rounds out a very underrated defense corps that also includes former All-Stars Rob Blake and Lubomir Visnovsky. The forward unit is also extremely well-rounded, with young stars Anze Kopitar, Alex Frolov and Mike Cammalleri forming a dominant first line, followed by the likes of Handzus, Nagy, Calder, Dustin Brown and Patrick O'Sullivan rounding out the next six forwards. With that defense and those forwards, one would think this team is bound to end their three-year playoff-less slump this year. Alas, one would be very wrong. The Kings' goaltending situation is easily the worst in the Western Conference, if not the league. Cloutier endured a horrendous season that featured an abyssmal .860 SV% and an injury in late December that mercifully ended his season. Rather than risk losing AHL goalie-of-the-year Jason LaBarbera on entry waivers, the Kings rolled a carousel of awful goaltenders for the rest of the year, with likes of Barry Brust, Yutaka Fukufuji and Sean Burke minding Los Angeles nets for the remainder of the campaign, all with equally terrible results. Unfortunately for Kings' fans, despite all the positive progress Lombardi made with the team this off-season, the Kings will still fail to make the playoffs thanks to their terrible situation between the pipes, and will continue to miss the cut until highly-touted goaltending prospect Jonathan Bernier makes his debut in purple.

11. St. Louis -- Give John Davidson and the rest of the Blues braintrust credit. After finishing last in the league in 2005-06 and watching their strategy of signing washed-up veterans blow up in their face during the early stages of 2006-07 (who could have imagined?), the St. Louis brass were able to administer quite the turnaround with the hiring of coach Andy Murray and shrewd deadline deals that yielded promising young forward Brad Boyes and a slew of draft picks for Keith Tkachuk, Bill Guerin and Dennis Wideman. The re-acquisition of Tkachuk, the addition of marquee free-agent signee Paul Kariya and the development of 2006 No. 1 overall pick Erik Johnson should provide a considerable boost for the team from the abyssmal status it has suffered through since the lockout, but likely not enough to get them over the hump in a competetive west. Still, the mere fact that there's reason for St. Louis hockey fans to hold their heads high again and motivation for Missouri residents to attend Blues games that doesn't involve free food is a victory in and of itself.

12. Edmonton -- If the fictitious department of obscure awards were to hand out a trophy for most off-season headlines made by a team with decidedly little chance of having even a sniff of the post-season, the Oilers would likely be the recipients. First it was the Michael Nylander fiasco, then GM Kevin Lowe shot and missed with the Thomas Vanek offer sheet until finally Lowe was successful in an RFA poaching endeavor, stealing power forward Dustin Penner from the Anaheim Ducks. While Edmonton's off-season, which also involved the acquisition of offensive defensemen Joni Pitkanen from Philadelphia and Sheldon Souray from Montreal, likely made Lowe few friends around the league, it incrementally improved an Edmonton team that was little better than a minor league outfit at the end of last season. Still, the Oilers are extremely thin up front and, despite the team's failures last season, at least they had an outlet for Ales Hemsky's passes in Petr Sykora. This year, unless Penner has somehow gained two steps over the summer, the Oilers lack a legitimate sniper for Hemsky to dish the puck to, a problem further exacerbated by Fernando Pisani's recent injury. The team's goaltending tandem of Dwayne Roloson and Mathieu Garon is also fairly underwhelming, especially when compared to the netminding situations of their division rivals. So while this team is unlikely to be as pathetic as the unit that took the ice at the end of last season, the playoffs are a longshot to say the least and a finish out of the division basement would likely have to be considered a success.

13. Chicago -- "As Martin Havlat goes, the Blackhawks go" was the mantra chanted by Chicago last season, but unfortunately, the entire team couldn't fit in the hospital room the Czech forward frequented last year. While oft-injured, the Blackhawks' lone star was stellar last season, often a one-man show without much of a supporting cast to speak of. The Hawks hope they have that cast, with the free agent signings of Havlat's countryman Robert Lang and 2007 All-Star center Yannic Perreault, along with the hopeful emergence of the team's past two first-round picks, Jonathan Toews (No. 3 overall, 2006) and Patrick Kane (No. 1 overall, 2007). However, this is still a very young team with the likes of Brent Seabrook (22 years old), Tuomo Ruutu (24) and Duncan Keith (24) comprising the Hawks' core, and as with all youthful teams, the transitional phase their players must undergo will hamper short-term team progress, but should ensure a more competetive squad in the long run. So while the Blackhawks will likely be fighting neck-and-neck with Columbus for the Central Division basement this season, they should be a formidable opponent a few years from now, when the likes of Toews and Kane are NHL regulars and Seabrook, Keith and Cam Barker are standout defensemen. But this year, it's hard to envision a finish in the Western Conference's top 10.

14. Columbus -- The Blue Jackets have been a largely directionless franchise for the first seven years of their miserable existence, but after replacing incompetent General Manager Doug MacLean with former Edmonton Oilers GM Scott Howson, it would seem that better days are ahead for this Columbus team. Those days are well ahead, however, as the Jackets continue to be weighed down by the declining Sergei Fedorov's albatross of a contract, the lack of productivity from the talented, yet enigmatic, Nikolai Zherdev and a defense anchored by the obsolete Adam Foote. There's also the issue of goaltending, as the team employs one of the league's more underwhelming tandems featuring mediocre European call-up Fredrik Norrena and unproven, albeit promising, netminder Pascal Leclaire. It isn't all doom and gloom for the BJs, however, as new coach Ken Hitchcock brings with him a defensively conservative style which he was able to display late last season that should help the team eke out a few close wins. But one thing's for certain: if All-Star Rick Nash plans to have another 27-goal season, the Jackets might as well throw in the towel now and save themselves a lot of trouble. Even if Nash enjoys a more productive campaign, it's hard to imagine Columbus not finishing near the Central Division, and Western Conference, basement.

15. Phoenix -- Now, the Coyotes organization themselves have declared this season (and, presumably, quite a few in the forseeable future) a rebuilding campaign, so it's unfair to overly criticize the team for their relative inaction over the off-season. Some would argue their free agent dormancy was preferrable to previous off-seasons which saw Phoenix voraciously sign washed up veteran free agents (see Nolan, Owen and Ricci, Mike). Regardless, this is undoubtedly the worst team in the NHL. When Mike York and Steven Reinprecht are playing on your first line, you know any talk of offensive depth is comical. Speaking of a joke, the team's goaltending situation is one of the worst in the league with David Aebischer, Alex Auld and Mikael Tellqvist expected to battle it out for the top two netminding slots. The club's defense, however, is surprisingly above-mediocre, at least on paper, with youngsters Keith Ballard and Zbynek Michalek along with veterans Ed Jovanovski and Derek Morris expected to do most of the heavy lifting on the back end. Still, with porous goaltending, a poor defensive system implemented by coach Wayne Gretzky and the remaining slew of problems facing the Coyotes this season, a finish ahead of 30th overall in the league would be quite the accomplishment.

* denotes division winner

See also: Eastern Conference Preview

2007-08 NHL Season
Eastern Conference Predictions

With the 2007-08 season finally upon us, it's time for predictions where I'll attempt to use my unprecedented sense of foresight to prognosticate what the regular season standings should look like next April. I ask that you don't hold me to any of these predictions, but gloating following the upcoming campaign is certainly welcome if your team proves me wrong. Without further ado, my Eastern Conference predictions:

1. Ottawa* -- It's usually agreed that the losing squad in the Stanley Cup Finals is in for a rough season the subsequent year, but the Senators' Eastern Conference rivals will be unpleasantly surprised if they take that for granted. After having a taste of the NHL's biggest stage, Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and the Sens are hungry for more. Ottawa returns essentially the same team that fell to the Anaheim Ducks in five games last Spring, with undersized (and during much of the playoffs, ineffective) forward Mike Comrie and former Sharks defenseman Tom Preissing. But with Heatley, Spezza, captain Daniel Alfredsson and goaltender Ray Emery, who truly established himself as a top-10 goalie in the league after substantially mitigating the ugliness of what could have been a far worse Finals showing for Ottawa, returning, the team will once again be among the elite in the East. However, with the Buffalo Sabres significantly regressing with their off-season losses of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, the Sens will be in a similar situation to Detroit in the West in that they're a powerful squad in a very average division, which should be enough to keep them in contention with those Red Wings for the Presidents' Trophy and should also keep them atop the East.

2. NY Rangers* -- Astute free-agent acquisitions and a solid core of veteran talent makes this incarnation of the New York Rangers arguably the best collection of Blueshirts since the 1994 Stanley Cup Champions. The signings of marquee centers Chris Drury and Scott Gomez from Eastern rivals Buffalo and New Jersey gives the Rangers two ultra-talented pivots known for stepping it up in the postseason. Add those two to a Broadway cast that already includes experience and skill in Jaromir Jagr and Martin Straka, grit and sandpaper in Sean Avery and Blair Betts and a mixture of both in Brendan Shanahan and you've got one of the most potent offenses in the Eastern Conference. Of course, to emerge on top in a competetive Atlantic Division, the Rangers will need to prevent goals as well. Enter Henrik Lundqvist. Two seasons in the league, two years as a Vezina Trophy finalist for this 25-year-old netminder who will be asked to shoulder the load defensively for the Rangers, who return a very average defense corps, albeit one that supremely overachieved under Coach Tom Renney's system. The ingredients are all there for the Rangers to not only win the Atlantic, but go far in the playoffs, but with significant new faces, team chemistry may prove to be a bit of an issue for the first few weeks.

3. Pittsburgh -- As columnist Scott Burnside put it in a recent article, when a team's gravest concern is their relative dearth of right-hand shots, you know they've come a long way. The Penguins have finally made the quantum leap from joke to contender, and for the first time in nearly a decade, enter a season as legitimate Cup contenders. With superstar Sidney Crosby, who last season became the youngest player in league history to lead the NHL in scoring, leading the way and a youthful supporting cast of Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Marc-Andre Fleury and Ryan Whitney behind him, the Penguins have drawn comparisons to the Oilers dynasty of the '80s, and with good reason. A potent offensive squad content to use their youth and speed to bury opponents, Pittsburgh is decidedly the favorite to lead the league in scoring, especially if Crosby, Malkin and Staal continue to develop. However, Fleury was shaky against Ottawa in the playoffs last season and must come into his own for the Penguins to truly be considered Cup threats. Even with an average performance from Fleury, Pittsburgh will undoubtedly remain competetive for the Atlantic Division title and should once again be the most exciting team in the league.

4. Philadelphia -- While the Penguins took the better part of six years to transform from perennial bottom-feeders to contenders, their intra-state rivals seem to be on the fast track from failure to success. After finishing last in the league for the first time in franchise history, the Flyers, under the management of GM Paul Holmgren, have been carefully crafting a young roster since the trading deadline and through free agency. The advent of All-Star defenseman Kimmo Timonen, All-Star center Daniel Briere, goaltender Martin Biron, tough-as-nails defender Jason Smith and young forwards Scott Hartnell, Scottie Upshall and Joffrey Lupul has morphed what was an abyssmal squad last season into a potential Cup contender this year. While Biron remains a tad unproven in a starting role, the Flyers boast tremendous depth both up front and on defense, with Briere expected to play with fellow Quebec native, speedy sniper Simon Gagne, while the Flyers' already deep core of youngsters in Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and RJ Umberger will join forces with youthful imports Hartnell, Upshall and Lupul to provide offensive depth. On defense, the club boasts the likes of Timonen and Smith along with the inconsistent, yet physically intimidating Derian Hatcher and young blueliners Braydon Coburn, Lasse Kukkonen and Ryan Parent. Overall, the Flyers have completely reloaded and look poised to capture an Atlantic Division title, but with the Rangers and Penguins so strong, a pennant may be a little out of reach. However, with this much talent, a return to the playoffs seems to be a given.

5. Washington* -- Every preseason prognosticator is entitled at least one outlandish prediction, and here's mine. In a Southeast Division, where all teams have gaping holes and considerable flaws, the Washington Capitals, who have been firmly entrenched in mediocrity since the end of the Jagr era, look poised to dramatically return to the playoffs. Young superstar Alexander Ovechkin was a one-man show on many nights for the Caps last season, but with playmaking center Micheal Nylander now in the fold, the league's newest Russian Rocket finally has a competent pivot for the first time in his career. Washington's impressive top six up front is rounded out by thirty-goal men Alex Semin and Chris Clark and solid sniper Viktor Kozlov, comprising one of the more complete forward units in the Southeast. While the defense corps is fairly nondescript and lackluster, the addition of Tom Poti certainly helps and an entire season in Washington for Milan Jurcina should assist the team's defense situation as well.

6. New Jersey -- Just a few summers ago, the Devils boasted a defense corps that featured the likes of Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rafalski and an offense with the high scoring trio of Patrik Elias, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta as its centerpiece. Flash forward to 2007 and you'll find that New Jersey's No. 1 defenseman is Paul Martin and that Gomez is gone and both Elias and Gionta are coming off underachieving seasons. The addition of coach Brent Sutter is sure to mix things up offensively to a certain extent, which is good news for a team that will need bounce-back seasons from Elias and Gionta and have burgeoning youngster Zach Parise prove his brilliant playoff campaign wasn't an abberation in order to remain in competition for the division title. Of course, the most important thing for the Devils is that future Hall-of-Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur, coming off a Vezina Trophy campaign in which he broke Bernie Parent's longstanding single-season record for goaltending wins, is still manning the nets in New Jersey. Brodeur gives the Devils an edge that few other Eastern Conference teams have: netminding that can steal games. For this reason, the Devils are a playoff team that will have some say in how the Atlantic is won, but surpassing their second-round flameout from last Spring will be near impossible with a rather underwhelming cast on defense and more than a few eyebrow-raisers and question marks up front.

7. Buffalo -- The extent to which the Sabres' roster has been ravaged this offseason is, I feel, underestimated by much of the hockey media. Their leading scorer and co-captain Daniel Briere, who signed with the rival Philadelphia Flyers, will be very missed in the offensive zone and Chris Drury, the newest New York Ranger and fellow former Buffalo co-captain will be missed dearly during the playoffs. Assuming there are playoffs in Buffalo this season. Last year's President's Trophy winners and regular season dominators looked very human all through the playoffs, especially in a five-game, round three loss to Ottawa. And that was before they lost Drury, Briere and two-way forward Dainius Zubrus, all to Eastern Conference rivals. However, with Ryan Miller still in goal and an insanely deep offense that still boasts burgeoning star Thomas Vanek (albeit at a much heftier price tag, thanks to Kevin Lowe's workings), Maxim Afinogenov and Derek Roy up front, along with a decent defense corps headlined by All-Star blueliner Brian Campbell, the Sabres should still qualify for the postseason, but it will be an exponentially more difficult year for the Sabres this season. Former Jack Adams winner Lindy Ruff knows that the same up-tempo, goals at any cost style the team played last year will be nowhere near as effective in the absence of Briere and Drury, and will likely adapt the team's system accordingly. So while Buffalo seems good enough to make the postseason, the team's championship window has sadly shut and it's unlikely they'll be any more than first-round fodder.

8. Carolina -- I didn't envision it being this difficult to choose the Hurricanes, a franchise just one season removed from winning a Stanley Cup, as a playoff team. There are so many mediocre teams clogged smack dab in the middle of the Eastern Conference that picking the one least entrenched in mediocrity is largely a crapshoot. The Hurricanes became the first team in NHL history to miss the playoffs following a championship season last year, missing the mark by a measly four points. In addition to the Cup hangover that victimizes many teams, the 'Canes were without the services of top offensive defenseman Frantisek Kaberle and top-six forward Cory Stillman for almost the entire season, both players injured for considerable durations. Furthermore, star center Eric Staal and goaltender Cam Ward underachieved following brilliant playoff campaigns in '06. It's unlikely that many factors will work against the Hurricanes again, so if Carolina can stay moderately healthy and get production from Staal and more consistent goaltending from Ward, they can once again be a fierce offensive team that will never have a dearth of options up front. Still, question marks surround the team's defense and while Ward was nothing short of spectacular during the team's Cup run, the former Conn Smythe winner has never had a good regular season during his brief NHL career. While the 'Canes certainly aren't going to blow anyone away like they did two seasons ago, they have what it takes to claw to a playoff berth and be devoured in the first round by an Eastern powerhouse.


9. Toronto -- The Maple Leafs missed the playoffs by one point last season. It's funny, then, that there seems to be a million reasons why they couldn't muster up that one extra point and qualify for the postseason for the first time since the lockout. Everything from Hal Gill's incompetence to merciless injuries are offered as excuses for Toronto's failure, but the rather underwhelming play of goalie Andrew Raycroft is seldom pinpointed, which is quite shocking. A sub-900 save percentage and a slew of soft goals should have had the Toronto media circus gathering their pitchforks and torches, but instead little blame was deferred at the former Bruin, and even with the acquisition of Vesa Toskala from the Sharks, Raycroft continues to be mentioned as part of a platoon deal. As long as Leafs coach Paul Maurice can successfully eliminate Raycroft from the equation, Toskala excels despite newfound media pressures he could have never dreamed of in San Jose, marquee free agent acquisition Jason Blake gells with center Mats Sundin, who was flanked at times last season by the likes of Boyd Devereaux and Bates Battaglia, the injury bug can stay away from the Toronto locker room (whoops, too late...Wellwood's already injured), Gill and Bryan McCabe can improve defensively and young forwards Alex Steen and Mats Stajan can develop into top-six types, the Leafs should make the playoffs. Yeah, it's unlikely the majority of those will occur, which probably keeps the Leafs one point behind the postseason cutoff mark once again.

10. Florida -- The Panthers are an interesting team as no facet of their game is exceptional, but with a solid forward corps, a well-rounded blueline and newly-acquired All-Star netminder Tomas Vokoun stopping pucks, they should make somewhat of an impact in the East's playoff picture. Olli Jokinen is the real deal up front, proving his 90-point season of two seasons ago was not an aberration with an encore performance last year. Nathan Horton is the league's next star power forward and, at 22, has already shown flashes of brilliance with an impressive 31-goal season last year for a poor team. Stephen Weiss, Jozef Stumpel, Ville Peltonen and Rostislav Olesz round out a largely average top-six up front, and Florida will need serious production from all four players if they are to contend for a playoff spot. On defense, all eyes will be on Jay Bouwmeester to finally break out and have the Norris-calibre season everyone is expecting of him. However, Bouwmeester's inability to produce on the power play has barred him from crossing 40 points offensively, which is partially the reason European league veteran Cory Murphy was brought in to run the man advantage. Relative unkown Mike Van Ryn will also be counted on to bring offense from the back end, while Bryan Allen and Ruslan Salei will be expected to hold down the fort. The addition of Vokoun is obviously welcomed, but the Panthers didn't miss the playoffs last season due to inept goaltending, with the Belfour/Auld tandem enjoying some success, just as they didn't miss the playoffs during the Luongo era due to their inability to keep the puck out of the net. No, this team is unlikely to make the playoffs because, apart from a lack of depth, this team's main problem is a lack of heart that desperately needs to be rectified. Still, in a wide-open Southeast Division, the Panthers still have an outside shot at a playoff berth in the East, but team chemistry and overall grit will be big question marks going into the year.

11. Atlanta -- I'm not sure what parallel universe Thrashers GM Don Waddell and his team are living in, but in this NHL, teams need a legitimate No. 1 center to win and none of Todd White, Bobby Holik and Bryan Little qualify as such. While the team began last season with a similar lack of a top-flight pivot and started fine, the Thrashers were well off the tracks when Waddell acquired center Keith Tkachuk at the trade deadline, eventually helping Atlanta secure the franchise's first playoff spot. Unless similar antics are pulled much earlier in the season, the Thrashers look destined to finish out of the playoff picture, not only due to their lack of a center, but a deficiency on defense as well, where the club suffered the losses of Greg de Vries and Vitaly Vishnevski. Not exactly Lidstrom-types, but on what was already a mediocre defense corps, the replacement of those players with the likes of Ken Klee and Tobias Enstrom is not very encouraging. Still, with superstars Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa along with rising goaltender Kari Lehtonen, the Thrashers shouldn't be written off just yet, but it's quickly looking as if the team's brilliant start to the 2006-07 season was an aberration.

12. Montreal -- The loss of Sheldon Souray really hurts. Why would the absence of a flat-footed, mistake-prone defenseman make such an impact? Because the Habs lived and died by their power play last season, which really only lead the league because of Souray's monster season offensively. While defenseman Andrei Markov is on a different planet defensively than Souray and owns similar offensive potential, his game is less suited to running a power play, leaving the Canadiens without what was a season ago their greatest weapon. Still, the organization's tremendous depth in goal would overcome for the team's newfound man-advantage shortcomings, if it weren't for such an anemic offense that certainly won't be helped by Bryan Smolinski and European import Janne Lahti. Saku Koivu is still the man up front, but with a mediocre supporting cast headlined by the largely average Chris Higgins, the one-dimensional Michael Ryder and the enigmatic Alexei Kovalev, it's unlikely the Habs will be putting the puck in the net very often next season.

13. Tampa Bay -- Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Stanley Cup winners just three seasons ago, the Lightning have compiled two mediocre seasons that featured the team barely qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and subsequently being smoked in the first round and are finally ready to collapse. While the team will return the "Big Four" of Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Dan Boyle (although Boyle will miss the first month of the season), their goaltending situation is by far the worst in the East and rivals Columbus for least appealing in the league. Marc Denis has experienced a Herculean fall from "good goalie on a bad team" with the Blue Jackets to press box warmer for the Bolts. Starter Johan Holmqvist is only consistent at being inconsistent and looked horrible at times during last Spring's playoffs. Thankfully for Tampa fans, the Bolts have quite the pipeline of netminders upcoming, with Karri Ramo and Riku Helenius likely to be future NHL 'tenders, but for this upcoming season, with such a terrible situation between the pipes, an extremely thin defense and a sustained offensive depth issue which will not be solved by Michel Ouellet and Jan Hlavac, it's looking like an unsuccessful season in Tampa.

14. Boston -- The Bruins are a team that could surprise everyone and make the playoffs for the first time since the lockout, but could just as easily plummet and finish last in the league. Although the addition of Manny Fernandez will somewhat shore up a goaltending situation that was bleak for much of last season, the B's will need to make quantum leaps defensively under new coach Claude Julien, which will have to start with improved play from 6'9" behemoth and Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, who was downright soft at times last year. Patrice Bergeron will also need to progress into the 80-point All-Star the Bruins thought he would be when signing him to that monster RFA contract last off-season and youngsters Phil Kessel and Brandon Bochenski will have to improve as well. Marc Savard was teriffic last season, but a third consecutive 90+-point year may be asking too much of the undersized pivot. While this roster, when viewed on paper, has the makings of a potential playoff contender, especially in the wide-open East, an overall lack of team chemistry, grit and holes on the blueline will subjugate Boston fans to another season of disappointment.

15. NY Islanders -- There will be no playoff miracles on Long Island this year, certainly not with this sad excuse for a roster. While franchise goalie Rick DiPietro will remain with the Islanders after signing a 15-year contract that must seem like a life sentence last off-season, no Eastern team experienced more off-season turnover than the Isles. Their entire top line of Ryan Smyth, Alexei Yashin and Jason Blake is gone, replaced by the decidedly inferior trio of Ruslan Fedotenko, Mike Comrie and Bill Guerin. Former No. 1 defenseman Tom Poti also bolted via free agency, replaced by dinosaur Andy Sutton. Ted Nolan spun straw into gold last season with this team, but even he would have to be a certified magician for this rag-tag group to finish anywhere near the postseason.

* denotes division winner

See also: Western Conference Predictions