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Thursday, October 5, 2006
NHL for Dummies

By DJ Gallo
Special to Page 2

The 2006-07 NHL season is under way -- the second season in a row to start on time, without a work stoppage. Well done, NHL. Well done.

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What follows is a team-by-team preview broken down by division. As you read it you may wonder: "Are the teams listed in the order you think they will finish the season, or did you just put them in there alphabetically?" You decide. But realize it could be both, and that maybe I believe all the divisions will just happen to finish the season in alphabetical order by coincidence. Hey, it could happen. You never know.

ATLANTIC DIVISION

NEW JERSEY DEVILS
New Jersey's offense will be bolstered by the return of a healthy Patrik Elias, who signed a seven-year deal to stay with the Devils in the offseason. The Devils should keep an eye out, though -- Elias could become disgruntled if he starts to regret that he didn't take the 75-year contract the Islanders offered him. First-year head coach Claude Julien is planning to install a new defensive-minded system in New Jersey, and let's hope he's successful because hockey sure could use a return to the trapping, clutch-and-grab style of play that flourished before the lockout. Watching games in which goals are scored and talented players are able to use their skills gets so boring after a while.

Fun Fact: This is the last season the Devils will play in Continental Airlines Arena in the Meadowlands complex, as the team is scheduled to open a brand new arena in Newark next season. This is also the last season the Devils' players will feel comfortable leaving their cars parked outside the team's arena.

Rick DiPietro
Islanders fans, better get used to this sight.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
The Islanders made an unconventional move in the offseason by naming backup goalie Garth Snow the team's new general manager. But while the decision was met with much criticism, Snow immediately showed he was up to the job by ridding the team's roster of Garth Snow. The Islanders then signed 25-year-old goaltender Rick DiPietro to a 15-year contract. Having DiPietro locked in gives the front office flexibility to focus its resources on other areas of the team, knowing they'll have to find ways to compensate for a mediocre goalie for a long, long time.

Fun Fact: New head coach Ted Nolan hasn't coached in the NHL since 1997 and has struggled to connect with his new players through his old tactic of relaying all on-ice instructions through Backstreet Boys lyrics.

NEW YORK RANGERS
As good of a season as the Rangers had last year, 2006-07 could be even better thanks to the acquisitions of Brendan Shanahan, Aaron Ward and Matt Cullen. Plus, they'll have some good karma going thanks to their continued willingness to share their home arena with an amateur basketball team. The Rangers brought in Shanahan hoping he would provide the leadership and intangibles the team was lacking last year when they were swept in the first round of the playoffs. It was only icing on the cake that his acquisition fit with the organization's longtime strategy of giving tons of money to players who are past their prime.

Fun Fact: Jaromir Jagr is not going to pass you the puck, so you can stop banging your stick on the ice like that.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
The Flyers lost 388 man games last season to injury. I don't know what these "man games" are, but they sound kinky. And painful. Regardless of all that, Philadelphia's key to success this season will be their ability to stay healthy. This holds especially true for Peter Forsberg, who is among the most injury-prone players in all of sports. Flyers fans just wish Forsberg could play through injuries as well as beloved Philadelphia sports hero Terrell Owens.

Fun Fact: This is the year the talented Flyers will finally put it all together in the playoffs and win the Stanley Cup. Actually, no. It's not. I'm just kidding. That will never happen.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins are stocked with young talent. That's why it's unfortunate they all are likely to be killed or injured this season when the team's decrepit arena inevitably collapses on them during a game. But barring catastrophic injury or loss of life, the Penguins should be greatly improved over last season, when they posted the second-worst record in the NHL thanks to a high-priced roster that was poorly constructed for the post-lockout style of play. But then Penguins fans have come to expect poor management decisions from an owner who has absolutely zero knowledge of the sport.

Fun Fact: Jean-Claude Van Damme is slated to star in "Sudden Death 2," in which Russian mobsters attack Mellon Arena and try to take Evgeni Malkin back to Russia with them by force.

NORTHEAST DIVISION

BOSTON BRUINS
The Bruins traded away Joe Thornton to the Sharks last season, only to see the former No. 1 overall pick lead the league in scoring. As awful as that trade appears to have been for the Bruins, it's actually quite fortuitous because current Bruins know that if they become dominant players, they too can get dealt away from the awful franchise they are currently stuck with to a legitimate contender. And with a squad of players motivated to get out of town, the Bruins could actually find themselves winning some games. At least until all of their overachieving players are stupidly traded away, of course.

Zdeno Chara
Wouldn't the big fella look good in green?
Fun Fact: Newly acquired defenseman Zdeno Chara is 6-foot-9 and 260 pounds, and will split time this season between the Bruins and Celtics due to his height and whiteness.

BUFFALO SABRES
The balanced Sabres are led by goaltender Ryan Miller, the best American-born goalie in the game today. (Yes, that's supposed to be a compliment, unlike 20 years ago, when calling someone the "best American-born goalie" was akin to calling someone the "best Jamaican-born bobsledder.") The Sabres are a tight-knit group, and they'll need to retain that chemistry this season if they are to withstand their opponents constantly making fun of their ridiculous new team logo.

Fun Fact: One dollar from all Sabres jerseys sold with the team's new logo is donated to nonprofit organizations that care for and treat buffaloes tragically born without limbs.

MONTREAL CANADIENS
Owners of the most Stanley Cups in NHL history by a mile, but without a Cup, conference title or division title since 1993, the Canadiens are clearly content to just take it easy for a while and let some other teams catch up. And that's very nice of them. But if Montreal should reverse course and win their 25th championship this season, it will be thanks to goalie Cristobal Huet, who led the league in save percentage last season. Huet is so good, in fact, that he might remind many hockey fans of former Montreal great Patrick Roy, if not for the fact that Huet is not a jackass.

Fun Fact: The Canadiens were founded in 1909, yet in all that time no one in the organization has noticed that there is a typo in the team name and that there should be an "a" where the "e" is. Dummies.

OTTAWA SENATORS
The Senators were the highest-scoring team in the NHL last season and should be just as explosive again this season. And that's great news, because if hockey is ever going to become popular in Canada, there needs to be an exciting team up there. General manager John Muckler is on the hot seat in Ottawa and could get fired if the Senators don't at least make it to the Stanley Cup finals. But it's not as bad as it sounds for Muckler. A man of his age can use a hot seat. The alternative is another blanket on his bed at the old folks' home.

Fun Fact: Ottawa is the capital of Canada. And Canada is an actual country that is located above ours. Really. They're recognized by the UN and everything. Strange, but true.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Last season, the Maple Leafs missed the playoffs for the first time since 1997-98, but luckily for the players, that pretty much went unnoticed in Toronto as the city's residents were so caught up in the Raptors' improved second-half play and the start of a new Blue Jays season. The Maple Leafs don't figure to make the playoffs this season either, and will be playing without combative forward Tie Domi for the first time in more than a decade. Domi retired from hockey so he could have more time to spend on his hobby of punching random passersby on the street.

Fun Fact: Some people call Toronto head coach Paul Maurice the "gangster of love." And some people call him "Maurice."

SOUTHEAST DIVISION

ATLANTA THRASHERS
With the Braves missing out on the playoffs this year and the NFL and college football seasons still in the early stages, Georgia residents are excited to put their full attention on the sport they love most: ice hockey. And the hockey-mad Peach Staters should have a good team to watch, with high-scoring wingers Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa leading the way. The only thing preventing the Thrashers from making noise in the Eastern Conference is their shoddy defense, which allowed 275 goals last season. But making the opposing team feel happy is all part of southern hospitality, so don't expect much to change in that department.

Fun Fact: The Thrashers used five goaltenders last year due to injuries. The five-goalie approach made them virtually impossible to score upon in the one game they used it, but the NHL immediately outlawed the pentagoalie strategy.

CAROLINA HURRICANES
The reigning Stanley Cup champions will have a target on their chest all season. Specifically, one that looks like this. Their ability to repeat might come down to whether or not opponents are able to find weaknesses in second-year goaltender Cam Ward. (Try this move out, NHL players: When coming in on Ward, deke left, then right, then left again and then shoot to the right side of the net. This move worked 100 percent of the time for me in my NHL '95 video game, so it should probably work on Ward, too. But do it this year. He'll fix that flaw in time for next season.)

Fun Fact: The Hurricanes were 21-0-0 last year in games in which they scored the first goal, but winless in games in which neither team scored the first goal.

FLORIDA PANTHERS
The Panthers emboldened their fans and created hope for the future by making a late push for the playoffs last season that ultimately fell short. But still, even almost making the playoffs is pretty impressive, because qualifying for the postseason is extremely tough to do in the NHL. Only, like, barely more than half of the teams make it. The biggest stumbling block in the way of the Panthers qualifying for this year's playoffs is successfully replacing goalie Roberto Luongo, who was dealt in the offseason for forward Todd Bertuzzi. But the Panthers shouldn't worry. Anyone who dares score a goal on them will think better of doing it again after Bertuzzi punches them in the back of the head.

Fun Fact: Florida goalie Ed Belfour will give you a billion dollars if you'll just let him get back in his car and go home.

John Tortorella
Gotta love the hair.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Just one season removed from winning the Stanley Cup, head coach John Tortorella is on the hot seat in Tampa Bay -- which is unfortunate, because that greased-up 'do of his could easily catch fire near a heat source. The Lightning are desperately trying to recapture the magic from the 2003-04 Cup-winning season, but it doesn't appear the team will be a legitimate contender this season. But at least Lightning fans can be content with the knowledge that the current squad will be far better than the 2004-05 team that failed to notch a single win all year.

Fun Fact: When you see lightning, you should turn off your television if you don't have a surge protector. And when you see the Lightning, you should turn off your television because they're just not that good anymore.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS
Alexander Ovechkin is so exciting with the puck that he can make an entire arena hush in anticipation of what he will do next. Granted, the Verizon Center is almost always silent anyway because there are rarely ever any fans there, but my point still stands: Alexander Ovechkin is an exciting player. Unfortunately, the Capitals don't have much help for him. So let's just hope Washington regularly releases videos of Ovechkin going against his teammates in practice. That must be an amazing amount of scoring to witness.

Fun Fact: U.S. Congressman Mark Foley owns an Alexander Semin Capitals jersey that he often wears while chatting online.

CENTRAL DIVISION

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
I'm not positive about this, but I think the Blackhawks organization folded nine or 10 years ago. So let's move on to teams that are still actually competing in the NHL …

Anna Kournikova
What would you have rather seen here, another photo of a hockey player, or Anna K.? Yeah, thought so.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Columbus acquired Sergei Fedorov last season to provide another scoring threat to go along with Rick Nash. But Fedorov hurt his shoulder already -- which he likely threw out while thinking intensely about former girlfriend Anna Kournikova -- and is on the shelf. But if Fedorov comes back soon and the team's defense improves, Columbus could end its five-year playoff drought, the longest in franchise history.

Fun Fact: The Blue Jackets are generally regarded to have the best fans among all the new NHL teams, which might have something to do with the fact that there actually is ice in Ohio. Just a theory.

DETROIT RED WINGS
Detroit's run as an elite team is likely over, and some in hockey believe the Red Wings could even miss the playoffs. If that happens there would be far-reaching implications, as Detroit's octopus retailers would be dealt a serious blow, further crippling the city's struggling economy. The Red Wings are far from doomed, however, and having the unretired Dominik Hasek in goal gives them a shot every night. Or at least it does for the first month or so of the season until Hasek up and decides to quit again.

Fun Fact: Steve Yzerman, the team's 41-year-old captain, retired in the offseason, thereby raising the average age of Detroit's roster.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS
With the Red Wings on the downswing, the Predators increased payroll 30 percent over last season in hopes of making a run at the Central Division title. If the Predators do win the division it would be huge for the organization, which would finally be able to afford to get the Predators much-needed orthodontic work. Nashville's weakness is its defense, with only one defenseman with more than two seasons of NHL experience. But hey, maybe the Predators will be blessed with a whole bunch of beginner's luck and become an impenetrable force on defense. That's no less likely than an NHL team being placed in Tennessee, right?

Fun Fact: I'm not one to make moral judgments about people, but I watched a show called "To Catch a Predator" the other night, and I have to say, this team is full of a bunch of disgusting perverts.

ST. LOUIS BLUES
The Blues ended their streak of 25 consecutive playoff appearances last season. But they didn't just barely fall short of the postseason. No, they decided that if they were going to miss the playoffs, they'd do it in style and proceeded to post the worst record in the entire NHL. That's the kind of dedication and commitment to a goal that could make the Blues a Cup contender again someday if any of their players ever learn how to play hockey.

Fun Fact: The Blues hired longtime NHL broadcaster John Davidson this offseason to be their team president. He quickly did what any broadcaster turned team executive would do and ordered that the team's postgame spread be doubled in size.

NORTHWEST DIVISION

Jarome Iginla
Iginla, one of the most exciting young players in the league.
CALGARY FLAMES
The Flames will be in the Stanley Cup hunt right to the end thanks to Jarome Iginla, Vezina winner Miikka Kiprusoff and young superstar defenseman Dion Phaneuf, who is about to become a household name. (Note: The preceding sentence is good for Canadian households only.) Their only weakness is their inability to score. Well, it's not that they can't score, it's just that they often don't want to. The women in Calgary just aren't as hot as what you might find in cities like New York, Los Angeles or Montreal.

Fun Fact: I don't want your hate mail, women of Calgary. Learn how to take a joke. And a shower. (Kidding! Jeez -- I'm kidding. No, but seriously, the shower thing. Ha! No, kidding again. But make sure to suds up well.)

COLORADO AVALANCHE
The Avalanche can expect a downturn this season, just like their hated rival, the Detroit Red Wings. However, on the positive side, we could all be treated to some intense late-season Colorado-Detroit battles as the teams fight it out for more draft lottery balls. Colorado's only hope to return to the playoffs is for goaltender Jose Theodore to return to his 2002 form, when he won the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP. Since then he has taken it upon himself to draw more fans to the sport by single-handedly increasing the average number of goals scored in games.

Fun Fact: Avalanche fans think it's all fun and games until they're crushed by one while skiing.

EDMONTON OILERS
The Oilers are curious to find out this season if Dwayne Roloson is the goalie who played lights-out for a month last year in the playoffs, or the guy who was pretty mediocre for the eight years prior. Hmm … tough call there. Not really enough of a sample size on either side to make an informed opinion, but I'm going to take a flier and guess that he'll go back to being an average goalie. Regardless of how Roloson plays, it will be tough for the Oilers to return to the Stanley Cup finals without the departed Chris Pronger, Michael Peca and Sergei Samsonov. You know, it sounds like Edmonton can't really support an NHL team, letting guys like that get away. I bet Albuquerque or San Antonio could use a team. Heck, it's time Puerto Rico is welcomed into the NHL.

Fun Fact: Oilers season-ticket sales dropped off dramatically ever since that Al Gore movie came out.

MINNESOTA WILD
The Wild went on a spending spree in the offseason, signing Pavol Demitra, Mark Parrish, Kim Johnsson and Keith Carney. Carney might be the best signing because he strengthens the Wild defense but, more importantly, Carneys are hilarious -- he'll be great for locker room morale. An area of concern for Minnesota is the power play. Last year they were 21st in the league with a man advantage, whereas they were first in the league in penalty killing. So the strategy is clear this season: Always commit penalties to go a man down.

Fun Fact: Want to get wild? Call Destiny at 555-2811. (Just passing along what I read on the wall of a public restroom yesterday.)

VANCOUVER CANUCKS
The Canucks have finally plugged their hole in goal by acquiring Roberto Luongo from Florida. But it remains to be seen whether Luongo will have the same focus in Vancouver now that he is no longer in a city with a hockey-mad fan base that will view his play under a microscope all season. Vancouver's offense will be led by Markus Naslund and the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, who showed marked improvement last season but still come off as sort of creepy by wearing the same outfit every game. I hate when twins do that. It's just weird.

Fun Fact: The average Canuck loves hockey, maple syrup and beer.

PACIFIC DIVISION

ANAHEIM DUCKS
With Disney no longer owning the franchise, Anaheim decided to make its team name 50 percent less ridiculous by dropping "Mighty" in the offseason. Somewhere Emilio Estevez is crying. And most likely it's on the set of a B movie. The Ducks could very well christen their new name and redesigned uniforms this season with a Stanley Cup title -- especially in light of the acquisition of superstar defenseman Chris Pronger. And even if the Ducks don't win it all, at least Pronger and his wife will provide plenty of material for L.A.'s gossip columnists.

Fun Fact: Unlike the "Godfather" movies, the third installment of the "Mighty Ducks" films -- "D3"
-- is actually far superior to the original and its sequel. Although they are all amazing pieces of cinema.

Jussi Jokinen
Wow, Jokinen gets stopped for once.
DALLAS STARS
The Stars' big offseason acquisition was center Eric Lindros, who fills the team's need for a player who looks good laying strewn out on the ice unconscious. Dallas will also look for excitement from Jussi Jokinen, a 23-year-old forward, who became a star rookie last year due to his uncanny ability to score highlight-reel goals in overtime shootouts. This has led Dallas to plan this season to routinely blow late-game leads in order to showcase Jokinen and sell more tickets. And in order to lose leads, the team has asked goalie Marty Turco to mind the net in the regular season as though it were the playoffs.

Fun Fact: Marty Turco has a career postseason record of 8-14. But his many detractors always conveniently fail to mention his outstanding career preseason record. Come on, let's be fair, Turco haters.

LOS ANGELES KINGS
The Kings will figure just as much in the Stanley Cup picture as their Pacific Division brethren Ducks, Sharks and Stars because it will be against the Kings that those teams will get extra wins to help their playoff seeding. L.A.'s biggest weakness is its power play, which ranked 29th in the league last season. But that's actually somewhat endearing, because it shows the Kings aren't the type to kick a team when it's down. The Kings might not be the greatest hockey players, sure, but you'd be blessed to have any of them as a friend.

Fun Fact: Head coach Marc Crawford ends each practice with the line: "Good night, you princes of pain, you kings of Los Angeles."

PHOENIX COYOTES
The Coyotes have a solid squad, but don't bet on them to do much in the stacked Pacific Division. (Especially you, Janet.) No matter what, though, they will be tougher than last season thanks to the acquisition of Ed Jovanovski, Georges Laraques, Owen Nolan and Jeremy Roenick. And not only will those players help on the ice, but off it, too -- because any gambling outfit that wants to be taken seriously needs to have some good muscle.

Fun Fact: The Coyotes' logo is choking on a hairball. Please, for the love of God, someone get some help! Quick!

SAN JOSE SHARKS
The Sharks got off to a slow start last season, but became an elite team after acquiring Joe Thornton from the Bruins. They have a few holes going into this year, but nothing they can't fix by ripping off the Bruins in a few more trades as the season progresses. The Sharks will continue to play this season with the same balanced style on the ice that took them to the second round of the playoffs last year. And why shouldn't they? They've stuck with the same disgusting teal that was briefly popular among 12-year-olds when the team was founded in the early '90s, so there's no reason to mess with their on-ice approach, either.

Fun Fact: Congratulations. You and six other people made it all the way to the end of this article.

DJ Gallo is the founder and sole writer of the award-winning sports satire site SportsPickle.com. He is also a regular contributor to ESPN The Magazine and Fantasy Sports Monthly, and has written for The Onion and Cracked. His first book -- "SportsPickle Presents: The View from the Upper Deck" -- will be in stores soon.