Ah, preseason prediction time, when columnists consult their crystal balls for the benefit of readers and NHL dressing room bulletin boards everywhere. Here's what ours said: "Hey, you're no different than everybody else out there, smart guy. So guess away, and make sure you include a disclaimer that, under no circumstances is anyone to wager legal tender based on said guesswork."
Righty-o, then. Here's a brief look at each team's fortunes for the next 82 games (and, following that, our season predictions, with help from actor/comedian Denis Leary and Aerosmith's Joe Perry):
Atlanta Thrashers: The horrific car accident that killed Dan Snyder and injured Dany Heatley is a huge psychological and on-ice blow to a team many believed might creep into the postseason for the first time in franchise history. GM Don Waddell is painfully aware of that, which is why he picked up Jani Hurme in a waiver draft deal that created a major-league logjam in net. One of Hurme, Byron Dafoe, or Pasi Nurminen will be dealt sooner than later, for what Waddell hopes will adequately replace Heatley's offense. But who's kidding who; you don't replace a talent like Heatley's by dealing a mid-level goalie. It'd help if one-time No. 1 pick Patrik Stefan would quit it with the Alexandre Daigle-like career trajectory, but that's like asking Arnold Schwarzenneger to come up with a campaign speech that doesn't include a catchphrase from one of his movies.
Boston Bruins: Let's go over the now-traditional Bruins offseason to-do-list: Hire new coach (Mike Sullivan) -- check. Delete highly-skilled but pricey player (Jozef Stumpel) -- check. Bring in non-elite goalie (Felix Potvin) to replace non-elite goalie (Jeff Hackett) from last season -- check. They're nothing if not predictable, aren't they? All the more reason to feel sorry for Joe Thornton. No slight to Glen Murray, but imagine Thornton on a Colorado or a Detroit team; the league's best young forward would be virtually unstoppable. But he's in Boston, where the bottom line is the top priority, so he'll have to settle for another decent regular season followed by another first-round playoff exit.
Buffalo Sabres: Anyone who grew up listening to Rick Jeanneret owes a debt of gratitude to new owner Thomas Golisano, who saved the Sabres from relocation. Golisano's burgeoning bank account meant GM Darcy Regier could acquire solid players like Chris Drury and Andy Delmore, rather than dealing them away. Is that enough to get back to contention for a playoff spot? Um, no. Young forwards Taylor Pyatt and Tim Connolly haven't played anywhere near the level expected of them, and with Regier facing a win-or-it's-your-hide mandate from Golisano, they could be two of the first to go if the team struggles out of the gate.
Carolina Hurricanes: As the team learned last year, trading Marek Malik was akin to converting an over-hyped defense from the year before into turnstiles on skates. GM Jim Rutherford got the hint, and acquired tough defensemen Danny Markov and Bob Boughner -- and brought back Glen Wesley -- to address the issue. Problem is, Ron Francis is that much closer to getting discounts for public transit and prescription drugs, and Rod Brind'Amour is coming off a nasty wrist injury that cost him half his season. Struggles from either player could be disastrous. And is anybody other than his immediate family completely convinced Kevin Weekes is a No. 1 goalie?
Florida Panthers: On the one hand, this team has a lot of things going for it, such as Roberto Luongo's goaltending, Olli Jokinen's breakthrough season, and the potential of defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Nathan Horton. On the other hand, there's the return of enigmatic (read: hope and pray he's motivated) forward Valeri Bure, the possibility that Jokinen will revert to his underachieving ways, and the relationship between GM Rick Dudley and coach Mike Keenan -- which is more volatile than Courtney Love at a Vicodin convention -- to consider. Translation: There will be continued improvement, but not enough to avoid missing the postseason for the fourth consecutive year.
Montreal Canadiens: It's not a fun time to be a Canadiens fan. Economics dictated that the team's biggest offseason addition was GM Bob Gainey, which is far from a bad thing. But unless he's cloned himself circa 1980, Gainey faces a tough road getting the team back into the playoffs. First, there's Jose Theodore's personal distractions to worry about. Second, depending on developing talents on the blue line (as in Mike Komisarek and Ron Hainsey) is not the standard blueprint for a championship. Dumping unparalleled money-waster Mariusz Czerkawski is a start, but the rebuilding job Gainey faces makes Boston's "Big Dig" look like a third-grade science project.
New Jersey Devils: It's the same old story in Lou Lamoriello's championship factory -- draft better than any team in the league, forbid the words "pay" and "raise" to be used in the same breath, and win Stanley Cups. Oh yes, and bore the opposition into submission with the kind of hockey that gives one the urge to apply liquid cement to the eyelid area. That's why Lou can lose Joe Nieuwendyk to Toronto and Ken Daneyko to retirement, replace them with little-knowns like Mike Rupp and Sean Brown, and come off none the worse for wear. Expect more sleep-inducing evenings, and more wins from the Devils this season.
New York Islanders: $90 million for Alexei Yashin. It's still hard to say without convulsing in laughter, isn't it? New Isles coach Steve Stirling -- whose name sounds like a perfect replacement for The Simpsons' Troy McLure -- will try where others have failed, and we'd like to wish him all the luck in the world in getting real value out of Yashin, who signed hockey's equivalent of Michael Jackson's latest recording contract. And though GM Mike Milbury has assembled one of the league's best young defense corps, it's getting mighty close to now-or-never time for Rick DiPietro.
New York Rangers: Whadda ya know, coach-GM Glen Sather decided against deploying another fleet of Brinks trucks to another group of guys whose best-before date came and went eons ago. Now, that's not to say he abandoned the philosophy altogether; rather, he simply toned it down a tad, signing retreads Chris Simon, Jan Hlavac, and Martin Rucinsky to slightly silly deals. Sather also took a page from Lamoriello's book in dictating a more stringent approach (English-only on the ice and in the dressing room, no cellphones on the team bus), but he could require school uniforms and white-glove dust inspections and it won't matter a lick until he gets the team's enormous egos committed to one another.
Ottawa Senators: Nobody said a team has to have a personality to be successful, and the Senators are check-collecting proof of that. New owner Eugene Melnyk has the bucks to keep his highly-skilled players in Ottawa, but let's be clear: this team has had ample time to grow into a contender and nothing less than a berth in the Stanley Cup final will result in a massive restructuring of the roster next season. And there's a team out there that could better benefit from the postseason savvy of a Steve Thomas, we'd like to see it.
Philadelphia Flyers: With Roman Cechmanek taking his "wild and crazy guy" act to California, you'd think the logical choice for GM Bob Clarke would be to bring in the money goalie NHL observers say the team has lacked all these years. Apparently, Clarke feels the same way about NHL observers as he did about Valeri Kharlamov's ankle in 1972, as he decided on Jeff Hackett -- he of three career playoff wins -- as the team's starter. If Hackett falters when it counts in April, don't be shocked to see Clarke put in calls to agents for Steve Shields, Arturs Irbe, Manon Rheaume and Johnny Bower next summer.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Yes, they've got one of the greatest players in league history and a rookie goalie who could be the next Patrick Roy, but after that, it gets Dave-from-Paradise-Hotel-ugly. To wit: Drake Berehowsky is part of the team's top defensive pairing. No, we weren't being held hostage by his agent while typing that -- Berehowsky really is that high up on the Penguins' so-called depth chart. Pray for Mario, people -- this is a mess even the Fab 5 from "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" couldn't fix.
Tampa Bay Lightning: It's dangerous to bet against the Lightning, who proved last season that a hungry young coach (John Tortorella) and developing youngsters (Vincent Lecavalier, Dan Boyle) can teach the old dogs something new. That said, when you lose your leading scorer (Vaclav Prospal) to free agency, replace him with a guy who wore out his welcome in St. Louis (Cory Stillman) and alienate your No. 1 goalie (Nikolai Khabibulin) in the team's last playoff game, is it wise to assume there won't be a letdown of some degree? Thought not, but another playoff appearance isn't nearly the stretch it was a year ago.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Adding Joe Nieuwendyk and Ken Klee can only help the Leafs, as can the hiring of new GM John Ferguson, Jr., who, despite the frothy ravings of the local media, provides a stable and multitalented presence for Toronto's front office. But not all is peachy; the defense remains somewhat pylon-ish -- is there a softer supposed No. 1 in the NHL than Tomas Kaberle? -- and, with the loss of Travis Green, a deep but aging forward corps may not be as deep as first suspected. Still, there's lots to like here, and if Ferguson can parlay a surplus forward into a minute-munching blueliner, misery-loving Leaf fans finally might be watching the Blue and White play in June.
Washington Capitals: For those who believe a team doesn't follow the example set by its best player, we'd like to point your eyes in the direction of Jaromir Jagr, who, if you look close enough, has a tiny bumper sticker at the bottom of his jersey that reads "I'd rather be gambling." Otherwise, it looks to be a fun-filled season for Caps fans -- at least, for those who believe it doesn't get any better than watching a defense (torn to ribbons by the losses of Klee and Calle Johansson) let down Olie Kolzig on a nightly basis.
Anaheim Mighty Ducks: Ducks fans were ready to commit hari-kari after Ducks GM Bryan Murray elected not to renew Paul Kariya's contract and Anaheim's franchise
player bolted in anger to Colorado. But with Sergei Fedorov and Prospal now in the fold -- not to mention the underrated pickup of defenseman Todd Simpson via the waiver draft -- a return to the league championship won't be nearly as much of a shock. Keeping Fedorov away from dozy blondes with aspirations of fame will be crucial, although that shouldn't be a problem in Southern California, should it?
Calgary Flames: Coach-GM Darryl Sutter wanted to craft the team in his image this summer, and it seems ex-Flames Bob Boughner, Chris Drury, Craig Berube don't resemble Sutter in the slightest. Rhett Warrener will provide more grit on Calgary's blueline, but it's no secret Jarome Iginla and the rest of the Flames crave a new collective bargaining agreement as badly as they do a Stanley Cup. Certainly, the resolution of the former appears to be the only shot the cash-strapped club has at the latter.
Chicago Blackhawks: Hawks management looked at the unmitigated disaster that was the team's 2002-03 season and decided things had to change. So Theo Fleury was waived and Tuomo Ruutu was signed. Talk about your house-cleanings. Things just seem to get sadder and sadder in Chicago, which now can count a semi-successful baseball team as another in a long line of distractions from a pathetic excuse for an NHL team. On the bright side, owner Bill Wirtz
refuses to subject fans to watching his employees play home games; by January, he might want to consider blacking out road contests, too. Consider it a public service, Bill.
Colorado Avalanche: GM Pierre Lacroix is proving to be somewhat of a gambler. He knew when to hold 'em, signing Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne at far less than market value, but he hasn't quite folded 'em -- at least, when it comes to the situation in net, where he hopes a pair of young guys (David Aebischer, Philippe Sauve) will combine for a full house with the league's top offense and a defense that isn't on the shabby side, either. Worse than that analogy would be the prospect of an inexperienced goalie costing the Avs a playoff series, so if Nikolai Khabibulin or Sean Burke is brought in, we told you so.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Doug MacLean has been unfairly tarnished for the seeming lack of progress the Blue Jackets have made in their three years of existence, but he made some solid additions to the roster in Darryl Sydor, Fred Brathwaite and Trevor Letowski, and the Jackets should be much improved. Now, about that six-year, $19 million deal with Todd Marchant are we the only ones who see those numbers and think "buyout in year four"? One 20-goal, 50-point season over a 10-year NHL career apparently is worth a lot more than it used to be.
Dallas Stars: One of the league' top teams took some major body blows in the offseason when owner Tom Hicks decided payroll needed to be pared. So defenseman Derian Hatcher and Daryl Sydor are gone, and if Glen Sather reverts to form, Bill Guerin and/or Jason Arnott could be next. That said, Dave Tippett remains one of the league's best coaches, and ex-Coyote Teppo Numminen will replace some of the stability lost on the blue line, so Stars fans can count on another high playoff seeding.
Detroit Red Wings: Adding Hatcher to a blue line that already features Nicklas Lidstrom, Jiri Fischer, Chris Chelios and Mathieu Schneider is almost unfair. But there are lingering questions at the center position, what with Fedorov gone and Steve Yzerman's wonky knee far from game-tested. Still, the signing of free agent Ray Whitney may be the most underrated move of the summer, and if GM Ken Holland can get anything of value for Curtis Joseph -- and if Dominik Hasek can be steered clear of roller hockey games -- more Illitch family names could very well be etched into the Cup as of June.
Edmonton Oilers: Being an Oilers fan is like going out with a supermodel before they become a supermodel; you know how good they are, but once they reach that next level, they're gone, and you're just a measly couple of sentences in their bio. Another team that desperately hopes to be assisted by a new labor agreement, the Oilers will need Raffi Torres and Jarret Stoll to step up, but more importantly, they'll have to help Tommy Salo win the first playoff series of his career, lest his reputation be sullied even further.
Los Angeles Kings: Not re-signing Potvin was a step in the right direction, but replacing him with Cechmanek, the NHL's version of Bill "Spaceman" Lee, was a step into oncoming traffic. Bringing back Stumpel and Luc Robitaille were good moves by GM Dave Taylor, although the health of oft-injured forwards Adam Deadmarsh and Jason Allison will be the ultimate indicator of how well the Kings will do.
Minnesota Wild: Before we begin, let's avoid the nasty e-mails from Minnesotans: It's fantastic to see NHL hockey thriving again in the state. It's also great to see coach Jacques Lemaire make a collection of journeymen believe in themselves and overachieve beyond most people's expectations. But does all of this have to come using a system that makes all who watch it feel is if they've been secretly struck by a blow-dart tranquilizer?
Nashville Predators: It seems like only yesterday the Predators were enjoying a love affair with the city of Nashville. Five years later, divorce papers have yet to be served, but fans have begun to consult their attorneys. That's what happens when all you've got to show for your existence is the league's most horrific alternate jersey and nothing but sub-.500 seasons. Rookie Jordin Tootoo will be fun to watch, but when Jim McKenzie is your most prominent offseason addition, do you seriously expect to contend for a playoff spot, let alone a Stanley Cup? (And if the answer is yes, what type of moonshine do you recommend?)
Phoenix Coyotes: Big changes are going down in the Arizona, as the Coyotes have a new arena, new uniforms and a new logo to brag about. They've also revamped the roster, and brought in some veteran help (Mike Sillinger, Tyson Nash and Chris Gratton) to complement the youth movement. You know one of Zac Bierk, Brian Boucher and Sean Burke will be traded by the All-Star game, so the Coyotes figure to get something of value in return, but unless that something is a time machine for co-owner Wayne Gretzky to step into, the league's cellar will sport a distinctively desert motif.
St. Louis Blues: Normally, losing a trio of veterans would be cause for concern. Luckily for Blues fans, the surnames dumped were Stillman, Bure and Rucinsky, none of whom will ever be looked for in an arena corner should they go missing. Chris Pronger's health is crucial, but not nearly as crucial as the play of Chris Osgood. If Osgood puts up a few stinkers early in the year, the "Cujo" catcalls will be in full effect, and GM Larry Pleau may look at his aging core and decide to bring back Curtis Joseph to his first NHL team.
San Jose Sharks: Well, that was embarrassing. No, not thinking the world could do without a Whoopi Goldberg sitcom, we mean picking the Sharks as a Cup contender last season. Nonetheless, under a good coach like Ron Wilson, the Sharks will have an opportunity to develop the good crop of youngsters (including Brad Boyes, Christian Ehroff and Jonathan Cheechoo) this season. In other words, just as they weren't as good as predicted last year, they won't be as bad as fans fear this season.
Vancouver Canucks: You've got to give GM Brian Burke credit for putting together a powerhouse team, but Dr. Screen Shots detects a trace of BobClarke-itis when it comes to the Canucks' situation in net. That's not to say Dan Cloutier can't still become an elite goaltender, but another season of tissue-soft goals in the playoffs won't sit well with anyone, let alone the duo of Todd Bertuzzi and Markus Naslund. Burke's belief in Cloutier is admirable, but he brought in ex-Penguin Johan Hedberg just in case.
E-mail Adam Proteau at email@example.com.
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