Screen Shots: Our conference picks
In continuing with Screen Shots' Prediction Month, we're pleased to present our Eastern and Western Conference picks for your amusement:
But first, let's clarify a few things, before your e-mail trigger finger gets all itchy:
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OK, finally, here are our picks ranked in terms of overall point totals, as opposed to conference finish.
Is this the year Darryl Sutter finally takes home the league's Mr. Congeniality Award? Doubtful. However, when it comes to putting together hard-working hockey teams, there are few equal to the Flames' coach-GM. Adding proven veterans such as Daymond Langkow and Darren McCarty, along with rookie phenom Dion Phaneuf, will only add heart and hunger to a lineup that already was chock-full of both en route to a Stanley Cup final appearance.
Philanthropists Henry and Susan Samueli bought the Ducks in June and have been giving back to Southern California's hockey fans ever since. If you think the rejuvenated Penguins have the league's best power play, try this on for size: Sergei Fedorov, Teemu Selanne, Petr Sykora, Scott Niedermayer and Sandis Ozolinsh.
3. San Jose Sharks
GM Doug Wilson didn't make waves in the free-agent/trade market this summer. He hasn't called reporters to rail at perceived slights against his organization. All he's done is build a young, fast, well-coached team that could benefit most from the league's crackdown on obstruction. You won't find a cavalcade of big-name, bigger-ticket players here; just a collection of guys who parlay fan enthusiasm and the team concept into victories. Should Evgeni Nabokov lead them to a home-ice advantage playoff berth, the sky is the limit.
Recipe for an NHL team ripe for another first-round playoff exit this year: start with an organization no longer able to cure its problems with a visit to Bob Goodenow's Free-Agent Emporium. Remove proven NHL veterans such as Brett Hull, Mathieu Dandeneault, Curtis Joseph, Derian Hatcher and Ray Whitney. Sprinkle with anxiety of Wings fans who look at the team's goaltending tandem of Chris Osgood and Manny Legace. Let simmer until late April.
The Canucks have new ownership, but that's about the only new aspect to the organization, other than the addition of much-traveled Anson Carter. Dan Cloutier was so-so playing in the Austrian League during the lockout, and the pressure will be back on him to elevate his game. Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi will again be among the league's leading offensive producers, but Bertuzzi will be a little slower on the road thanks to the Rafael Palmeiro-sized earplugs he'll need.
6. Los Angeles
You're Kings GM Dave Taylor. To better your team, you dropped a goaltending bust (Roman Cechmanek) and added a boatload of offensively skilled veterans (Valeri Bure, Craig Conroy, Pavol Demitra, Jeremy Roenick). You've got an unproven goalie (Mathieu Garon) as your No. 1, and your defense isn't blowing anyone away, but neither did Tampa Bay's when they won the Stanley Cup. You've done well, and even if it all goes down the dumper, at least you can sell tickets to watch J.R. and Conroy battle to see who can talk the longest in a single breath.
Sure, the acquisition of Paul Kariya will raise Nashville's profile, both in Tennessee and across the league. But the engine that will drive this vehicle is Tomas Vokoun. He more than makes up for a blue-line corps that lacks anything close to a bona fide No. 1 defenseman. And if coach Barry "Hot To" Trotz can speed the development of the organization's young players, the Predators could (gasp!) challenge the Red Wings for the Central Division crown.
The Oilers just missed out on the final playoff spot in 2003-04. With the help of new arrivals Chris Pronger and Mike Peca, they'll just sneak into the eighth seed this year. Why not higher, you ask? Because neither Ty Conklin nor Jussi Markkanen have ever been a starting goalie for a full NHL season, and because their offensive attack isn't quite where it should be.
Bye-bye, Peter Forsberg, Adam Foote, and, for at least the first month of the season, Milan Hejduk. Hello, Pierre Turgeon, Patrice Brisebois and, for at least the last month of the season, a dogfight to stay out of the draft lottery. That's the kind of offseason summary that cries out for an anti-depressant prescription. Swiss goalie David Aebischer better have wound all his clocks and loaded up on chocolates, because it looks to be a long, sour season in Denver.
Hockey observers everywhere are interested in the Wayne Gretzky-coached Coyotes for a couple reasons: First, they want to see how much GM Mike Barnett's collection of newly obtained veterans, including Mike Ricci, Petr Nedved and Curtis Joseph, have left in the tank. Second, they want to see if Gretzky can add another record to his unrivaled collection: the "82 Different Hairstyles in 82 Games" mark.
We know Mike Modano re-signed, and that Bill Guerin, Sergei Zubov and Marty Turco are still there. But we also know that the Stars' offense, which ranked 20th in the league before the organization's offseason purge of veterans, is even more questionable now that they'll be depending on young talent. In a league that's supposed to be about goal scoring, that spells trouble for coach Dave Tippett and Co.
There's much to like about the Blue Jackets. In Rick Nash, Nikolai Zherdev and Gilbert Brule, they've got a trio of young standouts on offense. Adding Bryan Berard and Adam Foote will shore up their defense, which has been especially pylon-like since the franchise's inception. And their rabid fan base will provide financial stability for years to come. This team will definitely contend for a Cup -- just not for another few seasons. By then, goalie Pascal Leclaire should be ready, and GM Doug MacLean will be free of a few cumbersome contracts. They're close, but not quite there.
Ah, the Blackhawks, the preferred non-televised punching bags of hockey writers everywhere. Are they better, having brought Nikolai Khabibulin and Adrian Aucoin on board this summer? Of course, they are. But their defense remains as wafer-thin as it ever was. And Martin Lapointe? At three years and $7.2 million? Good grief. Don't plan a vacation just yet, perennial interim GM Bob Pulford.
Thank goodness the fine folks who fill the Xcel Energy Center night after night are a patient bunch. They'll need to be, seeing as their team could very well take a short-term step backwards for its long-term good. That is, unless Jacques Lemaire can tweak the trap he perfected and turn it into "the trap door" to capture the Wild's opponents inside.
15. St. Louis
They're for sale, their biggest (and we do mean biggest) star followed the Pac-Man offseason training regimen, and their new starting goalie got ran out of Ottawa. Here's hoping baseball's Cardinals and football's Rams do St. Louis residents proud this fall. The Blues sure aren't going to.
One of the reasons Jacques Martin isn't coaching the Sens anymore is because he didn't play Jason Spezza enough. New boss Bryan Murray won't be so slow to learn; Spezza made grown men look silly last season in the AHL, and 90 percent of the league thinks this is the year he makes the jump to NHL star. If that happens, along with Dany Heatley and Dominik Hasek returning to form, few teams can compete with this slick-skating crew. The playoffs, though, are a whole other story.
2. Tampa Bay
Bolts GM Jay Feaster's summer - re-signing Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St-Louis to long-term deals, plugging the hole left by his top goalie's departure with the addition of solid vet Sean Burke - qualifies as a minor miracle. Dan Boyle is underrated, Brad Richards is playing for a new contract next summer and John Tortorella is still running the ship. Khabibulin, Shmabibulin. These champs ain't goin' nowhere.
Everybody loves the Flyers, and why not? Peter Forsberg's presence alone makes them Cup favorites, while their small army of prospects - including Jeff Carter, Antero Niittymaki and Mike Richards - is as talented as any other team's. But coach Ken Hitchcock has some work to do, as Philly's penalty killing in 2003-04 alternated between shamefully horrendous and horrendously shameful. Mr. Injury Bug could re-familiarize himself with many veteran players, crushing the Flyers' playoff hopes in the process.
Not only have the Thrashers added Marian Hossa, Greg de Vries, Bobby Holik, Peter Bondra, Scott Mellanby and Jaroslav Modry since the last Stanley Cup final, but they also have to look forward to 16 games this season against division patsies Carolina and Washington.
Harry Sinden is already aching for the good old days of obstruction, but his Bruins should hope the penalty parade continues throughout the season. With elite offensive talents such as Alexei Zhamnov and Brian Leetch added to the team, Boston is poised to make a run at Ottawa for the Northeast Divison title.
Let's start with the negatives: Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury still isn't ready for the NHL. Also, three or four years from now, Pens GM Craig Patrick may regret signing defenseman Sergei Gonchar to a five-year deal. That's about all we've got. There's far more upside to this franchise than there was as recently as June. And let's give Patrick some credit for foresight - he signed Andre Roy and Ryan VandenBussche, knowing full well one would have to replace the other during the fighting-related suspensions that are an inevitability.
By now, nobody's more sick of Leafs talk than we are. Their season hinges on a bunch of "ifs." If Jeff O'Neill mounts a successful career revival; if Eric Lindros and Jason Allison can stay healthy; if Tie Domi's request for a ceasefire with the media lasts a day, let alone a season. Most know you can say the same thing about the fate of every team.
South Floridians might be more interested in Shaquille O'Neal's rap career than the job Panthers GM Mike Keenan has done this offseason, and that's a shame. There may not be a team with more promising prospects than Florida; now that they've got some of the league's most focused professionals (Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk) as well as some grit (Chris Gratton) and scoring (Jozef Stumpel), they could be good enough to convince goalie Roberto Luongo to forget about the trouncing he took during contract arbitration.
9. New Jersey
That's right, ninth. Out of the playoffs. Unfamiliar territory for this franchise, to be sure, but it happens to the best of them. Don't agree? Think the losses of Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer can be easily overcome? Absolutely positive dealing away Jeff Friesen to get under the salary cap won't hurt the team at all? Completely convinced the returning Alexander Mogilny isn't an awkward stride away from having his hip explode during a game? Not us. Martin Brodeur may still be the league's top goalie, but he'll have to increase the size of his pads and shrink his own net to keep this team in the postseason.
The "glass-is-half-full" analysis of the Canadiens: They've got one of the league's fastest rosters, their prospects have a real shot at contributing this year, and their management is second to none. The "glass-is-half-empty" view: Their defense is, to put it charitably, rather charitable in providing opponents with offensive opportunities; their roster doesn't lack size, if we were talking about the league circa 1936; and Radek Bonk remains Radek Bonk. The truth? The playoffs are out of reach, but that's the last time you'll be able to say that about the Habs for quite a while.
Is it possible to add a 30-goal scorer and a mobile, puck-moving defenseman without improving your team? It is if the players are Miroslav Satan and Alexei Zhitnik, the Islanders' big offseason acquisitions. Neither could pull the Buffalo Sabres out of the league's basement when they were there, so it's a little unfair to presume they'll do just that for GM Mike Milbury.
Everybody who saw the Sabres run roughshod over the opposition during the last three weeks needs to relax and remember one thing: It's the preseason. "Pre" as in "pre-tend", "pre-dictable", "pre-mature" and "pre-posterous." Now, we're not implying the team's plethora of inexperienced youngsters won't lead them anywhere close to a playoff spot, let alone a Stanley Cup. Actually, scratch that. That's exactly what we're implying.
Those interested in the world's great mysteries now have a new addition to the likes of the Atlantis, Stonehenge and The Shroud of Turin: Glen Sather's continued employment with the Rangers. Try as he may - by bringing in high-risk, low-rewarders such as Martin Rucinsky and Martin Straka; by assembling a patchwork lineup of middling prospects and past-their-prime NHLers that is all but guaranteed of missing the playoffs for the eighth straight season - the Rangers GM just can't get fired.
The Hurricanes' offense was last in the league in 2003-04. Their penalty killing ranked 25th that season. GM Jim Rutherford added Cory Stillman and Ray Whitney this summer. He acquired Oleg Tverdovsky and Mike Commodore. There's a lot more shorin' to do before this franchise contends again.
Not that anybody asked, but here's a slogan the Capitals' marketing people may want to adopt for this season: Bad Things Happen To Good People. Glen Hanlon, Olie Kolzig and Brendan Witt, among others, don't deserve to be out of the playoff race by mid-December, but that's what's very likely to go down. At least Capitals fans will be able to watch Alexander Ovechkin smoke Sidney Crosby in the rookie points race.
E-mail Adam Proteau at email@example.com.
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