This season's other potential successes, failures
So, we like the Phoenix Coyotes to waltz their way deep into the playoffs. But who else might be looking to post a turnaround?
The Wild have made the playoffs once in their history, but have dramatically remade their roster with a series of key offseason moves. The biggest maneuver was acquiring Pavol Demitra from Los Angeles for top prospect Patrick O'Sullivan. Demitra figures to play alongside burgeoning superstar Marian Gaborik and perhaps fellow Slovak Branko Radivojevic. The Wild should also enjoy more offense from a group that now includes Mark Parrish up front and Kim Johnsson on the back end. Assuming Johnsson doesn't have any lingering effects from the concussion that cut short his season a year ago and Manny Fernandez doesn't get the yips from his first starting role in goal, the Wild will finish at the top of the Northwest and could be a force in the postseason.
|Last season, not many could have predicted that Carolina and Edmonton would have faced off in the Stanley Cup finals. So, it got us to thinking -- who is this season's surprise story? ESPN.com is picking the Phoenix Coyotes and Scott Burnside will chronicle the team's travels throughout the season. In Part I, we begin with the predictions.|
Yes, there's been a ton of turmoil surrounding the team, not the least of which was the power struggle that saw GM Mike Keenan take flight before training camp. There was also the troubling news that star defenseman Jay Bouwmeester faces drunken driving charges stemming from an August trip to Edmonton. But there are enough ingredients in South Florida to make this an entertaining, successful club. If Ed Belfour is healthy, he and Alexander Auld should be able to hold the fort in goal, while Todd Bertuzzi has no excuses for not getting back to the 85-90-point level. Youngsters Stephen Weiss and Nathan Horton both have talent and have been around long enough to start earning their keep as the team's future. The Panthers could be ready to turn the corner.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets have a history of having ghastly luck when it comes to injuries and they experienced more of the same when Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Svitov went down in training camp. But this is a team that fought through adversity last season and closed on a strong note behind the solid netminding of youngster Pascal Leclaire and the emergence of young players such as Rick Nash, Nikolai Zherdev and the unheralded Duvie Westcott. Getting Zherdev under contract late in the going was a bonus for GM Doug MacLean, as was adding 33-goal man Anson Carter, who will help up front. Fredrik Modin, who came over in a trade for veteran Marc Denis, is a winner, and if Nash is healthy, he should challenge for the goal-scoring lead.
Speaking of ghastly luck, the Blackhawks didn't even get into camp before they lost backup netminder Patrick Lalime to a back injury and injury-plagued star Tuomo Ruutu to a knee injury. But this is a Blackhawks team that has the potential to surprise, provided Nikolai Khabibulin rebounds from a woeful 2005-06 season. The defense should be better simply because it couldn't be any worse, so look for Adrian Aucoin and Jassen Cullimore to return to form. The additions of Martin Havlat and the underappreciated Michal Handzus give the Hawks decent depth up front, and could help change the culture of losing that has enveloped the franchise for years. The playoffs might be a stretch, but not as big a stretch as some might imagine.
The Thrashers have yet to qualify for the postseason since their inception and are desperate to do so after finishing two points shy last season. That shortfall was due largely to some brutal goaltending luck and a general lack of maturity. Provided goaltending phenom Kari Lehtonen stays healthy, and he looks good so far, the Thrashers will be in the hunt. They'll miss scoring star Marc Savard and his 97 points, but get grit with Steve Rucchin. Watch for Niko Kapanen, Glen Metropolit and the hard-hitting Vitaly Vishnevski to give the Thrashers more than expected. And if they do qualify for the postseason, look out as a roster that includes sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, dominating two-way player Marian Hossa and two-time Cup winner Bobby Holik could run the table.
OK, we have the Cinderella list. Now, what about three teams that could be ready to turn into pumpkins before our very eyes?
Detroit Red Wings
It's hard to imagine that the defending Presidents' Trophy winners could fall right out of the playoff picture, but there are concerns that there could be serious cracks in the team's once-dominating foundation. Let's start with goaltending, where Dominik Hasek is back for a third go-round and has the potential to tear the dressing room apart with his bizarre behavior. There's Chris Chelios, who is going to go to the Hall of Fame but who will turn 45 at midseason. With Brendan Shanahan and Steve Yzerman gone, from whence does the leadership come? One coach suggested the Wings are extremely vulnerable to an aggressive, physical forecheck, so watch for Nicklas Lidstrom to pay a heavy price for playing the puck.
This team looked ready to go to the Western Conference finals last spring and collapsed in the first round against a very ordinary Colorado team (see below). Since then, the Stars have done little to get better. They lost their most dynamic player in Jason Arnott and added Eric Lindros, whose history suggests he's good for half a season. Patrik Stefan came over from Atlanta, where he was a third-line center at best, and Jaroslav Modry revealed himself to be immobile and mistake-prone in Atlanta, as well. In the NHL's toughest division, the Stars are poised to take a big tumble.
The Avs haven't missed the playoffs since they were the Quebec Nordiques, but that possibility is fast approaching. Goaltending is iffy, Joe Sakic is a year older and Rob Blake and Alex Tanguay followed Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote out of town. No longer able to buy themselves into the playoffs every year and with no disgruntled Eric Lindros on the horizon to turn into a near dynasty, the Avs will take some time to get back into the contenders' loop.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.