- George Johnson, NHL
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These are the blissful days. No extended losing streaks. No coaches feeling the loose hemp of the hangman's noose being slipped around their throats. Today, all 30 teams believe in something. A miracle. A playoff spot. A deep playoff run, given a few breaks. Some, even a Stanley Cup.
That starts changing immediately, as the regular season -- the non-European version -- gets under way Thursday.
In this time of possibilities and unbridled optimism, uncompromised by reality, there are some who should already be feeling the warm glow of the hot seat. Taken team by team, they would be:
Randy Carlyle, coach: His job is secure and the Ducks will contend, but if they're going to be around in June, the authority figure better stop all this juvenile delinquency that helped them lead the league in penalties and submarined their playoff hopes.
Don Waddell, general manager: The building is half-full ("Frankly Scarlett, they don't give a "), that playoff spot of only two seasons ago seems like it was before the dawn of man and Ilya Kovalchuk has to be sick of lugging around all the equipment it takes to be a one-man band.
Darcy Regier, general manager: Chris Drury, Daniel Briere and Brian Campbell depart over money squabbles. Your team starts to irrevocably slide. This is not good for long-term job security.
Darryl Sutter, general manager: Fooled you! No, the man on the hot seat in Calgary is not that burly rapscallion Todd Bertuzzi. It's the sour gent who shelled out $1.9 million to reel him in. After three first-round playoff exits on the trot, the IOUs accumulated from the Flames' inspirational, improbable 2004 Cup finals run have just about expired. Sutter's bulletproof status is in jeopardy.
Brian Campbell, defenseman: An absolute adventure during the playoffs after arriving in Silicon Valley. An eight-year, $56.8 million free-agent deal landed him in the Windy City. His arrival coincides with a renaissance in ticket sales and optimism. Over to you, Brian.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Rick Nash, left winger: The undisputed symbol of the franchise, Nash now has more help than at any time since he arrived in Ohio. Is he up to being every bit the leader as scoring star?
Sean Avery, left winger/Steve Ott, center: With these two strips of pink fiberglass insulation on the same team, the infighting for MVP (Most Vexing Player) is sure to be fierce. They're likely to push each other to new limits of anarchy. Enjoy.
Detroit Red Wings
Mike Babcock, coach: How do you keep hockey's deepest talent pool fresh and motivated? That's Mike Babcock's poser. Only two teams, the Mario Lemieux-inspired Pens of 1990-91 and 1991-92 and the Scotty Bowman/Steve Yzerman Detroit mini-dynasty of 1996-97 and 1997-98, have managed to repeat as champions over the past 18 seasons. Adding the top free agent available, Marian Hossa, to the mix makes the Wings even more of a favorite this go-around. But winning when it's apparently a slam dunk is harder to pull off than people imagine.
Mathieu Garon, goalie: At 30, after being given the chop by the Kings (?!), he resurrected his career as the game's top recycling project. If Garon can maintain the level he showed in winning the No. 1 job down the stretch at the Big Drugstore -- 26-18-1, 2.66 goals against average and .913 save percentage -- the kiddie-corps Oil might actually live up to the hype. If not,
Bryan McCabe, defense: Arguably the most overrated defenseman in the
game while wearing Maple Leaf silks -- yes, yes, that does tend to happen suspiciously often in Toronto -- the error-prone D-man is now in Miami, in the third year of a ridiculously high $28.75 million deal handed to him by the Leafs. (McCabe's quote, "You can only turn water into wine so often," easily wins the thigh-slapper of the year award for 2007-08.)
Los Angeles Kings
Dean Lombardi, general manager: Coach Marc Crawford has been jettisoned along with most of the old hands. The youth movement is on in L.A., and so is the heat -- not all of it outdoors.
Mikko Koivu, center: With Pavol Demitra and Brian Rolston now gone, an already-offensively challenged lineup has lost a measure of its pop. If Koivu, entering his fourth full NHL season, can make the jump from 42 points to, say, 65, Jacques Lemaire's Wild, the league's answer to the chastity belt, will be challenging for the division title in the Northwest.
Alex Tanguay, left winger: Brimming with ability, lacking in mental toughness. As he is the undisputed francophone star on a very fine Canadiens team, the prying eyes of Montreal will be glued to Tanguay's every move. Maybe he'll warm to the attention. Chances are he won't.
Dan Ellis, goalie: Stood up and made a statement for at last being a reliable No.1 stopper in 44 appearances (that league-best .924 save percentage was an eye-catcher) as a free-agent signing. Yeah, but can he do it again?
New Jersey Devils
Kevin Weekes, goalie: It's his job to spell a legend, Martin Brodeur, between 10 and 15 times this season. Those sporadic relief appearances will be crucial in a tightly packed Atlantic Division and highly competitive Eastern Conference.
Bryan Murray, general manager: So close, so often. So what? The firing of coach John Paddock last season wasn't the answer. The choice of Craig Hartsburg was a sound one, but with Pittsburgh, Washington and Montreal all making big noise these days, the sands of time are running out in the Canadian capital.
Marc-Andre Fleury, goalie: With a seven-year, $35 million contract in his designer jeans and a potent offense to cut him some slack, all the 23-year-old needs is a Stanley Cup. Nothing less will suffice.
San Jose Sharks
Joe Thornton, center: OK, the Sharks tied the can to Slick Willy for another failed Cup bid. Which leaves Thornton to try to overcome his reputation as a springtime lightweight. Jumbo Joe piles up the regular-season points like rice at a wedding but has yet to convince anyone he can lash a team to his broad back at playoff time and lug it to the promised land. You've got to believe this represents his last chance in Silicon Valley.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Barry Melrose, coach: After eight years of looking mah-vel-ous! (as Billy Crystal used to say) on the ESPN set, the Minister of Mullet is back behind a bench, not a desk. He inherits hockey's worst team, made over by new ownership. He has Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. He has Steven Stamkos and the fruits of a ton of money spent on free agency. He has a lot of expectations and a lot of problems.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Ron Wilson, coach: Wilson does not suffer fools, or verbal probing, with particularly good grace. And Toronto just happens to be the most exhaustive, inquisitive, demanding media market in the loop. The Leafs are a consensus pick for worst team in Canada, with justification. Sit back and watch the fur fly.
Pavol Demitra, center: If the Canucks can field a decent second scoring line, given a healthy defense and stopper Roberto Luongo in net, they might actually make a pitch for the playoffs. Enter Demitra, a former client of agent-turned-GM Mike Gillis, as the franchise's highest-paid forward at $4 million per. Can Demitra take the off-and-on Taylor Pyatt and grass-green speedster Mason Raymond and turn them into a dependable trio?
George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
In this time of possibilities and unbridled optimism, uncompromised by reality, there are some who should already be feeling the warm glow of the hot seat. Taken team by team, they would be ...