By Chris Pike
The Ducks will be missing the most decorated soldier in their lineup as Scott Nidermayer has finally decided to hang up his skates after 18 incredible seasons and four Stanley Cup rings. It seemed as if Teemu Selanne was going to follow suit, but pulled his best Brett Favre impression and decided stick with the Ducks for another season. The Ducks also managed to ink Saku Koivu and Bobby Ryan, who is looking to be the future of the franchise. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry will also be back for the Ducks this season, but if Getz keeps getting injured and Corey Perry stays in the sin bin like they did last year the Ducks will need guys like Joffrey Lupul to step up. Losing Niedermayer puts a big hole in Anaheim’s defense that can’t possibly be filled by off-season acqusition Andy Sutton. The Ducks’ biggest problem is their discipline. They were the most penalized team in the league last year and with their terrible penalty kill they were punished often by other teams. We might see the Ducks in the playoffs, but they could just slip through the cracks.
What’s old is new again in Calgary with the introduction of classic jerseys and the familiar faces of Alex Tanguay and Olli Jokinen. They didn’t do much else in terms of free agents but all the old favorites are back. Jerome Iginla still able to change the flow of a game with one shift and Mikka Kiprusoff is just as hardworking as he ever was. Unfortunately, that’s all the good I can say about the Flames. The Western Conference is much deeper than the East and with Dion Phaneuf gone and Jay Bouwmeetser not putting up the same numbers he was in Florida the Flames blueline is looking pretty pathetic. The Flames need Jokinen and Tanguay to come up big or they’ll end up and the bottom of the conference with Edmonton if they’re not lucky.
Many fans won’t recognize the Blackhawks lineup after all the changes it went through in the off-season. Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, John Madden, Andrew Ladd and most shockingly Anti Niemi are all gone from the Stanley Cup champs. Marty Turco will be the new starting keeper for the Blackhawks and will have to put up some stellar numbers if Chicago is hoping to repeat as champs. The core group of stars are still in town though as Patrick Kane and Johnathan Toews seems to get better and better with each passing season. Coach Joel Quennville has his work cut out for him but look for the Blackhawks to still be in cup contention.
The Avs surprised everyone finishing eigth in the West and nearly giving the boot to the San Jose Sharks in the first round. Craig Anderson looked unbeatable in the regular season and the playoffs. Matt Duchene also looked incredible in his Calder Trophy winning season. The cast of super rookies the Avs had in Duchene, T.J. Galiardi, Ryan O’Reilly and Brandon Yip also contributed to their better than expected finish. Hopefully the sophomore slump doesn’t get to them or the Avs could drop to the bottom ranks of the West. Defense is still a concern in Colorado with John-Michael Liles being the only experienced blueliner in the roster. If Duchene continues to play like the ghost of Joe Sakic then the Avs could see another playoff birth, just maybe.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Arguably the most forgettable team in the league with Rick Nash and Steve Mason as their only real notable players. Nash has only been able to carry the Blue Jackets to the post-season once. It’ll be up to the play of Steve Mason to keep Columbus in the running for a play off spot. If Mason can continue to be a reliable number one goalie then the supporting cast of Blue Jackets like Antoine Vermette will have to rise to the occasation and do the rest of the work for their goalie. Ethan Moreau is expected to be a leader on and off the ice and also adds some much needed muscle to Colombus’ roster. Don’t expect to see the Blue Jackets come close to the playoffs, but look for Nash to have another great season with the usually abundance of highlight reel goals.
Staples of the Stars’ roster Mike Modano and Marty Turco are no longer in town and with GM Joe Niewendyk not having a lot of cash to work with in the off-season he was only able to replace one of them. Kari Lehtonen will now be the starting goalie in Dallas and should fair a lot better than Turco. Brendan Morrow is still one of the best power forwards in the league and underrated Brad Richards will be able to put up great numbers. It won’t be enough for the Stars though as they only have James Neal who’ll be able to put up a good numbers. The Stars are lacking in the defensive department, which will be a real issue when the race for the playoffs begins. Andre Raycroft might be able to steal a few wins as a back-up to Lehtonen but that’s extremely doubtful. We won’t be seeing the Stars in the post-season this year, sorry.
Detroit Red Wings
Always a cup contender The Red Wings return with a bunch of old favorites. The dynamic duo of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk will continue to put up fantastic numbers for the Wings. Nicklas Lidstrom will captain the team again and will have his eye on another Norris trophy. With a great lineup of hardworking guys like Tomas Holmstrom, Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm and the hometown hero Mike Modano, Detroit is in a serious position to make a run at the cup. They are an aging team though with Jimmy Howard as their youngest player starting in goal. Rusland Salei will help on the blueline but won’t be as big a physical presence as some will hope. Expect the Red Wings to fair better, but not that much better, than last year.
Hoping that they can have the super rookie luck that Colorado had last season, the Oilers will introduce first overall pick Taylor Hall, World Junior Championship hero Jordan Eberle and Swedish sensation Magnus Paajarvi into thir lineup. Some weight will be on their shoulders but not as much as players returning to the team. Nikolai Kahbibulin will have to prove to the “City of Champions” that he isn’t passed his prime in goal. Newly appointed captain Shawn Horcoff will have to learn to shoot the puck more and Ales Hemsky will need to find that finishing touch that he’s supposedly known for. Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano will also have to step up. Make no mistake though the Oilers are not set to improve much this season. They’ll still be at the bottom of the league and won’t even come close to the playoffs, unless new coach Tom Renney can somehow make something out of nothing with this below average team.
Los Angeles Kings
Sadly the Kings weren’t able to land this year’s biggest Free Agent, Ilya Kovalchuk but that shouldn’t really affect this season’s performance. They were able to dump Alex Frolov on the Rangers who are used to having underachievers on their team. Jonathan Quick and Drew Doughty have matured a lot faster than anyone could have expected and if Quick falls short Jonathan Bernier is waiting in the AHL to replace him. Doughty, at only twenty years of age, is looking like a veteran already. His poise and presence on the ice is felt every night and he can only get better. If guys like Wade Simmonds and Anze Kopitar continue to lead the Kings offense then it will be no surprise to fans when they enter the post-season. They might even luck out and end up in the top three of the conference.
Mikko Koivu was recently named the permanent captain of the Wild. Unfortunately that’s the only bright spot in the Wild’s roster. Martin Havlat, who was brought in to replace Marian Gaborik has been incredibly disappointing scoring only 18 goals last season. Niklas Backstrom also hasn’t lived up to his hefty contract. Their defense is laughable and the only way that the Wild could make the post-season is if the fourteen other teams in the conference went on strike or died in plane crashes. Sorry Wild fans, this year won’t be the year and neither will next year, or the year after that and so on and so forth.
The second most forgetable team in the league won’t have much to offer this year. Dan Ellis is gone, so is Jason Arnott and Dan Hamhuis. These guys weren’t exactly superstars but helped the Preds who don’t really have anyone else worth mentioning aside from Shea Weber and Patric Hornqvist. Weber is am emourmous physical presence and can deliver humongous hits when he needs, but doesn’t put up great offensive numbers. Patric Hornqvist on the other hand is developing into a scoring machine. If Hornqvist can improve his backcheck and stop turning over the puck he’ll become one of Nashville’s premiere players. The problem is that Nashville isn’t a bad team, but they play in the ultra-ccompetitive Western Conference. Sadly this means that the Preds will probably miss the post-season but not by too much. In a few years they could crack the top eight with a little luck and a little hard work.
The ‘Yotes are pretty much the same team as last year which is great for them as they stunned the entire league making the playoffs and nearly eliminating the Detroit Red Wings in the first round. Wojtek Wolski has turned into a serious offensive threat and as a result Shane Doan now has someone to pass to. Lee Stempniak is also making his return to the desert and while he helped the Coyotes during the final stretch of the season it’s yet to be seen if he can continue his play this year. Ray Whitney is a new addition to the lineup and will add much needed leadership to a relatively young team, alongside Captain Doan. If Ilya Bryzgalov can play as well as he did last season Phoenix is set to make a return to the post-season. Although the Coyotes could be the Hurricanes of the West and crash and burn unexpectedly.
San Jose Sharks
The Sharks are a force to be reckoned with during the regular season. Just look at this lineup: Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Dan Boyle and Devon Setoguchi. These guys are always able to out-muscle, out-score and out-defend their opponents. With the not-so-sad farewell of Evgeni Nabokov and the introduction of Stanley Cup champ Anti Niemi the Sharks might finally be taken seriously once they inevitably make the post-season. It’s the playoffs where San Jose chokes. The Shark Tank becomes the Goldfish Bowl in April. Maybe it’ll be different this year, maybe not, only time and the play of Niemi will tell.
St. Louis Blues
The biggest change in St. Louis this year will be starting goalie Jaroslav Halak. He was able to single handedly carry the Montreal Canadiens to the Eastern Conference final last year and may be able to do the same if he continues his acrobatics with the Blues. Sniper David Perron will be back for the Blues this year and hopefully he’ll get even better with time. David Backes needs to get back to form after only scoring 17 goals last season. The guys in front of Halak will also need to step up as Carlo Colaiacovo and Erik Johnson have seen better days. I don’t think the Blues will make it to the playoffs this year, but if they continue to snag superstars like Halak then who knows where they could be in a few years.
The Canucks are the best bet to win the Stanley Cup this year. They’ve beefed up their defense by acquring Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard. Ryan Kesler put up career numbers as did the young Mason Raymond. These two have such great chemistry that it was an easy decision for Kesler to sign a multi-year deal with Vancouver. The Sedin twins are also back in fine form. Henrik won the Hart trophy last year as well as the Art Ross. His brother didn’t fair as well, but that was due to an unfortunate injury. The main question is will Luongo play better now that he doesn’t have the pressures of captaincy breathing down his neck? Look for the Canucks’ incredible depth to shine again this year as they rise above the rest in the West possibly taking it all this year.