If wishes were horses, beggars would ride; if turnips were watches, I would wear one by my side and if IFs and ANDs were pots and pans, there'd be no work for tinkers hands.
Old English Proverb
It must be time for my annual NHL predictions for the regular season and thus a lot of work for the hands of this tinker. This year is different from past ones due to re-alignment from six into four divisions, with two Western teams, Columbus and Detroit, moving East. There is the introduction of Wild Card spots and one rule change that may be detrimental to some of the kooky players who stand in front of the net.
One other factor is the shortened season last year. We won't rehash that! It is not a good gauge for predicting this year's regular season fortunes.
Well despite all that, there are the traditional power houses, a few “playing for next year already” teams, but each year those numbers dwindle and a whole whack of teams too close to call who'll be fighting for 3rd and 4th spots in all four divisions.
As always, there is the now ancient question of which Canadian team, if any, has the best chance of bringing Lord Stanley's mug back across the border.
Well, let's take that issue as the stepping onto the ice start to our review.
I will be bold! Eliminate Calgary off the hoop.
No Kipper or Iggy, the Flames are in rebuild mode. It could be ugly. I don't mean because Brian Burke is there! He says he's going to be in the background. Hardy, har, har! Like Moby Dick, he will surface!
I'm sure most of you are anticipating my next choice to be Winnipeg. Tighten your chinstraps. Here's one of our first "Ifs.” The Jets came very close to making the dance last season despite a somewhat moribund offence and on-going injuries to key defence men. Their scoring should improve with Frolick and Setagouchi added up front. Ex-Hawk Frolick will add experience and Setagouchi, a bit of a weary road traveler, may have found a less pressurized situation after stops in Minnesota and San Jose. At 26, maybe it's apple-blossom time for the one-time 30 goal-scorer. One difficulty will be ensuring the starting goaltending by Pavelec does not falter and improves as he gets more rest and more help from the back up, Al Montoya. The D, a relatively strong if not overwhelming 'star-studded' group, has to stay healthy, so eat your Wheaties boys and don't devour too many pirogues. Still, hoisting the Cup next June is a stretch.
Think of the young guns playing for the Edmonton Oilers. Well, the promise is starting to wear a bit thin. More to the point the Oilers will start the season without Ryan Nugent Hopkins, is that three players, and Sam Gagne, oh, you don't mean the character from Lord of the Rings, do you?
David Perron is a good pick-up from the Blues as well as Brad Ferrence from the Bruins. My caution is the afore-mentioned injuries, a new, er, yet another new coach, one from junior hockey and no real experienced net presence. The 'Dube' will abide. He is good, at times great, but don't expect miracles at the mall.
Edmonton may battle for a Wild Card at best. They'd have a better chance in the Central Division, but not in the Pacific not this year.
Many eyes rose, last year, when both the Leafs and the Canadiens made the dance. One of those teams almost knocked off the Bruins; the other had a major meltdown against the Senators. In the off-season, the former team got slightly better in nets, but Bernier is inexperienced as a starter; the latter got more beefy, trying to protect their always smurf-like Forwards.
You'd have thought the fellow in the NHL who handles shining and taking care of the Cup would have been rushing to the Leaf locker room, with their names already etched into the silver, over the commotion when Toronto acquired David Clarkson on the first day of Free Agency. A good addition, he rewarded his new team by taking a ten game suspension for leaving the bench in an exhibition game during a bru-ha-ha. The Maple Leafs also added Dave Boland from the Hawks and Mason Raymond from Vancouver. Their third line will be much better, as will their penalty kill.
Their Achilles Heel is the pylon on defence, Dion Phaneuf and his fellow cast of characters. They help from the forwards. Can ya spell "back-check"? (See video replays of Game 7 in Boston.) Whether it's Bernier or Reimer in the cage, they'll be seeing a lot of rubber, from players streaking in all alone, unmolested.
The Canadiens finally lured Daniel Briere back to Quebec but he may not be the player of old. Make no mistake; if he still has game and the Habs make the dance, he is one of the most reliable play-off performers of the modern era. The D is solid; some younger players up front have another year's experience. If their Captain, Gionta can stay healthy and return to form and Carey Price can regain his form, while adapting to shorter pads and closing the ole 5-Hole, I give the Habs more than a decent shot at making the play-offs again, perhaps however at the cost of the Leafs.
I see the Leafs and Habs as either or, not both. Though it is possible for both to get in, the fly in that ointment I'm afraid will be the Red Wings or possibly the Bolts from Tampa Bay.
Maybe it's because I'm closer to the action or lack of it, out here in Lotusland, but the "ifs" and "ands" resonate here, more than in any of the other Canadian cities, with teams. The hills are alive with the sound of them! Here are a few of the “ifs” that might make a difference,
Kesler remains healthy,
Louie re-earns his status as number one goalie,
the defence, as a whole, plays better,
if the Twins don't get injured blocking shots, the new mantra from new head coach "Torts,”
if David Booth stays healthy and becomes that Top 6 Forward Canuck fans were promised; if they have found a decent third line Centre,
and on it goes.
A few tweaks to the line-up, but no significant upgrades. Due to salary cap issues, the Canucks had problem in Free Agency. Louie had a no-trade provision in his contract. Gillis had to trade Schneider, who in pre-season play has made Marty Brodeur very nervous in New Joisey. The window is closing, but not shut; not yet. What is certain is, with the structural change into two divisions, the Canucks are nowhere near being a Top Dog. They will fight for a Wild Card spot according to most pundits. If the “ifs” and “ands” work out, why not envision another riot!
Well that leaves my pick for "the best chance to dance" as the Ottawa Senators. Now don't go ape-shit Bytown fans. I have concerns. No, not about the loss of Alfie, who by the way looks completely silly with a Red Wing on his chest. That will take some getting used to! His only contribution may be as a member from a team that may put the Sens in a pickle.
My main concern is Anderson. Okay, spare me the tomatoes. Just a hunch and I hope I'm wrong but I'm thinking Eastern teams have figured him out. Keep Lehner ready. Of course, the Sens top players have to stay healthy! They can't go thru what they went thru last year and survive a second time.
There is no reason, however, in a best-case scenario, that the Sens shouldn't battle for a Top 2 or 3 position. The only team that stands in the way of a first Place finish in their division is Boston.
I thought going into the dance last season that the Sens might surprise people and go deep. Alas, Pittsburgh put an end to that dream or fantasy island vision. Over all, I see a better team being iced this year and compared to the other teams in Canada, the best balanced from top-to-bottom. Why not bring the Cup home. The good thing about these predictions is nobody looks at them again.
Okay, here we go. My guesses for play-off bound teams are in Bold.
Eastern Conference: Metropolitan Division
1. Washington, yep, Adam Oates second year as coach. Everybody knows their role; three good goalies. Ovie is going to carry that torch!
2. Columbus - How's that for risk-taking! If they get the same Bobo in nets they had last year and Gabby "shoots and scores.”
3. Pittsburgh - Fleury has had his pads shortened the most. He needed them last year and look what happened, again. Sorry Pens fans but third is flattering; very flattering.
4. New York Rangers - King Henry struggled in the pre-season. Why, it’s shorter pads. Rangers start with nine games on the road, many out West. Coach AV knows about travel; his players, not so much. Don't be surprised if they don't make it to dance.
5. New York Islanders, originally I had them as high as second, then I considered their defence and goaltending. A fallback year, maybe, over 82 games they might not be able to rely on Tavares and others to score their way to the top.
6. New Jersey, well, this is the most competitive division of all four. The Devils could win it all!
7. Philadelphia, even after Bobby Clarke departed it's still the goaltending and not an overly illustrious defence. De coach is toast if they don't get out of the gate well.
8. Carolina, last year I picked them to finish first and win the Cup. Har Har!
1. Boston has a few changes but for the better in some ways. Loui Eriksson and Iggy will rock in their new homes.
2. Ottawa, some believe it is dreaming, but not with the Walrus behind the bench.
3. Montreal is another risky choice.
4. Detroit, I’m not sure, why do many pundits think this team is going to outperform, automatically, many in this division, but they should dance again in April.
5. Toronto has three great top lines, good goalie tandem, but, after that, ya take your chances.
6. Tampa Bay, if Ben Bishop or Lindback perform well, this team could really surprise. They'd be my 'dark horse' in this division.
7. Buffalo - Saddled with an aging, oft-injured goalie in Miller; will he go to Penguins. Some nice pieces, but too many other teams are just better.
8. Florida is the place where rejects go to surf. When Tim Thomas is your best hope, get out the fishing rods.
Western Conference: Central Division
1. Chicago, the champions and that’s all that needs saying.
2. St. Louis, is the third year lucky? Best Defence in maybe the whole league but do they have the royal jelly?
3. Dallas, as James Duthie on TSN opined, after the top two teams it's a dogfight. Stars made some nice changes. What other team has a chance.
4. Winnipeg will surprise some.
5. Nashville is another hard pick, every year, the hardest team to judge.
6. Minnesota: I wasn't very happy that this team let me down last year, having picked them to finish first in the West! “Déjà vu, all over again?” The team has another coach on the hot seat, early, but not much hope.
7. Colorado is much as Edmonton. Great youth/ability up front, but for these players, once you slowly move back over the blue line you better hope for icing the puck. How soon will it be before Patrick Roy has smoke coming out of his ears, while he's grinding his teeth on those Stanley Cup rings?
1. Los Angles is the most balanced team overall and the Stanley Cup hangover is over.
2. San Jose is falling just shy of making them number one. If they don't win it all this year, they never will.
3. Vancouver has a good season, by a hair.
4. Phoenix is again under-rated by most. Finally, the team has a home to call their own. Mike Smith will be vying for an Olympic spot.
5. Edmonton: if they get healthy and the Dube is more than solid, the Oilers can place higher than fifth. It’s likely the Oilers will battle Winnipeg for Wild Card spot.
6. Anaheim is another hunch. The team totally surprised everyone last year. Remember, though, it was a shortened season. The best part is getting to see Teemu Selanne one more year!
7. Calgary: trading fish yarns with Florida all too soon.
Well there ya have it.
Drop the puck!
Bob Stark is a musician, poet, philosopher and couch potato. He spends his days, as did Jean-Paul Sarte and Albert Camus, pouring lattes and other adult beverages into a recycled mug, bearing a long and winding crack. He discusses, with much insight and passion, the existentialist and phenomenological ontology of the Vancouver 'Canucks,' a hockey team, "Archie" comic books and high school reunions. In other words, Bob Stark is a retired public servant living the good life on the wrong coast of Canada.
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