Saturday, September 25, 2010

Movin' On

It's announcement time! I started THITD to have an outlet for my thoughts and opinions about the greatest franchise in sports, the Detroit Red Wings. Despite the fact that I started Red Wing blog number 486, everyone I've met has been amazing and supportive, and I really feel like I have been welcomed into the Red Wing Community with open arms. I've been a part of some wonderful debates and conversations regarding our team, and while I have not always agreed with everybody, the debates have confirmed to me that we all have one thing in common: we all adore the Red Wings. But, all good things must come to an end, so as of this writing, I am closing up shop here at THITD.

Now, now. Dry your eyes, gentle reader. I'm not going anywhere. Well, I guess technically, I am. I have been approached to join Winging it in Motown as a writer, and they made me an offer I could not refuse (free Tim Horton's coffee for a year). So, I will be taking my fists of fury over there. I have seen many people join up with other sites, and in their "farewell" post on their original blog they always say something to the effect of "I'll still be here, but I may not post as much". I'm not going to bullshit you: I've heard from others and learned first hand that maintaining 2 blogs is ridiculously hard, and it's just not going to happen, not when I already have a full time job I neglect, a wife who will ask me 82 times "the Red Wings are on again?"* , and 2 daughters who will be very sick of their father telling them "That's Pavel Datsyuk. He just made that other guy look very stupid". So, I'm boarding up the windows, locking the doors, pouring out a can of gasoline and burning this motherfucker to the ground.

To those that have read and commented on my ramblings, a sincere thank you. I've enjoyed having a place to rant about my love of the Red Wings (both past and present), my hatred for the Blackhawks, and anything else that has occurred in the NHL universe in the past 5 months. My only real goal was to entertain you, and I hope I have succeeded. A blog is just an inner monologue typed out if there are no readers, and I've enjoyed interacting with you, hearing your thoughts and sharing your stories. I hope that you'll check me out over at WIM, as we hope to bring you a lot of cool things over the course of this season. I'll still be around twitter, because that damn thing has taken over my life (ironic considering 6 months ago I swore it was the dumbest thing ever invented).

* (Editors note: My wife read this and said that she will only say this 50 times, not 82)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Know Thy Enemy - San Jose Sharks

Before we get into today's preview, a quick note. I had fully intended to do every single team in the NHL for this series. However, as I have gone through and looked at the West, I realized something very important: I hate the Eastern Conference, and could give two shits who finishes where or which team wins their crappy division. I have thought for some time that the Eastern Conference is the ECHL to the West's NHL, and I just don't have it in me to break down teams that a) I don't care about; b) I don't like; and c) that will only play the Wings at most twice this season. So today's entry will mark the last one in this series. I also firmly believe (and you can take this to the bank or mark it as a prediction or whatever you want) that the team that comes out of the West in the playoffs - whoever that is - will win the Cup. If the Columbus Blue Jackets somehow make it through the playoffs and emerge victorious in the conference and represent the West, then get ready to see Gary present Rick Nash with the Cup in June. The East plays boring, uninspired hockey, and they have teams that are more focused on superstars than actual honest-to-God teams. The only reason I used to watch games between two Eastern teams was because the Wing games didn't start until 6:30 Central, and I had a half hour before that to kill. Since the Wing games are now starting at 6, I no longer have this problem. So that's that. Today's the last one, and I'll be a giant tease by saying that something big is in the works. But that's something else for another day.

A quick word about the game last night. I'm not going to do some full breakdown of it because I couldn't see it, and because halfway through I had to make a Wendy's trip (I love Frostys). I know we're all incensed still with the Orpik-on-Franzen hit, and I believe there was definitely something wrong with the hit since he was given a major and game misconduct. Is it suspendable? Hard to know. I didn't see it. Given the fact that the NHL doesn't like to, you know, discipline people for stuff, I'm going to take a wild guess and say that this is the last we'll hear of this hit. I was extremely pleased to hear that Bertuzzi immediately dropped the gloves with Orpik and laid a pretty good beating on him; that's the kind of thing that will endear him to Wing fans. However, there was no truth to the rumour that he did a spin-o-rama on his last punch. Overall, it sounded like the Pens controlled the play pretty much throughout the game, but I can't say I'm surprised since we only dressed 3 of our NHL defensemen against Crosby and Malkin. Tomorrow night will mark the first live preseason action on TV when the Wings take on Little Brother. I probably won't be able to see it since I am attending an end-of-summer BBQ, but I will be checking in from time to time.

On to today's preview, and today we're going to take a look at the team that ended the Wings' season and crushed our spirits last year.

San Jose Sharks

Antero Nittymaki; Antti Niemi; Jamal Meyers
Departures: Evgeni Nabokov; Rob Blake; Manny Malhotra

Like the Red Wings of the mid-90s, the Sharks have enjoyed immense regular season success, but they have been unable to parlay that into anything resembling playoff success. After getting upset in the first round in 2009 as the President's Trophy winners, the Sharks got all the way to the Conference Finals last year, ultimately getting swept by eventual-champs Chicago in a fairly one-sided series. The Sharks are one of a handful of teams that have never been in the Stanley Cup Finals, and this year the expectations are no different: Cup or bust.

Offense: The Sharks are essentially returning the same offensive lineup that finished 4th in the NHL last year in goals for. Once again, the Sharks are expecting big things out of their top line of Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau. Last year all 3 of them eclipsed 80 points, Heatley really shone in his first year in San Jose with 39 goals, and Marleau showed that his 2007-08 poor showing was a fluke as he popped in 44 goals. As the Wings discovered, shutting down the top line doesn't help that much, as the Sharks saw the emergence of their 1A line in Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi and Ryan Clowe. Pavelski would have set a career high in points had he not missed 15 games due to injury in the season. He still managed 51 points in 67 games, and then played out of his mind in the playoffs. After that, the talent level drops off a little, but both of those lines have enough talent to keep up offensively with just about any other top line in the NHL. The Sharks do well in getting offense from their defensemen, led by Dan Boyle. When he's not scoring own-goals in the playoffs, he's a guy who is easily capable of 50 points per year. Even with the retirement of captain Rob Blake, the Sharks had 3 defensemen who had at least 20 points. This is a team that you do not want to get into an offensive shootout with, because they have the guys that can put the puck in the net. The question will be whether they can do it with any regularity in the playoffs.

Defense: This is a little bit of an underrated area on the Sharks. Blake was their best defensive defenseman and overall leader, but he's had enough of shoving his giant ass in people's faces and will not be around. The torch has been passed to Dan Boyle, a guy known more for his offense, but who is solid in his own end (think Brian Rafalski-esque). Other than that, there's not a real superstar on there like some of the other teams, but the rest of the roster is pretty good. Kent Huskins and Douglas Murray are both guys who are more defensive, and both like to play the body. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is a power play guy who can chip in points, but he doesn't play like he's 6'1" and 200 lbs. The Sharks are banking on Jason Demers stepping into a 6th defenseman role this year, but overall this group will remain relatively the same. The Sharks finished 8th in the NHL in goals against, and they finished 5th in penalty killing. For as good as they are offensively, they are almost as good defensively.

Goaltending: And now we get to the question marks. After years of failing to lead them to any playoff success, the Sharks said goodbye to longtime goalie Evgeni Nabokov and brought in Antero Nittymaki from Tampa. Nittymaki has never really enjoyed any sustained success at the NHL level, but he did win a Calder Cup with the Philadelphia Phantoms in 2005 (I remember that because they played the local AHL team in the Finals and Nittymaki stood on his head). While his numbers have never been horrid, they also have never been that great. Part of that was he never had a ton of talent in front of him, but that is not the case here. However, in the "if you can't beat 'em, pick him up" department, the Sharks signed themselves a nice little insurance policy in Antti Niemi, the goalie that dominated them in the Conference Finals last year. All signs point to a goaltending battle in camp, but my guess would be that who starts for the Sharks will be whoever is playing better. Niemi may have won a Cup, but he was a rookie last year and he was behind a great team. It remains to be seen how he will fare in a new town.

Coaching: The Sharks are led by former Red Wing assistant Todd McClellan. He brought the exact same system the Wings use to San Jose; one predicated on speed, skill and puck possession. However, he also emphasizes size, which makes the Sharks a very difficult team to play against. He did do what Ron Wilson couldn't in leading the Sharks past the second round, but he's going to have to get them even further. He's got the talent on paper; the question will be whether he can get his players to perform in the playoffs.

Player To Watch: After a stellar playoffs last season, Joe Pavelski seems to be ready to take the next step to superstar. He has steadily increases his point totals every year, and would have probably ended up with 60-70 points had he not gotten injured. He's a guy that has 40 goal potential, and he is just now entering his prime. He's not a big guy, but he's got a crapload of speed and skill, and playing with Setoguchi and Clowe, I think he is poised to really break out this year and score 70-80 points. I expect Pavelski to pick up where he left off last year and earn his first All-Star Game berth.

Player With Something to Prove: I'd love to put Thornton here, but frankly, he's had more than enough chances and I think he's never going to elevate his game enough to be considered a playoff performer. For me, I'm putting in 2 players: Nittymaki and Niemi, with emphasis on Niemi. Nittymaki was lured away from Tampa, and he was brought in to replace Nabokov, a great regular season goalie who faltered in the playoffs. Nittymaki could win 50 games this year, but if he struggles in the post-season, then he'll be considered a bust. Niemi was picked up after the Hawks walked away from his arbitration award, and he was brought to San Jose to provide some depth in case Nittymaki doesn't work out. However, Niemi's experience is limited to being a rookie behind a stacked team, and his numbers from the Finals show that he didn't exactly bring the Cup home in the end. In truth, the entire team, from the goalies and defensemen to the forwards and coaches, are all under the gun.

Why They Can Win the Division: Except for Nabokov and Blake, the only real loss was Malhotra, their third line center. This is pretty much the same team that finished first in the West last year, and while the Kings got a little better and the Coyotes stayed the same, the Sharks were better than both last year and this year seems no different. I think between Nittymaki and Niemi, they will have more than enough goaltending to earn them yet another Pacific Division title.

Why They Won't Win the Division: Beyond the first two lines, there is little scoring there. If any of their top forwards struggle, that will limit their offensive effectiveness. Their defense is good but not great, and their goaltending is unproven. The Kings will be hot on their heels, and if the Sharks do not play their usual regular season way, they could be in for a race this year.

My Prediction: So, this team fell short of the Finals last year, and their big move is to replace the goalie with 2 relatively inexperienced and unproven guys. I have no doubts that this team will make the playoffs again, probably as the #1 or 2 seed. But if they do not make the Finals, the season is a failure. I just don't see where the Sharks necessarily improved last year, and it's not like their top players are young guys still developing. I think the Sharks are going to end up as the NHL's version of the Buffalo Bills: they will enjoy a lot of success and be a really good team, but they will not have what it takes to climb that final mountain and end up as world champions.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Know Thy Enemy - Phoenix Coyotes

The Red Wings begin their official pre-season schedule this evening against the Bettman Penguins, and the Pens are going to be rocking a pretty decent lineup considering this is their first game in the new arena. Here's hoping that the Wings can get in there, mix it up, and beat the Pens down, ultimately not allowing them to ever say they were undefeated in their home barn. I love that preseason has started, because one of the things I love most about hockey is the rivalries and bad blood that exists between the teams and the fans. I get amped when I argue with other fans about the Wings or their teams, and take great pride when they stop arguing with me, because that signifies that I won. Being the competitive person that I am, it pleases me to win, and I'll admit to sometimes not being the greatest "winner". But, I am what I am, and if that bothers other people, they are free not to interact with me.

The Red-White game was yesterday, and for those fortunate to be able to either attend the game live or stream it, they were treated to a show. The two best write ups that I have seen about the game were from Hollis over at TPL where he talked about Ericsson's struggles and of course, George Malik's recap was on par with the rest of his work from training camp, as he provided an in-person account of the game. I'll be honest in saying that in past years, I had not paid much attention to training camp or pre-season; George's awesome coverage has turned me into someone who is interested in the small battles for positions and where the cut players end up. Kudos to him for an amazing job, and here's hoping he gets home so he can sleep for the next 2 days.

We turn our attention today to the ultimate surprise team of last year, and the Wings' first round opponent. Not much was expected of them last year, but what a difference a year makes.

Phoenix Coyotes

Ray Whitney, Andrew Ebbett
Departures: Matthew Lombardi; Zbynek Michalak; James VanderMeer; Mathieu Schneider

The Coyotes were supposed to be an afterthought last year, and heading into the season, there was little room for optimism. The team was bankrupt and being run by the NHL; Wayne Gretzky had abruptly resigned as head coach; and the team was made up of a number of also-rans and cast-offs. However, Dave Tippett came in and implemented a system based on smart positional play and discipline, and the Coyotes ripped off a 107 point season, good for 4th in the Western Conference. They were "upset" in the first round by the Wings, but I use the word upset in the sense that the Coyotes had home ice for Game 7. While the Coyotes lost some key players this summer, expectations are considerably higher headed into this year.

Offense: If there was a weak link to the Coyotes last season, it was their offense. As a team, they scored only 211 goals, 24th in the NHL. One of their key contributors, Matthew Lombardi, bolted the team for Nashville, and that left a pretty big hole to fill. Their captain and last original Coyote is Shane Doan, and despite allegations of racial slurs and a penchant for making ridiculous faces, he's also their offensive catalyst. Now that he's got some talent around him, Doan should be able to put up 60-70 points. The Yotes brought in Ray Whitney to see if he's got any "pop" left in him, but the rest of the team is made up of a lot of question marks and unknowns. The team is heavily banking on Wojtek Wolski and Lee Stempniak picking up where they left off at the end of last season when the scorched the desert with their scoring pace. The return of Scottie Upshall should also bolster the offense, as he had 32 points in only 49 games before going down with a season-ending injury. Beyond that, there's not a ton of offensive talent on the team. Petr Prucha was able to score 30 goals for the Rangers a few years ago, Martin Hanzal and Radim Vrbata are another year older and will look to continue their development, and they are hoping that Mikkel Boedker can finally live up to the potential he displayed as a rookie. And who can forget The Enigma, Robert Lang, who could either put up 100 points or disappear entirely. The Coyotes do well in getting offense from their blueline, but the loss of Michalak will hurt them a little. While he did not put up a lot of points, he was adept at handling the puck and is a smooth-skater who makes smart decisions. Keith Yandle and Ed Jovanovski are both guys who can put up 20-40 points and play on the PP, although if you watched any of the Wings-Yotes series, you know that their PP isn't exactly the most potent. In fact, the Coyotes had the worst PP in the Western Conference, converting less than 15% of the man advantages they received last year. Ultimately, their inability to score on the PP really hindered their chances of beating the Wings in the playoffs. While Whitney was a nice pick up, there's no one else that really stands out as a superstar, so the Coyotes could once again find themselves having trouble scoring.

Defense: This was an area of strength for the Coyotes last year, which was a bit surprising considering that at the beginning of the season, the players comprising the blueline for the Yotes were re-treads (Derek Morris, Adrian Aucoin) or fairly unknowns (Michalak, Keith Yandle). The only true "superstar" the Coyotes had was Ed Jovanovski, and I think a strong argument could be made that his best days are behind him. However, Tippett did a fantastic job of maximizing the talent of each of his defensemen, to the point that only Jovo was a minus player among the regular defensemen. The Yotes were able to rotate in Sami Lepisto and Mathieu Schneider, and Lepisto is back to take on an increased role. Overall, the defense is solid if unspectacular, and if Aucoin can continue his resurgence and Yandle continues to develop into a good two-way defenseman, the Coyotes look to be in good shape. However, one thing to consider is that many of the blueliners are getting up there, with Morris, Jovo and Aucoin all on the wrong side of 30. Injuries can be a concern, especially for Morris and Jovanovski, two guys who play a physical game. The Coyotes finished 3rd overall in team defense last year, giving up less than 200 goals over the course of the season. They were a tough team to score against last year, and this year should prove no different.

Goaltending: One area that was not a concern for the Yotes was in net. The Coyotes boast Vezina-candidate Ilya Bryzgalov, and he provides a stability between the pipes not seen in the desert since Khabibulin drunk-drove his ass out of town. After being stuck behind Giguere in Anaheim for years, Breezy got his chance to prove he's a number 1 goalie in Phoenix, and he has not disappointed. Despite a perceived lack of talent in front of him, he's been able to put good-to-great numbers, but last year his 2.29 GAA and .920 SV% were enough to get him nominated for the Vezina at the end of the year, and some people had him as their winner. He's a very good goalie who has the ability to get white-hot, and the fact that he struggled during the series against the Wings left a lot of Yotes' fans scratching their heads, as they thought that in net was one of the real advantages they had going into that series. Regardless of his play against an offensive dynamo team like the Wings, Bryzgalov is the type of goalie that will give the Coyotes a shot at points in every single game he plays in. Another Vezina nomination is not out of the question.

Coaching: I'll be honest in saying I was never impressed with Dave Tippett when he was coaching the Stars. I thought he was handed a fairly talented team and didn't get a whole lot out of them. Yes, he took them to the Conference Finals in 2008, but other than that, his teams were not very successful. I found him to be a similar coach as he was a player: non-descript and boring. However, there's no denying that he did a hell of a job with the Coyotes last year, getting them through all of the off-season distractions and off-ice issues and leading them to their best season ever in Phoenix. He brought in his system (essentially the trap, if you ever watch a Coyotes game) and implemented it to perfection. It helped that he had the players to succeed (i.e., grinders and role players who had more work ethic than talent), but there's no question that without his leadership and teaching, the Coyotes don't sniff the playoffs. He was the well-deserved winner of the Jack Adams Award for Coach of the Year, and I'm very interested to see what he can do with the team now that expectations have been significantly raised.

Player to Watch: It's hard to pick one guy on the team that I will really be paying attention to this year on the Coyotes. I thought it could be Doan or Yandle, but I keep coming back to Bryzgalov. Last year behind a good defense, he put up some great numbers. I think the important part of last year for him was that he had finally gotten himself used to playing an entire season as the starter. Now that the talent in front of him is another year older and more experienced, he should thrive and could put up some absolutely ridiculous numbers. I firmly believe that he is going to be the main reason why the Coyotes either build on what they did last year or not. If he falters, I don't see the talent there to keep up with the other teams in the West.

Player With Something to Prove: Wojtek Wolski was traded to the Coyotes late in the year last year, and he responded to the change in scenery by putting up 18 points in 18 games. To reward him for his efforts, the Yotes signed him to a 2 year, $7.6M contract that makes him a pretty rich guy (except for that pesky 18%.....nevermind). Anyway, Wolski was re-signed because the Coyotes believe that he is the player that can be their offensive leader, a role that he never fulfilled in Colorado due to pressure, lack of talent, etc. He never quite lived up to his potential with the Avs, and I'm interested to see whether his late season surge was indicative of what he can actually do or was just a guy getting a fresh start and playing for a contract.

Why They Can Win the Division: This is a team that finished just a few points off of the Sharks in the Pacific and 4th overall in the NHL. At the beginning of the season they were a cute story; by the end, they were a force to be reckoned with. They have got a legitimate shot at the division if Bryzgalov plays the way he did last year and the younger guys up front continue their development. However, they are going to have to get more scoring to keep up with the Sharks and Kings. It's a competitive division, but the Coyotes have the defense and goaltending to match anyone.

Why They Won't Win the Division: An injury to any of their key players will really hurt their chances of duplicating what they did last year. I think they lost one of their better offensive players from last year in Matthew Lombardi, and I don't see a suitable replacement right now. Aucoin enjoyed a resurgence last year, but will that be the norm? Plus, the Kings got better and the Sharks didn't regress that much, and the Pacific is one of the best divisions in the NHL. It will be tough sledding.

My Prediction: I can't shake the feeling that last year was a giant fluke for the Coyotes, and that this year their talent level will shine through and bring them back to Earth. The one thing the Coyotes do not have going for them is the element of surprise: they're not going to sneak up on anyone early in the year, and a lot is expected of them. I see them like the Blues of last year: following up a really good year with a stinker, but one that will be good for the team overall. I like their goaltending, but there's little scoring there, and any team that signs Ray Whitney to be an offensive spark at this stage in his career is grasping at straws. I'll go out on a limb and say that they will miss the playoffs by a slim margin. Keep in mind that I have not even mentioned the off-ice stuff with Ice Edge and all of that, which I think is going to present another season of distractions.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Know Thy Enemy - Los Angeles Kings

Tuesday morning, and we are a day away from the start of the NHL preseason. The Wings kick off their preseason schedule with a trip to Pittsburgh to open up their new arena, and it sounds like the Penguins are going to treat this as a regular season game and suit up all their stars, while the Wings will likely send some of their big guys and a host of other players to see what they can do. Word is that Osgood is going to get the start in goal, and this makes me a little sad, because I was hoping that Jimmy could show Sid how he cleaned his glove over the summer, and get Sid's opinion on whether it smelled better. Head on over to KK to check out George Malik's awesome coverage of training camp. However, some good news came down the pipe today. I was over at NOHS and saw that is going to stream the Red/White Game today. This is the annual scrimmage between two halves of camp, and is always a good time. If you have access to a computer at noon EDT today, check it out.

Los Angeles Kings

Alexei Ponikarovsky; Willie Mitchell
Departures: Alexander Frolov

The Kings took a major step forward last year, making the playoffs for the first time since the 2001-02 season, and while they bowed out in the first round to the Canucks, there's no question that last year was a huge success for the Kings. They had been one of the sad-sack franchises for the last few years, but the front office has shown a lot of patience in trying to rebuild the team, and the Kings look to be one of the big up-and-coming teams in the league right now.

Offense: The Kings are led on offense by Anze Kopitar, a guy who would be a superstar if he played anywhere except LA. He absolutely burst out of the gate last year, but as the season wore on, fatigue and the grind started to wear him down a little. He ended the season with 81 points, including 34 goals, and this year could be a breakout year for him. Behind Kopitar, there aren't any real offensive superstars, but there are a lot of 40-60 point guys sprinkled throughout the lineup. Ryan Smyth is looking to bounce back from an injury-filled season, as is Dustin Brown. If both of those guys can stay healthy, then the Kings will have a very formidable first line. Michal Handzus stepped up last year with 20 goals, and it's hoped that Ponikarovsky can finally live up to the potential now that he is out of the spotlight in Toronto and has no pressure to perform next to Sidney Crosby. If you take a look at the Kings' lineup, there are names there that won't be known by anyone, but are capable of chipping in offense: Jarret Stoll, Wayne Simmonds, Brad Richardson and Oscar Moller. There's talk that their number 1 pick in the 2009 draft, Brayden Schenn, is going to get a very long look in camp, and could make the team. On the blueline, the Kings have Norris candidate Drew Doughty, the team's second-leading scorer last year. I believe that once Lidstrom retires, Doughty could make a push for the title of "best defenseman in the NHL", as he's got all the tools. He's only in his third season, but even bigger things are expected of him. Jack Johnson is also a young player that can chip in points, as he ended up with 28 assists last year. The Kings finished 10th in the NHL last year, and with a team that young and very little turnover, they could rise depending on how their younger players progress. Their power play finished 7th in the league last year, and if Smyth can stay healthy, then they should either stay consistent or even see some improvement.

Defense: After the 2008-09 season, the Kings knew they had a solid young defense with Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson and Matt Greene; however, they knew they needed a good shut-down guy, so they went out and signed Wing-stopper Rob Scuderi. This year, sensing the need for someone else on the blueline, they went out and got Willie Mitchell. I'll put this out there: if Mitchell can stay healthy and the young guys don't regress, we could potentially be looking at the best defensive corps in the Western Conference. Doughty is an absolute stud who can do everytihng; he's the Lidstrom of the Kings. Johnson is still honing his defensive skills, but he's only 23 and has a lot of maturing to do, and he's very good. Greene is a stay-at-home, physical defenseman who can pop in the very occasional goal. Scuderi showed in the Finals in 2009 that he can stop the other team's top line. Add Mitchell to that mix, a guy who can play both ends of the rink but is particularly effective in his own end, and there's not a weak link there. It looks as if Thomas Hickey, their top pick in the 2007 draft, is going to get a long look in camp, and the notes I read said that he's another good puck-mover who is under-sized, but plays with intelligence, like Brian Rafalski. The Kings finished 9th in the NHL in goals against, but their penalty killing can improve, finishing 20th.

Goaltending: Yet another area where the Kings are young. The plan last year was for Jonathan Quick to hold on to the starting job until Jonathan Bernier was ready to ascend to that spot. However, Quick was fantastic last year, winning 39 games while posting a 2.54 GAA and .907 SV%. He nearly out-dueled Jimmy Howard in the January game where Howard had 51 saves, but by the end of the season, playing 72 games had worn Quick out. Despite his solid play last year, the Kings' goalie of the future is Bernier, and there appears to be a competition headed into camp to claim the numer one spot. Bernier is a hot prospect who has destroyed the competition in the AHL, and it's only a matter of time before he gets his shot with the Kings. If one of them steps up and really puts their mark on the team, the other could be used as trade bait to bring in a piece that may launch the Kings up to legitimate contender status.

Coaching: The Kings are led by Terry Murray, a guy who has never done a ton in his time as a coach but who's teams are generally solid. He got the Flyers to the Finals in 1997, but he could not decide on a goalie and got swept. Under his guidance, the Kings have gotten much stronger defensively, and their special teams have improved. Murray has always reminded me of Ron Wilson: he's a guy that can teach young players and get them to develop into really good hockey players, but he's not able to get that team over the hump to a championship. In a strong Pacific Division, the Kings will be competing for points every night.

Player to Watch: I was torn between Kopitar and Doughty for this, but I'm going to be keeping my eye on Doughty all year. He's entering his third year, and he's only 20 years old. He's already been nominated for a Norris, he's won an Olympic Gold Medal. This year, he will very likely play in his first NHL All-Star game, and he could crack the 60 point mark. He's no slouch defensively, either; he was a +20 last year, and typically plays against the other team's second line. This year he should improve defensively, and he may be given more opportunities to play against the best. If his numbers stay the same in an increased role, he will easily be nominated for another Norris, but unfortunately will fall 3 votes shy of Lidstrom.

Player With Something to Prove: On a young team like the Kings, there are always guys that need to show what they can do at the NHL level. However, for me, the player facing the most pressure this season is Jonathan Quick. He was brilliant through the first half of the season last year, but playing that many games can get to anyone, and by the end of the year, he was significantly struggling. With Jonathan Bernier hot on his heels, Quick is going to have to have a strong start to the season, or else he will be relegated to the bench and/or traded.

Why They Can Win the Division: Their division is a tough one, but there are no real glaring weaknesses on this team. They can score with almost anyone, they've got an extremely solid defense corps, and their goaltending is good. If they can continue their development and get scoring up and down the lineup, they will give the Sharks a run for their money, and could pull the upset in the division. This situation reminds me of the Blackhawks gunning for the Wings for many years; this year could see a changing of the guard in the Pacific.

Why They Won't Win the Division: As solid as the lineup is, there are still question marks. Jonathan Quick fell off the map at the end of last year, and if he does not show his early-season form, then the job could be handed over to Jonathan Bernier, and a goalie switch mid-season does not always work out. While the team is developing nicely, and there are some very good players in place, outside of Kopitar and Doughty the team lacks a legitimate superstar. They tried to get Kovalchuk, but he decided that he would much rather drag out his contract negotiations with the Devils than sign a monster deal with the Kings. In a division that has the Sharks and Coyotes, points are going to be hard to come by, and the strain put on Kopitar to be the number one offensive threat every single night could wear on him like it did last year.

My Prediction: Look, I actually like the Kings. I find myself rooting for them as long as they do not play the Wings. Normally, after a team has knocked the Wings out of the playoffs, they are forever on my shit list (hence my irrational hatred of the Devils); not so with the Kings. Maybe it because was the Wings had a ton of injuries in that series, or maybe it was because a part of me sensed that the Kings were going to be garbage for the rest of the decade and I figured the fans needed some happiness. Either way, I'm pulling for the Kings to take out the Sharks and win the Pacific. I like Doughty a lot, I think Kopitar should be more well-known than he is, and I like the fact that Ryan Smyth (who has as much skating ability as I do) can make it in the NHL, leaving me with hopes that one day I too can earn a spot on a team. The Kings are the new-Blackhawks, in that they are a young team on the rise, and everyone is picking them to do big things this year. I think they are still a year away, and while they will finish close to the Sharks, they just won't have enough to get to that elite level. But watch out: this team is going to be a big deal in a year or two, and as a Wing fan, I'm nervous about playing them.

Know Thy Enemy - Anaheim Ducks

I'm back after a weekend of golf and beer, and while the beer sure tasted good, the golf left a bitter taste in my mouth. That could be from all of the grass that I was hacking up all over the course, but it was not a pretty round. But, I'm back in the States and ready to move on with the previews. There's not a ton of news coming out training camp for the Wings at the moment, but there is word that Kris Draper is dealing with a groin issue, and he's been sent back to Detroit for evaluation. This is mildly concerning, but not overly distressing.

Today we look at one of the Wings' bigger rivals over the past 10 years, but like the Avs, one that has seen a number of the key players from that rivalry move on to retirement or new teams.

Anaheim Ducks

Tony Lydman; Aaron Voros; Andy Sutton; Aaron Voros
Departures: Scott Neidermayer; James Wisniewski; Mike Brown; Steve Eminger

The Ducks were one of the better teams of the 2000s, making it to two Stanley Cup Finals; winning in 2007 and losing in seven games as an upstart-8th seed in 2003. The Ducks also took the Wings to seven games in an absolutely brutal series in 2009, a series that I believe really hampered the Wings' ability to repeat because of the physicality involved. However, while most of the Pacific got better last year, the Ducks regressed significantly, earning only 89 points and missing the playoffs for the first time since before the lockout. The off-season only got worse with the retirement of their captain Neidermayer.

Offense: The Ducks are pretty thin up front, but do have one of the better top lines in the league with Ryan Getzlaf (the inspiration for my fantasy hockey name), Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan. While I loathe each and every single one of these players with a white-hot passion (particularly Getzlaf and Perry), there's no denying that all three of them have a lot of talent and can carry a team offensively. Beyond that, the talent falls off a bit. The Ducks avoided a major hit when Teemu Selanne decided to stick around for one more year. He bolsters a power play that finished 5th in the NHL last season. Selanne's presence gives the Ducks a legitimate sniper on the second PP unit, but Neidermayer's retirement leaves a gaping hole on the blueline. The Ducks will be looking to Lubomir Visnovsky to step in and help fill that hole, but the Ducks knew that would not be enough, so they went out and signed former Sabre Toni Lydman. Unfortunately, Lydman is dealing with an eye injury and it's unclear if he is going to miss any time. The Ducks will be hoping that some of their players can return to form, including Jason Blake, Joffrey Lupul and Todd Marchant. Saku Koivu teamed up with Selanne to provide a good second line presence, and his 52 points were good for fourth on the team. However, beyond the first 2 lines, the talent level really drops off, and the Ducks could have issues with putting the puck in the net. They finished 7th overall in the NHL last year in goals for, so a slip won't hurt them that badly.

Defense: Neidermayer's retirement from the Ducks will hurt the Ducks in a huge way, much more than Pronger's defection did. There is not a legitimate superstar on the defense any more, and for a team that struggled to keep the puck out of their own net last year, this is going to make life much more difficult for the Ducks' goalies. Visnovsky becomes the de facto number 1 defenseman on the team, but the Ducks were hoping that Lydman will step in and help fill the void left by Neidermayer's elbows....I mean, absence. The Ducks signed Andy Sutton in the hopes that he can provide some stability to the second pairing and making up for the loss of Wisniewski. Overall, the Ducks' defense is their main weakness, and the one area of the team that can really be exploited by opponents. The Ducks are hoping that Cam Fowler, their #1 draft pick this year, can step in and contribute immediately as an 18 year old, similar to what Drew Doughty in LA and Viktor Hedman in Tampa Bay did the past couple of years. Shockingly, with the exception of Visnovsky, every defenseman on the Ducks is either at least 6' tall or over 200 lbs. But this is not Neidermayer-Pronger-Beauchemin any more. The Ducks finished 22nd in the NHL in goals against last year, and a chunk of that can be attributed to their 24th place penalty killing. The Ducks must improve on defense if they want to get back to the playoffs.

Goaltending: Last year, Jonas Hiller took the starting job away from JS Giguere, paving the way for the latter's trade to the Maple Leafs and forever getting the man who stole the first round of the 2003 playoffs out of the Western Conference. Hiller responded with good, but not great, numbers. He ended the year with a GAA of 2.73 and a save percentage of .918, and a lot of his struggles last year can be attributed to the changes on defense in front of him. I personally believe that Hiller is one the more underrated goalies in the NHL, and if he gets the team in front of him to play any semblance of defense, he will keep the Ducks in most games. He is backed up former Flames goalie Curtis Mcelhinney, who should not be fatigued this late in his career since he's been behind Mikka Kiprusoff forever.

Coaching: The Ducks have been led by Randy Carlyle ever since the lockout, and subsequently they have been one of the dirtiest, most physical teams in the NHL. Carlyle coaches the way he played: he stresses physicality and size, and is not afraid to take liberties with opponents from time to time. Carlyle was never a flashy player, but he was a solid NHL defenseman for the Jets, and he has enjoyed a lot of success as a coach. He guided the Ducks to their only Cup in 2007, but being able to throw out a bunch of big guys that can push around the other team certainly helped. I think Carlyle even looks like a dick, and it will be interesting to see how he does with a team that is not loaded with stars. I'm thinking that if the Ducks struggle again, Carlyle's leash is going to get awfully short.

Player to Watch: Seeing as how this is probably Teemu Selanne's last season, it only seems right that we pay attention to how he goes out. Of course, if Modano last year is any indication, then Selanne will not be brought back after this season even though he wants to continue playing, and he'll sign with the Kings next year. He scored his 600th goal last season, the most of any Finnish player ever, and there's no question that he is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. With the Ducks seemingly headed towards a youth movement, it's extremely likely that this year will be his last, and for a guy that has scored 600 goals and over 1200 points, it only seems fitting that we pay attention. Maybe in his last tame, he'll recreate one of the better goal-scoring celebrations ever.

Player With Something to Prove: There's a lot of question marks surrounding the team this season, so I decided to go with something short and sweet: Corey Perry. He's a very good hockey player, but here's hoping that this year he proves he's not a giant douchebag by not stepping on someone's leg, running them from behind, or hacking at them with his stick and then running away like a coward when confronted by someone bigger. I hope he proves that he's matured, but I think my chances of making the Wings this year are greater.

My Prediction: My sister-in-law is a Ducks fan, and if Mrs THITD had any other sisters, this fact alone would push her down the "my favourite of my wife's sisters" list; but there's only the two of them, so she gets the title by default. In her defense, she is not an obnoxious Ducks fan; she realizes that getting uppity about them will only result in her eviction from my house and numerous taunts that may or may not make her cry. However, it does mean that I need to keep my comments at least somewhat censored since she doesn't really say anything negative about the Wings, even during the 2009 playoffs. However, just because I keep my shit to a minimum around her does not mean that I don't still hate the Ducks. As I was researching them, I realized that outside of Selanne, there's not a player on the Ducks I can even pretend to like, although I respect and admire Koivu for overcoming cancer and coming back to play at a high level. Outside of those two, the rest of the team is comprised of thugs and idiots. I think the Ducks will be in the mix for a playoff spot, but at the end of the year, they'll be on the outside looking in again. This will make me smile, knowing that the Ducks' penchant for brute force and lack of talent will once again not allow them to succeed. I'm just glad that this year is not an Olympic year, and I don't have to swallow my pride and sense of decency to cheer for Getzlaf, Perry and Neidermayer again.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Know Thy Enemy - Dallas Stars

I'm t-minus 2 days before I leave for my hometown of Brampton, Ontario for a golf tournament, and while I'm excited for that, it also means I have to cram 5 days of work into 4, all while bringing you previews of the rest of the NHL. But, I'll admit it's been eye-opening checking out the other teams the Red Wings will be competing against this year, and today we move out West to take a look at the Pacific Division. We'll be checking out a team that just a couple of years ago took the Wings to six games in the Conference Finals, but hasn't sniffed the playoffs since.

Dallas Stars

Adam Burish; Andrew Raycroft; Brad Lukowich
Departures: Mike Modano; Marty Turco

This season will be one about rebuilding as the Stars said goodbye to the best goalie they've had in the last 10 years in Marty Turco. They also allowed the best player in their franchise's history to leave as a free agent, and to Mike Modano, I say "welcome to Detroit". The Stars went on a surprising run in 2008 when Turco finally appeared to shake off the "can't win in the playoffs" moniker, only to be ousted by the Wings. The Stars have failed to make the playoffs since then, and new GM Joe Nieuwendyk is going with a youth movement to move the Stars up in the Western Conference.

Offense: With Modano no longer on the team, the team's offense centers around 2004 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Brad Richards, who popped in 91 points on a bad team last year. This is now his team, and he will be expected to duplicate those efforts again this year. The Stars have a solid cast of forwards, including Loui Eriksson (71 points last year), goalie-spearer Mike Ribeiro, James Neal and Jamie Benn. All of those players are going to be counted on heavily to provide consistent offense, because it appears the Stars are going to be bringing in a few rookies and younger players in an effort to start their rebuilding process. The Stars have a couple of agitators on the team that can put the puck in the net; captain Brendan Morrow is hoping to continue his rebound after missing a large chunk of 2008-09 due to injury, and he is more than capable of scoring 20-30 goals. Steve Ott also is in the 20-goal club, and if he would spend more time concentrating on scoring than on running the opposition, he might score more goals. The Stars finished a surprising 11th in the NHL in team offense last year, a stat that shocked me because I did not think of the Stars as an offensive team (I did think of them as a team that needed help from the refs to win a couple of games against the Wings last season, but that's another conversation for another day). Their power play finished a respectable 12th in the NHL, converting over 18% of their chances. One area where the Stars do look to improve is getting offense from the blueline; their leading scorer on the defense was Stephane Robidas with 41 points, but no one else got over 25 points. If the Stars can get similar contributions from their younger players, and can get some offense from the back, they will once again be one of the better scoring teams in the NHL.

Defense: To me, this is the real Achilles' heel of the Stars. They are led on defense by Trevor Daley and Stephane Robidas, but the rest of the corps is very young. In 2008, the Stars received a lot of unexpected good play from guys like Mark Fistric and Matt Niskanen, and if they want to get back to contender status in the West, they will need those guys to step up and stop the regression they have shown over the last two seasons. The Stars have traditionally been one of the stingier teams in the NHL, but last year they finished 23rd in goals against, and that was what kept them out of the playoffs. Their penalty killing was especially atrocious, killing off only 77% of their penalties, good for 27th in the NHL. The Stars brought in Brad Lukowich to try and provide some stability to the blueline, but ultimately it's up to the younger players like Fistric and Niskanen.

Goaltending: For the first time in a very long time, the Stars are starting a season without Marty Turco as their starting goaltender. Last year at the trade deadline, the Stars picked up Kari Lehtonen, a goalie I am personally familiar with from his days here with the Thrashers' farm team, the Chicago Wolves. I saw what Lehtonen was capable of when he was with the Wolves, getting them to the Calder Cup Finals in 2005 only to be outshone by Antero Nittymaki. The Thrashers had high hopes for him, but unfortunately injuries have been a major factor in his career, and he has been unable to stay healthy enough to establish himself as a true number one goalie that was deserving of how high he was drafted. However, when he was traded to the Stars, he seemed to be re-born, putting up decent numbers (2.81 GAA, .911 SV%), and the hope is that he can keep that up over the course of the entire season. The Stars brought in Andrew Raycroft to back up Lehtonen, another goalie who had high expectations after winning the Calder Trophy in 2004 but has done diddly since.

Coaching: What can I say about Marc Crawford. All Red Wing fans know Crawford well from his days with the Avs, and who can forget the screaming match between him and Scotty in 1997. Besides having the worst hair in coaching now that Barry Melrose has been fired again, Crawford has been a guy who rode a great Avs team to a Cup in 1996, so everyone thinks he's some sort of coaching stud. However, since then, he's done jack with some good teams (including running this team into the ground and failing to do anything with Vancouver). The interesting thing is that this year, there will be little expectations surrounding the Stars, so if the team blows, it won't be a big surprise, and Crawford will be able to keep his job. Personally, I've never thought much of Crawford as a coach; I think he can manage superstars well, but doesn't have what it takes to lead a young team up to the ranks of contenders.

Player to Watch: Loui Eriksson's goal total slipped a little last year after potting 36 in 2008-09, but playing with Brad Richards night in and night out will certainly guarantee that he is capable of putting up at least 30 goals, and 40 is not out of the question. He is only 25 years old, and is just now rounding into form as one of the better left wingers in the West, although not many people know about him. I think this year we could easily see him set new career highs in goals and points, and he is very quickly becoming the Stars number one goal scorer. Look for him to have a big year.

Player With Something to Prove: On a young team like this, there's always someone who needs to step up. For me, that guys is Kari Lehtonen. He played well in his brief stint in Dallas last year, but he had Marty Turco behind him to bail him out if he played poorly. This year, Lehtonen is "the guy", and he not only needs to stay healthy, he needs to show that he was worthy of being the number 2 overall pick by the Thrashers in 2002. He's a big guy (6'4") who moves well laterally, but that has resulted in various injuries throughout his career. If he can get it together and play consistently for this season, then the Stars could surprise a few people.

Why They Can Win the Division: Truthfully, I don't believe they have a hope of that, but they've got a top line with Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson that is capable of scoring on just about anyone, and if Lehtonen suddenly becomes the goalie everyone thinks he is, they could sneak up on some people. But that defense is going to have to play like they did in 2008, and there will have to be some truly unexpected contributors among the rookies for that to happen.

Why They Won't Win the Division: Between the Sharks, Kings and Coyotes, the Pacific is one of the deeper divisions, and the Stars just don't have the talent throughout the lineup to compete with those teams over the course of an entire 82-game season. The defense is not very good in the grand scheme, and beyond the first 2 lines, there's no real scoring threat. Lehtonen could very easily end up on IR once again this season, and I just don't think that Andrew Raycroft is the answer if that happens (ask a Leaf fan how they feel about Raycroft - only Toskala gets more scorn in Toronto).

My Prediction: As the NHL's "30-in-30" preview notes, this will be a season of transition in Dallas. Modano and Turco are both gone, so it's up to a new cast of players to lead the team. I think the Stars are really going to struggle this season, and will be among the bottom-dwellers in the conference. I don't think Crawford is going to do what Tippet did in Phoenix last year. While they did bring in "Stanley Cup winning forward" Adam Burish (I'm wondering if he will regale the dressing room with stories about thrilling it was to watch the Hawks win from the press box), there's not a lot of talent up and down this lineup. I also believe that if Brad Watson is refereeing a Stars-Wings game, I'm not going to watch because I can guarantee the Wings are going to be jobbed out of 2 points anyway, and I've got a blog to update.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Know Thy Enemy - Vancouver Canucks

Week 1 of the NFL season is in the books, and for those who don't know, I am a San Diego Chargers fan. If you are unfamiliar with football, cheering for the Chargers probably feels like cheering for the Sharks: you'll enjoy regular season success, then watch your immensely talented team get knocked off in the playoffs because they are missing....something. It's horribly frustrating, and in my 18 years as a Chargers fan, I've seen them get to the Super Bowl and get destroyed, and seen them go 1-15 only to have the guy they wanted to draft the next year say he will never play for them (hey, Eli - I'm still bitter). Anyway, it was a very disappointing game last night, and I'm very tired this morning.

Ironic that today we check out a team that, if they don't do sometihng in the playoffs soon, could end up in the same category as the Sharks and pre-1997 Red Wings: teams that can't get far in the playoffs despite boatloads of talent.

Vancouver Canucks

Keith Ballard; Dan Hamhuis; Manny Malhotra; Jeff Tambellini; Raffi Torres; Cory Schneider
Departures: Willie Mitchell; Brad Lukowich; Andrew Raycroft; Pavol Demitra; Steve Bernier; Michael Grabner

The Canucks were one of the big contenders for the Stanley Cup last season, as they have been for the past few years. However, for the second straight year, the Canucks ran into the Blackhawks in the second round and were unable to advance to the Western Conference Finals. The Canucks have a ton of talent in place, but made some moves that they believe will put them over the top and finally get them to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1994.

Offense: The Canucks are led by the red-headed twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin. Daniel has always been known as the better goal scorer, while Henrik was known as the play-maker. Neither player, however, had done anything really special until last season, when Henrik picked up 112 points to win the Art Ross and Hart Trophy. Unfortunately, neither one of them was unable to lead their team past the Blackhawks. Beyond the Sedins, the Canucks received 35 goals from referee-target Alexandre Burrows, who has shown steady improvement throughout his first four years in the NHL. The Canucks also got 30 goals out of former Red Wing Mikael Samuelsson, who showed that he was worth the money the Red Wings were unable to give him due to the salary cap. The Canucks are expecting good things from Ryan Kesler, their possible future captain (more on that in a moment), who potted 25 goals last year while being nominated for a Selke Trophy as one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL. The Canucks also have 2 good offensive defensemen in Alex Edler and Christian Ehrhoff, who both exceeded the 40 point mark last season. The Canucks finished 2nd in the NHL in total offense, and can score with anyone in the league. Their PP finished a respectable 6th in the NHL, and one thing that you do not want to do is get in to a shootout with them, because they can go toe to toe with anyone offensively.

Defense: Last season, the Canucks defense was good, but not great. Like the Red Wings of the mid-'90s, there was a little too much finesse back there, although the absence of Willie Mitchell for half of the season certainly did not help. The Canucks looked to remedy that problem by bringing in Dan Hamhuis from Nashville/Pittsburgh/Philadelphia, a physical defenseman with an offensive upside. In a sign that the Canucks are not concerned about Roberto Luongo's health, they brought in goalie-wacker Keith Ballard, who hopes to lay some lumber on the opponents instead of his teammates. They still have Sami Salo and Kevin Bieksa, and the Canucks have 7 bonafide NHL defensemen on their roster. The Nucks are going to have to figure out who is going to sit, but it's not a bad problem to have. Up front, the Canucks have Selke-candidate (and possible future winner) Ryan Kesler, and they added Manny Malhotra to bolster their third line and upgrade their face-off skills. The Canucks finished 13th in the NHL in team defense, and the additions of Hamhuis and Ballard should improve that. Their penalty killing finished 18th, an area where the Canucks can vastly improve.

Goaltending: The Canucks thought they were getting their stud goalie in Roberto Luongo when they traded for him a few years ago, but his play since then has been inconsistent at best. The team believed in him so much they named him the captain, a move that was as curious as it was stupid. However, Luongo recently relinquished the "C", and hopefully it will go to a leader on the team. It was thought that Luongo was going to give the Canucks the presence in net they had lacked throughout their entire history, but so far he has not lived up to the hype. Personally, I think that Luongo is the most over-rated player in the entire NHL, and I say that knowing full well that he "won" a gold medal for the Canada in the Olympics. However, I just do not believe that he has made the Canucks that much better in the grand scheme of things. Don't get me wrong; he's a pretty good goalie. But nothing he has done in his career has defined him as "elite". Until he can show that he can carry the team and advance them in the playoffs against a good team, I just don't buy the hype surrounding him.

Coaching: Alain Vigneault has been the coach of the Canucks since the 2006-07 season, and has compiled a very good regular season record, winning 3 Northwest Division championships in 4 years. He won the Jack Adams award with the Canucks in 2006-07, the first time he had won and his second nomination (the other was with Montreal in 1999-2000). However, for all of the regular season success he has enjoyed with the Canucks, he has failed to get them to the Western Conference Finals in any of his 4 seasons, and this season he has been handed all of the tools he presumably will need to get the Canucks to the next level. He will be under an enormous amount of pressure this year, and if Vancouver struggles for any extended length of time, I believe a change could be made. I also believe that if the Canucks do not get out of the second round, this will be Vigneault's last year in Vancouver.

Player to Watch: Ryan Kesler is one of the leading candidates to be named captain of the Canucks (ironic since he's American - Captain Canuck, anyone?), and if his play from last season improves, he could have his first 30-goal season while taking home his first Selke Trophy at the end of the year. Kesler is one of the best two-way forwards in the NHL, and there were many (myself included) who thought he would win the Selke last year. He's a brash guy, unafraid to voice an opinion or mix things up on the ice. He was one of the best players for Team USA at the Olympics, and he has really stepped up to become a true leader on the Canucks. I think this could be a breakout year for him, but it will be interesting to see how he handles becoming captain if that comes to fruition.

Player With Something to Prove: Look, the Canucks aren't going anywhere until Roberto Luongo finally delivers in the playoffs. His GAA has risen each of his past 3 years in the playoffs, while at the same time his SV% has gone down. Last year, he posted a 3.22 GAA and an .895 SV%, both stats that would get him cut or traded had they been regular season stats. If Luongo can't get it together and play the way he is capable in the playoffs, the Canucks will be known as the new Sharks; tons of talent that gets them regular season success, but nothing to show for it in the playoffs. As the Red Wings can attest, all the talent in the world won't win a Cup if the goalie is not up to the task. Luongo is the highest-visible player on an extremely good team, and consequently he needs to be their best player night in and night out.

Why They Can Win the Division: They are the most talented and best team top to bottom in the Northwest, and this division is theirs to lose. Like Detroit throughout most of the last decade, the Canucks appear to be head and shoulders above the rest of the teams in the division, and should have little competition for the division crown over the course of the season.

Why They Won't Win the Division: It's going to take a collapse of pretty big proportions coupled with one of the other teams coming out of nowhwere for the Canucks not to earn one of the top-3 seeds in the West heading into the playoffs. A long-term injury to one of their key players could certainly hurt their chances, but overall this is a very deep team that should navigate the regular season with few issues.

My Prediction: The Canucks are entering the 2010-11 season as the favourite to win the West and get to the Stanley Cup Finals. I'll believe that when I see it. I have no doubts the Canucks are a talented team, and on paper they have to be considered one of the top contenders in the NHL. However, as long as they have Luongo on the team, I will always question whether they have the ability to get beyond the second round, let alone win the Stanley Cup. I'm not sold on Vigneault as a coach, and I'm curious to see whether Henrik Sedin's great season last year was indicative of what he is capable of or was just a fluke. I see the Canucks winning the Northwest, but only because I don't see a major threat to them within the division. Like the Red Wings for most of the past 10 years, the regular season isn't going to mean anything to the Canucks; they could win the President's Trophy and still have this season considered a failure. For the Canucks, it's Stanley Cup or bust, and what they do in the playoffs will determine whether this year is a success or not. I only hope that if the Wings play the Canucks in the playoffs, it's in the third round so I don't have to deal with 9 pm start times. I'm an old man and that's way past my bedtime.

Know Thy Enemy - Colorado Avalanche

The Red Wings are less than a week away from training camp, and this weekend the rookies participated in the rookie tournament. Pretty soon battles will start for positions, new players will be formally introduced to the Red Wing-way, and pre-season games (real, honest-to-God hockey games) will be played. We're really going to start cranking these previews out, and today we look at an old rival who recently fell on hard times, but seems to be coming back to life. Maybe this will make the rivalry exciting again.

Colorado Avalanche

Daniel Winnik
Departures: Brett Clark; Darcy Tucker

The Dive. Even now, years later, I still loathe them. I realize that the Avs had fallen on hard times and that took some of the spice out of the rivalry between the two teams. However, last season the Avs, in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, surprised the hell out of everyone (including their own fans) and finished 8th in the West, earning a spot in the ultra-competitive playoffs. Their inexperience showed in their first-round matchup against the Sharks, but the Avs definitely seem to be a team on the rise.

Offense: The Avs are led on offense by Paul Statsny, who is quickly turning into their leader both on offense and on the team as a whole. He finished with 79 points in 81 games, and was their leading scorer. He is helped out by Calder-finalist Matt Duchene, who put forth an impressive rookie season with 24 goals and 55 points, enough to make him the leading rookie-scorer in the NHL, and give the Avs a solid second-line center. Mostly the Avs have a lot of young talent at forward, including Brandon Yip, TJ Galiardi and Ryan O'Reilly, all players who had good seasons last year which the team is hoping they will build on. Milan Hejduk is returning for another season, and if he can stay healthy for the entire season, then the Avs will have their best pure goal scorer available to contribute. The Avs are also hoping that Peter Mueller can continue his torrid pace that he set after his trade from the Coyotes late last year. The Avs don't get a ton of offense from their blueline, with John-Michael Liles and Kyle Quincey (man, it would be nice to have him back) being their leading defensemen scorers. The Avs finished 6th overall in goals for last year, so you can't sleep on them, as they can score with just about anyone on the team. Their PP is average, finishing 15th with a success rate of just over 18%. Overall, the Avs are a good offensive team, but given their youth, I question whether that can be sustained.

Defense: The Dive has a very underrated defensive corps, led by Liles and Quincey. They still have a holdover from the Fight Night days in Adam Foote, their captain and on-ice leader. His offensive skills are pretty much non-existent at this point of his career (not that he ever was a high-scoring guy), but he's a smart player who still has a physical side to his game. He may be a dirty idiot, but he's the best they've got. Like the offense, the defense is also fairly young, with only Scott Hannan being considered true "veterans". The defense finished 17th in goals against last season, but their team defense really trailed off towards the end of the season when the youth of the team showed. The Avs will be looking to improve a penalty kill that finished 21st in the NHL, although they were successful in killing off 80% of the penalties against them. The defense is good but not great, and would be the weak link on the team from my perspective.

Goaltending: Craig Anderson was signed as a free agent from Florida, and promptly set the NHL on it's ear with his October, where he was scorching hot. However, over the course of the season, his numbers really came back to Earth, and I think that was due to a combination of teams scouting him and seeing him more than once, and fatigue on his part due to the fact this was his first season as a full-time starter. He played in 71 games, and faced the most shots in the NHL while making the most saves. Considering his status as a first-time starter, his numbers were good, especially given the young team in front of him. From everything I remember about last season combined with what I've read about him from their fans, he was clearly the team's MVP and the Avs probably would not have made the playoffs without him. Backing him up is Peter Budaj, the Avs "goalie-of-the-future" who never played up to his potential, leading the Avs to seek out Anderson's services.

Coaching: Joe Sacco is a young coach who took over a young team, and he squeezed every last ounce of talent out of his team last year. He definitely is a coach that stresses offense, as the Avs went from being a lousy offensive team to a high-scoring one. The team allowed the most shots in the NHL last season, and team defense does not seem to be stressed nearly as much as the offense is. I did notice in the few games that I watched that the Avs are an extremely fast team (owing partially to their youth), and they use that speed to gain an advantage on their opponents. They are not a very physical team, preferring to use their speed and skill over size. He had a free pass last year since it was supposed to be a re-building year, but this year the team will be expected to take another step forward.

Player to Watch: Matt Duchene burst onto the scene last year as a rookie, leading all rookies in points with 55 and tying for the rookie lead in goals with John Tavares at 24. What's impressive is that he finished +1 on a mediocre defensive team, and he saw some PK time. Duchene seems to be the real deal, and with some experience, he's going to become a dynamic player in the league. Don't ask me why, but I feel like that there will no sophomore slump from him, and he will build on these numbers.

Player With Something to Prove: Craig Anderson entered the season last year as a relative unknown, but after his October, there were some who considered him an early candidate for the Vezina. As the season progressed, however, he really came down to Earth, and his solid stats don't really tell the tale of how remarkedly different his season was between the first half and second half. As I said earlier, he was the main reason why the Avs made the playoffs last year, and if he takes a step backwards this season, the Avs could find themselves on the outside looking in once again. I think that Anderson needs to show the team and the NHL that he is a legitimate #1 goalie who can carry a team year-in and year-out.

Why They Can Win the Division: The Avs only finished 8 points behind the Canucks last season in the division, although they were in the mix for most of the season. The team seemed to have hit the collective wall towards the end of the season, although that was not unexpected due to how young the team is. The Avs pretty much kept their team intact, only losing Brett Clark and Darcy Tucker, 2 players who did not really contribute much to the team. In fact, with Tucker leaving, the Avs' "idiot-ness" has decreased significantly. If the young players on the team continue to develop in a positive fashion, and the veterans like Hejduk and Foote can stay healthy, the Avs could conceivably give the Canucks a run for their money in the division.

Why They Won't Win the Division: A lot of what the Avs do this season is going to hinge on whether Anderson can stay at the level he was at for most of the year last year, and whether their young players can continue their positive development with no setbacks. If either one of these things don't happen, the Avs will find themselves looking up at the Canucks once again.

My Prediction: I think the Avs are going to take a step back this season. I think there are too many "ifs" surrounding the team, especially around their young forwards and their development. I believe that some of them (especially Duchene) will be better, but to expect each and every one of their players to play as good or better as they did last year is a little too much to expect. Between the overall lack of elite talent on the Avs and the hyper-competitiveness of the West, the Avs have no margin for error, and I just don't see them getting better this year. I think they'll narrowly miss the playoffs, but the experience will be good for them. I will also guarantee that I will froth at the mouth if the Wings lose to them, because even though 90% of the players that made up the rivalry are gone, I still hate them. I want the Wings to beat the Avs every time, and beat them badly. Anything less than 4-0 against them makes me very upset.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Know Thy Enemy - Calgary Flames

We're a week away from Training Camp, and I'm getting giddy. Giddy in the sense that I will finally have something to watch on TV besides The Office reruns and baseball teams I don't care about. While the NFL season is fun for me (mostly because I gamble on it), nothing compares to the start of the NHL season; when every team believes they have a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup (except the Leafs, who will never win again).

We are moving on to a team that has had high aspirations but not lived up to them the past few years. We head north into Alberta for today's preview.

Calgary Flames

Alex Tanguay; Olli Jokinen; Tim Jackman
Departures: Eric Nystrom; Christopher Higgins; David Van Der Gulik

The Flames were a team expected to really contend in the Western Conference last year, but after hanging around in the playoff race for most of the season, they fell apart late in the year and finished a disappointing 9th, tied with the Blues 5 points out of a playoff spot. The Flames went through an interesting transition last year, trading away Dion Phaneuf in the middle of the season, but overall they really struggled under new coach Brent Sutter. The Flames are hoping that some old faces will be able to re-energize a moribund offense from last year.

Offense: This is the area the Flames really struggled with last year, finishing second last in the NHL in total offense. The team is led by former Rocket Richard Trophy-winner Jarome Iginla, their captain and team leader, but once again the Flames are hoping that they can find a center that can properly maximize Iginla's talents. I've always liked Iginla, minus the series in 2007 against the Wings when he went super-stupid a la Shane Doan. The Flames are hoping they found that center in Olli Jokinen, a stud in Florida who has failed to live up to expectations in both his first go-round with Calgary and a stint in New York with the Rangers. The Flames are hoping that Jokinen will not have as much pressure on him this season, and that he and Iginla can form some sort of dynamic duo. The Flames also brought in another re-tread, Alex Tanguay, who had an awful season last year in Tampa. He will be united with Matt Stajan, a former Toronto prospect (get ready for this theme throughout this preview) who never lived up to his potential and was included in the Phaneuf deal last year. The Flames are hoping that the bad years these guys have had are in the past, and that they will finally get to where they are capable of in terms of scoring. A pleasant surprise for the Flames last year was Rene Bourque, who put up career highs in goals (27) and points last year (58), and the hope is that he will team up with Jokinen and Iginla to form a very dangerous first line. Outside of that top line, the Flames will be leaning on Daymond Langkow, Craig Conroy and Alex Kotalik to chip in with scoring. On the blueline, Ian White (another former Leaf) came over and immediately became a contributor, but the Flames will be looking for Jay Bouwmeester to justify the trade and sign deal they made with him last year. It was hoped that once Bouwmeester was surrounded by some real talent, he would shine, but he really disappointed a lot of people, including Steve Yzerman, who left him off the Team Canada Olympic Team. Ultimately, if the Flames are going to do anything in the Western Conference, their offense needs to get immensely better.

Defense: Despite the loss of Dion Phaneuf, the Flames still have one of the better, albeit underrated, defensive corps in the conference. They are led by Bouwmeester, one of the best skaters in the NHL and a big body back there. He's more like Lidstrom in that he is not a very physical defenseman, but he's smart and rarely makes killer mistakes. If his offense picks up, he could be an All-Star this year. Also contributing is Ian White, who is more of an offensive defenseman and will be looked to pick up and improve the power play. Mark Giordano is a physical defenseman with good puck skills, and he has steadily gained playing time and an increased role on the team. Cory Sarich and Steve Staios are the veterans on the blue line, and while neither contributes much offensively, they are both steady defensemen who can play against the other team's 3rd and 4th lines. The Flames currently have Robyn Regehr as well, but I've heard rumours that he may be on his way out. If he does stay on the team, he immediately makes the second pairing better, as he is a very physical guy who plays with an edge.

Goaltending: The Flames live and die with Mikka Kiprusoff. All Kipper did last year was play in his customary 70+ games, in which he put up a 2.31 GAA and a .920 SV% while winning 35 games. Whatever problems the Flames have, it's not in goal, as Kiprusoff has always been among the best goalies in the NHL. If he ever sustains a serious injury, the Flames are going to be in some serious trouble. You'll notice that I am not mentioning their backup goalie; 1, I don't know exactly who it is, and 2, it doesn't matter because he's going to play less than 10 games anyway.

Coaching: Brent Sutter, brother to GM Darryl Sutter, is in his second season with the Flames after he had walked away from the Devils. Sutter coaches the way he played: tough, hard, and with little finesse. He has been successful at all levels, especially in junior where he won a Memorial Cup (just as hard to win as a Stanley Cup given that there is a very small window and far more teams) and 2 World Junior Championship Gold medals for Canada. Last year was an aberration for him in terms of his team's success, and with an influx of talent coming to camp this year, Sutter should have more to work with.

Player to Watch: Jarome Iginla has been one of the premier power forwards in the NHL, capable of scoring 50 goals or pounding the crap out of just about anyone in the league. However, he has not had a consistent center that can feed him the puck, so his goal totals have been up and down for the past couple of seasons. With Olli Jokinen back in town, the potential is there that Iginla could get back to the 40-50 goal range, and again establish himself as one of the pre-eminent right wingers in the league. If he gets back to where he was 3-4 years ago, it will go a long way to getting the Flames back to contender status in the West.

Player With Something to Prove: Jay Bouwmeester was always known as a guy who was a great player on a bad Panthers team. It was long thought that once he was surrounded by talent, his skills would really be showcased and he would become one of the top teams in the league. The Flames traded for his rights before last season and signed him to a big deal, and he promptly went out and had probably his worst season as a pro. With Dion Phaneuf gone and Bouwmeester entering his prime, it's time for him to step up and show the league that his hype was deserved. He's got the physical abilities necessary to be a top defenseman; now it's about showing it on the ice.

Why They Can Win the Division: They've got the goaltending to go toe-to-toe with anyone in that division (Luongo definitely included). Their defensive corps is solid if unspectacular, and the Flames have traditionally been one of the more physical teams. If they can turn around that awful offense and score some goals, they could easily contend for the division with the Canucks.

Why They Won't Win the Division: My brain keeps telling me that at some point Kiprusoff's body is going to rebel against the team for playing him over 70 times per year, and this could be that year. If he gets hurt, forget about it; they're done. I also am not sold on the fact that Jokinen and Tanguay are somehow going to resurrect their careers in Calgary after having terrible seasons last year. If the offense doesn't improve, the Flames will once again be looking up at everyone else in the conference.

My Prediction: I think the Flames really underachieved last year, as they should have been a playoff team given the talent they had. However, they removed a big locker room distraction when Dion Phaneuf was traded to the Leafs, and this year the theme of the Flames is going to be "Fresh Starts". I don't believe the Flames are Stanley Cup contenders, but I also don't believe they are as bad as they showed last year. I see them as a playoff team this year, and with Kipper leading the way, they could make some noise in the early rounds. However, I don't see a huge future for this team the way they are currently constituted, and it seems like they are floundering. I will say this: the Sea of Red is one of the coolest things I have ever seen. I just hope I don't have to see it because the Wings are playing them in the playoffs: I hate the late games.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Know Thy Enemy - Minnesota Wild

We got some good news and some completely unsurprising news yesterday. The good news is that Kirk Maltby signed a two-way contract, which will see him paid $525K if he stays with the Wings of $105K if he ends up in Grand Rapids. Being a two-way contract, he will be able to be sent down to the AHL without having to clear waivers. I dig this signing, and not just because Malts is one of the few remaining throwbacks to the first Cup team in 1997. The chances of him making the Wings as a full time player are between "slim" and "no chance", which is a bummer. But, he will be able to go down to Grand Rapids and teach the young guys down there what it takes to be a successful NHLer. Plus, once the playoffs roll around, the Wings can call him up to play if necessary, or just be a positive locker room presence. Either way, it looks like Malts is going to end his career as a Wing, which means that all is right with the world.

In the "unsurprising" move, Derek Meech cleared waivers, cleleared waivers, meaning that if he does not earn a spot on the team after training camp, he'll likely be sent down to Grand Rapids without having to clear waivers again. This was "unsurprising" because the Wings have their top-7 defensemen set, which is his natural position, and there's already too many forwards, so there's just nowhere for him to play. I can't say that I'll miss Meech, because his contributions to the team over the years have been extremely minimal.

We continue our look at the Northwest Division with a team that flies under the radar for a lot of us (at least me, anyway). I don't watch this team often, so I'm going strictly off of my impressions of the roster. Without further ado, let's check out the opponents for the first H2H game.

Minnesota Wild

Matt Cullen; John Madden; Eric Nystrom
Departures: Derek Boogaard

The Wild have really flown under the radar for the past few years. According to's 30 in 30 preview, the Wild have missed the playoffs 3 out of the last 5 years, and didn't do much in either of their 2 appearances since the lockout. The Wild have been known as a defensive team for many years due to Jacques Lemaire being their head coach, but last year saw a change in philosophy as they tried to inject some offense. The Wild have been one of those "you know they're in the NHL but don't really know anything about them" teams for me.

Offense: Like a lot of these middle-of-the-road teams, the Wild don't boast a true offensive "superstar". They have a few good players, led by their new captain, Mikko Koivu, a bigger version of his brother. Koivu has decent skills, but isn't an offensive dynamo just yet. He will be expected to lead the team both in the dressing room and on the ice. A quick check of their roster tells me that their best offensive player is probably Martin Havlat, but he had a really disappointing season last year and will be looking to bounce back. The Wild got great contributions from Guillaume Latendresse after his trade from the Canadiens, and he will be expected to keep up close to that production over the course of the entire season. The Wild are also hoping that Matt Cullen and Eric Nystrom will be able to step in the lineup and produce some offense, especially Cullen who is expected to center the second line between Havlat and Latendresse. The Wild are also hoping for some decent contributions from Andrew Burnette, who kicked in 61 points last year and was a thorn in the Red Wings' side. One player to keep an eye on is Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who only played 1 game last year due to a concussion but should kick in some depth scoring. The big blow to their offensive hopes was the loss of Derek Boogaard, but hopefully someone can step up and fill the void in the offense that his departure left. The Wild are not particularly big up front, and will be relying more on skill and speed than at any other time in their history to date. They also don't get a lot of offense from their blueline, with their biggest threat being Marek Zidlicky, who quarterbacks their power play. The Wild finished 22nd in the NHL last year in team offense, and that number will have to get higher if they want to compete in the Western Conference. One area that doesn't need a lot of work is their power play, which finished 10th in the NHL, a tenth of a point behind the Wings at 19.1%. Any time you can be top 10 in one area of special teams, you're doing well.

Defense: Even though there has been a change in coaching, the Wild still boast a strong defensive unit that doesn't have a real "stalwart", but is solid 1 through 6. The defense is led by Zidlicky and Greg Zanon, a former Predator who most Red Wing fans know as the idiot that yelled "five hole!" at Hasek during the Wings-Preds series in 2008 (by the way, how did that series turn out for you, Zanon? Dick). As much as I dislike him, he's a good defensive defensman who tends to be a smart player. Their second pairing consists of Cam Barker, who never lived up to his potential in Chicago, and Brent Burns, who always makes me thing of that Seinfeld episode where they talk about Alec Burns. Again, a solid if unspectacular pairing. The third pairing has Nick Schultz, a guy who likes to throw his body around, and Clayton Stoner (insert your own joke here). Up front, the Wild signed John Madden, a guy who has been one of the better two-way centers in the last 10 years, and who will contribute defensively. The Wild are not a particularly big team, but do have one of the NHL's big hitters in Cal Clutterbuck, another guy with a great name. The Wild finished 21st in the NHL last year in team defense, a position that is not normal for them. They finished 14th in penalty killing, a decent place but not great. The Wild will definitely be looking to get back to "old-time Wild hockey" next year.

Goaltending: The Wild boast one of the better 1-2 punches in net in the NHL with Nicklas Backstrom (the goalie) and Josh Harding. Backstrom is another of the Finnish goalies that have taken the NHL by storm, and he has consistently put up decent numbers. Last year saw his GAA go up and his save percentage go down, but both stats were good. However, for a team that struggles to score, the goalies need to be better than other teams, and last year both Harding and Backstrom struggled at times. In fact, both of them had their worst year statistically last season, which greatly contributed to the Wild's plunge down the defensive ranks. Both Backstrom and Harding have the potential to be strong contributors, and the Wild will be hoping that last year was a fluke for both of them. If they can get back to where they normally are, the Wild will be vastly improved.

Coaching: After years of boring the shit out of the entire NHL, Jacques Lemaire left the Wild before last season and made way for Todd Richards. Richards came in and attempted to remove the shackles from the team, and it's obvious they were less successful defensively, but there was no real improvement offensively, either. However, everything I've read about him suggests that he is interested in making the team better on offense while maintaining discipline on defense. I think now that he's had an infusion of talent into the team, we'll really see what he is capable of. He has enjoyed success at both the AHL and NHL level, getting the W-B/Scranton Penguins to the AHL Finals in 2008 (where they lost to the local Chicago Wolves), and as an assistant coach for the Sharks when they won the President's Trophy in 2009. He seems to be a good young coach and they are expecting him to lead them up the standings.

Player to Watch: It's really hard to say since I don't know the team that well. But the little bit that I have seen and read about tells me that Mikko Koivu is one of the real underrated stars in the league, and this could be a breakout season for him. His offense has steadily gotten better the past 3 years, and at 27, he's entering his prime. I know from the little I have seen of him that he is a big body with good hands, and he uses his size to his advantage to get to areas where he can score. He also seems to be developing a defensive side to his game, and as the first official permanent captain of the Wild, he's going to be looked to as their leader. This could be a real breakout year for him, and we could be talking about him as one of the better players in the NHL by the time this season is over.

Player With Something to Prove: Martin Havlat was brought in last year to be boost an offense, but he really fared poorly, only going for 54 points a year after getting 77 with the Blackhawks. He said some pretty harsh things about the Hawks organization when he left (who can blame him), but if you're going to badmouth your former employer, it's probably a good idea that you, you know, produce. On the upshot, he did manage to stay healthy for the second straight year, but if the Wild want to do anything this year, he needs to be their primary goal scorer and pick up where he left off after he came over from the Hawks.

Why They Can Win the Division: They don't have a ton of offense, but those goalies (especially Backstrom) are enough to keep the Wild in games this year. If their new arrivals can kick in some scoring and the defense plays up to their potential, the Wild could be competitive in a fairly weak division.

Why They Won't Win the Division: Even if the goalies improve and the defense plays the way they can, there's just not a ton of scoring there, and with teams like Colorado getting a year older and more experienced and Vancouver still appearing to be the class of the division, it will probably be tough sledding once again for the Wild.

My Prediction: The Wild still don't have the horses to make them a playoff team in the Western Conference. I think Mikko Koivu is going to have a big year (and I might just draft him in my fantasy hockey league), but outside of that, I don't think the Wild are going to be able to score with the top teams in the conference. I think Backstrom will bounce back and have a good year, and I think their defense is going to be good. Overall, however, I just don't see the Wild being able to compete over the course of the entire season, and they are going to finish in the bottom half of the conference again.

Know Thy Enemy - Edmonton Oilers

I hope that everyone had a wonderful Labour Day. I used the last long weekend of summer to work on my golf game and play a little pick-up baseball, and my body responded by essentially seizing up. It's hard to believe that such a small amount of physical exertion could cause this much stiffness, but there you go. I guess I'm getting older, and while I'm not in pro-athlete shape, I still like to think I'm not in Kyle Wellwood territory yet.

Once again, there's not a ton going on in the NHL right now. I won't get into the Dan Ellis thing, because it's stupid and not news at all. Kovy's contract saga is over (thank the maker for that), and it looks like Kirk Maltby might be getting an offer from the Red Wings soon. Training camp is less than 2 weeks away, and pretty soon we'll be watching pre-season games wondering who's going to get the coveted last forward spot.

We finished up the Central Division last week, and today we will be heading north and west to the...Northwest Division. In case you're wondering the order of these, I am looking at each team in reverse order of where they finished in the standings last year. Without further ado, let's move to the last place team from the Northwest last year.

Edmonton Oilers

Kurtis Foster; Colin Fraser; Alexandre Giroux; Jim Vandermeer
Departures: Ethan Moreau; Riley Nash; Robert Nilsson; Patrick O'Sullivan

Last year is a year the Oilers would like to forget. After the past few seasons when the Oilers were at least competitive, they went in the tank last year, finishing last overall in the NHL. The Oilers were not particularly adept at anything beyond getting injured and having their "stars" dramatically underachieve. This year does not promise to be pretty for the Oilers.

Offense: Taking a look at the Oilers' offense, there are very few names that jump out at you as legitimate offensive stars. The offense revolves around Ales Hemsky, probably their best player. Unfortunately, injuries limited him to 22 games last year, although he did score 22 points in those 22 games. The big surprise was Dustin Penner's breakout season where he led the Oilers in scoring with 63 points, making Kevin Lowe look a little smart for signing him to that monster contract as an RFA a few years ago. Besides Penner and Sam Gagner, no player on the Oil ended up with more than 40 points, and there will be a lot expected of the younger players this season. Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano are going to both be expected to step up this season, but the Oil are going to be looking for contributions from some rookies, most notably Team Canada WJC hero Jordan Eberle and Number 1 Overall pick Taylor Hall. Hall is going to very likely make the team this season, and being the first pick in the draft automatically carries a lot of pressure. It will be interesting to see how he responds, but everything I've read about him indicates he is a very confident player who should be able to adjust to the demands of playing in the NHL. For me, my eyes will be on Eberle, a guy who scored big goal after big goal for Canada at the WJC the last couple of years, and who has very quickly developed a reputation as being clutch. Those 2 guys should inject some much needed energy and life into an offense that finished 27th in the NHL last year. However, one area where Edmonton could expect to see a boost is offense from their defensemen. Ryan Whitney played well in his first full season, scoring 39 points for a bad offensive team. Sheldon Souray will be expected to stay healthy for the whole season and will be a boon to the power play. The signing of Kurtis Foster is also designed to infuse some scoring into the lineup, as he will be another pivotal player on the power play should Souray not be able to stay off IR this season. Overall, there might be some improvement in the Oil's offense, but not a lot.

Defense: As I said, the defense of the Oilers is not that bad at first glance. They are led by former Penguin Ryan Whitney, who was never seen as a great player in Pittsburgh but seems to be doing well in Edmonton. He's more of an offensive defenseman, but he was a plus player on a bad team last year, and that means something. Souray will be looking to play more than 37 games last year, and if he can do that, he brings a lot of experience to a young team. Tom Gilbert is a relatively unknown blueliner, but he's got some offensive upside. The signing of Foster and the trade for Vandermeer will add some more experience and talent to the defense. Overall, the defense is probably the strongest area of the team, and the team is hoping that this will prevent them from becoming the worst defensive team in the NHL for the second year in a row. They gave up 15 more goals than the #29 team (the Leafs), and if the Oilers want to be even remotely competitive, they are going to have to get better in this area.

Goaltending: Now if there's an area the Oilers need help in, it's in net. The Oil have been and continue to hope that Nikolai Khabibulin can become a legitimate #1 goalie again, but unfortunately his drinking and driving seem to have gotten in the way of his training. If this were the last year of Khabi's contract, I would pencil him in as a Vezina candidate, but since he's safe for a few more years, all bets are off. If Khabibulin is unable to be the guy the Oilers thought he was, then they are in big trouble. Martin Gerber, Jeff Deslauriers, and Devan Dubnyk are all on the roster, but none of them have any enjoyed any real sustained success in the NHL to this point in their careers. The Oil had 3 goalies play significant minutes last year, and none of them did very well. The Oilers are going to have to get decent play from their goalies.

Coaching: Tom Renney took over as coach of the Oilers this past off-season, and he inherits a young team. Renney is a good coach who enjoyed some success with the Rangers for a number of years before being ousted. He's a former junior coach who also enjoyed some significant success on the international stage, winning multiple medals in the World Championships and a silver medal at the 1994 Olympics. His teams have always been characterized as being solid defensively, but there is little flash there. He will be expected to continue the development of the team into making them respectable in the next few years, but there is little pressure on him this year.

Player to Watch: I think it's a safe bet that all eyes are going to be on Taylor Hall this year. He's coming into camp with a spot on the team pretty much locked up, and he's expected to really challenge for the Calder Trophy this year. He's a dynamic offensive player who put up big numbers in junior (106 points in 57 games last year), and he also showed that he can perform in the playoffs, scoring 35 points in 19 games as the Spitfires won the OHL Championship. He's going to be expected to score big points for the Oil this year, with 50 being a benchmark that seems reachable. However, when you check out his Prospect Profile you'll see that his favourite player is Sidney, so my respect for him just went down a notch. Either way, Hall should be an exciting player to watch this year.

Player With Something to Prove: This year has to be the year that Khabibulin proves he belongs in the discussion of better goalies in the NHL. A lot of people forget that he was a huge reason why the Lightning won the Cup in 2004, and he had a big hand in the Blackhawks' turnaround the last few seasons. However, last year was very forgettable for him personally, and with his back problems seemingly behind him, things were looking up. However, there was that pesky "convicted of a DUI and sentenced to 30 days in jail" thing that he has decided to appeal, so the question will be how much of a distraction that is over the course of a season. The Oilers are a young team overall, and Khabi is one of the main veterans on the team and someone the younger guys will be looking up to. This year could go a long way to restoring a lot of people's opinions about him.

Why They Can Win the Division: Not a chance in hell. None. Zero. Nil. If the Oilers win the Northwest, I will personally fly to Edmonton and have my picture taken with the Gretzky statue. Naked.

Why They Won't Win the Division: This is still a pretty bad team. They are definitely in transition right now, and the process of restoring respectability to the franchise of the '80s begins this year. Unfortunately, even in a weak division like the Northwest, there's no hope for them. I think if they can stay out of the basement in the Western Conference, the season will be considered a success.

My Prediction: This team is years away from being mediocre, although they are moving in the right direction. Unfortunately for their fans, they can expect another long season resulting in a lottery pick. However, if history tells us anything, in 3-4 years, the Oilers will parlay those picks into a Stanley Cup championship, and will then have to sell off the depth players that got them there. Either way, the only highlight for me regarding the Oilers is the H2H2 game on March 11, when I hope to witness my first ever Wings victory at Joe Louis Arena (don't ask me about the only other game I've seen at the Joe - I still have nightmares about it - ok, ask me if you want). Ultimately, this team will be finishing towards the bottom of the NHL standings, but for some reason, the Wings will have problems with them.