Posted: Tuesday October 4, 2005 12:22PM; Updated: Tuesday October 25, 2005 6:39PM
Wake up, everyone. It's time to watch some hockey -- finally!
As the curtain is raised on a new season -- and a revamped NHL, for what it's worth -- the Calgary Flames grab the top spot with what could be the best collection of young defensemen in the league. While their defense is brick solid, it should be interesting to see if netminder Miikka Kiprusoff can duplicate his 2003-04 numbers. If his preseason play is any indication (1.00 GAA, including a shutout), the Flames are once again in good hands.
While three of the top four picks reside in the East (Philadelphia, Ottawa, Boston), the best season-long battle should come out of the Pacific Division. The San Jose Sharks are the cream of the crop, but you could make a decent case for any of the five teams having a legit shot at taking home the division crown.
Question for Flames fans: Where will you be when Calgary holds a ticker-tape parade after winning the Cup? With possibly the best group of defensemen in the league, a good mixture of seasoned veterans and steady youngsters, and lethal offensive weapons, this squad is built to win it all. But the team's success will depend heavily on whether backstop Miikka Kiprusoff can repeat his 2003-04 showing (24-10-4, 1.69 GAA). Keep an eye on rookie blueliner Dion Phaneuf, who fits the Flames' style of play.
Entering the third period trailing 5-1 in Sunday's preseason game, the Flyers scored five goals to force overtime. Needless to say, Philly has more than enough octane to be a serious Cup contender. Solid before the lockout, this team is outstanding in just about every facet. While the defense got tougher with the additions of Derian Hatcher, Mike Rathje and Chris Therien, they might be a bit on the sluggish side -- not an ingredient any team wants heading into a new, faster NHL. Peter Forsberg, Simon Gagne and Michal Handzus are known offensive weapons, but remember the name Mike Richards.
The Sens and Flyers should be battling for the No. 1 spot in the East all season. Ottawa, which was 7-1 this preseason and had the best overall offense and power play in 2003-04, could have four players tally more than 55 points. You could make a solid argument for the Senators having the best lineup in the league. And this could be the season Jason Spezza becomes a full-fledged star. The only question mark is 40-year-old goalie Dominik Hasek, who hasn't played a full season since 2001-02. If the big horses stay healthy, the pieces are there for a serious run.
Expect the Bruins to push the Sens in the Northeast Division. Boston made sure to keep a number of key cogs in the fold for this season: Sergei Samsonov, Glen Murray and Joe Thornton. One player to keep an eye on is 20-year-old Patrice Bergeron. If the B's can work through possible chemistry issues, and get a handle on the Nick Boynton contract situation, they will be a serious force in the East. And yes, Andrew Raycroft will prove he can get it done in big games.
This young, fast and well-coached team won't be sneaking up on anyone this season. After an impressive 2003-04 campaign, the Sharks cleaned house, letting go a number of veterans. And instead of signing a few high-ticket players, the club decided to look within the organization. Look for home-grown products Jonathan Cheechoo and Marco Sturm to log even more ice time this year. San Jose isn't a collection of big-name players, just a collection of team-oriented guys that have a knack of performing above expectations.
If not for Todd Bertuzzi's boneheaded decision late in the season, the Canucks might have won the Cup in 2003-04. With much of its talent returning, there's no reason to believe Vancouver won't remain one of the league's elite squads. With the exception of Bertuzzi, the Canucks have to toughen up if they expect to make a run at the title. And goaltender Dan Cloutier has to raise his game a few notches or risk losing the No. 1 job to Alex Auld. But make no mistake, the Canucks will be one of the top seeds in the West.
A blast from the past just might lead the Red Wings to another Central Division title. After a four-year absence, goalie Chris Osgood -- who was with Detroit for eight seasons -- returns to share duties with Manny Legace. The Wings, which were the only team in the top 10 in both power play and penalty kill, still have rising stars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg in the mix, so a playoff spot should be expected.
One of the fastest teams in the league, Tampa Bay seems prepared to make another title run. While the departure of Nikolai Khabibulin hurts, it doesn't sting as much as some might think. After all, John Grahame nearly took the job from the Bulin Wall. Don't worry Lightning fans, the Grahame-Sean Burke duo will do just fine. And as long as Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards stay healthy, the offense should be firing on all cylinders.
Sure, Paul Kariya is a huge addition for this team. And with the help of the new rules, he should be able to regain his old form. But the player you should keep an eye on is defenseman Marek Zidlicky, who managed 53 points in 2003-04 -- his first NHL season. If the Preds have serious thoughts of making the playoffs, it'll fall on the shoulders of 29-year-old netminder Tomas Vokoun, who's ready to become a household name. Looks like interests have been piqued in Nashville, as opening night is a sellout. In 2003-04, the Predators did not sell out a game until Dec. 20, the team's 17th home game.
The Mighty Ducks hope a new owner, GM and coach return some pixie dust to the Arrowhead Pond this season. But that will only happen if Sergei Fedorov and J.S. Giguere return to form. There's definitely enough talent to put the Ducks back in the playoffs, and the addition of blueliner Scott Niedermayer is huge, but Anaheim needs to get more production from its defensive unit. And some offense from the third and fourth lines would be nice.
The Panthers, who have initiated one of the league's most aggressive marketing campaigns, expect to sell 9,000 season tickets by opening night, up from 7,200 in 2003-04. When you have 26-year-old star Roberto Luongo starting in net, there's reason for optimism. And Luongo looked to be in midseason form this preseason with a 1.94 GAA, including a shutout over Tampa Bay on Sunday.
They lost Scott Stevens and Niedermayer from their defensive corps, but the Devils still have Martin Brodeur in goal. And that's all New Jersey needs to make another deep playoff run. With a number of holes to fill, and Patrik Elias out for the start of the season after developing hepatitis in Russia, it will be imperative that defenseman Paul Martin step up and take on a bigger role.
Despite the offseason losses of favorites Adam Foote and Peter Forsberg, fans didn't seem to mind. In just two hours, individual ticket sales for the upcoming season had surpassed the previous high. Despite the excitement in Colorado, it'll be a transition year for the Avs, who will be battling for one of the last playoff spots in the West. And with Milan Hejduk out the first three weeks of the season following knee surgery, more pressure falls on goalie David Aebischer, who was anything but impressive in 2003-04.
It's now or never for an aging squad. With a serious lack of depth on the Stars roster, it'll be up to veterans Mike Modano, Bill Guerin and Sergei Zubov to carry Dallas into the playoffs. Marty Turco will be his normal dominate self between the pipes, but the defense will have to toughen up and provide a little offense. Maybe highly touted Martin Skoula is finally ready to be a factor in the NHL. Let's hope Dallas made the right decision in giving 35-year-old Modano a five-year deal.
The biggest problem this year for the Habs is the same as in 2003-04: penalty kill. In addition to a weak blueline, the Canadiens have to get more physical if they have aspirations of sneaking into the playoffs. Alexei Kovalev, Saku Koivu and Mike Ribiero should provide some firepower, and Jose Theodore is still a top-notch goalie, but keep an eye out for Michael Ryder, who was rookie of the year runner-up two years ago.