Senators open season at No. 1; Wings out of top 10
Posted: Friday September 29, 2006 1:15PM; Updated: Wednesday October 4, 2006 5:51PM
Wait a second! Wasn't it just the other day that the Hurricanes knocked off the Oilers in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals? Sure seems like it, as the 2005-06 campaign ended just 107 days ago. No rest for the weary, obviously.
Despite losing a few key cogs, the Senators begin 2006-07 at No. 1 in our Power Rankings. Many industry experts say Ottawa's offense took a major hit when Martin Havlat departed for Chicago (gulp!), but I disagree. The talented winger, who played just 18 games because of a season-ending shoulder injury, pitched in just nine goals. Despite his limited production, Ottawa led the league in goals with 312.
The Senators and Ducks (sans Mighty) are the cream of the crop, but keep a watchful eye on non top-10 squads Minnesota and Atlanta. Both have the pieces in place to make a serious playoff push. The Wild might just be this season's Edmonton.
One thing that may or may not pop out when scouring this list is the strength of the Pacific Division, with three squads in the top 10. That race could easily go down to the final day.
Here we go again. About this time last season, I predicted big things for the Sens. The Olympic break and a goaltender's fragile groin proved costly and Ottawa fizzled in the playoffs. Gone is huge man Zdeno Chara, budding star Martin Havlat, Brian Pothier and Dominik Hasek, but the Sens could be stronger and deeper with the additions of Joe Corvo and Tom Preissing. Both are offensive-minded backliners who add even more punch to the power play. While Havlat's departure will be felt, it should be an opportunity for youngsters Patrick Eaves, Chris Kelly and Antoine Vermette to take their game to the next level. If the star trio (Dany Heatley-Daniel Alfredsson-Jason Spezza) stays healthy, there's no reason why Ottawa can't win the ultra-competitive Northeast.
Last season: 52-21-9
With Chris Pronger joining Scott Niedermayer and Francois Beauchemin, the Ducks have the NHL's most talented defense -- by a wide margin. But after those three, there isn't much in the cupboard. Not that much else will be needed if Teemu Selanne repeats his 2005-06 performance (90 points) and underrated Andy McDonald turns in another 80-plus point campaign. One possible problem, though, is between the pipes. Will J-S Giguere or Ilya Bryzgalov be content sharing starts? This could turn into a season-long distraction if one isn't dealt. All things considered, the Ducks should be able to hold off the Sharks and Stars in the Pacific and then skate their way into the Stanley Cup Finals.
Last season: 43-27-12
The Sabres have nowhere to go but ... down? At least in terms of special teams, where the departures of Jay McKee and Mike Grier will definitely be felt on the penalty kill (Buffalo ranked second last season). J.P. Dumont's absence from the third-best power play will put added pressure on Maxim Afinogenov and Jason Pominville. Also look for more contributions from second-year winger Thomas Vanek, who despite a decent rookie season disappeared during the playoffs. Adding Jaroslav Spacek's vision and all-around skills will help the back line, which proved capable last season of moving the puck on a dime. The strongest area is goaltending, where Ryan Miller is a legit No. 1 (30-14-3 record, 2.60 GAA and .914 save percentage). Now, if the Sabres could just find a suitor for Martin Biron.
Last season: 52-24-6
The Preds have two great point men in Kimmo Timonen and Marek Zidlicky, but the rest of the blue line consists mainly of youngsters: Dan Hamhuis (23), Ryan Suter (21) and Shea Weber (21). Facing Cup-contender pressures, will these three wilt under the spotlight? Even if the back line falters from time to time, there should be more than enough offense with the additions of Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont. Those two should more than offset the losses of Scott Walker and Mike Sillinger. One player to keep both eyes on is flashy Russian winger Alexander Radulov, who dominated the QMJHL last season (152 points in 62 games).
Last season: 49-25-8
Sans Brad Stuart and Tom Preissing, there are some serious depth questions along the blue line. As a result, expectations are high for 22-year-old rookie defenseman Matt Carle, who had six points in 12 games last season. But the bigger quandary is between the pipes. Vesa Toskala and Evgeni Nabokov are both capable No. 1 guys. "It's clear," coach Ron Wilson told the Mercury News. "We have two great goalies and we don't need one guy to play all of the games. We have two guys that can share the load and help us be a great hockey team." I wonder if Toskala or Nabokov like that reasoning?
Last season: 44-27-11
Last season, all the pieces finally came together for the Blueshirts, who made the playoffs for the first time since 1997. It wasn't a fluke. In fact, with the additions of Brendan Shanahan, Aaron Ward and Matt Cullen, this rendition could be even stronger -- as long as Jaromir Jagr stays healthy and motivated. Another big question is whether Henrik Lundqvist can repeat last season's numbers (30-12-9, 2.23 GAA). With an active, puck-moving back line, Lundqvist should be able to avoid a sophomore jinx. What may be giving coach Tom Renney concern is New York's inability to score on the power play -- failing on all 36 opportunities in their first five preseason games.
Last season: 44-26-12
Do the Stars regret giving Marty Turco a four-year, $22.8M extension in January? It's like Groundhog Day every season: Turco dominates the regular season then folds in the playoffs. In 22 postseason games, Phil Connors, er, Turco has an 8-14 record. Maybe backup Mike Smith can push him for the top spot. But help has come, as the Stars added dependable blueliners Darryl Sydor and Jaroslav Modry to what was already a strong, mobile unit. Dallas was forced to be careful with the dollars, which led to the departures of Bill Guerin and Jason Arnott. Injury-prone Eric Lindros will be counted on as the second-line center, but the offense runs through Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen.
Last season: 53-23-6
The Hurricanes, who quickly lost a handful of valuable role players (Mark Recchi, Martin Gerber, Aaron Ward, Doug Weight, Matt Cullen) have spent years trying to shed their NASCAR stereotypes. But when John Grahame was dealt from Tampa Bay to Carolina, he wanted to embrace them. "I figure, I'm in NASCAR country, I might as well get used to it," Grahame told the News & Observer. Carolina's new goalie chose a NASCAR motif for his new mask, with checkered flags and his No. 47 on the chin in the kind of font used on the doors of stock cars. Of course, with Conn Smythe-winner Cam Ward entrenched as the No. 1 goalie, how often will anyone see that mask?
Last season: 52-22-8
How do you make a lasting first impression among die-hard Flames fans? Have a solid game against the Oilers. That's exactly what Alex Tanguay did last Saturday, notching a goal and an assist in a 2-1 preseason win over Edmonton. The two points were Tanguay's first offensive contributions in a Flames sweater after he was acquired from Colorado. Tanguay should land on the first line with Jarome Iginla, who is looking to bounce back from a sub-par 67-point season. With some new links in the offensive chain and Miikka Kiprusoff in goal, the Flames are again one of the favorites in the stacked Western Conference.
Last season: 46-25-11
The Devils are now more than just a defensive team. With the likes of Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, Patrik Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner, New Jersey has evolved into an electrifying squad up front, with speed, playmakers and the guts to camp out in front of the net. But problems are just over the horizon. GM Lou Lamoriello's decision to hold off on inking restricted free agents Gionta and Paul Martin because of a salary cap squeeze could come back to bite him. As of Thursday, neither has played in a preseason game, although they have been practicing with the team. But as long as Martin Brodeur is in goal, the Atlantic crown is within reach.
Last season: 46-27-9