Oddball Crystal Ball (cont.)
Team we'll all be sorry we didn't rate higher: Ducks
It's impossible not to recognize the depth of the Stars and the bold moves by the Sharks, but something tells me that the veteran Ducks, armed with full seasons from Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne and motivated to erase the embarrassment of last season's showing, are going to be far more effective than we think.
Team we'll all be sorry we didn't rate lower: Blackhawks
It's obvious they're building something special in the Windy City, but maybe we all need to tap the brakes a bit. After all, this team is incredibly young (eight players with fewer than 100 games of NHL service). It's thin down the middle, and it has little in the way of forward depth. No arguing that the Hawks will be one of the most exciting teams to watch, but given the stiff competition in the West, it's a bit premature to start printing playoff tickets.
The first noteworthy trade will center around: Jay Bouwmeester
The one-year deal he signed this summer simply started the clock ticking on his tenure with the Panthers. He's said that his decision will be based on how well the team performs, so expect him to make his position known after the Christmas break. To the right team -- the Flyers, maybe? -- J-Bo will be worth a proven NHL player, a top-tier prospect and a first- rounder.
Season's best new captain: Dustin Brown
Roberto Luongo is bogarting the attention, but of all the players wearing the C (on their sweater or helmet) for the first time, none will adapt more readily to the role than Brown. A Brenden Morrow starter kit, Brown is the King most qualified to lead by example. That'll be the key to this team's success. If Los Angeles is to start down that long road back to respectability, it will require a total commitment to team defense. With the hard-nosed and highly competitive Brown buying in, the rest of the squad has no choice but to follow.
Player who starts in the minors and makes the biggest noise on recall: Nikita Filatov
Sorry, Sudbury. With the Russians playing hardball on a rights transfer agreement, the first overall pick in this summer's CHL Import Draft is unlikely to pull on Wolves clothing this season. That could turn out to be a blessing for the Blue Jackets. Instead of sending the dynamic Filatov to juniors -- where he would be stuck all season -- the Jackets were able to assign him to Syracuse of the AHL. Given time to allow a hairline fracture in his leg to heal, and to build up the conditioning that the injury stole, he'll be ready to make a significant contribution to the Columbus offense before Christmas.
Comeback players of the year: Shawn Horcoff and Patrice Bergeron
Horcoff hasn't been bad these past two seasons, but he hasn't lived up to his paper. A 73-point man during Edmonton's charmed 2005-06 season, he slumped to 50 and 51 points the past two years. This season's Oilers will offer a more balanced offensive attack, and with Ales Hemsky and Erik Cole manning his wings, Horcoff should flourish.
Anyone who witnessed the frightening spectacle of Bergeron laying limp early last season, the victim of a Randy Jones cheapshot, has to be amazed to see him back in Boston's lineup. Bergeron has been pronounced fit for duty, so expectations are high that he'll pick up where he left off as the team's most complete player. He should end up close to a point-per-game, as well as the defensive conscience of the Bruins.
Unexpected trophy consideration: Brent Burns, Ryan Getzlaf, Mikkel Boedker
Some will write Burns off as a beneficiary of Minnesota's system, but he'll establish himself as one of the game's best two-way defenders this season. On the heels of his breakout 2007-08 campaign, Getzlaf will approach 100 points and challenge for the Art Ross. Boedker may be overshadowed by teammate Kyle Turris, but that didn't stop a pair of Hawks from competing for the Calder last season. Boedker has 20-goal potential and is expected to play the point on the power play. How often is a rookie forward given that responsibility?
Fantasy waiver-wire steal: David Jones
After scoring just two goals and six points in a 27-game rookie campaign, it's unlikely that the name of the Dartmouth-trained winger was called out in any fantasy leagues that didn't involve one of his immediate family members. Nice break for you. The 6-foot 2-inch Jones, now 210 pounds after a summer of hard conditioning with Colorado's strength coach, earned a spot alongside Sakic and Wolski on the Avs' top line. His size and aggressive style should gain you a few penalty minutes as well. He might even earn a chance to get rid of that training camp jersey number.
Sophomore jinx will bite: Tobias Enstrom
His 38 points led all rookie defensemen in scoring, and he deserved significant consideration from Calder voters. But Enstrom struggled mightily as the season wore down, broken by an oppressive workload that typically topped 24 minutes per night. This year's Thrashers are a bit deeper on the back end, but he'll still struggle to meet expectations on a team that's circling the drain.
Hockey Hall of Fame Class of '09 will be: Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Brian Leetch
It's not often that four players are selected in the same class, but with a quartet of undeniable first-year eligibles, this is about as safe a bet as Sean Avery hitting the over on F-bombs issued. It looks as though Pavel Bure, Sergei Makarov, Alexander Mogilny, Adam Oates, Doug Gilmour and Mike Richter will have to wait at least one more year.
Mats Sundin will sign with: Ottawa
With just more than $3 million to fiddle with or burn, the Senators will have to move a few pieces to accommodate the recalcitrant Swede. But given how adroitly he'd address Ottawa's long-standing desire for secondary scoring, and how comfortable he is in Ontario, the Sens are the most logical landing place for the game's most outstanding free agent.