Wednesday, October 04, 2006

2006-07 Season Predictions and Team Rankings

Good Day, Eh;

As this is the first post on the Emule Hockey Blog, I intend to follow the “go big or go home” principle – and, since I’m not at home right now (on campus), it flows naturally that I better go big if I am going to make it to my next class.

The topic of my first blog is:

Why the Montreal Canadiens and the Edmonton Oilers are going to face off in the Stanley Cup Finals.

*note: yes, this will be biased – they are my two favorite teams….

But, in order to do this, I must engage in a comprehensive analysis of every single team….before my next class of course (in 2.5 hours)… this will be a challenge J.

The format – power rankings style, with a “player to watch”. Feel free to hold me accountable at the end of the year.

  1. Montreal Canadiens

The Habs have put together a well-balanced team for the 2006-07 campaign. With two solid goalkeepers, including Christobal Huet who led the NHL in save % last season, and a phenomenal core of defencemen, the Canadiens will be a tough team to score against. In addition, the team improved its offense in acquiring Sergei Samsonov, while Mike Johnson is an excellent two-way forward who is built for the “New NHL”. This season, the team has been custom-built to cater to type of hockey Bob Gainey, Guy Carbonneau and Kirk Muller exhibited as players – hard working, two way hockey, played by guys who have a few offensive tricks in the bag. Almost every player on the team fits this mould. It will be a great year for Habs fans.

Chris Higgins – Chris Higgins is the best thing to happen to the Montreal Canadiens since Saku Koivu. The guy is an absolute hero and has already been dubbed "my favorite player after Koivu retires." He has it all. He's gritty, he's a hard worker, and he plays a strong two way game. He sees the ice well, makes hard tape-to-tape passes, and he has an awesome shot. After a phenomenal performance in the last half of last season, Higgins is ready to shine as a top line NHL player who will be worth a billion times more than what his stats show.

  1. Edmonton Oilers

With the additions of Lupul and Sykora, the Oilers may very well have the best offense in the NHL this year. Sure, last year the Oilers made it to the finals. But this year, the team really has embraced the notion of “Oilers Hockey”. That means that they will be fun to watch, they will play a fast-paced game showcasing phenomenal passing and scoring skills, and the players are going to have a blast on the ice – and that should produce results. Roloson may have to stand on his head, given the question marks on D, but he is a bit wild (like Oilers’ goalies of the past) and I think he thrives on the madness. Either way, this team is full of guys that watched the Oilers play during the “glory days” and who are Oilers fans at heart, so I expect them to embrace a similar style of hockey. The Oil should contend yet again…but, if they aren’t clearly #1 in their conference, they will probably just “squeak” into the playoffs just because it will make things more fun.

Petr Sykora – Sykora is a great hockey player, and I believe that he will thrive in Edmonton’s hockey environment. I heard that Sykora asked to play for a team “where he could go fill his car up with gas and the gas station attendant would tell him to have a good game”. In other words, he wants to play in a hockey city – and Edmonton is arguably the most hockey crazy city in the world. Also, expect Sykora to rebound from last year. He was apparently playing injured for most of the year, and history has shown that this smooth skater can snipe a few (or more). Add the fact that Edmonton has an explosive offense, and Sykora is going to have a ton of fun scoring goals in Edmonton this season.

Putting my biases aside, the Carolina Hurricanes will be the best team in the NHL this season.

  1. Carolina Hurricanes

It appears that the management team at Carolina’s head office is rock solid. Rutherford and Karmanos, the sharp Compuware tandem, have built this team from the ground up – and now it is paying off. A few years ago, a goaltender named Cam Ward was expected to go in the 3rd round of the entry draft – the Canes shocked the world and picked him in the first round. Conn Smythe. Last year, they “snagged” Cory Stillman in the offseason – a classic unsung hero – and then he knocked my Habs out with a shot from just inside the blueline. This year, the Canes nabbed “no-names” Scott Walker and Eric Belanger...but these two may very well be the best pickups of the off-season. Both guys play a great two-way game and, rumor has it, are “the type of players you want in the dressing room.” The Carolina Hurricanes have no holes on the roster, some superstar talent, and a great management team – look for another Stanley Cup run.

Erik Cole – Yes, he had a pretty good year last season – but I expect more. He is a force to be reckoned with, and his strength, speed, and determination are nearly impossible for defenders to handle. If Cole can stay healthy for the entire season, he will challenge for the Maurice Richard Trophy.

  1. New Jersey Devils

Well, Lou Lamoriello pulled it off. He unloaded salary to stay within the limits of the salary cap, and he signed Brian Gionta…and he’s got a cup contender. Also, gotta love the management team in Jersey – of the 20 players listed on their roster, only 6 were drafted by a team other than New Jersey. That’s why these guys play so well together. The Devils will continue to do what the Devils do…

Patrik Elias Hepatitis Shmepatitis. Elias came back in the middle of last season, and then he notched 45pts in just 38 games. He’s an elite player who never gets mentioned in the same sentence as Jaromir Jagr and Joe Thornton. But, expect Elias to hit the 100 point plateau this year.

  1. Philadelphia Flyers

Kudos to Bobby Clarke for tendering an offer sheet to Ryan Kesler – it’s nice to see one of the GMs using the new CBA to his advantage – that is, until one of his talented youngsters becomes an RFA and receives a phenomenal offer sheet from somebody else (wouldn’t Pitkanen look great in Pittsburgh?). Anyway, given the Flyers’ four dangerous lines up front, I wouldn’t want to be in front of that shooting range. Their defence may be a bit big and immobile, but their experience and drive should be enough for them to hold off opposing forwards. Add two quality goaltenders, and the Flyers will be tough to beat, as usual.

Joni Pitkanen– Joni Pitkanen will compete for the Norris Trophy this year. He is the complete package, and he’s prepared to explode into the big time. Last year was just a primer for the 6’3, 200lbs hard working, gritty, offensively talented and smart defenceman. This year, fans will see just what he is capable of doing.

  1. Ottawa Senators

Even though they lost Martin Havlat and Zdeno Chara, the Ottawa Senators are looking strong. How can you not be scared of their powerplay? Tom Priessing will be an excellent addition on defence, and Chris Neil wants to turn himself into more than just a fighter (scary) – Big George tried that a few years ago in Edmonton too, but I think Neil will be more successful because he can actually skate. Some people question the team’s goaltending, but Emery and Gerber are both solid and…hopefully this team (and Gerber) doesn’t collapse in the playoffs…again.

Andrej Meszaros – Mark my words, Meszaros is going to be one of the best defencemen in the world for the next 15 years. Last year, as a rookie, he showed that he more than belonged in the NHL. But, that’s only the beginning. His skating is effortless, he sees the play before it happens, and he has the skills to pay the bills. He’s great in both ends of the ice, and his shot has eyes. Meszaros looks Messy out there, but he’s got it under control.

  1. Calgary Flames

Mikka Kiprusoff is considered by many to be the clear-cut #1 goalie in the NHL. Calgary also has, in my opinion, the best defense in the NHL. The battle of Alberta just got intense – Oil and Flames…which city will burn down first (due to mischief on its Stanley Cup “mile”) – Edmonton’s stacked offense vs. Calgary’s nearly impenetrable back-end. What a season it will be for Albertans… Anyway, now that I’ve beat that to death, lets get back to the Flames. Their offense, though impressive with the addition of Tanguay, isn’t quite up there with some other top-level teams, but…man…that defense and goaltending… I can’t say enough – hopefully Kipper doesn’t get injured.

Dion Phaneuf – There will not be a sophomore jinx for this anvil-headed defencemen. Back in prehistoric times, dinosaurs were afraid of cavemen who looked like Dion Phaneuf – and now, everybody in the NHL should be afraid of the caveman that is Dion Phaneuf. Given his solid defensive play, his powerful Al MacInnis style slapshot, and the fact that he does just about everything else right, increased playing time and responsibility will give Dion the potential to win a Norris Trophy in the 2006-07 season.

  1. Anaheim Mighty Ducks

Last year, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks made it to the Conference Finals before losing to the Oilers – but, more importantly, Scott Niedermayer averaged 25+ minutes per game, and Chris Pronger, who led the Edmonton Oilers to the Stanley Cup Finals, averaged about 28 minutes per game. Thus, you could potentially play almost an entire game against at least one Trophy candidate (Norris, Hart, Conn Smythe – anything goes with these two players). If that’s not enough, the Ducks have four strong lines, a solid defense, and two solid goaltenders – they have no real weaknesses. I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ll put it on the record…Brian Burke (for his work with the Ducks and for other reasons) is a hockey god and deserves worship from all hockey fans…I may even end up doing a Brian Burke Hockey Hall of Fame pitch on this blog some time – what a hero...(but Brian, that doesn’t I don’t hate you for taking Pronger from the Oilers…)

Dustin Penner - Penner showed flashes of absolute brilliance in the playoffs last year. This 6’4, 245lb behemoth continued to shine during preseason, leading Ducks players in points (6GP 2G 6A 8PTS). I expect Penner to establish himself as a serious threat in the NHL this season. Potential Rookie of the Year.

  1. Nashville Predators

This is the year Predators fans have been waiting for. The Predators have become a legitimate contender this year – and the beautiful thing about it is that they have built a very substantial part of their team from good drafting and player development. Given some excellent offseason acquisitions, the Predators have filled in their holes and don’t appear to have any glaring weaknesses. Another scary thing about this team is that they have a relatively young team, and it’s hard to justify calling them “unproven” or “inexperienced”. This team will be very good for a lot of years, so now it’s time for Nashville to start producing hockey songs.

Shea Weber Although Weber only had a short stint with the Predators last season, he showed that he can perform at the NHL level. This year, Weber should establish himself as a legitimate top-4 defencemen. Weber can lay the big hit, he possesses excellent skills on the powerplay, and he is no slouch defensively. This guy is a keeper.

  1. Buffalo Sabres

I look at the Buffalo Sabres roster, and I’m subtly scared. They have quick forwards, and they have defencemen who know how to jump up in the play. The Sabres have no real weaknesses. Last season, the Buffalo Sabres had the best transition game in the NHL, and this year it looks like it might be even better. Goaltending is an issue – but not in a bad way. When I see Ryan Miller in net (being a Habs fan), I feel like my team is going up against Darth Vader…and Biron is probably the best backup in the NHL (until he gets traded?). Anyway, the Sabres are solid all around and will definitely be a threat in the East.

Jason Pominville – With Tim Connelly injured and J.P. Dumont gone from the team, Jason Pominville will have the opportunity to strut his stuff a bit more this season. The coaching staff appeared to have confidence in his two-way game in the playoffs last year, and if he is given a greater role, I think he will flourish into a well recognized second-line player this year.

  1. Detroit Red Wings

No Stevie Y, no Shanahan…and still, the team looks pretty good. The defence is getting older, Hasek, 41, is back for another stint, but I don’t think anybody is writing the Red Wings off. In fact, they are still quite the threat. A core of very good young players, developed within the organization, are continuing the tradition that the Red Wings have for bringing along talent that is team-focused and can compete for a Stanley Cup.

Johan Franzen Expect a larger role from Franzen this season. He only had 16 points last year, but I don’t think that 20 goals and some time on one of the top two lines are out of the question. As a solid all-around hockey player, Franzen will be a valuable asset to the Detroit Red Wings this season.

  1. San Jose Sharks

With probably the best 1-2 punch at center in the NHL, it will be tough to defend against the Sharks. The Sharks have all of the elements required to compete at the top level – they always seem to find players within the organization who are ready to take it to the next level, and this year will be no exception.

Steve Bernier After making an impression in the half-season he spent in the NHL, Steve Bernier will likely be counted on as a complement to the other two big, talented Sharks forwards (Thornton, Marleau). If Bernier can continue to develop at the NHL level, his potential is absolutely frightening.

  1. Phoenix Coyotes

Any team sporting Mike Ricci’s nose is good in my books. The Phoenix Coyotes are ready to compete in the “New NHL”. They have mobile defensemen who are capable of carrying the puck but are still solid defensively. They have a group of skilled, gritty, hard-working forwards, and CUJO should shine yet again. Barnett and Gretzky have made sure that this team will be fun to watch and will win games.

Jeremy Roenick Jeremy Roenick has apparently spent all summer preparing to knock the socks off the hockey world after last year’s dismal season. Unlike a lot of older players who try to rebound, I think JR has the talent and character to do it. Watch for Roenick to be instrumental in creating some cohesion among the talent laden Phoenix Coyotes.

  1. New York Rangers

Four solid lines, a solid defence, and great goaltending…the New York Rangers are looking strong this year. The howitzers of Brendan Shanahan and Jaromir Jagr are going to be a nightmare for goaltenders in the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, the Rangers appear to be sitting pretty in goal if sophomore Henrik Lundqvist can perform at the level he did last year. The Rangers don’t appear to have any weaknesses, so watch out.

Fedor Tyutin Tom Poti is gone and Michal Roszival is injured, so Fedor Tyutin will be counted on to take a more prevalent role on the blueline this year. Expect Tyutin to take full advantage of this opportunity and to establish himself as a household name.

  1. Dallas Stars

I think the loss of Jason Arnott will hurt the Stars more than most people think. The Stars have a lot of question marks on their top two lines – can the young guys perform? Can Ribeiro and Lindros perform? That said, the team has some excellent two-way forwards, a solid and proven defence core and excellent goaltending. They should make the playoffs, but their contender status will depend upon the big “ifs”.

Jussi Jokinen Mr. Shootout. Hopefully the infamous “book” isn’t out on him this season, as he has sophomore jinx potential. Dallas is likely looking for him to become more of a balanced threat, but at the very least he should continue to produce on the Powerplay and in the Shootout.

  1. New York Islanders

With a re-vamped defence and some additions up front, the New York Islanders are, subtly, a team much improved from last year. Lets not forget that the top-notch head coach Ted Nolan is more than prepared to show every other team in the NHL that they made a mistake in not hiring him. The Islanders are my dark horse pick of the year; they will turn some heads if Nolan can convince his players that there is no “I” in “TEAM” – and the “ME” in doesn’t count because the letters are out of order.

Rick DiPietro After signing a 15-year contract, how can DiPietro not be the player to watch. He has really only been an “average” starting goaltender thus far in his career, but he is just about to enter his prime, and he has the potential to be a Vezina candidate in future years. The pressure is on for DiPietro to perform, and I think he will.

  1. Boston Bruins

What a difference a year can make, eh! If at the beginning of last year I would have said the Bruins wouldn’t have Thornton, Samsonov, or Boynton – and that Brad Boyes, Zdeno Chara, Paul Mara, and Marc Savard would be on the roster…I would have probably been banned from my hockey pool for being such an idiot. But, that’s the nature of the NHL’s new economic model. After being in the tank at the end of last year, this Bruins team has a solid team both on offence and defence. But, they are a bit of a crapshoot at the same time. Goaltending is a clutch issue for the Bruins – can Toivonen and Thomas hold the fort? Also, the Bruins’ success will largely depend upon whether or not their youngsters and newcomers can live up to expectations in a Bruins uniform.

Hannu Toivonen Toivonen has the support of many hockey experts and was very impressive in his stint last season; however his ability to perform over the course of an entire NHL season has not yet been established. Personally (even as a Habs fan), I am a big fan of Toivonen. In fact, I hope that he somehow loses the confidence of Boston’s management, gets traded and then ends the season on a superstar note (oh wait…that happened last year to a different Bruins’ player, didn’t it??). Too bad for me that ex-Sens’ AGM, Peter Chiarelli, probably shares my view on Toivonen. Therefore, we will likely watch this Toivonen establish himself as a quality starting goaltender for the Boston Bruins.

  1. Minnesota Wild

The Wild have improved substantially this offseason. The addition of Kim Johnsson on the blue line and both Pavel Demitra and Mark Parrish will provide an offensive kick for the Wild, who have traditionally played a more defensive system. Although I expect the team to continue its focus on defensive play, the Wild’s offseason adjustments will allow them to compete better in the “New NHL”.

Marian Gaborik This will be the year Gaborik establishes himself as a bona fide superstar in the NHL. He has all the talent in the world, but he has never really had offensive support like he will have this year. Some of the pressure will be taken off, and he will have more space and achieve greater results. Watch out.

  1. Florida Panthers

This will be an interesting year for the Florida Panthers. They have a lot of players who have the potential to really step it up a notch and have great seasons – Bertuzzi, Bouwmeester, Horton, Olesz, Auld, and Weiss. If these guys break out this year, the Panthers could turn into a contender. But, if they don’t step it up a few notches, this team will find itself fighting for a playoff spot.

Rostislav Olesz This kid is a solid two-way player with excellent hockey sense and a high level of skill. You may remember him from such films as…getting rocked by Dion Phaneuf at the World Juniors. But, the Czech forward will likely see his role increase this season and may even become known as “that young guy that keeps feeding Todd Bertuzzi”.

  1. Vancouver Canucks

I’m sure the Sedin Twins will take it to the next level this year, and Naslund should rebound from a mediocre season last year. Roberto Luongo is the x-factor here – if he is above average, the Canucks will fight for a playoff spot. If he is phenomenal, the team could surprise. Either way, I’m not convinced that the Canucks have the depth to be a contender this year.

Jan Bulis Expect Bulis to shine this year in Vancouver. There was something about the way Montreal played hockey that didn’t gel with this style of play. He is a great two-way player, he’s fast and hits hard, and he has some offensive skills that have been under-utilized in the past. Canucks fans will be happy.

  1. Colorado Avalanche

I could be completely wrong, but I think the Colorado Avalanche will struggle to make the playoffs this season. They have too many defensive liabilities, and I think you still need a strong two-way team in the New NHL. Per my discussion under Buffalo, transition game is crucial…and the Avalanche defencemen are simply going to make too many blind passes up-ice that get capitalized on by the other team. That said, if Jose Theodore finds his Vezina-esque form again, the Avalanche go from the gutter to a contender on my list – the scary thing is, I think Theodore may have the character to do it.

Marek Svatos Svatos is like an avalanche of snow coming down a mountain on a defenceman - Svatos comes in at the speed of gravity, and a defenceman won't know what hit him until he realizes that he's F#*'d. The Avalanche are likely looking for Svatos to bring a bit more of a balanced attack this year, but I wouldn't be surprised if he leads the team in goals this year.

  1. Tampa Bay Lightning

The success of the Tampa Bay Lightning won’t rely on the four players that they have committed a substantial part of their cap room to – rather, it will depend upon how well their supporting cast can hold up. I have a feeling that they will start to pick it up as the season progresses, but I believe that whenever you have to “patch” elements of your team with whatever is convenient, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

Paul Ranger Ranger really made an impression on me in the playoffs last year. He has the potential to be a solid all-around player, and he should be able to, at the very least, establish himself as a top-4 defenceman this year.

  1. St. Louis Blues

The St. Louis Blues were very active this offseason, but I don’t think they will be successful in creating a major turn-around. The Blues will be improved, but they will still fight for a playoff spot. A Tkachuk-Weight-Guerin line will be interesting, the St. Louis defence is looking rather solid, and Manny Legace finally has been recognized by a team as a legitimate starting goaltender. All of this will help; however, I’m just not feelin’ the Blues this year.

Jay McKee If the Blues are going to improve substantially, Jay McKee has to be a major part of the movement. This hard-hitting, shot-blocking defenceman is as solid as they come on the blueline, and he should provide some much needed stability on this St. Louis Blues team.

  1. Atlanta Thrashers

I don’t know about the Thrashers. Given the fact that this league looks so balanced this year, I don’t think they quite have “it”. They do have highlight-reel scorers Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa to light the lamp, and their defense is strong and solid. But, Kari Lehtonen needs to have a break-out year and Bob Hartley is going to have to build a strong team culture if the Thrashers are going to be a legitimate threat.

Andy Sutton Andy Sutton gets my honorable mention here because I don’t think he gets enough credit. It’s not easy to score against the Thrashers when the 6’6, 245lbs Sutton is on the ice. Given the fact that he is of intimidating stature and is one of the NHL’s most consistent shot blockers, he makes life hard on opposing forwards and defencemen. Sutton rocks!

  1. Columbus Blue Jackets

The Columbus Blue Jackets have some excellent top-end talent, especially now that Zherdev didn’t book it to Russia. However, they need some of their younger players to step up, and they need a great season from their goaltenders if they are going to make the playoffs.

Gilbert Brule All eyes will be on 2005 first-rounder Gilbert Brule. Some consider him to be the next Joe Sakic. In seven games last year, he looked very good, and given the fact that Columbus has not hesitated to give its young guys ice time, we should see a lot of Brule this season. Potential Rookie of the Year.

  1. Los Angeles Kings

The Kings lost quite a few key elements this off-season, and it appears that they are going into a stage where they will be developing their youngsters. That said, they did go out and acquire Rob Blake and Oleg Tverdovsky, giving them a very intriguing defence. With a lot of very offensively talented defencemen, the Kings may be extremely effective at breaking out of their offensive zone – and (drawing at strings here) I don’t think it would be out of the question for them to play three defencemen on the PP, which is something I haven’t seen probably since Boston did it in the 90s.

Dustin Brown Dustin Brown should have an opportunity to crack the top 2 lines in LA this year. He has great work ethic and, if you look at his track record you’ll notice that he has improved steadily every single year. He is a good two-way player as well, so the coaching staff shouldn’t hesitate to utilize him in various circumstances.

  1. Chicago Blackhawks

Although the acquisition of Martin Havlat is a step in the right direction, it’s going to take a miracle for the Chicago Blackhawks to make the playoffs this year…or some absolutely phenomenal coaching by Trent Yawney and Denis Savard combined with great goaltending from one of the ex-Phoenix Coyotes goaltenders. There are simply too many question marks on this roster, and they don’t have enough talent on their top two lines.

Brent Seabrook Last year, Seabrook was one of the top rookies in the NHL, and he has the potential to be a #1 defenceman. This season, Seabrook deserves a greater role and more ice time. With this, we will hopefully see him develop into a true leader for the Chicago Blackhawks.

  1. Pittsburgh Penguins

Sure, Malkin will likely come in and have a very substantial impact on the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, the team is still a bit raw, and their inexperience will hurt them against the more weathered teams. This season, the Penguins should concentrate on developing the youngsters, providing an exciting on-ice product, and making sure that they have some cap room next year (and extra money in the bank – ie. new owner) so that they are well positioned to launch from the bottom to the top.

Colby Armstrong With everybody watching Sidney Crosby last season, nobody noticed Colby Armstrong. Armstrong notched 40pts in 47 games and was a ridiculous +15 (the next best player on the team was +5). Armstrong has always been considered a hard-working two-way player. If Colby Armstrong can continue to perform like he did last year, he will continue to gain responsibility and will be well on his way to being recognized as an elite NHL player.

  1. Washington Capitals

The Capitals are taking steps in the right direction. This year, the additions of Richard Zednik and Alexander Semin should help create some sustainable chemistry and support for Alexander Ovechkin. However, the team’s goaltending is questionable, and their defence….well I’m not confident that their defence will hold up under pressure. But, like I said, the Capitals are getting closer to establishing a set of forwards that will be competitive long-term.

Richard Zednik Zednik needed to get out of Montreal. He didn’t fit with the new system that Bob Gainey implemented, and he struggled last season as a result. Zednik should be a phenomenal complement to Ovechkin – he’s explosive, shifty, and he has a phenomenal shot. Zednik will thrive and re-establish himself as a top-line player this year in Washington.

  1. Toronto Maple Leafs

Maybe I’m a tiny bit biased…but the Leafs are going to suck this year. They have a lot of baggage and a number of players who don’t belong in the NHL. Ugh…Leafs make me sick to the stomach so I’m going to stop here. I hope they draft the next Alexandre Daigle with their first overall draft choice.

Mike Peca Because Mike Peca hasn’t been tainted by Leafdom yet, he should still have a pretty good year. If he can play half as good as he did in the playoffs last year, he’ll be the best player on the team. All of the other Leafs should watch and learn.

In the end, I missed my “next class” – luckily, thanks to a friend we’ll call M.G., I have some good notes – but this is an absolutely massive post, so I lived up to principle – and I got ‘er done…well, today. Anyway, now I must pray:

“GO HABS GO! GO OILERS GO! Oh great god of hockey, Mr. Brian Burke, may we please have seven Heritage Classics in May 2007. Amen.”



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