Nothing like leaving it to the last minute 🙂 With the puck set to drop on the NHL season in less than 2 hours, I figured I should get my butt in gear and put together my 200-10 NHL season predictions. I'll break down how I expect the teams to finish in the Western Conference (I'll do the Eastern Conference tomorrow). This has become a much more difficult job in this age of parity, but I shall endeavor to do my best. At the end of the season I will revisit this post and see just how right (or wrong) I was.
1st - Vancouver Canucks
I know that many hockey pundits are predicting the San Jose Sharks or perennial Stanley Cup contenders the Detroit Red Wings to capture first place in the Western Conference. Ever the contrarian I picked the Nucks to take the honors this year. With a healthy Roberto Luongo in net and a defensive core that is the envy of the league the Canucks will be an absolute nightmare for opposing teams to score against. Up front look for the Sedin twins, fresh off signing a new long term deal to have their best season yet, and for players like Kyle Wellwood, Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler to have career years. Last, but not least, look for off-season acquisition Mikael Samuelsson to have a big impact. In limited minutes with a deep Detroit Red Wings team Samuelsson still put up respectable offensive totals. In an increased role with the Canucks he should have his best offensive season to date. With a stingy defense and an improved offense the Vancouver Canucks should have what it takes to capture the Western Conference title.
2 - San Jose Sharks
Few teams in the league have performed as consistently in the regular season than the San Jose Sharks, and the 2009-10 season shouldn't be an exception. With the acquisition of Dany Heatley from the Ottawa Senators the Sharks now boast the most deadly one-two punch in the league. With Joe Thornton dishing him soft passes all season long Heatley should absolutely light it up this season. Look for him to eclipse the 50 goal mark for the third time in his career.
However, the Sharks have plenty of assets beyond those two superstars to challenge for tops in the conference. With Evgeni Nabokov in net, Dan Boyle and veteran Rob Blake anchoring the blue line, and a supporting cast up front that includes Patrick Marleau, Devon Setoguchi, Ryan Clowe and Joe Pavelski the Sharks have a balanced attack that should have them near the top of the league in goal scoring.
3 - Chicago Blackhawks
Yes, there's the contrarian in me coming out again. While most in the hockey world are giving the Detroit Red Wings the Central Division title I believe it will be the Blackhawks year to finally dethrone the mighty winged wheel. With young stars like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook all moving closer to their primes, look for the Blackhawks to improve on their 104 point total of last season. The Hawks have an embarrassment of good young talent, and the only question mark surrounding this team is their goaltending. With the departure of Nikolai Khabibulin to the Edmonton Oilers, the number one guy between the pipes is Cristobal Huet. If he can live up to the promise he showed in the past as a member of the Montreal Canadiens the Hawks could be a strong contender for the Stanley Cup come this spring.
4 - Calgary Flames
Speaking of defensive cores that are the envy of the league, the Calgary Flames have more than their fair share of stallions in their blueline stable. In the off-season they nabbed prized free agent puck-moving defenseman Jay Bouwmeester. With the addition of Bouwmeester the Flames have 3 defensemen that could arguably make Team Canada's Olympic team this February, as Bouwmeester, Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr are all getting strong consideration from Steve Yzerman et al. If Miikka Kiprusoff can return to form this year opposing teams will have a hell of a time bulging the twine this season.
Up front the Flames will once again be led by their captain, Jarome Iginla. Look for Iggy to improve upon his 35 goal total from last season. However, the big key to the Flames' offense will be Olli Jokinen. If he can live up to the huge expectations that came with him when he was traded from the Phoenix Coyotes at the deadline last season then he will take some of the pressure off Iginla and help the Flames challenge the Canucks for the Northwest division title.
5 - Detroit Red Wings
Yes, for the first time in a long time the Detroit Red Wings could find themselves without home ice advantage when the puck drops on the 2010 NHL playoffs. Yes they still have 2 of the best two-way forwards in the league in the slickly skilled tandem of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. However, they lost some of their depth as Mikael Samuelsson signed with Vancouver, and Jiri Hudler defected to the KHL. The signing of Todd Bertuzzi will do little to offset the impact of losing Samuelsson and Hudler.
On defense perennial Norris Trophy candidate Nicklas Lidstrom is another year older, as is goaltender Chris Osgood, and fatigue could start to become a factor as the season progresses.
The greatest reason for Detroit's fall will be due to the improvement of the other teams in their division. In years past the Wings absolutely feasted on their weak sisters in the Central Division. However, with the improvement of the Blackhawks, Blues and Blue Jackets the Wings are going to work much harder for every point they get in inter-divisional match-ups this season.
6 - Anaheim Ducks
The Anaheim Ducks came within a whiskers' breadth of taking out the Detroit Red Wings in last spring's playoffs, and the 2007 Stanley Cup champions might just be the dark horse in the Western Conference race. With a first line that boasts Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan the Ducks have one of the best lines in the league, and with their combination of skill and grit they will be all but uncontainable in the offensive zone.
The off-season acquisitions of Saku Koivu and Joffrey Lupul, and the return of the Finnish Flash Teemu Selanne will give some balance to the Ducks' attack, and with Scott Niedermayer on the back end making the first pass the Ducks will be deadly in transition.
However, the Ducks did suffer some losses in the off-season, losing both Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin to the Philadelphia Flyers and Toronto Maple Leafs respectively the Ducks are significantly weakened on defense, and Niedermayer will be hard-pressed to fill the void left by those two. However, as long as goalie sensation Jonas Hiller can continue to improve the Ducks should still be able to outscore the opposition more often than not.
7 - St. Louis Blues
With a core of young talent that rivals teams like Chicago and Washington the St. Louis Blues could play spoiler on many nights, and should make the playoffs this year with room to spare. With a group of young stars like T.J. Oshie, David Backes, Patrick Berglund, David Perron and Erik Johnson the future looks very bright indeed for a Blues team that has struggled for several seasons now. Veterans like Paul Kariya, Keith Tkachuk and Barrett Jackman will bring veteran leadership to the group, and Kariya and Tkachuk should still be regular contributors on the score sheet.
As with several other teams it will ultimately be goaltending that decides how the Blues fare this season. Chris Mason has shown flashes of brilliance in his relatively brief NHL career. If he can find his A game this year the Blues will be a team that no one will want to face come playoff time.
8 - Columbus Blue Jackets
This was the toughest pick to make. I really like the potential of the Los Angeles Kings, but ultimately it was goaltending that gave Columbus the nod. In sophomore Steve Mason the Blue Jackets have a goalie that will be in the conversation with Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo as the NHL's best goalie for years to come. He was absolutely phenomenal in his rookie campaign and boasting a poise and a confidence belying his young age there is no reason to believe that he won't be even better this year.
Rick Nash, freshly signed to a long-term deal, should be poised to have his best offensive year to date. Firmly in his prime and challenging for a spot on Team Canada's Olympic roster Nash will be more of a handful than ever for opposing defenders.
And don't forget Ken Hitchcock. The Blue Jackets might not be blessed with an abundance of offensive talent, but their coach knows how to get the most out of his players on the defensive side of the puck. With Mason in net, look for the Jackets to win a lot of low scoring games again this season.
9 - Los Angeles Kings
As I said above it was a tough call predicting the Kings wouldn't quite manage to squeeze into the playoffs. I'm just not sold on goaltender Jonathan Quick yet. However, if Quick can prove me wrong, and plays well consistently the Kings could surprise a lot of people in the Western Conference. With offensive stars like Anze Kopitar, Alexander Frolov, Dustin Brown and Drew Doughty the Kings should have no problem putting the puck in the net. If they can do a better job of keeping the biscuit out of their own basket they could definitely overtake the Jackets for that coveted eighth and final playoff position.
10 - Edmonton Oilers
Beyond the acquisition of goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin the Oilers haven't done a great deal to change up the roster that missed the playoffs last year, so it is hard to imagine the Oilers making the playoffs this season. Granted, they've made a major coaching change, bringing in veteran coaches Pat Quinn and Tom Renney to guide the team, and this move might help their young players improve incrementally. However, the teams they are chasing have improving young players as well, so there is little chance of the Oilers will squeak into this year's playoffs.
11 - Nashville Predators
It's hard to believe that a few short years ago the Predators were one of the best teams in the Western Conference and were considered by many as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. It just goes to show how fast a team can fall in this era when there is so much parity in the NHL. With a defensive core that boasts Shea Weber, Dan Hamhuis and Ryan Suter the Preds are looking okay, but up front they have more questions than answers. Players like Steve Sullivan and Jason Arnott are starting to get long in the tooth, and though guys like David Legwand, Martin Erat and J.P. Dumont are decent in support, overall they just don't have the offensive depth to challenge for a playoff spot.
The one silver lining for Nashville fans might be in goal, where Pekka Rinne seemingly came out of nowhere to scoop the number one job last season. If he can continue to improve and post as many shutouts as he did last season he will help keep Nashville in the hunt to potentially challenge for 8th spot in the conference.
12 - Dallas Stars
This is a hard team to get a handle on, and the Dallas Stars might wind up finishing significantly higher than the 12th place spot I've allotted them. At 39 years of age Mike Modano is clearly in the twilight of his career, but with Brad Richards, Brenden Morrow and Mike Ribeiro all in the prime of their careers there is plenty of potential there. Also up front they have young players with plenty of potential of their own. Loui Eriksson and James Neal both exceeded expectations last season, and junior sniper Jamie Benn was a standout in the pre-season.
On defense the picture is a little murkier. Defending by committee might be the motto of this group as there really isn't a bona fide top pairing among them.
Ultimately it will likely be the play of Marty Turco that decides if the Stars can bounce back this season. Turco had an off year by his standards last season with a 2.81 GAA and a woeful .898 save percentage. He'll have to be a whole lot better if the Stars want to get back to the playoffs.
13 - Minnesota Wild
I have a feeling the next few seasons aren't going to be much fun for Minnesota Wild fans. With the departure of defensive coaching guru Jacques Lemaire the club is left with a roster that doesn't really suit the up-tempo style that new coach Todd Richards promises. New-comer Martin Havlat can be a force, but only if he can stay healthy. Strangely ironic that the Wild would finally get rid of one fragile star in Marian Gaborik only to snatch up another in Martin Havlat.
The ace in the hole for the wild is Finnish goaltending sensation Niklas Backstrom. Over the past 3 seasons Backstrom has been among the league leaders in GAA and save percentage, and has single-handedly won several games for the Wild over that stretch. He will be a lot busier with the departure of Jacques Lemaire. If he can handle the increased workload the transitional process might not be quite so painful for fans.
14 - Colorado Avalanche
Once a perennial powerhouse the once mighty Avalanche have fallen on hard times indeed. It is little wonder that Joe Sakic decided to call it a career, as the immediate future looks pretty bleak for the Avs. Beyond the budding superstardom of Paul Stastny and the potential of the 3rd overall draft pick Matt Duschene, there is little for Avs fans to get excited about in the near future, and those who remember the glory days of Sakic, Forsberg, Blake and Roy are going to have to live on those memories for a while yet. The Avs will only avoid the basement of the Western Conference because the team that I've got pegged to finish 15th is such a mess.
15 - Phoenix Coyotes
It is a shame for fans and players of the Phoenix Coyotes that their team is in such turmoil. The franchise has been caught in the middle of a lengthy legal battle between multiple parties for months and has seen head coach Wayne Gretzky move on in recent days. In fact the future of hockey in Arizona is very much in doubt. With all these clouds hanging over their heads it is pretty unreasonable to expect the players on the team to be able to go about business as usual at the rink without becoming more than a little distracted.
Even if everything was rosy in Phoenix on the business side this is a team that would struggle to make the playoffs. Sure they have some potential in young players like Peter Mueller, Martin Hanzal and Mikkel Boedker, but those players aren't quite there yet, and veterans like Shane Doan and Ed Jovanovski cannot shoulder the entire load by themselves.
Hopefully all the confusion surrounding the franchise will eventually be ironed out and whether they stay in Phoenix or move to another hockey market they can once again contend for a playoff spot in a few years.