Thursday, October 06, 2005

NHL Preview

After a 16 month layoff, the puck has dropped again in the National Hockey League. This is certainly shaping up to be the most unique season I've ever seen, with the numerous rule changes, and massive roster turnovers on nearly every club. Before getting into my predictions, here's a few things to look for during the coming year:

The Rule Changes

The Good
• Shootouts: They're fun to watch, and nobody likes to see a tie anyways. Except soccer fans, I suppose.
• Elimination of the Redline: Anything that leads to more outlet passes and cherry-picking is a good thing. If you don't believe me, you've never tried playing NHL for the XBox with the 2-line pass rule turned off.
• Restrictions on Goalie Equipment: I think for fun, they should go a bit further and have retro games where goalies have to wear equipment from the 1960s. Then we'll not only know which goalies have skill, but which ones are real men too.
• Linesman can waive off icing: I love this one, not so much because it opens up play, but because of the potential for WWE-style biased officiating. Can you imagine a Game 7 between Ottawa and Philly where the linesmen keep waiving off Philly's icing the puck, even when all 5 Flyers are in their own end? That's a way to get fans riled up about the game. If he knows how to skate, they could even hire former nWo ref Nick Patrick to call some of the games.

The Bad
•Not Restriciting Equipment for Skaters: Some of the players' equipment is ridiculous. Remember when Kyle McLaren nearly killed Richard Zednik after a shot with his oversized elbow pad in the playoffs a few years back? They need to reign this in before something really bad happens.
• Restricting a Goalie's Ability to Play the Puck: I would have gone in the complete opposite direction. I think goalies should be able to play the puck wherever they want. Heck, if they want to join the rush, let them do it. Remember the Mexican goalie in the '94 Soccer World Cup who used to do that? Good times. How could this be bad for hockey?
• Stricter Penalties for Fighting: Who doesn't like fighting? It's one of the things that separates hockey from other sports.

Television Coverage
The ESPN/ABC package is out, replaced by OLN and NBC. I'm rather saddened, since this ensures that my favorite hockey announcer (Gary Thorne) won't be involved in any way, and I may have to actually listen to Bob Cole and Harry Neale call the Stanley Cup Finals.

For those of you who don't know why I dislike Harry Neale, here's a sample excerpt of him calling a game. For argument's sake, let's say it's a Canadiens-Senators game:

"Leafs Leafs Leafs Leafs Leafs Faceoff in the Canadiens end Leafs Leafs Leafs pad save The Leafs need to work on their penalty kill Leafs Leafs breakaway Leafs score!"

Ugh. Part of me thinks that nobody can be that much of a homer, and that Harry Neale is programmed to say things like this, and it extends into his every day life. Imagine exchanges like this:

Harry Neale's wife: Honey, is chicken okay for dinner tonight?
Harry Neale: The Leafs need to start converting more second chances if they want to stay in this game.

ANYWAY, back to the topic. Since CBC hasn't done anything to improve their coverage (replacing Cuthbert with Jim Hughson is a trade-off at best, and Ron McLean can only do so much), my hope for competent NHL playoff coverage rests with NBC. I can only hope that the greatest living announcer is involved in someway. Seriously, I'd watch the ballet if Bob Costas was providing commentary. You can hold me to that.

I hope to catch some hockey in HDTV too, it's the perfect sport for that medium.

I'd also like to see more coverage aimed at casual fans, meaning less statistics and more personal anecdotes. Imagine pop-up video style facts about players coming up during breaks. I got this idea earlier in the summer while watching the E! True Hollywood Story on Full House, where they mentioned that the Bure Brothers learned English from watching Full House. (Valeri went on to marry Candace Cameron, which is why this information was particularly relevant).

NOW, wouldn't you rather get information like that instead of how many goals Valeri scored with the Dallas Stars last year? I sure would.

One Thing From Each of the Three Big Sports the NHL Should Mimick
From Baseball:
• Different rink sizes. One of the great features of baseball is the unique ballparks, which means that each team (if they're smart) wants to build its team in a slightly different way, and should have an inherent home field advantage. The NHL should encourage this. Teams like Edmonton and Pittsburgh who play up-tempo hockey would build Olympic sized surfaces, while grittier teams like Boston and Chicago could go with small rinks (I vote for the B's replicating the old Boston Garden rink, which was about half the size of a regulation NHL rink). It would make a real difference in home ice advantage, and give teams something to play for over the 80 game season.

From Football:
• NFL Films. Mic players up, have cameras in the locker room. This has done a great job of personalizing the players and coaches, and highlighting some of the more colourful characters, and would work wonders for hockey as well.

From Basketball:
• Give stars preferential treatment. Seriously. Who cares about fairness? Nobody pays money to see Jarome Iginla get tackled by 6-5 defensemen who can't skate every time he steps on the ice.

Winnipeg Jets Revival
Sadly, the club isn't back, but with Randy Carlyle coaching in Anaheim, and Alexander Steen, son of Jets great Thomas Steen, debuting with the Leafs, the spirit of the Jets is alive and well in the NHL. Somewhere, my buddy Kirks is smiling.

Will the cap actually have that much of an effect this year? One thing I'm interested in seeing is how it affects teams with injured players. With the hard cap in the NFL, a few key injuries can sink a team's season. I wonder if the same thing will happen in the NHL. (Note: it normally does anyway, but the cap makes it more difficult to go out and acquire talent to replace the injured players).

The Rookies
Names like Crosby, Ovechkin, Parise, and Lehtonen should make this the best rookie crop in a long time. How big of an impact they can have will go a long way towards determining their respective teams fates. Ovechkin's probably the exception, as all a 60-70 point season will do is decrease the Caps' chance of winning the lottery.

The Trade Deadline
Which teams will trade, and which will be able to add salary? Popular opinion favors teams in the middle salary range as being most able and willing to add salary, which makes sense. I wonder if teams, once out of contention, will trade players who aren't in their contract years to try and free up room to rebuild in the off-season.

The New NHL
Will it really be that different than the old NHL? Assuming the rule changes are enforced, we should find out, if nothing else, how much of the slow, boring play of the past decade was a product of the clutch, grab and trap style of play, and how much of it is a product of the watered-down, expansion era league.

Now, on to my predictions for the Regular Season and Playoffs

Eastern Conference

15. Washington Capitals (5th in the Southeast)
They were the worst team last season, and have done little to improve things. The only additions are Alex Ovechkin, Jeff Friesen, and Andrew Cassells. None of their other myriad of draft picks over the past few seasons should be ready contribute heavily. One other youngster to look for is Goaltender Maxime Ouellette, who should start to take some of the load off of Olaf Kolzig.

14. New York Rangers (5th in the Atlantic)
They’ve finally begun the rebuilding process, and it’s going to be a long road ahead. They’re slowly rebuilding their farm system, but while they’ve done a decent job of adding depth, they lack top-level prospects. Look for youngsters Jozef Balej and Fedor Tyutin, and Henrik Lundquist to contribute, but none of the other newcomers (Marek Malik, Kevin Weekes) will add much. I’ll also be shocked if Jaromir Jagr lasts the season. He’s not happy, and the lack of talent around him won’t help things. I could see him going into a Vince Carter-like funk, which will completely eliminate any chance the Rangers have of a respectable season. I suggest Slats trades him now before he’s stuck getting 30 cents on the dollar in February.

13. Carolina Hurricanes (4th in the Southeast)
This is at least a team headed in the right direction. With youngsters like Eric Staal, Andrew Ladd, Cam Ward, and Jack Johnson (on the way in 1-2 years), they’re putting together a solid foundation. They’re still a long ways away from contending, however, but at least they should have another high draft pick this year.

12. New York Islanders (4th in the Atlantic)
Is Rick DiPietro ready to make the leap? Maybe, but there are still a lot of other holes on this team. Is Yashin still a premier player? Can Miro Satan and Mike York add some punch to the offense? Can Alexei Zhitnik, Brent Sopel and Brad Lukowich adequately replace Roman Hamrlik, Adrian Aucoin, and Kenny Jonnson on defense? I say no, which is why the Isles will tumble in the standings, even in the weakened Atlantic Division.

11. Buffalo Sabres (5th in the Northeast)
Things are slowly turning around for the Sabres. They need to sort out their goaltending situation, and will miss Alexei Zhitnik on defense. Throw in the fact that they play in what is probably the deepest division in the East and it adds up to another year in the lottery.

10. Atlanta Thrashers (3rd in the Southeast)
Too many question marks. Will Ilya Kovalchuk ever report? Is Kari Lehtonen ready to carry the load in net as a rookie? What do Bondra and Holik have left in the tank? This team could surprise, but I think they still have too many holes to be a playoff club.

9. Toronto Maple Leafs (4th in the Northeast)
This pains me, but age and a lack of depth are going to catch up with them. Belfour’s ready to collapse any day, and there’s no heir apparent in net. Their defense is suspect at best, and even if they get close to full seasons out of Allison and Lindros, there’s nobody on the wings to put the puck in the net. The development of youngsters like Carlo Coliacovo and Alexander Steen could go a long way, but there's still not enough depth on this club to compete.

8. Florida Panthers (2nd in the Southeast)
They have Roberto Luongo, the best young goalie in hockey, and added some veteran grit (Roberts, Nieuwendyk, Gelinas) to a good young core. They wouldn’t be a playoff team in the West, but I see them sneaking in in the weaker conference.

7. New Jersey Devils (3rd in the Atlantic)
This is a team on the decline, with an aging core and the loss of Niedermayer and Stevens on defense. Patrik Elias is hurt, adding to their problems.
The Devils are assembling a decent core of young talent, with Gomez hitting his prime and Zach Parise ready to make a splash, but this year they’ll have to look to Marty Brodeur to carry the club as far as he can, which I don’t think is very much farther than this. One thing to look for is if Brodeur's Olympic workload affects him at all down the stretch.

6. Montreal Canadiens (3rd in the Northeast)
This seems about right. They have some talent, but not enough to be in the upper echelon. Don’t expect much out of Alexei Kovalev now that he has a new contract, but as long as they have Jose Theodore they have a fighting chance.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins (2nd in the Atlantic)
They’ve added a ton of talent, the big question marks are:
a) Can they stay healthy?
b) How long will it take for them to gel as a team?
I like the look of the Pens, even if they don’t get a full season out of Mario. I think Palffy and Recchi still have something left, and they have good puck-moving defenseman in Gonchar and Tarnstrom, giving them a lethal power play. Thibault’s an underrated pickup too. I think they'll do well, even if they only get 50-60 points out of Sid the Kid.

4. Boston Bruins (2nd in the Northeast)
I’d feel better about this club if they would get Boynton signed, and knew how they’re additions would fit in. Can Scatchard fill the Brian Rolston role on the third line and penalty kill? What can Zhamnov and McEachern contribute? Is Joe Thornton finally comfortable in the superstar role? Look for a 100 point season from this club, as I think they’ll do well on all fronts.

3. Philadelphia Flyers (1st in the Atlantic)
This team is loaded. If Forsberg and Hatcher hold up, they could be the Cup favorite, but I don’t see either putting in a full regular season, which is why I’m placing them third. I think Richards and Carter will contribute nicely, but they need guys like Simon Gagne and Michal Handzus to step up their contributions if they wish to finish higher than 3rd overall in the regular season. I’d also watch for a battle in net between Robert Esche and rookie Anterro Nittymakki, who led the AHL Phantoms to the Calder Cup.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning (1st in the Southeast)
Sure they lost Khabibulin, but John Grahame put up good numbers as the backup, and Sean Burke should be able to carry some of the load. They lost Brad Lukowich, an underrated defenseman, but still have enough talent to stay near the top. Look for greater production out of Brad Richards, and Vincent Lecavalier – if he can avoid the EA curse.

1. Ottawa Senators (1st in the Northeast)
Simply put, they’re loaded. If Hasek holds up, I can’t see them finishing any lower than this. Heatley should be able to adequately replace Hossa, and Spezza’s ready to make the leap. Throw in improvement from Martin Havlat and rookie Brandon Bochenski, and their offense is second to none in the league. My pick for the President’s Cup.

Western Conference

15. St. Louis Blues (5th in the Central)
They’re an absolute mess, there’s no other way to put it. The owners were too cheap to buy out Doug Weight and/or Keith Tkachuk, now the team’s going to pay for it on the ice. They had to trade Pronger, and while Eric Brewer is a decent player, he won’t come close to replacing the former Hart trophy winner’s production. Having Barrett Jackman for a whole season will help, and they might be able to get production out of Jeff Woywitka or Doug Lynch, one of the other two defenseman they picked up in the Pronger trade, but that won’t be nearly enough. Patrick Lalime’s not even close to good enough to be able to carry this team, and their offense is one of the worst in the league, especially since Tkachuk’s pulled a Charles Barkley on them. The wheels will come off the wagon in a hurry; I see this team fully committing to rebuilding by February. Doug Weight (and others) will be gone by the deadline.

14. Chicago Blackhawks (4th in the Central)
Unlike their Central division counterparts in St. Louis, the Hawks are at least heading in the right direction. Tuomo Ruutu’s a future all-star, but they still lack the firepower to contend. I like the signings of Aucoin and Khabibulin, even if they overpayed for both. It sends the message that they’re willing to pay and try and contend, which is important for a club that’s been so bad for so long. They’ve still a couple of years away from playoff contention, assuming the Wirtz’s don’t screw things up, which they probably will.

13. Minnesota Wild (5th in the Northwest)
They were near the bottom of the pack last season, and did little to improve their standing. Brian Rolston and Todd White are nice additions, but not enough to keep up with improvements that other teams ahead of them made, especially with their only sniper (Marian Gaborik) ailing. This adds up to a long season for the team from the Twin Cities.

12. Los Angeles Kings (5th in the Pacific)
I’d have them higher if I thought that their defense was solidified, and Garon could carry the load. As it stands, Frolov is a budding star, and JR and Demitra are nice additions, but they’re still not a playoff team.

11. Columbus Blue Jackets (3rd in the Central)
I really like the additions of Foote and Berard on defense, and Nash and Zherdev should keep developing, but the Jackets are still a year or two away. I’d feel better about their chances if they added some grit up front, and a center who could set up their two star wingers.

10. Edmonton Oilers (4th in the Northwest)
Sorry Oil fans, but there’s not enough here to cut it in the Western Conference. There’s questions about the goalies, and they lack a true sniper on offense. That will keep them out of the playoffs for another year. Shame, really. I’d put them 6th or 7th in the East.

9. Phoenix Coyotes (4th in the Pacific)
Just on the cusp, but they’ll miss the playoffs. They’ve added a lot of talent to a young core. Look for Nagy and Doan to have breakout seasons. Goaltending is a question with Boucher hurt, and Joseph rebounding from a lackluster stint in Detroit.

8. Dallas Stars (3rd in the Pacific)
A team definitely on the decline, but they still have enough left to make the playoffs. Modano had his worst season yet prior to the lockout, and I wonder how much he has left in the tank. They still have Guerin and Arnott to carry the load, but that’s it. The defense has lost a step, and talent with Hatcher and Matvichuk departing over the past few years, and the young talent like Trevor Daley isn’t quite ready to step up and carry the load. Marty Turco will be an x-factor. If he can steal some games, I could see them finishing higher than this.

7. Calgary Flames (3rd in the Northwest)
They’re the popular pick to finish at the top of the conference, but I don’t see it happening. They’re just not going to sneak up on anyone this season. Additionally, we don’t know if Kiprusoff is really an elite goaltender, of if he had a career year last season. The defense is solid, but I think people overvalue the addition of Hamrlik. They don’t need him on the power play, and he’s never been great defensively. Up front, it’s still Iginla carrying the load. If he gets hurt, or struggles, they’re sunk. Langkow and McCarty are nice replacements for Conroy and Gelinas, but won’t provide much, if any more production. I don’t think Amonte will make a huge difference either. This adds up to another 7th place finish, just like last season.

6. Nashville Predators (2nd in the Central)
This is a team on the rise. They have a really good goalie in Vokoun, and good puck moving defensemen, especially Timmonen and Zidlicky. On offense, they have Steve Sullivan for a full season, and Paul Kariya will add something, even if he doesn’t come close to reverting to his old form. They’re small up front, especially on the top 2 lines, which is the only thing that worries me.

5. Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (2nd in the Pacific)
The Cup finalists of 2003 were derailed by injuries in 2004. I expect big things out of Fedorov and Scott Niedermayer, and I think J-S Giguere is talented enough to win games with smaller pads. They have enough scoring, and a solid defense that will win a lot of games.

4. Colorado Avalanche (2nd in the Northwest)
Sure they lost Forsberg, Kariya, Selanne, and Foote, but there’s still a lot of talent on this club. Sakic, Tanguay, and Hejduk will carry the load offensively, while Marek Svatos will be a nice surprise. Defensively, Blake will be aided by youngsters like John-Michael Liles, and Aebischer will make progress in net. I think they’re still good enough for a top 4 finish.

3. Vancouver Canucks (1st in the Northwest)
They just edge out Colorado for the division. Goaltending is a question mark. Is Cloutier the guy, and if he isn’t can Auld step up? They lost depth on defense, but should be good enough to remain one of the best teams in the league. This is the year for one or both of the Sedins to step up, or I’m officially writing them off.

2. Detroit Red Wings (1st in the Central)
There’s been turnover in Hockeytown, but they still have one of the best collections of talent in the league. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg will step up, and may get help from fellow youngsters like Jiri Hudler. Vets like Draper, Shanahan, and Yzerman will chip in enough to make a difference. Their defense is aging, but still solid. I like Legace, and think Osgood will have a comeback year. There’s something about aging goalies coming to Detroit, they seem to come up big. In addition, Mike Babcock will be a difference maker as coach.

1. San Jose Sharks (1st in the Pacific)
They were near the top last year, and stood pat. They lost Mike Rathje on defense, but have enough depth to make up for it. I expect youngsters like Marleau, Cheechoo, Stuart, and Hannan to keep progressing. This is a deep, young, talented team, who should be out in front from the first drop of the puck.

Individual Awards

Hart Trophy (MVP) - Joe Thornton, Boston Bruins
Norris Trophy (Defense) - Scott Niedermayer, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim
Vezina Trophy (Goalie) - Roberto Luongo, Florida Panthers
Art Ross Trophy (Points) - Joe Thornton, Boston Bruins
Rocket Richard Trophy (Goals) - Martin Havlat, Ottawa Senators
Calder Trophy (Rookie) - Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
Jack Adams Trophy (Coach) - Barry Trotz, Nashville Predators
Selke Trophy (Defensive Forward) - Jere Lehtinen, Dallas Stars
Lady Byng Trophy (Gentlemanly Player) - Mike Modano, Dallas Stars

The Playoffs

Eastern Conference
Ottawa over Florida in 5
Tampa Bay over New Jersey in 5
Philadelphia over Montreal in 4
Boston over Pittsburgh in 6

Ottawa over Boston in 6
Philadelphia over Tampa Bay in 7

Ottawa over Philly in 7

Western Conference
San Jose over Dallas in 5
Calgary over Detroit in 7
Nashville over Vancouver in 6
Anaheim over Colorado in 6

SJ over Calgary in 6
Anaheim over Nashville in 6

Anaheim over SJ in 6

Stanley Cup Final
Ottawa over Anaheim in 6

Conn Smythe Trophy – Dany Heatley, Ottawa Senators

Time to see how things play out over the next nine months. It should be an interesting ride.


At 12:51 PM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

Great post, Alex. Are all the new rinks uniform in dimension? How long before Slats adds glass in the home team end of MSG to prevent getting the delay of game penalty? It happened three times last night in the Oilers game, and none of the calls were against the goalies.

At 10:18 AM, Blogger sacamano said...

Oilers 10th? 10th?

I knew I should have stopped reading when you cited Costas as the greatest living announcer.

Anyone who would take Costas over Jim Nance can't be trusted.


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