OVER THE BLUELINE

with Eric Wright.

BELATED PREDICTIONS AND MORE PENGUIN TALK

THE CRYSTAL MYLEC BALL

Predicting anything this season in the NHL, after the year off from the lockout and with the new rules and massive player movement, is foolish. Very foolish. But here goes...

I made these predictions on Wednesday before the season started, but was too lazy to write the article that goes with it until now. Some of the predictions look solid, but some I'd already like to change, but will leave them as they were before the season started.

One of the constant themes you will hear in my evaluations is that I don't like or trust unproven goaltending. So teams without a reliable, solid number one are rated lower in my rankings than conventional wisdom and those teams get almost no playoff consideration as well. Some playoff picks are assuming quality trade deadline work by some of the better GM's in the league, such as Craig Patrick, Brian Burke and Bob Gainey.

2005-2006 NHL Predictions

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlantic-
PHI (2)
PIT (5)
NJ (7)
NYI (10*)
NYR

Northeast-
BOS (3)
OTT (4)
MON (8)
TOR
BUF

Southeast-
TB (1)
ATL (6)
FLA (9*)
CAR
WAS

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Central-
DET (3)
NAS (7)
CMB
CHI
STL

Northwest-
CAL (1)
VAN (4)
EDM (6)
COL (10*)
MIN

Pacific-
ANH (2)
SJ (5)
DAL (8)
LA (9*)
PHX

PLAYOFFS

Eastern Conference

#8 MON over #1 TB
#7 NJ over #2 PHI #8 MON over #3 BOS #8 MON over #5 PIT
#3 BOS over #6 ATL #5 PIT over # 7 NJ
#5 PIT over #4 OTT

As I said I don't trust unproven goaltending in the postseason. Therefore, I like Brodeur over Esche, Theodore over Grahame or Burke, and I expect Hasek to be hurt. If Hasek is hurt earlier and times his return to the start of the postseason or the Sens pick up an available vet like Olie Kolzig then I would like the Senators to take the East. I expect the Penguins to pick up two very good NHL pros at the trade deadline to solidify the lineup. If the Pens want to do any damage, they'll need Marc-Andre Fleury to blossom this season. I think Alexei Kovalev and Jose Theodore can lead a scrappy Canadiens team to the Finals...there is one Cinderella team each year, why not the Habs?

Western Conference

#1 CAL over #8 DAL
#2 ANH over #7 NAS #1 CAL over #5 SJ #2 ANH over #1 CAL
#3 DET over #6 EDM #2 ANH over #3 DET
#5 SJ over #4 VAN

The Flames, Ducks and Sharks all have proven netminding. The Wings edge out the Oilers as they are a much better team. The Canucks are done in once more by Dan Cloutier. The Wings vets tire in the second round. The Flames don't have the firepower to outgun the 3 scoring lines deep Mighty Ducks.

Stanley Cup Champions

Mighty Ducks of Anaheim over the Montreal Canadiens (4-2)

I'm counting on a lot of variables here. The Ducks need to stay healthy, of course, to maintain their quality depth. Giguere has to prove he is for real, with the smaller gear, which I believe he will. They have Niedermeyer, Sandis Ozolinsh and Keith Carney anchoring a strong defense. Teemu Selanne, Petr Sykora and Joffrey Lupul keep them deep on the wing. The young Ducks like Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry must develop into real pros this year if this prediction is to come true. More than all of it, Sergei Fedorov will have to use this opportunity (the new rules should benefit him as much as anyone in the NHL) to finish a very close second to Neidermeyer for the Conn Smythe, but if he does, the Mighty Ducks (of all teams) will be lifting the Stanley Cup.

NHL AWARDS

Conn Smythe- Scott Niedermeyer
Hart Trophy- Jarome Iginla
Art Ross- Markus Naslund
Rocket Richard- Jarome Iginla
Vezina Trophy- Jose Theodore
Norris Trophy- Sergei Gonchar
Lady Byng- Paul Kariya
Calder Trophy- Sidney Crosby
Presidents Trophy- Tampa Bay Lightning
Jack Adams - Randy Carlyle

At this point I'd love to pick Brodeur or Luongo, but Theodore should be as good as any goalie in the league this year, and will have to be if the Habs are to make the playoffs. I don't know anything about Randy Carlyle as a coach, but if the Ducks make the improvement this year I expect them to, rookie coaches who lead such comebacks usually win the award. If Mario plays more than 66 games this year, he will win the scoring title. After the first night, I heard so many people jump right off the Crosby bandwagon, giving the Calder to Ovechkin or Lehtonen or whoever they could find but the 18 year old. Four days later, he is (of course) the leading rookie scorer and tied for 3rd in the league. I would be very surprised if Crosby did not win the Calder Trophy this year. I would not be that surprised if he won the Art Ross...not one bit.

INSIDE THE IGLOO

Given all of the new faces on the team and their history as a streaky team, I expected the Penguins to start the season even as poorly as 1-4, so the slow start doesn't concern me at all. Honestly, they have played very well for all but one and a half periods this season. They have created chances pretty consistently and are beginning to gel.

Broduer put on one of the best regular season displays of goaltending I've ever seen in the 5-1 opening loss to the Devils. This sounds like the dog ate the Pen's homework, but rookie Cam Ward did a pretty good Broduer impression in Carolina on Friday. He robbed the Penguins on a consistent basis, though Sebastien Caron did the same to the 'Canes.

They remind me of the Penguins teams I've known and loved over the years. Lazy, undisciplined, incredibly talented, nowhere near gritty enough to play real defense, trying to win based on skill alone. But before too long, the offensive machine will get rolling and they will be able to win on the strength of the power play alone. Streaks of losses and giving up 5 plus goals a game will follow, but overall, the Penguins will score their way into the playoffs, barring serious injury problems.

The new lines have promise. Recchi, Crosby, Palffy is a just pure skill. Koltsov brings speed and grit to the Lemieux and Malone line, though his hands leave much to be desired. This moves John Leclair down the the third unit with Lasse Pirjeta shifting to the wing with Rico Fata moving to the middle. Rico's speed and (yes) hockey sense make him a great playmaker. He can hold the puck long enough to let the lumbering Leclair set up shop in front of the net.

Crosby has begun to show why he will be the best player in the NHL in a very short amount of time. He might already be the best playmaker in the league. He made Brooks Orpik looks like Brett Hull against Boston. His slap pass to Palffy to tie the Carolina game was brilliant. Crosby needs to shoot more, but that is a curse that seems to befall all who don the black and gold. It wasn't until Jaromir Jagr and Alexei Kovalev got over this affliction that they took their games to the superstar level. Hopefully, Crosby will learn to fire the puck more often much sooner than they did.

BIG MARC

Speaking of injuries....Rico Fata's shot off of Jocelyn Thibault's leg could prove to be the most fortuitous play of the season for the Penguins.

Last September at Heinz Field, Gary Baxter changed the Pittsburgh Steelers season and immediate future dramatically when he hurt Tommy Maddox in the second week of the NFL season. "Big" Ben Roethlisberger came in and 15 wins later made NFL history and established himself as one of the type of quarterback who could win the Super Bowl one day, something Tommy Maddox would never be.

I've never been a big fan of Thibault during his Nordique, Hab or Hawk days. I'm usually not a fan of top ten picks who become mediocre pros. But when the Penguins acquired him from the Hawks with little else on the market, and after seeing he had an All Star year that slipped under my radar, I thought I'd give him a chance. It was only one game, after a two year layoff and he was coming off of hip surgery, but...Thibault did zero to change my opinion against the Devils.

Jocelyn Thibault is Tommy Maddox.

Marc-Andre Fleury is Ben Roethlisberger.

Fleury was easily the Pen's best netminder in camp and the preseason. T-Bo's seniority and Fleury's rich contract sent him to the minors. Hopefully, Fleury can get on a Patrick Lalime (NHL record 16 wins to start his career with the Penguins a decade ago) like streak forcing the club to give him the number one job. Thibault is not a Cup quality goalie.

Neither is Fleury. Not yet, at least. But if the Penguins give him the chance to blossom, or hopefully, he gives them no choice with his play. Either way, Fleury is the future of the team and their only hope for a Stanley Cup caliber goaltender. He should play this year so he is ready for such a run next year (at the latest) and hopefully even this spring.

AROUND THE NHL

-You do have to wonder if Gretzky wants the Phoenix coaching job as much as he says he does. Gretzky says he wanted to 'get a different perspective' of the game when he watched upstairs in the preseason while Barry Smith and Rick Tocchet ran the bench. Different? Isn't that where he's been watching for years now? Different would be down on the bench. Tentative, one might say. If he gets his hands dirty, he'll be fine.

-If Martha Burk wants to be upset about the new NHL ads being stupid, as opposed to sexist, we'd be in agreement. Why not show some of Lemieux's goals over the years or Hasek's saves or something related to the game? I'll say this about Burk...she looks exactly like I imagined.

-I do wonder why teams, good teams, are risking their season with questionable goaltending. The LA Kings, for example, would be a near lock to make the postseason if they had reliable netminding. Maybe Mathieu Garon will be up the the task, but if he's not, their season is over....is that worth the gamble?

-I like the shootouts better than ties, but I would much prefer 5 shooters per side to the 3 shooter format. I know the whole thing is fluky, but 5 shooters would make it a bit less so. Three is a tease.

-I think the NHL should allow players to take off their helmets for the shootouts. If they can choose not to wear a visor during a game when it is highly likely they could be injured without one, why not let them lose the helmet when its much less likely to matter...on a penalty shot? It would make the players much more human and individualized for the fans.

-One of the least mentioned benefits of the new rules is that without all of the clutching, grabbing, hooking and holding, the players are fresher in the third period and more likely to score and make great plays.

-You think the Blues would keep Keith Tkachuk over Chris Pronger if they had a mulligan?

Eric Wright is a Pittsburgh Penguins fan who loves the
game. Questions or comments are welcome at
blackcowhockey@yahoo.com

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The opinions expressed on this page are of the author, and in no way reflect the views of the NHL, it teams or players. All material in Over the Blueline copyright (C) 2005 Spector's Hockey. Reproduction of this material in whole, or in part, without consent by the author or Spector's Hockey is prohibited.