This is traditionally the time of year when I post up my season preview. Bear in mind that this year's preview was done based on the rosters as they presently are, given the ongoing CBA talks. Should a new CBA be put in place in time before the end of October, I may have to amend this preview accordingly, based on how the CBA impacts the current free agent market.
OTTAWA SENATORS: It remains to be seen if Dominik Hasek can regain his former All-World form and just how the Senators will respond to Bryan Murray's coaching, but this club remains very deep with most of their key players just hitting their prime. They could still use a bit more depth on left wing and some more grit up front, but that shouldn't stop them from dominating the division. How they'll do in the playoffs remains the big question mark.
MONTREAL CANADIENS: The youth movement is ongoing and given the coaching of under-rated Claude Julien, it should continue to pay dividends. The goaltending remains strong, the blueline is deeper and better than critics give it credit, and there's more speed and offence up front than in recent years. GM Bob Gainey is still trying to bring back Alex Kovalev but failing that one of their promising young forwards (Marcel Hossa, Chris Higgins) could get the call.
BUFFALO SABRES: This young club served notice last season they're a team on the rise with their spirited stretch run which fell just short of a playoff berth. Under Lindy Ruff they'll continue to play a feisty aggressive physical style, but there's also more speedy scoring on the forward lines than in recent years. One of their young netminders must finally establish themselves, and they're lacking a veteran puckhandling on the blueline, unless they bring back Alexei Zhitnik.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: The Leafs got older, not better, during the off-season, and it's going to catch up to them this season. Too many key players are aging and injury-prone, and it was obvious last season this club struggles against most of the younger, faster teams. Head coach Pat Quinn's over-reliance on the veterans at the expense of his younger players is going to prove costly. Should Ed Belfour undergo back surgery and they fail to find an adequate replacement, the Leafs could be in big trouble.
BOSTON BRUINS: Yes, they've retained Joe Thornton and Sergei Gonchar, and Andrew Raycroft finally gives them stability in goal, but until GM Mike O'Connell addresses the numerous gaps in his roster he created by cutting loose so many UFA players, the Bruins won't have a prayer of making the playoffs. O'Connell is gambling on plenty of affordable UFA talent being available once a new CBA is signed, but it's could blow up in his face.
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: Jeremy Roenick's been "jokingly" disgruntled over the loss of several key veterans to free agency, but this is still a talented hockey club that should reign supreme in the Atlantic. Once a new CBA is in place, don't be surprised if GM Bob Clarke tries to bring back Alexei Zhamnov and could pursue one or two other affordable talents to fill some current gaps in his roster. Expect Hitchcock to give more icetime to his younger players.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS: Just when it seems the Devils are ready to falter, they bounce back from adversity stronger than ever. Head coach Pat Burns should be back from his battle with colon cancer, and it's hopeful team captain Scott Stevens will also return from concussion symptoms. Still, there are some real concerns facing the Devils. They're lacking scoring depth, size at center, and Norris winner Scott Niedermayer might bolt for UFA status next summer unless GM Lou Lamoriello can get him re-signed at some point in the upcoming season.
NY ISLANDERS: Three years after Alexei Yashin and Michael Peca were brought in, the Isles continue to spin their wheels. They're a team that's been good enough to make the playoffs but not good enough to advance beyond the first round. There are many questions that must be addressed if this team wants to take the next step. Can GM Mike Milbury find the right linemate for Yashin? Is Rick DiPietro for real? Will Roman Hamrlik or Adrian Aucoin become the next cost-cutting victim?
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: After hitting rock-bottom last season, things are looking up for the embattled Pens. They're soon to become the recipients of state-sponsered gambling royalties that'll bolster their revenues significantly. They've added veteran Mark Recchi and could be in the market for a marquee UFA. Mario Lemieux is healthy again. Best of all, some of the young kids brought up last season showed a lot of promise which could carry over into this season. This club has survived, and while they won't make the playoffs, better days are in store.
NEW YORK RANGERS: After seven years of squandering big bucks on aging talent with nary a playoff berth to be had, the Rangers finally admitted the folly of their ways and blew up their veteran-heavy roster late last season. The end result is a roster made up of a few key veterans (Jaromir Jagr, Bobby Holik, the recently signed Michael Nylander, Darius Kasparaitis) and a lot of mainly untested youth. The rebuilding plan has begun in earnest in the Big Apple, and that'll mean a few years of serious growing pains on Broadway for the Blueshirts.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: The Stanley Cup champions are in very good shape to defend their title. They've re-signed all their RFAs except for Cory Stillman and Martin St. Louis, and the latter should have a deal in place by the start of the season. If Stillman doesn't re-sign with the Bolts, their recent re-acquisition of Vaclav Prospal will cover off his absence nicely. The Lightning will miss the present of Jassen Cullimore on the blueline, but don't be surprised if GM Jay Feaster swings a deal at some point if he feels no one has stepped up to replace Cullimore. The scary part about this Lightning team is many of their key players are only just coming into their prime, meaning the Bolts will be contenders for a long time.
FLORIDA PANTHERS: The Lightning's inter-state rival will be making a serious move in the Southeast this coming season. The Panthers are a young team who last season showed signs of major improvement, something that will certainly carry over into this season. Obtaining some veteran blueline depth should take some pressure off netminder Roberto Luongo. With Mike Keenan as GM and Jacques Martin as coach, expect Luongo, Olli Jokinen, Jay Bouwmeester, Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss and the rest of the Panthers to make some serious noise!
ATLANTA THRASHERS: They showed intestinal fortitude last season by overcoming the death of Dan Snyder and the absence of Dany Heatley due to injury. A promising start was derailed by a weak mid-season that crippled their playoff hopes. Still, there's plenty of optimism about the Thrashers. Head coach Bob Hartley continues to mould this bunch into a potential contender. With their depth additions to their blueline and the promise of rookie goalie Kari Lehtonen, a full season from Heatley, and the continued offensive wizardry of Ilya Kovalchuk, a playoff berth is not out of the question for the improving Thrashers.
CAROLINA HURRICANES: The tinkering continues in Carolina, where they're struggling to get back to the form that made them a Cup finalist only two short years ago. There's plenty of promising talent on this club, some of whom (Josef Vasicek, Martin Gerber, Radim Vrbata, Eric Staal) appear ready to step up their play. Still, the 'Canes are lacking experienced depth in goal and at center, and it remains to be seen if they'll find that depth. For now, their hopes rest with those aforementioned players.
WASHINGTON CAPITALS. Like the NY Rangers, the Capitals realized the futility of carrying a hefty payroll that translated into poor on-ice results and dealt off most of their high-priced veterans. And like the Rangers, the Caps will be starting next season with precious few veterans and lots of untested youngsters. Expect trade rumours to swirl about goaltender Olaf Kolzig. It's going to be a painful year for hockey in the US capital.
DETROIT RED WINGS: The key players are getting older but there is also plenty of good young talent who'll get plenty of opportunities next season to help keep the Wings among the league's elite teams. And it'll be vitally important that they get that icetime, for the warhorses like Yzerman, Shanahan and Chelios to have enough left in the tank for the playoffs. It also doesn't hurt that scoring threat Robert Lang is in his prime right now. With Curtis Joseph now firmly re-established as their starting goalie, he should provide the Wings with solid netminding.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS: What you saw last season wasn't an illusion. After years of slow development, the Preds are finally a playoff contender. It's unlikely they'll falter from the strides of last season, as they've managed to re-sign most of their key free agent players. One area that'll need improvement is at center, where David Legwand and Denis Arkhipov have been struggling to play up to expectations. The Preds will have to address that issue if they wish to continue building on last year's success.
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: Despite an indifferent ownership and questionable management, the Blackhawks actually have a promising club that, if it's key veterans can remain healthy and it's talented youth can continue their improvement, should have them in position for playoff contention. Goalie Jocelyn Thibault and forward Eric Daze must put their health problems behind them if the 'Hawks are to move up in the standings. Keep an eye on Tuomo Ruutu, Mark Bell, Kyle Calder and Tyler Arnason, for they could become the nucleous that drives the 'Hawks next season.
ST. LOUIS BLUES: Troubled times have befallen the Blues as witnessed by their squeaking into the post-season last spring. Things aren't going to get much better next season. They're still carrying too much payroll, with Chris Pronger, Keith Tkachuk and Doug Weight eating up so much cash the Blues cannot afford to bring in the depth they need up front. They'll be relying on recently-acquired goalie Patrick Lalime and their deep defence corps, but if the former falters and the latter is whacked by injuries again, the Blues could be in big trouble.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: Another club full of promising talent that's still trying to find it's way. Rick Nash has emerged as a young superstar and they may have another in forward Nikolai Zherdev. Still,i f they're going to gain any ground in the standings, this club needs to improve it's defensive game, and they'll need goalie Marc Denis to take his game to the next level.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS: Until they were derailed by Todd Bertuzzi's suspension and Dan Cloutier's knee injury, the Canucks appeared ready to go far in last year's playoffs. With a healthy Cloutier and a returning Bertuzzi, as well as the long-awaited emergence of the Sedin twins, they should be able to put last year's meltdown behind them. It will be Cloutier's last chance, however, to prove he can carry his strong regular season game into the playoffs.
CALGARY FLAMES: Will the Flames crash and burn like the Mighty Ducks and Hurricanes before them, or will this Cup finalist team carry that 2004 performance into next season? The betting here is they're for real because no-nonsense coach Darryl Sutter will keep his charges focussed on improvement. Still, they'll need to get Jarome Iginla under contract for next season to pull it off, and for Miikka Kiprusoff to prove last season wasn't a fluke.
MINNESOTA WILD: They were undone by a slow start and contract holdouts last season, but they're in the past now. Look for a wiser Wild club to return to the post-season in 2005, buoyed by a return to form of Marion Gaborik, and continued faith in the tight-checking defensive game of head coach Jacques Lemaire. They'll be determined to make amends for their uneven performance of last season.
COLORADO AVALANCHE: This is going to shock Avs fans, but their once-dominant team is in trouble. Defensive stalwarts Rob Blake and Adam Foote are aging and injuries are taking their toll. Superstar forward Peter Forsberg might bolt for Sweden, Joe Sakic is getting up in age, and there's a definite lack of talented grit on this roster. There's still plenty of talent on this club, but this is a team clearly in transition, and they won't be the dominant force they once were.
EDMONTON OILERS: This team was floundering late last season until GM Kevin Lowe obtained Petr Nedved, whose skills ignited a spirited stretch run that nearly put the Oilers into the playoffs. Their hopes could get a big boost if Lowe can re-sign him. Even so, the Oilers remain a team that is never allowed to grow together due to almost annual salary issues. The Oilers may contend for a playoff berth, but they'll be hard-pressed to get out of the first round.
SAN JOSE SHARKS: They'll have something to prove next season to avoid comparison's to last year's Minnesota Wild, the 2003 Western Conference finalist that failed to make the playoffs in 2004. However, what's different about the Sharks is they have their key players re-signed, avoiding protracted holdouts, plus they have lots of depth at all positions. With emerging talent like Patrick Marleau, Marco Sturm, Jonathan Cheechoo and Brad Stuart, the Sharks are for real.
LOS ANGELES KINGS: Playing with an injury-ravaged roster last season was actually a blessing in disguise for the Kings, who earned a reputation as the hardest-working team in hockey. That led management to cut expensive, sidelined talent like Jason Allison and Ziggy Palffy, and go with the more affordable Craig Conroy. They played a tremendously strong team game thanks to head coach Andy Murray, something that'll carry over into this season. If they can finally avoid the injury bug, they'll be a playoff team.
DALLAS STARS: Another once-dominant club that's going to hit the skids this season, the Stars made the cardinal sin of over-reliance on aging stars and expensive free agent talent at the expense of their younger players. Team captain Mike Modano's lacklustre play last season was blamed on off-ice issues, but he's also starting to show signs of aging. Their once-vaunted blueline looked ordinary last season, and it's not likely to get much better anytime soon. Goalie Marty Turco will have his hands full keeping this team in playoff contention.
PHOENIX COYOTES: If they had better calibre goaltending, the 'Yotes would rate higher than the Stars. Some accused their management of making their numerous free agent signings this summer based on panic, but what they've done is brought in experienced, character vets like Brett Hull, Mike Ricci and Sean O'Donnell, who'll prove invaluable in teaching players like Shane Doan, Mike Comrie and Paul Mara what it takes to be a winner.
ANAHEIM MIGHTY DUCKS: The Ducks crashed back to earth last season after their heady 2002-03 season, and it's tough to tell what direction they're heading in this coming season. Netminder J.S. Giguere should bounce back to his winning form, but there remains questions about the club's depth on forward and defence. They'll need Sergei Fedorov to step up and play more of a leadership role, and hopefully some of the youngsters who lost their 2003 playoff form last season can bounce back. Otherwise, the Ducks could be roasted again.
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