Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Peerless is BACK!! . . . Let the 2006-2007 Season Begin!!

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!!

He’s back on this, the inaugural night of the 2006-2007 NHL season. And in this first installment of what promises to be a blog chock full of bloggy type stuff you won’t find anywhere else in blogdom, you get The Peerless’ own prognostications for the year ahead.

So let’s get right to it . . . in the East:

The Division Champs:

Buffalo . . . Look, here’s the deal, short and sweet. You fob off uniforms that ugly on the word of hockey, you’d better be able to play. Buffalo can. They had more balance on offense than just about any other team in the league last year, which made up for the lack of a single dominant player. Their defense was mobile and opportunistic, and Ryan Miller cemented his status as the number one goaltender. There is no reason to believe this group will slide backward. Last year was about realizing they can play; this year is about demonstrating they can win.

New Jersey . . . the circus here in the off season was not about players, it was about numbers – the amount by which the Devils were over the projected 2006-2007 salary cap. Now that Lou Lamoriello seems to have dodged a howitzer shell on the matters of Vladimir Malakhov and Alexander Mogilny, it’s back to being a matter of hockey, and the Devils won’t be much different a team than they finished with last year. That, plus The Peerless’ view that the other powers in the Atlantic fall back a bit, leaves the Devils as the choice here.

Carolina . . . The Champs have the unenviable task of trying to prove that a “dynasty” can exist in a capped salary era. There are some serious questions about this group – is Cam Ward the real deal? Will the veterans Mark Recchi and Doug Weight be missed? Can Erik Cole come back from a neck injury? Can Andrew Ladd pick up the slack over a whole season? In the end, it comes down to Ward. While Carolina is the pick in the Southeast, where other teams have even more questions, it says here they take a step back this year – a hangover from the unexpected run they made last year.

The Rest of the Playoff Seeds:

Ottawa . . . The window is closing on this team. They lost Zdeno Chara (although that loss will not be as big as some imagine), Martin Havlat and Brian Smolinski are gone, they’re weak on the left side, and I’m not sold on the idea of Martin Gerber as being “The Man” to lead them deep into the playoffs. There is too much of a whiff of underachievement with the franchise over the last several seasons to think they will do anything but look good for 82 regular season games, even though they’re no longer the class of the Northeast, and go quick-and-quiet in the playoffs.

New York Rangers . . . They will not be the team that finished with 100 points last year, despite adding Brendan Shanahan, Aaron Ward, and Matt Cullen to the roster. The finish last year was the kind that could leave a bad taste – Jaromir Jagr getting injured and Henrik Lundqvist coming back from injuries and playing through migraines last spring were the unhappy last chapters on an unexpectedly good year. While the injuries might be repaired, lingering concerns won’t go away – will a player who will turn 35 in February find himself prone to recurring shoulder problems? Was crowding Lundqvist – as the Devils successfully executed last spring – a strategy teams will employ this year? The Rangers added solid pros to their roster, but questions about their defense and those surrounding their two most important players will be a lot to overcome in any effort to improve on last year’s finish. They will finish higher in the standings than last year, but with a weaker team.

Philadelphia . . . wind ‘em up, watch ‘em get a playoff spot. That’s been true for a while now, and they probably could make the playoffs on the basis of memory alone. But this team is poised for a considerable dropoff. The biggest concern is health. And this is on top of losing almost 400 man-games to injury last year. Keith Primeau is gone – a casualty of post-concussion syndrome. Peter Forsberg is a walking medical chart. Antero Niitymaki will play as long as he can with a hip injury. Denis Gauthier suffered a concussion in the last preseason game. The Flyers’ season would appear to hinge largely on what progress can be made by Joni Pitkanen, Mike Richards, and Jeff Carter. All that aside, though, Bobby Clarke’s stubborn insistence on treating the position of goaltender the way a baby treats a diaper means that whatever success the Flyers have in the regular season will not translate well to the playoffs.

Montreal . . . From this point through the 11th in The Peerless’ rankings, the teams become almost interchangeable in terms of their chances. The fight for the last two spots will be a thrill for fans to watch the last month. It starts here with Montreal. The Canadiens do not have any single player with top-end pop on their offense, but Saku Koivu, Chris Higgins, and Sergei Samsonov will provide some balance. Cristobal Huet started well but finished poorly last year. If he can record a whole year with the performance he had in the first half, this is a playoff team. If not, it’s golf in April.

Tampa Bay . . . They have the talent to win, and they have a coach who could finally drive his club over the morale cliff. After pretty much kneecapping his goalies with comments for public consumption last year, the “tough love” schtick of John Tortorella might have worn out its welcome. But this is a team that won a Cup in 2003-2004 and still has Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, and Brad Richards. They lost Fredrik Modin and his cannon shot, but added what is likely an upgrade in goal in Marc Denis. He won’t play to the level of Nikolai Khabibulin in the Cup year, but he will play well enough for this club to sneak into eighth, despite their coach.

The Also Rans:

Atlanta . . . They still have forwards who will score in bunches and need a passport to find their own end. They will, however, have added a big hitter on the blue line in Vitaly Vishnevski. They also will have added some better penalty killing in Steve Rucchin and Niko Kapanen. But in the end, making the playoffs depends on whether goaltender Kari Lehtonen can: a) play to his considerable potential, and b) do it for 60 games. He might be a year away from being that kind of centerpiece.

Boston . . . It’s nice to have added the Tyrannosaurus Rex of defensemen in Zdeno Chara, but is this the age of the velociraptor? Brad Stuart and Paul Mara are an upgrade on the blue line, and Marc Savard will – if sufficiently motivated – be an effective distributor from the center position. But, two things are of concern here – first, do they have enough pop on the wings? Glenn Murray has gone 42-34-24 in goals over the last three seasons. Second, is Hannu Toivonen the answer to the Bruins’ needs in goal? They’ll be better, but that’s not saying they’ll be good enough.

Toronto . . . Ever read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens? Remember Miss Havisham, the old woman with white hair, dressed in white satins, laces and silks, wearing a long white veil with bridal flowers in her hair? That’s the Maple Leafs – expecting a marriage that never comes – theirs to a Stanley Cup. Isn’t happening this year, either. Failing to make the playoffs stripped away some of the delusions that always seem to accompany this team – like, their being a contender – and it makes for a more honest appraisal. They’re not especially mobile on defense (but probably better than last year), they lack a go-to goal scorer (they probably will not have a 30-goal scorer this year), and Andrew Raycroft has a lot of questions to answer, most notably, was his rookie year a fluke?

Washington . . . If it can be said that a team finishing 14th in the Conference with 70 points was an “overachieving” team, the Caps were it last year. Starting the year by looking at an epically bad finish in the face, they managed 29 wins overall and went 7-3-3 in their last 13 games, including only one regulation loss to Carolina in five games. This club is better. Alexander Semin should score more goals by the end of October than his counterpart to start last year – Jeff Friesen – scored all year. Brian Pothier is an upgrade over Mathieu Biron. Alex Ovechkin is still on the roster. The big question for this club is whether the years Matt Pettinger, Chris Clark, and Brian Sutherby had are career years or stepping stones to better things. If it is the latter, 12th is a safe bet as some of the kids from last year’s Calder Cup Hershey Bears are eased into the lineup or get a taste of NHL action.

Florida . . . I’m sorry, you don’t ship out the best puck stopping goaltender in the game and replace him with Alex Auld and “Billion Dollar” Belfour and expect things to improve. Sure, in the NHL these days, that could happen, but it wouldn’t be the way to bet. Adding Todd Bertuzzi is adding a name, but it’s also adding a “goal scorer” with 42 goals in his last 152 games. The Panthers flirted with a playoff spot late last season. They won’t get that close this year. They are not as good as last year’s team.

Pittsburgh . . . You look at their youth – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Ryan Whitney, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Stall – top five picks in each of the last five drafts – and you would think, “this is a club with a future.” Really? Maybe, but the present is a problem. Crosby’s rookie year was transcendent. After that . . . Malkin hasn’t played a game in anger yet and is starting the year hurt. Whitney was shipped to Wilkes-Barre last spring for what was presumably a long playoff run and came up small. Fleury, ditto, and there were rumblings he might get sent to Wilkes-Barre to start this year (Dany Sabourin was sent down, then claimed off waivers by Vancouver). Staal is a candidate to be shipped back to juniors after a short cup-o’-coffee with the big club. The rest? Well, Sergei Gonchar is a chronic slow starter, John LeClair and Mark Recchi are old. The defense scares no one. That leaves, what, Colby Armstrong? They’ll be marginally better and a bit more of a pain to play against, but they won’t be confused with “good.”

New York Islanders . . . well, where does one start? Making your backup goalie the GM? Giving the starting goalie a 15 year deal? Management by committee? A head coach who has been a decade out of the NHL after leaving his last job under ugly circumstances? A chronic underachiever working on his own 10-year deal? All that’s left is for this team to finish 30th in the league and lose the lottery for the first overall draft position.

The West:

The Division Champs:

Nashville Predators . . . this is a team that was built, not bought. A good mix of draft picks and trades, with some free agents sprinkled in. An appropriate balance of veterans and young guys. They got bigger with Jason Arnott and Josef Vasicek, but they still have a fine skating team. They might not be as good a team as Anaheim at the end of the regular season, but they will probably have a better time in their division than the Ducks will have in theirs.

Anaheim Ducks . . . Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger start the year as the top pair of defensemen in the league. On paper, there probably isn’t a pair that’s all that close. And, they should eat minutes. They will probably not have a dominating scorer outside of Teemu Selanne, but they will have enough so that they can ease some young guys like Ryan Getzlaf or Corey Perry into bigger roles. Jean Sebastien Giguere might not be the goaltender he was during the Ducks march to the Stanley Cup finals a few seasons ago, but he and Ilya Bryzgalov will be a formidable duo for as long as they both wear Ducks sweaters.

Calgary Flames . . . they should emerge from the most competitive division on the strength of the unflappable Miikka Kiprusoff in goal. Jarome Iginla and Dion Phaneuf will challenge for trophy consideration this year. But more to the point, this is a team – talented as it is – that is more than the sum of its parts, and it is a difficult team to play against. Last year, they played with a thin margin for error, their offense lagging behind their defense. Alex Tanguay should improve that situation.

The Rest of the Playoff Seeds:

San Jose . . . another club that looks like more than the sum of its parts. It is tempting to say that Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo can’t duplicate their results from last year. Well, why not? Thornton is 27, Cheechoo is 26. They are just reaching their prime. The dark cloud on the horizon here is an unsettled goaltending situation. Evgeni Nabokov lost his job in the playoffs to Vesa Toskala last spring. That will be a situation to watch as the season unfolds.

Vancouver . . . Last year was a disappointment, sliding all the way out of the playoff race. Adding Roberto Luongo is a huge upgrade for this club. That alone could mean the six standings points between where the Canucks finished last year and fifth place, where we have them pegged this time around. They lost Todd Bertuzzi, but that’s probably a plus for both player and club. The one thing this club, more than most others, can’t afford is an injury, particularly on the blue line, where the talent drops off quite a bit past the top three.

Detroit . . . It seems folks either count the Wings as still an elite team, or they see the end of the run. I think it’s somewhere in between. Losing Steve Yzerman to retirement is big. But it’s not as if he didn’t leave a bunch of veterans who know how to play the game, either. This club remains deep, despite losing Brendan Shanahan to free agency. They should be tougher to play against with the addition of Danny Markov. But they are a groin injury – to Dominik Hasek – from being in deep trouble. And that’s the problem. He’s played 224 of a possible 410 games the last five years, only a combined 57 games the last two years.

Dallas . . . They added Eric Lindros and checking center Jeff Halpern, but this team has the look of age to it, and in this league that isn’t necessarily a compliment. Ten players will be 33 or older on this roster, including their likely top four defensemen. Add to that the fact that the Stars lost a substantial amount of offense in Jason Arnott and Bill Guerin (despite what must be considered a disappointing season for Guerin last year), and it spells a drop in the standings.

Minnesota . . . Team Snooze might be poised to show their fans some flash this year. Adding Pavol Demitra could be the tonic that allows Marian Gaborik to have a truly breakout season, as if 38 goals last season wasn’t enough. The other additions – players such as Kim Johnsson, Keith Carney, and Mark Parrish look to have been made with playoffs in mind – solid vets with experience. They should improve significantly on their 28 one-goal losses.

The Also-Rans:

Columbus . . . After watching Marc Denis being shelled to within an inch of his life over the past several years, having Pascal Leclaire take over will be among the interesting stories here. It could be especially interesting in that there is really little behind him if he goes down. The offense should benefit from the addition of a Fredrik Modin to a group that includes Rick Nash, Nikolai Zherdev, and Sergei Fedorov, as well as promising rookie Gilbert Brule. The defense, however, is thin, and this will be the club’s downfall.

Colorado . . . the end is near for the perennial Cup contending favorites. Patrick Roy retired a couple of seasons ago. Peter Forsberg is in South Philly. Rob Blake and Alex Tanguay are gone now. Joe Sakic – one of the true warriors in the sport – is 37. They are very thin on the left side, a situation made worse by the medical retirement of Steve Konowalchuk. The situation isn’t a lot better at center once one gets past Joe Sakic. Add to that the fact that no reasonable person can predict with any certainty which Jose Theodore will show up, and it points to a disappointing season in Denver.

Edmonton . . . One should not lose sight of the fact that despite taking the Stanley Cup final to a seventh game last year, Edmonton finished eighth in the West. Losing Chris Pronger from that squad won’t help. The forwards come back largely intact, and Joffrey Lupul is added from the Pronger deal. But the Oilers were a middle of the pack offense last year (tied for 13th in goals). Dwayne Roloson stabilized the goaltending situation when he was acquired last year, but whether a soon-to-be 37 year old goaltender is the full-season, long-term answer is a lingering question.

Los Angeles . . . Their special teams were awful last year. How bad? 28th on the power play, dead last in penalty killing. Will special teams get better? Rob Blake is about to turn 37, Aaron Miller has a history of back problems, and the rest of the defense looks thin, especially after moving Tim Gleason for the rights to Jack Johnson. Only a big rookie year from Patrick O’Sullivan is going to keep this bunch from sliding down the standings this year.

Phoenix . . . This is a team with a split personality. The defense looks as if it could be a fairly deep and effective unit. The offense looks like a collection of parts thrown together – Jeremy Roenick, Owen Nolan, Georges Laraque. Frankly, I don’t know where the goals are going to come from on a consistent basis. Add to that a 39-year old goalie in Curtis Joseph, plus playing in a division with heavyweights San Jose and Anaheim, and it’s hard to see where the Coyotes make all that much progress.

St. Louis . . . They will not finish 30th. They won’t even finish 15th in the Conference. That has to be taken as progress. In a way, they are marking time with the likes of Manny Legace, Keith Tkachuk and Martin Rucinsky on their roster, but the club has assembled a group of veterans that will not embarrass themselves on a nightly basis. The trouble is that the veteran forwards are likely well past their most productive years. The defense could be decent, certainly much better than last year. Goaltending is an uncertain commodity with Many Legace – run out of Detroit after a fine regular season but a dismal playoff -- and Curtis Sanford, for whom the question becomes, “does he have what it takes to make the jump to a solid number one goalie?”

Chicago . . . the worst run franchise in the NHL not playing home games on Long Island. Last year, they were slow and didn’t make up for it with skill or hockey sense. From this squad, the two top goal scorers – Kyle Calder and Mark Bell – are gone, but there is Martin Havlat. If Nikolai Khabibulin can get back to his level of performance in his Cup year in Tampa, this club avoids the lottery. But, that’s not the way to bet.

Now, how will the playoffs play out?


Conference Quarters:

Buffalo over Tampa Bay
New Jersey over Montreal
Carolina over Philadelphia
Ottawa over New York Rangers

Conference Semis:

Buffalo over Ottawa
New Jersey over Carolina

Conference Finals:

Buffalo over New Jersey


Conference Quarters:

Nashville over Minnesota
Anaheim over Dallas
Calgary over Detroit
San Jose over Vancouver

Conference Semis:

San Jose over Nashville
Anaheim over Calgary

Conference Finals:

Anaheim over San Jose

Stanley Cup Finals:

Anaheim over Buffalo