Training camps have opened, junior pre-season games are already underway, and the unmistakable smell of artificial ice is in the air. What better way to herald the season's arrival by including the potential for massive embarrassment?
Yeah, thought you might like that. Without further ado, let's go East and start the commotion!
Eastern Conference Preview
Biggest hello: Tomas Kab - Sorry, Joe Corvo, a veteran with good offence and questionable D. Sound familiar?
Biggest goodbye: Mark Recchi’s all-around game will be missed, but that’s the way to retire! Mark Savard has to be replaced as well, for much worse reasons.
Watch for: You know about Tyler Seguin, but there’s going to be a shoving match between Benoit Pouliot and Jordan Caron, one Caron is eventually going to win.
Watch out: With little turnover, there is a risk of the old "Stanley Cup Hangover", a.k.a. complacency in the regular season and waiting for the playoffs.
Note: The Bruins won three game sevens, including the final, making for a lot of high-impact hockey played, backed by an inhuman season by Tim Thomas. Will Thomas still have the drive now that he has nothing left to prove? Well, even if not, he’s backed by the very capable Tukka Rask and Anton Khudobin.
Biggest hello: Sorry Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr, it’s the guy who bought you: new owner/ultimate fan boy Terry Pegula.
Biggest goodbye: Tim Connolly, when healthy, has point-per-game potential and is an excellent passer.
Watch for: Tyler Myers had what many consider an "off" season… and finished with 37 points and 5 game winning goals as a 20 year old defenseman.
Watch out: Zack Kassian is going to get every chance to make the Sabres, adding size and meanness to an otherwise small forward squad.
Note: How dedicated is Pegula? He bought the Rochester Americans so Buffalo’s farm team would be close by.
Biggest hello: Anthony Stewart has one more chance to establish himself as a power forward, or accept a third-line career. Carolina loves his grit, but need his scoring capability.
Biggest goodbye: Losing Erik Cole’s 26 goals is going to hurt this offensively-starved team.
Watch for: Cam Ward proved he can handle a heavy (74 game) workload with aplomb.
Watch out: And he’d better do it again, because backing him up are Justin Peters and Brian Boucher. Add to that a questionable defense bringing in another question mark in Tomas Keberle, and if Ward loses any time, it’s going to be a real fight to get the Hurricanes to the playoffs.
Note: After Eric Staal (a grizzled veteran at 26), the centres are 22 year old Brandon Sutter, 27 year old sophomore Tim Brent, and rookie Zac Dalpe. Youth being served, sure; but all at once?
Biggest hello: Everyone. Seriously, everyone. But if I had to choose, Brian Campbell’s puck movement is a welcome addition to a young/inexperienced Panthers blue line.
Biggest goodbye: Tomas Vokoun, though his replacement will be behind a vastly improved defense.
Watch for: Everyone brought in understands that they aren’t there to win a Cup right away, but to bring the team back to respectability. They’ll have few illusions, and good focus.
Watch out: With few expectations, the only way to go is up - but there might be a temptation to push their rookies into playing time they aren’t quite ready for.
Note: New coach Kevin Dineen had not only a lengthy NHL career, but a solid coaching record with the Portland Pirates. There should be no problem getting this team to buy in to his system.
LONG ISLAND (New York Islanders)
Biggest hello: Evgeni Nabokov. What, a goaltender the Islanders can rely on? How odd…
Biggest goodbye: Zenon Konopka is well known as an enthusiastic fighter, but he also excels in the face off circle and actually isn’t that bad defensively.
Watch for: With Mark Streit back, the transition game can only improve over last year.
Watch out: Brian Rolston has speed and skill, but has big question marks regarding his attitude - he went through waivers three times last season, and no one wanted him. The Islanders may bring back the man they traded for him, free agent Trent Hunter.
Note: Losing nearly 600 man games to injury hurts any team, but for one as thin as the Islanders, it’s death. On the other hand, it gave them the chance to see what their even younger players could do. Clear up the goaltending situation, and this team could not only surprise, but shock.
MANHATTAN (New York Rangers)
Biggest hello: Some guy they paid a huge amount for - this is news? Kidding! The power play should improve hugely by the arrival of Brad Richards.
Biggest goodbye: Matt Gilroy. A classic "rover", always looking to steal the puck and go on the attack. Hopes are Michael Del Zotto can shake of a weak second season and fit that role.
Watch for: Marian Gaborik now has a legitimate #1 centre skating beside him: the only way he falls short of 70 points is if something goes terribly wrong.
Watch out: There is little offensive help on the blue line unless someone - anyone - takes the reins.
Note: The injury bug didn’t bite hard, but who it bit was devastating: Vinny Prospal, Ryan Callahan, Gaborik (of course), Martin Biron, Gilroy, Del Zotto… All players expected to be starters an their position, with Biron expected to get a dozen more starts than he did.
Biggest hello: Erik Cole has to prove he can play away from Carolina, and Montreal is looking for a big-bodied difference maker at forward.
Biggest goodbye: Roman Hamrlik. James Wisniewski’s points should be ably replaced by the return of Andrei Markov, but Hamrlik’s all around game has him solidly in the "wily veteran" camp.
Watch for: The guy you can’t stop looking at: P.K. Subban’s game will continue to develop, with coaches looking for him to keep the energy, but make better decisions.
Watch out: The defense and goaltending are solid, but that offence need a LOT more out of their big money contracts. The biggest hope is Cole putting away Scott Gomez’ passes, because someone has to.
Note: Unless Andrei Kostitsyn finally decides to put some work into his game, he could find himself dropped to the fourth line or even out of town. Yes, the Canadiens need scoring, but "should be scoring 30 goals a season" doesn’t help if he never actually does.
Biggest hello: Swedish defender Adam Larsson was picked 4th overall this year - and was considered "a steal". Just think about that for a minute.
Biggest goodbye: Brian Rolston, kinda. Still has speed and scoring, but is difficult to coach.
Watch for: With Travis Zajac out to start the year, this is a huge opportunity for young Jacob Josefson to share a line with either Ilya Kovalchuk or a healthy Zach Parise, either of which will add a ton of finish to his plays.
Watch out: Martin Brodeur finished with his second worst save percentage and goals against of his career; still, even if he falters, they have the young-and-coming Johan Hedberg to take over. Wait, what?
Note: Seriously, are they going with Jeff Frazee, or is the Devils' mind trust targeting someone outside the system? Because right now they have two (2) goalies with any NHL experience, and the young one is 38.
Biggest hello: Finally, acceptance of the term "rebuild"! It took until the month of Fuckit - er, February, but it’s an important step for the Senators' turnaround.
Biggest goodbye: Ryan Shannon. "The Waterbug" managed 11 goals, 27 points and was +3 on the lowest scoring team in the league.
Watch for: Lots of press conferences talking about "learning experiences" and "good effort".
Watch out: Sergei Gonchar was nothing short of a disaster last season, and along with blue line veterans Chris Phillips and Fillip Kuba a LOT more is expected from them. But just because it’s expected doesn’t mean it’ll happen.
Note: There were some pleasant surprises amongst the wreckage: Bobby Butler up front, and the fantastic play of Erik Karlsson give some measure of hope, as does the surprising play of Craig Anderson.
Biggest hello: In a year of big moves, the biggest was Ilya Bryzgalov. So the Flyers hope.
Biggest goodbye: Jeff Carter has finish to go along with good on-ice vision.
Watch for: Jaromir Jagr, of course. He’s not being relied upon to be the savoiur of the team, something that drove him out of the NHL, but still being counted or for 70-75 as a first line winger.
Watch out: For all the hand-wringing moving Carter and Mike Richards has caused (for good reason), Philadelphia slumped last year when Chris Pronger went out with an injury.
Note: Jagr, Claude Giroux, and Danny Briere are expected to compensate for the absence of Carter and Richards, which should happen; but that’s also being joined by an improved depth up front.
Biggest hello: Odd to call the injury-prone Steve Sullivan an insurance policy, but he is a player that can produce anywhere in the line-up.
Biggest goodbye: Sidney Crosby’s press conference said it all: the best player in the league won’t start in the league. But for how long, and will his slow recovery change his game and that of the Penguins?
Watch for: Jordan Staal and Evgeni Malkin are still a fine 1-2 to open the season with.
Watch out: But who takes third? Late bloomer Mark Letestu? Just returned from Europe Richard Park? Neither plays much of a defensive game, so will Staal be forced into a third line role when his talent is needed higher up?
Note: While James Neal didn’t produce much on his arrival from Dallas, this time he’s starting out with Malkin. It will be a surprise if he doesn’t hit 60 points this year.
Biggest hello: Ryan Shannon, because you can never have too many 5’7", 170lb wingers!
Biggest goodbye: Sean Bergenheim’s move from the Lightning was probably for the best: his heroic playoff run would leave some fans grumbling when he reverted to his 30-point (when healthy) form. Going to Florida was an interesting choice, though: loved the weather, perhaps? Hated the fans?
Watch for: Teddy Purcell had a great year, and is being counted on to close the vast talent drop between this team’s "stars" and "the others" that has long plagued the club.
Watch out: It would be nice if Ryan Malone earned his paycheque, but given his injury trouble and talent level, 45 points as a first line winger is probably all that can be expected.
Note: It’s not often the 33-year old backup is the young one, but Dwayne Roloson has a decade on Mathieu Garon.
Biggest hello: Toronto has plenty of big, hard-hitting defencemen, so adding John-Michael Liles as a puck mover keeps that dimension intact, with Cody Franson taking notes.
Biggest goodbye: Hm… Tim Brent, maybe? Hey, wasn’t there a bidding war over Fabian Brunnstrom at some point a couple years back? Well, he’s gone, too.
Watch for: If Jonas Gustavsson can have a bounce-back season and James Reimer can maintain the pace he set last year, then Toronto will have as solid goaltending as they have had since the lockout.
Watch out: Should Reimer’s numbers drop in his second year, all will not be well for the Leafs.
Note: A solid starting six on defense, but they need puck control, which is where Franson and Liles come in.
Biggest hello: Tomas Vokoun, clearly looking to win after signing with the Capitals for FAR below market value.
Biggest goodbye: Marco Sturm’s tremendous versatility has been exchanged for specific roles given to specific players.
Watch for: John Carlson and Karl Alzner give the Capitals a top pairing for years to come.
Watch out: Frustration could set in, as last year’s playing style adjustments (less offence, more defense) were for the sole purpose of advancing in the playoffs, and they didn’t work when needed. Bruce Boudreau could get tuned out by the team if success doesn’t come quickly.
Note: A big change in philosophy this year: rather than telling current players to change their game, they’re bringing in players who already specialize in a tough, defensive style (Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern).
Biggest hello: In Eric Fehr, the Jets are getting a big (6’4") local (Winkler, yo!) potential 20-20 winger. These are not to be shunned.
Biggest goodbye: Anthony Stewart hasn’t lived up to his draft (25th over all), but is a solid third line contributor.
Watch for: Alexander Burmistov is small, but knows where every player is on the ice. Huge potential.
Watch out: "Potential" being the key word, here. Nik Antropov is the oldest skater, and he’s all of 31.
Note: It’s a weird feeling looking at this roster: they should be a lot older than they are, shouldn’t they? Fehr, Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien, Zach Bogosian, Ondrej Pavelec… haven’t they already had career story arcs?
So who finishes where? As Bob MacKenzie says, "Predictions are a mug's game!" In a world where Jacques Richard can be a sudden 50-goal scorer, predictions only work if they are a vague as possible, and even then there are insane divergences that screw up everyone. So here's what I think:
8) Tampa Bay
10) Long Island
11) New Jersey
As for the poolie stuff... I'm competing against you guys: why would I tell you that? Tomorrow, we go West!