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NHL: A team-by-team look at training camps
Font: * * * * By Pierre LeBrun, Canadian Press
Published: Thursday, September 14, 2006
It was a summer of change in the NHL with new faces on every team. A look at all 30 teams and their chances as training camps open around the league this week:
Anaheim Ducks: The team that reached the Western Conference final last spring will have only a few new faces but one they added is awfully hard to miss -- superstar defenceman Chris Pronger, who was acquired in a blockbuster move with Edmonton by GM Brian Burke. Arguably the best player in the NHL playoffs after leading the upstart Oilers to within one game of a Stanley Cup ring, the former Hart Trophy winner joins former Norris Trophy winner Scott Niedermayer in a formidable 1-2 punch unmatched in the NHL. In goal, Burke has yet to resolve his issues with former No. 1 J.S. Giguere, who is still a Duck even though Ilya Bryzgalov is ready to the take the job permanently after starting in the playoffs. Giguere has one more year left on his deal at US$3.99 million and wonâ€™t be easy to move so the tandem may stay together for a few more months. Up front, the Ducks hope the loss of winger Joffrey Lupul to Edmonton will be tempered by the return of Russian winger Stanislav Chistov, who played with Evgeni Malkin in Metallurg Magnitogorsk last season. The 23-year-old former first-round draft pick played with the Ducks in 2002-03 and 2003-04 before spending the last two seasons in Russia. Veteran winger Teemu Selanne is coming off a huge comeback year that saw him put up 40 goals and 90 points, his best output since 1998-99. But can the 36-year-old Finnish Flash do it again this season? Still, with the further development of young forwards Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Dustin Penner, this is a team that will contend for the Stanley Cup -- if not win it.
Calgary Flames: The new NHL wasnâ€™t kind to Darryl Sutterâ€™s crew but it appears those lessons have been learned. The Flames GM, who stepped down as coach and handed the reins to longtime assistant Jim Playfair, pulled the trigger on draft day by acquiring star forward Alex Tanguay from Colorado in exchange for defenceman Jordan Leopold. The move was brilliant, giving captain Jarome Iginla an equally dangerous offensive threat to play with on the first line (something he didnâ€™t have last season). The plan is for Tanguay to switch from wing to centre so Iginla finally has a decent middle man after losing Craig Conroy in the summer of 2004. That should reinvigorate the former 50-goal man Iginla, who dropped to 35 goals and 32 assists last season. The loss of Leopold, meanwhile, will barely be felt with a talented top four on defence consisting of Robyn Regehr, Dion Phaneuf, Roman Hamrlik and Rhett Warrener. Few teams around the league can match that depth. With Vezina Trophy goalie Mikka Kiprusoff returning between the pipes, this Flames are a big-time contender with a little more offence this time around. Watch out.
Chicago Blackhawks: We give GM Dale Tallon credit for putting much effort in overhauling his team. If anything, theyâ€™re faster now. Gone are forwards Kyle Calder, Mark Bell, Mathew Barnaby and Curtis Brown, replaced up front by Michal Handzus, Martin Havlat, Denis Arkhipov and Bryan Smolinski. Havlat is a dynamic offensive force who will finally get first-line treatment after not getting it in Ottawa. Heâ€™s under pressure to deliver after signing a whopping $18 million, three-year deal. Handzus is a terrific two-way player and has long been underrated. Smolinski is on his downswing but is a responsible player. Arkhipov is speedy but a second-line player at best. Really the key for the Hawks this season isnâ€™t so much what the newcomers will do, but rather two important incumbants: oft-injured but immensely talented centre Tuomo Ruutu and goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. Ruutu missed all but 15 games last season because of a serious back problem while Khabibulin was simply dreadful and must rebound to earn his $6.75-million salary. If Ruutu and Khabibulin play up to their capabilities and stay healthy, that alone could be a 25-point improvement in the standings for the Hawks. If they donâ€™t perform, itâ€™s another season out of the playoffs.
Colorado Avalanche: The dynasty years seem long ago now, donâ€™t they? This team will be hard-pressed to make the playoffs. Captain Joe Sakic hasnâ€™t slowed down and continues to produce but the supporting cast is weakening. Forward Alex Tanguay was a huge loss, the Avs needing to deal him to Calgary for financial reasons. Wingers Mark Svatos and Milan Hejduk will be relied on heavily to help Sakic fill the net. The Avs are hoping reclamation project Tyler Arnason will work out. Former Hart and Vezina winner Jose Theodore has a huge year ahead of him, needing to prove to the hockey world that heâ€™s still an elite goalie after a disappointing season. The Avs gambled heavily that heâ€™s still got it and they better be right given the $11.5 million left on the final two years of his contract. The loss of Rob Blake on defence will be greatly felt since no one of his calibre was brought in to replace him. Jordan Leopold is a decent offensive defenceman but heâ€™s no Blake. Unless Theodore rediscovers his old form, itâ€™s going to be a mighty long year in Denver, possibly the franchiseâ€™s first out of the playoffs since 1993-94 when they were still the Quebec Nordiques.
Columbus Blue Jackets: The Jackets should score a few more goals this season with the arrival of sniper Fredrik Modin from Tampa and highly touted rookie Gilbert Brule, the teamâ€™s first pick in the 2005 NHL entry draft. A healthy Rick Nash will also help out. The star winger missed 28 games early last season with ankle and knee problems. But the loss of 27-goal man Nikolai Zherdev will be felt. Unless his contract dispute is settled in the next two weeks, it appears likely heâ€™s playing in Russia all year. Pascal Leclaire has been deemed ready for the No. 1 goaltender job, so Marc Denis was peddled in the Modin trade. Leclaire, the Jacketsâ€™ first pick, eighth overall in the 2001 draft, got his feet wet in 33 games last season and most people agree it was time for him to get handed the assignment. If he falters, the Jackets made an interesting signing this summer, bringing in 31-year-old netminder Fredrik Norrena, who backstopped Finland to a bronze medal at the IIHF world championship in Latvia last spring. The goaltending and offence should be fine, itâ€™s the defence that isnâ€™t particularly impressive. Aside from solid veteran Adam Foote and the possibly emerging Rostislav Klesla, thereâ€™s nothing to write home about with the rest of the crew: Duvie Westcott, Ron Hainsey, Bryan Berard, Anders Eriksson and Aaron Johnsson. If GM Doug MacLean can add a defenceman before the trade deadline, this team may be good enough to slip into the playoffs.
Dallas Stars: No. 2 centre Jason Arnott and top-four blue-liner Willie Mitchell were tough losses in free agency but GM Doug Armstrong didnâ€™t stand around and mope, busily working the phones and adding centres Eric Lindros, Jeff Halpern and Patrik Stefan, rugged winger Matthew Barnaby and top-four defencemen Darryl Sydor and Jaroslav Modry. Keep an eye on rookie Loui Eriksson, the 21-year-old Swedish winger is ready for the NHL after a solid AHL campaign last year which saw him collect 31 goals and 60 points in 78 games. Two key issues for the Stars this season: Is there enough offence with the departure of Arnott and the increasing pressure on the aging Mike Modano? And how will star goalie Marty Turco bounce back after a disastrous first-round playoff loss last spring, allowing 18 goals in five games â€” the exact number of goals in the exact number of games from another disappointing playoff in 2004. This is a huge year for the likeable native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., who has to prove heâ€™s a money goalie in the playoffs. A playoff team for sure, but a contender? Time will tell.
Detroit Red Wings: Stevie Y is gone but the show must go on in Hockeytown. A first-round upset loss to Edmonton didnâ€™t sit well last spring and goalie Manny Legace paid the price. Weâ€™re just not sure the Wings upgraded after he left by signing 41-year-old Dominik Hasek, who returns for his second stint in Detroit. Hasekâ€™s tender groin likely cost Ottawa its Stanley Cup chances last season and thereâ€™s no reason to believe heâ€™ll be healthy for a full season this year. But GM Ken Holland took a low-level risk by only paying Hasek $750,000. If the Czech veteran falls apart again, the Wings can go out and make a move. If Hasek somehow stays healthy and shows the form of last seasonâ€™s first half, then Detroit is laughing. Thereâ€™s plenty of offence left with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg leading the charge although the loss of veteran Brendan Shanahan could hurt. On defence, highly regarded Niklas Kronwall gets set to play a full season after missing most of last year with a broken leg and heâ€™s going to have a major impact. The core remains strong in Detroit but the Wings donâ€™t match up that well against Western contenders Calgary, Anaheim, Nashville and San Jose.
Edmonton Oilers: The defending Western Conference champions have been flipped upside down and itâ€™s not clear whether theyâ€™re any worse or any better for it. The Oilers are hurting big-time on the blue-line after the losses of superstar Chris Pronger and top-four man Jaroslav Spacek but added some major offensive weapons in Joffrey Lupul and Petr Sykora. The pair of wingers will likely join Jarret Stoll on an impressive second line behind the first unit of Shawn Horcoff between Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky. Thatâ€™s some major firepower. But the losses on defence are huge and the Oilers may have to play some 1980s-style firewagon hockey to survive the first half of the season. Last goal wins. At least they start the season with a proven netminder in Dwayne Roloson, unlike last season when they were victimized by below-average goaltending until GM Kevin Lowe pulled the trigger at the trade deadline to add Roloson. Now Lowe will work the phones until next March to add a blue-line body or two because the Oilers have the cap room to do so. This remains a playoff-calibre team despite the loss of Pronger. Seventh or eighth in the West isnâ€™t out of the question.
Los Angeles Kings: New GM, new coach and new players. The Kings are all about new faces this season. The newcomers on the ice include forwards Alyn McCauley, Patrick Oâ€™Sullivan, Scott Thornton and Brian Willsie, star defenceman Rob Blake and goalie Dan Cloutier. Gone are forward Pavol Demitra, Mark Parrish and Jeremy Roenick as well as defenceman Joe Corvo. But the most important change is behind the bench, where one of the gameâ€™s best coaches, Marc Crawford, takes over a Kings team that has missed the playoffs three straight seasons. Expect more changes through the course of the season as GM Dean Lombardi continues the makeover of this club. Right now thereâ€™s not much offence and questions in goal with Cloutier and Mathieu Garon. Despite Crawfordâ€™s top-notch coaching, this might be another season without playoff hockey in La-La land.
Minnesota Wild: It is indeed a new NHL when a perennial frugal team like the Wild open up the purse strings like they did this off-season. Hello forwards Pavol Demitra, Mark Parrish, Branko Radivojevic and defencemen Kim Johnsson, Keith Carney and Petteri Nummelin. The acquisition of the star centre Demitra was a double-whammy because it both facilitated the re-signing of star winger Marian Gaborik and pleased him to no end that his fellow Slovak will now be a teammate. In one fell swoop, GM Doug Risebrough eliminated what had become months of nasty feelings between the club and the young Gaborik. Smart move indeed. In goal, Manny Fernandez begins his first season with the Wild as the undisputed No. 1 after Dwayne Roloson was dealt to Edmonton last March. We think Fernandez can handle the load. This is much-improved club should push hard for a playoff spot and maybe more.
Nashville Predators: No one will ever know just how far the Preds could have gone last year had star goalie Tomas Vokoun not missed the end of the season with a serious blood clot problem. Itâ€™s not as if San Jose was an easy first-round matchup as it was but Nashville was absolutely rolling until the shocking news in March that Vokoun was out. He feels good again and if he can stay healthy an already talented and dangerous team will contend for the Stanley Cup after the off-season acquisitions of centres Jason Arnott and Josef Vasicek and winger J.P. Dumont. A solid blue-line featuring Marek Zidlicky, Kimmo Timonen and youngsters Dan Hamhuis and Ryan Suter should hold the fort while star wingers Paul Kariya and Steve Sullivan should form quite the top line with Arnott. Watch out for rookie winger Alexander Radulov, who tore up the Quebec junior league last season for 62 goals and 91 assists in 62 games. Heâ€™ll be given every chance to make this team. The Preds join Calgary, Anaheim and San Jose as the top contenders in the West.
Phoenix Coyotes: Wayne Gretzky might have a playoff team on his hands. The second-year NHL coach and the gameâ€™s greatest ever player has more to work with this season thanks to GM and friend Mike Barnett this summer. The additions of star defenceman Ed Jovanovski as well as veteran forwards Owen Nolan and Jeremy Roenick, top-four defenceman Nick Boynton and tough guy Georges Laraque have the Coyotes thinking post-season. Jovanovski and Boynton join a blue-line that already includes promising youngsters Keith Ballard and Zbynek Michalek, as well as Derek Morris and Dennis Seidenberg. The Coyotes now boast one of the deeper defence corps in the league. If 39-year-old goalie Curtis Joseph can duplicate his superb season from last year this will be a fun year in the desert. Theyâ€™ll battle for the seventh or eighth spot in the West.
San Jose Sharks: The Sharks felt they got a little pushed around in their second-round loss to the Oilers last spring and GM Doug Wilson quickly addressed that, adding size and grit up front with Mark Bell, Curtis Brown and Mike Grier. Bell has been pencilled in on the top line with Hart Trophy winner Joe Thornton and Rocket Richard Trophy winner Jonathan Cheechoo in what should be a dangerous offensive unit. At some point this season the shoe is going to have to drop, however, with San Joseâ€™s goaltending situation. Neither Vesa Toskala or Evgeni Nabokov have any interest in sharing the load again this year. Wilson will have to wait for a need to develop somewhere since all 30 teams feel good about their goaltending out of the gates. Keep an eye on rookie defenceman Matt Carle, who played in a combined 23 games (playoffs included) late last season and showed offensive ability and nice puck-moving skills. Look for him to be a staple on the power play this season. The Sharks should challenge fellow contenders Calgary, Anaheim and Nashville in the West and may be an even more dangerous team depending on what they get in return for one of their goalies.
St. Louis Blues: The John Davidson era has begun in earnest. The new team president and longtime star broadcaster has overseen a serious overhaul of last yearâ€™s 30th-placed team. Davidson and GM Larry Pleau have brought in forwards Doug Weight, Martin Rucinsky, Bill Guerin, Dan Hinote, star defenceman Jay McKee and former Detroit starting goalie Manny Legace. No oneâ€™s pretending this team has any chance of winning the Stanley Cup this season but they might actually battle for a playoff spot or certainly at the very least play .500 hockey after last yearâ€™s embarassment. Guerin, Weight and Tkachuk all feel they have a lot to prove after subpar seasons and the three American veterans may just surprise many. Hinoteâ€™s signing flew under the radar but heâ€™s just the kind of guy many coaches love, a terror to play against. Forward Vladimir Orszagh being out indefinitely after undergoing knee surgery will hurt. Still, things are looking up in the Gateway City.
Vancouver: GM Dave Nonis wasnâ€™t kidding when he said things would change after his teamâ€™s disappointing season last year, one in which a pre-season Stanley Cup contender missed the playoffs. Head coach Marc Crawford was fired, star winger Todd Bertuzzi was shipped out of town, and superstar goalie Roberto Luongo was acquired in the most significant moves under Nonisâ€™s short tenure. The loss of star defenceman Ed Jovanovski to free agency will sting, but Willie Mitchell was a nice signing. The bottom line? The Canucks will give up way fewer goals this season thanks to Luongo, but wonâ€™t score as many with the losses of Bertuzzi and Anson Carter. If the Sedin twins continue to their ascension, it might possibly make up for it. Either way, this is a dressing room that needed a cleansing, and it got it, and to boot the Canucks have arguably the second-best netminder in the NHL behind Martin Brodeur. A return to the playoffs is possible but they might have to take a step back this year before going forward.
Atlanta Thrashers: This is a team that would have made the playoffs last year had it not been for the injury-plagued season of starting goalie Kari Lehtonen. If the 22-year-old Finn can stay healthy this year, the Thrashers have a good shot at making that next step, which is critical for a market thatâ€™s already said goodbye to NHL hockey once. GM Don Waddell added a solid defenceman in Vitaly Vishnevski, an area that he needed to address. The question for the Thrashers is how much they lost when No. 1 centre Marc Savard took his 97 points with him to Boston via free agency. Waddell brought in veteran centre Steve Rucchin to help fill the void. Second-year centre Jim Slater will also be given a shot to fill that role. With Marian Hossa scoring goals on one line and fellow star winger Ilya Kovalchuk filling the net on another unit, the Thrashers still have two lines that can terrorize the opposition. The question marks remain Lehtonenâ€™s durability and the depth of their blue-line. Theyâ€™ll be on the playoff bubble again this season, anywhere from seventh to 11th.
Boston Bruins: Like many teams in the NHL this summer, the Bruins are all about change. A new GM in Peter Chiarelli, a new coach in Dave Lewis, a new star defenceman in Zdeno Chara and a new top-line centre in Marc Savard. The 29-year-old Savard turned a career-high 97 points with Atlanta last year into a monster, $20-million, four-year deal and now will feel the pressure of proving he is indeed a $5-million player. The Bruins feel real good about having him and Patrice Bergeron as a 1-2 punch down the middle. Chara, one of the NHLâ€™s top five defenceman, is a serious addition. The real question is in goal, where second-year starter Hannu Toivonen and journeyman backup Tim Thomas bring 62 career NHL games between them in a tandem that doesnâ€™t exactly strike the fear of God into anyone at this point. Still, Toivonen showed flashes last season that he may indeed be yet another in a long line of terrific Finnish netminders. The Bruins better hope so, especially after shipping Andrew Raycroft to Toronto. Another bubble team in the East.
Buffalo Sabres: One of last seasonâ€™s big surprises return with largely the same roster. Defenceman Jay McKee and winger J.P. Dumont are gone while blue-liner Jarsolav Spacek is the most notable newcomer. The speedy and talented Sabres should remain one the forces in the wide-open Eastern Conference. One of the teamâ€™s strengths last season was its dressing room chemistry. That might get tested early this season as goalie Marin Biron is forced to return and back up Ryan Miller despite asking GM Darcy Regier for a trade in the off-season. Regier has to be careful this doesnâ€™t become a distraction. The Sabres may battle Ottawa for the Northeast Division title.
Carolina Hurricanes: The â€™Canes will be hard-pressed to repeat as Stanley Cup champions after losing a wealth of experience in the off-season, the likes of forwards Matt Cullen, Mark Recchi, Doug Weight, Josef Vasicek, goalie Martin Gerber and defenceman Aaron Ward. The new arrivals include backup goalie John Grahame and winger Scott Walker. The big question is whether Conn Smythe Trophy winner Cam Ward can sustain the spectacular netminding he displayed in the playoffs. He enters his second NHL seasons for the first time as the annointed starter after spending most of last season on the bench watching Gerber. We think Ward is more than up to the challenge. Up front, look for Andrew Ladd to make an impact in his first full season. Losing injured defenceman Frantisek Kaberle (shoulder) for up to six months will hurt. The â€™Canes should remain a playoff team in the East, but not necessarily a contender.
Florida Panthers: The league-wide perception is that Jacques Martin has a tremendous amount of pressure on him now that heâ€™s taking on the dual role of GM and coach following the departure of Mike Keenan. Nothing could be further from the truth. If the Panthers falter, Martin can turn to owner Alan Cohen and say: `Hey, I didnâ€™t put this team together, Keenan did.â€™ So with a wonderful built-in excuse already stashed in his back pocket, Martin starts the 2007-08 season with a different-looking team than the one which almost made the playoffs last season. But are the Panthers any better? The only key player gone from last season is star goalie Roberto Luongo, but that is no small departure. The additions include power winger Todd Bertuzzi, savvy international forward Ville Peltonen of Finland, defencemen Bryan Allen and Ruslan Salei and a brand-new goalie tandem of Alex Auld with Ed Belfour. Theyâ€™ll be a bubble team who may surprise.
Montreal Canadiens: Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford insists to this day the Habs were his biggest worry in last springâ€™s playoffs and they certainly put a scare in the eventual Cup champs by winning the first two games and leading in the third until Montreal captain Saku Koivu suffered a serious eye injury. If Koivu doesnâ€™t return as the same player, the Canadiens must turn to Mike Ribeiro as their No. 1 centre and that must be a concern after he dropped to a disappointing 51 points last season. GM Bob Gainey tried in vain to bulk up at forward, putting offers in for Jason Arnott, Jeff Halpern and Brendan Shanahan but struck out on all three. He did finally sign offensive dynamo Sergei Samsonov, but the size part wasnâ€™t addressed. In the end, the Habs basically swapped forwards Jan Bulis and Richard Zednik or Samsonov and Mike Johnson â€” a minor upgrade. On the upside, Montrealâ€™s young players such as forwards Chris Higgins and Tomas Plekanec and defenceman Mike Komisarek continue to get better and play a bigger role on this team. If Cristobal Huet continues his dazzling puckstopping, the Habs can dangle backup David Aebischer before the March trade deadline. Guy Carbonneau takes over as the head coach after spending last season as the associate to GM/coach Bob Gainey. The bottom line? Habs should be in the mix anywhere from sixth to 10th place in the East.
New Jersey Devils: How the hottest team in hockey got knocked out in the second round by Carolina remains a mystery to this writer. Look for the Devils to come back strong this season, led by one of the top NHL lines in Patrik Elias, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta (who remained unsigned, however, as of Wednesday). Just having Elias around all season after he missed most of last year will be a major boost. Second-year winger Zach Parise hopes to build off a 14-goal rookie season. His impact on the second line is key to providing the Devils with a little more balance offensively. With veteran superstar Martin Brodeur in goal and a solid defence led by Brian Rafalski, itâ€™ll be more of the same for the Devils this season â€” Stanley Cup contention.
New York Islanders: The Isles have a legion of loyal fans in Canada thanks to their dynasty years of the early 1980s so they wonâ€™t like hearing this: thereâ€™s no way in the world this team makes the playoffs this season. Where to start? Their top-paid player, Alexei Yashin, continues to prove Ottawa was so right in dealing him away. He generated 66 points and a minus-14 rating last season, a tidy output for the $7.6 million heâ€™s earning. Thereâ€™s little scoring on this team and the blue-line is shaky although Brendan Witt was an excellent free-agent signing â€” by 10-week GM Neil Smith. Yes, the circus is in town 24/7 and 365 on Long Island. Backup goalie Garth Snow (who is actually a pretty sharp guy) takes over as GM. He didnâ€™t have much say when owner Charles Wang negotiating a silly and shocking $67.5-million, 15-year deal with starting goalie Rick DiPietro. If thereâ€™s any hope itâ€™s that new coach Ted Nolan can re-create the magic he had in Buffalo when he had a blue-collar Sabres bunch overachieve a decade ago. The reality? Battling Washington and Pittsburgh not to finish last in the Eastern Conference.
New York Rangers: Who would have thought it would take a salary cap to snap some sense into the big-money Rangers? But hockey was cool again on Broadway last season, star winger Jaromir Jagr and sensational goalie Henrik Lundqvist leading the club to its first playoff appearance since 1997. Those good times will continue. Instead of the splashy and often outlandish free-agent signings of summers past, Rangers GM instead settled for only one headline grabber â€” Brendan Shanahan â€” and three acquisitions that went under the radar â€” centre Matt Cullen, winger Adam Hall and defenceman Aaron Ward. Four superb moves. Shanahan, 37, is coming off his best offensive season in a decade in Detroit and that production donâ€™t shouldnâ€™t change playing on the top line with Jagr. Cullen is a perfect fit as the No. 2 centre. Ward fits into the top six on defence and Hall adds depth on right wing behind Jagr and Petr Prucha. Bottom line? Rangers will challenge the contenders in the East.
Ottawa Senators: Letâ€™s not sugar coat the losses: star defenceman Zdeno Chara and skilled winger Martin Havlat are not easily replaced, if at all. But of all the teams in the league to lose two big pieces like that Ottawa has the kind of depth to survive it better than most. The blue-line still has star Wade Redden as well as Chris Phillips, Andrej Meszaros, Anton Volchenkov and newcomers Joe Corvo and Tom Preissing. Pretty darn good. The offence is still potent with Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson. And thereâ€™s been an upgrade in goal: Martin Gerber over the oft-injured Dominik Hasek. We still donâ€™t like the depth at centre. Mike Fisher, a Selke Trophy nonimee last year, is the best No. 3 centre in the NHL. Problem is Ottawa keeps putting him on the second line. Perhaps Russian rookie Alexei Kaigorodov will have a big year after scoring big goals in the Russian league the last five seasons and step up to the No. 2 centre job. That will be key to watch. Either way, the Senators remain an Eastern powerhouse.
Philadelphia Flyers: No team spent more time in the medical ward last season than Philadelphia and thatâ€™s a major reason they didnâ€™t meet up to the pre-season hype. They caught a huge break when superstar Peter Forsberg avoided surgery on his left ankle this summer after having the right one done earlier. That means heâ€™ll be ready for the start of the season instead of being gone until January. If Swedenâ€™s finest can play 70 games this season, the Flyers remain a top-four team in the East. His instant connection with winger Simon Gagne produced a career-high 47 goals for the French-Canadian star last season and more is expected this season. The loss of captain Keith Primeau to forced retirement hurts but then again the Flyers played without him almost all of last season so it wonâ€™t be a total re-adjustment. Looked for sophomores Mike Richards and Jeff Carter to step up. Kyle Calder was a nice pickup, he plays typical Flyers hockey. If the Flyers stay healthy theyâ€™ll challenge the Rangers for the Atlantic division title.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Other GMs would kill for a 1-2 punch at centre that features Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and thatâ€™s why the Penguins will score lots of goals this season. The rookie Malkin has been ready for the NHL for at least two years and finally gets his shot, unless of course a court prevents him after his messy escape from Russia. Unfortunately for the Penguins, however, there remains way too many holes on this team. That Ryan Whitney, Mark Eaton and Brooks Orpik are part of their top four on defence tells you itâ€™s going to be a long year for young goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. The depth up front isnâ€™t exactly spine-tingling either. Unless Crosby and Malkin perform miracles, itâ€™s another year out of the playoffs for the young Penguins.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Thereâ€™s a dangerous belief in Tampa that acquiring a No. 1 goalie in Marc Denis (great deal by GM Jay Feaster) has cured all ills and the Lightning will once again return to first-place prominence. Weâ€™re not so sure about that. Another problem last season was the lack of depth on defence and that really wasnâ€™t addressed this off-season. Yes, Filip Kuba, Luke Richardson, Doug Janik and Andy Delmore were added, but last time we checked none of those guys were considered top-four blue-liners anywhere else in the league. Oh, and the Lightning lost top-four defencemen Pavel Kubina and Darryl Sydor. The offence will be awesome as usual with Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis once again leading the way, but the fact Paul Ranger and Cory Sarich may start the season as the second pairing on defence should concern Lightning fans. This is a team on the playoff bubble.
Toronto Maple Leafs: New head coach Paul Maurice was born the same year the Leafs last won the Stanley Cup, which tells you just how crazed Canadaâ€™s biggest city is for an NHL championship. Itâ€™ll be 40 years next spring and itâ€™s not going to happen in 2006-07. We like what GM John Ferguson has done, however, itâ€™s a step in the right direction. Gone are forwards Eric Lindros, Jason Allison, Tie Domi, defenceman Alexander Khavanov and Luke Richardson. Free-agent add-ons Pavel Kubina and Hal Gill gives Toronto an impressive top-four on defence with stars Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle. Excellent two-way centre Mike Peca was a sharp signing and gives the Leafs some of the sandpaper they simply didnâ€™t have last season. Goalie Andrew Raycroft will either be a stroke of genius or a flop but at $1.8 million for this season itâ€™s well worth the risk, especially with highly touted Justin Pogge waiting in the wings. The problem for Toronto remains the fact that they lack five-on-five scoring and a true scoring winger to help captain Mats Sundin, who isnâ€™t getting any younger at 35. That Alexei Ponikarvosky, Nik Antropov and Jeff Oâ€™Neill remain fixtures on the top two lines just doesnâ€™t cut it. Ferguson has his team going in the right direction but this year itâ€™ll be another battle to make the playoffs. Theyâ€™ll finish anywhere from seventh to 11th in the East.
Washington Capitals: Quick, who are Brian Pothier, Jamie Heward, Shoane Morrisonn and Bryan Muir? Theyâ€™re Washingtonâ€™s top four on defence. Ouch. Itâ€™s going to be another long year in the U.S. capital although watching Calder Trophy winner Alexander Ovechkin score breathtaking goals isnâ€™t so bad. Heâ€™ll keep scoring this year and the Caps will welcome fellow Russian winger Alexander Semin into the fold but all in all this remains a team with big-time holes both up front and on the blue-line. Veteran goalie Olaf Kolzig, who was outstanding last year, will have his patience tested. He re-signed with the club because he was encouraged in the direction was headed. Hopefully next summer more faces will be added. The Caps wonâ€™t make the playoffs this season.
Â© Canadian Press 2006