Preview time is creeping closer, which means heavy
drinking thinking about where teams are going to end up finishing in the 2009-10 NHL regular season.
As usual, it's a "nobody knows nuthin'" necessary evil of sports journalism, in which one tries to predict the unpredictable (see Stars, Dallas, 2008-09). Poor Ted Leonsis's head is spinning right now, for example, because Sports Illustrated sees the Washington Capitals as a middle-of-the-pack contender while The Hockey News has them No. 2 in the East.
As the title of his post affirms: "LOL - Who to Believe?"
One of the more confounding aspects to this year's team rankings are the number of sheer mysteries lingering near the playoff bubble. Sure, you can write in teams like the Caps, the Boston Bruins, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers with permanent marker in the East. Yeah, the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks could probably put their playoff tickets on sale now. But there are more head-scratchers than sure-things heading into next season.
Coming up, seven teams for whom we may just throw darts, pick names out of a hat or ask our cat about when crafting our preseason predictions; a.k.a., The Stupefying Seven for 2009-10.
Do you folks have a solid feeling about any of these teams?
Dallas Stars (Last Season: 12th in West; 36-35-11)
With Brenden Morrow(notes) playing more than 18 games, the Sean Avery(notes) distractions removed and Marty Turco(notes) determined to rebound from a momentum-killing start, things are looking up in Big D, right?
But what about the flip from Dave Tippett to Marc Crawford behind the bench? What about the lack of scoring on the wing, or the legitimate concern that Loui Eriksson(notes) isn't going to pop for 36 goals again? What about this collection of defenders?
Dallas was a team the majority had penciled into the playoffs before last season, and we imagine the majority will choose not to do so again this season. So is that learning from past mistakes, or making another one?
Edmonton Oilers (11th in West, 38-35-9)
For the first time since 2006, the NHL's going to see what a Pat Quinn team does in practice rather than in theory. The roster has a dizzying array of talent, both young and old; if Quinn and Tom Renney can give them the structure to achieve rather than underachieve, then this should be a playoff team, right?
Perhaps that's one reason why -- despite the pursuit of Dany Heatley(notes) and the desperate, successful bid for Nikolai Khabibulin(notes) -- the Oil stood pat for the most part this summer. Of course there was another, as Dan Barnes of Canwest pointed out this week:
Yes indeed, some myopic fans unaware of salary capanomics and their paralytic hold on rosters might have expected a dramatic overhaul, given the team's third straight non-playoff finish. What's more, Tambellini made it clear he wasn't laying all the blame at the feet of MacTavish.
But Quinn didn't expect major change.
"No, I didn't have that expectation,'' the Oilers new head coach said on Tuesday.
"When we were talking about my coming on, I pretty much had the expectation that the roster would be pretty similar. There are a couple ways to get better, making trades or getting into the free agent market. The other, more important way is to improve from within. Our improvement will come from within."
Which brings us back to the central mystery for the Oilers: Can this admittedly talent-laden roster win under Quinn?
Montreal Canadiens (8th in the East, 41-30-11)
Bringing in Scott Gomez(notes), Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta(notes), Jaroslav Spacek(notes), Hal Gill(notes), Travis Moen(notes) and Jacques Martin to coach them. Jettisoning Alexei Kovalev, Saku Koivu(notes), Mike Komisarek(notes) and Alex Tanguay(notes), among others.
Simply put, it's one of the most dramatic and daring single-summer overhauls the NHL has seen in recent memory, especially for one of its flagship franchises.
They'll be faster and grittier (and we're dying to see if a Cammalleri-Gomez-Gionta will grace the ice this season). It's up to Martin and the leaders in that locker room to determine if they'll be more disciplined than the party boys and malcontents that submarined the centennial celebration. And it's up to Carey Price(notes) to determine if it was a sophomore slump or something more systemic.
There might not be another team in the NHL that could be a division champ as easily as it could be a division also-ran.
Minnesota Wild (9th in the West, 41-30-11)
Outside of Montreal, perhaps the must unpredictable offseason makeover for any team -- and they hardly did a thing via free agency. (That isn't a slam on Martin Havlat(notes), who could be dynamic for them should last season's 81 games of relative health not turn out to be an aberration.)
But with Chuck Fletcher moving into the general manager's office and his hand-picked coach Todd Richards supplanting Jacques Lemaire's franchise-spanning philosophy behind the bench, it's like a brand new team entered the Western Conference. What to make of Richards's description of Minnesota hockey, from the Pioneer Press:
"I want to play an aggressive style. You say up-tempo, maybe that's the wrong choice of word. A more aggressive style. And I think if you are playing aggressive, hopefully, the game is up-tempo and fast.
"Remember, we're in the entertainment business. It is wins and losses, and my job will kind of hang on whether we win or lose, but we have to keep the fans coming in. It's like going to a movie; if you put on a good show and it's a good act and they're happy, that's what keeps 'em coming back."
Then again, "Transformers 2" has made $825 million worldwide.
Ottawa Senators (11th in the East, 36-35-11)
This will be head coach Cory Clouston's first full year at the helm of an NHL team, and that 19-11-4 record the Senators posted on his watch last season is tantalizing.
Dany Heatley's due to speak today for the first time since his trade demand, so hopefully that dilemma gains clarity as the season approaches. But he's far from the only mystery on this roster heading into the season. If Heatley does return to reunite the top line, does Alex Kovalev(notes) provide the kind of secondary score that the team sorely lacked last season? Can Mike Fisher(notes) figure out his game? Is Pascal Leclaire(notes) the starting goalie the franchise has been begging for, or the next tombstone in Ottawa keeper history?
Last season's run at the end showed this roster's potential; can it follow through on that promise?
Phoenix Coyotes (13th in the West, 36-39-7)
It's August 21. We don't know who owns this team. Yeah, that might qualify as stupefying.
But behind the boardroom ... what to make of this roster? Does Radim Vrbata(notes) rediscover his sniper touch back in the desert? Can Kyle Turris(notes) and Peter Mueller(notes) make forward progress into becoming franchise cornerstones? Can a rather impressive group of defensemen (that added Adrian Aucoin(notes) this offseason) and Ilya Bryzgalov(notes) be the backbone for a team without a star forward?
Will any of it matter if they're playing in front of 300 fans a night (thanks, Jimmy Bals)?
Tampa Bay Lightning (14th in the East, 24-40-18)
We believe it was that delightful coquette Britney Spears who sang:
"All eyes on me in the center of the ring
Just like a circus
When I crack that whip, everybody gon' trip
Just like a circus"
We ain't gon' trip, ma'm: Tampa's still a circus. But the Lightning have also had a summer that was as good as last offseason was pitiable when it comes to addressing needs and cap frugality. Look at this dizzying array of transactions from the last two months; there are so many bodies under contract, it's like they were worried about the League starting an NHL2 next season, Arena Football style.
So the defense has 11 players vying for six jobs; the forward have Vinny and Marty on the top line, and the undying prayer that Steven Stamkos(notes) is ready to be a second-line center in the NHL; and the goaltending has Mike Smith(notes) recovering from concussion syndrome and Antero Niittymaki(notes) ready to roll if he isn't ready. Oh, and let's not forget Rick Tocchet in his first full season as head coach.
On paper, it's an impressive assemblage of talent whose chemistry and management by the coaches will make or break the season. But just as we've all been salivating about the tent crashing on this circus ... could the Lightning be a playoff team this season?