The NHL starts another campaign under a dark cloud, the Dan Snyder/Dany Heatley tragedy and the coming labour war that might make this the last season in a while obscuring the exciting conglomeration of offensive talent in Colorado and a fairly wide open race for the Stanley Cup.
There is also a sense that for many large market teams its now or never to swing their wallets for the fences, the next CBA rendering their natural advantages somewhat moot.
Puzzling us somewhat is the fact a number of the more logical premier contenders are deficient in net, this in a league awash in quality goaltenders.
And there is the developing trend of older players falling by the wayside, the stars of the 1980's and 1990's now retired or on their last legs and being replaced by the great young stars and star-wannabe's in the game. This year and post-lockout will see that trend become more and more obvious. Some might optimistically speculate the rush of inexperienced youngsters might be enough to take the game away from the coaches who have dominated the style of play in the last decade.
The Western Conference has five teams that have separated themselves from the rest leaving about six fairly even squads to duke it out for the remaining two or three playoff spots. At least the Flames should be able to say they're in that latter group.
In the East, Carolina won't be the lame duck it was last year and the Rangers will continue their eternal struggle to prove just how badly the richest franchise in the league can be run. Another Stanley Cup would place New Jersey among the great teams in NHL history but why does this conference look like circa 1984-85 New York Islanders (Devils) versus the upstart Edmonton Oilers (Senators)?
They'll be a great regular season team and they could have a chimp in net and it still wouldn't alter that fact. Are they going to be a great post-season team though? That's when they'll need to answer the goaltending questions.
There's plenty enough here to make the playoffs but they've lost a good part of their heart when Derian Hatcher and Darryl Sydor left. A full season of a healthy Bill Guerin will be particularly welcome.
ST LOUIS -
Joel Quennville is a terrific coach and there are plenty of guys to shoot out the lights. They'll run through the regular season but, like Colorado and Vancouver, their post-season goaltending makes them prone to upset.
Of the Big Five teams in the Western Conference, the Wings are the one most likely to take a tumble this year. A rusty Dominic Hasek could be one reason while aging but key components like Steve Yzerman and Chris Chelios could be another. But they've earned the benefit of the doubt.
There's a sense that the Canucks are in a now or never mode with Markus Naslund talking of returning to Sweden and Todd Bertuzzi likely a beneficiary of a lowered free agency age in the next CBA. One of the new run and gun teams beginning to emerge from the cloud of the Devils-dominated defensive NHL, the Canucks should be a regular season machine again. But goaltending issues cloud their post-season future as well. Two "B" goaltenders do not make an "A."
Nice rebound after losing Paul Kariya. Sergei Fedorov and other additions should allow them to qualify for the post-season party again . . . . . yet we can't help but notice that Rob Niedermayer is slated to start at left wing on their number one line. A sign of a depth problem?
SAN JOSE -
A franchise that's seen its fortunes take a dramatic tumble in only a single year and they lost Teemu Selanne, a key sniper, in the off-season. More importantly, I suspect, they tore the heart out of the franchise when they let Darryl Sutter go. It might take more than a year to replace that. But they're good enough to qualify in the West.
While other Flames coaches have spent seven seasons mouthing a good defensive game Calgary now has a Sutter who appears to be making practical inroads with a pre-season which had a satisfactory focus on the defensive side of the puck. Any turnaround in that area would be a remarkable switch from seven seasons in the bottom third of the league in goals against. Flames fans should see a plus .500 team for the first time since 1994-95 but the post-season is a close call. They just happen to occupy the eighth spot here but Edmonton, Columbus or even LA could easily leap frog them.
Too many subtractions of quality, experienced players and too many additions of young talent to not wonder if these guys can survive the first tailspin of the season. Unlike Calgary, however, they've proven they know how to play defence and should be in a position to win most of their games. They could just as easily be in the eighth spot as the Flames but they're certainly not a sure thing with Tommy Salo needing to improve on a ranking that had him last in save percentage among 24 NHL goaltenders starting 45 games or more last year.
Darryl Sydor and Todd Marchant are veteran additions shoring up a lineup that wasn't anywhere good enough last year but might surprise in the coming campaign. If Marc Denis can hold up from the strain of playing most of the games and Rick Nash continues to advance towards greatness ... they'll probably still fall short.
Even Jacques Lemaire admits they played way over their heads last year and without Marion Gaborik and Pascal Dupuis to start the season this is one cult due for a big disappointment by April. They won't surprise anyone this time.
Tuomo Ruutu is going to have to be the current Peter Forsberg, not the next one, to save this listless crowd. They won't have Theo Fleury to blame anymore. Bob Pulford survives another housecleaning by the end of the season.
LOS ANGELES -
Ziggy Palffy is almost enough alone to get it done in LA but questions surrounding Jason Allison and Adam Deadmarsh have to be answered before the Kings can be conceded a playoff spot. If Allison and Deadmarsh were certifiably healthy this team would be in the top six for sure. We're assuming they won't be hence the ranking near the bottom of the pile and the Flame in eighth.
With a pile of debt from their new building and losses mounting, the player who could have given them at least a shot at the post-season, Sean Burke, is most likely on the move out of town before the end of the season, no-trade clause be damned. This figures to be a confused and unsettled franchise for much of the coming season.
Their defence got smaller and younger in the off-season and their owner is holding his breath until he gets to the 2004 CBA negotiations. THE LEAST OF THE WEST - Every year in this conference there are the five or six old standby sure things and the rest of the conference coughing up two or three surprises. And the surprises are usually different every year. Is it Calgary's turn? The Oilers are consistent in one thing - reinventing themselves and getting the job done regardless of the high hard one's fate keeps tossing them. We're hoping its Calgary's turn and certainly like the odds with Sutter behind the bench pulling them by the hair to the finish line . . . . . but they'll have to climb over the Oilers to do it. The great unknown in the Western Conference is Los Angeles.
The focus around the league seems to be on Colorado but this team has just as much firepower and are better defensively and in goal. The class team in the NHL with the regular season just a dress rehearsal for destiny.
NEW JERSEY -
Scott Stevens is 40 and they subtracted Joe Nieuwendyk. You have to admire how they keep getting it done and you can thank depth and the best goaltender in the business for that. They'll contend but they're about to be passed.
As with St. Louis, Colorado and Vancouver in the west, this is a team with a lot to offer through a regular season schedule and should have no problem qualifying in the upper reaches of the Eastern Conference. But the goaltending is a post-season issue that looks like a lesson never learned by someone who should know better, Bobby Clarke.
Losing Michael Nylander off the hop is a bad omen for a fairly good team but they'll have enough from the leadership of Olaf Kolzig to easily slide into the post-season.
A quality group of forwards, a so-so defence and the off-and-on Felix Potvin in net will make for an indifferent season. Joe Thornton is a MVP candidate and a healthy Sergei Samsonov will overcome goaltending issues. But this is not a contender.
Another of the league's few run and gun teams but aging up front and everywhere else. You just wonder if the wheels might fall off suddenly. But Pat Quinn is a good coach and they'll save their face-plant for the playoffs.
A good young maturing team with Vincent Lecavalier taking a leadership role. Nik Khabibulin sitting on the bench as the playoffs were winding down does raise some questions, however.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS -
They gave Alexei Yashin a 10 year deal and hoped they could trust him. Wrong move. Mike Peca and a good defence corps are the good news but it looks like its Rick DiPietro's year to lose.
Paul Maurice is on the hot seat again but the post-Stanley Cup hangover is probably now long gone. There are too many quality players in this lineup for this team to remain at the bottom of the dumper. Just as they went in the toilet in a big way so too will they emerge from the ashes. Just not far enough for the post-season.
NEW YORK RANGERS -
Darius Kasparitus says the difference between this year and the last bunch of years is that the Rangers will play as a team. We'll wait for that miracle to happen and pray that Glen Sather has given up hope that the 80's Oilers can be resurrected. The good news is that 42 year-old Mark Messier has been reduced from deity status to fourth line centre, a good first step in recognizing the reality of their situation.
Mike Keenan is a good coach, typically getting more from a stunted lineup than he should before that lineup turns on him and tries to kill him. While they're still learning to hate him in Florida the lineup is still too young to contend for a playoff spot.
Some decent young talent here to go with Chris Drury, Miro Satan and Alex Zhitnik but far from the playoffs again.
They just had their guts ripped out with the Dany Heatley disaster. That might sober up the unfocussed talent of Ilya Kovalchuk but the rest of the team will still be dealing with monthly press releases on Heatley's fate with the law. A shame really because this looked like a team that might be finally pulling itself out of the grass.
A team that has "rebuilding" written across its forehead, a GM shouting down the fans and a smallish, darting forward corps that will get trampled in the Eastern Conference. A long year in Montreal.
Mario or no Mario, an 18 year-old in net is usually a suicide mission. Coach Ed Olzyk promises to play a system, which may be the first time that's happened in Pittsburgh since pre-Mario. But the worst team in the league just legging out the schedule looking for a CBA that keeps the franchise in town post-2004.
THE LEAST OF THE EAST - Can we just cancel the regular season and start the playoffs now? Ottawa is certainly chomping at the bit after having come within a few minutes of advancing to the Stanley Cup final last Spring. Is this the year Paul Maurice is finally axed? It seems remarkable the Flyers and Boston can't find anything more than backup goaltenders. Given the CBA situation, its probably the last year for Mario Lemieux but the first year for future stars like Eric Staal, Nathan Horton and Marc Andre-Fleury. Time marches on and the turnover of old stars to the next generation is picking up pace.
STANLEY CUP - Ottawa over Colorado
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR - Joni Pitkanen, Philadelphia
COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR - Chris Pronger, St. Louis
SURPRISE TEAM OF THE YEAR - Before the Heatley accident I was ready to pick the Thrashers. Tampa Bay liked winning last year and they could take another step up the ladder if Lecavalier breaks out and dominates.
THE TEAM THAT WON'T LIVE UP TO ITS HYPE - Minnesota. Gotta love the spunk but no Gaborik and a more than likely return to form by Pascal Dupuis - eve when he's signed - will sink these guys back into the nether regions of the Western Conference. Too many people are liking them when even the coach is saying they played over their heads.