The 2002-03 season kicks off tomorrow night, and like many a hockey fan in Canada, I can't wait.
The very competitive Western Conference should get a push from behind this season with some out of the playoff teams like Dallas and Calgary making marked improvements.
The East has a gravitational pull working it's magic, a factor that could pull as many as three playoff teams from last year out of the dance.
Basically it's shaping up to be a fan's dream, but a prognosticator's nightmare.
The Avalanche have a healthy Peter Forsberg for a full season, and no other significant injuries to start the season. A trade with Calgary to get Derek Morris should help their powerplay and improve their defence considerably.
From the outhouse to the pent house? Count on it in Dallas this year. The Stars were too talented to miss the playoffs last year, plus they beefed up by adding Bill Guerin and Scott Young. Their biggest question mark is in goal where Marty Turco is being handed the reigns for the first time. If they can keep Guerin from killing teammates in practice they are a lock to win their division.
Sure they'll slide ... but not that far. The Wings are just too deep. In goal they've swapped Dom Hasek for Curtis Joseph, and up front they are set to add top rookie Zettenberg from Sweden. Slow start with Yzerman ailing may cost them the conference.
San Jose -
Will this be the Sharks year? Stuck between the elite and the also-rans the Sharks have been a consistent playoff team just good enough to not make it out of the second round each of the past few years.
Which way will the Canucks go this season? Will they be the struggling club that started last season, or the team that dominated down the stretch? Can Dan Cloutier supply the necessary goaltending? Will Andrew Cassels and Scott Lachance be missed? Nope. Put the Canucks in 5th based on their own play and a slide of other middle of the pack teams.
Los Angeles -
The Kings biggest off-season addition may come in the form of rookie Alexander Frolov, as the Kings did little else since bowing out to the Avalanche in last year's playoffs. Should goaltender Felix Potvin struggle, this team could slip out of the playoffs.
St. Louis -
The Blues will be battling tooth and nail to make the playoffs this season due to a string of injuries that have them behind the black ball to start the season. With captain Pronger on the sidelines for a half season and goaltender Johnson hobbling to start the campaign ... a tough start may slide the Blues out of the playoff picture.
For the first time in years, I'm picking the home side to finally make it back to the playoffs. Why? For one thing they're due. For another the team may finally deserve it. Year after year patience and evolution were the keys to getting the team back to the playoffs, they always came up empty. This off season they took things into their hands dramatically altering their roster and setting up an interesting season. Put aside your playoff tickets.
The Flames and Oilers meet in Edmonton for each squad's last game of the season. This game could literally decide which Alberta team makes the playoffs. The Oilers will need another Herculean season from Tommy Salo to make up for their lack of pop up front.
Never, never tamper with chemistry. Ever! The Coyotes were the West's surprise club last year making the playoffs when no one gave them a chance in hell. This summer they added Tony Amonte through free agency, but dealt Michael Handzus to Philly for future starter Brian Boucher. Bad idea.
See Phoenix. The Hawks did more with less than almost any team save the Canadiens in hockey last season. They lost Amonte, added the tense presence of Theo Fleury and then lost Eric Daze for a month with a bad back.
The Ducks have greatly altered their make up this season, rebuilding a first line that includes perennial pass champ Adam Oates and the talented Petr Sykora. In doing so they've also subtracted however, giving up on powerplay QB Oleg Tverdovsky. If they can find a second scoring line they could make some noise, but as it stands there are too many question marks.
Look for the Blue Jackets to climb a few rungs this season. They added two veteran defenceman in Luke Richardson and Scott Lachance, a veteran center in Andrew Cassels, and the number one pick in Rick Nash. They may not win that often, but they'll be a lot more interesting.
The Wild have always been the more patient of expansion clubs, and this summer is no different with the biggest name addition coming in pint sized forward Cliff Ronning. The Wild will continue to smother their way to a competitive, but non-playoff finish.
The Babe Ruth playoff call will backfire leaving the Predators in last place this season. The Preds promised to rebate a portion of their season ticket revenue if the club didn't make the playoffs this season ... a neat marketing plan if they were in the East, but revenue suicide in the West.
A little Muckler magic? The Senators have been a very consistent force ... in the regular season ... for the past few years. This consistency and talent will take them to the top of conference littered with enigmatic hockey clubs.
New coach ... Jagr listen. Authoritarian coaches like Rick Wilson rarely get the support of "me me me" players like Jaromir Jagr. With Wilson gone Jagr should bring his game back up to par.
N.Y. Rangers -
This is the year ... honestly. The Rangers have finally added molars to their lineup in the form of Bobby Holik and Darius Kasparaitus. Too many off season had them adding offensively talented, but character deficient talent. This summer they may have got it right.
What a mess ... but a talented enough mess to get home ice in the first round. If Philly reels in Byron Dafoe they may leap further up the standings, especially if the team dials into coach Hitchcock's defensive system.
Last year's conference champs are in trouble ... they may fall further than 5th. Blessed with great talent up front, and some intriguing blueliners on the bubble, off season losses of their number goaltender, top scorer and top defenceman will hurt.
N.Y. Islanders -
This is a team that will be happy with a finish like last year, a season that saw them land back in the playoffs for the first time in 3/4 of a decade.
New Jersey -
I'll have to see this team for myself to figuere it out. The Devils are now a high octane western conference team on paper, but coached by Pat Burns and run by Lou Lamoreillo. They have enough talent to get themselves a playoff spot.
A healthy Lemieux will have the Penguins back in the playoffs, but should Super Mario have back troubles they won't come close.
I'm not going to lie ... it's kind of fun to predict Toronto out of the playoffs. But have you looked at this roster? Gary Roberts out until January ... Eddie Belfour in net ... could be a tough year at the center of the universe.
A lot had to go right to get Montreal in last year, they'll come up short this winter. The return of a healthy Koivu will help, but it all comes down to Jose Theodore who may have trouble repeating his all world season.
Can a team like the Hurricanes repeat their playoff performance from last season by moving up the list? In a word, "nope". A combination of some old talent, and some retooled eastern teams sends the Hurricanes to the sidelines.
Team in financial disarray will fall further down the list this season, though it's not as bad as it looks. Teams eight through 12 will finish within a handful of points meaning Buffalo competes to the end.
Team in a partial rebuild will make some strides this season, but come up short. A young defence and young goaltending tandem can only take you so far.
Sophomore jinx to two key players means the Thrashers still have some work to do.
Tampa Bay -
Hey, it's Tampa.
Stanley Cup Winner - The Dallas Stars and the Ottawa Senators meet in the final, with Dallas coming out on top in a close series.
Rookie of the Year - Alexander Frolov, Los Angeles
Comeback Player of the Year - Mario Lemieux. He's done this trick before, but after missing the last half of last season, Lemieux surprises all and suits up for 65 games leading the Pens to the playoffs.
Surprise Team of the Year - The Calgary Flames. The Flames don't get off to the same start as last season, but instead have a consistent flow through the season, landing in the playoffs for the first time in six years.
Team That Doesn't Live Up to Hype - The Toronto Maple Leafs fall from the playoffs on the broken back of a shaky goaltending duo and a sketchy defence. Another potential team is Boston, as the Bruins have a chance to fall from first to out of the playoffs.