Calgarypuck.com 2001-02 NHL Preview
The long, hot summer is over ... hockey is officially here.
The Calgary Flames kick off their 22nd season in the Stampede City on Wednesday night when they host their arch rivals, the Edmonton Oilers.
The offseason saw numerous changes to the Flames in Calgary, but also to division and conference rivals, and the power structure in the East.
The dust has settled, 30 National Hockey League franchises are ready to drop the puck, and the Calgarypuck.com staff presents a season preview, tossing around some of the ideas and predictions on many hockey fan's minds with the season just around the corner.
Of the 20 or so 'expert' predictions that I've read for the upcoming season, not a single one has the Flames making the playoffs. And while I'm not going to break this trend, I think the Flames will be very, very close this season. Wishful thinking on my part? Maybe. But when you take a close look at the Western Conference, you'll find a very wide-open race for the final three playoffs spots.
Like last season, I believe that four or five teams will dominate the West with 100+ point seasons (see below). But unlike last year, I think the 'contenders', as a whole, are much weaker and 85 points could be enough for a playoff spot.
The Kings, Oilers, and Coyotes have all lost significant players. The Canucks have very questionable goaltending and several players coming off career years. The Predators haven't lost or gained anyone, and can expect another 80 point season.
The one team that has made significant changes, however, is the Flames. A new goalie, a new coach, a couple 'younger veteran' players added, and a pre-season in which they found ways to get points in five of seven games against conference rivals like the Oilers and the Canucks.
Don't get me wrong, the Flames aren't a 'good' team yet, but they have a very stubborn defensive squad that should keep most games close. 30 wins, 20 ties, and 5 overtime losses doesn't make for a pretty season, but it does yield 85 points, which will make them contenders.
I expect the Kings, Oilers, and Canucks to finish 6, 7, and 8… but if one of these teams has a major slump or injuries troubles, the Flames could find themselves in the playoffs.
Here is how I see the West shaping up:
- Red Wings
- Blue Jackets
- Mighty Ducks
I don't see a whole lot changing at the top of the Eastern conference. The Maple Leafs still have a very weak defense, and they'll be no better than last season. The Hasek-less Sabres have a good replacement in Biron and should score more goals this season. The Rangers will finally make the playoffs if Richter can stay healthy. The Bruins will either sign or trade Allison in the next month and should narrowly beat the 'Canes for the last playoff spot. The Islanders are a team on the rise and might also contend. Finally, the Penguins will be one of the league's worst defensive teams, and will finish well out of the playoffs (more below).
Here's how I see the East:
- Maple Leafs
Stanley Cup: Stars over the Flyers in 6. Dallas has quietly added to their talented roster and should peak in the post-season. The Red Wings and the Devils will round out the final four. The reigning champion Avalanche will become complacent and bow out in the 2nd round.
Surprise Team: Canadiens. The Habs will be playing with Saku Koivu in their minds this season, and if they can stay healthy for once, just might surprise some people.
Team least likely to repeat: Penguins. Jagr is gone, Lemieux isn't playing full-time and is concentrating on the Olympics. Their defense is ugly and I'm not convinced that Johan Hedberg is the real deal.
If the Canucks don't do something about their goaltending, they will also fall this season. Cloutier's career high of 9 wins won't be enough for the playoffs, but I expect that they'll cave and acquire Stephane Fiset at some point during the year.
Rookie of the Year: Rostislav Klesla – He may not have as many points as Heatley and Kovalchuk, but he should be a more complete player.
Comeback Player: Eric Lindros. Holdouts shouldn't be eligible for this award, but many people have written off the 'Big E' because of his concussion problems. I'm not a big fan, but I think he'll have a very good season. If Bryan Berard is able to return to the league full-time, he deserves this award regardless of how well he plays.
Breakout Player: Tim Connolly. At just 20 years old, he might be the Sabres #1 center. 60 points isn't out of the question. Other breakout candidates: Martin Skoula and Martin Biron.
Other predictions: Denis Gauthier will be traded for a winger during the season. ... Tom Poti, Darius Kasparaitis, and Tony Amonte will also be on the move during the year. ... The Leafs will lose Tomas Kaberle for the season when he plays in Europe after October 3rd and will fail to sign Curtis Joseph to an extension allowing him to become an UFA on July 1st. ... The Bure brothers will indeed be impressive in Florida, but only for fantasy hockey fans. The Panthers will continue to struggle in the standings, finishing 13th in the East. ... And finally, the Saint John Flames will have another strong year, finishing 2nd in the Canadian division. However, the powerful Quebec Citadelles will eliminate the Flames and eventually win the Calder Cup.
Predicting the NHL standings is becoming an increasingly easy task given the financial wedge being driven between markets and organizations.
The buzzword for the NHL in the 1990's was parity, as any team could beat any other team on any given night. As the millennium ushered in a new chapter in NHL history, with it came a new class system separating six or seven teams as elite, and the remainder as regular season fodder.
Not much will change at the top of the Western standings, if anything the top teams further distanced them from the pack with a free agent frenzy. Detroit will assume the top spot, bolstered with free agent additions Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille, and the acquisition of Dominic Hasek.
Things get very interesting when discussing the spots six through nine or ten, since as many as six teams could enter the picture. Every team in this group has some positives but also some huge question marks.
The Kings have all-world offence, but a season without Robitaille, Rob Blake. Will Felix Potvin be able to continue his hot hand?
The Canucks have a star player coming off a broken leg, plenty of players coming off career seasons, and a huge question mark in net.
The Oilers are taking to the ice without their best player and leader in Doug Weight. His successor Mike Comrie didn't exactly light it up in the preseason.
The Flames have a bigger, faster, more defensively conscious hockey club, but will they find enough goals to make the grade?
- San Jose
- St. Louis
- Los Angeles
On the East side things are even more up in the air. The two top clubs; the New Jersey Devils and Ottawa Senators have both lost significant players, while some weaker clubs have made some substantial additions.
Due to the weakened apex, the Philadelphia Flyers should be poised to run away with the East this season, adding a healthy John Leclair, plus Jiri Dopita, Jeremy Roenick, and a cast of others. They are a very deep hockey team.
The Capitals found their short-term fix with the addition of Jaromir Jagr, surrendering nothing off their current roster.
Like the West things get much more interesting towards the middle of the pack with as many as seven teams fighting for three playoff spots.
The New York Islanders will likely make a lot of noise with the additions of Alexi Yashin, Mike Peca and Chris Osgood. The Rangers could get into the post season with healthy and substance free seasons from Eric Lindros and Theo Fleury respectively.
- New Jersey
- Tampa Bay
Stanley Cup Winner: The Flyers and Red Wings will meet in the Stanley Cup final once again, much like they did five years ago, and once again the Red Wings will have better goaltending and come out on top. The Red Wings may not have father time on their side, but in a one season run they should have the depth to win it all.
Surprise Team: Phoenix. Many have given the Coyotes the last rites heading into this season due to their cost cutting, star shedding moves over the summer. This might be premature. The moves may have been fiscally responsible, but their wasn't a lack of talent returning to the Dogs. They could easily challenge for a playoff spot at the expense of one of the West's Canadian teams.
Least Likely to Repeat: Vancouver. The Canucks have a bright future with a healthy stock of up and coming, talented players. Look for a set back this year however. The Canucks had 10 different players set career highs in points last year, unheard of in the NHL - many will likely slide back to a career average. A slip up front coupled with some shaky goaltending could have the Canucks on the outside looking in.
Comeback Player: Joe Juneau, Montreal. Playing in his home province, Juneau is bound to get more ice time than he's seen since leaving the Capitals. Look for a bounce back season in the neighborhood of 60 points.
Breakout Player: Joe Thornton, Boston. With Jason Allison on the sidelines Joe Thornton will get first line ice in Boston this season, and won't disappoint. Look for Thornton in the top ten in NHL scoring, inching closer to 100 points.
Rookie of the Year: Illya Kovalchuk. The preseason tear this kid went on made a believer out of me. Chuck Kobasew scoring five in Calgary is impressive, but ten points as an 18 year old? Wow.
First Coach Fired: Paul Maurice, Carolina. The NHL's longest serving coach will be out of a job by Christmas as the Hurricanes struggle to start the season. Ron Francis can only play like a 28-year-old for so long.
Flames Predictions: Derek Morris will crack the 50 point barrier ... Toni Lydman won't be far behind ... Rob Niedermayer bounces back with 15 goal, 55 point season ... Mike Vernon wins 15 games in only 30 starts. ... Jordan Leopold is traded for some scoring help by mid season.
The playoff map is slowly, ever so slowly, changing in the NHL.
Those who complain about the monotony of the same top contenders in the NHL today must not remember the dominance of the Montreal Canadiens in the late 70's, the Islanders in the early 80's and the Oilers/Flames in the latter part of that decade.
In 17 seasons, from 1973-74 through to 1989-90, the Stanley Cup was shared by only five different teams and was regularly contested by many of the same names year after monotonous year.
Compared to then, the current NHL is a veritable smorgasbord of choice.
While there might be a handful of teams that can truly be called contenders, and most likely will end up as the names we see near the top at the end of the year, the lower echelon of the playoff race should see some noticeable change over last season.
- Philadelphia - LeClair, Recchi, Roenick, Primeau, Gagne, etc, etc. You may wonder about their goaltending but they'll blow you away anyway.
- Washington - The Capitals are a great team. Is Jagr a great team guy? The Caps should cruise through the regular season.
- New Jersey - Still a great grouping of talent but how many parts can Lou Lamourillo discard before the wheels start to come off?
- Ottawa - They did it before without Yashin thanks to a great season from Radek Bonk. And they'll do it again.
- Toronto - With a mediocre defence and some nifty guns up front, however, Toronto figures to pile up some high-scoring games this year.
- Islanders - Could be the surprise team of the year with solidity in goal, a good mobile defence, two of the best centres in the game and good talent on the wings. Seriously.
- Rangers - I said they would get bombed last year and meant it but the Rangers look better this season if only for the length of time Eric Lindros can stay healthy.
- Pittsburgh - They still have Lemieux, which is fortunate, because they wouldn't get a sniff of the playoffs without him.
- Buffalo - Close but no cigar post Hasek.
- Carolina - Perenially almost, almost, almost there.
- Boston - They'll probably ditch Guerin for peanuts before the end of the season given his impending UFA status, which only compounds their bitter problems with star centre Jason Allison.
- Florida - Luongo is a fabulous young netminder but there are still a lot of holes on this team, even with the Bure brothers together for the first time.
- Montreal - If Yanic Perrault is your best centre it's going to be a long year. Looked great in the pre-season though at 7-2-0.
- Atlanta - This is going to be a great team three years from now when Heatley, Kovalchuk and Stefan come of age.
- Tampa - No Lecavillier, no hope. And now Svitov has disappeared into the Russian Army.
THE LEAST OF THE EAST
Noticeably missing from the above list are Buffalo and Boston. The Sabres post-Hasek will be in tough while the Bruins will trade impending UFA Bill Guerin by February.
- Colorado - no Forsberg, no problem. This is a deep team and they now have Blake for a full year. And Forsberg will be back before the Olympics anyway.
- Dallas - monotonously efficient. Just like the Flames would like to be.
- Detroit - look for the Wings to take off out the gate but the riddle of the winter is if this group of old fogies has the legs to go the distance. With Hasek in net it might not matter anyway.
- San Jose - Evgeny Nabokov had a couple of noteworthy spins around the league but on the third pass he was beginning to fade. A typical fate for a rookie netminder. Goaltending could be a problem.
- St. Louis - No team did more to spin its wheels in place than the Blues.
- Vancouver - It would be hypocritical of me to say young players in Calgary will improve year over year then deny that same justification to the Canucks fine group of young forwards. Many Vancouver players had career seasons last year - but many could improve upon those numbers given their age. And they probably will.
- LA - take out Rob Blake and Luc Robitaille and still pick them to dominate? I doubt it. If Felix Potvin isn't the real deal, this is a team that could fall out of the playoffs altogether.
- Calgary - They look comparable to Edmonton in many ways and since we're a Calgary website it behooves us to call a dead heat in favour of the local guys. Defensively they're better but scoring could kill them.
- Edmonton - It took the players only a few glances down their lineup to realize the run and gun days are over. If they play within their capabilities and focus on defence they could easily punch Calgary or LA out of the mix.
- Nashville - We'll give them 10th but we're not sure how they finished there last year to begin with let alone how they might do it this coming campaign. They are relentless in their single minded focus of a defensive style of play and are backed by the excellent netminding of Mike Dunham. Poster boy's for the benefits of playing as a team rather than a group of individuals.
- Phoenix - Subtract Keith Tkachuk and Jeremy Roenick and . . . . . you've got a lot of pretty good young guys with a lot of desire. These guys won't be the write-off everyone is saying they are.
- Anaheim - Hard to believe the key to this team might be Steve Rucchin but he's the glue that makes Kariya's line go. And however Kariya goes, then so go the Ducks. Not enough depth for 82 games.
- Chicago - How long before the Sutter purge begins in Chicago? They'll be trading Amonte, an impending UFA by Christmas. And then they'll be done.
- Columbus - They pulled Espen Knutsen and Geoff Sanderson out of the hat and therefore are a cut above a typical expansion team.
- Minnesota - Maybe they'll start acting like an expansion team one year too late. In a mid-summer interview GM Doug Risebrough conceded shedding some veterans and going with youth in the Wild second year would be painful.
THE LEAST OF THE WEST
Edmonton and Nashville are a toss-up with Calgary and LA for the final two playoff spots. Whichever two of those four can generate the most consistency in the year will probably be in the post-season.
STANLEY CUP - Philadelphia over Colorado in six
COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR - Theo Fleury in a landslide. Eric Lindros, if he can survive as a target, might be in the hunt as well.
THE SURPRISE THAT WILL SURPRISE NO ONE - Mario Lemieux will win the scoring title.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR - Pavel Brendl will shock the shorts right off Glen Sather's waist, and just about everyone else, when he leads all rookies in scoring. Ilya Kovalchuk in Atlanta, who looks like the next great stud in the game, will be a close second.
THE SURPRISE TEAM OF THE YEAR - New York Islanders. Mike Milbury will finally get the last laugh. It's easy to write the Islanders off out of sheer habit but Yashin and Peca down the middle, Isbister, Czerkawski, Parrish and others on the wings, Hamrlik, Jonsson on defence and now Osgood in net means these guys have to be taken seriously.
THE TEAM THAT WON'T LIVE UP TO ITS HYPE - A toss-up between Toronto and St. Louis. This award implies that the media has over-hyped the chances of a certain team. The team might be decent in most respects but outside the ranks of true contenders. Both the Leafs and the Blues fit this to a tee.
DISAPPOINTING PLAYER OF THE YEAR - Anyone remembering Felix Potvin in his early years knows he's a great talent if he's on his game but a wonderful late season run last year still hasn't convinced us he's all the way back that fast.