Beyond ‘Nova Nation: NHL season begins with powerful West

Kaitlin Santanna

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division

The Pittsburgh Penguins are the big question mark in the East. They lost major players Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone to free agency and Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar to injury. The Pens still have stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who will put up major numbers this year, and Marc-Andre Fleury to stop the puck at the other end of the ice. If all things go well for the Pens, they could be strong again in the East, but until the injuries and the lineup are sorted out, Pittsburgh’s future is unknown.

Look for the new lineup for the New York Rangers and the Flyers to be strong competitors in the Atlantic as well. Many expect Philadelphia to have a repeat of the turnaround season it had last year, but the defense, led by vetern Kimmo Timonen, isn’t especially deep. Daniel Briere and newly named captain Mike Richards will be the go-to guys whose level of play will have a lot to do with deciding what type of season the Flyers will have this year.

Northeast Division

The reigning Northeast Division Champion Montreal Canadians are poised to hold onto their title this season. Adding forwards Robert Lang and Alex Tanguay to last season’s best power play and second-highest goal total creates a potent offense. The Habs also have a strong defense to control the puck at the other end of the ice as well. The only possible weakness in Montreal’s lineup is young goaltender Carey Price, who will be playing his first full NHL season this year.

The Buffalo Sabres will be looking to improve upon their disappointing season last year. With the long-term signing of goalie Ryan Miller, Buffalo will have an improved season this year. A coaching change in Ottawa and the additions of veteran defensemen Jason Smith and Filip Kuba will also put the Senators in the playoff mix in the East.

Southeast Division

The Southeast is once again one of the weakest divisions in the league, and like last season, the division champion may be its only team to make the playoffs. Also like last season, this team looks to be the Washington Capitals. Going from last to first place in the middle of the season under Jack Adams winner Head Coach Bruce Boudreau, the Capitals want to bring the momentum they created to the ’08-’09 season. Take free agent goaltender Jose Theodore and 2008 MVP Alex Ovechkin, add an impressive cast of supporting characters, and what do you get? A team that is going to be a force not only in the Southeast but in the conference as well.

If any team is going to challenge the Caps in the Southeast, it’s the Carolina Hurricanes. Last season the Canes were a team that was strong on offense but weak on defense. To fix this, they added Joni Pitkanen and Anton Babchuk to make the Canes a more well-rounded contender.

Western Conference

Central Division

The rich got richer this offseason, and although it seemed impossible for the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings to get any better, they did. The Wings, who led the league in a plethora of categories, including points, wins and goals against, signed top free agent Marian Hossa. The former Penguin scored 31 goals last season and will bolster an already deep lineup of players that includes Henrik Zetterberg and reigning Norris winner Nicklas Lidstrom.

While any team in the league will be hard-pressed to challenge the Wings this season, the Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks made offseason additions that will make them contenders in the Western Conference. The ‘Hawks created a lot of buzz this summer with the acquisition of quality goalie Cristobal Huet and the subsequent moves of putting Chicago’s once starting goalkeeper Nikolai Khabibulin on waivers and adding defenseman Brian Campbell, but many questions continue to surround the production levels of Chicago’s personnel and the young core on which the team is built. Nashville’s starting goaltender Dan Ellis had a breakout season last year with a .924 goals against average, but the Preds lost one of their top scorers, Alex Radulov, when he decided to return to Russia for the ’08-’09 season.

Northwest Division

Like the Southeast Division in the Eastern Conference, the Northwest is the weakest in the West. The three Canadian teams, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, are going to be the ones fighting for the top spot in the division and conference. The Edmonton Oilers seem to be the team most likely to come out on top. When not spending the offseason squabbling with Anaheim GM Brian Burke, Oilers GM Kevin Lowe had a productive summer. Adding players such as goal scorer Erik Cole, the Oilers have the offense, defense, goaltending and youth to be the top contender in the Northwest. The Flames, boasting stars such as Jarome Iginla and Dion Phaneuf, will be competitive, as well as the Vanouver Canucks. The Canucks are lacking in offensive power, but goalie Roberto Luongo leads a strong core of defensemen that will keep Vancouver in the hunt.

Pacific Division

While the Red Wings may be the best team in the league, the most competitive division in the NHL lies in the Pacific. The Dallas Stars, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks all have the personnel to have a strong season. The Stars have assembled a roster that is equally strong in scoring, defense and goaltending, as well as putting up a strong balance of veterans and young guns. Look for Mike Modano, Brenden Morrow and goalie Marty Turco to contribute greatly to the Stars’ successes.

The Sharks added Coach Todd McLellan and top defensemen Dan Boyle and Rob Blake to an already strong team with players Evgeni Nabokov and Joe Thornton. Down the Californian coast, the Ducks’ Scott Niedermayer decided to forego retirement to return to the team. While the defense for Anaheim is strong, the offense needs to step up in order for the Ducks to stay afloat in the competitive West.