WESTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW
The third season of the “new” NHL is about to get started, and there are many teams poised to make a run for the cup. Last year’s champions, the Anaheim Ducks, will have a tough time repeating, as the Western Conference is loaded with high-quality contenders. With all of the talent in the West, along with the quality of teams from top to bottom, it will be no surprise when a team from the West once again emerges as the Stanley Cup champion. Below are the teams in the conference that have the best shot at bringing the cup home this year.
San Jose Sharks
San Jose is considered by many to be the preseason cup favorite. The team lost some great players, including Bill Guerin and Mark Bell, in the off-season but picked up Jeremy Roenick. The Sharks still have an amazing offensive attack with the likes of veterans Joe Thornton, Jonathan Cheechoo and Patrick Marleau, along with one of the best youngsters in the league, Milan Michalek. The Sharks are a fast, physical young team and will be tough to stop come playoff time.
Detroit Red Wings
Detroit is among the league’s best teams every year, and this year shouldn’t be any different. They lost a great defenseman in Mathieu Schneider in the off-season but did pick up Brian Rafalski, who should fit in nicely. Goalie Dominik Hasek is aging, but his numbers were impressively strong last season. The Wings have tons of veteran experience and a great young duo in Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, but, as in recent years, may lack the physical force that it will take to go all the way.
The Avalanche was the hottest team down the stretch last year, but its 96 points weren’t enough to get Colorado into the playoffs – an NHL first. The Avs are hoping they can learn from their mistakes and get off to a better start this season. The addition of forward Ryan Smyth will definitely be an asset. This team had five 20-goal scorers last season, and veteran Joe Sakic put up 100 points, so the offense shouldn’t be a problem. Colorado’s main concern is in net.
The Wild had a great season last year, but unfortunately found iteslf playing the eventual-champion Ducks in the first round of the playoffs. Its stifling defense allowed the fewest goals against last season, and it finished second on the penalty kill. Superstar Marian Gaborik’s health might determine the team’s fate, as it was dismal in the 34 games he missed last season. Also, goaltender Niklas Backstrom must prove that he can handle a full slate of games now that Manny Fernandez is gone.
A lot of questions surround last year’s champions. It’s still up in the air whether veteran all stars Scott Niedermayer and Teemu SelÃ¤nne will return to the team or retire. Regardless, the Ducks still have a solid team, led by their defense. Chris Pronger is one of the best in the league, and the off-season addition of Mathieu Schneider will definitely help if Niedermayer chooses not to return. Anaheim is a hard, physical team, and J.S. GiguÃ¨re is one of the best goalies in the clutch. — A.M.
EASTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW
As the puck drops on this hockey season, a few things are noticeably different. The new uniform system is in full effect, complete with new logos, color schemes and jersey designs. These changes are complemented by the new-look Eastern Conference. Free agents were lured away by teams hoping to improve their chance to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup, with the teams in the East landing the biggest free-agent names. These signings, along with their hard-nosed play, give testament to why one of these five teams has a chance to knock off the flashy speed skaters from the West in the Cup Finals.
A top line of Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley that racked up 279 points last year, backed by the goaltending tandem Ray Emery and Martin Gerber, will have them in the hunt for the No. 1 seed in the East come playoff time. The Senators stayed in the shadows for much of the off-season but have a solid team that is very much capable of a repeat performance as Eastern Conference champs.
New York Rangers
The Rangers are one of the teams that made the biggest impact in the off-season. They not only signed superstar Chris Drury but also inked 30-goal scorer Scott Gomez. Henrik Lundqvist was a solid force in net last year and is returning as their starter. These huge free-agent signings coupled with minimal losses in the off-season could lead to a parade down Broadway.
They are trying to return to greatness due to a total revamp at the hands of General Manager Paul Holmgren. Not only did they sign arguably the best center in hockey in Daniel Briere, but they also added veteran leadership on the blue line in the form of Jason Smith and Kimmo Timmonen, both captains for their respective teams last year. The Flyers have turned from laughing stock into contender.
The Hurricanes are one year removed from a championship but failed to make the playoffs last year. This, however, should prove to be a fluke due to the play of young guns Erik Cole, Eric Staal and Justin Williams backed by veteran net minder Cam Ward. The off-season also saw the addition of speedy forward Matt Cullen. Look for them to do some damage in the Southeast Division and make a run come playoff time.
Behind the prodigal son Sidney Crosby, who at 20 is the youngest captain in NHL history, the Penguins look to build on last year’s return to the playoffs. Crosby, along with Russian phenom Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, will have the Penguins hanging around come Cup time. Their only question will be in the play of goalie Marc Andre Fleury, who had a career year and needs to follow suit for the Pens to make a run. — J.R.