Right! The season is ready to go, and I'm ready to watch it. What's in the West, first:
Biggest hello: Pronger. Either he or Niedermayer can be on the ice the entire game.
Biggest goodbye: In ten years, Smid; right now, Lupul. Highest number of shot on a team that has Selanne.
Watch for: Stanislav Chistov. Could be a sleeper pick, he’s back from Russia and joining a startlingly talented team as young as he is.
Watch out: A goalie trade. This isn’t Minnesota, where one goalie was noticeably older than the other, or making much more money. Bryzgalov carried the team through the playoffs, but Giguere is a #1…
Note: Brilliant young forwards, rock solid goaltending, two recent Norris winning defensemen. Wasn’t last year supposed to be a rebuilding season?
Biggest hello: Tanguay. Amonte was supposed to provide extra scoring last year and busted (14 goals). The nine years younger Tanguay will do a better job.
Biggest goodbye: Leopold. Has a good offensive upside, but the current D will get along without him.
Watch for: Anyone trying to cross the blue line. Even the “small” Andrew Ference (5’10”, 195lbs) hits like a truck.
Watch out: The mantra repeats: this team needs finishers. And someone named “L” will centre the first line: that person will have a career year.
Note: A longshot: Goalie Brent Krahn may take McLennan’s spot as Kiprusoff’s backup.
Biggest hello: Havlat. Not “the Man”, but wants to be.
Biggest goodbye: Bell. Anyone getting 25 goals on last year’s team was in the running for MVP.
Watch for: Khabibulin to cut at least half a goal a game off last year’s numbers.
Watch out: Havlat is a point-a-game player, but how many games will he play? Very fragile.
Note: A good young defense here – now if Aucoin can stay healthy they’ll do okay. Not the playoffs, but okay.
Biggest hello: Last year Turgeon, this year (ulp) Arnason? Off seasons aren’t what they used to be for the Avalanche.
Biggest goodbye: Blake. Not just his offence, but his leadership and bodychecks, too.
Watch for: Wojtek Wolski is going to get every chance he needs to make the club this year. He’ll only need one.
Watch out: Leopold and Liles can man the point fine, but Skrastins and the oft-injured Vaananen are the only players that take the body.
Note: Colorado keeps bleeding talent, and the high finishes are finally taking their toll at the draft. Hejduk’s 50-goal season looks like an aberration, not an expectation.
Biggest hello: Carter and/or Modin. One of the few players on the team who has both size and finish, he’ll be in front of the net on power plays.
Biggest goodbye: The Zherdev headache. No more scampering off to Russia every pre-season for the next three years.
Watch for: Brule (again). I know, I said that last year, but if he stays healthy past ten games, he stays in the bigs and makes an impact.
Watch out: Columbus already has a loaded right wing (Vyborny, Zherdev), so who Carter lines up with and how much ice he’ll see is a question.
Note: If everyone can stay healthy, last season’s second half push (26-18-3 after Christmas) will continue into this season.
Biggest hello: Lindros… for about 50 games.
Biggest goodbye: Mitchell. A shut-down man.
Watch for: Management to wonder why the hell they traded for Stefan.
Watch out: Going with a rookie as a back up has to happen some time, but there’s no insurance policy waiting should Turco get injured, and Smith’s AHL record has been good, but not great.
Note: There are seven natural centers on this team, so face-offs should be a strength.
Biggest hello: Markov. Big hitter, looking to replace Chelios when he finally snaps (if ever).
Biggest goodbye: Their 20-year captain.
Watch for: The oft-injured Markov is their youngest defensman besides Kronwall, who missed 50 games in his rookie season.
Watch out: Hasek will have great numbers, right until his groin goes. But more than that, last year’s first round loss to Edmonton showed an aging defense that can be beat by speed.
Note: In 2002, when Lidstrom won the Conn Smythe award, the Canucks took the first two games from Detroit in the first round. It was a demoralized Detroit team coming to Vancouver, losers of their last six playoff games, and a charged Canucks squad smelling blood. Then Yzerman happened: I watched as he became Detroit’s most physical player, leading the team in hits and adding a goal and an assist for their first win, which turned into four straight as the rest of the team took his lead to heart. This with what was essentially a broken leg. In 2002, no Yzerman, no cup: it’s that simple.
Biggest hello: Lupul. Another fast, young forward – just what the team needed!
Biggest goodbye: Pronger. Good return for him, but the man is a horse. Conn Smythe winner if Edmonton won the cup.
Watch for: Bergeron is the only scoring defenseman the Oilers have, so he’ll get all the ice time he can handle.
Watch out: Pisani is naturally closer to his regular season numbers (18 goals in 80 games) than his playoff ones (14 in 24).
Note: Roloson and Markkanen are going to share regular season duties despite the discrepancy in salaries.
Biggest hello: Welcome back, Rob Blake!
Biggest goodbye: So long Pavol Demitra!
Watch for: It’s not often you hear a goaltender being called an energy player, but that’s what Cloutier is. The team plays batter after he pops someone.
Watch out: Last season was the healthiest they’ve been in four years, and they still lost Bure for the season, Demitra for 24 games, Armstrong for 20, Belanger for 17, Frolov for 13… And the newly acquired Tverdovsky isn’t that durable, either.
Note: The odd Sean Avery drama is bound to happen at some point, but it’s LA, so relax.
Biggest hello: Demitra. Point a game guy who used to be reasonably durable. If he is, good deal; if not…
Biggest goodbye: O’Sullivan. If you haven’t heard of him, it’s because he hasn’t played an NHL game yet, and probably won’t this year either. But when he reaches the NHL, you’ll know.
Watch for: A happy Gaborik to continue fighting with a happy Lemaire for more ice time. If they’re arguing, why are they happy? Because he’ll get it.
Watch out: Rolston’s great numbers last year may drop a little if he moves to the second line to spread scoring.
Note: Still a fast team, Lemaire is letting the reins loosen a little. With Johnsson coming over from Philadelphia, he has the Wild’s first offensive defenseman.
Biggest hello: Arnott. But which one will show up: the bruising 30-goal, 100-penalty minute attacker or the 20-goal pushover?
Biggest goodbye: Witt. This team is plenty tough, but Witt could also clear the net as well as anyone in the league.
Watch for: Shea Webber should make the team this year, but he’s another offensive defenseman, and they already have two in Timonen and Zidlicky. If he can play a more physical game, that will help a relatively soft defense.
Watch out: Penalties – again. Good penalty kill, but when you’re shorthanded more than 530 times…
Note: The Predators have always had a long term plan, and they’ve stuck with it. With 106 points last year, it’s paying off.
Biggest hello: Jovonovski, if he plays more than 60 games.
Biggest goodbye: Mara. Yes, Jovonovski puts a fear into opponents, but 15 goals from the blue line isn’t a common sight.
Watch for: Morrison is more likely to back up Joseph than LeNeveu is. To start, anyways.
Watch out: Comrie and Doan are the only real offensive threats, unless somehow Nagy stays healthy and/or Nolan and Roenick can turn back the clock five years.
Note: Joseph means they’re in every game, but he can’t score.
Biggest hello: Oh, so much! Weight regained at centre and lost by Tkachuk (he’s entered training camp in shape this year), a proven veteran goaltender in Legace, Guerin with something to prove, a new owner and an actual #1 draft choice.
Biggest goodbye: Raycroft. The bleeding has officially stopped.
Watch for: As mentioned, this is a team with forwards who are out to prove themselves.
Watch out: Legace had a lousy preseason, so the Blues might start Sanford, but he’s not very durable (think Thibault – very good, but only for so long) and they’re also hot on the 6’4” Bacashihua.
Note: New owner Checketts says he’s committed to long-term winning, so the pressure is off to make the playoffs immediately. Which means they could well make the playoffs.
Biggest hello: Bell. The move from Chicago to line up with Cheechoo and Joe Thornton must have him pinching himself.
Biggest goodbye: Scott Thornton. Heart and soul player.
Watch for: I predicted lots of 20-goal men last year, but I was wrong. Instead, a number one line appeared and won the Richard and Ross trophies. Bell is going to be the third man on that line, possibly doubling his points.
Watch out: Bell will take some goals from Cheechoo, and Carle will take some time on the power play point from Marleau.
Note: Nabokov and Grier are the oldest players, at 31 years old.
Biggest hello: Luongo. For about three games, then the fans will complain about him.
Biggest goodbye: Depth. Anywhere.
Watch for: Ohlund, Vancouver’s most complete player, is now going to have to carry more of an offensive load.
Watch out: Not only is Jan Bulis not Bertuzzi, he’s not Carter either. Lots of goals left town, and not much is coming.
Note: They’re hoping for offensive surprises, because other wise Luongo is going to shave half a goal per game off of last year’s mark of 2.97 to reach his first playoffs.
So who’s coming out of the West? Four “givens”: San Jose, Anaheim, Detroit, and Nashville. Then there are the “shoulds”: Calgary, Edmonton, Columbus, and Dallas. Then “with a bit of luck”: Minnesota, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Colorado. Then the “others”: Vancouver, Phoenix, and Chicago.
Off to the East next time.