To some people, the National Hockey League season is just too long. For me, it can never come quick enough and once NFL play gets cranked up I become very enthusiastic knowing that the NHL season is right around the corner. On Thursday, October 6th, the NHL season officially gets underway with a VERSUS doubleheader as the Philadelphia Flyers take on the Boston Bruins at 7 pm followed by the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Vancouver Canucks at 10 pm. For those with the Centre Ice package or living in Canada, the Montreal Canadiens will face the Toronto Maple Leafs at 7 pm from the Air Canada Centre.
In June, the Bruins defeated the Canucks to win Lord Stanley’s Cup by rallying from a three games to two deficit behind the stellar goaltending of Tim Thomas. If you read my 2010-11 pre-season predictions, you would know that I predicted that the Beantown goalie would have a comeback year. Little did I know he’d get his name on one of the most coveted trophies in all of sports. But before I get too cocky, I also brought you some worthless picks, like choosing the New Jersey Devils to win the Atlantic Division or the Calgary Flames to make the playoffs. In the immortal words of one Arthur Fonzarelli…I was wrrrrrrrrrrong.
So without further adieu, here are my 2011-12 NHL regular season rankings by conference. Please note that this does not mean I pick both #1 seeds to reach the Stanley Cup Finals, it only means I am choosing that team to get the #1 seed in the regular season.
1. Washington Capitals – The two time defending Eastern Conference regular season champion Caps didn’t click on all cylinders last year and despite several important injuries, such as the concussion to Mike Green, they still managed to win the East. GM George McPhee was extremely busy this offseason adding goalie Tomas Vokoun, defensemen Roman Hamrlik and forwards Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, and Jeff Halpern. This team is suddenly more equipped to compete in the post season. In addition, the players all realize that they can’t blow off the regular season like they did last year, to some extent, and should be more focused on trying to peak their game for April and beyond.
2. Buffalo Sabres – Expecting the Bruins here? Not so fast. I am counting on the Stanley Cup hangover combined with an aggressive off season by the Sabres to put Buffalo atop the Northeast Division. Coach Lindy Ruff will rely on goalie Ryan Miller in net but Jhonas Enroth has shown that he can be a backup that allows the former Michigan State star to not play so many games. GM Darcy Regier brought in offensive minded defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and he overpaid for forward Ville Leino at 6 years for $27M. But Buffalo has a super goal scorer in Tomas Vanek and a crew of other solid forwards.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins – Evgeni Malkin is back and NHL’s Network’s EJ Hradek has already declared him as his choice for the Hart and Art Ross trophies, this despite coming off of major knee surgery. It remains to be seen how “Geno” holds up during the season but what is really to like about the Pens is their goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury, and a superb defense. If Sidney Crosby is able to return at some point, the Penguins become the favorites in the East to win the Cup. But Sid is still not cleared for contact, even in practice, so who knows when he will return?
4. Tampa Bay Lightning – Head Coach Guy Boucher did a masterful job of taking this team one win away from the Stanley Cup Finals. Steven Stamkos received big money and d-man Victor Hedman continues to improve. Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier are both a year older but #26 brings it every night while #4 is not as consistent. The Bolts are going with Dwayne Roloson in net again and he is older than dirt. Will he hold up? If so, it should be a great season at the St. Pete Times Forum.
5. Boston Bruins – The Bruins partied all summer on TV with Lord Stanley and earned their multiple parades. The question now is how much do they have in the tank for the upcoming season? Thomas is now 37 years old on a team that relied heavily on its goaltending and defense. The good news is 19 year old Tyler Seguin should be even better as a sophomore.
6. New York Rangers – Coach John Tortorella, after his club lost to the Caps in the first round in April, pointed out that his club still was not there yet, from a talent perspective. So Rangers GM Glen Slather went out and inked center Brad Richards to a monster contract. The former Conn Smythe award winner will help a club that struggles to score goals and generate offense, but he did miss time with a concussion last season so there are health concerns there. Henrik Lundqvist continues to be one of the best goalies in the NHL and who can argue with the work ethic of Ryan Callahan up front? The biggest question is will Marian Gaborik have a good year or become a fading star?
7. New Jersey Devils – Martin Brodeur is now 39 years old, that is a major concern for a guy who, at times last year, looked like father time was starting to catch up with him. Zach Parise is back and wearing the “C” after missing almost the entire season due to a serious knee injury. 18 year old Adam Larsson (4th overall pick in 2011 NHL entry draft) brings some much needed mobility to the Devils blue line and former Kitchener Rangers and Florida Panthers coach Peter DeBoer is the new bench boss. Can he get Ilya Kovalchuk to produce like Jacques Lemaire did during the second half of last season?
8. Montreal Canadiens – Carey Price had a great season in the cage in 2010-11 and I look for him to have another strong year. Still, this team is small up front but they did add Erik Cole from Carolina and he plays a fast game. If Andrei Markov can stay healthy the Canadiens should make the playoffs. If not, they will hit the links at Royal Montreal once it opens up its’ gates in the spring.
9. Philadelphia Flyers – After trading for the rights to Ilyz Bryzgalov Flyers GM Paul Holmgren declared that the Russian goaltender was his final piece of the puzzle. Holmgren, however, forget that he had to sign the expensive net minder to a contract and then realized in order to do that he had to break up his club to stay under the salary cap. He moved Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, his top two centers, to Los Angeles and Columbus, respectively. In return he received up and coming center Jakub Voracek and former first round draft choice, Brayden Schenn (who isn’t NHL ready yet, IMO). The biggest laugh came when they signed Jaromir Jagr to a deal. #68 is a guy that reportedly is happier when he isn’t playing. I see bad things arising for the Flyers.
10. Carolina Hurricanes – Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner, and Cam Ward will carry this team a long way but they just don’t have enough firepower and talent on defense to sneak into the post season. How long does Paul Maurice last as the head coach?
11. Toronto Maple Leafs – The Leafs haven’t figured out yet that you need to really stink to get better and every spring they win just enough games to come close to making the playoffs while ruining their draft position. It also hasn’t helped that the GM traded two of those high picks to the Bruins. I like Dion Phaneuf, the Flames should not have moved him, but Phil Kessel is inconsistent and Tim Connolly, their big ticket free agent acquisition, seems to always get injured. Coach Ron Wilson sure likes to hear himself talk though. If they beat the Habs on Thursday they should party on Yonge Street before the losses start to mount.
12. Ottawa Senators – Craig Anderson is a good goalie and Erik Karlsson and Jared Cowen are up and coming young defensemen but it will be a long year for one of the good guys, GM Bryan Murray.
13. Winnipeg Jets – The excitement of moving and being the big stars in town will help the former Thrashers get off to a decent start but the travel schedule will eventually catch up to them. Evander Kane is a tough and emerging power forward but Zach Bogosian has not lived up to the expectations on defense.
14. Florida Panthers – GM Dale Tallon had success in Chicago and is a likeable person, but he spent too much money on a boat load of floaters. This franchise really needs to hope they can build through the draft.
15. New York Islanders – They picked up 36 year old Evgeni Nabokov in net in case Rick DiPietro gets hurt again (and he will), but it will be tough stopping pucks behind that defense. John Tavares will be in his third year and needs to step up. Can the speedy Michal Grabner repeat his great season from last year? Teams will be focused on him more in 2011-12 so it will be tougher.
1. Vancouver Canucks – Despite playing a long season and losing in the final game, I expect this talented squad to come back and win the West. The Sedin twins continue to shine. Missing Ryan Kesler (shoulder surgery) until at least November doesn’t help though. It will be interesting to see if Roberto Luongo can regain his form after playing so poorly in game six of the Stanley Cup Finals. The Northwest division, which used to be really strong, now stinks so the Canucks will pile up points en route to the number one seed.
2. San Jose Sharks – GM Doug Wilson’s club may be the best in the West but they are in the toughest division in the conference. The additions of Brent Burns and Martin Havlat should help while losing Dany Heatley could be addition by subtraction. For some reason Heatley just didn’t pan out in San Jose.
3. Detroit Red Wings – It is hard to pick against one of the best run franchises in all of sports, especially with Nicklas Lidstrom back for another year and Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetteberg still on the roster. The Brian Rafalski retirement will hurt on the blue line, though.
4. Chicago Blackhawks – With Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Marian Hossa up front, this club is strong on talent. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook log a lot of minutes on defense and comprise one of the best d-pairs in the league. Corey Crawford looks to be the guy in net. Will their role players produce this year? If so, they can play with anyone in the league.
5. Los Angeles Kings – Drew Doughty received a long term contract (8 years at a total of $56M), like the Kings brass wanted, and now the pressure is on the d-man to deliver a deeper playoff run for LA. With so many ex-Flyers working in the Kings organization (Ron Hextall, Terry Murray, and John Stevens), it made sense for the embattled center to land on the left coast. He should do well there and a young Kings team should be even better with another year of experience under their belt. It is time for them to move into the NHL’s elite.
6. Anaheim Ducks – The best line in hockey (Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan, and Corey Perry) will carry this team to the playoffs again. The big question is whether goalie Jonas Hiller can return to form after his concussion like symptoms from last season? Sophomore Cam Fowler must improve in his own end this season.
7. Nashville Predators – Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are arguably the best d-pair in the league and Pekka Rinne is a big goalie that is difficult to beat. Mike Fisher, aka Mr. Carrie Underwood, and David Legwand are two good centers for a club that typically plays low scoring games. Barry Trotz is one of the best coaches in the league. Music city is a fun town and has a good hockey team, on a low budget.
8. Calgary Flames – GM Jay Feaster has turned the attitude around in the organization and he made some big changes this summer, like shipping out main stay d-man Robyn Regehr and often injured forward Daymond Langkow, but goalie Mikka Kiprusoff and captain Jarome Iginla still are around and run this team. Jay Bouwmeester has a big contract but has never made the playoffs, will that change this season?
9. St. Louis Blues – I like many of their young players, especially center Patrik Berglund and defensemen Alex Pietrangelo. The trade to bring in Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk for Eric Johnson was a good one, but will it lead to a post season position? Only if Jaroslav Halak returns to the form he had in the 2010 playoffs
10. Columbus Blue Jackets – Acquiring Carter from the Flyers should help take some of the heat off of Rick Nash but what this team really needs is goalie Steve Mason to return to the form that put his club in the post season in 2008-09. The franchise desperately needs to make the playoffs this year after missing the last two seasons.
11. Dallas Stars – Marc Crawford is gone as coach so that is a step in the right direction, but this club lost center Brad Richards and has ownership issues, which almost always creates a distraction. The roster is full of middle of the road players.
12. Minnesota Wild – GM Chuck Fletcher has to be feeling some pressure to produce in his 3rd year in the position. He went out and acquired Heatley, who came nowhere close to expectations in San Jose. Niklas Backstrom is a super goalie but his defense leaves a lot to be desired.
13. Edmonton Oilers – Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are the last two number one overall picks in the NHL draft and have enormous potential. The Oilers also have Ales Hemsky, Ryan Smyth, Jordan Eberle, and Shawn Horcoff as solid forwards. Their defense is not very good and goaltending is a huge issue..
14. Colorado Avalanche – The Avs put a lot of stock into Semyon Varlamov, who has shown flashes of brilliance but never stayed healthy for a lengthy period of time. They likely gave up a lottery pick in trading with the Caps for the young Russian goalie. JS Giguere was also signed and he can help in goal when Varly is hurt. Erik Johnson anchors the defense and 18 year old Gabriel Landeskog, the 2nd overall pick in the NHL draft, will get a lot of attention. Matt Duchene enters his third season and has a chance to be an elite player in the league.
15. Phoenix Coyotes – Dave Tippett is a great coach but without Bryzgalov, he can’t work miracles. Some young players need to step up for this club to have any chance. The ownership woes are like a black cloud over this team. Will they stay in Phoenix?