The 2009-10 National Hockey League season came to an end around 11 PM on the night of June 9 at Philadelphia’s Wachovia Center. The recently re-named Wells Fargo Arena was in full throat, hoping that their Flyers could score one more goal to force a winner-take-all game seven against the Western Conference Champions in their barn. The Eastern Conference Champions had scored three times and were now in overtime against the precocious Blackhawks.
The game, the series and the season ended in a blink four minutes and six seconds later when Patrick Kane threw a cross-corner shot under Michael Leighton and into the Flyers’ net.
Blackhawks 4, Flyers 3.
Bedlam ensued in an instant. As he tossed his stick, helmet and gloves into the air and onto the ice, Kane sprinted towards Antti Niemi, chased by delirious teammates celebrating Chicago’s first Cup since 1961.
One hundred and twenty days from that night, the NHL will officially drop the puck on the 2010-11 season. In the preceding four months all that took place was:
A “summit” in Toronto which included NHL and IIHF power brokers determining ways to improve the game.
A protracted contract spectacle that nearly forced one of the NHL’s premier players to Russia, leading to speculation that the league and Players’ Association will engage in a labor war during the summer of 2012.
The salary cap-induced dismantling of a Stanley Cup Champion.
A wild summer of player personnel changing employers.
We at Metro believe that a summer of machinations should lead to a fascinating season. With that in mind, we sat down and looked at the NHL’s 30 teams and took our best guess as to how they will finish the regular and playoff seasons.
Without any further ado:
1: Philadelphia Flyers: Absolutely loaded on the back end and up front. The only question is in nets. GM Paul Holmgren passed on Marty Turco and Evgeni Nabokov for the duo of Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher. Due to injuries, Leighton and Boucher split time in goal during the Flyers’ playoff run and were very good.
2: Washington Capitals: The onus is on the Capitals to experience post-season success. GM George McPhee resisted the urge to rebuild the Caps after their seven-game series loss to Montreal in the first round. Still, goaltending is a question.
3: Boston Bruins: Peter Chiarelli told The Hockey News that there were “positives” that came in the aftermath of blowing a 3-0 second round series lead to Philadelphia. The GM also said that the lack of goal-scoring was “mental.” That should be rectified by the trade for Nathan Horton and the drafting of Tyler Seguin. Still, as the Bruins are $3 million over the cap and have to re-sign D Zdeno Chara and C Patrice Bergeron, it’s fair to wonder if or when G Tim Thomas and C Marc Savard are traded.
4: Pittsburgh Penguins: GM Ray Shero improved the blueline by signing free agent defensemen Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek. The recent signing of Mike Comrie causes one to wonder if Evgeni Malkin will be moved to Sidney Crosby’s wing.
5: New Jersey Devils: Ilya Kovalchuk’s summer-long saga dominated attention spans. What has gone unexamined is how Kovalchuk and his narrative will determine the course of the Devils’ future.
6: Tampa Bay Lightning: Tampa breaks into the top-heavy East this season. Rookie coach Guy Boucher has snipers in Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis; veterans who must prove they’re still among the league’s best players in Vinny Lecavalier, Simon Gagne and Ryan Malone; one of the most underrated goaltenders in Dan Ellis and what appears to be a pretty good corps of defensemen.
7: Buffalo Sabres: GM Darcy Regier, coach Lindy Ruff, goaltender Ryan Miller and LW Thomas Vanek are among the league’s best at their respective roles, and second-year D Tyler Myers looks like a keeper. But there is not enough to contend for the Cup.
8: New York Rangers: There is a very simple question to be asked about the 2010-11 New York Rangers, and it is: are they better now than the team that lost to Philadelphia in the shootout on the last day of the season? At first glance, the Rangers appear to be tougher and more potent offensively with the signings of RW Derek Boogaard, D Ryan McDonagh, Alex Frolov and Mats Zuccarello Aasen.
9: Montreal Canadiens: Have to wonder why GM Pierre Gauthier decided to trade Jaroslav Halak to St. Louis for prospects following a playoff run in which the goaltender shined. If the anointed starter in nets, Carey Price, falters, it may make for an unpleasant year.
10: Toronto Maple Leafs: Hogtown has not hosted a Stanley Cup parade since 1967. That doesn’t change after this season. The free agent additions of Kris Versteeg and Colby Armstrong were solid and Nazem Kadri should be a Calder Trophy candidate.
11: Carolina Hurricanes: All-Star Weekend will emanate from Raleigh this January. It may mark the only time the nation gets to see Eric Staal on television. Despite the presence of one of the premier centermen in the game in Staal, Carolina won’t be a playoff team as the Hurricanes are trying to fold kids into the mix.
12: Ottawa Senators: Dany Heatley demanded a trade last summer. Jason Spezza asked to be traded this summer. Does anyone want to play in Canada’s Capital?
13: New York Islanders: The Islanders blueprint is to stockpile draft picks and to draft and develop as many kids as possible. It is a smart way to rebuild a franchise in the NHL’s hard salary cap era and to a certain extent it has paid off with John Tavares, Jack Hillen, Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey. But would it hurt to spend a little money on a top-tier free agent?
14: Atlanta Thrashers: The Blackhawks Southeast. Atlanta traded for defenseman Brent Sopel and forwards Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Ben Eager days after the Blackhawks won their first Cup since 1967. Let’s just say the quartet won’t enjoy a similar parade this summer.
15: Florida Panthers: Following a most impressive draft, GM Dale Tallon added defensemen in Dennis Wideman and Nathan Paetsch, and forwards in the persons of Chris Higgins, Marty Reasoner and Steve Bernier. Still, there’s much work to be done in South Beach before the Panthers are respectable.
1: Vancouver Canucks: Everything is set up nicely for the first Cup in franchise history. GM Mike Gillis signed free agent D Dan Hamhuis and free agent C Manny Malhotra, while trading for D Keith Ballard at the draft. The trio adds to Vancouver’s depth while Western Conference rivals have experienced personnel losses. There are no excuses available for the Canucks this season.
2: San Jose Sharks: San Jose did not feel the need to make changes after being summarily dismissed in four games by Chicago in the Western Conference Final, only bringing in goaltenders Antti Niemi and Antero Nittymaki, along with noted non-pacifist Jamal Mayers. As it has been for years, the question about the Sharks is about their makeup and if they’re willing or able to fight through adversity.
3: Detroit Red Wings: The perennial Cup contender added Jiri Hudler (KHL) and Mike Modano (free agent from Dallas). Detroit is deep, but old. Can Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader step up and routinely provide secondary scoring?
4: Chicago Blackhawks: Without Antti Niemi, Adam Burish, Brent Sopel, John Madden, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager and Dustin Byfuglien to provide their specific skill sets, the Blackhawks don’t repeat as Stanley Cup Champions. However stars Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith remain among the league’s best at their positions.
5: Los Angeles Kings: GM Dean Lombardi spent the summer trying to woo Ilya Kovalchuk. However while Kovalchuk turned down a reported 15-year, $80 million offer, Alex Frolov and Freddy Modin left for other pastures. The FA signing of Alex Ponikarovsky was solid. Now the onus is on Lombardi to sign Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson and Wayne Simmonds to long-term deals.
6: Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks lost three defensemen over the summer. Hall-of-Famer to be Scott Niedermayer retired; while Steve Eminger and James Wisniewski were traded to the Rangers and Islanders. Anaheim is still an incredibly potent unit, led by Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan.
7: Phoenix Coyotes: After a 2009-10 campaign that saw Phoenix record a franchise record 107 points, it is a safe bet that the Coyotes won’t catch the NHL by surprise this season. That does not mean that Dave Tippet’s defense-first system won’t be successful. Ilya Bryzgalov is one of the top ten goaltenders in the league while Keith Yandle is a burgeoning star on the blueline. GM Don Maloney’s signing of UFA RW Ray Whitney gives the forward unit additional scoring.
8: St. Louis Blues: The Blues nose-dived last season following being a surprise playoff team in the spring of 2009. St. Louis’ collection of young talent will benefit from the trade for Jaroslav Halak and the Blues will be a playoff team.
9: Dallas Stars: It’s been an interesting summer in Dallas for all the wrong reasons. Owner Tom Hicks is desperately trying to find a buyer or a co-owner for a bland Stars franchise. Goaltending will be a season-long theme. Kari Lehtonen is the starter after longtime No. 1 Marty Turco signed with Chicago. Lehtonen will be backed up by Andrew Raycroft.
10: Nashville Predators: We wrote last year that GM David Poile and coach Barry Trotz are the best in the league at what they do and that it would be fascinating to see what they could accomplish without too many payroll restrictions. Poile signed UFA center Matt Lombardi and traded for D Ryan Parent and LW Sergei Kostitsyn over the summer. But in a deep Western Conference, it probably won’t be enough to get Nashville into the playoffs.
11: Colorado Avalanche: Looking at the 2010-11 Avalanche, we’re instantly reminded of the 2009-10 St. Louis Blues, a young group that will take a step back after a surprise playoff appearance.
12: Calgary Flames: GM Darryl Sutter was widely eviscerated for re-signing underachiever Olli Jokinen and oft-underwhelming Alex Tanguay. If Sutter does not add pieces to support goaltender Miika Kiprusoff and RW Jarome Iginla, the duo needs to be traded so the rebuilding process can begin.
13: Columbus Blue Jackets: One of the NHL’s most anonymous franchises has done Rick Nash no favors by not drafting or signing or trading for a playmaking center. Will be interesting to see if Derrick Brassard, Jakub Voracek and Nikita Filatov can step up and provide consistent secondary scoring.
14: Minnesota Wild: Simply, there’s not much to be excited about in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
15: Edmonton Oilers: The NHL’s worst team in 2009-10 will repeat that feat in 2010-11, but Edmonton has an bright future with No. 1 overall pick Taylor Hall, Canadian Junior hero Jordan Eberle and Swedish stud Magnus Paajarvi in key roles.
REGULAR SEASON DIVISIONAL PREDICTIONS:
X—New York Rangers
New York Islanders
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL: Boston over Philadelphia in six games.
EASTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Boston. Claude Julien’s defense-first system received enhancements in goal scoring and youth over the summer in Nathan Horton and Tyler Seguin. The Bruins exorcise the memory of blowing a 3-0 series lead and 3-0 game seven lead to Philadelphia last May.
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL: Vancouver over Detroit in six games.
WESTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Vancouver. After two straight playoff season ending losses to Chicago, the Canucks improved their defense corps by adding Dam Hamhuis and Keith Ballard. Vancouver also signed Manny Malhotra to provide grit, the ability to win faceoffs and on-and-off ice leadership.
STANLEY CUP FINAL: Vancouver over Boston in six games.
STANLEY CUP CHAMPION: Vancouver. The Canucks’ exciting assortment of depth, skill, youth and grit wins out over Boston’s in a series reminiscent of last June’s Blackhawks-Flyers final.
CONN SMYTHE TROPHY (PLAYOFF MVP): Ryan Kesler, Vancouver Canucks.
INDIVIDUAL POST-SEASON AWARD WINNERS:
HART TROPHY (MVP): Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals.
TED LINDSAY AWARD (PLAYERS MVP): Ovechkin.
ROCKET RICHARD AWARD (MOST GOALS IN REGULAR SEASON): Ovechkin.
NORRIS TROPHY (BEST DEFENSEMAN): Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings.
VEZINA TROPHY (BEST GOALTENDER): Ilya Bryzgalov, Phoenix Coyotes.
CALDER TROPHY (ROOKIE OF THE YEAR): Tyler Seguin, Boston Bruins.
SELKE TROPHY (BEST DEFENSIVE FORWARD): Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings.
LADY BYNG TROPHY (MOST GENTLEMANLY PLAYER): Datsyuk.
JACK ADAMS (COACH OF THE YEAR): Guy Boucher, Tampa Bay Lightning.
EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR: Steve Yzerman, Tampa Bay Lightning.