by PuckStopsHere on 09/30/10 at 01:06 AM ET
As always, predictions are a best guess at the future. When unpredicted trades, injuries, slumps, streaks etc. occur, these predictions will be wrong. It is always fun to look back at the end of the season and see how close I got to what actually occurs.
1. Chicago Blackhawks - The danger of picking the defending Stanley Cup champions to repeat as division champions is that there may be a Stanley Cup hangover, as players on the Blackhawks had a shorter summer than most teams and this may be seen less preparation for games and possibly in a higher injury rate. One of the big stories of the summer has been the dismantling of the Stanley Cup champions. Gone is about half of the roster than won the cup, but most of the more important core players remain. Chicago is gambling that an investment is a talented core of Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa will keep winning despite to loss of Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, John Madden and others. Both goalies from 2009/10 are gone in Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet. How well will they carry on? I am not betting on another Stanley Cup, but there is still a good core with some talented young players who are still improving. Their goaltending was never a strength in their cup run and it won’t be this year under Marty Turco, but it likely won’t be much worse (if it is worse at all). I think this team still has what it takes to win their division.
2. Detroit Red Wings - The Wings are the contenders to catch the Blackhawks if the Hawks cannot win this division, but they do not seem to be moving in the right direction either. Detroit has a talented but aging core in Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Pavel Dastyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Many of their supporting cast is aging as well. Players like Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen, Todd Bertuzzi and Dan Cleary have probably seen better days and may show statistical declines. Last year Detroit showed that they can still be a very good team when they are healthy, but the runs of good health tend to become fewer in number and further apart as teams age. Nicklas Lidstrom is forty years old and if he starts to show his age, this team could be in some trouble. One of the bright spots last year was the emergence of Jimmy Howard, who could have been rookie of the year. The problem is he is likely going to decline. In his four AHL seasons, Howard never looked like he would have the NHL success he showed last year. As an older rookie, he doesn’t have the upside of a younger player. I think Detroit will be a formidable opponent who, if healthy, could have a strong playoff run, but i don’t think they can bounce back to the top of their division as they continue to age.
3. Nashville Predators - Nashville is always struggling against salary concerns, but has been able to keep themselves above water with some smart personnel moves. Their biggest strength is their pair of star defencemen in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, two players who deserve much more publicity than they receive in Nashville. Pekka Rinne is a solid goalie, who benefits from the defensive talent in front of him, but he does not have a proven backup at this point. I imagine Nashville will find a replacement level backup before the season ends. At forward Patric Hornqvist, Martin Erat and Steve Sullivan are solid, but unspectacular. I expect that Nashville’s defence will be tough to play against and probably strong enough to keep the team in the playoffs, but this team is not a serious contender for a big playoff run.
4. St Louis Blues - The big acquisition in St Louis was Montreal’s playoff hero Jaroslav Halak. He is a good goalie, but probably not a significant upgrade from Chris Mason, who was their number one goalie last season and has moved on to Atlanta. Their defence lacks any serious star players. There is hope that former first overall pick Eric Johnson might make the leap forward to that level, but he hasn’t yet. Barret Jackman and Eric Brewer are other key defencemen. Their forward unit is rebuilding. Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya are not returning. Andy McDonald, Brad Boyes, TJ Oshie and David Backes will attempt to carry the load at forward, but none are likely to score at all star or even point per game level. St Louis is a team that has some financial issues to face this year, but strong goaltending will likely keep the bottom from falling out.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets - Columbus struggled last year when the bottom fell out. 2009 rookie sensation Steve Mason struggled in his sophomore NHL season. I bet he bounces back somewhat and proves to be a solid NHL goalie in the future. Columbus’s team defence is not as well organized now that Ken Hitchcock is out as head coach. This too led to a higher goals against. A defence built around Fedor Tyutin, Jan Hejda and Rotislav Klesla isn’t going to scare anybody. Even with a bounce back year for Mason, I imagine Columbus’s goals against could swell. Rick Nash is the top Columbus scorer, as he has been for years, but he struggles to be a point per game player. Maybe a better group of linemates would help. Antoine Vermette, Kristian Huselius and Jakub Voracek are the best forwards in Nash’s supporting cast. In the salary capped era, there are no more elite teams and there are no more really bad teams. In the West Conference, I think Columbus has the best shot at being the weakest of the teams this year, but even they have some players to get excited about.
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