TORONTO (Oct. 2) -- Travel will be light and easy for participants, media and fans that follow the Stanley Cup final next spring. That’s because the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings -- seperated by a mere 423 miles -- will battle for the 2008 National Hockey League championship. Compare that to the most recent Cup finals: Anaheim vs. Ottawa in 2007 (2,351 miles between cities); Edmonton vs. Carolina in 2006 (2,073 miles); Calgary vs. Tampa Bay in 2004 (2,289 miles). This one should be a breeze. Flying time of about one hour will shuttle visitors between Ontario and Michigan. All games in the Cup series will be played and televised in the Eastern time zone. Just the way the NHL likes it.
As I have mentioned numerous times over the years, predicting the order of finish -- and the playoff results -- in any sports league is an exercise that should never be considered beyond the realm of good, harmless fun. Why? Simple. Success and failure, often seperated by a fine line, is blatantly determined by injury to key personnel. And, no one can possibly forecast which players will be sidelined in the coming NHL season, or for how long. As an example, I pick Detroit to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup, largely because I believe Dominik Hasek has at least one more good season left in him. If Hasek were to go down at some point during the playoffs, however, would I feel the same way about Chris Osgood -- a decent, journeyman goalie? Absolutely not. Similarly, many forecasters envision big things from the New York Rangers. But, what happens if the Blueshirts lose Henrik Lundqvist? These are questions you can ask about any team in any sport, and that’s why predicting is such a crap-shoot. It is based on the merits of healthy rosters, which simply do not exist for any amount of time in the NHL these days.
With that waiver, here is the order of finish in the Eastern and Western Conferences according to the Berger crystal ball:
1. OTTAWA 2. PITTSBURGH 3. CAROLINA 4. BUFFALO 5. N.Y. RANGERS 6. NEW JERSEY 7. FLORIDA 8. TAMPA BAY 9. TORONTO 10. PHILADELPHIA 11. ATLANTA 12. WASHINGTON 13. N.Y. ISLANDERS 14. MONTREAL 15. BOSTON.
1. DETROIT 2. SAN JOSE 3. COLORADO 4. ANAHEIM 5. VANCOUVER 6. CALGARY 7. DALLAS 8. MINNESOTA 9. ST. LOUIS 10. EDMONTON 11. NASHVILLE 12. LOS ANGELES 13. CHICAGO 14. COLUMBUS 15. PHOENIX.
OTTAWA vs. Tampa Bay [Senators in 5]. PITTSBURGH vs. Florida [Penguins in 6]. CAROLINA vs. New Jersey [Devils in 6]. BUFFALO vs. N.Y. Rangers [Rangers in 7].
OTTAWA vs. New Jersey [Senators in 6]. PITTSBURGH vs. N.Y. Rangers [Rangers in 6].
OTTAWA vs. N.Y. Rangers [Senators in 7].
DETROIT vs. Minnesota [Red Wings in 7]. SAN JOSE vs. Dallas [Sharks in 6]. COLORADO vs. Calgary [Flames in 7]. ANAHEIM vs. Vancouver [Ducks in 7].
DETROIT vs. Calgary [Red Wings in 6]. SAN JOSE vs. Anaheim [Ducks in 6].
DETROIT vs. Anaheim [Red Wings in 6].
STANLEY CUP FINAL
DETROIT vs. Ottawa [Red Wings in 6].
NOTES: The Red Wings, as you might recall, outplayed Anaheim in most games of the Western Conference final last spring and probably deserved to win the series. I believe Detroit will get it done this season, with Hasek performing as is custom and young players Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Valterri Filppula and Nik Kronwall taking another step towards stardom. Of course, there’s the old pro -- Mr. Norris Trophy, himself -- Nick Lidstrom bringing the entire recipe together on the back end. The intrigue in Detroit this season will be off the ice, where the denizens of “Hockeytown” are increasingly finding other ways to spend their entertainment dollars. The Red Wings are not an automatic sell out anymore, despite being arguably the best-run NHL franchise of the past decade… With Tomas Vokoun between the pipes, I see the Florida Panthers continuing the development they showed in the final third of last season. Florida, under Jacques Martin, will prove the benefits of a sound defensive system, even in the so-called “new” NHL. The Panthers garnered 86 points in 2006-07, and I predict they will add eight more points to that total. It will be enough to leapfrog Tampa Bay and Toronto into seventh spot in the Eastern Conference… The Buffalo Sabres will not fall quite as far as many are predicting on the heels of losing Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. It’s doubtful that any other team in the league could withstand such a hit, but the Sabres are exceptionally deep, and they still have one of the top half-dozen goalies in the NHL (Ryan Miller). Not to mention the old master, Lindy Ruff, behind the bench. The Sabres also benefit from playing in a generally weak division that will -- in my opinion -- yield only two playoff teams, Ottawa and Buffalo… Look for Colorado to make the biggest jump in the West. I don’t believe the Avalanche’s meteoric pursuit of a playoff spot down the stretch drive last year was a fluke. The ageless Joe Sakic shows few signs of slowing, and the Avs added Ryan Smyth and Scott Hannan do an already good team. Goaltending -- with Jose Theodore and Peter Budaj -- will again be the big questionmark, but is surely wasn’t an issue late in the ‘06-07 campaign… Though the Edmonton Oilers will not make the playoffs, they will not fall dramatically short of the post-season. This will be a surprisingly improved Edmonton club -- one that has at least a chance to win every night with Dwayne Roloson in goal… Pittsburgh will continue to terrorize opposition goalies with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, etc., but it says here the Penguins will not move forward in the playoffs until they improve their back end. Unlike the Rangers, who can repeatedly be saved on bad defensive nights by Henrik Lundqvist, the Penguins are just better than average in goal, with Marc-Andre Fleury. At least, at this early juncture of Fleury’s career. Pittsburgh lacks a true, front-line defenceman and will not bypass Ottawa or the Rangers until GM Ray Shero comes up with one… New Jersey will continue to be rescued on many nights by the incomparable Martin Brodeur, though Brodeur will likely not play his customary 70-plus games under rookie coach Brent Sutter. New back-up Kevin Weekes will spell Brodeur more often than former stand-in Scott Clemmensen, potentially enabling Brodeur to be more fresh for the playoffs. The ageing superstar flamed out in the past two post seasons -- against Carolina and Ottawa. Brodeur will require two more seasons to catch Patrick Roy for most career victories by a goalie (494 to 551), and -- playing less -- will probably not attain the 11 shutouts required this season to match Terry Sawchuk’s all-time record of 103. That mark, however, was universally thought to be unattainable as recently as three years ago. Sawchuk played his last game in 1970… Ottawa’s season is clearly hinged on goalie Ray Emery recovering from his wrist operation and continuing his development from a year ago. Otherwise, the Senators are stacked with talent and should again represent the East in the Stanley Cup final. Perhaps their biggest opponent will be the fact they won the Conference title last season. NHL teams have not been in the habit of repeating Cup appearances and/or championships in recent years… Many forecasters have San Jose finally getting over the hump, so to speak, and into the Cup final. The question I have is: Why? The Sharks have been a gifted club for a number of years, but have failed to show the character and team-toughness required to hold off comparable opponents in the playoffs. San Jose clearly lacks gumption in the post-season and is returning with virtually the same roster. Why should that change?… Calgary is a darkhorse in the West. Any team with Mikka Kiprusoff in goal, and a defense led by Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr, is a threat to challenge for the Stanley Cup. This season, the team could benefit from coach Mike Keenan’s “first-year” magic. Clearly, the Flames must find a way to succeed on the road, where they were an embarrassment last season. But, this is defenitely a team to watch. If it gets rolling at the right time, Calgary could go to the Cup final… Watch out for the Kings if Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi somehow manages to acquire a standout goalie. This team has several of the top, up-and-coming players in the NHL (Mike Cammalleri, Alex Frolov, Anze Kopitar), but Dan Cloutier and Jason LaBarbera will not cut it between the pipes. Does Lombardi have the savvy to take L.A. a step further?… Keep an eye on the Boston at Phoenix game this Saturday (Oct. 6). It may well be an early battle for the top lottery pick in the Draft next June. The Coyotes appear to be constructing a good foundation, but will Wayne Gretzky’s nerves hold up through the continued growing pains? Hard to say.
And, now, to the Toronto Maple Leafs…
I picked the Leafs to finish 10th in the Eastern Conference two seasons ago. They finished ninth, two points out of the playoffs. I picked them to make the playoffs last season, in the eighth position. They finished ninth, one point removed from the Cup tournament. So, is there anything exceptional to say about the Leafs this season? Not in my mind. I’ve chosen Toronto to miss the playoffs for a third consecutive year, but to finish ninth once again. In the current East climate, does that mean the Leafs cannot finish seventh? Or 11th? Of course not. When I glance at my forecast, I have the Leafs totalling 89 points, two in back of Tampa Bay and five behind seventh-place Florida. Toronto is also just four points ahead of 11th-place Atlanta. So, who’s to say exactly how the bunched-up bottom of the Eastern playoff picture will turn out?
Many readers, and listeners to The Fan-590 here in Toronto, have accused me of being repetitive in my summation of the Leafs this season. To that, I say “thank you”. There are few things in this business more gratifying than being recognized for consistency, even if it comes with venom and vulgarity. I have not wavered one bit in looking at the Leafs since my first comments back in June, when I suggested GM John Ferguson acted too hastily in re-assembling the bulk of last year’s roster. While the Leafs have enough scoring punch, and could be improved in goal, my stance has clearly been that the players wearing the Blue & White are too one-dimentional. As a group (forwards AND defencemen), they do not possess any sort of mind-set that is beneficial in the defensive half of the ice. Zone coverage was a nightmare for Andrew Raycroft last season (Ed Belfour before that; Curtis Joseph before Belfour), and there is no reason to believe it will be any different this year for Raycroft and/or Vesa Toskala. The same players have returned, and their strengths are overwhelmingly geared to the attack.
Which means that 6-4 scores will be common in Leaf games this season. Still to be determined is how often Toronto will prevail in the sort of pond-hockey it has been famous for playing. As mentioned, injuries will again play a large role. The Leafs were decimated by games missed by key forwards last season, and that trend has continued this fall. Kyle Wellwood’s absence is a terrific blow to the Leafs, whose strength at the key centre-ice position has been halved. Toronto will start the season with the able, but limited John Pohl as the No. 2 pivot behind Mats Sundin. Need I say more? Wellwood is expected to return from his second groin operation sometime in the next month, but will he be chronically hampered by this ailment? A former Leafs doctor told me last week he has grave concerns about Wellwood’s future. Without their top, young player -- and key playmaking forward -- the Leafs are pretty much sunk. If, on the other hand, Wellwood rebounds from his surgery without further incident, Toronto’s playoff aspirations are far more realistic.
In the end, I see the Leafs and Lightning duking it out for the final post-season spot in the East. All of the teams I have picked ahead of Toronto and Tampa Bay (Ottawa, Pittsburgh, Carolina, Buffalo, New York Rangers, New Jersey and Florida) are either more gifted, or are capable of playing a sound defensive game.
The Leafs simply haven’t changed enough. Though they will score regularly, they are dreadfully prone to injury and they will keep the puck out of their own net the same way they they’ve done it for more than 10 years… only if their goalies perform magically, and far beyond the level of those foundering in front of them.
That, simply, is not a playoff formula.
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