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The 2014 NHL Season Preview
The 2014-15 NHL season is just about underway, with its most notable offseason news being, well, some rules changes. No lockout or labor problems, no (real) threats of relocation, nothing that really put the league in a poor light. Revenues, and ratings, continue to rise for the league, and despite all of the problems that have plagued the league in the past, they seem so distant as the league gets ready for another record-breaking campaign.
So, then, how are the league's 30 teams going to fare this season? This preview gives a brief look at each of those 30 teams, along with their predicted order in their respective divisions.
Who will win the Pacific?
Western Conference - Pacific Division
1. Los Angeles Kings
The popular pick to win the division is Anaheim, but I like the defending Stanley Cup champions to win the Pacific. The team is mostly the same as last year, their biggest loss being Willie Mitchell on defense, and there could be fatigue with the team following two Cup runs in three years, but I'm putting my trust in the Kings in the regular season.
2. Anaheim Ducks
Anaheim, fresh off another postseason dud, returns, well, mostly the same team. Even with Jonas Hiller gone, Anaheim may have to go with a goalie-by-committee until one of them stands out above the rest: the battle between Frederik Andersen and John Gibson could cause some problems for the Ducks early on. They've also added Dany Heatley, but he's already hurt.
3. Vancouver Canucks
The Pacific takes a dip from this point on, but I expect the Canucks to recover this season. David Booth has basically been replaced by Radim Vrbata, while Ryan Miller may bring the stability the Canucks have long been seeking in net.
4. San Jose Sharks (1st Wild Card)
Following their first round loss to Los Angeles, one where they had a three game to none lead before losing four straight, turmoil was the name of the game for San Jose's offseason. Once again there were rumors of massive changes, yet things are still mostly the same. No really notable additions, the only notable loss was Dan Boyle. Captaincy of the team was also a story, with Joe Thornton no longer captain going into camp. The regular season doesn't really matter - unless the Sharks fail to make the postseason - but if the Sharks fail again in the playoffs, just how much longer can this team remain mostly the same?
5. Arizona Coyotes
The team that refuses to move is also a team that refuses to get much better. Its hard to get on management for not spending to bring in quality players when the team keeps losing so much money - reportedly the team lost nearly half of the $50 million that would enable the team's out clause in four more seasons to allow for relocation - but all the same the team goes into 2014 with a slightly new name and another fight on their hands.
6. Calgary Flames
The Flames were the ones that nabbed Hiller from Anaheim to stabilize a position that had a big hole in it following Mikka Kiprusoff's retirement. Other than that, there isn't much to be excited about for Calgary. When Jiri Hudler remains one of your better offensive options, you know you still have a long way to go.
7. Edmonton Oilers
You'd have to think one of these years all of this young talent on Edmonton would break through and get the Oilers back into contention. However, the team is thin on defense, and even more so in goal. Even if the offensive talent breaks out, all you can expect from the Oilers are exciting, high-scoring games.
Who will win the Central?
Western Conference - Central Division
1. Chicago Blackhawks
Make no mistake - the Blackhawks remain one of the best teams in the league. The addition of Brad Richards, whose time with the Rangers can only be considered "forgetful", is somewhat questionable but if Richards can find a groove he was unable to in New York, the Blackhawks will be even better for it.
2. St. Louis Blues
The Blues saw many of its parts leave, including Brendan Morrow, Derek Roy and Ryan Miller - whom they traded Jaroslav Halak away for. On the plus side, the Blues did acquire Colorado star Paul Stastny to bolster their inconsistent offense. Brian Elliott is now the main man in goal, at long last, if he can hang in there for a full season then the Blues should have another strong campaign.
3. Dallas Stars
I expect the Stars to continue improving this season and end up faring even better than before. New to the team is Ales Hemsky... and not much else, but I expect the team to build on what they achieved last season and be that much better.
4. Colorado Avalanche (2nd Wild Card)
The major moves surrounding Colorado was the loss of Stastny and the gain of an aging Jerome Iginla. What Colorado is banking on, I'm assuming, is the continued growth and development of young Nathan MacKinnon whose play in the Minnesota series last year wowed many fans. There are quite a few people who believe the Avalanche were a little too lucky last year, and they won't even make the playoffs this year. I think, however, with the enigmatic Patrick Roy still behind the bench, the Avalanche will get in, if only just barely.
5. Minnesota Wild
"What are you doing", some may be asking, as I leave the Wild out of the playoff picture. "They have Parise and Suter, and they just signed Thomas Vanek!" How can you put Colorado ahead of such a strong team? Fair questions, sure, but I have a feeling things won't quite work out for this team. For one, the goalie situation is a mess; they have several good goalies, but are they going goalie-by-committee like Minnesota teams of years past, or what? I'm also not that big on Vanek, personally I think he's a little overrated. Heatley's gone too, though some will argue this is a plus for Minnesota. It doesn't help that the West - and the Central in particular - is so strong, a playoff caliber team will have to miss out. Many say it'll be Colorado. I think it'll be Minnesota. Knowing how accurate I am with these things, prepare to see the Wild lift the Stanley Cup.
6. Nashville Predators
Under a head coach not named Barry Trotz for the first time in team history, the Predators will look to be more offense-heavy while relying on sturdy goaltending from Pekke Rinne as always. Problem is, Rinne has battled injury as of late, and I wouldn't consider additions such as Olli Jokinen and Mike Ribiero to be particularly noteworthy. I can't say it won't work, but in this division Nashville needs a lot more than that to be a playoff team.
7. Winnipeg Jets
I feel bad for Winnipeg, the city. They've been wanting a team for so long, and all they get is the continued misadventures of the old Atlanta Thrashers, and to think they may have the mentality of "if we don't get, we'll lose this team too!" The Jets have done little to improve, even with every other team in this division making efforts to do just the same. There's no way the Jets will be able to compete for the posteason this year.
Who will win the Atlantic?
Eastern Conference - Atlantic Division
1. Boston Bruins
A few pieces may no longer be on the team, but the Bruins are still the team to beat in the Atlantic division thanks to strong goaltending and the team's rough, physical play. The defense is a little weaker with Johnny Boychuk's departure, but the team is still top-notch.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa has a new solution in net: Evgeni Nabokov, oh but Ben Bishop was really stellar last year as well. Suddenly, Tampa has a goalie situation they never thought they'd have just a couple of years ago. I'm guessing Bishop still gets the nod, but Nabokov should be capable if Bishop goes down again. The offense has also gotten new pieces in Morrow and Brian Boyle.
3. Montreal Canadiens
The Habs are mostly the same team, but without Vanek whom I've already voiced my opinions on. Montreal should mostly be the same team this year which puts them as a high to middle-of-the-road team that should get into the postseason with little difficulty.
4. Detroit Red Wings
Injuries played a major part of last season, but the resulting emergence of young talent as a result bodes well going into this season. Unfortunately, Pavel Datsyuk is already out for a few weeks with a shoulder injury, so perhaps it'll be more of the same. With several teams in the East looking better, this may finally be the season the Red Wings' postseason streak comes to an end.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs
Can Brendan Shanahan fix this team? If he can, he needs more than this season to do it. After their collapse last year, and statistics that imply they were really lucky for parts of last season and most of the 2013 year, the Leafs are more broken than some perhaps realize. Note, the Leafs starting goalie will either still be James Reimer or Jonathan Bernier.
6. Ottawa Senators
I don't know where "losing Ales Hemsky only to gain David Legwand" goes on the improvement scale, but I'm guessing its on the low end of things. On the plus side, the Senators have signed Bobby Ryan on a long-term deal, so there's that.
7. Florida Panthers
Another offseason, another round of Florida throwing money at whoever to stay above the salary floor. This year, Dave Bolland and Jussi Jokinen were the winners of the Florida lottery, and with Roberto Luongo still on the team, the Panthers may not be that bad. Then again, they may still be.
8. Buffalo Sabres
Look, I know the Sabres are still rebuilding, but into what? How exactly will Brian Gionta and, uh, Brian Gionta, keep the Sabres on the right track?
Who will win the Metropolitan?
Eastern Conference - Metropolitan Division
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
With a new coach, the Penguins should be more motivated than usual, whether it be for the right or wrong reasons. The leash is incredibly short on Marc-Andre Fleury, and it doesn't help that the team suffered several losses on defense this offseason. The team is incredible top-heavy, and the lack of depth may hurt them, but they're still the favorites to win the division.
2. New York Rangers
Not too many people are high on the Rangers right now in part due to a chaotic offseason for them which saw many pieces leave - notably Brad Richards - but many more come in - notably Ryan Malone. The Rangers still have one of the best goaltenders in the league in Henrik Lundqvist and, once again, he'll be the main reason the Rangers do as well as they will this season.
3. Washington Capitals
Count me among the many who think the Caps are in for a big rebound campaign. A new coach in the proven Barry Trotz comes with a shored up defense with both Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen coming over from Pittsburgh. Questions come up on whether Braden Holtby will be able to take that next step in goal, and whether Trotz's defensive style will mesh well with Alex Ovechkin and Washington's "potent" offense.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets (1st Wild Card)
Resigning Ryan Johansen was huge for the Jackets as they look to improve upon one of the best seasons in franchise history. Sergei Bobrovsky was a wonderful addition to the team and he'll look to prove last year wasn't a fluke. I don't think the Blue Jackets will improve that much, but it'll still be enough for them to make the postseason.
5. Philadelphia Flyers (2nd Wild Card)
The Flyers are mostly the same team, which is bad news in an improving Eastern Conference. I think they're still good enough to make the postseason but if Detroit or the Islanders sneak in ahead of Philly, I wouldn't be surprised.
6. New York Islanders
The Isles have made a flurry of deals in recent days to bolster their defense with Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk. They also traded for the rights to - and signed - Jaroslav Halak to secure the net. The offense is still mostly reliant on John Tavares and even with the additions the Islanders still lack depth at defense, but make no mistake - the Islanders are much improved and could easily make a run at a playoff spot.
7. New Jersey Devils
The Martin Brodeur era in New Jersey is officially over, and Cory Schneider now has full reign in net. To celebrate, the Devils signed Martin Havlat and Mike Cammalleri, and Jaromir Jagr is still on the team. The Devils aren't a bad team per se, but they're not as good as many others in the East, especially in the Metro.
8. Carolina Hurricanes
Their offense is basically the Staal brothers and Alexander Semin, and the suspect defense makes life a continued difficulty for Cam Ward, whose glory days eight years ago are very, very distant. The Hurricanes are the worst team in this division and they will have a tough time competing.