Tuesday, October 5, 2010

GTOG NHL Season Preview Part III: Best Case/Worst Case

By Artistry

We're two days away from the start of the 2010-11 NHL regular season, and in every hockey city, optimism is running high.  Even if a team doesn't have realistic Stanley Cup aspirations, at least there's the promise of sneaking into the playoffs or watching a talented rookie take flight.  Unless you see the glass as half-empty.  Either way, GTOG has you covered.  Let's go best case/worst case for every team in the league.

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division

1.  New Jersey Devils

Best case:  New coach John MacLean isn't overly tempted by the talent at forward that includes a top 6 of Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, Patrick Elias, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Jason Arnott.  Don't tinker with what works.  A sound defensive system coupled with the great Martin Brodeur in goal again allows the Devils to frustrate the Penguins at every turn.  Anton Volchenkov plays 80 games.  Brodeur has one more Cup run in him.  With Kovalchuk firing canons from the point and Parise working the goal-line, New Jersey has the best power play in the league.  Co-favorites to come out of the East.

Worst case:  They lose their identity like they lost their best defenseman to the rival Penguins.  Brodeur is stuck like a besieged Grant Fuhr behind the 80's Oilers, except without the 80's Oilers.  Early-season injuries expose just how thin the Devils are at forward behind the top 6.  An Evgeni Malkin slapshot shatters Volchenkov's ankle in an early-season game.  Parise asks for a trade to a team that respects him enough not to blow all its cap space on a one dimensional player who has never won an NHL playoff series.  First round playoff loss.

2.  New York Islanders

Best case:  Kyle Okposo and John Tavares take the next step and become all-stars.  Matt Moulson continues to produce at a 30-goal clip.  Free agent signee Mark Eaton complements the highly underrated Mark Streit to form a serviceable top blueline tandem.  10th place in the conference.

Worst case: Trade Zdeno Chara, Jason Spezza, Ollie Jokinen and Roberto Luongo for Alexei Yashin, Mike Parrish, and Oleg Kvasha.  Sign Yashin to a 10-year $87.5 million contract just as his production plummets.  Sign relatively unproven goalie Rick DiPietro to a 15-year, $67.5 million contract right before he sits out for essentially the rest of his life.  What's that?  This already happened?  

3.  New York Rangers

Best case:  Glen Sather stumbles upon a Zamboni time machine, which brings him back to 1983, when he could evaluate talent.  Henrik Lundqvist finds his game behind a maturing, mobile defense.  The Rangers squeeze into the 8th and final playoff spot.  Really, the best thing the Rangers could do is trade Marion Gaborik at the peak of his value for a top flight young center and another asset.

Worst case:  In an attempt to justify the Derek Boogaard signing, John Tortorella bends to Sather's will and gives Boogaard top line minutes. Sather then signs Scott Gomez, Wade Redden, and Michael Roszival to contracts totaling approximately $19 million dollars per year, eating up about 30 percent of the team's cap space.  Excuse me?  Really?  I'm being told this also already happened.

4.  Philadelphia Flyers

Best case:  The $25 million defense is so staunch that it makes the Flyers' evident weakness in goal immaterial.  Russian sniper and under-achiever Nikolai Zherdev realizes his potential, potting 35 goals.  Mike Richards inspires his teammates by tapping his stick on the ice repeatedly while shouting, "OK, boys, let's go now" and "Let's go boys.  OK boys."  Jeff Carter recaptures his 50 goal form.  Danny Briere builds on his 2009 post-season performance.  Philly gets to conference finals but can't get past any of the Devils, Caps, or Pens.

Worst case:  Management belatedly realizes that even though it devoted $25 millions to 8 NHL defensemen, the Flyers defense still isn't as good as Pittsburgh's.  And the Penguins have some pretty fair forwards.  First round playoff loss.

5.  Pittsburgh Penguins

Best case:  Mario Lemieux comes out of retirement in late December solely to work the half boards on the heretofore moribund powerplay. He directs traffic with his left hand while effortlessly cradling the puck with his right.  Defenders back off inside the face off circle as he surveys the ice.  Mesmerized, they allow Crosby and Malkin to skate freely to open patches of ice, where they receive Lemieux's perfectly placed saucer passes. The defense is significantly improved, and Ray Shero swings a deadline deal to acquire a veteran, stay-at-home type to solidify the 6th defenseman spot opposite Alex Goligoski. Marc-Andre Fleury, no longer subject to 60 foot, seeing-eye wrist shots made possible because the defense is constantly collapsing in on him, regains his confidence and the form he showed in the spring of 2009.  Jordan Staal returns from injury in December with a bionic leg and tears up the opposition like a farm boy possessed.  He, Malkin, and Mike Comrie find a potent chemistry together. The Agitation Line of Matt Cooke, Max Talbot and Aaron Asham pops in a combined 40 goals and makes us forget that we hate Aaron Asham.  Cup.  

Best Case Scenario.  Ever.
Worst case:  Jordan Staal's foot infection lingers well into the winter.  The team can't settle into a rhythym at forward.  Mike Comrie goes soft as the season wears on.  Z Mickle's shot-blocking luck runs out, and he misses significant time with an assortment of injuries.  Fleury can't get to his game. The Pens lose in the second round to New Jersey.

Best case/Worst case for the rest of the league's teams, after the jump...

Southeast Division

1.  Atlanta Thrashers

Best case:  The addition of what seems like half of the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks' roster changes the psychology in the locker room to that of a team that expects to compete.  Atlanta finds lightning in a bottle in net with newly acquired Chris Mason.  Nik Antropov continues to blossom into the player Leafs fans always hoped he would be.  His teammates somehow confuse Dustin Byfuglien into thinking the regular season actually has playoff implications.  Evander Kane emerges as captain material.  Ninth place in the conference.

Worst case:  Between Mason and Ondrej Pavelec, Atlanta can't find an answer in net.  A promising young defense is too young and doesn't promise hard enough.  Don Waddell changes his mind and decides he wants to be the GM again, swinging a deadline deal that sends Big Buff and Antropov to the Pens for Dustin Jeffrey, Carl Sneep, and a third round draft choice.  Bottom feeders.

2.  Carolina Hurricanes

Best Case:  Eric Staal somehow pulls off a 100-point, Hart Trophy-caliber season.  Cam Ward reverts to Stanley Cup winning form.  That's about their only shot.  8th place in the East.

Worst case:  Rod Brind'Amour comes out of retirement.  Then, in an early-season game, Evgeni Malkin reminds Ward who his daddy is.  Ward's confidence is shattered.  Lottery pick.

3.  Florida Panthers

Best case:  For starters, how about making a plan and sticking to it?  Get young guns David Booth, Stephen Weiss, and Michael Frolik some help.  Trade goalie Tomas Vokoun for as many assets as possible.  Play by play guy Randy Moller stops trying to be Mike Lange with an annoying twist.  Toilet.

Worst case:  Deeper in the toilet.

4.  Tampa Bay Lightning

Best case:  Highly regarded rookie coach Guy Boucher pushes all the right buttons, squeezing one more great season out of Vinnie Lecavalier.  Victor Hedman emerges as a top tier defenseman. Steven Stamkos takes it to yet another level, scoring 55 goals. Dan Ellis backstops the team to a strong start.  At the trade deadline, Florida GM Dale Tallon golfs with Steve Yzerman and gets lost in Yzerman's eyes.  Florida trades Tomas Vokoun to Tampa for two second-tier prospects and a pick.  Suddenly, the Bolts are a playoff darkhorse.  Second round.

Worst case:  Tampa becomes Washington-lite, a run and gun team that can't effectively adjust to the playoff style.  Nonetheless, the bet here is they make the playoffs.  And with the talent up front, don't sleep on Tampa.

5.  Washington Capitals

Best case: The Caps draw the Penguins in the second round.  During game 1, Alex Ovechkin, frustrated at a series of horrendous defensive lapses by his teammate Mike Green, spears Green in the midsection. Ovechkin is suspended for the remainder of the series.  With Ovechkin sidelined, the Penguins assign Zbynek Michalek to shadow Alexander Semin.  Semin quickly becomes frustrated by Michalek, and during a Capitals power play in Game 2, spears teammate Mike Green in the midsection.  Semin is suspended for the remainder of the series. The Penguins sweep the Capitals in four games. Ted Leonsis has no comment. Wait, that's my best case scenario.

Worst case: OK, we'll do the Caps' best case here.  Rookie John Carlson is this year's Tyler Myers, a stabilizing force for the Capitals' on back end.  This kid could develop into a true number one defenseman, as opposed to a Mike Green-esque quasi-number one defenseman.  Michael Neuwirth emerges as this year's Antii Niemi, giving the Caps the reliable netminding that can carry the team to the Finals.  Not that they need a lot of heavy lifting.  Particularly if they trade Alex Semin at the deadline for somebody with some finish and grit.  Then [shudder][gasp][vomit][projectile vomiting] the Caps win the Cu.... I can't say it.

Northeast Division

1.  Boston Bruins

Best case: Tuukka Rask replicates last season. Milan Lucic takes the next step on the path to becoming a modern-day Cam Neely.  Newly acquired Nathan Horton and Lucic bookend Marc Savard to form one of the most potent and intimidating lines in the league.  Rookie Tyler Seguin further electrifies the offense.

Worst case:  Savard can't recover from his head injury, and his season, if not his career, is over. 73-year-old Mark Recchi is the top scoring winger. The Bruins draw the Pens in the first round of the playoffs. The Pens call up defenseman - and son of Ulf - Philip Samuelsson and match him against Lucic's line. Samuelsson collides innocently with Lucic in the neutral zone, knocking him out of the series.  Bruins fans never forgive Samuelsson.

2.  Buffalo Sabres

Best case:  Back-to-back Vezina trophies for Ryan Miller.  Tim Connolly stays healthy as he plays for a new contract.  The Sabres sneak up on the more celebrated playoff teams in the East, bouncing Philly and the Caps and scoring a surprising trip to the conference finals.

Worst case:  Sophomore sensation Tyler Myers can't compensate for the defense's loss of Henrik Tallander and Toni Lydman.  Connolly breaks all of his fingers in a freak shower accident.  Thomas Vanek underachieves.  Miller gets chased repeatedly by the Pens in a first round playoff matchup.

3.  Montreal Canadiens

Best case: Forward Tomas Plekanec earns 75% of his new $5 million per year salary.  Rookie defenseman P.K. Subban is as good as he looked in the playoffs against the Penguins.  Goalie Carey Price makes management look good with consistent play and a 30 win campaign.  New captain Brian Gionta informs Mike Cammalleri that he should try to remain expressionless, as anything involving movement of his face is not a good look for him. 

Worst case:  Price implodes in the Quebec pressure-cooker.  The Kostitsyn brothers are in too deep with the Russian mob.  People start getting whacked. 

4.  Ottawa Senators

Best case:  Free agent signee Sergei Gonchar sets a championship tone from day 1.  Sarge has one more surge left in him, earning Norris Trophy consideration and rejuvenating his countryman Alexei Kovalev.  Peter Regin is as good as he looked in the playoffs against Pittsburgh.  Even with the loss of Anton Volchenkov, Ottawa remains one of the toughest teams in the league to play against.  But not for Sidney Crosby.

Worst case: Sarge is still looking for that guy who scored the winner for Montreal in Game 7 last year.  The loss of Volchenkov is felt every time Sid or Ovechkin jumps over the boards.  38-year-old captain Daniel Alfreddson loses an additional two steps.  Maybe he's sorry he criticized Crosby back in, what, 2006?  See, Dan, here at GTOG, we don't forget.  How's that shoulder taste?

5.  Toronto Maple Leafs

Best case:  Winger Kris Versteeg makes teams like the Penguins feel foolish for not doing more to acquire him from Chicago when he was right there for the taking.  Colby Armstrong earns 75% of his salary.  Phaneuf, Beauchamin, Kaberle, and Komisarek rival the top 4 defenseman on any team in the league.  The "Monster"  Jonas Gustavvson emerges as a sensation in net.  The Leafs sneak into the playoffs.

Worst case:  Toronto has no pivot to get Versteeg and Phil Kessel the biscuit.  The cupboard is bare down the middle.  Phaneuf never fulfills his potential as a number 1 defenseman.  11th place in the conference.

Western Conference

1.  Chicago Blackhawks

Best case: Marty Turco gets to his game of five years ago. His stellar puckhandling helps meshes well with the Hawks' deep and mobile defense.  Patrick Kane is a Hart Trophy finalist.  New additions Viktor Stahlberg and Jeremy Morin compensate for the loss of talented depth players like Versteeg and Big Buff.  Cup repeat.

Worst case:  Marty Turco is washed up.  The Big Three of Toews, Kane and Hossa cannot sustain the same level of play without more support to help wear opposing defenses down.  Second-round upset loss.

2.  Columbus Blue Jackets

Best case:  Goalie Steve Mason goes from sophomore slump to league MVP.  Somebody finds Rick Nash a center.

Worst case:  They are who we thought they were.  If you want to crown them, crown their ass.  They are who we thought they were.

3.  Detroit Red Wings

Best case: The old guys play with a chip on their shoulders.  A "nobody believes in us" attitude takes hold. Datsyuk and Zetterberg find their legs playing with a sprinkling of young talent, just as Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov once benefited from playing with them. Jimmy Howard maintains the same level of superb play.  One last trip to the Finals for Nick Lidstrom.

Worst case: Bodies start to break down. Kris Draper feels slighted because Brian Rafalski forgot to put the toilet seat down, causing locker room dissension. Franchise spirals into that very toilet.  Mike Babcock's head explodes.

4.  Nashville Predators

Best case:  Shea Weber is the league's best defenseman.  Matthew Lombardi is a legit first-line center.  The Preds' history of successful player development continues, and new talent emerges to take the place of the departed Dan Hamhuis and Jason Arnott.  A special task force locates Barry Trotz's neck.

Worst case:  None of the forwards scare anybody, except for Sergei Kostitsyn, who brings the Russian mafia south.  10th place in the conference.

5.  St. Loiuis Blues

Best Case:  Jaroslav Halak has an F-you Vezina-type season, leading to a severe uptick in incidents of Quebecois depression.  Erik Johnson and Alex Pietrangelo form the most promising young defensive pairing in the league.  Point production catches up with the obvious talent at forward.  Then, a deadline deal for the right veteran forward, and you've got a Western Conference finalist.

Worst case:  Still a playoff team, but not quite ready for prime time.

Northwest Division

1.  Calgary Flames

Best case:  Someone talks Calgary's fan base off the ledge it climbed up on when GM Daryl Sutter decided to bring back Ollie Jokinen as a the team's key free agent signing after he sucked during his first stint with the Flames.  Jay Bouwmeester shows he is in fact not one of the most overpaid players in the game at nearly $7 million per year.  Alex Tanguay gives Jarome Iginla a shot in the arm.  8th place in the conference.

Worst case:  The fans feel so terrible for Iginla being stuck with the morons in the front office that they start a "Trade Jarome" chant just prior to the deadline.  Maybe he gets to pull a Ray Bourque.

2.  Colorado Avalanche

Best case:  Another highly impressive group of young forwards here. Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene, Chris Stewart, and T.J. Galiardi grow together like the Avs of Forsberg, Sakic, Tanguay, and Hedjuk.  Craig Anderson maintains.  6th in the West.

Worst case:  It turns out Craig Anderson actually isn't good.  But in this division, I have a hard time seeing how the Avs don't make the playoffs.

3.  Edmonton Oilers

Best case:  In terms of impact rookies, Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall equal Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.  Throw in Magnus Paajarvi and I'm telling you, we can build on this.  Nikolai Khabibulin is the goalie.  Ales Hemsky decides to get dirty and go to the net.  Lottery pick.

Worst case:  The kids are not all right.  Off-ice troubles for Khabibulin mean Devan Dubnyk, Jeff Deslauriers and Martin Gerber are the goalies.  They simply cannot compensate for the loss of Mike Comrie.  Lottery pick.

4.  Minnesota Wild

Best case:  Ray Shero protege Chuck Fletcher somehow demonstrates that he is actually Ray Shero's protege.  Not impressed with his signing of Mikko Koivu to a 7-year, $47.25 million contract based largely on Koivu's potential.  As we've often said in this space, in today's NHL you win by paying guys what they're worth, not what you think they should be worth if everything works out.  Goalie Niklas Backstrom keeps the team competitive.  Pierre-Marc Bouchard is healthy.  6th place in the conference.

Worst case:  Skilled forwards Martin Havlat and Bouchard continue to be ever so fragile.  9th place in the conference.

5.  Vancouver Canucks

Best case:  The defense is the prototype for today's NHL.  Skilled, quick, minute-eaters like Christian Erhoff, Dan Hamhuis, and Alex Edler make goalie Roberto Luongo's life almost too easy.  The Sedins are more fun to watch than any forward duo outside of Pittsburgh.  These guys would love to see Chicago again in the Western Finals.  Cup.

Worst case:  Western Conference Finals.

Pacific Division

1.  Anaheim Ducks

Best case:  The top line of Bobby Ryan, Corey Perry, and Ryan Getzlaf lights up the west.  Defenseman Toni Lydman doesn't embarrass himself as a stand-in for the retired Scott Niedermayer.  7th in the conference.

Worst case:  Teemu Favre decides mid-season that he's having second thoughts about playing this season.  The defense can't withstand the losses of Chris Pronger and Neidermayer.  The Ducks are entertaining but fatally flawed.  No playoffs for them.

2.  Dallas Stars

Best Case:  I finish this post before the start of the regular season.  Listen, I'm blogging about the Dallas Stars at 10:30 p.m. on a Tuesday.  Is there any good reason for this?

Worst Case:  I don't care about the Dallas Stars.  OK?  OK??

3.  Los Angeles Kings

Best Case:  All right, I'm back.  One of the highly regarded young goalies - Jonathan Quick or Jonathan Bernier - seizes the chance to lead the Kings to perennial contention for the Cup.  The young nucleus of Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson, Anze Kopitar, and Wayne Simmonds becomes the best in the west.  Combine that with quality veterans like Ryan Smyth, Dustin Brown, and the piece.  Rent a marquee forward at the deadline.  Squeeze by Vancouver for a trip to the Cup finals.

Worst case:  There are just too many land mines in this conference.  The Kings catch the Canucks, Hawks, Blues, Sharks, or Wings at the wrong moment.  First round loss.

4.  Phoenix Coyotes

Best case:  I remind myself that blogging is fun.  I'm going to make it through this.

Worst case:  Tired.  So....tired.

5.  San Jose Sharks

Best Case:   Joe Thornton got a taste of playoff success last year, and the rejuvenated Jumbo Joe feeds Dany Heatley enough pucks to pile up 100 assists.  Back to the Final Four.

Worst case:  Coach Todd McLellan continually confuses Antii Niemi and Antero Niittymaki.  Good night everybody!

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