"Where did the summer go?" is a question you'll hear quite often in the next few weeks. Any hockey fan knows the appropriate response to that question comes in the form of another one: "Who cares?"
Not me, that's who. I'm all atwitter at the prospect of another NHL season, and the trades and charades that go along with it. In fact, I'm jacked and ready to do a season preview right now.
Well, maybe not a full-on season preview with playoff team predictions and the like. But I do want to give a twice-over to each team, and attempt to decipher how the divisional standings will look come April.
In the spirit of fairness to fans of both conferences, let's break it down into divisions and look at them in alphabetical order. Next week, I'll examine the Central, and then, after a two-week, vacation-based hiatus, the other four will get the microscope treatment.
Atlantic Division (in predicted order of finish)
Pittsburgh Penguins: Why No. 1? Because Sidney Crosby's career trajectory is still in the skyrocket position, and Pens GM Ray Shero is surrounding him with a well-balanced mix of young stars (Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Ryan Whitney) and productive veterans (Gary Roberts, Mark Recchi, Sergei Gonchar, Petr Sykora).
The biggest trouble spot for Pittsburgh this season will be the same one that got them into trouble in the 2007 playoffs -- getting consistent performances from goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Dany Sabourin doesn't provide a wealth of confidence as Fleury's newly signed backup, but Shero will have a few months to judge and adjust that situation, perhaps bringing in a proven veteran (Ed Belfour or Curtis Joseph) as a short-term stop gap.
However, if the experience and grit of offseason acquisition Darryl Sydor filters throughout the defense corps early in the season, there may be no need to take such a measure. And if they do get solid performances from the back end, a first-place finish in the Eastern Conference, as well as an Eastern Conference postseason championship, is not far-fetched.
New York Rangers: Why second? Because, despite the tremendous acquisitions of Chris Drury and Scott Gomez, there's the small matter of a bland, run-of-the-mill blue line that has yet to be properly addressed. And losing Michael Nylander and Matt Cullen may hurt more than team brass believe.
And while a possible first line of Gomez centering Jaromir Jagr and Martin Straka has the potential to be the league's most offensively potent, once you get to the third- and fourth-liners, the drop-off in talent is severe.
Therefore, if the Rangers want a high playoff seeding, their power play (tied for sixth-best in the league last season) is going to have to be just as good, and Henrik Lundqvist will need to be equally spectacular in net. Fortunately for Blueshirts fans, I think history has an excellent chance of repeating in those regards.
Philadelphia Flyers: Why third? Because the Devils and Islanders took steps back, and the Penguins and Rangers remain better squads, at least on paper.
As noted in an earlier Screen Shots column, there's no questioning the strides the Flyers have taken since bombing like a polka band at the Apollo last season. Paul Holmgren has quickly re-jigged the roster, adding as much sandpaper (Jason Smith and Scott Hartnell) as skill (Daniel Briere and Kimmo Timonen).
Much of their playoff hopes depend on goalie Martin Biron, but I think the real key will be the performance of a trio of youngsters (Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Joffrey Lupul) who were sizeable disappointments in 2006-07. If two of those three rebound with potential-realizing results, the pressure on others will be greatly alleviated, and the Flyers will be dancing in the postseason once again.
Now, odds are any team with Martin Brodeur and Patrik Elias on the ice and noted whip-cracker Brent Sutter behind the bench is going to be competitive. But this team somewhat reminds me of the 2006-07 Flyers, who had their veteran core slowly whittled away in prior seasons before imploding right out of the gate.
If that happens, regardless of how quickly Uber-boss Lou Lamoriello acts to correct the Devils' course, teams such as the Avalanche, Blues and Panthers proved last season that an early hole is nearly impossible to climb out from.
New York Islanders: Why fifth? Need you ask? No matter how optimistic their fans may be that GM Garth Snow and coach Ted Nolan will pull another rabbit out of their collective hat, few league observers believe a second bunny is on the way.
The Isles' blue line frightens no one, their forward unit is comprised of other teams' castoffs and mid-tier veterans, and their top prospects are a few years away from contributing significantly. Would you say such a team should be expected to make the postseason? If so, can I interest you in purchasing a handful of magic beans?
Adam Proteau's Screen Shots appears every Thursday only on thehockeynews.com. Want to take a shot at Adam Proteau? You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through out Ask Adam feature. And be sure to check out Proteau's Blog for daily insight on the world of hockey.
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