Or: Foggy predictions to foul fellow poolies

It’s been a short off-season for the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks, and a slightly longer one for the team they beat in the final – the Boston Bruins.

For the rest of the teams in the National Hockey League – it’s been an off-season of repair, tweaking, overhauls and breakdowns.

The regular season gets underway today (Oct. 1), with three matchups: Toronto vs. Montreal; Washington vs. Chicago; and Winnipeg in Edmonton.

And then it’s hockey-hockey-hockey-hockey until deep into the heart of spring 2014.

This year is a special one for hockey freaks. We’ve got a full 82 game schedule to roll in, the World Junior Championship extravaganza at Christmas/New Years and the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, with Canada set to defend the gold medal it won in Vancouver in 2010.

Locally, it should be a good year for the WHL Kootenay ICE, led by potential 2014 NHL Draft first overall fave – Sam Reinhart.

And isn’t that the joy of a new hockey season? The eternally optimistic blossom anew, gushing with reasons why their favourite teams will have awesome seasons.

Within a week of any given season’s start, blooms are torn off and tossed into corner trash bins with snorting loud “bahs” and phrases usually ending with “bums!”

For others, sweet surprises are in store as players evolve, peak, surprise and totally freak right out their focused, following masses.

For hockey poolers – there’s nothing better.

And that brings me to the…

2013/2014 Bob the Aardvark NHL Season Predictions

(Note: Not legally responsible for anyone dumb enough to pay any attention to the following sketchy advice.)

Anaheim Ducks

Robbed of Bobby Ryan by the Ottawa Senators (the Sens are learning from Parliament), the Ducks enter the season led by the one-two punch of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Teemu Selanne, fresh off a YouTube sensation announcement noting he will play one final season, will bring a sense of regal magic to the Ducks this year. Equally ancient Finn Saku Koivu will have to hold up second line minutes over a full schedule, likely a reason why the Ducks today traded for Mathieu Perreault from Washington. There are high hopes for winger Jakob Silfverberg, the key piece in the Ryan deal, while Andrew Cogliano has had a strong pre-season. Kyle Palmieri and former Medicine Hat Tiger Emerson Etem offer potential if they can improve their play.

On the back end, Francois Beauchemin, a surprise Norris vote recipient last season, will lead an average group, including Cam Fowler, Luca Sbisa, Bryan Allen, Ben Lovejoy, Mark Fistric and the injured Sheldon Souray.

In goal, Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth will battle for playing time.

Expect the Ducks to be in the thick of things in the Western Conference.

Boston Bruins

The Bruins should be fun to watch this year, with Jarome Iginla aboard as an elder great statesmen in search of his first cup. A little extra motivation for one of the league’s top clubs could go a long way.

The Bruins’ top six are as good as any club’s, with Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci flanked by Brad Marchand, Loui Eriksson, Milan Lucic and Iginla. The Bruins’ bottom six forwards bring all the necessary hustle, grit and bulldog adhesion necessary to winning.

The towering cog of the Bruins is minute monster Zdeno Chara, with a capable, battle hardened blue line crew that includes Johnny Boychuk, Dougie Hamilton, Adam McQuaid, Dennis Seidenberg and last year’s playoff gem Torey Krug.

In goal, the Bruins have one of the best in Tuukka Rask.

The Bruins’ all-round lineup is good enough to make them the beasts of the east.

Buffalo Sabres

Is this the next team, after the Calgary Flames, to reach for the TNT?

The Sabres are young, thin at all positions, beset with mild inner turmoil and loaded with ‘Ifs’. If Thomas Vanek doesn’t perform; if Ryan Miller continues to fade; if Drew Stafford can’t remove his head from his bum. Like that. But lots more.

Vanek and Miller will be trade targets and involved in more rumours than Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. A Vanek trade would yield a strong building block or two. If Miller plays well, he too will result in interest and more building blocks.

Points of interest for the club this season will be the evolution of Cody Hodgson, with 60 plus points a possibility – if Vanek shows up to play.

On the right side, the Sabres are fairly soft, with Ville Leino teetering on the border of ‘free agent bust’ and the recently underwhelming Stafford, with a couple of chuck steaks after them. On the left, Steve Ott and Marcus Foligno bring snarl and game, while tiny Tyler Ennis will battle with rookie Mikhail Grigorenko for second line center duty.

On the blueline, the Sabres are led by Christian Ehrhoff and the towering Tyler Myers, who is preciously close to toppling over into ‘big bust’ country. After that it’s a patchwork dogs breakfast of castoffs like Jamie McBain, Henrik Tallinder and Mike Weber and youngsters, including former Kootenay ICE stalwart Brayden McNabb.

With Miller and Jhonas Enroth in goal, the Sabres will be competitive.

But not often enough. Expect a long season in Buffalo.

Calgary Flames

This is what happens when you delay inevitable and necessary change.

The long road back to respectability begins for the once proud Flames franchise, with their hopes pinned on the backs of third liner-forced-to-be-first-liner Lee Stempniak, brittle as frozen spittle Mike Cammalleri, former Wing Jiri Hudler, former Av David Jones, once-thought-to-be-dead Matt Stajan and rock steady Curtis Glencross. Recently obtained Joe Colborne will be given a good look on the third line.

Young’uns Sven Baertschi and Sean Monahan, viewed as the future of the franchise, didn’t snipe lights out in the pre-season, further dampening enthusiasm in Flamesland as the longest season in decades is set to begin.

On the back end, new captain Mark Giordano and Dennis Wideman lead the way, with emerging TJ Brodie, rugged Shane O’Brien, Chris Butler and Kris Russell aboard with some veteran savvy. On paper, the Flames’ blueline seems tissue thin. But as long as they avoid injuries, they will be better than people think.

They’ll need to be because the Flames enter the Season From Hell with their hopes pinned on Karri Ramo, who spilled a cup of coffee on himself in his first NHL crack in Tampa Bay, and Reto Berra, a Swiss league star and Joey MacDonald. Good luck to them.

If Calgary is smart and doesn’t let Brian Burke trade the club’s next two first round draft choices to the Edmonton Oilers for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and struggles through the season at the bottom of the NHL tank – it will be able to add another Reinhart (Sam) to its fold and keep building.

Don’t be plucky and finish 20th overall Calgary. You need a top three pick in 2014.

Expect Cammalleri, Stempniak and Hudler to be traded at the deadline.

Carolina Hurricanes

True to their name – the Hurricanes will blow this year. Or they won’t. This is a hard team to figure out.

If all the ‘IFs” go the ‘Canes’ way this year, they could vie for a playoff spot. Should the ‘IFs’ not pan out – expect a shot at the draft lottery come spring time.

Eric Staal will be the man once again, with baby brother Jordan backing him up. Riding shotgun with Eric are 2012/13 breakout player Jiri Tlusty and Alexander Semin. IFs here include: will Tlusty keep going? And will Semin fall back into his laisse faire ways now that he has a new contract?

Another major IF for this team is the health and play of Jeff Skinner – a secondary scoring threat the club desperately needs. Unfortunately, the off-injured Tuomu Ruutu is injured again as the season nears, leaving the wings fairly barren. Rookie Elias Lindholm is being given a good look.

On defense, the ‘Canes are led by youngster Justin Faulk, still suffering through his learning curve. Usual blueline leader Joni Pitkanen is once again broken, leaving the likes of Tim Gleason, Jay Harrison, Andrej Sekera, Leafs cast off Mike Komisarek and Jets castoff Ron Hainsey to mind the store in front of stalwart netminder Cam Ward.

The ‘Canes improved their backup position by signing Bruin Anton Khudobin in the off season.

Expect Carolina to show some good stuff but also to suffer through some lows – especially if injuries set in as franchise depth is lacking. Playing in the new Metropolitan Division, the club will face more regular tough battles for points and it will show in the end.

Chicago Blackhawks

Stanley Cup hangover or the first team to repeat as champs since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings?

The Hawks have the horses to stampede back to the Holy Grail but how much was taken out of the horses in the compressed schedule madness that ended just three short months ago?

With Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, the Hawks pack all-world punch and coach Joel Quenneville rolls four complete lines. Youngsters Marcus Kruger, Andrew Shaw, Brandon Saad and Brandon Pirri provide solid secondary scoring and each player stands to be better this year. Bryan Bickell and Michal Handzus will also provide veteran support.

Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are the best blueline pairing in the NHL. Two cups in four years, with an Olympic gold medal included, speaks volumes toward that.

After the dynamic duo the Hawks have up-and-coming Nick Leddy, steady Niklas Hjalmersson and veterans Johnny Oduya and Michal Rozsival.

Being a cup winner makes every goalie seem better and such is the case with Corey Crawford, backed up by veteran Nikolai (Bhulin Wall) Khabibulin. Talented Finn Antti Raanta is also knocking on the door.

The Hawks will be among the league’s elite again this year and only bad luck will deter that from happening.

A factor that could impact their season is the Olympics, as almost their entire core group will be playing, which could result in some injury or fatigue issues.

Colorado Avalanche

Just like the original Quebec Nordiques, the Avalanche are building a winner.

And they will make good use of another high draft pick following another learning lesson season in 2013/14.

The Avalanche will rival the Oilers as the envy of the NHL when it comes to young forwards in five years. Futility on the ice resulted in the Penguins and Capitals scoring the likes of Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin and Backstrom.

The Avs’ recent futility has resulted in future first line center Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog being added to a forward group that includes Paul Stastny, Ryan O’Reilly, PA Parenteau, Jamie McGinn, Steve Downie and recently re-obtained Alex Tanguay. On paper, that is a lot of potential goals.

Sadly, for the Avs, much of that talent is peach fuzz young and defensively deficient.

Making matters worse is a thin blueline led by former potential stud Erik Johnson. Veterans Jan Hejda, Matt Hunwick and Cory Sarich and youngster Tyson Barrie with a few other slugs and pylons round out this potentially often-exploited crew.

It will be another long year in the nets for Semyon Varlamov and JS Giguere.

Expect the Avs to showcase flashes of offensive intensity but they will also often be simply offensive and another top five selection should be on hand next summer.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Will a move to the Eastern Conference set the emerging Jackets back?

The club has had to contend with Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Nashville on a regular basis the past few seasons and began to compete well with those clubs. So facing Detroit, Boston, Rangers, Pittsburgh, Philly and Washington won’t be a stretch.

The Jackets will live and probably die based around the output of the fragile Marian Gaborik and free agent fish Nathan Horton, who won’t be lacing them up until at least December. Aside from those two elite forwards, the BJs have a useful group including Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, RJ Umberger and Nick Foligno, with intriguing youngsters such as Cam Atkinson and Ryan Johansen possible breakout candidates.

Jack Johnson anchors an underrated blueline, with veterans Fedor Tyutin, James Wisniewski and Nikita Nikitin providing valuable support. Youngster Ryan Murray will get a good shot along with David Savard.

In goal, the Jackets have the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in Sergei Bobrovsky backed up by Curtis McElhinney.

The Jackets’ secondary scoring better be solid and staying relatively injury free is key for the club to enjoy success. With good coaching, this team could surprise. My guess is Columbus finishes ninth in the East.

Dallas Stars

It’s a shiny new season in Big D.

The franchise swung for the fences in the off season and nicked potential top line center and star Tyler Seguin from the deep Bruins, for stud winger Loui Eriksson.

The trade allows Seguin to play his more natural center position and moves Stars’ franchise player Jamie Benn back to the wing, where he’s more comfortable. Now if these two can stay comfy playing together, along with either fading vet Erik Cole or big rookie winger Alex Chiasson, the Stars may improve upon last season.

Ageless wizard Ray Whitney is back to anchor the second line, with newly acquired Rich Peverley at centre. Rookie Valeri Nichushkin will be given every opportunity to show his stuff for fear he will run home to mama Russia if all doesn’t go according to plan.

Former Oiler Shawn Horcoff will be an improvement at third line center for the Stars, with former ICE Cody Eakin ready for more minutes. Capable vet Vern Fiddler holds down the fourth line with a slug of muckers vying for ice time.

The Stars brought veteran Sergei Gonchar aboard to improve pop from the backend, along with fellow former Pen Alex Goligoski. After that, the Stars’ blueline is a patchwork currently consisting of Trevor Daley, Stephane Robidas and Brendon Dillon.

The capable but periodically fragile Kari Lehtonen will be asked to carry the load in goal, with so-so backup Dan Ellis getting the odd game.

If everything goes smoothly, Dallas will be a competitive team. I sense growing pains await this team as Seguin struggles to assume control of such a large task (he was spared it in Boston). Overall thin franchise depth could also play havoc and the Stars could suffer a major slide at mid season.

Detroit Red Wings

Blah blah blah – the Red Wings are going to crush the east – huff puff and chuff.

Don’t believe it. The Wings won’t feast on the east because this isn’t the Wings of old.

They’re still good though.

Any team with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg highlighting a deep group of forwards stands to do well. The theft addition of Daniel Alfredsson from Ottawa gives the Wings a ‘win one for great player who has never won one’ factor, ala Boston and Iginla, as well as a competent and still productive winger. The Wings will get secondary scoring from Stephen Weiss, who should prove to be one the best off-season pickups, Johan Franzen and young Tomas Tatar may be an emerging player.

The Wings will roll four excellent lines and with Mike Babcock behind the bench, they will be their usual disciplined, systemic selves.

Where the Wings may suffer is on the point.

Niklas Kronwall has become the man on the Wings’ blueline and he’ll carry the load again. He will need his running mates (Jonathan Ericsson, Jakub Kindl, Kyle Quincy and youngsters Brendan Smith and Danny DeKeyser) to play their best as well.

Netminder Jimmy Howard will get the bulk of the games, with Jonas Gustavsson backing him up.

Like the Hawks, the Wings will be sending a passel of players to Sochi, which could sap some late season energy, especially considering the likes of Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Kronwall will be playing massive minutes.

The Wings won’t dominate the East, but they’ll be in the middle of the playoff pack.

Edmonton Oilers

Is this the year the youthful Oilers take the next step?

Yes and no. It is the year they push up from the draft lottery realm and finish in the no-man’s land that is almost making the playoffs.

Taylor Hall is emerging as a dynamic force, while Jordan Eberle and Nail Yakupov pose mind bending potential, as well as once-again injured Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, while the addition of David Perron from St. Louis provides a veteran winger to go along with Ales Hemsky. Sam Gagner starts the year on IR.

The Oilers made strides in improving their bottom six forwards this off season with the acquisition of unheralded but extremely useful Boyd Gordon, a faceoff and penalty killing demon for the Phoenix Coyotes these past few seasons. Captain Canada Ryan Smyth returns for his 18th season – one that will see him man the fourth line.

On the back end the Oilers have emerging star Justin Schultz leading the attack. The off-season addition of Andrew Ference, now the franchise’s 14th captain, was a wise move. Jeff Petry and Ladislav Smid round out the top four, with capable vet Nick Shultz assuming a third pairing spot.

In goal, big Devan Dubnyk continues to emerge as a quality starter and he’ll be pushed this year by former Coyote Jason Labarbara and former Star Richard Bachman.

Aside from the always loopy Ben Eager and recently acquired mauler Steve MacIntyre on the roster, the Oilers don’t pack much team toughness and that will become an issue as the season progresses. In this day and age, teams don’t want to waste bench space on two minutes a game players. Toughness must be a team concept nowadays and the Oil are a couple of seasons away from getting there.

Don’t be surprised to see the Oilers scrapping for a final playoff spot with once-again rival Winnipeg Jets.

Florida Panthers

The team that is forever rebuilding continues to rebuild and because of that, it is going to be another terribly long season in south Florida.

The Panthers leave the tepid realm of the Southeast Division for the Atlantic Division where they will be torn to shreds on a fairly regular basis.

Consider their center depth: Shawn Matthias; Marcel Goc; Scott Gomez; Drew Shore; Nick Bjugstad; Aleksander Barkov. Barkov looks like he will be a beauty – but he’s 18. Bjugstad is a beast and could turn out to be a good player but he’s only 21.

Franchise player (so far) Jonathan Huberdeau will likely assume control of the team this season, but he’s also a sophomore at 20.

The Panthers’ strength is in its middling wingers, such as Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky, Sean Bergenheim and Scotty Upshall – but big surprise seasons from any one of them is unlikely.

On the blueline, the Panthers have the productive but often defensively brain-crampish Brian Campbell leading the way again, but Dmitry Kulikov will likely take over as the man on Florida’s blueline this season, paving the way for a trade at the deadline. Youngster Eric Gudbranson should improve and veterans Ed Jovanovski, and Tom Gilbert round out the minute munchers, with about four or five players vying for the sixth slot.

In net, the Panthers brought Tim Thomas out of self-imposed exile and he’ll provide valuable mentorship for Jacob Markstrom – who needs mentoring. Thomas is capable of winning games himself and he’ll have to be Boston Bruins cup run good if their Panthers have a snowball’s chance in hell of making the playoffs.

Los Angeles Kings

The only thing that will stop the LA Kings from capturing the President’s Trophy this season is a season-ending injury to star netminder Jonathan Quick.

Good health through the season will see the Kings summit the top of the NHL regular season mountain.

The only changes to the Kings’ line up from last year is the addition of winger Matt Frattin to the top six of Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Justin Williams. They also added scrappy Daniel Carcillo from the Hawks. Like the Bruins and Hawks, the Kings ice four quality lines that adhere to a successful system pushed forward by one of the league’s top bluelines, led by Drew Doughty.

Slava Voynov has become a high-end talent and lunch bucketers like Willie Mitchell, Robyn Regehr, Alec Martinez and Jake Muzzin bring it every night.

The big Kings have depth in the system, especially up front.

Like other teams that will be sending a host of players to the Olympics, the Kings may face a late season swoon but coach Darryl Sutter is a master at preventing let downs.

Minnesota Wild

By all rights, this season should be one of transition for the Minnesota Wild; transition from being an almost ran to a playoff regular.

That doesn’t mean success is guaranteed and like many teams, the Wild’s ‘IFs’ have to pan out on the positive side of the ledger for them to enjoy a rise in the standings.

One of the big IFs is the development of talented potential second line center Mikael Granlund. If he can step up and break out, the Wild will ice two solid scoring lines.

The trio of Zac Parise, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville will be hard to play against and should rack up points. Things get cloudy after that, with the exception of Dany Heatley being second line left wing.

The Wild shipped Devin Setoguchi to the Jets and are banking on youngsters like Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker to step up. The club is also banking on former fifth overall (Islanders) pick Nino Niederreiter finding his form. Talk about an IF. IF these four players emerge – the Wild will be exciting and high scoring. If they struggle – the Wild will, too. Matt Cooke was brought aboard in the off-season to replace Cal Clutterbuck.

Like their forward group, the Wild’s blueline is a mix of high end talent, emerging talent and spare parts.

Ryan Suter’s first year in Minnesota garnered him Norris consideration and his partner, 20-year-old Jonas Brodin appears on his way to becoming the club’s power play quarterback. The Wild’s weakness seems to be the drop off after the top two defenders – with Clayton Stoner, Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon and Keith Ballard, given one last chance at career redemption, rounding out the top six.

Netminder Niklas Backstrom returns, hopefully healthy, with Josh Harding serving as backup.

Expect the Wild to take a small step forward this season and land in the playoffs.

Montréal Canadiens

It could be the best of times; it could be the worst.

The Canadiens enter the season with a pile of questions to answer. Will Carey Price return to form? Will Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher suffer sophomore letdowns? Will Andrei Markov’s leg fall off?

The NHL’s proverbial box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get with the Habs.

Up front, the club relies heavily on rugged Max Pacioretty because aside from Brandon Prust, lumbering Travis Moen and pixyish Gallagher, he’s the only forward with some pop to his game.

There is tons of skill up front with Danny Briere, Tomas Plekanec, Galchenyuk, Brian Gionta and gnome-like David Desharnais.

The Habs’ strength lies in its defense, led by reigning Norris Trophy winner PK Subban. Only 24, Subban is going to have a long season as the Olympics will be a part of it. Behind Subban is a deep group, led by often broken Markov – a sublime talent when healthy.

Josh Gorges is the soul of the unit, topped out by Francois Bouillon, Raphael Diaz and Alexei Emelin. Douglas Murray is currently injured and long-armed Jarred Tinordi is champing at the bit.

The key to the Habs is Price. If he can re-elevate his game, perhaps driven by a shot at tending Canada’s net in Sochi, Montréal is a playoff team. If he falters, the club may be forced to trade a blueline asset for help in goal as backup Peter Budaj wouldn’t take them far.

Nashville Predators

Slow and steady wins the race.

Not always and not this year for Nashville Predators.

Another off-season failure to address the club’s most glaring need – offense – could spell disaster for the league’s longest tenured coach Barry Trotz.

Mike Fisher would be an okay second line center and good third line center on most clubs. In Nashville, he’s number one. The good thing is the team’s next three pivots – David Legwand, Matt Cullen and Paul Gaustad are all quality NHLers. But none inspire terror when thinking about offensive potential.

On the wings, the Preds will be hoping Colin Wilson carries through on a strong 2012/13 and there is always steady Patric Hornqvist who should hit 25-25.

After that, things drop off. Viktor Stalberg comes from Chicago with a ring on his finger and more ice time awaits. He could surprise.

Highly skilled Filip Forsberg,19, has made the club for opening night. He’ll bear watching, too.

The strength of the Predators comes from the backend, where Norris candidate Shea Weber rules the roost. The Preds sagged from the loss of Ryan Suter last year but enviable depth should provide the oomph to alleviate that ill.

Roman Josi emerged as a quality top pairing player last year and Kevin Klein, well schooled in the Predators’ system, is underrated. Youth is being served on the blueline this year, including the arrival of surprise fourth overall pick Seth Jones. Canadian WJC and junior star Ryan Ellis will get a good look this year.

Standing tall between the pipes for Nashville is likely Finnish Olympic team starter Pekke Rinne. They best hope he stands tall and doesn’t’ fall with injury because the cupboard is pretty bare after that.

Expect another slide by the Predators this season – perhaps as far down as bottom five in the league.

New Jersey Devils

Pity the Devils.

Their superstar bailed on them; their meat n potatoes guy split for hometown Toronto; their links to the glory days are entering the twilights of their careers.

It was once extremely foolish to write off the Devils in pre-season prognostifests as GM Lou Lamoriello always seemed to stitch together cohesive units (much the way Phoenix’s Don Maloney now does) that not only made the playoffs but won cups.

That said, the Devils will be hard pressed to battle into the playoffs this year.

Lamoriello added pop to his club by signing the largest skating butt in the league – Jaromir Jagr, who will likely skate on a line with the possibly emerging Adam Henrique and free agent signing Ryan Clowe. The first line will be the slowing Patrick Elias, Travis Zajac and Michael Ryder – not exactly terrifying in the grand scheme. Competent and capable but easily defended.

After that, it is a collection of spare parts.

On the blueline, the Devils will lean on Andy Greene ahead of a collection that includes the soft and aging Marek Zidlicky, tough Anton Volchenkov, serviceable Bryce Salvador and emerging Adam Larsson.

In goal, arguably the greatest all-time netminder Martin Brodeur will have a backup capable of replacing him in Cory Schneider. The Devils are set in net.

Like Nashville and Phoenix, the Devils’ best bet for success this year will come through tough team defensive play and opportunism.

I expect the Devils to just miss out on the playoffs.

New York Islanders

John Tavares arrived last year. He’s now a top five scoring guy on everyone’s mind.

Along with taking over as the Islanders’ captain, Tavares will now have to carry his club one more time up that steep Eastern Conference slope to the playoffs.

Will the supporting cast he pulls along provide support?

Tavares reminds me of Dale Hawerchuk when he carried the Winnipeg Jets. People think of Crosby, Malkin and Stamkos before Tavares, just like people thought of Gretzky, Lemieux and Messier before Ducky.

Whereas Ducky has Paul McLean batting in rebounds and eating his garbage, Tavares has Matt Moulson who reaps the benefits of this year’s potential MVP’s play.

After that the Isles are a collection of IFs and maybes. If Kyle Okposo plays the way he did in the playoffs; if Josh Bailey takes another step forward; if Michael Grabner chips in secondary scoring – the Isles will be able to score.

The addition of ultra fragile Pierre-Marc Bouchard will boost secondary scoring, too. Add Cal Clutterbuck’s rampaging shifts of carnage will add energy to the lineup. Frans Nielsen is an underrated talent, too.

Like the Avs, the Isles are forming a wicked nucleus up front; it’s their backend that is sagging.

While there are a few quality prospects in the system, the Isles enter the season with a shaky blueline.

Travis Hamonic took huge strides forward last year and can be considered the lynchpin of this motley lot. Andrew MacDonald has become a solid stay-at-homer. Lubomir Visnovsky, 37, can bring some pop from the point but he’s soft and waning. After that – Thomas Hickey, former fourth overall pick of the Kings, may show something. Matt Carkner will get into some scraps.

All that doesn’t bode well for netminder Evgeny Nabokov, 38. Backing him up is Kevin Poulin, 23. You can see the potential for disaster with this lot.

Man, this team really reminds me of the Winnipeg Jets circa 1985. Except the Jets were slightly better. I expect the Isles to fall backward this year.

New York Rangers

The Rangers will make the playoffs despite themselves.

By that I mean they will get there based on their strengths and they will implode once there because of their weaknesses.

The Blue shirts have elite talent at forward, defense and goal and they have decent depth, evidenced by them sending Chris Kreider to the minors to start the year.

With new coach Alain Vigneault, the Rangers are expected to be more explosive and a little less collapse-around-the-netty. That bodes well for Rick Nash, Brad Richards, Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin, Derick Brassard and Ryan Callahan.

It may stress the blueline’s comfort zone, though, and confuse the lesser lights on the third and fourth lines. Expect fierce competition for the final three forward spots – running all through the season.

The Rangers’ blueline remains one of the deepest in the NHL, though it really doesn’t have a true number one defender.

Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal are excellent defenders, with McDonagh able to provide some pop. Michael Del Zotto has the best offensive upside but struggled on the power play last year – a sign the Rangers still need a quarterback.

The saving grace for the Rangers remains King Henry – netminder Henrik Lundqvist, still considered among the best in the world. He is backed up by one of the best second ‘tenders in the league in Martin Biron.

If Coach V finds the right buttons to push, the Rangers should be a force this season.

I would expect them to finish in the top 10 in the league.

Ottawa Senators

It’s a new era in Ottawa after heart and soul captain Daniel Alfredsson basically said ‘Detroit gives me a better shot at a cup than you guys.’

Lo and behold, rather than fall over wounded and whiney, GM Bryan Murray improved the team by trading for scoring winger Bobby Ryan, who should prove to be a quality fit with captain Jason Spezza (if he can stay healthy). Another often injured first liner, Milan Michalek, provides quality pop when healthy.

Spidery Kyle Turris should continue his slow improvement and flirt with 50 points, while Cory Conacher, Clark MacArthur and Colin Greening will chip in secondary scoring. A player to watch for is Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Surprisingly, prized youngster Mika Zibanejad has been sent to the minors.

The star in Ottawa remains top blueliner Erik Karlsson. If he can stay healthy he gives the Senators a chance to win every night with his timely rushes and heads up smarts.

Marc Methot has quietly evolved into a solid defender – even getting consideration for Canada’s Olympic team, while Joe Corvo was brought aboard to provide secondary punch from the point. Jared Cowen and Chris Phillips will give the Sens further quality stay-at-home minutes behind Corvo, while rangy Patrick Weircioch seems to have locked down the sixth spot.

Craig Anderson has been one of the best in the world the past few seasons but injuries continue to impact his time between the pipes. The Sens have a quality backup and likely future number one in Robin Lehner.

Like every team, the Sens have to rely on good luck and health to help get them to the playoffs. A healthy year from Spezza, Karlsson and Anderson will ensure a playoff appearance as a six to eight seed.

Philadelphia Flyers

The Philadelphia Flyers have been the enigma of the NHL the past few seasons.

Sometimes great, sometimes terrible; up and down and sideways, the Flyers have generally underachieved.

Center Claude Giroux is entering his prime years and he leads a forward attack that includes veteran wingers Scott Hartnell, Matt Read and Max Talbot along with arrived wingers Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds and arriving Brayden Schenn.

That sounds pretty good but even better when considering the Flyers depth at center, with Vinny Lecavalier manning the second line and Sean Couturier the third.

This crew shouldn’t have trouble scoring.

Aiding the scoring will be newly arrived defender Mark Streit, who will spell off aging Kimmo Timonen as the go-to guy on the Flyers’ D.

While the Flyers’ blueline may have a touch more pop this season, it will still be a work in progress as Braydon Coburn stutter-steps forward in his career. Luke Schenn appears to have found a home in Philly and could take a step forward this season.

Serviceable but unnoticeable types like Bruno Gervais, Nicklas Grossmann and Andrej Meszaros round out the blueline – never the same since Chris Pronger went on LTIR.

The Flyers – apparently where goalies go to die (one literally) – are taking a shot at Ray Emery in place of ‘Afraid of bears’ Ilya Bryzgalov, with former Calder winner Steve Mason pushing for games. This could work well for the Flyers. Or the weird hoodoo that infects normally decent goaltenders in Philly strikes again. Considering Ray Emery’s slightly off-kilter past – be prepared Flyer fans.

Despite the gaudy frontal exterior, I think the Flyers will find a way to stumble for a lengthy spell during the season, stopping their quest to make the playoffs and they will scuffle over the finish line in 11th place in the East.

Phoenix Coyotes

No team has done more with less in the last four years than the Jetdogs.

Thanks sage GM Don Maloney and coach Dave Tippett, the Coyotes slogged through four years of impending doom by posting some of the finest seasons in franchise history. Each time they did (except last year), they not only made pre-season prognosticators look bad, they insulted their sisters, too.

Buoyed by new ownership (mostly Canadian), the dogs are again being roundly selected to finish near the bottom of the west.

Poppycock. It would require catastrophic failures in key areas for that happen.

Phoenix is four deep at center and enters the season with a certified number one center after signing free agent Mike Ribeiro away from Washington. Emerging speed demon Mikkel Boedker and Shane Doan will start the season flanking the shifty Ribeiro.

Huge and underrated Martin Hanzal will man a second line with potential 30-goal man Radim Vrbata.

That’s where it seems to end for the Coyotes, when it comes to offence, but Antoine Vermette, David Moss and Lauri Korpikoski can provide timely secondary scoring.

But the Coyotes’ franchise strength clearly lies along the blueline, where 22-year-old Oliver Ekman-Larsson is turning into an elite player. He is paired with steady shotblocker Zbynek Michalek.

Making the dogs more difficult to defend against is the fact their second pairing features Keith Yandle, who led the team in scoring last year. Capable vet Derek Morris runs shotgun with Yandle.

The club’s third pairing gives a good glimpse at its strengths, especially while vet Rostislav Klesla is injured. Michael Stone and David Rundblad appear to be favourites heading into the season – giving the dogs even more firepower from the backend, with Stone packing a heavy shot and Rundblad extremely creative with the puck.

In goal the club is hoping 2011/12 MVP Mike Smith rebounds from a difficult 2012/13, where injuries took a toll. One of the favourites to lock down one of three coveted spots on Canada’s Olympic team, Smith will likely get back to form. Thomas Greiss came aboard from San Jose and should be an effective backup.

Expect Phoenix to scrape and scratch into the playoffs in the seventh or eighth seed.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Simmer down! Yes the Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, a few decent wingers and a highly productive blueliner.

They also have a number one goalie with puck deflecting worms burrowing in his brain and capable backup/number 1A goalie Tomas Vokoun, 37, is injured to start the year.

Nothing is a given for the Pens this season, especially considering Crosby’s unfortunate recent injury history.

But if Crosby and Malkin can forge through the year with good health, the Pens will have their way with many, many teams.

Chris Kunitz had a solid season last year patrolling Crosby’s left wing. Pascal Dupuis, 34, provided yeoman’s service on the right and they should once again be up to the task. Just makes you stop and ponder what kind of points Crosby would pile up if he had elite wingers.

Malkin is lucky enough to have one close to elite in James Neal. Only 26, Neal’s best hockey is ahead of him and it should manifest playing with the slick Malkin. Former shootout wizard Jussi Jokinen or sophomore Beau Bennett will get looks on the left wing.

Brandon Sutter, now 24, should begin to grab hold of his third line pivot responsibilities, leading a relatively mediocre bottom six forward group.

Kris Letang will fatten his stats again thanks to Sid and Malkin, leading the Pen’s blueline. Rob Scuderi bring Stanley Cup smarts and Paul Martin has a chance to show that last year’s resurgence wasn’t a fluke. Brooks Orpik brings thump and experience, while the fifth and six spots are up for grabs. That could be a good thing or a problem for the Pens because goaltending has been their Achilles Heel.

Marc-Andre Fleury burned in the atmosphere last year and if he isn’t back to form, the Pens could flounder.

Expect Fleury to regain his game and the Pens to dominate, finishing in the top four in the league. And then expect Fleury to start scratching at the sides of his head when the playoffs begin.

St. Louis Blues

The Blues look like a team that should challenge for the Stanley Cup. Many pundits believe it shall be so.

And I find it hard to argue.

The Blues, while not a potent team on the attack, are four lines deep with sound NHLers (David Backes, Alex Steen, TJ Oshie, Derek Roy, Chris Stewart, Patrik Berglund) with just enough rawness to instill pause in opponents (Vladimir Tarasenko) and quality role players comfortable with coach Ken Hitchcock’s system.

Up front, the Blues have size, improved depth and speed heading into the season with some players still trending upward (Oshie, Berglund, Steen).

A competent front group gets all the support it needs from arguably the best blueline in the NHL, led by Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Boumeester. The Blues have a mobile, skilled and comprehensive unit that includes Trail’s Barret Jackman, Jordan Leopold, Roman Polak and Ian Cole. Scariest thing about the Blue’s D is they are still a year or two from really hitting their best stride.

In goal the Blues have two strong ‘tenders in Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak, with Jake Allen forcing them to be their best.

A potential impact on the team will be what Pietrangelo (Canada), Backes, Shattenkirk (USA) and Steen and Berglund (Sweden) have left in the tank after the Olympics.

If their goaltenders stray back toward 2011/12 numbers, the Blues will be a dominant force in the west. If they are average, St. Louis will still be a top four team in the West.

The Blues also have enough depth and prospects, and cap space, to make a deal or two to address needs.

San Jose Sharks

Ever since the Sharks stole Joe Thornton from Boston (2005), this team has been a proverbial favourite to ‘finally get it all together.’

This year seems to be no different as many pundits once again have gushing man crushes on the Sharks’ chances.

However, Joe Thornton is no longer the man. He’s second line material now in San Jose. Logan Couture has come of age, giving the Sharks enviable one-two line punch up the middle, with Joe Pavelski coming in as a highly effective third line center.

Patrick Marleau and Brent Burns, seemingly permanently converted from defense, are top six regulars, along with Martin Havlat (hockey’s equivalent to Buck Pierce).

The Sharks brought in Tyler Kennedy from Pittsburgh and are hoping that Raffi Torres will stop trying to decapitate people to show he can play in the top nine, to boost secondary scoring. In the tight checking Pacific, easier said than done.

Dan Boyle’s legs seem to be holding out and he’ll give the Sharks his usual zip from the point, while Marc-Edouard Vlasic brings a steady, minute munching presence. Brad Stuart, 33, and Scott Hannan, 34, brings plenty of big game experience, while out-of-nowhere man Matt Irwin looks to build on a great debut. Additionally, the Sharks have several capable young defenders ready to step in, so depth shouldn’t be a problem on their blueline.

Antti Niemi, 30, is entering his prime, has already won a cup, and he was among the best in the league last season. His game will be the main reason the Sharks make the playoffs this year.

I don’t see the Sharks being a dominant force. It will be tough shutting down the top two centers but deeper defensive clubs will be able to get it done. The Sharks will feast on the weak but struggle to keep pace with their peers, especially their longtime Pacific Division foes, many built in part to adequately take them on.

The Sharks appear set to weather injuries, unless it is to Niemi. Losing Thomas Greiss to Phoenix makes forest green Alex Stalock backup.

Expect the Sharks to make the playoffs but I have them finishing eighth in the West.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Steven Stamkos is part of the great Canadian offensive dynamo triumvirate heading into the Olympics, along with Sidney Crosby and John Tavares. He’s that good.

But poor Steven, as well as the ageless Martin St. Louis, is not enough to make the Tampa Bay Lightning a good team – only one fun to watch.

Jonathan Drouin looks like another St. Louis-in-making, but bigger, but he’s been sent back to Halifax for the year. Cue crazed, skin blistering clapping from Canada’s World Junior Championship selection group.

That seemed to send a signal from manager Steve Yzerman – the Lightning know they are not there and are going to make this year a developmental one.

Vinny Lecavalier was replaced by Valtteri Filppula, who underwhelmed in Detroit last year and that is really the only big change to last year’s sad sack squad.

Ryan Malone checks in as the top left winger and he forecasts as at most a 30 point player. Teddy Purcell checks in as the next best winger and the 28-year-old could be the biggest surprise player for Tampa this year.

After that, it’s a throng of brain eating zombies patrolling enemy ice for the Lightning.

Victor Hedman is starting to fit into his man skates (size big – he’s 6’6”) and if he can push the envelope, he can elevate the Lightning’s success level. However, he’s the only bright spot on the blueline, populated by aged cast offs from other franchises, including Eric Brewer, Mattias Ohlund and Sami Salo, with last year’s so-so free agent signing Matt Carle the youngest at 29.

Depth is not a strength of the Lightning’s blueline, which is a bad thing because several of their key vets are breakable.

Mid 20s monster netminders Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback (6’7” and 6’6” respectively) will be hard pressed to post good numbers this season. Don’t hold it against them. They both seem to have potential and that could also bail the Bolts out now and then.

It won’t be enough. Tampa Bay will be the second worst team in the league this year, finishing ahead of the Flames.

Goes to show what star power does without a supporting cast.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Once you wade through the tsunami surge of gargle spit coming from Toronto about how the Leafs are poised for great things, consider that their best player is an ankle-slashing sissy.

Granted, he slashed at ankles belonging to a being that would have consumed him with a loud roar, but Phil Kessel cast a pall on the Leafs heading into this season with his back pedaling hackerfest on Buffalo’s John Scott; and it cost them the services of the player that had everyone sporting Viagra four-hourers when it came to budland banter, for the first 10 games of the season.

Never mind the loss of David Clarkson. The Leafs will be fine. The Kessel/Scott incident will serve as a bonding tool and it will help the Leafs overcome the fact that Tyler Bozak is their number one center. A would-be adequate number two center, Bozak is at least comfy with linemates, fellow light-weight Kessel and exuberant but breakable Joffrey Lupul, who could crack the 55 point plateau if he can stay off the IR.

It is the Leaf’s second line that is causing the buzz this year, with Clarkson and Nazem Kadri (center) joining the still-improving James van Riemsdyk in what should be a difficult trio to keep in check.

Nikolai Kulemin and recently acquired Dave Bolland give the Leafs skill and experience on the third line, with several slots open in the bottom six, other than Jay McClement’s fourth line checking spot.

Losing Clarkson early on merely gives young players a longer look, which will benefit the Leafs later in the season.

One thing is for sure on the Buds’ back end – John-Michael Liles won’t be among the starters. He was sent packing to the farm this week.

Captain Dion Phaneuf brings his erratic and sometimes brilliant game as the anchor to the Leafs’ blueline, with up-and-comer Jake Gardiner poised to step up as a puck mover.

Cody Franson pop is back for at least one more year as the Leafs struggle to fit him in the cap situation and steady Carl Gunnarsson returns. The final two spots will be up for grabs for the opening few months, with Paul Ranger, Korbinian Holzer, Mark Fraser and youngster Morgan Rielly in the mix.

The Leafs could stand to upgrade their blueline depth but there’s enough there to work effectively with the improve group up front.

Adding netminder Jonathan Bernier from LA gives the Leafs a strong two-headed monster in goal, along with James Reimer. Both goalies are only 25 and the competition for playing time should benefit the Leafs. Unless they falter and then… we’ll all be sorry.

Never mind, expect the Leafs to finish fifth of sixth in the East.

Vancouver Canucks

The time is now.

Is it really? Already? Shit.

Henrik and Daniel Sedin turned 33 Sept. 26.

Oft-injured second line necessity Ryan Kesler turned 29 in August.

Re-wooed Roberto Luongo is 34 and signed until 2344 with a contract that sucks.

The only core player on the Vancouver Canucks under the age of 30 (other than Kesler) is defenseman Alexander Edler (27).

So the time truly is now for the Canucks, and it will be difficult because there are cracks in this team’s armour.

The Sedins remain an elite offensive force and with Kesler’s rambunctious charging and Alex Burrows timely work there is enough spark to push the Canucks’ offence.

Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen provide guaranteed wing support, while David Booth, the always broken, appears to be a waste of roster space and Zack Kassian may still be a year or two away.

Mike Santorelli wowed fans and coaches alike to make the Canucks as an energy player and something about him screams ‘career season.’ But don’t get too excited. That would be a 10 goal, 15 assist marvel from the third or fourth line.

Jordan Schroeder will be given another shot at proving himself, though he is now injured.

It remains to be seen how the manic John Tortorella will work with this group of players. He expects the Sedins to block shots like everyone else. That may not compute and stress fractures may develop from the core players who may have been somewhat insulted when ownership plopped Captain Happy Torts in their midst.

On the backend, the Canucks are stronger than last year with a seemingly set six that includes the sublime Edler, underrated Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Bieksa, Jason Garrison, Chris Tanner and newcomer Yannick Weber, who has offensive potential.

And finally – it is Vancouver – goaltending. The soap opera is over and Roberto Luongo is still the starter. Good news for Canucks fans – Luongo is still an elite goalie.

Bad news, should he suffer from brain cramps again, his backup is mostly untested Eddie Lack rather than Cory Schneider.

The transition to Tortorella’s way may cause some issues for Vancouver’s core group, prompting much concern and tension and it wouldn’t shock me to see the Canucks being the first time to jettison a coach. It’s the Sedins or the coach – you choose Vancouver management. The twins have three to five good seasons left in them apiece… one plus one is… At the very least, it will be fun watching firebrand Torts go at it with Vancouver gin sippin’ and crustless sandwich nibblers.

If good health is blessed on the Canucks this year, they should finish in the middle of the pack in the West playoff picture.

Washington Capitals

Can a great player carry you into the playoffs? In the case of the Washington Capitals – yes.

Great eight – Alexander Ovechkin is 28 this year – meaning he is in the hot center of his potential. That potential was doubted when he struggled early on last year, after he switched to right wing but he finished the year capturing another Rocket Richard Trophy and the Hart Trophy as league MVP.

Ovechkin and his prolific center Nicklas Backstrom return this year with improving Marcus Johansson as the Capitals’ top line and production should be expected.

After that it is any one’s guess.

Brooks Laich is expected to center the second line but he’s starting the season busted, meaning Mikhail Grabovski will get a great shot at showing the Leafs he has points left in the tank. Martin Erat and Troy Brouwer will provide decent wingers for him, but not prodigious ones.

Eric Fehr overachieved last season after being snubbed by home-province Jets the year before and Joel Ward, while effective, will need more than Jay Beagle centering him in order to produce.

The Capitals’ blueline is again anchored by Mike Green who somewhat re-discovered his game last season, leading the league in goal scoring by a defenseman with 12.

Karl Alzner and John Carlson established themselves as top four blueliners last season, while John Erskine provided career-best minutes. It’s pretty much a crapshoot to determine who will man the fifth and sixth D spots.

In goal, the Caps will ride Braden Holtby, 24, and Michal Neuvirth, 25, again. The lack of a proven starter continues to waft over the Caps, even thought Holtby has shown some good stuff – enough to warrant a Team Canada invite.

If Laich can get back in the lineup quickly and the Caps can maintain good health, they should straggle into the playoffs in the eighth spot in the East, edging out Columbus.

Winnipeg Jets

Back into the West where they belong, the Winnipeg Jets have the misfortune of being a team just good enough to make the playoffs. That means they’re also just bad enough to not make them – meaning a middling draft pick for failure.

That record cursed the original incarnation of the Jets.

The Jets have an enviable core in place, starting with one of the game’s best captains in Andrew Ladd, two-time Stanley Cup winner. Last season was the 27-year-old’s best yet and 60 points beckons this year.

Sharing line time with Ladd is under-appreciated Bryan Little who would be best used as a second line center on a good team and growing force Blake Wheeler, who will probably lead the club in points.

The Jets’ goal scoring leader will surely be Evander Kane, who could flirt with 40, if he finds chemistry with youngster Mark Scheifele and newcomer Devin Setoguchi.

For the Jets to move upward, they need Scheifele to usurp Olli Jokinen as second line center.

A third line with the big Jokinen, crafty newcomer Michael Frolik (from the Blackhawks) and either Matt Halischuk or relentless James Wright would be an improvement over last season, as long as Jokinen sucks it up and finds his game again.

A full season from fourth line center Jim Slater would be a boost to the Jets’ team defense.

The growing strength of the club is its blueline, even thought goals against remain a concern for the Jets. Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom and Zack Bogosian form a solid top three moving forward, with Buff and Enstrom only 28 and still-improving Bogosian just 23.

Perhaps the best of the lot is joining the club this year in the form of 19-year-old Jacob Trouba – good enough to be invited to the U.S.A.’s Olympic team camp. He’ll be a Calder candidate.

Rounding out the Jets blueline is steady Mark Stuart, improving Grant Clitsome (currently injured) and one of Paul Postma or Zach Redmond.

The final line again has Ondrej Pavelec taking the bulk of the games. Entering his third season in Winnipeg (sixth with franchise), the 26-year-old is expected to elevate his game if the Jets are to push into a playoff position.


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