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October 7, 2010
Two Bucks on Canucks

STOCKHOLM, SE -- With the 2010-11 season underway today, it’s time to step to center ice and face the music.

With the image of Patrick Kane rolling down the Wachovia Center ice still fresh in the NHL collective mind, the time honored tradition of my bad selection for this season has arrived. Maybe opening up the year in Sweden will help my chances.

For those who wager a quid or two on the team that will eventually raise the Stanley Cup, my advice to you is to eliminate my pick immediately given my (im)perfect record over the past decade.

Starting from the top, while Chicago Blackhawks’ fans will insist that the loss of nine players off the championship team really boils down to replacing Kris Versteeg and Antti Niemi, chemistry was a primary factor in them winning it all.

Coach Joel Quenneville had the right players in the right situations whenever a challenge presented itself in their championship run. They point to Dustin Byfuglien’s playoff performance as a demonstration of a six-week realization of the potential in his large hockey body and chuckle at the prospect of him playing defense with the Atlanta Thrashers.

The vets like John Madden and Andrew Ladd can be swapped out for Viktor Stahlberg, Fernando Pisani and Ryan Potluny to make the case to reserve another day in June on Michigan Avenue for a repeat parade.

They believe that Marty Turco has enough gas left in the tank and will be newly motivated with a winning team in front of him. All the major players are back and even better with a Stanley Cup championship in their body of work it makes the case for erasing the memory of another incredibly bad Cubs season very quickly.

There's a major reason why we haven't seen back to back champions in the NHL since the Detroit Red Wings did the trick in the mid-90s and it’s called parity.

The margin of difference between teams in today’s game is microscopic and with the major upheaval in Chicago, while arguably not affecting the level of talent, did massively affect team chemistry.

Yes, the team has gotten young over the summer but I think the replacements for the ones that accomplished greatness will fail when given the same opportunity.

Knocking out the champs from consideration opens up the field, not to every of one the other 29 teams but to a select few that are legitimate threats to grab the most prized trophy in all of team sports.

In the Eastern Conference, the fans in Philadelphia wonder if the Flyers are the second best team in the league after their storybook run to the Finals.

The talent level is high in Cheesesteak-land and Peter Laviolette proved that if you can deal with his ego, he’s among the finest coaches in the league. Our thought is that this team is closer to the one that was an Olli Jokinen shootout goal or Bruins choke away from playoff elimination last season. Save for Simon Gagne, the skaters are intact but it’s always a good bet to pick against the goaltending tandem of Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher. It would be a shocker to see a return to the Finals for the Flyers.

The New Jersey Devils got their man but given the way the roster is presently constituted, one wonders who inside the franchise wanted him. Given GM Lou Lamoriello’s time tested formula of drafting and developing, the nine figure contract certainly looks like it has the fingerprints of owner Jeffrey Vanderbeek all over it.

With the prospect of having to fill a new arena in Newark and fighting the constant losing battle against the Rangers for exposure in the metro New York market, it was a bold stroke that needed to be done from a marketing and ticket sales standpoint. Oh, but the price you pay to acquire the most coveted player ever to hit free agency. They lost $3 million, half of Kovalchuk’s first year salary and currency even more valuable to Lamoriello, two high draft picks as the fine for salary cap circumvention for the first Kovalchuk deal submitted to the league.

The roster is unsettled with players like Brian Rolston, Danius Zubrus and Jamie Langenbrunner wondering if they’ll earn their millions in the AHL or wearing the sweater of another team. Add to the mix the installation of John MacLean, a Devil for life, as the head man behind the bench makes New Jersey one of the biggest question marks in the conference.

Discounting the Blackhawks chances due to change in team chemistry, the lack of it in New Jersey makes them more of a pretender than contender.

In Washington, the Capitals may not garner 121 points again with the expected improvement of Tampa Bay and Carolina, but another Southeast division crown and possible Eastern Conference first seed is in their immediate future. They boast arguably the best player in the game in Alex Ovechkin, an active and visible owner and a well-run organization. The roster is deep and talented and there’s more talent coming from the pipeline, especially on defense where Karl Alzner and John Carlson (just babies at 21 and 20 years old) are expected to garner major minutes.

This is the year for the Capitals to prove to the league they have the minerals for a run to the Finals. Two seasons ago, it was a painful game seven home loss to Pittsburgh that would ‘grow character’ for a championship run last year but then the pesky Jaroslav Halak and Montreal Canadiens got in the way in April.

The slogan in Washington this season should be “No Excuses” because they have none – they should go to the Finals but won’t. Unless they find more experienced goaltending come the spring, the 22-year-old tandem of Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov don’t spell championship.

The Pittsburgh Penguins enter this season bearing multiple gifts to their fans. Not only do they open in the season with the long overdue delivery of a new home ice palace, the CONSOL Energy Center but with new on-ice assets as well.

Pens GM Ray Shero smartly added a pair of effective if not spectacular defensemen in Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek thus stabilizing what was becoming an aging and an increasingly ineffective defense. With the sting of a second round elimination fresh in the wounds of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal and with the most balanced roster in the Eastern Conference on paper, a third Penguin migration in four years to the Finals is our call.

While a familiar face will represent the East, we think a newcomer will emerge from a Western Conference that looks to be as competitive as it’s been since the lockout. We’ve busted out the possibility of a Blackhawks repeat, leaving an analysis of whom the Penguins’ June dance partner will be at task.

While Phoenix and Los Angeles stepped up surprisingly last season, neither franchise looks like a conference finalist. The Coyotes will be hurt by the departure of the aforementioned Michalek, second line center Matthew Lombardi and because they will not sneak up on anyone, it’s hard to fathom another 107 point performance out of this group. The Kings targeted Kovalchuk as the game changer necessary to put this team in serious contender mode but came second to the Devils. While adding Alexei Ponikarovsky and Willie Mitchell adds to the overall talent level of this 100 point team, they still look to be another season away from a conference finalist berth as their scoring depth will continue to be the fatal flaw.

The San Jose Sharks start the season as the favorite to capture the Pacific Division title, familiar territory for this model franchise. They’ll go to war with essentially the same skaters that were eliminated by Chicago in the second round but did a major overhaul between the pipes. Unwilling to meet the salary demands of veteran Evgeni Nabokov, they initially went the inexpensive replacement route by signing former Tampa Bay goaltender Antero Niittymaki to team with holdover Thomas Griess, clearly an indication that the days of the $ 6 million goaltender are over. Ironically, one of the principals in the case for low cost goaltending, Niemi lingered in the free agent market after the Blackhawks walked away from his arbitration award.

Sharks GM Doug Wilson smartly offered him the best franchise, a one year contract and $2 million pay; with limited options the Finnish goaltender entered the Tank motivated o show just how wrong Chicago GM Stan Bowman was. While Niemi solidifies the goaltending, the Sharks didn’t make enough changes to the core to make this a four round playoff team. No veteran Cup-winning leadership combined with the lack of a stopper on defense other than Douglas Murray will be the precursor of very familiar names leaving the Bay Area next summer.

Any team with the forward depth of the Detroit Red Wings and then adds Mike Modano to the mix has to be considered a major threat for a Finals spot. As it’s been with the last few seasons, the key to this team is their health; advocates say, if only they could stay healthy this the best team in the West. The prime reason why health is an issue is because of the advanced age of the roster across the board; twelve players of significance are over the age of 30 and such a high percentage of aged players makes it likely that the injury bug buzzes round this team again thus preventing a Finals trip.

It’s been 17 years since the Stanley Cup spent its summer with a Canadian owner. Though it’s visited many Canadian outposts since Patrick Roy and the Cardiac Habs won all those overtime games in 1993, there’s not been an engraved Canadian city on the prized chalice since Ace of Base was huge. If one team’s roster plays to its potential and they receive good hockey fortune, the Cup just might return home.

And it won’t be in Toronto.

The Vancouver Canucks possess all the ingredients necessary to get to the Finals. They have the returning Hart Trophy winner in Henrik Sedin, a goaltender who can steal a series in Roberto Luongo, exceptional team speed, and improved team defense.

We witnessed Luongo turn around a series in Game 4 against the Kings and Sedin closing it in Game 6. While they came up short against the Blackhawks for the second consecutive season, the addition of Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard puts the defense in the same conversation with the Chicago and Los Angeles contingents. Luongo ‘s release of the “C” shows maturity and a signal that he’ll be concentrating solely on winning games and not arguing referee calls.

The addition of veterans Manny Malhotra and Raffi Torres will help in the leadership category; the locker room is one of the quieter ones in the league primarily due to the vanilla personality of the Sedins, so the injection of these personalities is needed. The franchise was one of two to win 30 home games last season (Washington was the other) and their loyal and rabid fan base creates a home ice advantage that is a definite advantage to get to a one seed in the West.

While some say the offensive output drops off significantly from the first line featuring the Sedins, those claims are unwarranted; the Canucks led the Western Conference in scoring with only the Capitals exceeding them overall. Ryan Kesler may not be Nicklas Backstrom, but the Canucks’ top-six will provide more than enough offense with the expected improvement on the blue line combined with Luongo being Luongo.

With that said, there isn’t a player with more pressure on him as the season starts than Roberto Luongo, not even Carey Price.

Entering his 11th NHL season, this team presents him with his best chance to finally prove all the detractors wrong. While he won over fans with his Olympic Gold Medal winning performance, some jumped off the bandwagon again after the loss to Chicago; the critics point to the 17-17 post season record and say if not now, then when for this high visibility (and priced) goaltender.

Pound for pound, the Canucks are as talented a roster as there is in the NHL, so we’ll go with them in a seven game nail biting series over the Penguins.

The Promised Land is within reach for Vancouver and if Luongo has a career year, the subsequent party down Robson Street in June will be legendary.

Dennis Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com. You can also visit Dennis on Twitter.

  Archives:
Aug. 07, 2010 The Day the NHL stood still
Jul. 08, 2010 The Crown with Big Time Thorns
May 27, 2010 The Crown Jewel
Apr. 22, 2010 The ME in Team

 

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