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
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
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.
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