Saturday, October 4, 2008

2008-2009 Predictions

About three weeks ago, I wrote an article ranking all thirty teams in the NHL. It was based on three articles I had written ranking the league's best forwards, defencemen, and goaltenders. Especially the article on bluelines created quite a stir, but there was hardly a rumble with the poll itself.

Patrick Rissmiller
Patrick Rissmiller may play against his old team in the Stanley Cup finals.
Perhaps that is because despite being the co-community leader for the San Jose Sharks, I did not rank the Sharks first. Instead, my analysis put the Detroit Red Wings in the catbird seat, and that is hardly controversial.

They lost little from the team that never needed more than six games in any series, and added Marian Hossa. They have the experience and the skill. And while other teams upgraded, most experts agree they did not catch Detroit.

But the best team does not always win the Stanley Cup. That has worked to the Red Wings detriment many times.

There are too many other factors: competition, hunger, health, and yes, luck. The latter two cannot be projected, but it is still not hard to find people like me who will try.

Here is how I project teams to be seeded for the playoffs, starting with the superior conference, the West:

1. Detroit Red Wings: not only are they the best team in the league, the rest of their division competition is weaker than any other team will experience.
2. Calgary Flames: this team will be nasty, has an elite blueline and elite goaltender, and decent forwards.
3. San Jose Sharks: three of the league's top six teams are in the Pacific, and that will prevent the Sharks from duplicating the success of the last regular season despite the huge upgrade on the blueline.
4. Chicago Blackhawks: with an elite blueline, fantastic young forwards, two good goalies, and three bad division foes, they are a cinch to make the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade.
5. Dallas Stars: this team is in the top quarter of the league in every unit, and will be able to overcome their difficult schedule.
6. Minnesota Wild: the best-coached team in the league lost too much at the centre position for what they gained back on the blueline.
7. Anaheim Ducks: losing Sean O'Donnell and Matthieu Schneider while only gaining back Ken Klee for their blueline leaves them...still the best blueline in hockey, no matter how many Wings fans think otherwise. But with those forwards in this division, I see them finishing lower in the West than they ranked on my power poll.
8. Colorado Avalanche: this was a tough call for me. The Avs definitely are not as strong in the league's most important position (goalie) and many of the core players are getting old. But their schedule will be easier than that of the Phoenix Coyotes, the Nashville Predators have lost too much, and the Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers have not caught up to them yet.

The first round winners will be the Wings, Ducks (beating a worn-down Mikka Kiprusoff), Sharks, and Stars, This would pit the Wings and Ducks in a rematch of the 2007 Western Conference Finals and the Sharks in a rematch of the one they lost in an epic 4OT game six.

The Sharks are deeper and finally have the championship experience to win their series; the Ducks will likely be too beaten up to give the Wings much trouble. But the Wings will not have the hunger the Sharks will have, and making the third round will erase a lot of doubts in Team Teal.

In the Eastern Conference, one might expect the young Penguins to be the favourite since they were clearly the best team in the conference last year. I do not even consider them the favourite in a division that edges out the Pacific as the toughest in hockey.

1. Montreal Canadiens: the team I ranked tenth in the league finishing first in the conference? They are closer to the three teams ahead of them than they are to the others in their division.
2. New York Rangers: but didn't they just lose their best skater? No, they lost their best player on offence, and they gained more than they lost. They still have an elite goalie and are solid at forward and defence.
3. Washington Capitals: they will find repeating as tough as getting there: Alex Ovechkin can't get much better and they did not upgrade the team around him.
4. New Jersey Devils: they followed the 2008 Avs' playbook in recapturing past glory with players from their past like Bobby Holik and Brian Rolston. This will put enough talent in front of Martin Brodeur to get them home ice in the first round.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins: losing more key players than they gained, they could not afford to lose their best defencemen for the bulk of the season, even with young players developing into even better ones.
6. Philadelphia Flyers: four teams in the top six from one division is unprecedented, but they all made my top eleven and will get fat off the New York Islanders.
7. Boston Bruins: even though I have them ranked behind the Ottawa Senators, I believe they have more grit and determination and will just make it in.
8. Florida Panthers: a much-upgraded blueline and a goaltender like Tomas Vokoun should be enough to make them one of the toughest teams to score on in the East. In this division, that is enough to make the playoffs over teams like Ottawa (trouble in net and now has a diminished blueline) and the Tampa Bay Lightning (the game has changed since Barry Melrose coached, and he doesn't have Wayne Gretzky...or enough of a blueline).

First-round winners will be Montreal, New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh (with Gonchar back and a fatigued Brodeur). Montreal is just barely good enough to get revenge on Philadelphia with home ice and last year's experience fueling them; New York is just barely good enough to edge Pittsburgh with the same factors.

In the early rounds, a goaltender can get hot and steal games. The later it goes, the more important a tested goalie is. Lundqvist is more tested than Carey Price, who had a couple shaky games last post-season. Home ice will not be enough to overcome that difference, and the Rangers will face the Sharks in the Finals.

San Jose has a better blueline, more experienced goaltender who will be less-heavily relied on this year and therefore less fatigued than King Henrik, and they have at least as good a blueline. In other seasons, the Eastern Conference Champion could rely on the Western team being more beat up, but New York will face a grueling divisional schedule and challenging run in the playoffs.

For the first time ever, I am picking the Sharks.

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