During the struggle, they will pull us down
But please, please, let’s use this chance to turn things around
And tonight, we can truly say
Together, we’re invincible
Everybody’s doin’ the Bucci! Why not me?
The NHL season begins in earnest tonight, after the Kings and Ducks split a “home-and-home” 8 time zones away from home over the weekend. Doesn’t quite have the same impact as the 15-game “big bang” opening night two years ago, does it?
Once again, it’s time to sharpen the skates, tape up the sticks, put on the foil, and hit the ice. It’s also time for hack columnists to blow the dust off their Big Book of Hockey Clichés, for ESPN to bury the highlights at the end of SportsCenter, and for an endless barrage of “hoc-key?” jokes.
We know better, of course. We know that what we have, while it’s not perfect, is way better than everybody else thinks it is. All we need is a chance to show them what they’re missing.
If the Kings/Ducks London games didn’t give me any unfair insight into how this season will unfold, I doubt the Ducks/Red Wings game I’ll be watching will either, but it will put me in the right frame of mind to foolishly attempt to prognosticate the end result of 2,460 games worth of regular season.
Oh, and I’ll go ahead and throw in a quickie assessment of each team’s new uniforms while I’m at it.
Boston: I think the Bruins figured poaching a player from Minnesota was some kind of magic bullet. Look at how David Ortiz worked out for the Red Sox. Randy Moss is back in his Vikings-era prime after an exile to Oakland. And the arrival of Kevin Garnett has the Celtics faithful more energized that any pre-season in recent memory. Anybody here think Manny Fernandez will have that kind of impact for the B’s? Didn’t think so. (Uniforms: Beautiful, classic look.)
Atlanta: I think they’re going to back-slide from last year, when they fell up to the Southeast title. (Uniforms: They kept the one thing nobody liked: The numberless “ATLANTA” sleeve on the home blues.)
NY Islanders: They couldn’t keep rent-a-leader Ryan Smyth. They couldn’t keep Jason Blake. But they still have 14 years to go on Rick DiPietro’s contract. Good luck with that. (Uniforms: Blue-trimmed traffic cones. Eyesores.)
In The Hunt
Florida: An example of addition by front-office subtraction. They’ll be better if only because former GM Mike Keenan is no longer associated with the franchise. The acquisition of Tomas Vokoun from Nashville will help ease the pain of trading away Roberto Luongo before last season. (Uniforms: The sleeve stripes need to go all the way around, guys. Ruins an otherwise good design.)
Philadelphia: The Flyers can’t help but be an improved team after leaving a smoking crater in Philadelphia last year. Daniel Briere alone can push them near the playoffs, and the brace of young players picked up from Nashville will add some of the speed the Flyers lacked last year. They still need a season to pull it all together, though. (Uniforms: The road whites look like wife-beaters.)
Tampa: For as great as Vincent LeCavalier and Martin St. Louis are together, they can’t make up for the goaltending duo of Marc Denis and Johan Holmqvist. (Uniforms: Cleaner logo, similar design, and they kept the armpit “victory” stripes. Not bad.)
Toronto: The make-up of this year’s Leafs squad won’t allow them to do much more than hang around all season. (Uniforms: The definition of “plain.”)
Buffalo: The Sabres are hoping that they have enough scoring depth to make up for the loss of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury in free agency. They’ll be banking on Thomas Vanek to make up most of the difference. He’s making up plenty of the payroll, thanks to the offer sheet from Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe. (Uniforms: Same as last year, which means ugly.)
Carolina: The Southeast isn’t known for producing powerhouse teams. In this division, it’s more about consistency than domination. I think the Hurricanes will be the least inconsistent of the lot. (Uniforms: A tweak of the old design. Nicely done.)
Montreal: Every season, there’s a team that’s so full of youthful exuberance, they can make the playoffs on energy alone. Montreal can be that team. Top-tier goalie prospect Carey Price will start the year with the Habs, and could get a shot if Cristobal Huet’s hamstring troubles come back. (Uniforms: Exactly what you would expect them to be.)
New Jersey: Brent Sutter is the new replaceable part on the Devils bench. Martin Brodeur is Martin Brodeur. That’s the good news. Scott Gomez is a Blue-shirt. Brian Rafalski is a Red Wing. That’s very bad news. They’ll make the playoffs, as they do every year. But will they sell out the new Prudential Center? (Uniforms: Same as last year. Same as every year since they dropped the Christmas green.)
Washington: Yeah, I said it. With Michael Nylander, Viktor Kozlov, and first round draft pick Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps are building the supporting cast Alexander Ovechkin needs to lead them back to the ranks of the elite. (Uniforms: Red, white, and blue good. Vertical piping bad.)
NY Rangers: “The best defense is a good offense,” as the saying goes. For the boys from Manhattan, it had better be. The Rangers did nothing to improve their blue line, but adding Gomez and Drury to an already potent scoring attack will put them right on the brink. Look for Henrik Lundqvist to have a breakout season. (Uniforms: Another Original Six team holds to tradition.)
Ottawa: There was nothing wrong with the roster for the Senators last year. Their ultimate failing in the Finals was about experience and heart, not matchups. They’ll learn from that, and be right back at the top of the league again. (Uniforms: Sharper logo, lots and lots of red, nice typography.)
Pittsburgh: Last year, the Pens broke out, as their young superstars accelerated their progress. This year, the expectations are far higher, and that may mean a rougher go through the regular season. The team’s leadership, young and old, will lift them to the top of the conference. (Uniforms: Growing on me. The home blacks look intimidating, emphasizing the shoulders. Odd stripes on the pants, though.)
Columbus: Ken Hitchcock is an excellent teacher. He’ll coach this team farther than most people will expect them to go. But for every star like Rick Nash, there’s an utter enigma like Nikolai Zherdev. They still have too much building to do. (Uniforms: Last year’s thirds, without the black, and with the flying Ohio flag logo in place of that lame CBJ monogram. Nice.)
Edmonton: No more Smyth, one year after “No more Pronger.” The future begins now, as the team rebuilds around top draft pick Sam Gagner. (Uniforms: More like practice jerseys, but with Florida’s half-way sleeve stripes. Ugh.)
Los Angeles: Jason LaBarbara and eighteen year old Jonathan Bernier. That’s the goaltending tandem this year for the Kings. They probably bottomed out last year. Their youth movement, led by Anze Kopitar, Jack Johnson, and Alexander Frolov, needs another year or so before they’ll contend again. (Uniforms: Close to last year, complete with wordmark hem “stripe.”)
Phoenix: Their roster looks like a Who’s Who of NHL Castoffs. Look for them to hit rock bottom this year. (Uniforms: The one thing the Desert Dogs have going for them. Clean, simple.)
In The Hunt
Chicago: Another Central team banking on youth, especially Jonathan Toews and overall #1 draft pick Patrick Kane. Unlike the Blues, the Blackhawks will rise and fall on the goaltending of Nikolai Khabibulin and Patrick Lalime. (Uniforms: Why mess with perfection?)
St. Louis: The Blues have an intriguing mix of young guns with potential (Lee Stempniak, Erik Johnson, Hannu Toivonen) and cagey veterans (Keith Tkachuk, Paul Kariya, Doug Weight). They’ll only go as far as the young guns will take them, though. They’re still missing pieces here and there. (Uniforms: Unremarkably modern.)
Vancouver: Roberto Luongo has gone from playing behind a team with no defense in Florida to a team with no offense in Vancouver. The Canucks did nothing to improve their scoring depth, so it’s up to the Sedin twins to carry the team. British Columbia is in for a rude awakening. (Uniforms: VANCOUVER! I like the return to blue and green, but the text above the crest is a step too far.)
Calgary: If nothing else, Iron Mike Keenan will put a halt to the ugly play we saw in last year’s playoffs. And Miikka Kiprusoff will improve anybody’s chances. (Uniforms: They still insist on the infamous Black C. The Alberta flag shoulder patch, patriotic as it is, clashes horribly.)
Colorado: Don’t call it a comeback. Call it a team that can rally around Smytty and Joe Sakic with rising stars like Paul Stastny and Wojtek Wolski. Their Achilles heel may be goaltending, with Jose Theodore looking like a bust, and Peter Budaj yet to prove himself over a full season. (Uniforms: Where are the mountain range hem stripes?)
Dallas: The Stars just keep rollin’ along, year after year, the very model of consistency. (Uniforms: I’ll go out on a limb and say I like the college-inspired home jerseys, with the “Dallas” text and the number beneath.)
Minnesota: Surprise! The Wild could easily bore teams into giving them 100 points, but they’re more balanced than their reputation would indicate. Besides, if I don’t say that, Derek Boogaard will hunt me down and kill me. (Uniforms: The old third is the new home, which is nice, but they kept the old roads. I was hoping they’d adapt the home design.)
Nashville: The ownership instability during this off season caused a bit of a fire sale, so the Predators will go back to being the first team that’s not Detroit in the Central. (Uniforms: Too much piping, but the lack of hideous mustard yellow is a welcome development.)
Anaheim: You don’t ever count out the defending Stanley Cup champions. As much as I like Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer, I’m almost hoping they don’t come back, because this team can learn to win without them. The Ducks won’t be quite as strong as last year, but Ilya Bryzgalov can hold the fort until Jean-Sebastien Giguere is healthy. (Uniforms: The hem stripes don’t wrap all the way around. They break under the arms. Odd, but probably necessary with all the seams in the new cut.)
Detroit: The Wings just keep making smart moves to bolster their lineup, like signing Brian Rafalski. They’re also well stocked with players who redefine “ageless”: Chelios, Hasek, Lidstrom, Holmstrom, Maltby, and Draper. (Uniforms: Classic.)
San Jose: The Sharks have three pretty good lines. They also have a line of Jonathan Cheechoo, Joe Thornton, and… well, does it really matter? The Sharks’ balanced game plan keeps getting better every year, and Evgeni Nabokov and Dmitri Patzold continue the tradition of solid, deep goaltending. (Uniforms: The new logo and orange accents look great, and the new design is timeless when everybody else went for fancy.)
East: Pittsburgh over Ottawa
West: San Jose over Detroit
Stanley Cup: Pittsburgh over San Jose. Not that I’m a homer or anything.