Archive for October, 2010

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The Season – Predictions

In Hockey Hits on October 6, 2010 by geespotting

THE SEASON

PREDICTIONS

…Ok, after analysis of each team, and each division, and every award, time to break down the standings for 2010/2011, or at least, how I see it unfolding. Let’s have a look:

EAST

1. Washington

2. New Jersey

3. Boston

4. Philadelphia

5. Pittsburgh

6. Buffalo

7. Tampa Bay

8. Montreal

___________

9. Ottawa

10. New York Rangers

11. Carolina

12. Toronto

13. Florida

14. Atlanta

15. New York Islanders

WEST

1. San Jose

2. Vancouver

3. Detroit

4. Chicago

5. Los Angeles

6. St. Louis

7. Phoenix

8. Nashville

______________

9. Dallas

10. Colorado

11. Calgary

12. Edmonton

13. Anaheim

14. Columbus

15. Minnesota

PLAYOFFS

EAST CONF.

– Philadelphia over Washington

WEST CONF.

– San Jose over Detroit

FINAL

– San Jose over Philadelphia

…so, there you have a peek at The Season. It all begins tomorrow morning at 9am PST. Hope you can sneak it in somehow while working!

…More to come on The Season…all season long….

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Articles

The Season – 2010/2011 Award Tracker

In Hockey Hits on October 5, 2010 by geespotting

THE SEASON

2010/2011 AWARD TRACKER

…So, here is a sneak peek at who I like for each of the major awards this upcoming season:

HART

ALEX OVECHKIN, WASHINGTON

…I expect Ovie to be back in top form, and he will lead the league in goals and assists, and win his third Hart Trophy in 4 years. Funny thing is, many considered last year to be kind of an off year for Alex. Not bad for a guy that scored 50 and had a bad year. The contenders for this award will include Sidney Crosby, Roberto Luongo and Drew Doughty.

NORRIS

– DREW DOUGHTY, LOS ANGELES

…Doughty’s game improved by leaps and bounds last season, and he was able to play extremely well under pressure at both the Olympics and the first round of the playoffs too. The fact that he plays on a very talented Kings team will lead him to the Norris. Contenders will include last year’s winner Duncan Keith, Mike Green and Dan Boyle.

VEZINA

– Roberto Luongo, VANCOUVER

…This could finally be Bobby Lou’s year, and it may happen because he won’t play as much as in previous years. Expect a 65 game sked for Luongo, less distractions, and his best season yet. How he does in the playoffs remains to be seen. Contenders will include Ryan Miller, Martin Brodeur and Pekka Rinne.

CALDER

– P.K. Subban, MONTREAL

…This might come as a suprise for some, but, Subban’s playoff debut was memorable, and there is every reason to believe that he will only be better in the regular season. His ice-time and minutes on the PP will be pretty high too to accomodate an injury prone Andrei Markov. Contenders will include Taylor Hall, Jamie McBain and Jordan Eberle.

SELKE

Jonathon Toews, CHICAGO

…Another one that may look like a surprise, but, expect Captain Serious to be an even better 2 way player this season. He may be one of the few Hawk super-stars who won’t suffer from a Cup hangover. His work ethic and focus will be pushed to the test this season with the departure of John Madden, meaning more defensive responsibilities than ever before. I expect him to get the job done! Contenders include Ryan Kesler, Vernon Fiddler and Zach Parise.

LADY BYNG

– Daniel Sedin, VANCOUVER

…He might have won this award last season if not for the early season injury. He will put up the points with minimal pm’s and get a shot to win this one, plus he has to win one major award to tie his bro Henrik. Contenders will include Zach Parise, Marty St. Louis and Anze Kopitar.

ADAMS

– Davis Payne, ST. LOUIS

…Expect a better season from the Blues, and it will start with the guidance of Payne. After replacing Andy Murray last season, the Blues started another late season run, and it appears that this team reacted very well to his coaching. Expect a playoff spot and the coach of the year nod for Payne. Contenders will include Guy Boucher, Marc Crawford and Lindy Ruff.

– So, there is a peek at the major awards from the NHL. Up next, I will preview the conference standings, and look ahead to the conference finals, Stanley Cup final, and the eventual champ. The Season preview will wrap with that. The puck drops in less than 48 hours!

Articles

The Season – Northwest Division

In Hockey Hits on October 4, 2010 by geespotting

THE SEASON

NORTHWEST DIVISION

…It’s the final preview of the 6 divisions in the NHL, and a peek at the Northwest. It may be a long season for most of these teams, and I am not talking long in terms of quantity. Other than the Canucks, I expect the rest of the division to miss out any playoff berths. Let’s run it down:

1. VANCOUVER CANUCKS

FRANCHISE PLAYER: Roberto Luongo

…Despite the Hart and Art Ross Trophy wins for Henrik Sedin, Roberto Luongo is still the franchise in Vancouver. The skeptics were on him again following a playoff loss to Chicago, but, Bobby Lou battled through a pair of injuries, the pressure of being the go-to goalie in his hometown during the Olympics, and being the Captain of the Canucks. This season, no worries about 2 of those 3. There is a bit of concern in Canuckville as Luongo is battling groin problems heading into the season, but, he isn’t the captain anymore, and the Olympics are done. Good news is that Cory Schneider will finally step up as the backup in Vancouver, and could give Roberto a bit more relief than he has had in previous seasons. The ‘Nucks were one of the busiest teams in the off-season, and it starts on D, and the depth they now have. Adding Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard gives them two mobile d-men who can play at both ends of the ice, and with some toughness too. Add to that, the offence of Ehrhoff, Edler and Bieksa, and that is a very solid front five. Sami Salo is hurt (again) and his cap numbers won’t hurt the Canucks, but, when he is ready to return, there may be a move or two that will accomodate that. Up front, the Sedins are now mentioned in the same breathe as the Pittsburgh and Washington duos, and you can expect at least top 10 numbers from both. Ryan Kesler has emerged as one of the best 2 way players in the league, and one of the most despised too! The depth continues with Burrows (hurt for another month or so), Raymond, Samuelsson, and newcomers Manny Malhotra, Raffi Torres, and the much anticipated debut of youngster Cody Hodgson. The Canucks also have some grit and toughness, and one of the most feared fighters in the game, Rick Rypien. There is reason for the optimism in Vancouver, and reason for some of the off-season publications (Hockey News being one) saying that the Cup will finally return to Vancouver. At the very least, a solid regular season could see Vancouver near the top of the conference!

PRIME POOL PIX: Roberto Luongo, Christian Ehrhoff, Alexander Edler, Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, Ryan Kesler, Mason Raymond, Mikael Samuelsson, Alex Burrows.

BUYER BEWARE: Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo, Raffi Torres.

2. COLORADO AVALANCHE

FRANCHISE PLAYER: Craig Anderson

…The Avs are loaded with a ton of young talent, and probably a Matt Duchene comes to mind as the franchise player in Denver, but, the guy leading the franchise right now is Craig Anderson. He had remarkable numbers to start last year, and helped Colorado land the final playoff spot in the West. He may have had the performance of the playoffs, as he single-handedly almost upset San Jose in the first round. He will have to be on top of his game again for Colorado to make it big in the West. The Colorado defence is solid, but, not impressive, and if veteran players like Scott Hannan and Adam Foote hit the injury bug, some of the young players pressed into duty may not be able to deliver. Up front, Colorado does have a lot of strengths, with the likes of young stars Duchene, Chris Stewart and Paul Stastny. They also have those type of forwards that help you win, the grit players that help guide Chicago to a Cup win. There also some injury concerns with Peter Mueller and his lingering concussion problems, and the aging Milan Hejduk. The Avs will be one of the top teams for years, but, that may still be a year or two out of reach. I expect a good team, but, looking from outside of the top 8 this year.

PRIME POOL PIX: Craig Anderson, Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene, Chris Stewart, Milan Hejduk.

BUYER BEWARE: John-Michael Liles, Peter Mueller.

3. CALGARY FLAMES

FRANCHISE PLAYER: Miikka Kiprusoff

…There is no doubt that the face of the franchise, and leader of the franchise is Jarome, but, the guy that can get the franchise back into the playoffs is Kiprusoff. He is still one of the top tenders in the league, but, has fallen a bit, and may not be as intimidating as he once was. Kipper will have to step up his game if Calgary has a chance of making the playoffs. On defence, the loss of Dion Phaneuf will show this year, as he excels in Toronto. Jay Bouwmeester had a disappointing debut in Cowtown, and he will have to be better too. The rest of the defence is veteran laden, but, not as mobile as other units, and that could hurt Calgary in the long run. Up front, a top 5 finish in points for Jarome may not be enough to save this team. Even if the re-additions of Oli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay work out in some way, Calgary will still be lacking. I think that Jokinen can rebound a little, and Tanguay can be a point a game player, which means 40 points for Alex, if you catch my drift on his recent injuries. The blasts from the past continued today as the Flames signed Brendan Morrison, who will fill in for the injured Matt Stajan. The better days for Daymond Langkow have already come and gone, and I don’t think the potentials of David Moss and Curtis Glencross will amount to too much. Expect another playoff miss in Calgary this season. Go Stamps Go1

PRIME POOL PIX: Miikka Kiprusoff, Jarome Iginla, Oli Jokinen, Rene Bourque.

BUYER BEWARE: Jay Bouwmeester, Matt Stajan, Alex Tanguay.

4. EDMONTON OILERS

FRANCHISE PLAYER: Ales Hemksy

…Again, my definition of franchise player, is the guy who should lead the franchise this year. Taylor Hall is the franchise player, and the player of the Oiler future, but, you never know, he could actually lead this team in his first year. A healthy Hemsky is still a frustrating Hemsky, but, if he could piece together a healthy season, there is no reason to doubt a top 20 finish in points. He has more tools to play with than ever before, and his talent and experience should make the Oilers one of the funnest teams in the league to watch. I mentioned Hall, and he has some company with Jordan Eberle, and Magnuss Paajarvi, who was the best of the three in the pre-season. If Sam Gagner and Alex Cogliano can re-claim their games, then the Oil have a young force of talent up front. Dustin Penner will have to show that last year wasn’t a one hit wonder, and Shawn Horcoff will just have to stay healthy. These young forwards are the reason why the Oilers will climb out of the league cellar, and move up in the standings in their own division too. Real concerns are in net where Nik Khabibulin is an old goalie with injury issues, and some legal ones too. Whether Deslauriers or Dubnyk step in as back-ups or get that number one shot, they just aren’t that good. The Oiler defence has some promise with Ryan Whitney, Kurtis Foster and Ladislav Smid, but, just too many other spots on the d can be considered holey at best! A better, more exciting campaign for Edmonton, no doubt, but, the playoffs are still out of reach in the City of Champions. Hey, at least you have the Eskies…ouch!

PRIME POOL PIX: Ales Hemsky, Dustin Penner, Taylor Hall, Sam Gagner, Jordan Eberle

BUYER BEWARE: Nikolai Khabibulin, Ryan Whitney, Andrew Cogliano, Shawn Horcoff.

5. MINNESOTA WILD

FRANCHISE PLAYER: Nicklas Backstrom

…It may be a long, cold Winter in Minny as the Wild are destined to finish among the bottom of the league standings. The only saving grace, may be the grace of saves from Nicklas Backstrom. For me, he is one of the most under-rated players in the league, and will get another season of rubber after back-up Josh Harding has to pack it in for the year. It remains to be seen if newly signed Jose Theodore can provide some relief in the nets for Nicklas. The defence isn’t too bad with Marek Zidlicky, (a PP specialist), Greg Zanon, Cam Barker and Brent Burns. As the new season approaches, injury concerns are back for Burns, which has been the norm the past few seasons. Up front, Mikko Koivu has emerged as one the top playmakers in the game, but, his supporting cast is still lacking. Martin Havlat can still play, but, he has always had a history of being hurt, and history repeats itself. Andrew Brunette never seems to age, and always puts up points, but, I won’t expect too much from Eric Nystrom, Chuck Kobasew and Matt Cullen. Guillaume Latendresse was a pleasant suprise last year for Minny, but, I don’t think he will match those numbers. There are some good young players in the system, but, there are a year or two away from making the team, and making an impact. If Minnesota comes close to a playoff spot, that would be rather wild. Not even Brett Favre can save this one.

PRIME POOL PIX: Nicklas Backstrom, Marek Zidlicky, Mikko Koivu, Martin Havlat, Andrew Brunette.

BUYER BEWARE: Brent Burns, Guillaume Latendresse, Pierre-Marc Bouchard.

…So, there you have a run-through of all the divisions. Still to come, a look at some award predictions, and the conference and Stanley Cup picks too! The Season is just days away!

Articles

The Season – Pacific Division

In Hockey Hits on October 4, 2010 by geespotting

THE SEASON

PACIFIC DIVISION

…As the new season approaches, I think of all the divisions in hockey, this one will remain pretty much the same as far as standings compare to last year. The Sharks will once again rule the division, while the Kings and Coyotes will be playoff bound again, and the Stars and Ducks will be looking in from the outside. Let’s break it down:

1. SAN JOSE SHARKS

FRANCHISE PLAYER: Joe Thornton

…Last year was like any other for San Jose in the past decade. Finish among the top as far as the league goes, then disappoint in the playoffs. Well, almost like any other year. The fact that the Sharks made the Conference Final was actually a surprise for a number of prognosticators. Also, the supporting cast lead the charge on a number of nights, giving the trio of Thornton, Marleau and Heatley a break. As a matter of fact, it’s that same cast that has a number of people (including me) thinking that maybe it could be the year of the Shark. In goal, Evgeni Nabokov is finally gone. Always a great tender, but, could never succeed in the post-season. A pair of Finns will lead the way, as Cup champ Anti Niemi is there, along with Antero Niitymaki. On defence, Rob Blake is gone, but, Dan Boyle is still there, and some of the younger players will get the chance to shine more often too. Up front, that trio will still pace the way offensively, but, expect bigger things from Joe Pavelski, who was  a star in the playoffs, and Ryane Clowe. Regardless of what will happen in the playoffs, this San Jose team is a lock again for the division, and possibly the Presidents Trophy too.

PRIME POOL PIX: Dan Boyle, Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe, Devin Setoguchi.

BUYER BEWARE: Marc-Eduard Vlasic

2. LOS ANGELES KINGS

FRANCHISE PLAYER: Drew Doughty

…I do expect that the Kings will be even better this season, and could move into that 4th spot to have home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. It starts in net where Jonathan Quick will have the reins again, and he should be better too. He had a pretty solid campaign, with a few struggles here and there, and was the star of the game a couple of times in their first round loss to the Canucks. If he is to stumble, Jonathan Bernier is ready to take over. The highly touted rookie has been of the top goalies the past couple of years in the minors, and seems poised for the NHL. On defence, Drew Doughty is the key. He was incredible in his sophomore season, and excelled at the Olympics and in the playoffs too. He could be a Norris winner this season too. The Kings are blessed with a ton of young talent on the blueline, and that also includes American Olympian Jack Johnson. That duo has a ton of skill, as well as grit. Up front, Anze Kopitar had a breakout season, and gave everyone reason to believe that he will be one of the top forwards in the NHL for years to come. Add to that experience from players like Ryan Smyth, Justin Williams, Michal Handzus and captain Dustin Brown, and L.A. could be one of those teams to really watch out for in 2010/2011.

PRIME POOL PIX: Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Ryan Smyth, Alexei Ponikarovsky.

BUYER BEWARE: Jack Johnson, Jarret Stoll, Justin Williams.

3. PHOENIX COYOTES

FRANCHISE PLAYER: Ilya Bryzgalov

…The rise of the Coyotes was the team story of this past season, no doubt. With all of the off-ice turmoil that has followed this team, they somehow put it all aside, and had their best season in franchise history. Coach Dave Tippett was awarded with the Adams Trophy as coach of the year, and well deserved, as he found a way to motivate this team to believe, and also how to win in the shootout! Well, I am sure the shootout part wasn’t taught, but, the Desert Dogs had an unreal string of victories in that department, and gave them home ice for round one against the Wings. I still believe this team can be playoff bound, but, they won’t be as strong as last year. First of all, it would be hard, and cruel at the same time, to think that Ilya Bryzgalov can have the same type of season he did last year. He will have to very good again, but, I don’t think those huge numbers from last year will be back. On defence, Phoenix will be strong, with the likes of veterans Jovanovski and Aucoin, and the young impact of Yandle and Ekman-Larsson. One gap that can’t be filled is the loss of Zbynek Michalek, who left via free agency for Pittsburgh. Those stay at home shut-down d-men are so hard to come by, and he was one of the best. Up front, another big loss was that of Matthew Lombardi. As far as points go, this speedster has always been an under-achiever, but, his wheels and timely goals were a perfect fit in the desert. He was replaced by free agent signing Ray Whitney. Whitney is a great producer, but, I think his days of the big numbers are behind him, although he should help out on the power play. Wojtek Wolski is now ready to be the leader as far as points go, and I do expect a bit of a bounceback season from the captain Shane Doan. A healthy Scottie Upshall will also help, as well as contributions from guys like Martin Hanzall, Radim Vrbata and Kyle Turris, who might finally get a chance to stay with the big team. I like Phoenix (my  favorite team actually), and believe that last season’s Cinderella story was not a flash in the pan. Should be playoff bound once again.

PRIME POOL PIX: Ilya Bryzgalov, Keith Yandle, Wojtek Wolski, Shane Doan.

BUYER BEWARE: Ed Jovanovski, Ray Whitney, Radim Vrbata.

4. DALLAS STARS

FRANCHISE PLAYER: Brad Richards

…For me, the Dallas Stars are one of those make or break teams. While many are not going to give them much of a chance for a playoff berth this season, I think they will be very close. The Marty Turco days are officially over, and there are question marks in goal as Kari Lehtonen is the go-to guy. He is a quality tender, but, Lehtonen’s injury woes are a cause of concern anywhere he goes. If he can stay healthy for a whole season, and piece together some great play, the Stars have a chance. Defensively, Stephane Robidas will lead the charge, but, after that it’s a rag-tag team of no names who will have to provide a huge amount of support for Lehtonen, or Andrew Raycroft if it gets that far. Where I think Dallas has the chance to roll is on forward. It was a resurgent year for Brad Richards, who was healthy all year, and back among the top 10 scorers. It was also a big year for Swede Loui Eriksson, as he proved that he can be among the elite goal scorers in the league. After that, it’s the Dallas depth. Throw in the toughness and skill of Steve Ott and Brenden Morrow, and the play-making skills of Mike Ribiero, and you have 2 pretty good lines. But, there is more in the Lone Star state as youngsters James Neal and Jamie Benn will only continue to get better. Add some muscle with Adam Burish and Krys Barch, and you have 4 pretty competitive lines. For that reason, I think Dallas has a chance, but, they will have to keep that door shut pretty tight if they want a shot at the stars!

PRIME POOL PIX: Kari Lehtonen, Brad Richards, Loui Eriksson, Mike Ribiero, Brenden Morrow, James Neal, Jamie Benn.

BUYER BEWARE: Stephane Robidas, Fabiann Brunnstrom, Steve Ott.

5. ANAHEIM DUCKS

FRANCHISE PLAYER: Ryan Getzlaf

…The Ducks might just be the best last place team of any in the NHL. They have some pretty good ingredients. In net, Jonas Hiller has proven himself to be an elite goalie, at the NHL and international level. He will get a lot of work this upcoming season, so, if he can handle it, and play well, that’s a good start for the Ducks. On defence, they have one of the best PP d-men in the league in Lubomir Visnovksy. He should excell given all the talent that Anaheim has at forward. After that though, and Anaheim has a thin blueline, which might be their achilles heel. Adding Toni Lydman was a good off-season pick-up, but, beyond that there is just too much in-experience, and not enough mustard to get it done. No offence to Andy Sutton, but, if he is your number three d-man, then, it could be a long year. At forward, the talent is there once again, with Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan all expected to put up big numbers again. After that, you have Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu and Jason Blake, but, I think that all three have seen their better days, and for all of them to stay healthy at the same time would be a miracle. Anaheim does have good young players in Nick Bonino and Emerson Etem, but, their time to shine maybe a year or two away. The talent is there in Anaheim, but, the gap between their top players and supporting cast is way too big, which means another season on the sidelines for this once mighty Duck team1

PRIME POOL PIX: Jonas Hiller, Drew Doughty, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan.

BUYER BEWARE: Saku Koivu, Jason Blake, Joffrey Lupul.

…That does the Pacific Division. Just one more to get to, as I will preview the Northwest, and look at the expectations of the Canucks, Oilers and Flames. Also coming up, a look at to the NHL Awards, and some of this season’s front-runners.

Articles

The Season – Central Division

In Hockey Hits on October 1, 2010 by geespotting

THE SEASON

CENTRAL DIVISION

…Time now for a run-down of the three divisions in the Western Conference. We start in the Central, where you will see that my keys to success for most clubs starts between the pipes. For all 5 teams, goaltending will be the difference between home ice advantage, or a playoff spot. Here is a look at the top 5 teams this season.

1. DETROIT RED WINGS

FRANCHISE PLAYER: Jimmy Howard

…I already know what you are thinking, Jimmy Howard as the franchise player on the Wings! It’s a team stocked with talent, but, that talent relies on each other maybe more than the rest of the upper echelon teams in the league. It was a struggle last year for Detroit in the regular season, but, it was Howard who took the team on his back, and rode them into a great late season run. Injuries played a huge role in the poor start in Hockeytown, but, Howard’s numbers were remarkable, and earned him a Calder Trophy nomination as top rookie. Detroit will finish first because there is way too much talent not to. Heading into this season, they are healthy too.  Nicklas Lidstrom is another year older, but, he doesn’t have to command the ice time like he did in previous years. Bryan Rafalski adds relief for Nick on the power play, and younger players Nicklas Kronwall and Jonathon Ericsson have proved to be a good fit too. Up front, the Wings have their regular cast of stars in Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen, Filpulla and now Jiri Hudler. After a year away in Europe, Hudler is back, better, and adds to that depth that Detroit already has. I don’t think we will see the stumble like last year, and look for the Wings to be back on top again.

PRIME POOL PIX: Jimmy Howard, Nicklas Lidstrom, Bryan Rafalski, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Jiri Hudler.

BUYER BEWARE: Chris Osgood, Niklas Kronwall, Todd Bertuzzi, Tomas Holmstrom.

2. CHICAGO BLACK HAWKS

FRANCHISE PLAYER: Duncan Keith

…Will the Cup champs repeat? I am thinking they won’t, but, it is a long season, and they still have the best core of players in the league. Will there be a Cup hangover? I am thinking there will be, but, this team will still be good enough to finish 2nd in the division, and still make a run at Lord Stanley’s mug again. In net, Anti Niemi left for California waters, and was replaced by Marty Turco. Turco’s best days are behind him, and he should be challenged for the top spot in the pipes by Corey Crawford. There were goaltending concerns last year for the Hawks…but, it didn’t really hinder them as they rode their way to the Cup win. On defence, their first four, are as good as anyone else’s in the game. Duncan Keith, maybe the player of the year last year in the NHL, his partner Brent Seabrook, Brian Campbell and Nik Hjalmarsson make up that big four. The problem for them could be in the relief department, as the 5 and 6 d-men, are among the lowest rated in the league. Up front, the group of  Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp and Bolland are still there, and all healthy heading into this season. Last year, the Hawks had to play a good amount of time without Hossa and Bolland. That’s a pretty good group of gunners, but, again, like on the point, the depth drops incredibly after those players. With the Olympics last year…and a ton of icetime in the future for these young Hawks, I can see them burn-out, and maybe get burned in the first round of the playoffs. Only time will tell.

PRIME POOL PIX: Marty Turco, Duncan Keith, Brian Campbell, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp.

BUYER BEWARE: Brent Seabrook, Dave Bolland.

3. ST.LOUIS BLUES

FRANCHISE PLAYER: Jaroslav Halak

…Last season was a step back for a team that many had picked to be ready for a breakthrough. I expect that breakthrough to be this year. It starts in net, and starts with Jaroslav Halak, who finally gets to be a number one goalie, and number one without an asterisk. Unless last year was truly a flash in the pan, expect Jaroslav to be among the most played, and most talked about tenders of the season. That’s a good start. After that, the Blues have a pretty mobile blue-line with youngsters Erik Johnson and Alex Pietrangelo, and some experience with Eric Brewer and Barrett Jackman. For the most part, this blueline is healthy too, which it hasn’t been for a number of years heading into a new season. Up front, the focus will be on the young players, after the likes of Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk are now gone. Expect bigger things from T.J. Oshie, Alex Steen and Patrick Berglund. There should also be bounceback seasons from Brad Boyes and Andy McDonald. The Blues also have some added toughness up front, so, they won’t be an easy team to push around. They might be leaving other teams singin’ the Blues.

PRIME POOL PIX: Jaroslav Halak, Erik Johnson, Andy McDonald, Brad Boyes, T.J. Oshie, David Backes, David Perron, Alex Steen.

BUYER BEWARE: Patrick Berglund.

4. NASHVILLE PREDATORS

FRANCHISE PLAYER: Pekka Rinne

…As much as Jaro Halak will be the key for success in St. Loo, the same can be said of Rinne in Nashville. I expect him to be one of the stories this season, as the Preds will once again find a way to scrape into a playoff position. After losing some depth, Pekka’s play will have to be better than last year for the Preds to push into a playoff position. Dan Hamhuis, a Nashville staple, is now gone, and that hole will be hard to fill on the blueline. The good news is, the Preds have the best set of young defencemen in all of hockey. If they don’t play for Nashville, they will certainly pose as good bait for deals down the road. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are the cornerstones of this blueline, and Cody Franson, Kevin Klein and Ryan Parent provide great support. Up front, Jason Arnott is gone, and we may have already seen the best of players such as Steve Sullivan, J.P. Dumont and David Legwand. That means there will be on Martin Erat, Patric Hornqvist, Colin Wilson and the newly acquired Matthew Lombardi. I think there could be a few stumbles in Music City, but, as always, they will do enough to make the playoffs, and that always seems to be enough in Nashville.

PRIME POOL PIX: Pekka Rinne, Shea Weber, Martin Erat, Matthew Lombardi, Patric Hornqvist.

BUYER BEWARE: David Legwand, J.P. Dumont, Steve Sullivan.

5. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

FRANCHISE PLAYER: Steve Mason

…I mentioned that this division would be dominated by goaltending lead-ins, and it’s no different in Columbus. During his rookie season, Mason came on board, and lead the Jackets into their first ever post season. This past year, Mason struggled, and Columbus assumed it’s regular position of being on the sidelines once the playoffs began. Mason will have to regain that form if the BJ’s are to have any chance of getting a sniff of the playoffs one more time. There will have to be a few more miracles too for the post season dream to exist. Columbus has never really had a big name d-man, and this year’s group are mediocore at best. There is more promise up front as Rick Nash is still there, and will still produce close to 40 goals, and 80 points. He has a good supporting cast with the likes of R.J. Umberger, Antoine Vermette and Kristian Huselius. There are some young players who will be expected to do more with Jakub Voracek and Nikita Filatov looking to fill top 6 spots, and Derick Brassard who should be better than last year. Sadly, for Blue Jacket fans, all of that promise just isn’t enough to compete in the tough Central Division. I expect there to be not a whole lot of buzz coming from these Blue Jackets.

PRIME POOL PIX: Steve Mason, Rick Nash, Antoine Vermette, Kristian Huselius, Jakub Voracek, Derick Brassard.

BUYER BEWARE: Kris Russell, Nikita Filatov, R.J. Umberger.

…So, that starts the West Conference. Tomorrow, it’s a look at the Pacific, where things will remain status quo for the new season. Details tomorrow.