The Cautiously Optimistic Minnesota Wild Season Preview

It’s just about time. Two more days and the season will officially be here. So now is as good a time as ever to throw together our Minnesota Wild season preview.

In the past, I’ve just done all of it together and just given a grade to the forwards and defense etc., but this year I decided to try my hand at some predictions as well. So let’s go ahead and get started. Enjoy!

Forwards

Mikko Koivu – C – #9

Koivu is coming off of a career season that saw him notch 71 points in 80 games. In addition, the Wild’s captain has recently signed a long-term extension to keep him with the team through the 2017-18 season. Most players tend to have a down year after signing a big contract, but I wouldn’t expect that with Koivu. His work ethic and his style of game don’t lend to huge up swings or down swings, which is a great thing for a franchise in flux. With the extension and his future taken care of, I’d expect him to have another career year.
2010-11 Season Prediction:
82 GP, 30 G, 53 A, +7

Andrew Brunette – LW – #15

One thing is for sure when you have Andrew Brunette as part of your roster. It’s pretty much a lock that he’ll get at least 20 goals and 50 points. Bruno had another consistently strong season last year and is poised for yet another on Koivu’s left wing. He might not be the most fleet of foot, but he’s one of the best players in the league at controlling the puck behind the net and his hockey intelligence is second to none. He’ll be in a contract year this season, so there’s no question that he’ll be at his best.
2010-11 Season Prediction:
82 GP, 23 G, 40 A, +3

Antti Miettinen – RW – #20

The Wild have had a need for a right wing to play on Koivu’s wing for a few seasons now and Miettinen has filled that need, for now. He’s not a top-line player, but he plays top-line minutes next to Koivu and Brunette because of his chemistry with the two. He had a great year scoring goals last season, hitting the 20 goal mark for the first time in his career, but with the impending return of Pierre-Marc Bouchard, there’s a question as to whether or not Miettinen will stick on the top line. If he does, it could be a good year for him, but I’m not so sure that he’ll stick.
2010-11 Season Prediction:
80 GP, 17 G, 25 A, -1

Guillaume Latendresse – LW – #48

Latendresse followed up a spectacular end of the season last year with a training camp that he would even admit is subpar. Part of that could be attributed to a hip injury that he’s been battling, but even so he has to be better. I don’t doubt that, once the season gets going, Latendresse will find the game that made him a quick fan favorite upon his arrival in Minnesota last season, but I have a feeling that he’s going to have to prove himself once again after a less than stellar camp. That being said, the chemistry that he had with Martin Havlat doesn’t just go away overnight but it might take a few weeks to re-establish itself.
2010-11 Season Prediction:
75 GP, 27 G, 20 A, -4

Matt Cullen – C – #7

It’s easy to see that Cullen has been the Wild’s best player this pre-season and he’s quickly gotten himself established as a top player on their squad. He’s shown the finish that the team needs and he seems comfortable both playing in front of his hometown fans and playing as Martin Havlat’s pivot. It’s safe to say that Cullen is set up for a career year this season in Minnesota and there’s no doubt that he could be one of the Wild’s top players.
2010-11 Season Prediction:
72 GP, 25 G, 29 A, +3

Martin Havlat – RW – #24

Last season, Havlat looked weighed down by the expectations on him and had a horrible start to the year. This season, with tempered expectations and an increased comfort level, as well as two linemates that he truly clicks with, Havlat should experience a return to form and should be one of the Wild’s top scorers. The only question is whether or not he can stay healthy once again with a tweaked groin hampering him towards the end of camp.
2010-11 Season Prediction:
70 GP, 30 G, 47 A, -2

Pierre-Marc Bouchard – LW/C – #96

After a lost season to a concussion, Bouchard is looking like he’s going to be healthy again for this season and should be back in the line-up by, hopefully, the beginning of November. If healthy, he’s one of the top players on the Wild and he’ll be a strong addition to the lineup. He’ll likely get top line and top power play time and that should be enough for him to put up good numbers.
2010-11 Season Prediction:
63 GP, 18 G, 41 A, -8

Kyle Brodziak – C – #21

Brodziak was a revelation at center last season for the Wild, providing a solid two-way center that they had sorely lacked since the retirement of Wes Walz. Brodziak didn’t necessarily light the world on fire with his scoring, but that wasn’t what he was brought in to do. If he can put up a 35-plus point season and provide a solid option on the penalty kill, it will be a successful season for the young center.
2010-11 Season Prediction:
81 GP, 12 G, 20 A, +2

Chuck Kobasew – RW – #12

One thing has become abundantly clear in Kobasew’s career. It takes him a season to get going when he gets to a new team. Last season, he was brought in to provide some grit and some offense and he did that in spurts, but nothing like the Wild’s fan base was expecting. He’ll have a rebound year this season, but I would think that anything more than a 45 point season is a stretch for the young winger.
2010-11 Season Prediction:
75 GP, 20 G, 14 A, -4

Eric Nystrom – LW – #23

Let’s get one thing straight. Nystrom wasn’t brought in to score – he was brought in to stir things up. He’s got some limited scoring ability, but he’s not going to be called on to score. He’ll be called upon to hit, to shut down teams’ top lines and to provide a gritty, character player and he’ll do exactly that.
2010-11 Season Prediction:
82 GP, 13 G, 8 A, E

John Madden – C – #11

Like Nystrom, Madden wasn’t brought in to score. He was brought in to shut teams down. He’ll provide about 10-15 goals and just as many assists, but that will be about it. He’ll likely get a chance to see some time on the powerplay every now and again, which will likely boost his numbers slightly as well.
2010-11 Season Prediction:
80 GP, 12 G, 12 A, -4

Cal Clutterbuck – RW – #22

Clutterbuck could be the most intriguing player on the Wild’s roster this season. He’s had a tremendous pre-season and has played in the top-six for much of it. The reigning NHL hit king is looking like he might be adding some offensive upside to his game as well. If he keeps showing the offensive ability that he has this pre-season, he’ll definitely see time on the powerplay and even maybe up on the top-six every once in a while.
2010-11 Season Prediction:
79 GP, 21 G, 10 A, -6

Casey Wellman – C – #17

The Wild have said that Wellman will only play with the team this season if he’s going to get high-quality minutes. That means he’ll likely be down in Houston unless the Wild have some top-line injuries to fill. I would expect that he could start on the team’s second or third line until Bouchard is healthy, but after that I would expect him to be down in Houston. That being said, he has shown some good offensive flair in the limited look he’s gotten this pre-season and could catch hold if he gets some chemistry with players.
2010-11 Season Prediction:
39 GP, 7 G, 12 A, +2

Brad Staubitz – RW – #16

Let’s be clear. Staubitz was brought in to enforce, plain and simple. He has a very limited offensive upside, but he’s able to throw down when is needed. He’ll see playing time every once in a while, but I’d be surprised if it’s an everyday thing.
2010-11 Season Prediction:
30 GP, 2 G, 4 A, E

Defensemen

Brent Burns – D – #8

It’d be easy to write Brent Burns off as a flash-in-the-pan defenseman after he’s struggled for the past two seasons, but Burnsie is healthy for the first time since his breakout season three years ago and is poised to regain the flair that had him invited to the Team Canada camp last pre-season and should be back to form. The biggest question will be whether he continues to be a liability in his own end. If he doesn’t, then his offensive talents will be much appreciated, but it’s hard to tell how much longer people will put up with his act if he continues to make poor plays in the offensive zone.
2010-11 Season Prediction:
76 GP, 15 G, 35 A, -5

Marek Zidlicky – D – #3

In the first year of his new contract, Zidlicky is going to be looked at as the puck-moving defenseman that the Wild desperately need to relieve pressure in their own zone. Kim Johnsson played that role marvelously during his time with the Wild and the team struggled greatly moving the puck out of their own end after his departure. In fact, it is still something that the team struggled with this pre-season. Look for Zidlicky to play an important role in the team’s successes this season.
2010-11 Season Prediction:
79 GP, 6 G, 36 A, -10

Cam Barker – D – #25

Barker has a big season ahead of him, with a lot to prove to both Wild management and fans. He was lauded as a physical, puck moving defenseman last season and was anything but upon his arrival in Minnesota. He lagged behind the play a lot of the time and his decision-making seemed suspect much of the time. If he’s able to find the play that made him a hot commodity in Chicago, he’ll flourish in Minnesota but I’m not so sure that his career season of a few seasons ago wasn’t a fluke.
2010-11 Season Prediction:
71 GP, 5 G, 30 A, -7

Nick Schultz – D – #55

Schultzie isn’t on the team for his offense and it appears that the team has realized that his true value isn’t in his offensive production, but the ability that he has to shut down other teams’ top players. Schultz had a rough season last year and saw his ice time slip, but he should get back to himself with the pressure taken off of him to produce offensively.
2010-11 Season Prediction:
82 GP, 2 G, 15 A, +7

Greg Zanon – D – #5

Like Schultz, Zanon’s value lies in his ability for defense, not offense. Watching Zanon compete night in and night out is truly a joy and watching his dedication and what he brings to the ice is spectacular. He leads by example and is willing to sacrifice his body each and every shift, not to mention he’s tough as nails. Expecting a lot out of him offensively is a mistake, but he’ll bring a solid defensive force to the team.
2010-11 Season Prediction:
82 GP, 1 G, 10 A, +3

Justin Falk – D – #41

Falk’s first season will likely see him split time on the blue line with Clayton Stoner, but Falk may end up winning the job outright if Stoner isn’t able to find the form that quickly endeared him to the fans and coaching staff last season. Falk brings a defensive, grinding mentality to the game and should provide some good size and grit on the back end for the Wild.
2010-11 Season Prediction:
59 GP, 2 G, 7 A, -12

Clayton Stoner – D – #4

Stoner charged onto the scene last year before getting injured and quickly endeared himself to fans and management alike by his rough and tumble style. Injuries are definitely a question mark for Stoner, but if he’s able to find his old form and stay healthy he gives the Wild a solid defensive option.
2010-11 Season Prediction:
43 GP, 1 G, 6 A, -3

Goaltenders

Niklas Backstrom – G – #32

Last season Backstrom had a horrific season that was spurred on greatly by the fact that he got little to no help in front of him. His confidence wavered and he let in uncharacteristically soft goals. I think he’ll start to get on the right track this season, again, but he’ll need much more help than he got last season in order to return to form. All to often pucks were left open in the slot and turnovers were a bane to Backstrom, as his team turned the puck over in their own zone all too often. Even a little more help will go a long way towards getting Backstrom back to the player he is capable of being.
2010-11 Season Prediction:
55 GS, 2.53 GAA, .917% Save Pct., 35 W

Jose Theodore – G – ??

The addition of Theodore came in the wake of Josh Harding’s injury and will make a suitable replacement for Harding. I wouldn’t expect Theodore to get a huge workload unless Backstrom goes down or begins playing especially poorly, but he will be called upon to play about 20-25 games and expected to win when he’s called upon.
2010-11 Season Prediction:
25 GS, 2.71 GAA, .912% Save Pct., 9 W

2010 -11 Season Prediction: Here’s the deal. This is a hugely optimistic preview right now. There are a lot of if’s with this team this season and IF everything falls into place, this team could be one that is fairly good and entertaining to watch. Thus far this pre-season, barely anything has fallen into place and we’ve seen the horrific results. If the Wild can string together some early wins, get some confidence under their wings and play team defense like they’re capable of playing, they could contend for second in the Northwest Division and be a playoff team. If they falter, however, there’s no floor to how low they could fall.

In the end, I think that the Wild could pull it together and be a bubble team for the playoffs. I think the Wild will finish…Drum roll please…

3rd in the Northwest Division and 10th in the Western Conference; 94 pts

Wild Nation’s No Longer Ridiculously Early Season Previews: The Northwest Division

It wasn’t long ago that the Northwest Division was one of the toughest divisions in the NHL.

The 2002-03 season saw four of its five teams qualify for the playoffs and, up until the 2008-09 season, the division qualified at least three of its teams for the playoffs every season.

The last two seasons, however, have seen an interesting disparity in the division begin to arise and it’s now become a matter of the haves versus the have-nots. Last season saw two teams pick in the top-10 and would have seen one more in the top-15 had Calgary not sold its soul to Phoenix for Olli Jokinen.

The season before saw both Minnesota and Edmonton starting out in the top-15 as well; needless to say, the division’s competitiveness is waning at the moment.

So how will they match up this season?

Calgary Flames – Flames General Manager Daryl Sutter is either going to be lauded as a genius or be burnt in effigy following this season.

Sutter has been largely ineffective at running the team in a salary cap world and has found himself forced up against the cap more often than not and has seen his team go from one that was one win away from winning the Stanley Cup to one that is struggling to keep their heads above water and is no longer a shoe-in to make the playoffs.

Sutter responded to missing the playoffs by bringing in two players that were largely ineffective in their previous stints in Calgary. First, there’s Olli Jokinen, who quickly feel out of favor after a solid stint with the team after being traded there but didn’t seem suited for the new system that Brent Sutter brought with him to the team. Then there’s Alex Tanguay who returns to the team after two seasons away. Tanguay was, again, effective in his first season with the Flames as a point-per-game player under Jim Playfair, but when Mike Keenan came in Tanguay just couldn’t find his stride.

IF these two players can find their form with the Flames and Jarome Iginla can prove that last season’s 69 point performance was an aberration, this could be an effective team. But these two players have been in decline over the past few seasons leaving many to question whether or not their best days are behind them.

On defense, the Flames are anchored by Jay Bouwmeester and Robyn Regher. Bouwmeester, last season, seemed to not be able to cope with the added pressure of being in a hockey-crazed town such as Calgary but will have a big opportunity to rebound with his first full season as Calgary’s top defenseman with Dion Phaneuf now in Toronto.

Regher, meanwhile, will provide the same thing that he always has – a hard-nosed, gritty defenseman. He’s not going to put up the gaudy numbers of Mike Green, but he’s the type of heart and soul guy that can really help a team out.

Past Bouwmeester and Regher, the Flames can turn to Mark Giordano and Ian White, both of whom had terrific seasons with the Flames last season and are looking to build on their solid seasons. Giordano put up career highs in nearly every statistical category and proved that he was capable of being the defenseman that the Flames thought he could be when they signed him in 2004. White, meanwhile, was probably the best cog that the Flames received in their trade for Phaneuf. White put up 12 points in 27 games en route to a career season split between the Leafs and the Flames. If he can continue that performance in 2010, there’s no doubt the Flames could have a formidable blueline.

In net, the Flames will again rest their hopes squarely on the shoulders of Miikka Kiprusoff.

Since coming over from San Jose, Kipper has been a mainstay in net for the Flames and seemed to return to form last season after two subpar years. While Kipper may have led the league in losses last season, it certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying as his goals against average and save percentage were the best they’d been since the ’06-’07 season.

What the Flames have to manage, though, is whether or not Kipper is able to handle the amount of games that he’ll be getting in net. Behind him will be Henrik Karlsson, who the team signed in the off season. Karlsson played marvelously for Farjestad last season and the hope is that he’ll provide a better back up option than Vesa Toskala.

The pieces are all ready for the Flames this season and the hope is that they will all fall into place. If they do, they could be contending for the Division crown once again. But, if they don’t as many fear that they won’t, they’ll be a bubble team for the playoffs once again.

Colorado Avalanche – There are a lot of questions surrounding the Colorado Avalanche this season.

First and foremost is whether or not last season’s run to the playoffs was a fluke or whether this team is the real deal.

The team returns every single one of their key players from their playoff run last year and, with $18 million in cap space, has a lot of wiggle room to improve their roster throughout the season.

The forward crew will again be quite young and inexperienced, though not as inexperienced as last season. The big question marks will be whether or not their key forwards can replicate their impressive seasons that they had last year.

Chris Stewart is freshly signed and looking to build on his breakout season, which is the first extremely impressive season of his pro career. The fact that 17 of his 28 goals came in the second half of the season, however, is very promising and he’s certainly going to get his share of ice time.

In addition to Stewart, both Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene should continue to improve, though Stastny will be looked upon to set up some of the team’s goal scorers more than he’ll be expected to score himself. Look for Duchene, however, to take his next step towards being one of the league’s top superstars heading into his sophomore season. He likely won’t be as explosive as Steve Stamkos was in his second year, but Duchene will certainly get the job done for the Avs.

Peter Mueller is likely not as productive as his 20 points in 15 games last season suggests, but it does show that he is as explosive as they come. If he can carry a hot streak through a good part of the season, he could have a productive season for the Avs and give them another scoring threat.

On defense, the team has two kinds of defensemen — either ones who are extremely mobile or ones who are barely able to take the ice without the use of a walker.

All kidding aside, the Avs have a couple defensemen that are certainly either starting or in the waning of their career in Scott Hannan and Adam Foote. The good news, though, is that these two are both character players and both able to impart good leadership and good knowledge on the younger players of the team.

Past them, they have John-Michael Liles, who is good for 30-plus points and also good for a headache for any fan of the team watching. Players like Kyle Quincey and Kyle Cumiskey are still growing and are looking like they could turn into top flight defensemen for the organization.

In net, it’s pretty safe to say that Craig Anderson has answered all questions about his ability to perform. Last season was really his coming out party, as he finally had success in a full time starter’s role. That success will likely continue on into this season as the team has had barely any turnover from last season.

If Anderson can stay healthy and their young players can continue their progression and don’t have any major steps backwards, it’s safe to say that the Avs could once again be in the thick of things in the playoff race.

Edmonton Oilers – Well, there’s good news on the horizon for Edmonton fans.

The Oilers can only get better, because they certainly can’t get much worse.

To say that last season was a disaster for Edmonton would be an understatement, to say the least. The franchise had their lowest point total since the 1992-93 season and their lowest point percentage total since the 1980-81 season.

Suffice it to say, it was a bad year.

I’m sorry to say that this season probably won’t be much better, but I can say that it will be better.

Young guns Taylor Hall, Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson and Jordan Eberle will be on the roster this season and will get plenty of time to show what they can do. Will any of the there be rookie sensations the like of Crosby or Ovechkin? Probably not. But they will be upgrades over what the Oilers had last season and that is something that fans should take heart in.

In addition to their big three, the Oilers will also get a full season from Ales Hemsky, which likely would have helped them tremendously last season. Hemsky, Sam Gagner and Gilbert Brule all missed time due to injuries last season which likely would have made a serious impact on the team. With Hemsky fully healthy and playing on Gagner’s wing, and likely across from Dustin Penner, the forward unit will be a much improved unit over last season’s.

On defense the team is still looking to move the albatross contract of Sheldon Souray, but the good news is that they have a serviceable defensive unit behind him.

Ryan Whitney and newcomer (and underrated free agency signing) Kurtis Foster will find themselves manning the point on the powerplay and players like Jim Vandermeer and Tom Gilbert add a bit of character to the blueline. Ladislav Smid and Jason Strudwick also provide a bit of oomph on the back end, but the unit will have to get better at limiting opponents scoring chances, on a whole, if the team is going to climb from the cellar.

One of the biggest questions will be in net.

Namely, will Nikolai Khabibulin be healthy enough (or free enough) to reclaim his duty as starting goaltender and give the team some stability in net.

If he is it gives the team somewhat of a luxury that they haven’t had in recent years – the ability to relax and know that their goaltender will be there and, at times, be able to bail them out.

If he’s not, however, the team is back to the uncertainty of a goalie tandem of Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk – something that I don’t imagine any fan is looking forward to.

As I said previously, this season isn’t going to be great for the Oilers. They still have a way to go to get back to the level of an elite team. But it will be a great improvement over last season – and that’s a start.

Minnesota Wild – How much longer will the State of Hockey tolerate a sub-par team on the ice?

Well, if things don’t go well this season, owner Craig Leipold may very well find out.

Last season was an unbelievable disappointment for Wild fans and the fact that the team had a point percentage of above .500% for the eighth straight season was little consolation.

But, the good news is that the old regime’s players are beginning to cycle through and be replaced by players that are more conducive to the new style of play that the team is aspiring towards.

Added to the roster are Matt Cullen, Eric Nystrom and John Madden – three players that are both talented and gritty. Cullen will be expected to fill in the ever elusive second-line center role that the team has been searching for now for years and will likely be slotted in between Guillaume Latendresse and Martin Havlat.

Now the team’s lack of success isn’t to say that they don’t have talent up front, but there are far too many question marks to be able to concretely say that they are going to be a top team.

If Latendresse can continue to perform like he did last season (25 goals in 55 games for Minnesota) and if Havlat can find the form that caused Minnesota to sign him to a lucrative free agency contract, it’s certainly going to be a welcome addition.

On top of these two, the biggest question mark up front lies on the performance of Pierre-Marc Bouchard. When healthy, Bouchard can be one of the game’s elite playmakers, but he has struggled with injuries for the last season and a quarter and his production has not been up to par because of that. Last season, he missed the entire year with a concussion, but he has been scrimmaging at pro camps leading up to training camp and he will likely play at some point this season, though it is not known when.

If he can come back and play his game, he will certainly be a difference maker on the ice.

On defense, again, the team is faced with injury questions.

Brent Burns had a breakout season three seasons ago, but the last two years he has been mired with injury and inconsistency. If he can return to the player that he is capable of being, he will be a dangerous force on Minnesota’s blueline. If he doesn’t, though, he becomes little more than a defensive liability and a player that the team is reluctant to turn to when the going gets tough.

The Wild will also be hoping that defenseman Cam Barker can find his game again after a subpar performance last season. Barker is certainly better than his 21 point season indicated, but he will have to find that offensive mind frame and physical edge if he is to make an impact.

Also up in the air is the Wild’s sixth defensive spot.

Currently, it is thought that the spot will go to a younger defenseman – Clayton Stoner, Nate Prosser and Marco Scandella are all names that have been mentioned. The biggest concern, however, is that these three only have a handful of NHL games between them and, though they have performed well at times, none have the body of work that would lead one to think that they could handle a full season.

In net, the Wild are again looking at the familiar duo of Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, but that is not to say that there are not questions there.

Harding started slow last season, but gained his legs late and helped steady the boat when Backstrom was underperforming. Backstrom, on the other hand, struggled much of last season and a lot of that is being attributed to the fact that the team’s system is no longer as goalie friendly as it once was.

I, for one, don’t believe that Backstrom is nearly as bad as he looked last season and, with a little help I believe he could be right back where he was in seasons past. He’s a good goaltender that was, unfortunately, not given much help last season and I would look for him to rebound with a better season this year.

Overall, I don’t see the Wild contending for a playoff spot this season. While they have talent, not all of the players are in place for them to make a playoff push. That being said, they do have talent and if everything falls into place I could easily be proved wrong.

Vancouver Canucks – It may be the pre season, but the hype machine is already in full swing for the ‘Nucks.

It started with Roberto Luongo stepping down as the team’s captain and, as training camps begin, the Canucks are again one of the front runners to make a move deep into the playoffs. But will they be able to shake the monkey off their backs and make it to the Stanley Cup Finals?

At forward, the mantra will likely be maintain.

The team returns most all of their key forwards from last season, but the biggest question will be whether or not their top three can keep it going. Henrik Sedin is one year removed from a remarkable career season, and his brother Daniel would have been right there with him were it not for injury. Ryan Kesler put up career numbers last season. Now, the question that needs to be answered is was that their ceiling or are they capable of repeating.

With the Sedins, I’d be tempted to say that they are very capable of repeating. The two have long been one of the most potent duos in the league and that isn’t likely to change. Will it be another 100-plus point season for one, or both of them? Probably not. But I don’t think that another very strong performance by the two is out of the question.

Kesler, however, may have hit his peak at 75 points – a respectable number, to be sure. The team is deep in scoring, but will need Mikael Samuelsson to continue his scoring ways, as he scored more than 20 goals for just the second time in his career. On top of that, they will look at Mason Raymond to take on an increased role and continue his development.

The addition of Manny Malhotra will help the team’s checking line and their penalty kill, but won’t be much more than that. But that’s also why he was brought in. He’s a reliable checker and a solid penalty killer, which will only help the Canucks this season.

On defense, the team addressed their significant lack of grit the last couple years by bringing in Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis. Along with Bieksa, Salo, Edler and Ehrhoff, the ‘Nucks top-six defensemen all make over $3 million and, with the team $3 million over the cap heading into the season, will likely need to move one of them.

But, that being said, Hamhuis and Ballard are a huge upgrade over their previous defensive unit and the team certainly is looking better on the blueline than they have in previous seasons. With that being a huge concern for the Canucks, their fans should no longer be worried. This is a defensive unit, regardless of whether or not a move is made, that can handle the physical play of clubs bigger and stronger than them and will help protect Roberto Luongo much better.

Speaking of Luongo, he’s once again in net for the Cancucks in potentially the most uninteresting portion of the team to talk about.

Luongo’s in net, Schnieder’s behind him. There’s no question about the performance of either of the two and there’s no uncertainty about anything that is going on here. The only thing that could derail them in net is injuries, but that isn’t typically a concern of Bobby Lou.

Overall, this is the easiest to call. The Canucks will be back in the playoffs, just like they will win the division again. There aren’t any questions about any of these things.

Predictions

Alright. Here we go. This is how I think the Northwest will shape up:

1) Vancouver Canucks
2) Calgary Flames
3) Colorado Avalanche
4) Minnesota Wild
5) Edmonton Oilers

To be honest, the only for sure playoff team in this division is the Canucks. Both the Flames and Avs are bubble teams, though I could see both making the playoffs if everything aligns.

Up Next: The Pacific Division

Wild Nation’s Ridiculously Early Season Previews: The Central Division

Well, here we are. The Eastern Conference is down and just three divisions and the playoff picture are left to go, so let’s delve into the Western Conference picture, shall we?

The Western Conference has been the more competitive of the two conferences in term of depth over the last few seasons and this season should be no different. The core of this depth has come from the Central division. Last season, three of the five teams made the playoffs, while one more was on the bubble and there’s no doubt that there’s at four teams that could be challenging for the playoffs this season.

So let’s get started.

Chicago Blackhawks – There is no doubt that the Blackhawks are going to be a much, much different team than the one that won the Stanley Cup last season.

Gone are role players like Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien who have been replaced by Fernando Pisani and a handful of players who have been developing in Rockford. This is both troubling for Blackhawks fans and intriguing as well. Jack Skille, Jake Dowell and Bryan Bickell will finally get their chance in the big leagues, as will Viktor Stalberg.

The good news for their forward corps, however, is that returning are their core players like Toews, Hossa, Kane and Sharp. With those players to guide their incoming youngsters, the Hawks should still be in good hands next season.

On defense, the team has added big defenseman John Scott who will add some toughness in the absence of Ben Eager. While the contract of Niklas Hjalmarsson may be questionable, there’s no doubt that their top-four are as good as any in the league and the potential addition of Nick Leddy to the group is encouraging indeed.

Their biggest question lies between the pipes. With the decision to walk away from Antti Niemi and sign Marty Turco, the ‘Hawks have also made a statement that they are confident that it was not the young Finn who led them to the promised land.

While Turco’s record in big games is more than questionable, there is no doubt that he has both the drive to succeed, as well as the talent to be a successful goaltender in Chicago.

Columbus Blue Jackets – The Blue Jackets find themselves in a precarious position.

They are just one season removed from their first playoff appearance in team history, yet there is an air of uncertainty surrounding this team that is undeniable. In fact, questions are abounding when it comes to the Jackets.

Is Steve Mason a true franchise goaltender? Can Nikita Filatov find himself in the NHL? Can Rick Nash truly be dominant player without a top center?

If the answer to two of the three of those questions is yes, then you could very well see the Stanley Cup Playoffs return to Ohio.

The problem is, however, is that there is no certainty that the answer to any of these three questions is yes.

Mason started to find his game again at the end of the season, while Filatov may find himself much more suited to the style of Scott Arneil than of Ken Hitchcock, but the fact remains that Nash does not have that one player on his line that can complement him and help him become the dominant player that we saw in the Olympics.

The addition of Ethan Moreau makes the team tougher to play against, to be sure, but it does nothing to help their top-six forwards.

Unfortunately for Jackets fans, it would appear that this team is again going to be on the outside looking in unless things turn around very, very quickly. There are significant needs that the team has that were not addressed in either the draft or free agency, most notably help on defense. These needs must be addressed before the team can take any significant steps forward so, they may be looking at another lottery pick.

Detroit Red Wings – So, how do the Detroit Red Wings follow up an admittedly disappointing season?

Well, how about signing a future hall-of-famer, a gritty defenseman and getting back one of their top young players from the KHL?

Their forward corps now have Jiri Hudler back in the fold as well as newcomer Mike Modano, who will serve as a depth center and also get some powerplay time, most likely. But on top of that, they will have a healthy and rested forward unit that is one of the most potent in the NHL.

Johan Franzen and Tomas Holmstrom will be back healthy and the return of Hudler will likely spell a resurgence for the team’s two superstars in Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and that can only mean bad things for the rest of the league.

On defense, Ruslan Salei joins an already solid defensive unit and will provide them with some added grit. He, along with Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall will ensure that opposing forwards keep their heads up.

Led, once again, by Nicklas Lidstrom, the Wings blueline will be one of the toughest to play against in the league and Salei’s hardnosed style will only add to that and their defense should only solidify Jimmy Howard’s place in net with the squad.

Howard had a breakout season with the Wings last year and the Calder Trophy nominee unseated Chris Osgood in the starting role. He held the Wings together through the injuries last season and was the sole reason that the team was able to not only make the playoffs but claw their way as far up as they did. Howard will have a lot to prove in order to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump but he is in the best situation possible to be able to do so.

When you look at the Wings, they are a team that is poised and ready to be a competitive team in the Stanley Cup race once again and could easily find themselves as the frontrunner to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup finals again.

Nashville Predators – To be perfectly honest, Nashville is like the bad cold of the Central Division. When it comes down to it, there’s no reason they should be there but you simply can’t get rid of them.

The Preds are about $13 million under the salary cap heading into this season with 15 forwards under contract, but just five defensemen and one goaltender. As always, however, it should be expected that those positions will be filled from within.

Chet Pickard will likely get a good, long look as the team’s back up goaltender while it could be expected that Ryan Ellis or Cody Franson will get a look as the team’s sixth and seventh defensemen.

But overall, this is a Predators team that is looking like they could match up very well with the rest of the division.

Matthew Lombardi joins an underrated forward unit and Colin Wilson will find himself in an increased role as well, after the departure of Jason Arnott. The top six, while not flashy, are both reliable and clutch and their young players of Wilson and Patric Hornqvist are continuing to improve. Throw in the addition of Sergei Kostitsyn, who will have a renewed lease on life after a change of scenery, hoping to follow in the footsteps of fellow former-Montreal Canadiens underachiever, Guillaume Latendresse and some solid role players like Joel Ward and Jerred Smithson round out the group.

On defense, they still have their solid top-two of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. These two will anchor a defensive unit that could use some work, but is very promising.

With veteran Francis Boullion, youngsters Ryan Parent (who is looking for a new lease on life in Nashville as well) and Kevin Klein will round out a defensive unit that will look much different by the time the season starts.

In net, they have Pekka Rinne, who will look to improve on a pedestrian season last year. Without Dan Ellis looking over his shoulders, however, the starting job is Rinne’s to lose and the team’s hope is that the certainty of his job will elevate his play.

The Predators are likely going to be a bubble team this year, as they have been the past few seasons, but that shouldn’t be a problem for a team that is used to that tag being saddled on them.

St. Louis Blues – Last season was admittedly disappointing for the Blues, who had come in with high hopes of contending, or at least winning a playoff series.

The young Blues team faltered early on and, after the firing of Andy Murray and hiring of Davis Payne, began to find the fire that had made them a force to be reckoned with in the West.

This season will be one of change for the Blues, though it shouldn’t make them any less deadly. Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk are both gone, leading to a youth movement for the team. This will lead to increased ice time for players like David Perron, David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund, all of whom will look to improve on their performances from last season.

The fate of the Blues likely lies in how these four perform. With the subtractions of Tkachuk and Kariya, their forward unit is significantly younger and has lost two of their more prominent leaders. That means that these four, as well as players like Brad Boyes and Andy McDonald will have to step up and fill the void both in leadership and in point production if this team is to be successful.

On the back end, the team has their potent young duo of Erik Johnson and Alex Pietrangelo (who will likely finally crack the lineup for good this season). These two will be the cornerstones of a defensive unit that is as offensively talented as it is gritty, making for a potent combination.

Behind this defensive unit is the hero of the Montreal Canadiens, Jaroslav Halak. Halak proved in the playoffs that he is capable of bearing the load of a franchise and is really the first solid goaltender that the team has had in a few years. Behind him will be perennial solid back up, Ty Conklin, who will fill in admirably when needed and the duo will provide one of the more solid goaltending tandems in the West.

There is no doubt that the Blues are a bubble team, but there’s no doubt that Davis Payne has this team playing the way that he wants them to and heading in the right direction.

Predictions

1) Detroit Red Wings
2) Chicago Blackhawks
3) Nashville Predators
4) St. Louis Blues
5) Columbus Blue Jackets

It breaks down like this. The Red Wings and Blackhawks will most likely be back in the playoffs this season. As with the last couple seasons, one of the last spots in the West could be determined by who finishes third or fourth in the division, lending hope to Predators and Blues fans. Finally, Columbus will find themselves looking at the lottery once again; however, their future continues to look up under Scott Howson.

Up Next: The Northwest Division

Wild Nation’s Ridiculously Early Season Previews: The Southeast Division

Last time, we took a look at the Northeast Division but, today, in our final division preview of the Eastern Conference, our view moves south to the division that is considered by many to be the weakest in the East.

Those perceptions, however, look as if they may be changing. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Atlanta Thrashers – Atlanta found themselves second in the Southeast last season, despite their tumultuous season that saw them deal superstar winger Ilya Kovalchuk to the New Jersey Devils for a king’s ransom.

Their biggest off season change, in my opinion, was the insertion of Rick Dudley into the general manager position, moving former GM Don Waddell to a more administrative position.

The move has already started to pay dividends, as Dudley has brought in the likes of Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager and Brent Sopel from Chicago as well as Chris Mason to share the net with Ondrej Pavelec.

Let’s be clear. The additions of Byfuglien and the like make the Thrashers a better team, but don’t necessarily make them a contender.

The Thrashers are still missing that gamebreaker that they had in Kovalchuk, though Little, Bergfors or Kane could easily turn into that. The mantra for this team for this off season has seemed to be “get harder to play against,” and for the first time in a long time it looks like there is a distinct plan in place to mold this team into a contender.

The bottom line is that the Thrashers are getting better and they’re heading in the right direction – they just might have a little farther to go.

Carolina Hurricanes – The question that everyone is going to be wondering about this Hurricanes team is whether they were the team that started the season so miserably or that ended their season so strong.

Injuries hampered the ‘Canes last season and Staal, Ward and Ruutu should be healthy and ready to go this season and their defense will be anchored by four familiar faces. If Cam Ward is healthy, this is a team that could really do some damage in the Southeast.

The ‘Canes have been relatively quiet in free agency, compared to their Atlanta counterparts, but have brought back Anton Babchuk who played last season in the KHL.

What Carolina is counting on is the growth of their younger players. The losses of veteran leaders Ray Whitney and Rob Brind’amour are both big for the team but their top-six could be considered relatively in tact as Chad LaRose or Brandon Sutter will step in to the spot vacated by Whitney.

Let us not forget that this is still relatively the same team that marched to the Conference finals two seasons ago. The ‘Canes have a good team and, if everything lines up right they could be heading back to the playoffs.

Right now, however, there are too many question marks to say that this is a playoff team, but all the parts are there for a successful season.

Florida Panthers – It would be easy to write off the Panthers as being in a re-building phase of their franchise’s history, but the fact of the matter is that they’ve been re-building now since the trade of Roberto Luongo and they have been surprisingly competitive the last few seasons.

Their immediate strength is in net with goaltender Tomas Vokoun coming off the two best seasons of his career.

In front of him, they have a group of solid, but not flashy defensemen anchored by Bryan McCabe and Dennis Wideman. Youngsters Keaton Ellerby and Dmitry Kulikov give some hope for the future on the blueline and will get some valuable ice time this season.

Where this team will struggle is up front. David Booth and Stephen Weiss lead a corps of forwards that are unimpressive, to say the least. The team lost its second leading scorer last season and did little to nothing to replace him. The additions of Steve Bernier and Michael Grabner will help, but not enough to help a team that was 28th in goals for last season.

If the Panthers are going to be successful, it’s going to be on the strength of their defense and their goaltending and, in an offensively powered Southeast Division; that could pose a problem.

Tampa Bay Lightning – Like the Thrashers, the Lightning’s best move could have been the hiring of Steve Yzerman as their General Manager.

Yzerman has already made some big moves for the team, trading for Simon Gagne, as well as signing Pavel Kubina, Dominic Moore and Dan Ellis.

The trade for Gagne is a huge addition to the squad as he gives the team a legitimate fourth scoring threat if he is healthy, and also allows them the ability to break up the big-three without losing anything. Once Steve Downie is re-signed (he is a Restricted Free Agent), the Bolts will have themselves one of the most potent top-six forwards in the league.

On top of that, the additions of Dominic Moore and Sean Bergenheim give this team two players that may not be top-six forwards, but that are capable of logging powerplay time and pitching in offensively as well.

But offense may not be this team’s downfall. With 260 goals against last season, they desperately needed an upgrade on defense and in net and Dan Ellis and Pavel Kubina represent that.

While Kurtis Foster had a remarkable season last year, it was obvious that he wasn’t exactly what the team needed. Kubina, however, gives them another top-pairing defenseman that is both comfortable in the city and is able to log even strength, powerplay and penalty kill time. The team has yet to re-sign Paul Ranger, but once that is accomplished, this could be a very solid defense.

But, by far the biggest upgrade is in net. The team will have Dan Ellis and Mike Smith sharing the net – something that they hope will benefit both goaltenders, who have struggled at times in starting roles.

With an improved defense, however, they hope that Ellis and Smith will be protected enough to find themselves as contenders again and, with this offense, they could most certainly be that.

Washington Capitals – Let’s be honest here – this is the easiest pick to call.

The Caps will be good. They’ll be first in the division and back in the playoffs.

How’s that for a bold prediction?

In all seriousness, though, the Capitals will be a very good team again this season. They will score goals and they will win games. But will they be Cup contenders?

As with many other teams, the answer to that question lies in goal.

Semyon Varlamov and Michael Neuvirth are taking over the duties in goal and it’s going to be interesting to see if these two young netminders can handle the pressure of what will be expected of them. Both have shown flashes, but it is still uncertain as to whether or not they can go the distance for the team.

Meanwhile, the team is still built to win. They haven’t lost any important cogs on either offense or defense and, in fact, should see both Karl Alzner and John Carlson improve on defense to make for a very potent blue line unit. In fact, the Caps even have some cap room to make improvements throughout the season or even before the season starts.

And that is a scary thought for the other four Southeast teams wanting to take over their crown.

Predictions

So, how will this conference break down? Let’s take a look:

1) Washington Capitals
2) Tampa Bay Lightning
3) Carolina Hurricanes
4) Atlanta Thrashers
5) Florida Panthers

As for the playoffs, I see the Capitals and Lightning making the playoffs and the Hurricanes and/or Thrashers again being a bubble team. The Panthers, as is likely expected, will be on the outside looking in as they build towards a Stanley Cup contending team.

Up Next: The Central Division

Wild Nation’s Ridiculously Early Season Predictions: Northeast Division

Well, it’s ridiculously early season preview time again.

Last time, we took a look at the Atlantic Division, with many of the teams taking much different approach to the season than they did last season. In other words, spending money and spending money on areas of need, in some cases, and to shore up strengths in others.

This time, though, we’re taking a look at the Nord-east Division, the home of some of the more intriguing teams coming into this season.

Boston Bruins – The Bruins have some work left to do this off season, as they are already about $3.1 million over the salary cap (though that will be temporarily relieved when the team places Marco Sturm on the Injured Reserve).

The good news for the Bruins are that they have just two contracts that are worth $5 million or more (Tim Thomas and Zdeno Chara), but the bad news is that one of those contracts is for Thomas, who is both a 35-plus contract (meaning that, if he retires, it counts against the salary cap regardless) and has a No-Movement Clause that prevents him from being traded or moved to the minors prior to July 1, 2012.

In other words, it makes him darn hard to move.

What the Bruins do have, however, is a strong core.

They have Tukka Rask in net, a goalie who you could have made a strong case for the Vezina for last season, and a core of solid young forwards led by David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that Tyler Seguin will be on the opening day roster and really, the Bruins are looking pretty good heading into the season despite the questions surrounding whether or not Tim Thomas and Marc Savard will be moved.

Buffalo Sabres – There are many intriguing teams in the Northeast Division this season and many intriguing storylines – unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it), none of these involve the Sabres.

The team’s biggest off season acquisition?

Rob Niedermayer.

But, for a team that won the Northeast last season that could be a good thing.

They have eight of their ten top scorers returning and that’s not mentioning Tyler Ennis, who scored at nearly a point-per-game pace in his ten-game cup of coffee last season.

The one area that this team could be lacking in is their defense. They lost a lot of experience and talent in Lydman and Tallinder and I’m not so sure that Leopold and Morrisonn are necessarily an upgrade on defense. If you’re a Sabres fan, this unknown could be a scary proposition. But, with Ryan Miller in net, these losses could go unnoticed, as the Vezina Trophy winner remains one of the top goalies in the league.

The bottom line? The Northeast is Buffalo’s to lose, but if their defense doesn’t live up to what it will need to, you could easily see them do just that.

Montreal Canadiens – So, how do you reward a goalie that many heralded as the revelation of the playoffs?

Trade him, of course.

That is the type of puzzling logic that Canadiens fans saw themselves subjected to over the off season.

Let us not forget that the player that they dubbed their number one immediately following the Halak trade, Carey Price, has yet to be re-signed.

But, it’s not all bad news for the Habs. Price is a restricted free agent and will be back with the team next season, one way or the other. The Halak trade brought in a great young player in Lars Eller and their top forwards still remain.

The team also has one of the most exciting young defensemen in the league in P.K. Subban, who proved himself to be a terrific addition on the blueline and will most certainly be a welcome addition to a defense that is looking better and better as the season nears.

The team’s forwards are set and should prove effective once again as their “big four” of Gomez, Cammalleri, Plekanec and Gionta have another year with one another, which can only mean good things. The biggest question marks at forward are how Andrei Kostitsyn will respond to the trade of his brother as he comes off a sub-par season and whether or not career under-achiever Benoit Pouliot can build on the strong play that he showed last season.

With all of these questions, however, there’s no doubt that their season all hinges on their play in net. If Price is signed and performs up to expectations, there’s no doubt that the Habs could be back in the playoffs. That being said, though…That’s a LARGE if.

Ottawa Senators – Ottawa arguably made the biggest splash this off season in the Northeast, signing Sergei Gonchar to a three-year deal.

Apart from that singular splash, however, Sens chose to maintain the status quo.

Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen, but he does immediately make the Sens a much better team.

Once again, however, the Sens biggest question remains in nets. Whether Brian Elliott or Pascal Leclaire can step up and be the team’s top goalie remains to be seen, but there is some optimism surrounding this team.

Jason Spezza had 38 points in the 30 games after he came back from injury, which lends to the idea that he might be back to his 90-plus point form. Daniel Alfredsson and Milan Michalek will also help spur on an offense that struggled at times last season. The most optimistic showing, however, was the emergence of Peter Regin during the post season as both a scorer and a clutch scorer, at that.

As with Montreal, however, Ottawa’s questions lie in net. If Elliott and Leclaire can hold down the fort in net, Ottawa could be the sleeper team in a division of some of the NHL’s most storied franchises.

Toronto Maple Leafs – This is the part where Toronto fans are hoping that whoever is doing the preview is going to say that they’re the sleeper team in the East and going to win the division and so on, and so on.

Sorry Leafs fans. It’s not going to happen just yet. The operative word, though, is yet.

As it stands now, the Leafs have one of the best defensive units in the East. Phaneuf, Komisarek, Kaberle and Beauchemin could all be top-two defensemen in the right situations, while Schenn and Lebda round out a very impressive top six. Throw in the fact that they have J.S. Giguere in nets who looked much closer to the Giguere of old after being traded to Toronto from Anaheim last season and you’ve got an impressive back end.

The biggest question mark for Toronto, though, is their offense. When your leading scorer has 55 points, there is a big problem. The addition of Kris Versteeg should help this immediately, while Kulemin and Bozak will continue to grow and should put forth more impressive seasons than they did last year.

It’s very apparent that Brian Burke is still trying to mold this team into the one that he wants them to be and it’s apparent that he’s taking steps in that direction, especially after the signing of Colby Armstrong.

The best compliment that a rebuilding franchise can get is that it’s hard to play against and Toronto will definitely be that. They will be difficult to play against and they will be competitive but, at the end of the day, I don’t foresee them making it into the playoffs this season.

Predictions

So, now that the previews are behind us, let’s see how I think the Northeast will break down:

1) Buffalo Sabres
2) Boston Bruins
3) Ottawa Senators
4) Montreal Canadiens
5) Toronto Maple Leafs

Last season four of the five Northeast teams made the playoffs and I don’t see that happening again. I think that the Sabres and the Bruins will be squarely in the midst of the playoff race, while the Senators and Habs will be a bubble team. The Leafs will once again be on the outside looking in.

Up Next: The Southeast Division

Wild Nation’s Ridiculously Early Season Predictions: The Atlantic Division

August is almost upon us, which can only mean one thing – its training camp time.

The time in the NHL where there’s hope running through every team’s fan base, except for Toronto’s of course. But, with that hope in mind, it’s time for our ridiculously early season prognostications that will likely be proven to be dead wrong by the second week of the season or just the Ridiculously Early Season Predictions, for short.

We’re going to start with the Eastern Conference this season, namely the Atlantic Division so, let’s get started.

New Jersey Devils – The NHLPA filed their grievance on Thursday regarding Ilya Kovalchuk’s contract and one would assume that, despite their desire to resolve this quickly both sides are digging in for a fight.

Even without Kovalchuk in the fray, however, the Devils remain a much improved team over last season’s with the additions of Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder on defense and Jason Arnott up front. It could, in fact, be argued that the Devils could be a better all around team without Kovalchuk, as they would have to unload a contract in order to come into the season under the salary cap.

Looking at this team, however, Volchenkov and Tallinder should be upgrades over the departed Johnny Oduya and Paul Martin, while Arnott should give the team a solid second-line center that can pitch in on offense.

While these three players alone might not get the Devils back to the promised land, in the Stanley Cup finals, they will certainly go a long way towards making New Jersey more competitive both in the regular season and the post season.

New York Islanders – The Islanders may find themselves in the enviable situation of having to spend money in order to reach the cap floor this season – something that many teams might relish at this point in the off season.

The problem for the Isles, however, is how do they do that?

With the big fish out of the free agency pond, the Isles may have to resort to multiple signings, which could cut down on the amount of playing time that some of their youngsters would get.

It’s hard to imagine that forwards Doug Weight and Matt Moulson won’t be back with New York this season, so that will take care of some of it, but likely won’t resolve the entire issue, but this is good news for a team that only has seven roster players under contract for next season and 13 restricted free agents coming up.

Another year’s experience for their big time youngsters will be good for the Isles, and they’re headed in the right direction – they’re just not there quite yet.

New York Rangers – As has been the case the last few seasons, the Rangers are an enigma wrapped in a riddle, wrapped in a puzzle.

They have Marian Gaborik who, after countless disappointing seasons in Minnesota, came out and showed that he could shoulder the load and be a superstar in the NHL, but past him they don’t have many players that chipped in offensively.

Then, this off season they made what many consider to be the shrewdest move, signing Martin Biron as a capable back up for a goalie who has never really had a capable back up, but they then went out and signed enforcer Derek Boogaard to a ridiculous four-year, $1.65 million per contract.

So, as it stands now, the Rangers aren’t really much better than they were at the end of last season. Alexander Frolov’s agent has stated that his client is close to a deal with the blueshirts and, if that’s the case, the team could be looking better going into this season.

But, as it stands right now, they’re in the same spot that they were last season, which means that they will likely be on the outside looking in once more.

Philadelphia Flyers – After spending most of the off season pretending like the salary cap didn’t apply to them, they’re now back under the cap by a whole $327k.

After replacing Simon Gagne with Nikolai Zherdev, which was likely a salary shedding move, it is apparent that the Flyers are anticipated increased production from James Van Riemsdyk, Claude Giroux and Ville Leino next season, along with what Zherdev brings, to make up for the loss of Gagne’s production.

But the story here isn’t in the team’s offense, but in a defensive unit that could easily be the best in the NHL.

After their defense got embarrassed by Chicago through much of the finals, the Flyers responded by going out and trading for Andrei Meszaros and Matt Walker and signing free agent Sean O’Donnell.

That gives them five defensemen that could legitimately be considered top-five defensemen and two more that are legitimate shut down d-men, plus Oscars Bartulis who appears to now be on the outside looking in.

All of this points to the fact that we could very well be looking at a situation much like the Penguins and Blackhawks faced, of having to lose before you can win.

Pittsburgh Penguins – Let’s be perfectly honest here. You can never count the Pens out of anything.

While they still have one glaring need to address (a scoring winger), the Pens have upgraded their defensive unit which should be a big help for Marc-Andre Fleury.

Zybnek Michalek and Paul Martin give the Pens two more defensemen that can play in any situation and takes the pressure off of Kris Letang and Alex Gologoski on the powerplay and should help in the wake of losing Sergei Gonchar to free agency.

The best news for the Pens, also, is that they have the cap room to address their need for a winger before free agency is out. With the market value for free agent forwards taking a dive, especially with the signing of Nikolai Zherdev, the Pens can more than afford to improve their forward corps.

That, in and of itself, is encouraging news for Pens fans and they should expect to see the playoffs in Pittsburgh once again.

Predictions

Well, now that we’re done with the previews, let’s take a look at how I think the Atlantic Division is going to line up come playoff time this coming season:

1) Philadelphia Flyers
2) New Jersey Devils

3) Pittsburgh Penguins

4) New York Rangers
5) New York Islanders

Through most of the season last season, all five teams were in playoff contention and it should be much of the same this season, though I think that the Rangers and Islanders will fall of towards the end of the season once again and be on the outside looking in. The Flyers, Devils and Penguins, however, should all be back in the dance once again.

Up Next: The Northeast Division