The good, the bad and the ugly

Don’t let lazy 20 C days fool you–it’s almost winter. While Canadian summers mean beer and patios, winters mean beer and hockey. And October means another National Hockey League season is about to begin.

Mario is back for a whole year (hopefully), Peter Forsberg has no spleen and the Islanders are performing "Stupid Human Tricks" that would make Letterman proud. All these thoughts and musings are for later though, as hockey is unequivocally Canadian and we still have six teams in the league.

Allow me to don my hat of prognostication and project the fates of our nation’s favourite franchises.


Calgary Flames

Talk about spring cleaning. General Manager Craig Button finally followed through on promises to make the team his own. A slough of changes made during the off-season changed the face of a Flames team that has disappointed fans for the last few seasons.

The result is a team with a lot more grit, better D and next to no offence. New netminder Roman Turek is a bona fide starting goalie, regardless of his alleged confidence problem, and should make a world of difference. While former keeper Freddie Brathwaite was amazing over the first 60 games last year, he just didn’t have the endurance down the stretch–and that’s what matters most.

The most exciting part of the 2001/02 season for the hometown boys will be their blueline. With some of the most talented young defencemen in the league all coming into their own, that should be a bright spot in another long, dismal and unsuccessful season.

Prediction – Fourth in the Pacific Division, 11th in the Western Conference, 73 points

Key additions – Roman Turek (G), Rob Niedermayer (F)

Key losses – Valeri Bure (F), Freddie Brathwaite (G), Phil Housely (D)


Edmonton Oilers


Last year was truly a breakthrough for this once-storied franchise. The years of investing in youth and development came to fruition. Last year’s quick, gritty and talented Oilers finished 11 games over .500 before bowing out of the playoffs in six games to the Dallas Stars.

As one of the most exciting teams in the league last year, this year’s campaign should be no different. It’s true there’s no Doug Weight, but the depth of the organization should be more than enough to compensate. With Mike Comrie playing a whole year and the ever-improving youth brigade on defence, the Oilers are coming out with a lot of youthful energy and enthusiasm.

While many project doom and gloom, I think the Oilers have improved despite the loss of Weight. Last year the team relied heavily on the top line to carry them offensively. They now have three solid scoring lines and one of the best checking units in the game. They will surprise a lot of people.

Prediction – Second in the Pacific Division, sixth in the Western Conference, 90 points

Key additions – Jochen Hecht (F), Marty Reasoner (F), Steve Staios (D)

Key losses – Doug Weight (F), Igor Ulanov (D), leadership


Canucks

With a pair of identical twin Swedish rookies who look like Sloth from Goonies and a breakout year by captain Markus Naslund, the Canucks came out of nowhere last season to make the playoffs for the first time in five years. However, they will be hard pressed to repeat said feat in 2001/02.

While they aren’t lacking in talent up front or on defence, they don’t have a goaltender. To quote a member of Dinos’ Athletics: "If Dan Cloutier is a starting goalie, then my ass is a machine gun."

While Cloutier may develop into something great, it won’t happen before the season opens–or closes for that matter. Last year the Canucks received phenomenal goaltending from journeyman and perennial backup Bob Essensa. Simply put, the ‘Nucks will compete most nights but won’t be competing come May.

Prediction – Third in the Pacific Division, ninth in the Western Conference, 81 points

Key additions – None to speak of, unless you count Mark Fitzpatrick

Key losses – Bob Essensa (G), which is a huge blow


Montreal Canadiens

You really have to feel for the Montreal Canadiens, as they are the most unlucky team in all of professional sports. Always topping the list for man games lost, news that captain and premiere offensive talent Saku Koivu was diagnosed with cancer hit them hard.

Montreal had problems and hasn’t done much to fix them. By relying on the oft-injured and now ailing Koivu, they’ve failed in the past few years. Young forwards Marcel Hossa (brother of Marian) and Jan Bulis have impressed in the preseason and will be counted on to carry the offensive load. Questionable defence should be compensated for by goaltenders Jeff Hackett and Jose Theodore, but expect one to be moved to make space for up-and-comer Matthieu Garon.

Once again coaching could be a problem. The unproven Michel Therrien is back behind the bench most thought would be ruled by former Hab Guy Carbonneau. Perennially bad management could be a factor in Montreal’s demise.

The Canadiens are still a long way off, but the additions they’ve made have improved the team and have them headed in the right direction–finally.

Prediction – Fifth in the Northeast Division, 13th in the Eastern Conference, 65 points

Key additions – Joe Juneau (F), Yanic Perreault (F), Stephane Quintal (D)

Key losses – Saku Koivu (F), all hope


Ottawa Senators

Did you ever want to kick your whining younger sibling out of the family? While I’m sure your parents would have quashed that idea, the beauty of the NHL is there aren’t any parents. It’s like Neverland.

That said, Alexei Yashin is now a New York Islander (and there was much rejoicing). Granted, he is a phenomenal talent good for at least 80 points a year, but that’s only when he’s on the ice.

Another bonus is the Senators depth–having the top five entry draft picks year upon year helps–which should offset the loss of Yashin. The recently re-signed Marian Hossa will have a breakout year in Yashin’s absence, I see more than 90 points for him, solidifying his position as a superstar.

Many feel the Sens will take a step back with the loss of Yashin, but those of us with longer memories recall a Sens team that did quite well a couple of years ago, also without the Russian prima donna.

Prediction – First in the Northeast Division, third in the Eastern Conference, 107 points

Key additions – Zdeno Chara (D), Bill Muckalt (F)

Key losses – Alexei Yashin (F), Jason York (D)


Toronto Maple Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs are a lot like major league baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers–they spend truckloads of money and look great on paper but can’t quite pull it out. The 2001/02 season will be no exception.

Snapping up snipers left, right and center by nabbing Robert Reichel, Mikael Renberg and Alexander Mogilny, as well as taking other team’s castaway defencemen, the Leafs will fall flat on their faces one more time. They will unde-racheive in the regular season and come up short in the playoffs. How do I know this? They’re the Leafs, that’s what they do.

Mogilny will not live up to expectations (it’s not his contract year), goalie Curtis Joseph will take a step back (he’s not happy to be in Toronto right now) and the porous, haphazard defence will be heavily exploited. A frustrating year for Leafs fans? Definitely.

Prediction – Second in the Northeast Division, sixth in the Eastern Conference, 95 points

Key additions – Alexander Mogilny (F), Robert Reichel (F), Mikael Renberg (F)

Key losses – Steve Thomas (F), fiscal responsibility