Sports

2006 NHL Preview

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With a salary cap and greater equality between franchises, NHL previews are only going to get harder and harder to produce. Though there will always be three to four teams in each conference that are locks to make the playoffs, and three to four teams that are locks to miss them, the rest of the teams will be a crap shoot. Now, regardless of standing, everyone has a shot to take it all in the playoffs. Last year the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and the Edmonton Oilers, despite finishing sixth and eighth in the West respectively, contested for a spot in the Stanley Cup finals. But the playoffs are one thing and the regular season is a completely separate creature. Here offering their opinions on who's the cream and who's the crap are the Gauntlet's very own puck-heads Ryan Pike and Jon Roe.

The West-- Ryan Pike, E&P Editor

[Predicted 1st] San Jose Sharks

After a slow start last season, San Jose traded for Joe Thornton and promptly became the hottest act in hockey. Armed with a trio of top-flight players in Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Jonathan Cheechoo, the Sharks have teeth. The only question mark for this squad is their defense, which--despite names like Kyle McLaren and Scott Hannan--lacks a cornerstone. Fortunately for Sharks fans, they had the same problem last year and still flourished.

[Predicted 2nd] Calgary Flames

After coming within inches of winning the Stanley Cup in 2004, the Flames were extinguished in the '06 playoffs due to a lack of scoring. General Manager Darryl Sutter traded for Alex Tanguay, and now pundits are touting the Flames as a Cup contender once again. Despite Miikka Kiprusoff's stellar goal-tending and an excellent bunch of defensemen led by Robyn Regehr and Dion Phaneuf, the Flames will only go as far as their work ethic will take them.

[Predicted 3rd] Nashville Predators

Once an expansion team known more for their terrible mustard-coloured jerseys than for their play, the Preds added Paul Kariya after the labour dispute and improved greatly. Free agents Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont join Kariya to form an imposing scoring threat.

[Predicted 4th] Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks were the NHL's surprise team last season, bouncing the Flames from the playoffs and almost making it to the Stanley Cup Finals. One of the younger and faster teams last year, the Ducks traded a bit of their youth and speed to the Oilers for Chris Pronger and will be slower as a result.

[Predicted 5th] Edmonton Oilers

After a Cinderella season that saw Edmonton in the Stanley Cup Finals, the Oilers shipped off aging blueliner Chris Pronger to Anaheim and got Joffrey Lupul in exchange. Lupul joins a forward unit that's young, fast and dangerous. If Edmonton has a flaw, it's that goalie Dwayne Roloson has never been counted on as a number one goalie.

[Predicted 6th] Detroit Red Wings

Times are tough in Hockeytown following a series of disappointing playoff performances and the departure of veteran leaders Brendan Shanahan and Steve Yzerman. The leadership void left by Yzerman may be tough to fill and relying on oft-injured goalie Dominik Hasek to carry the team to victory is also a risky proposition.

[Predicted 7th] Minnesota Wild

No team made more moves during the off-season than the Minnesota Wild. The addition of so many new players calls into question team chemistry. Pavol Demitra, Mark Parrish and Kim Johnsson are fantastic players, and once they adjust to their new teammates, Minnesota will be a very good team. It's just a question of how long that adjustment will take.

[Predicted 8th] Colorado Avalanche

The Av's roster, once as stacked as the Harlem Globetrotters, now resembles the Washington Generals. While captain Joe Sakic is still leading the way, longtime Avs Alex Tanguay and Rob Blake departed during the summer, and Colorado now relies on the inconsistent Jose Theodore to backstop them to a playoff spot.

The Rest...

[9] Dallas Stars, [10] Vancouver Canucks, [11] Los Angeles Kings, [12] Phoenix Coyotes, [13] Columbus Blue Jackets, [14] Chicago Blackhawks, [15] St. Louis Blues

The East-- Jon Roe, Sports Editor

[Predicted 1st] Carolina Hurricanes

The Canes come in as reigning Stanley Cup champs and will be looking to repeat. Luckily for them, they haven't really taken much of a step back in the offseason. Despite the loss of veteran forwards Mark Recchi and Doug Weight, the Canes boast one of the most potent offences in the league with Eric Staal, Erik Cole and Justin Williams leading the way. The departure of the vets leaves more room for younger players like Calgary Hitman product Andrew Ladd, who had a solid rookie campaign with five goals and six assists for 11 points in 29 games.

[Predicted 2nd] Buffalo Sabres

Buffalo was successful last year with their ability to roll four lines, each of them a scoring threat, and they should maintain that trend this year, led by Daniel Briere, Maxim Afinogenov and Chris Drury. With Ryan Miller in goal, and a solid six-man defensive unit, the Sabres are one of the best in the East.

[Predicted 3rd] New York Rangers

It must be a nice reprieve for Rangers fans now that Glen Sather seems to be recovering from his bout of fiscal insanity, and has finally started making some good player decisions. Sather added Stanley Cup champ Aaron Ward and solid veteran Brendan Shanahan. Coach Tom Renney has been combining Shanahan with five-time scoring champ Jaromir Jagr on the powerplay with excellent results, and if the chemistry carries throughout the entire season, New York should have one of the best powerplays in the league.

[Predicted 4th] Ottawa Senators

With the departure of defenseman Zdeno Chara, the Sens lose a 30-minutes-a-game work horse on defense who will be tough to replace. How good is Martin Gerber? Can he handle the pressure of being on a cup contender?

[Predicted 5th] Tampa Bay Lightning

Last year the Lightning faced goaltending problems all season and were severely damaged because of it. This year they have Columbus Blue Jackets cast-away Marc Denis back-stopping them--definitely a better option than either a well-aged Sean Burke or leaky and inconsistent John Grahame. Denis should be enough to help the Lightning finish better than last year.

[Predicted 6th] Philadelphia Flyers

With an aging offense and several aging defensive stalwarts, can the Flyers stay healthy enough to finish on top of the division and make it deep into the playoffs? General Manager Bob Clarke's job could be on the line if they fizzle out in the first round of the playoffs again.

[Predicted 7th] Montreal Canadiens

The Canadiens are a good team without any glaring weaknesses, but they aren't necessarily better than anybody above them in the east. The biggest deciding factor will be the 16 games they play against Buffalo and Ottawa. Both teams are strong and will be a good measure of how good this Habs team is.

[Predicted 8th] New Jersey Devils

A few days before the NHL season, when it looked like the Devils would be over the cap and unable to sign 48-goal man Brian Gionta, General Manager Lou Lamoriello pulled a few rabbits from his hat and managed to dump the salaries of Alexander Mogilny and Vladimir Malakhov, who were costing the team something to the tune of seven million. The Devils are still very close to the cap and they'll be limited to the number of moves they'll be able to make in order to improve their team over the season.

The Rest...

[9] Dallas Stars, [10] Vancouver Canucks, [11] Los Angeles Kings, [12] Phoenix Coyotes, [13] Columbus Blue Jackets, [14] Chicago Blackhawks, [15] St. Louis Blues

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