Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
After a summer spent trying to decipher the legal mumbo-jumbo surrounding the imminent sale of the Phoenix Coyotes, it's a pleasure to actually get to focus on hockey once again.
The 2009-10 campaign gets underway Thursday night and there are loads of storylines to follow, including the ongoing saga of the Coyotes sale, a story that no longer concerns Wayne Gretzky since his resignation as Phoenix's head coach last week.
Hockey-wise, the biggest story heading into this year is whether the explosive Pittsburgh Penguins can repeat as Stanley Cup champions. If they do, the NHL could be looking at its first dynasty since the days of Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers.
For me, the start of the NHL season means I get to put on my prognosticating cap and take a shot at making some predictions. In the interest of full disclosure, I made the mistake of picking the Montreal Canadiens to win the Eastern Conference last season, a decision that still causes me to shake my head in disgust. Here's my shot at redemption, I guess.
1. Pittsburgh (Atlantic Division winner) 2. Boston (Northeast) 3. Washington (Southeast) 4. Philadelphia 5. New Jersey 6. Carolina 7. Montreal 8. Buffalo
EAST CHAMPION: Pittsburgh
The Penguins have won the last two Eastern Conference championships, and it would be shocking if the road to the Prince of Wales Trophy doesn't go through Pittsburgh once again. Boston has incredible depth and Washington has Alex Ovechkin, but no team in either conference boasts a pair of superstars to equal Pittsburgh's duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The elite centermen gives the Pens two extremely potent lines to lead the way on offense, and with ever-improving goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury about to enter his prime, the boys from the Steel City have plenty of staying power. The sooner Penguin haters face these cold, hard facts, the better.
1. San Jose (Pacific) 2. Detroit (Central) 3. Vancouver (Northwest) 4. Chicago 5. Calgary 6. Anaheim 7. Dallas 8. St. Louis
WEST CHAMPION: San Jose
Sooner or later, the Sharks have to win the Western Conference, right? Yes. Year after year, San Jose turns in outstanding regular seasons only to collapse in the postseason. The nadir came last spring when they won the franchise's first-ever Presidents' Trophy only to get bounced out in the opening round by eighth-seeded Anaheim. But the Sharks are still loaded with talent and hopefully their latest humbling postseason experience will serve as a rock-bottom foundation to build on. They'll also have a new offensive weapon after trading for former Atlanta and Ottawa sniper Dany Heatley this summer. Heatley has a great deal to prove after forcing a trade from the Senators and that attitude should fit in with a roster full of Sharks hungry for redemption.
STANLEY CUP CHAMPION: Pittsburgh
The Red Wings were the last NHL club to repeat as Stanley Cup champions when they won it all in 1997 and '98, and Detroit nearly repeated last spring until Pittsburgh flexed its muscles to pull out the series in seven games. The Pens showed a great deal of growth throughout last year's regular season and playoffs and there is simply no reason to believe that Pittsburgh's trajectory won't continue to rise.
HART TROPHY (MVP): Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh
The combination of Pittsburgh's two superstars is what makes the Penguins such a dangerous team, but the 2008-09 campaign went a long way in settling the argument about who's the better player, Malkin or Crosby. Malkin led the NHL with 113 points during the regular season and also paced the league with 36 points in the postseason. The 23-year-old Russian already has an impressive trophy collection (Calder, Art Ross, Conn Smythe) and it's a good bet that "Geno" will add the Hart Trophy to his mantle in 2009-10. That is, if his countryman Ovechkin doesn't beat out Malkin for the award for a third straight season.
Honorable Mention: Alexander Ovechkin, Washington; Joe Thornton, San Jose.
VEZINA TROPHY (best goaltender): Roberto Luongo, Vancouver
Vancouver's captain is considered by many to be the best goaltender in the world, yet Luongo has yet to claim a Vezina. He's been nominated twice for the award only to lose out both times to the great Martin Brodeur. With Brodeur out for most of last season due to injury it was a prime year for Luongo to win the prize, but unfortunately, the Canucks backstop also missed a big chunk of the campaign due to injury. If he can stay healthy this will be the year Luongo finally puts his name on the Vezina.
Honorable Mention: Martin Brodeur, New Jersey; Evgeni Nabokov, San Jose.
NORRIS TROPHY (best defenseman): Zdeno Chara, Boston
Chara ended Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom's run of three straight Norris Trophies last season, and at 39 years old, the odds are against Lidstrom winning the award for a seventh time. The 6-9, 255-pound Chara dominates with size and toughness, unlike Lidstrom, who is a finesse player with tons of skill on both sides of the ice. Chara also set a record at last year's All- Star festivities with a 105.2 mph slapshot, a weapon that helped him score a career-high 19 goals for Boston last season. Expect the rough Slovakian to beat out the smooth Swede for his second Norris in 2009-10.
Honorable Mentions: Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit; Jay Bouwmeester, Calgary.
CALDER TROPHY (top rookie): Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay
The 6-6, 227-pound Hedman has a great shot at claiming the Calder for two reasons. First, the 18-year-old will see plenty of ice time for a Tampa Bay club that needs a great deal of help on the blueline. Secondly, this summer's second overall pick has already played professionally in the Swedish Elite League and that experience should make his transition to the NHL smoother. John Tavares, who was selected first overall by the Islanders, will be making the jump from juniors and isn't expected to have the same kind of immediate impact that recent rookies like Malkin or Ovechkin had. One drawback is that Hedman's offensive game is still a work in progress, and putting points on the board is essential to winning the Calder.
Honorable Mentions: John Tavares, NY Islanders; Nikita Filatov, Columbus.