Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Now that the National Hockey League's European vacation is over, the real season can begin.
No offense to fans of the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins, but the league's decision to begin the regular season with a set of contests in Stockholm and Prague is simply confusing. The fact that the NHL chooses to have three idle days before playing another game doesn't help the matter.
Of course, this could simply be an American perspective on the NHL's opening weekend. Playing games that will air on Saturday and Sunday afternoons doesn't make sense for a U.S. audience that is already dividing its time between the MLB playoffs, college football, and the NFL, not to mention this whole political process thing that people suddenly have taken an interest in.
Thus, the NHL's first weekend of action came and went with little fanfare in the U.S., but hopefully interest will pick up as the league returns to North America for the official start to the season.
Now that I've gotten that off my chest, it's time to take a look at what this humble prognosticator believes the 2008-09 NHL campaign has in store for us. Basically, this is a way for me to predict who will win the Stanley Cup and the postseason awards, only to abandon most of the picks by the time the All- Star break rolls around.
Anyway, here goes nothing.
1. Montreal (Northeast Division winner) 2. Washington (Southeast) 3. Philadelphia (Atlantic) 4. Pittsburgh 5. NY Rangers 6. Ottawa 7. New Jersey 8. Carolina
EAST CHAMPION: Montreal
Why the Canadiens? The Habs weren't even expected to make the postseason before the start of the 2007-08 campaign, and still wound up taking the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The youth movement in Montreal hasn't taken very long to pay dividends, and the club is now one of the fastest teams in the NHL. Young goaltender Carey Price struggled in the playoffs last year, but the experience he gained should help the team get much further than the second round in the spring of 2009.
The Detroit Red Wings return most of the team that led them to their fourth Stanley Cup in 11 seasons.
1. Detroit (Central) 2. Dallas (Pacific) 3. Colorado (Northwest) 4. San Jose 5. Minnesota 6. Anaheim 7. Columbus 8. Chicago
WEST CHAMPION: Detroit
Why the Red Wings? More like, why not? The Red Wings are bringing back basically the same club that led them to their fourth Cup in 11 seasons last spring, plus they've added winger Marian Hossa, the top offensive weapon available on this summer's free agent market. Look for Detroit to breeze through the regular season on its way to a fifth Presidents' Trophy in seven seasons.
STANLEY CUP CHAMPION: Detroit
It's not easy to repeat and the fact that no team has won back-to-back Stanley Cups since Detroit did it in 1997 and '98 is a concern, but Mike Babcock's team simply has too much talent to let something like history change my mind. Hossa will add a great deal of scoring to the equation, and that never hurts. Chemistry shouldn't be an issue because Detroit is still full of guys who have won under Babcock's system and it's hard to imagine Hossa rebelling. If you're weighing the odds, it simply doesn't make any sense to pick another to team to win the Cup.
HART TROPHY (MVP) - Rick Nash, Columbus
Since I pretty much went chalk in picking the Red Wings, I'll stick my neck out a bit with this pick of Nash as the Hart Trophy winner. The 6-4, 215-pound winger is just 24 years old and has a new cast of characters surrounding him in Columbus, which is still trying to make the postseason for the first time since entering the league. I predict Columbus will finally make the playoffs this year, and Nash will return to the form that saw him tie for the league lead in goals with 41 during the 2003-04 campaign. Nash has the size, skill and speed to be one of the most dominant players in the league and that's what he'll become in the 2008-09 season.
Honorable Mention: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh; Alexander Ovechkin, Washington.
VEZINA TROPHY (best goaltender) - Henrik Lundqvist, NY Rangers
New Jersey's legendary netminder Martin Brodeur has claimed four of the last five Vezinas, but Lundqvist has been a finalist for the award in each of his three NHL seasons. This will finally be the 26-year-old Swede's year to claim the title of the league's top backstop. The Rangers have a defensive-minded team that should benefit "King Henrik" and, in turn, the defense will play even better with the franchise goaltender behind them. Lundqvist has been knocking on Vezina's door for a few years now, and his patience will be rewarded with some new hardware.
Honorable Mention: Brodeur; Evgeni Nabokov, San Jose.
NORRIS TROPHY (best defenseman) - Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit
While Brodeur has been gobbling up Vezina Trophies, Lidstrom has been even greedier, winning three straight and six of the last seven Norris awards. Dion Phaneuf of the Calgary Flames will eventually stop Lidstrom's streak, but it's hard to see how anybody has a better shot at the award than the Red Wings captain. Lidstrom is now 38 years old, but he showed no signs of age in 2007-08, when he led all NHL blueliners with 70 points. Expect that number to increase this season with Hossa on the power play.
Honorable Mentions: Phaneuf; Scott Niedermayer, Anaheim.
CALDER TROPHY (top rookie) - Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay
Just as Patrick Kane did last year, Steven Stamkos will win the Calder just a year after being selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Stamkos will get plenty of playing time with the new-look Lightning, and the 18-year- old centerman is expected to deliver a solid offensive season. Columbus rookie Jakub Voracek will also make a run at the Calder, but Stamkos' projected ice time gives him the advantage.
Honorable Mentions: Voracek; Kyle Okposo, NY Islanders.
So, that's what I've come up with. It will probably take just a few weeks to make some of these picks seem ridiculous, but that's what makes the process exciting. Also, by the end of the season, I'll only be talking about the picks I got right anyway.