Yep. I'm going to make a post. A real one. About Hockey.
Finally, the NHL returns, with new rules, and alot of new excitement around it. This means, of course for a Leaf fan, the return of the lovely media coverage of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Most teams are looked upon in a positive or hopeful light by their local media sources, the Leafs seem to be the exception and it's already started. Maybe some of it's deserved, the Leafs haven't brought home a cup in what, a billion years? Quite the drought. Have the Leafs had a hard time in the Playoffs? Yeah, maybe... but when the Senators are picked to win the cup, and the Leafs condemned at the same time for poor playoff performances things get sorta iffy (Sorry Sens Fans, I do think your team got alot stronger this year, I'll talk about that later). Bashing the Leafs is an October Tradition, so the critics are already discounting the Leafs from the playoffs. Yes. Already. In October. Before the first regular season game has even been played.
Is it a possibility? Yeah, sure it is. Quite frankly this year, more then any other year the cup is open for ANY of the 30 teams to win. The salary cap has helped many small market teams, hurt the big budget teams and brought something resembling parity to the NHL. Well, not that big budget teams equal a cup. Just ask the Rangers. Or the Lightning.
Well, let's take a look at the Canadian teams. I'll leave TO for last because it will be more indepth as I know them better. I wish I could give the other Canadian teams a better analysis, but I can't, not fairly at least. I will say this, I fully expect all 6 to make the playoffs.
Not much to say about them, really. The past few years they've played as a team, and possibly better as a team then any other club. Every player was a part in the machine. Most of these parts are back, and how could the Canucks not be considered serious challengers for the cup? I'd give them the edge over the other Canadian Western Division teams, because if I don't, Bertuzzi will come and kill me.
The problem with the oilers is no matter HOW good the team is today, it will always, always, always be compared to the Oilers with Gretzky, Fuhr, Messier et al. Now, they picked up Pronger, but lost Brewer which hopefully for them will be a good move. A solid team, and that might let Peca bring out his A-game. I predict that Cory Cross will lead the team in scoring....on their own net. (Just for you Mike!)
Calgary was inches away from bringing the cup back to Canada in their upstart run a couple of years ago. Many are saying that they'll be a powerhouse with Iginla, Kipper and one of the better defenses in the league. They probably will, but living up to that may cause some problems, the stars maybe there, but other keys players have moved on and people will need to step up. It's Calgary though, so I doubt any will hesitate to step up. They've got alot to prove and alot of expectations to meet, I'd not bet against the Flames though.
The Habs will benefit under the cap. Koivu and Theodore have shown in the past they are quite capable of making the team step up to the next level. The Preseason showed us some of the prospects the Habs will be able ot bring up this year or next, and they definitely look impressive. Playoff bound for the Habs, with a solid future ahead of them.
To say the Sens aren't a good team would be foolish. Picking up Heatley and pairing him with Spezza is going to lead to some fast, explosive playing. The Sens really haven't changed a whole lot with the new rules, they were capable of operating under the cap because they were used to it. Hossa being gone might hurt the team a little, but I think Heatley can replace him. Other loses were no more then most other teams endured due to the cap and desires to play elsewhere. I think the loss of Coach Martin is the thing that could hurt them most. Or Hasek deciding not to play. They'll be in the top two of their division.
Comparatively speaking, big changes for the Leafs, though that may only seem that way because I'm more familiar with Leaf team then any of the other. Roberts, Nieuwendyk, Mogilny and Leetch are all gone, and in are Allison, O'Neill and Lindros and a lot of questions. For the first time in a few seasons, however, Toronto seems to be letting some youth in with Stajan, Steen, Kilger and some kid named Wozniewski along with a few others waiting in the wings with the Marlies. Quinn will probably be going for depth, and this time there is a potential for 4 fairly solid lines. Defense once again is the big question, but picking up Khavanov should do alot to give the leafs a solid 2 lines of Defense, with a third line of Berg and Belak the real question. The starting line up is, as always with Quinn's team, a mystery until near game time, though some chemistry has developed between players that we can expect to see on the same line, like Antropov and Ponikarovsky who teamed up for some insane points over the preseason, as well as Stajan and Steen hitting it off. I expect one of those pairs, probably Antro and Poni to be with Sundin. Stajan and Steen will most likely be paired with O'Neill as Stajan in more likely to play center. Allison will likely find himself with Darcy Tucker and Mariusz Czerkawski, and hopefully Czerkawski has found a team he wants to play for, especially with his friend Mats as the captain. Lindros will most likely hold center on the fourth line with Domi and one of the rookies, which might be the best for Lindros as for once not having the pressure and spotlight on him could really help him return to form... and having someone like Domi there to keep him from being nailed to often could only help. Switching Tucker and Domi could also help the idea of 4 rolling scoring lines, and I have a feeling, like always, Pat Quinn will be tinkering with the lines all through the season, trying to get the best combinations for four lines, which is something that can only benefit the team. Not much to say about Belfour, he'll probably be his typical self this season, but hopefully with fewer injuries.
I'd love to see the Leafs win. Defeating the Sens tonight would be a huge boost. Realistically though, I don't see it happening. The team chemistry didn't get a chance to build too much over the preseason, as it truly was a battle for a fair number to make the team. That means the first few games of the season will be rough, as each player tries to find his place. Antropov and Poniskarovsky along with Stajan and Steen really did seem to click though, and I dunno if I'll ever get over saying something GOOD about Antropov, but those two combinations will hopefully be the catalyst that fires up the Leafs in the early season. Either team lighting up the other's goalie early on will probably go along way towards a win, and the way the Spezza-Heatley line has clicked I have a strong feeling the Sens are just more ready for the game as a team. Who knows though, tonight is the first REAL time we'll see either team play this year, and the new rules and the calls could very well what makes or breaks the game. My prediction is for the Sens to win, but my heart is with the Leafs.
Go Leafs Go!