09/17/2009 2:45 PM
By Chad Huebner
This time of year, sports-wise, always catches me off-guard. It’s the start of the football season, American and World-wide versions; the baseball season’s winding down (though in recent times, I’d actually have some sort of stake in what’s happening beyond September: thanks Cubs); and all of a sudden, hockey’s about to begin in a few weeks.
I feel like I always have to reintroduce myself to hockey, since it seems eons ago that the last season ended, I wind up sounding like some alien discovering the sport. “Really? And this. . . sport, as you call it, it’s played on ice? Even in cities where’s it’s above freezing all year round? Sounds silly and dangerous. I don’t mind the beating up on everybody department, but the whole thing with sticks and a rubber disc also sounds silly. Who’d watch such an event?”
Who, indeed? Well, at least broadcast coverage is getting marginally better, as in if you have cable, and can learn to power a crystal radio transponder, you can watch pretty much every game, except for the ones you want to watch. I must imagine this is what Soviet TV was like before the end of the Cold War.
Anyway, give me a few weeks, at least until the beginning of the NHL season, for me to get my bearings. At that point, baseball’s pretty much pointless, and the NFL doesn’t get really hot until November.
It’s an Olympic year, which means a whole lot to me. First of all, the last time we had the Winter Olympics in 2006; it was part of my first season writing this column, so happy anniversary to me. It also means we get to see the best of the best from each country playing for something that you can’t drink out of, but is just as valuable (though I’m sure you could use one of those medals as a coaster). Could Belarus upend Sweden? Can Norway defeat the U.S.? Does anyone know what a “Latvia” is? All these questions and more made possible by the fact that everyone has a chance at winning this thing. That, and they’ll be doing this in a friendlier time zone for yours truly (only two hours behind me in Vancouver).
One thing to watch out for is the idea that those teams who send a bunch of players to the Olympics will ultimately lose out on the Stanley Cup because those players will be playing and getting tired during a two-week stretch where the rest of the league gets a nice, long vacation. The participants of the 2006 Stanley Cup, the Carolina Hurricanes and the Edmonton Oilers, sent only two players each, while the Detroit Red Wings, who finished the regular season with 124 points (11 more than the next-closest team, the Ottawa Senators), sent six players. The Oilers and ‘Canes played for the Cup because, well in part, the Oilers eliminated the Red Wings in the first round. At least Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom and Henrik Zetterberg came away with “coasters.”
Usually, when I do these season previews, I usually write my head off about all 30 NHL teams, where I get to a point I find myself talking myself out of the most sensible of decisions, and into some of the weird crazy things, like the New York Islanders have a shot at making the playoffs, and the San Jose Sharks will finally win it all. Stuff like that. This time around, and in honor of the glorious U.S. economy, I’m cutting back, making things short and sweet, which should be good for both you and me.
But before I tell you that the Pens will be the number one seed in the Eastern Conference (I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by telling you that ahead of time, like it was a secret, anyway), I guess I should say something about the nightmarish shambles known as the Chicago Blackhawks Off-season. I guess I could’ve waited until their turn in the season preview came up, but there’s so much to talk about, I better get it out of the way ASAP.
It was only a year ago when I was singing hosannas about the fact the ‘Hawks were enjoying the best off-season I could ever remember. What a difference a year makes, ho, ho. I’d imagine the Coen Brothers, after scripting “Fargo”, looking at what has happened to and happened by the ‘Hawks and saying “Boy, wish we could have come up with as good of a storm as that.” It seemed like every week there was more bad news, it got to the point where Rocky Wirtz could have bitten the head off of a puppy, and I would have said “Eh, same #$@!, different day.” Before, I wanted the new NHL season to start ASAP because I wanted to see what the ‘Hawks could do with such a magnificent postseason run under their belts. Now? I’m just praying for the start of the season just so I can try to forget about what happened the last three months. It’s like at the end of “The Hangover”, where the guys take one last look at the debauchery they committed in Las Vegas before deleting it from their digital camera forever. Accusations of free agency tampering? Delete! Firing the GM that made 2008-09 possible, even though it was one mistake, and the ‘Hawks have made tons of those since their inception? DELETE! Having their star player, their NHL 10 cover boy and his brother beat up a cabbie over a dollar tip, then having said star player write an apology like he’s an eight-year-old (which is so wrong, since he looks at least 16)? DELETE! DELETE! DELETE!
Binge and purge, folks, binge and purge. Glad to get that out of my system (though try saying that to the nightmares I’ll probably still have), now it’s on to my picks.
Gee, I guess with the loss of great players to free agency and the loss of Evgeni Malkin for an extended period of time during the season, plus the hiring of another AHL coach, didn’t really slow these guys down, huh? Well, if Dan Bylsma didn’t bring his magic dust with him from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, then it’d be a different tune. They didn’t make too many moves in the free agent market. Didn’t need to. And they have Chris Kunitz for an entire year. Yippy skippy! The Conference, and a chance to be the first to repeat as world champions since 1997-98 yadda yadda yadda, is theirs to lose.
New Jersey Devils
I always pick them to under perform, and time and time again, they get the best of me. They won’t jump ahead of Pittsburgh (and as soon as I wrote that, they probably will), but they’ll make it very tough throughout the whole year. Doesn’t seem to matter who coaches them. Maybe they’ll install a revolving door on the bench.
Tough division, but someone’s got to be the odd team out (hmm, I said the same thing about the Islanders last year, better hope this isn’t an omen). Pronger and Emery seem like nice pickups, but the Toyota Prius seems like a nice car. If they can bounce back, so can the rest of the team. They’ll at least score a bushel of goals night after night, though. Just hope Daniel Briere can escape the “Donovan McNabb Curse.”
New York Rangers
Odd team out Part 2. Brilliant goaltending, crappy goalscoring (third-worst in the league last year). Is Marian Gaborik the solution? Why would the Minnesota Wild let him go unless he’s slowing down? Oh yeah, they’ll make the playoffs, but they need the youngsters to start growing up and showing up.
New York Islanders
Yes, this one is obvious too, but at least there’s hope of a brighter future. They won the John Tavares Sweepstakes, and they might also win the (Insert Future Superstar Junior Name Here) Sweepstakes next year. Put Tavares on a line with Kyle Okposo and Doug Weight (for that veteran feeling), and we might have something happen. Still, team is woefully light in the “legitimate stars” department, and they gave DiPietro a Luongo-like contract without that Luongo-like legitimacy. Double bad news for him, since the world’s supposed to end in 2012. Wait, that’s not real? But Roland Emmerich told me about it, and.
The Patriots dominate the NFL; the Red Sox used to dominate baseball; the Celtics dominate the NBA; why can’t the Bruins dominate the NHL? Because I’m sick of the east-coast/ESPN bias, I’m sick of it! How can one city have so many good teams at the same time? What makes this town so damn special? You break one curse and boom! Everything else blows up, I guess. I’ll admit it’s been a long time since they’ve been to the Cup Finals (1990), and an even looooonger time since they were champs (1972), but it won’t happen this year, not on my Chicago-sports-fan-curse watch.
They only finished two points out of a playoff spot, and they nearly made the playoffs with a late season push, so why not let the surge spill over to this season? They’re another team that can score, and must also rely on the health of its star goalie. Mikael Tellqvist should effectively win the backup job in net, making that situation a little better.
Is 1993 the new 1940 in hockey terms? Last time the Canadiens won the Cup, last time a Canadian team won it, too. That means something to the land where the sport was created. (Then again, a Canadian created basketball, and you don’t hear too many Canadians grousing about how American teams have a stranglehold on the NBA championship, do you?) But hey, hooray for 100 years of Les Habs. Hold that torch high, fellas. Hmm, maybe that’s the problem: the pressure to win put on by fans with somewhat unrealistic expectations and a fanaticism only equaled by Jonas Brothers followers (gotta be a cult there). Nahhhhhh.
Hmm, which Ontario-based franchise will be worse. The Hamilton Coyotes? Oops, couldn’t get the Balsille rolling on that one! Easy to say the Sens are the Lindsey Lohans of the league, but perhaps a new season brings a fresh start. At least they don’t have Ray “Cockroach Cluster” Emery to worry about anymore. Pascal LeClaire could prove to be The Steal of the Year, making another hapless franchise into playoff contenders.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Sorry, Toronto, but you’re in rebuilding mode, and that automatically spells a long season or two. But just like the ‘Hawks and Bruins, you are another of the Original Six that’s due for some big things down the road. Aren’t you? Please?
WASHINGTON CAPITALS SOUTHEAST DIVISION
Just calling it as I see it. Oh sure, the Hurricanes will be there to make a pest of themselves, as hurricanes usually do. But just like the rest of the league, this is another case of “until someone beats them, they’re the top dog.” Like the Pens, no need to change what isn’t broken. Just get rid of the gap tooth look from “The Hangover”, Ovie!
Speaking of gap teeth. . . but seriously! They’ll be just as annoying to the Caps as they’ve been since the Caps (As in capped teeth? Really, Ovie, do something about your choppers!) emerged as a legitimate Cup threat. The ‘Canes have Paul Maurice as head coach for, presumably, the entire season, and nowadays this is apparently a good thing. I’m sure Carolina will “shock” hockey nation once again with another deep playoff run, but it’s just hard to take these guys seriously.
Another year passes with another Florida standout going to another western Canadian town. The idea of building a team around Jay Bouwmeester is a laughable thought now, but at least the Panthers made (they hope, they really, really hope) an upgrade in net by getting Scott Clemmensen, who had a breakout year when Marty Brodeur was out of action, from the Devils. Otherwise, the Panthers aren’t in line to advance to the playoffs any time soon. Hard to believe it’s been nearly 15 years since fans were throwing plastic rats on the ice for these guys. Oh, how time flies.
Speaking of losing big stars, it’s “Operation: Ilya” as the main mission for the Thrashers this year. Can they keep Kovalchuk all season, or will he be the biggest name at the trading deadline? Though this was a team that showed some glimmer of hope being coached by John Anderson, the man who helped make the Chicago Wolves the best hockey team in the Windy City for quite awhile, there isn’t enough to make me think the Thrashers are playoff-ready.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Last year I picked this team to finish third in their division, even though I had bad feelings about them. Those feelings were warranted, so I’ll pick them dead last this year, with the natural assumption being they be a playoff team and media darlings. It always seems to happen this way.
Playoff Seeding for Eastern Conference: 1. Pittsburgh 2. Boston 3. Washington 4. New Jersey 5. Philadelphia 6. Carolina 7. Montreal 8. Buffalo
NEXT TIME: Western Conference picks, and who will win the Cup that rests on the coasters.
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