It is the time of year where NHL professional prognosticators and armchair fans begin making predictions. Actually, that time of year starts when the season ends for most. However, in August, we now have an idea of what most teams will look like after the dust has settled on free agent frenzy and most players are signed where they will start the year. As an Edmonton Oilers fan the NHL lottery is both a dirty, overused word as well as a necessary and impressive tool for the rebuild that is continuing along nicely. Right now, Nail Yakupov is the number one ranked prospect. Will the Oilers be in the mix for an unprecedented 3rd overall pick in 2012? I think they will be closer to pushing for a playoff spot than going to TSN studios in the spring for the annual lottery selection. In this post I will discuss the 5 teams that I think are most likely to be in the bottom 5 and have a shot at Yakupov.
1. The Dallas Stars look dreadful. Their record with Brad Richards in the line-up last year was far better than without him. Paired with excellent goaltending from Lehtonen, the Dallas Stars looked ready to make a playoff push. Richards got hurt and the results were awful for the rest of the year. The 2011-2012 season will begin and finish without Brad Richards. That means 82 games without a star center who has yet to be replaced. Obviously the Stars can't replace the offense of Richards completely, but they haven't added ANYTHING to the center position. They did however spend some money on the back end, but it will not be enough and they are destined to finish very near the bottom of the league and are my pick to land the YAK.
2. Colorado Avalanche are an interesting case. They do have a solid young core with the team, but I do not understand some of the moves that management has made. Scratch that. I do not understand how they were taken by the Washington Capitals. Semyon Varlamov is a solid goaltender, but the Avs traded away what I think is a guaranteed lottery pick and then some for him. Varlamov played on a great Capitals team that could pull out wins with its offense, but also made strong commitments to defense in the past two seasons. The Avalanche do possess a solid, perhaps too young, D-core with Johnson, Cumiskey and O'Byrne. Hejda and O'Brien are solid acquisitions, but I think they are still too young throughout the roster unless Varlamov can carry the Avs like Craig Anderson did 2 years ago. The loss of leadership in Adam Foote will show early on in the season and it will be too tough to crawl out of.
3. The Ottawa Senators made a number of moves last year that indicate that they are going to have to go through a rebuild similar to the Edmonton Oilers. I think that the Sens are much better than the Oilers were when they started retooling the roster. For instance, they have a number of stud defensive prospects that include David Rundbland as well as a very good NHL starting goaltender. I like Craig Andersen alot, but feel he is unable to play 70+ games in a season before wearing down. He can steal games, but cannot be run into the ground and still succeed. They still have some offensive talent on the team, but I don't think they are capable of keeping up with the pack, even in the much weaker Eastern Conference. The Sens could easily be on the bubble for the lottery or they could be perfectly average and miss the playoffs by a handful of points
4. Phoenix Coyotes
The yotes have almost no offense in their lineup and Shane Doan is becoming too old of warrior to be overly effective. The defense is very good with Keith Yandle Ekman-Larsen and others. Dave Tippett is a great coach and could get the most out of his young roster. Who knows, the Coyotes may take a major step forward in developing their young team. However, no matter what, Phoenix has not and can not replace the goaltending of Ilya Brygallov. I am not a huge supporter of Bryz because I still think he is not a proven money goaltender, but what he was able to do to get an anemic Phoenix offense to the playoffs cannot be overlooked. He is a huge loss and will cause the Coyotes to stumble backwards. Mike Smith and Jason Labarbera are not a capable tandem in the cage. They will be cellar dwellers for some time and leave Phoenix forever as they cannot ice a successful enough team to garner fan support.
5. Minnesota Wild
The final choice was a tough one. I do not think that Minnesota got better with the trades they made with San Jose. They helped out their offense in adding Dany D bag Heatley, but lost their top D man in Burns. The top line is better with Heatley, but after that the roster is pretty depleted. Kyle Brodziak is a good, serviceable player, but not a number 2 center on a good team. The D is solid, but not fantastic. All hopes ride on goaltender Niklas Backstrom, but in order for the team to be competing for a playoff spot the Wild need him to score goals as well. The one thing that could keep them out of the lottery is that they are in the same division as Colorado, Calgary and my beloved Oilers. Minny could keep up, but I think Edmonton and Calgary are just better than them
* I couldn't put the Oilers on this list. I thought about it but their depth chart has drastically improved over the past two seasons and should continue on the right path