Another season is upon us! Seems like only yesterday the Ducks were hoisting the Cup and I was licking my wounds as a Sens fan. But hope is renewed, as it is with the fans of all teams around the league, with the anticipation of a new season!.
Tonight, I wanted to give you my thoughts on a couple of teams (one from each conference) that may be able to surprise a few people with big seasons. Now I'm not saying these teams will make the playoffs or win the Stanley Cup but they'll make it damn hard for other teams to make it there!
Eastern Conference: Florida Panthers
Florida was very competitive last season especially in the second half. Missing the playoffs by only 6 points, they come into this year with not a revamped roster, but one tweaked in all the right areas. Still prominent are the kids, Jay Bouwmeester, Nathan Horton, and Stephen Weiss. Other returnees such as Rostislav Olesz are primed for breakout seasons. And Olli Jokinen, is Olli Jokinen. With an already dangerous, and maturing, offense Jacques Martin went out and got some experienced, depth guys, Brett Mclean, Richard Zednik and Radek Dvorak, that will distract the offense enough to let the kids shine through and fill the cage with rubber. What makes the Cats the pick as my dark horse though are what's going on behind the blue line. Bouwmeester, Allen, Van Ryn, Salei, newcomer Cory Murphy and Noah Welch (from the Roberts trade) are not the flashiest of bluelines but are a very solid and responsible group. Plus Mezei and Steve Montador are not bad guys to have in reserve. Then there is the addition of world class Tomas Vokoun between the pipes. He's not Luongo but he's much better than the Auld/Belfour combo and Vokoun (if he stays healthy) has the ability to push the Panthers to the playoffs.
Western Conference: Los Angeles Kings
Now before you scoff at this suggestion, the Kings are a very different team than they were last year. GM Dean Lombardi did an amazing job in the off season to make this team a competitor. L.A. now boasts the best (their crosstown rivals included) blueline in the NHL. Led by HOF member to be Rob Blake, and the most underrated D man in the league, Lubomir Visnovsky, Lombardi added Tom Preissing (coming off a breakthrough year with Ottawa) and Brad Stuart, not to mention Jack Johnson whose expected to make his NHL debut this season. And if the offense can get through the L.A. defensive corps they are going to have to face a couple of pretty tough, albeit green, goalies in Jason Labarbera (the AHL's leading GAA holder) and Jonathan Bernier (whose shown in preseason that he can play at this level and play beyond well). While impressive, the reason I picked the Kings as my dark horse, is not due to the D but due to the O. The Kings are led by the most dynamic group of young forwards outside of Pittsburgh in the NHL. Kopitar is a superstar in the making and IMO will explode this year and crack the 90 point mark. Mike Cammalleri and Alexander Frolov both scored over 30 goals last year and both are likely to do it again, and I see Cammy cracking 40 easy. Patrick O'Sullivan and Dustin Brown are two other guys that could rake in 50-60 points. The addition of Kyle Calder and Ladislav Nagy adds very good secondary scoring to the already potent lineup. Plus Michal Handzus, no slouch on offense himself, and his massive frame (6'5", 217 lbs) will clear the way for the younger kids as well as clog up the middle of the ice for the opposition.
If the goaltending situation falls into place the Kings will have the fans in L.A. talking hockey and it won't be about the Ducks.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know what you think!
P.S. I'll have a post up in the next couple of days with my full predictions.