Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Pre-Season Power Rankings

The following was written by Hockeyleaks.com staff writer Brandon Allin. Look for my regular season predictions late next week. Enjoy!!


With the 2009-2010 National Hockey League season almost upon us, HockeyLeaks.com takes a look at the league's thirty clubs in the form of our annual power rankings. From top to bottom, and from legitimate contenders to bottom-feeders, here is a look at what's in

1. San Jose Sharks
The San Jose Sharks are a team built to contend, but whether or not they're ready to compete beyond the conclusion of the regular season remains to be seen. While the Sharks lost a bit of depth with the likes of Jonathan Cheechoo, Milan Michalek, and Christian Ehrhoff moving on, the addition of sniper Dany Heatley bolsters an already impressive group of talented forwards. Behind Heatley and company, San Jose boast a respectable defense, and arguably the league's best European goaltender, Evgeni Nabokov. With that said, while the Sharks have earned the top spot for now, a plethora of eager clubs are hot on their heels.

2. Philadelphia Flyers
The Broad Street Bullies are back, and barring any repeat parades to the sin bin, Eastern Conference opponents will be hard pressed to unseat the Flyers from atop the standings this season. The addition of Chris Pronger solidifies a capable defense, and a healthy Daniel Briere is bound to be the cherry on top of an already plentiful group of gifted forwards. With strong campaigns from captain Mike Richards, and the electrifying duo of Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne, the Flyers will have no trouble finding the back of the net yet again this season. However, with disgruntled goaltender Ray Emery back between the pipes after a successful stint in Russia, anything is possible.

3. Boston Bruins
Fresh off their most successful campaign in years, expect no shortage of victories from the Bruins this season. Despite the potential loss of blooming star of Phil Kessel looming in Beantown, the Bruins young core is steadily progressing in all the right ways. In addition to veterans Marc Savard, Zdeno Chara, Marc Recchi, and goaltender Tim Thomas, look for strong crusades from youngsters David Krejci, Blake Wheeler, and the explosive Milan Lucic. With another successful season from reigning Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas, expect the Bruins to make another substantial run at the hardware this year. Is a deeper playoff run in the cards for the Bruins? We'll have to wait and see.

4. Detroit Red Wings
There's no denying that things looked a bit grim in Hockeytown following the eventual losses of Marian Hossa, Jiri Hudler, Mikael Samuelsson, Ty Conklin, and Tomas Kopecky, but the Red Wings have done a respectable job of plugging the holes with reliable depth forwards. Former Red Wings Todd Bertuzzi and Jason Williams are back for another go, while the Wings will look for Ville Leino, Patrick Eaves, and speedster Darren Helm to tap their potential. The only real question mark for Detroit is in goal, with veteran Chris Osgood another year older, and inexperienced prospect Jimmy Howard bound to carry part of the load. If Osgood performs the way he is capable of doing so, look for the Red Wings to secure yet another comfortable playoff birth.

5. Chicago Blackhawks
Hockey is alive and well in Chicago. With a young, talented core, coach Joel Quenneville will look to take the Hawks to the next level. The addition of superstar Marian Hossa provides the Hawks' already potent offense with a little more bite, and forwards John Madden and Tomas Kopecky will plug the holes in the bottom six. With a stronger season from quarterback Brian Campbell, and further development from duo Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, don't be surprised to see Chicago give the powerful Red Wings a run for their money in the Central Division. With that said, the loss of veteran goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin still stings, and it remains to be seen if former backup Cristobal Huet can carry the young Blackhawks as deep into the post-season as his predecessor.

6. Washington Capitals
With reigning Hart Trophy winner Alexander Ovechkin running the show in Washington, the only way left for the Capitals to go is up. With no end in sight for Ovechkin's goal-scoring prowess, the Capitals will rely on strong campaigns from supporting cast Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and newly-acquired forward Mike Knuble. Furthermore, look for rising star Simeon Varlamov to steal the number one spot in net over a shaky Jose Theodore. With a re-tooled offense, a capable defense, and any luck between the pipes, the Capitals have certainly earned themselves a one-way to ticket to another playoff berth. Is this the year Ovechkin brings home Lord Stanley? Your guess is as good as mine.

7. Pittsburgh Penguins
You might be asking yourself how the defending Stanley Cup Champions have failed to crack our top five, but the answer is quite clear. The young and powerful Penguins are locked in a feisty Atlantic Division, one that is certain to offer even tighter competition this season with the re-tooled Flyers and Rangers hot on their tails. Still, have no fear, coach Dan Bylsma's lively Penguins squad will secure another post-season berth, and thus, another shot at reclaiming the throne. Barring any major injuries to the likes of explosive duo Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and steady goaltender Marc Andre Fleury, the hungry Penguins will look to succeed where Detroit could not.

8. Calgary Flames
The fiery Flames were a steady squad last season, and it appears a change is far from in the cards. While the Flames have regressed slightly up front with the loss of sniper of Mike Cammalleri, the addition of puck-moving defenseman Jay Bouwmeester on the back end is bound to soften the blow. With that said, the Flames will rely heavily on potent seasons from Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf, Rene Bourque, Curtis Glencross, and talented freshman Mikael Backlund. If all goes as planned, the Flames will sit atop the Northwest Division when all is said and done, but any bumps along the road may put a blemish on what could be a tenacious endeavor.

9. Anaheim Ducks
It's no secret that the losses of top-tier defenseman Chris Pronger and steady support blue-liner Francois Beauchimen have crippled the league's best defense, but not in a way the Ducks will be unable to recover from. In fact, Anaheim appear in a very good position going forward. Talented forwards Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and young sniper Bobby Ryan will flourish with another year of experience under their belts, and defensemen Scott Niedermayer and Ryan Whitney are no slouches, either. In goal, the Ducks are fortunate to have two capable netminders. Keep an eye out for goaltenders Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Jonas Hiller battling for position all season long.

10. New Jersey Devils
This time last year, the Devils would have nearly cracked our top five. This year, they barely made the top ten. With the loss of forwards Brian Gionta and John Madden, and Patrik Elias, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Martin Brodeur all another year older, the Devils will rely on Zach Parise more than ever. Fresh off another strong effort, Parise and the Devils will yet again look to trap Eastern Conference opponents, and worm their way into the post-season. Barring an injury to Brodeur in goal, look for New Jersey to make another run at Lord Stanley, but without any worthwhile replacements for Gionta and Madden lured in to soften the blow, a trip beyond the quarterfinal may be out of reach.

11. Vancouver Canucks
As always, the Canucks will once again be a difficult team to predict. With superstar Roberto Luongo between the pipes, the sky is the limit for Vancouver, but a major injury to the masked captain, or a dry spell for Henrik and Daniel Sedin, could spell the end for what has the potential to be a promising season. Beyond that, the Canucks will look for more production from handcuffed winger Steve Bernier, the aging Pavol Demitra, and assistant captain Ryan Kesler. Will the additions of dependable winger Mikael Samuelsson and top prospect Cody Hodgson be enough to Vancouver into the playoffs? While the answer to that remains to be seen, a hearty defense and a top flight goaltender should effectively mask any offensive struggles the Canucks may experience this season.

12. St. Louis Blues
Despite their surprise appearance in the playoffs last year, the Blues still have a lot to prove. The Blues fiery offense, led by Brad Boyes, Andy McDonald, Paul Kariya, and youngsters David Backes and T.J. Oshie will be firing on all cylinders, while a dependable defense corps will be bolstered by the return of injured blueliner Erik Johnson. The only question marks surrounding the Blues remain the same; goaltending and experience. Will Chris Mason and newly-acquired backup Ty Conklin be enough to slip into the post-season, and will the Blues young core be able to compete again in a tough Western Conference? With any luck, the St. Louis Blues will be legitimate contenders by the season's halfway point.

13. New York Rangers
The New York Rangers seem stuck in a neverending cycle. First, they acquire big name free agents with high price tags. Second, they underachieve. Third, they rinse and repeat. Will this be the year the Blueshirts buck the trend? It all boils down to Marian Gaborik. When healthy, Gaborik is among the league's best. Should Marian Gaborik remain in good health, look for the re-tooled Rangers to snap at the Penguins' and Flyers' heals in the Atlantic Divison all season long. With that said, the Rangers will most certainly require more production from the likes of the feisty Brandon Dubinsky and often-ridiculed defenseman Wade Redden. If all goes as planned, the Rangers could very well impress, but unfortunately, that's a big if.

14. Montreal Canadiens
Size is the main concern surrounding the Canadiens this year, but Habs fans have no need to worry. The additions of Mike Cammalleri, Scott Gomez, and Brian Gionta up front will spark a somewhat dry offense, while Jaroslav Spacek and Hall Gill will fit nicely amongst the squad's respectable defense. The only real cause for concern in Montreal is in goal, but should Carey Price falter, backup Jaroslav Halak has shown he can carry the load. The new-look Canadiens, led by former Panthers bench-boss Jacques Martin, will look to improve upon an early exit from last year's playoffs. The question is, will the amount of pieces that must fall into place in Montreal be too much to ask for? You can't color me concerned, but others seem less content.

15. Carolina Hurricanes
What kind of showing does Carolina need to put forth to command a little respect? The often-overlooked Hurricanes, led by the determined Eric Staal and aging captain Rod Brind'Amour, will once again be the dark horse for a deep playoff run this season. With that said, Carolina fans shouldn't hold their breath for another visit to the Conference Final. With no major improvements made to a presentable roster, the Hurricanes may experience hardships the season in a renovated Eastern Conference. While goaltender Cam Ward will likely carry the Hurricanes to another playoff berth, anything more may be out of reach.

16. Columbus Blue Jackets
For once, the Columbus Blue Jackets have put together a respectable team, but with a top-flight sniper like Rick Nash, and a sensational rookie netminder in Steve Mason, what else could you really expect? This season, the Blue Jackets will attempt to use the experience gained in their first playoff berth in franchise history to make another run beyond the regular season. In order to do just that, the Blue Jackets will need help from a trio of youngsters, wingers Nikita Filatov and Jakub Voracek, and center Derick Brassard. Meanwhile, another outstanding season from Steve Mason will be the key to the team's success. There's no denying that Ken Hitchcock and company have put together a formidable squad, but they may not be ready to really compete quite yet. With that said, the Blue Jackets have the potential to surprise.

17. Toronto Maple Leafs
Perhaps the most interesting team to watch, and therefore the hardest to place, the Toronto Maple Leafs will ice a heavily remodeled lineup come October. While the back end has certainly been solidified with the arrivals of newcomers Francois Beauchemin and hard-hitting Mike Komisarek, the Maple Leafs offense will undoubtedly see its struggles. To ensure a return to the playoffs, the Leafs will require more production from youngsters Nikolai Kulemin, Jiri Tlusty, and undrafted free agent signees Tyler Bozak and goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, while depending on strong campaigns from Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Mikhail Grabovski, Jason Blake, and Alexei Ponikarovsky. While it's much more likely the Leafs will struggle than flourish, the rumoured addition of Boston sniper Phil Kessel could elevate Ron Wilson's squad to the post-season plateau.

18. Ottawa Senators
Depth is exactly what the Senators lack up front, and depth is what they're out to get. Ottawa will look to newly-acquired Alexei Kovalev, Jonathan Cheechoo, and Milan Michalek to fill the void left by disgruntled winger Dany Heatley. In goal, the Senators will rely heavily on a fresh start from netminder Pascal Leclaire, who sat the better part of last season due to an ankle injury. While Kovalev, and returning forwards Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson, will have no trouble hitting the scoresheet, all kind of questions surround the Senators lack of secondary scoring. If the new faces mesh well, Ottawa could surprise, but I'm more inclined to believe they'll stumble. Unfortunately for the Senators, there's no room for a mediocre team in the rat-race that is the Eastern Conference.

19. Dallas Stars
If a return to form is in the cards for any team this seaosn, it will be the Stars. For Dallas to compete amongst the West's elite, they will need the now-healthy Brendan Morrow to perform at the torrid pace they saw prior to his injury last season, and a much stronger outing from goaltender Marty Turco. Unfortunately for the Stars, Turco seems to caught in a gradual downward spiral, and without a capable backup to carry the load should Turco falter, Dallas may be in trouble. With that said, the Stars boast an impressive young core including Loui Eriksson, James Neal, and Matt Niskanen, to compliment the likes of Morrow, Mike Modano, Brad Richards, and Stephane Robidas. The Stars will have their chances, but the going will be tough.

20. Buffalo Sabres
Just three years ago, the Sabres sat comfortably atop the Eastern Conference with no place left to for up. Since that time, the almighty Sabres have fallen, and quite simply, fallen hard. After failing to reach the post-season in each of their last two seasons, the Sabres will look to return to the place they once called home. The question now is, will Buffalo's stand-still approach this offseason be enough to claw their way in? With a healthy Ryan Miller and Tim Connolly on board, the potential is there, but like Marian Gaborik in New York, I wouldn't hold my breath. Still, the Sabres will ice a competitive bunch up front, including sniper Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, and Derek Roy so look for Buffalo to at least match the tenth place seed they earned last season.

21. Edmonton Oilers
While there's no denying that an endowed Dany Heatley certainly would have helped, with the seasoned Pat Quinn behind the bench, the Oilers will aim to improve in any way they can. The addition of veteran goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin between the posts will certainly help, but Edmonton will need nearly double the production from youngsters Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano to land anywhere near the playoffs in a tight Western Conference. The Oilers certianly have the tools, it's learning how to use them that has proved this difficult thus far, and unfortunately for their fans, it looks as if the growing pains will continue for at least another year. Fortunately for the Edmonton faithful, the future looks bright, and with any luck, Quinn will be able to shape his squad into a bonafide competitor.

22. Minnesota Wild
Finally rid of the oft-injured Marian Gaborik, the Minnesota Wild will look to recapture the magic they lost last season. To fill the void left by Gaborik, the club recruited former Blackhawks injury bug Martin Havlat. Fortunately for the Wild, Havlat remained healthy all of last season before being knocked silly in the post-season. Will Havlat be enough to elevate the Wild to the next level? To be blunt, no. Don't get me wrong, with Vezina candidate Niklas Backstrom in goal, and former coach Jacques Lemaire's defense-first philosophy out the window, the Wild could surprise. In the meantime, look for continued development from star forward Mikko Koivu and a return to form from defenseman Brent Burns.

23. Nashville Predators
The Predators are a tricky bunch. While Nashville never ice an overly-powerful squad, coach Barry Trotz and company always find a way to keep the team near the playoff picture, assuming they don't claw their way in. With that said, Nashville will once again find themselves on the outside looking in this year. The return of a healthy Steve Sullivan for an entire campaign will certainly help, but beyond captain Jason Arnott and rising stars Shea Weber and goaltender Pekka Rinne, the Predators don't boast enough top-end talent to really compete this season. While the playoffs may be out of reach for the Predators, the team will remain competitive until the final puck drop, a mentatily always evident with Trotz on board.

24. Tampa Bay Lightning
Fortunately for the Lightning, no matter what happens this year, nothing could be worse than the embarassing debacle that was last season. Unfortunately for Tampa, on paper, not much has changed. Plug veteran Mattias Ohlund and highly-touted defensive prospect Victor Hedman into the back end, and you have a much stronger blue line, but up front, the Lightning will see their struggles, and barring any miracles, the Lightning will miss the playoffs yet again. Still, the potential is there. With a return to form by star forward Vincent Lecavlier, another steady season from the speedy Martin St. Louis, and the continued development of former first overall pick Steven Stamkos all but certain, the Lightning have the ability to soar under the radar. On the other hand, much like last year, they also have the ability to crash and burn. Time will tell.

25. Los Angeles Kings
With arguably the deepest core of top-end prospects in the leauge, the future no longer looks grim for the Los Angeles Kings. With that said, the youngsters aren't quit there yet. Sure, much like the Lightning, the Kings have the potential to surprise, it's much more likely that another year of seasoning is exactly what the doctor ordered. In the meantime, the continued development of defensemen Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson will be a pleasure to watch. Up front, the Kings will look to forwards Anze Kopitar, Alexander Frolov, and newly-acquired veteran Ryan Smyth to hit the back of the net. In goal, the Kings are hoping for positive strides by young netminders Jonathan Quick and Erik Ersberg.

26. Florida Panthers
You've got to feel for the Florida Panthers. Just when things are looking up, they lose prized defenseman Jay Bouwmeester to free agency, and thus right back where they started, as a bottom-feeder in the Eastern Conference. While the likes of forwards Nathan Horton, David Booth, and Stephen Weiss are certainly stable building blocks moving forwards, the Panthers seem stuck in an endless moonwalk backwards. Still, with a reliable Tomas Vokoun in goal, and an able-bodied defensive core, Florida will display flashes of brilliance, but when all is said and done, the momentary glimpses of competitive hockey will be far from enough to mask the team's almost certain struggles.

27. Atlanta Thrashers
Is this the year Atlanta bucks the seemingly endless trend of forgettable seasons? No, but fortunately for the young Thrashers, better days are on the horizon. While this certainly won't be a season to write home about, the Thrashers have established a desirable young core, and should general manager Don Waddell manage to retain Russian sniper Ilya Kovalchuk beyond this season, I think it's safe to say the future is bright. In the meantime, keep an eye out for newcomers Nik Antropov and Pavel Kubina, the emergance of highly-touted draft pick Evander Kane, and continued progression from youngsters Bryan Little and Tobias Enstrom.

28. New York Islanders
Much like the Thrashers, the Islanders are finally beginning to glimpse the light at the end of a very long, and very dark tunnel. With top prospect John Tavares in the mix, Long Island seem to have finally found the franchise player they've been longing for. Now it's up to Tavares to tap his potential, and show the Islanders faithful he can compete at the highest level. However, despite what many predict will be an explosive rookie campaign from the junior star, not even Tavares can turn the train wreck that was the New York Islanders around in just one season. Fortunately, Tavares' young supporting cast will lighten the load on his shoulders, with further development from Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo on the horizon. Don't expect to see the Islanders flatline out of the gate, but in the long run, their season is over before it began.

29. Phoenix Coyotes
What began as a season oozing with potential for the Coyotes last year ended up a disaster, and unfortunately, the tide won't change this season. Phoenix, much the rest of the league's bottom-feeders are slowly developing a bright, young core, but a handful of inexperienced prospects can only offer a club so much. Shane Doan's production will remain steady, Peter Mueller will take a step forward, and Danish winger Mikkel Boedker will continue to progress, but beyond that, there isn't much to be excited about in Phoenix this season. With that said, at the very least, the club can count on yet another high draft pick.

30. Colorado Avalanche
What happens when you take the worst team in the Western Conference last season and remove grizzled veterans Joe Sakic and Ryan Smyth from their lineup? You get the worst team in the National Hockey League. While that may sound harsh, the reality remains that this season won't be pretty for the Avalanche. On the plus side, keep a watchful eye out for solid numbers from the likes of forwards Paul Statsny, Milan Hejduk, Wojtek Wolski, and the emergence of former Brampton Battalion forward Matt Duchene. True, Colorado fans have a lot to be excited about with Duchene set to step into the big leagues, but beyond that, there's not much else. Avalanche fans, brace yourself for the eyesore en route.