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Breaking News: Preview time
by Bob Davis (NHL)
Posted on October 4, 2006, 4:46 PM

Ladies and gentlemen, I have some very important news for you. Thatís right, this kind of news is important enough to shut off the television, send the kids to their rooms, call your significant other over to the computer, and hold your breath.

Ready? In less than 3 hours, the first of 1,230 NHL regular season NHL games begins. Once we reach April and the last of those 1,230 NHL games has ended, 16 teams will remain standing, hoping to lift the Stanley Cup just 2 months later.

Being an avid hockey fan, I have kept my eyes on the prognostications for this impending season, and I am flabbergasted to see a few of the predictions that a few of the media outlets are making. First of all, CTV is reporting that the keyword for this season is parity. Well, I guess that one isnít as far-fetched as it could be; after all, on day one of any season, any of the teams in any league could be the one to lift the championship trophy at the end of the season.

The second thing that shocked me was when I looked at TSN.ca and saw who the experts are predicting to win the Stanley Cup. 2 of the experts say that the Sharks will win the Cup, one says the Sharks will beat the Sabres; the other claims the Sharks will defeat the Senators. One analyst predicts an all-Canadian affair, with the Senators defeating the Flames; while another of the expert predictions is for the Buffalo Sabres to take out the Nashville Predators in the final. The most surprising pick to me is the prediction that the Sabres will meet the Ducks in the final, a viewpoint held by TSN experts Pierre McGuire and Tie Domi.

Regardless of how crazy the TSN picks may or may not sound, one thing about their predictions is not really that crazy. With the exception of the Nashville Predators in the final, none of the teams mentioned by TSN are out of the ordinary. Down the road at Sportsnet, however, the same cannot be said. The consensus for their experts has the Phoenix Coyotes winning the Western Conference. In fact, one of the Sportsnet personalities even went so far as to take the Atlanta Thrashers to win the Stanley Cup this season. WHAT?

Ok... if the Coyotes win the West, or the Thrashers actually win the Stanley Cup, I will personally print off 500 copies of this column, put a little ketchup on the pile, and have myself a hearty supper. If both of those happen, well, letís just hope that somebody had the foresight to put $100 down in Las Vegas on that occurrence, because they would surpass Bill Gates in terms of wealth.

On the other hand, the answer to who will win the Cup this year isnít exactly a foregone conclusion, like it has been in previous years. There are, of course, the handful of teams that are near the top of the standings every year, like the Ottawa Senators, the Detroit Red Wings and the New Jersey Devils. There are also the teams that you can shake their hands and say thanks for playing, even at this point of the season, such as the Chicago Blackhawks, the New York Islanders and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Unlike last year, I canít see 10 teams finishing with over 100 points. In that sense, the parity alluded to by CTV will come true. What this will mean is a much tighter race in the Western Conference, with the potential for 3rd place through 13th place to be decided by less than 10 points. On the other side of the continent, the battles will not be as chaotic, with 2 teams separating themselves from the pack, then the true playoff contenders battling for position, while teams like Toronto, Tampa, Florida, Boston and Atlanta try to sort themselves out and take the 8th spot overall.

Those prognosticators, that I mentioned earlier, like to take the easy way out. They like to tell you who they think will win the conference and the Stanley Cup, and theyíll even go so far as to tell you, within a range of about 5 places, where each team is likely to finish in the standings. However, as you saw earlier this year when I took the CHL preview a step further than anyone would have expected, Iím about to go further. With that in mind, hereís how I see the final standings looking after 1,230 games have been played:

WESTERN CONFERENCE:
Wins Losses S/OT Points
Detroit 51 23 8 110
Calgary 49 26 7 105
Dallas 45 29 8 98
Minnesota 46 31 5 97
San Jose 45 31 6 96
Anaheim 44 31 7 95
Edmonton 43 32 7 93
Vancouver 43 33 6 92
Colorado 42 33 7 91
Phoenix 42 33 7 91
Los Angeles 42 34 6 90
Columbus 41 35 6 88
Nashville 39 35 8 86
St. Louis 35 37 5 75
Chicago 28 47 7 63

The Western Conference is harder to predict accurately. As I said earlier, any one of 11 teams could finish anywhere from 3rd all the way to 13th. The St. Louis Blues will likely make a good improvement over last yearís basement finish, but it will only be good enough to pass Chicago.

Detroit and Calgary will be the top 2 teams in the West again this year, but Detroit will come back down towards the pack slightly. The remaining playoff spots will come down to the final 5 games of the season for each team, with Vancouver and Edmonton in a dog fight to avoid the golf course.

In the playoffs, with the standings above, the best first round match-up would be Calgary vs. Edmonton. Itís likely that Detroit, Calgary, San Jose and Anaheim will come out of their series. Iím expecting Calgary to upend San Jose in 7 in the Conference final.

EASTERN CONFERENCE:
Wins Losses S/OT Points
Carolina 52 24 6 110
Ottawa 49 27 6 104
New Jersey 46 30 6 98
Philadelphia 45 30 7 97
Buffalo 44 31 7 95
Montreal 43 33 6 92
NY Rangers 43 34 5 91
Toronto 39 37 6 84
Tampa Bay 39 38 5 83
Florida 38 39 5 81
Boston 37 39 6 80
Atlanta 35 40 7 77
Pittsburgh 31 45 6 68
Washington 28 48 6 62
NY Islanders 27 49 6 60

The East is a little easier to call. The biggest thing that will happen in 2006/07, from my standpoint, will be that the New York Islanders will fall flat on their face. Pittsburgh and Washington will both make strides towards success, but both will fall well short of a playoff berth.

At the top end, Carolina and Ottawa will once again rule the roost at the top of the standings. 3rd place through 7th place will be decided by the intangibles, things like who suffers the fewest injuries, who has the strongest 3rd and 4th lines, etc., but this area of the playoff picture should look very similar to last season. The only changes I see in the East standings this year are for Montreal to move up a position, just ahead of the Rangers, and for Toronto to eek into the post-season ahead of Tampa.

The best potential playoff match-up looks to be the Devils vs. the Habs. Iím licking my chops just thinking about Martin Brodeur vs. Cristobal Huet in that one. Iím going for a little bit of bias here, taking the Habs to advance with the Hurricanes, Rangers and Sabres, as the Senators will likely need another dose of Dr. Heimlichís medicine after this playoff choke. In a rematch from the 2006 round 1 series, Iíll take Carolina over Montreal in 7 in the East final, much to my chagrin.

While Carolina is a damn good team, they have lost a few elements from their championship team of one year ago. Without guys like Recchi and Weight on the roster, the team lost a couple of key elements. Combined with the absolutely mind-boggling trade made just days ago that sent Jack Johnson and Oleg Tverdovsky out west, Carolina might not be deep enough to repeat as Cup Champions, but they should make the final.

On the other hand, Calgary, which already had a great defence and goaltending corps, just got better during the offseason. By adding a quality backup in Jamie McLennan, the Flames ensured that Mikka Kiprusoff doesnít have to stand on his head for 75 games this season for the team to have success. On defence, the Flames added Andrew Ference and Andrei Zyuzin to compliment Dion Phaneuf, Robyn Regehr and Rhett Warrener. The biggest additions for the team are on offence, where Alex Tanguay and Jeff Friesen provide more offensive support for the Flames. With those 2 big names added in to the mix, the Flames are a strong contender to take home the trophy in June.

Regardless of how accurate, or inaccurate, the assessments of TSN, Sportsnet or yours truly prove to be, it will be another fantastic season. Iíve got my 6-pack and a bag of chips ready for opening night, and you better believe Iíll be watching as many of the 1,230 games this season as time, and my wife, will allow.

TSN.ca
Sportsnet.ca
NHL.com




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