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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Preseason Top 25

September 1, 2012
The Hockey News released its preseason ranking of the Top 25 teams in the hockey world, and here they are, based on overall team average of their ratings of each of their players:
Salary (US$ millions)
Buffalo Sabres
East Cup
Team Italy
Roman Premium
Quebec Nordiques
East Cup
Brampton Ravens
Canadian League
Ottawa Senators
Canadian League
Carolina Hurricanes
West Cup
Nashville Predators
East Cup
Edmonton Oilers
West Cup
Dallas Stars
East Cup
Calgary Flames
West Cup
New York Islanders
East Cup
Winnipeg Jets
West Cup
Djurgardens IF
Detroit Red Wings
West Cup
Toronto Maple Leafs
East Cup
Vancouver Canucks
Canadian League
Tampa Bay Lightning
East Cup
Philadelphia Flyers
East Cup
Buffalo Bills
West Cup
Montreal Canadiens
East Cup
New York Rangers
West Cup
Los Angeles Kings
West Cup
New Jersey Devils
West Cup
HC Davos
Roman Premium
Peterborough Pirates
East Cup
Quite a few surprises on this list. Here are my thoughts on each:
(1) Buffalo Sabres- Does this surprise anyone? Does it? Because it shouldn’t. This is the most predictable occurrence since George Lucas decided to wussify Darth Vader at the end of The Phantom Menace. The Evil Empire has been No. 1 every year since the cows came home (actually since 2003) and they’ll likely be on top again next year since you know they’ll bribe hockey’s best player to play for them. Just like their summer swoop for Pavel Datsyuk. They didn’t need the slick Russian- they already have consensus Top 25 players Riku Salo and youngster Casey Cizikas, as well as on the cusp winger Kyle Okposo, but, hey, when you have more gold than Augustus could ever dream of, there’s no such thing as “having too many top players”. *sigh*- another championship bought.
(2) Team Italy- Speaking of championships bought, you can’t help but mention that sinister Italian team. You know, the one that’s won seven championships since 2000 (its first title), the only club in the past decade in the Roman Premium to win more than one. Conventional wisdom said that with the retirement of Stefan Figliuzzi after the 2010 season Team Italy would fall off the rails, but they just kept chugging in 2011, winning the Premium- again­- on the back of Alberto Cacciaguerra and a lot of previously unheralded youngsters like winger Alessandro Scarabelli and defenceman Luciano Emmer. Must pay to be the team in Rome, doesn’t it? If anyone could challenge the Sabres- realistically- atop the hockey summit, it’s Italy, which is why their championship buying is tolerable, though you have to think the other Premium teams’ patience must be wearing thin.
(3) Quebec Nordiques- If the Sabres are the Yankees of old, then the Nordiques are the Red Sox of old. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, Quebec has assembled many a team that could rival the Sabres, but they have but one Stanley Cup championship- in that iconic year of 1995 when Patrick Roy decided he’d rather play in his hometown than the decaying hockey paradise of Montreal. Captain Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, defenceman Patrice Brisebois and forward Andrew Brunette- the last four members of that 1995 team- decided to forgo retirement for one last kick at the can, buttressed by younger guns like Jeff Carter, Steven Stamkos, Claude Giroux, forward Pierre Pepin and Cam Fowler, as well as the always dependable Zdeno Chara. Now, if they could only figure out that Jose Theodore isn’t the Vezina Trophy winner of past vintage maybe they’d get over the Sabres hump.
(4) Brampton Ravens- Is this The Hockey News’ way of telling us that something is now expected of the Ravens? They shocked the hockey world with a strong showing at the final Stanley Cup Tournament in 2007, but since then they’ve stagnated. Led by the two-way presence of Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Richards and forwards Daniel Cranston and Carson Orr, the Ravens have the makings of a championship contender but something always seems to stop them. In 2007, it was the Cinderella run of the Halifax Crusaders. In 2008, it was the Cinderella run of the San Jose Sharks at the inaugural Stanley Cup League. In 2009, the team slumped out of the Canadian Professional Hockey League playoffs. In 2010, it was the Nordiques and in 2011, the Sabres successfully stood in their way. Like Quebec, they also lack a quality netminder- they too seem to think Cristobal Huet has something left in the tank- but their system should compensate for that. Time to deliver, boys.
(5) Ottawa Senators- Quick, name a Senator forward not named Jason Spezza. Thought so. Hey, another year of Kaberle to McCabe sounds pretty sweet, and they’ve vaulted Ottawa to its highest preseason showing in its history. This year they need to make something happen. Most of the team- unlike the rest of the Canadian League- is old, especially at its core position of defence, so the window of opportunity is small. Bryan McCabe is 34, Sergei Zubov, 39, Tomas Kaberle, 31, Tom Preissing, 30 and Joe Corvo, 32, with their goaltender, Domonik Hasek, at an age-defying 44. There’s quite a bit in the pipeline, such as defenceman Heinz Neuner and forward Michael St. Croix, but they won’t be ready for a few years. The time is now, boys.
(6) Carolina Hurricanes- Wow. Carolina? Really? Does THN watch hockey? These guys aren’t the strongest team by any stretch of the imagination- last year they were a middle of the pack outfit in the West Cup- but, because THN uses averages in its own arbitrary assessment of players, these guys get rated highly. I mean, they have Justin Williams, Cam Ward and some guy named Jukka Voutilainen rated above 85. I mean, really? Prove me wrong guys. Prove me wrong. Until they start to make some actual noise in the West, I won't believe they deserve this high a ranking.
(7) Nashville Predators- You can be sure of two things in “Music City”: overwrought country songs and a strong Predators team. This year is no exception, with a perimeter-dominant club that gives opposing teams nightmares. You have Shea Weber and Ryan Suter imposing their will at the point, and if Weber’s shot doesn’t find its way through the net (and the resulting end board), there’s always the immovable Jason Arnott, Scott Hartnell or Jordin Tootoo to deflect it home. If that’s not enough, if the other guys get a chance- which they rarely do- there’s Pekka Rinne or Tomas Vokoun there to stop them. The Deep South may be sugary sweet, but on the ice, there’s no such thing as “Southern Hospitality”.
(8) Edmonton Oilers- The team with a hard on for hometown heroes sees its moves pay off with a eighth-placed showing here. Maybe it’s got something to do with Dion Phaneuf’s tireless blueline work, or ageless wonders Jarome Iginla and Ryan Smyth faithfully leading the pack, or Dany Heatley entering his ninth season for a city he has professed his unbridled love for. Nah, I think it’s Chris Dempsey’s decision to sign with the Oilers last year for $16 million a season for the next four seasons, as well as academy products Drew Doughty and Matt Duchene pledging their commitment to the nauseatingly self-proclaimed “City of Champions” last season. People just love to play in Edmonton, don’t they? Must be that giant mall they have, despite the fact someone else plays out of that arena. Now they have to prove it and win their first Cup since Mark Messier led a similar “hometown heroes” group in 1985. Loving a place means nothing if you don’t break through and the Oilers have to prove they’re not “too” comfortable in a city they love.
(9) Dallas Stars- Ah, the Stars. Last season they made noises about officially joining hockey’s elite, and last offseason they finally made it count, signing Joe Thornton of all people to a seven-year, $29.197 million contract, a bargain considering who it was. Thornton apparently signed for so little because he loved Fort Worth’s famed Stockyards entertainment district, and even professed to starting a bar fight or two (no way we can confirm that- everyone starts bar fights down there). Thornton joins an old group of stars that have played together for quite some time in captain Mike Modano, Stu Barnes, Jere Lehtinen, Philippe Boucher, Marty Turco and Darryl Sydor, which have functioned very well as a group but have little to show for it. All signs indicate that this is likely their last collective kick at the can, so they have to make it count, though they do have some quality youngsters like Logan Couture and prospect Felix Beaulieu that will make the transition less painful than it will be for other teams.
(10) Calgary Flames- Two seasons ago, the Calgary Flames sold the farm- literally- to lock up their formidable ABC forward trio. Hailing from the hockey hotbed known as Nigeria, the curiously named AAAAAAAA AAAAAAAA, BBBBBBBB BBBBBBBB, CCCCCCCC CCCCCCCC (heretofore known simply as “A”, “B” and “C”), the trio quickly shot up the Flames’ depth charts to form hockey’s deadliest line combination of the past three seasons, scoring an astounding three goals and five points per game over every game in the past three years. Not even the famed Gretzky-Kurri-Steen combinations the Winnipeg Jets had back in the 1980s came close to reproducing those stats. Of course, the price to keep them is steep, pegged at just north of $31 million per season which has predictably gutted the team’s depth. What was once a proud team filled with stars like Theoren Fleury, Gary Roberts, Al MacInnis, and Mike Vernon is left with ABC, Mikka Kiprusoff (whose own contract expires this season) and washed up veterans like Jeff Friesen and Tony Amonte in a vain attempt at “depth”. Of course, given that ABC have thus far been proven impossible to stop, such a dearth in talent behind them might not be so bad, but the Flames better hope nothing happens to them- because the results would be catastrophic.
(11) New York Islanders- Always in the thick of the East Cup title hunt, the Islanders should be back as challengers this season. With their top six players- Ryan Getzlaf, Phil Kessel, forward Jacques Fichaud, Evgeni Malkin, forward Mario Tobia and Tyler Myers- all well south of 30, the Islanders are a team on the rise. They’re a pretty big group, and head coach Ted Nolan routinely has the Islanders as the hardest working team in the East Cup- a feat considering all the teams have that lunchbox mentality. Still, do they have enough to get past the Nords and Sabres? I’m just not sure, especially if Rick DiPietro can’t stay healthy enough to provide dependable enough goaltending.
(12) Winnipeg Jets- Wounded warriors, the Jets may be the cream of the West Cup crop historically but in recent years have lost their place at the precipice to their Alberta rivals, the Oilers and Flames. After hitting a rut two seasons ago, the Jets are hoping their modest rebuilding project- spearheaded by free agent acquisition Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Bobrovsky and academy call up Vladimir Baumgartner- can bring them back to their rightful place atop the West. It’ll be quite the challenge given that this is still an unproven group, as well as the fact that the legendary Teemu Selanne isn’t getting any younger. Still, this should be an exciting, workmanlike group but will it all come together for a championship push?
(13) Djurgardens IF- Cue the complaining. The highest ranked European team not named “Team Italy” lends credence to the often-shouted cries to reduce Europe’s participation in the Stanley Cup League, since North America is still miles ahead. That may be true, but nobody thought the process of equalization between Europe and North America would be quick. Come on, the latest iteration of the Stanley Cup tournament- the League, designed to maximize the amount of games against “the best” allowing the European teams to see better teams more often and gain more revenue from those games- is only four seasons old (if you count this one), and just the fact that there are contenders in Europe speaks volumes about how far we’ve come. As far as they go, Djurgardens are every bit as much contenders as the Islanders and the Jets are- this is a very good team, starting with the legendary Alexander Mogilny and buttressed with Marian Hossa, Travis Zajac, Patric Hornquist, defencemen Adam Andersson, Alexander Ribbenstrand, young forward Mats Wilson and young goaltender Luca Poli. Really, this is a good team, and more proof that Europe should keep its place in the SCL, not see its participation diminish.
(14) Detroit Red Wings- They should rename this team “Team Geriatric Ward”. Only three players- goaltender Jimmy Howard, forward Valtteri Filppula and defenceman Kyle Quincey- are younger than 25, and Quincey is the youngest at 24. Four players are over 40, including one- Chris Chelios- who will be 50 at the end of the season. Mind you, they still get a lot of mileage out of their seniors, as Steve Yzerman, Chelios, Tomas Holmstrom, Manny Legace, Johan Franzen and Jason Williams are still going strong, but how long can it last? They need some young blood if the Wings are to win their first Cup since 1955.
(15) Toronto Maple Leafs- The toughest job in hockey is General Manager of the Leafs, and Brian Burke has it. The Leafs have had no problems making the SCL, since a top-six finish in the East is a yearly tradition for the blue and white, they’ve just had problems taking the next step. The latest attempt is to surround the team’s veteran offensive leaders- Mats Sundin and Daniel Alfredsson- with more veteran offensive leaders in the form of Brendan Shanahan and Jaromir Jagr. I’m not quite sure getting a bunch of old guys together will do- this ain’t the set of Grumpy Old Men- but, hey, if the Leafs get their Cup this year then it’ll all be worth it. I doubt it though- the East is still a quagmire with the Sabres, Nordiques and Islanders all ahead of them, and they just don’t have the depth or the future prospect to compete with any of them.
(16) Vancouver Canucks- Another failed Cup run has seen this team dismantled. The Sedin twins and Roberto Luongo got shipped off to Chicago to join their buddy Dave Bolland. Ryan Kesler goes to St. Louis to make love to the Gateway Arch or something. In comes David Backes, Dustin Byfuglien, Henrik Lundqvist and some other pieces nobody needs to know. They’ll either be hockey’s best assembled unit or hockey’s worst Jenga puzzle. Either way, with all the uncertainty, 16th seems just about right.
(17) Tampa Bay Lightning- What a difference a year makes. Last year, this team was still languishing with many of the old players from the only Lightning team to make a Cup Final- the 2005 version. This season, the Lightning emerge with a completely different set of stars, having completely overhauled their team and now relying on new faces such as Thomas Vanek, Jamie McBain and Keith Yandle to get the job done, alongside incumbent goaltender Carey Price. There's a lot of variables but there is a lot to like about this group, meaning they could make noise in the East
(18) Philadelphia Flyers- Seeing the success Mary Simpson has had with the Flames in bringing in ABC, the Flyers thought gutting their depth to bring in Rick Nash and up and coming youngster Kevin Stills to compliment Sidney Crosby would be worth it. Fortunately the Flyers still have some depth, unlike the Flames, so the newly minted “Crosby, Stills & Nash” line will be able to make music on the ice alongside the likes of Simon Gagne, Joni Pitkanen, and Kris Letang, with the highly regarded defenceman Jean-Luc Valentin, forward Lazzaro Amico and goaltender John Chartrand waiting in the wings. Don’t look now but the Flyers- long the laughingstock of the East- just might be on the rise.
(19) Buffalo Bills- They can’t be this low can they? They’re the only team the old National Hockey League worth mentioning, carrying over that success to the West, and while they may be top-heavy, they’ve been so dominant in the West that expecting them to finish anywhere but near the top of the league would be a crime. Sure, guys like Aaron Ward (who will go down as one of the game’s best power forwards), Corey Perry, Ryan Miller, Ilya Kovalchuck, Loui Eriksson, Chris Pronger, Marc Savard and youngster Erik Karlsson don’t have much support but they’ve proven so dominant that it really doesn’t matter. Besides, they’re the two-time defending Stanley Cup finalists and took the Sabres- the Sabres- to overtime twice, the second time a cruel fate. Proof positive that hockey pundits just don’t get it.
(20) Montreal Canadiens- If the Leaf job is the hardest in all of hockey, the Canadien job is inching closer to it. Montreal may have the most Cups in hockey history- with 19- but they haven’t won since 1980, a drought that now has lasted 30 years. It’s doubtful this year’s version of the Habs will have any impact, unless their group of impressive youngsters- and it’s quite the group, with goaltender J.C. Petit, forward Jeremy Slado, Milan Lucic, Chris Stewart, and Michael Grabner- overachieves. However, given that none of those guys are over 24, the future looks bright in Montreal, a refreshing change of pace for a franchise that’s been moribund for decades.
(21) New York Rangers- In 1996, the New York Rangers, floundering on Long Island (having been displaced as New York’s No. 1 team by the Islanders in the 1980s) were about to be moved to Phoenix, Arizona. New York Knicks star Allen Iverson heard the news and promptly bought the team. A year later, during a Knick game, a teammate asked him on the bench what their team needed and, without skipping a beat, Iverson replied “goaltending”, despite the fact the act is illegal in basketball (Iverson later said he was thinking of the Rangers at the time). Now Iverson has his goaltender in Corey Crawford, as well as some other pieces like the still formidable Jonathan Cheechoo, Marian Gaborik, Brent Seabrook and Henrik Zetterberg. Whether or not it’ll all work is debatable but this is the strongest team Iverson has had since he gained control of the team- they now have to make it count.
(22) Los Angeles Kings- The Kings have always been known for their pomp in everything they do, and this year was no exception. When Tim Gleason- yes, who?- was signed to a rather mundane three-year contract for $1.41 million this past offseason, the Kings didn’t just decide hold a regular press conference. No, they held a lavish party at The Beverly Nightclub, complete with an A-List set of actors, musicians and other luminaries performing and attending that night. When Michael Cammalleri re-signed two seasons ago for six years and $19.6 million, the Kings had Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan reprise their roles at the Roxbury, and when J.S. Giguere came to town nine years ago, the Kings held a beachball volleyball tournament in his honour complete with bikini-clad models. Subtlety doesn’t exist in the Kings’ lexicon. Now they need to translate all that into wins, which they have been so far been unable to do. The team on the ice has always looked good but has always lacked something, and this team is no different- they have the pieces to make another SCL run (with Lubomir Vishnovsky patrolling the point to aid Cammalleri and Giguere), but they lack the depth to truly compete in the West with the Jets, Flames and Oilers or to make much of an impact at the SCL level. Still, you just hope they find a way to win a Cup at some point, because you know that parade will be epic.
(23) New Jersey Devils- Once again, they have an epic offence- led by the likes of Patrik Elias, Dan Boyle, Vincent Lecavalier, Brian Gionta, blueliner Brian Rafalski, and Scott Gomez- and little else. Can you blame them for trying to outscore their opponents? When your starting goaltender is Wessem Bahnassi you have to keep putting the puck in the other guy’s net. It’s surprising that at no point did Devils brass even think of acquiring someone remotely resembling a major league goaltender or a competent defensive defenceman, but, hey- they team is winning and selling out the building, so why bother? Just don’t tell them that “defence wins championships” because they’ll argue otherwise- despite the facts to the contrary.
(24) HC Davos- A surprise on this list but a pleasant surprise. Overshadowed in the Roman Premium by those pesky Italians, Davos has been a hard working, lunchbox type team that has won hearts many times over in Roman Europe and by hardcore hockey enthusiasts lucky enough to catch their games, usually airing in the mid-afternoon in North America. They also boast one of the game’s best goaltenders in Jonas Hiller, who keeps Davos in a lot of games they might have lost, as well as the revitalized Alexandre Daigle, Andreas Ambuhl, Reto von Arx, Josef Marha and Loďc Burkhalter leading the attack, with Jan von Arx and Gianluca Crameri patrolling the blueline. Individually they may not have the best skills, but together they’ve proven to ace the chemistry test, with a few good looking young players waiting in the wings. Italy’s dominance at the top may soon have a challenger.
(25) Peterborough Pirates- The tenth East Cup team on this list, proof positive that “the East is the Beast”. They may be the unlikeliest of East Cup teams on this list, since the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues- who both have greater pedigrees- did not make the cut, but the nice people of Peterborough, Ontario (just a half hour’s drive from Toronto) won’t mind. Their Pirate team is an up and coming bunch, led by the PlaceHolder brothers (one of whom is in net), Bobby Ryan, Devin Setoguchi and Saku Koivu, all of whom are now just hitting their prime, with wily veterans Joe Nieuwendyk, Marco Sturm and Dan Hamhuis ready to ease the Pirates’ transition into the upper echelon of the East. It’s still quite an uphill battle- are the “graduating” youngsters able to make the transition?- but at least it’s a sign that the East will see a new power from an unlikely source.
That’s the Top 25 for 2011-12. Gear up folks for quite the ride.

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