As much as I personally enjoy summer, I honestly cannot wait for the fall. The changing of the season delivers cooler temperatures, a challenging school year and the triple treat of holidays: Halloween, Thanksgiving and December celebrations. Nonetheless, all of that takes a backseat to my favorite part of the fall, the upcoming NHL season.
The 2007 season is looming just over the horizon, ready to deliver a healthy seven-ounce bundle of optimistic joy. There are plenty of story lines to drool over this upcoming season. Here are a few that are making me look like a junkie romanticizing for a chemical kiss.
Just how good will Pittsburg Penguins prospect Evgeni Malkin be? Widely considered by most to be the best player not playing in North America and arguably the most talked about player this summer, the talented Russian center overcome a bizarre disappearing act to escape the clutches of his Russian team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk. The incident is reminiscent of the early nineties defections which saw several Russian stars risking it all to come overseas and play in the NHL.
Malkin appears hell bent on taking the NHL hostage this season. Mix in with other saucy indigents: blossoming star Sidney Crosby, goalie Marc Andre Fleury, and defense man Ryan Whitney and my friend you’ve have got one tasty stew. Pittsburgh is going to have a young and exciting team to watch, although they are still going to be a few seasons away from making a serious dent in the Eastern Conference.
Will the Carolina Hurricanes repeat as Stanley Cup Champions? The Hurricanes will be hard pressed to repeat. Jettisoned from last season are veterans Doug Weight, Mark Recchi, Matt Cullen and goalie Martin Gerber. Some good news will be the return of speedy forward Erik Cole, who was lost much of last season with a broken vertebra and the addition of forward Brad Isbister. They also have top defensive prospect Jack Johnson vying for a roster spot.
Washington Capitols star Alexander Ovechkin stole the thunder from Sidney Crosby to capture rookie of the year honors last season, with a series of jaw dropping goals and a fantastic season. I encourage any one out there to seek out the video of him scoring while sliding on his back last season against the Phoenix Coyotes, its simply one of the best goals I have ever seen scored. He will be a staple on Sports center all season long; I can’t stress enough what a magician this guy is on the ice.
Boston made the biggest splash of the free agent signings bringing in Hulking Defense men Zdeno Chara from Ottawa and luring center Marc Savard from Atlanta. A more compelling storyline out of Bean Town, though, is Phil “the Thrill” Kessel. Can he earn a roster spot out of training camp? He was the sure fire 1st pick of the 2006 draft two summers ago.
However, his stock fell considerably following a disappointing showing at the World Junior Championships this past year. His attitude and commitment have been the subject of recent scrutiny. These shortcomings allowed his drafting stock to fall to 5th.
One writer at Sports Illustrated has likened Kessel’s abilities and me-first attitude as the NHL’s answer to Dallas Cowboys Wide Receiver Terrell Owens. In today’s new NHL climate that stresses up tempo speed and scoring, he may just be the shot in the arm that the NHL needs to attract a newer audience in the US.
Ottawa is still going to be a threat, although they lost a huge presence with the departure of Chara; nonetheless, they still have a deep pool of Defense men their top line of Daniel Alfredsson, Danny Heatley and Jason Spezza will continue to rack up points and give both Defense men and goalies tantrums.
Buffalo will be very dangerous again; some commentators argued that injuries prevented this team from advancing to the cup finals and they simply ran out of gas in the conference finals. Co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Birere will be back to lead this young hungry team. Star in the making goalie Ryan Miller is out to prove that last years playoffs were no fluke. Other notables to watch are Thomas Vanek, Ales Kotalik and the recovery of Tim Connolly, who is still recovering from lingering concussion symptoms from last season’s playoffs.
I look out West and I am marinating with anticipation. One player who is sure to impress is Colorado Avalanche rookie Wojtek Wolski. Wolski stuck around for nine games at the beginning of last season before being sent back to his junior team, where he transformed into an undomesticated lusus naturae hoarding 47 goals and 81 assists in 56 games and earning the Red Tilson Trophy as the Ontario Hockey League’s Most Outstanding Player.
After his team was eliminated in the OHL playoffs, he briefly joined the Avalanche in their limited playoff run scoring 3 points and serving as a youthful catalyst during their first round five game upset of the Dallas Stars.
In fact, the entire Northwest division is shaping into a perennial dogfight, especially when it comes down to their goalie class. Vancouver paid a heavy price to pluck Roberto Luongo from the Panthers and quickly locked him up to a lavish contract. This is the first time in Luongo’s career in which he will be playing in a front of a team that has a playoff berth well within range after toiling away for so many years on awful Panther squads.
Calgary’s stalwart and current goalie of the year award winner, Mikka Kiprusoff will attempt to rebuild on last season’s successes and rebound from an early first round exit. Jose Theodore will be on the hot seat as Colorado brass took a huge gamble to bring in the troubled net minder.
They’re pessimistic that he is capable of regaining the form he displayed during the 2002 season to garner top goalie and player of the year awards. Theodore somehow needs to regain that swagger; otherwise, not only will Colorado be in for a long season, but Theodore will surely be the current manifestation of one-trick pony ex-Washington goalie Jim Carey.
Elsewhere in the Pacific division, San Jose should be a handful, once again. Free of the glaring microscope of Boston, Joe Thorton reestablished himself and ran away with the NHL scoring title and in the process transformed winger Jonathan Cheechoo into a legitimate sniper, as he took home top goal scoring honors.
This season, with the addition of physical forward Mark Bell, the Sharks could once again possess one of the top scoring lines in the NHL. Keep an eye on defense man Matt Carle, college hockey’s most outstanding player of the year award winner. Carle cleaned up on points and collegiate awards at Denver University and jumped ship to join the Sharks’ blue line for their 2006 playoff run and didn’t look out of place.
The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim made one of the biggest deals of the summer acquiring disgruntled superstar Defense men Chris Pronger from the Edmonton Oilers. However, it came at the costly price of forward Joffrey Lupul, prospect Ladislav Smid and some draft picks.
On paper, the Ducks may have one of the best defenses in the league. Scott Niedermayer and Pronger both able to eat up nearly thirty minutes a game, the Ducks will be difficult to score on.
This will be the first time in 19 seasons that the Detroit Red Wings will be without the services of Steve Yzerman, who retired after last season. They have several question marks going into this season, including whether or not Dominik Hasek’s problematic groin will be able to not implode.
Detroit is hoping to bring up goalie Jimmy Howard slowly and not rush his development, although he may see some time with the club if Hasek goes down for an extended amount of time with injury, which is very possible.
The rest of the Detroit roster is getting ready to file for social security with Chris Chelios, Mathieu Schneider, Robert Lang, and Nick Lidstrom all being over the age of 34. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are going to be new cornerstones of this organization. Fortunately, they still have the benefit of playing in a soft division.
However, Nashville could be a dark horse to come out of the west if Tomas Vokoun can repeat his phenomenal goal tending heroics from last season. Chicago was miserable last season, and I see some improvements with the signings of forwards Martin Havlat, Bryan Smolimski and the trade for center Michal Handzus.
Nonetheless, I postulate they will find themselves bouncing around the bottom of the Central division for yet another season.
There is still a big cloud of uncertainty floating throughout the 30 NHL cities. Most teams are still attempting to get any hold outs signed to deals and get prepared for training camp. There are still a few quality free agents out there looking to play and arguably the most notable of them is forward Anson Carter, left out of the shopping spree, as teams gobbled up this summer’s special on Defense men.
Carter is a decent 2nd to 3rd line physically gifted winger; however, some pundits around the league acknowledge his asking price of $2.5 to $3 million for a three-year deal is still a little high for a player with his limited scoring resume. He should find a home soon, though.
The puck drops on October 4th, as Buffalo takes on defending Champ Carolina, Ottawa visits Toronto and Dallas drops by Colorado. This will mark the second season in which the OLN network will televise games. In addition, NBC will provide regional coverage and a few playoff games in the springtime. One can always listen to the games on NHL.com.
The real fun is about to begin and like the wide eyed child I pretend not to be, this is one of the few times when my unbridled enthusiasm and childlike wonderment will hold me hostage for the next 9 months or at least until my team gets eliminated and I am forced to wait again for promise of fall.