Hockey! A full season of hockey! Proper preseason games in September and shit! No fucking around with Gary Buttman's haphazard late-night press conferences! Weird new divisions and every team in a home-and-away and FOUR OF THE ORIGINAL SIX in every goddamn preview and how is everyone really this goddamn excited. I get that in 2005 we had just come off a completely canceled season, but we got our hockey last year, remember? Maybe I'm gettin' too old for this shit. I somehow managed to pay attention to the Blue Jays from April to now.
In a way, this season's house is just last season's nearly-toppling shanty-shack in the backyard with a new coat of paint. I don't think the power dynamic between teams has changed that much; top teams are still good, lousy teams are still bad. The one big game changer is the realignment. Let's take a look at how it'll affect the standings:
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
2. New York Islanders
3. Philadelphia Flyers
4. Columbus Blue Jackets
The newly-christened Met Division is going to see the biggest shake-up, what with the Pens and Caps slated to play each other four times in what would've been a far more exciting development five years ago, and the Blue Jackets coming in from the west to be my official sleeper pick for the playoffs. I'm serious! All they have to do is outplay the likes of Carolina and New Jersey, and then the Rangers and Caps will suffer unexpected collapses and bam, there's your Ohio connection. Nick Foligno will have a breakout year. That's the kind of hard-hitting statement I'm sure won't come back to bite my ass. Pittsburgh is still amazing even though they crapped themselves against Boston last year, the Isles are ready to step into the limelight before moving to the Barclays Center, and Philly somehow swapped all their bad players for good ones (and Ray Emery!) when I wasn't looking.
1. Boston Bruins
2. Detroit Red Wings
3. Ottawa Senators
4. Montreal Canadiens
Shout out to Toronto head coach Randy Carlyle for eschewing the usual approach of "controlling the bench" in favour of letting Phil Kessel look like more of a wuss than usual and losing David Clarkson for the first ten games. And this is without even resolving the question of which goalie you're going to play out the year with! It's nice to have the adorable, harmless Leafs I grew to love in between the lockouts back after last season's anomaly, although watching them cough up a three-goal lead in game seven was worth the price of admission. At the other end of the division, it'll be a dogfight between two of the league's heavyweights, but I think Boston comes out ahead on goaltending. Meanwhile, I have a feeling the teams with the last two Norris Trophy winners will probably do okay. Apparently there are also teams from Florida and Buffalo in this division, but I don't believe a word of it.
1. Chicago Blackhawks
2. St. Louis Blues
3. Nashville Predators
4. Phoenix Coyotes*
You might be wondering why I didn't put the Dallas Stars in here. Well, I'm wondering why the Dallas Stars signed Sergei Gonchar, so I guess we're even. The fact is, Chicago will be running away with this division by the Olympic break, the teams with good goaltending will ride in behind them, and Joe Sakic will look mortified every time the Colorado box seat camera settles on him.
1. Los Angeles Kings (win President's Trophy)
2. San Jose Sharks
3. Anaheim Ducks
4. Vancouver Canucks
Lots of easy wins against Calgary and Edmonton mean LA takes the league's best record by a nose. Lots of easy wins against Calgary and Edmonton give the otherwise aging cores of the Sharks and Ducks easy playoff berths. Lots of easy wins against Calgary and Edmonton make Vancouver and Phoenix prime contenders to outpace the losers of the Central division for guaranteed wildcard spots. Calgary will probably "win" the worst record in the NHL and then lose the #1 draft pick in the lottery to Edmonton. So it goes.
And Now, The Playoffs!
Pittsburgh (1) def. Columbus (4) in four: Welcome back to the postseason, Blue Jackets. Enjoy your stomping. Bobrovsky ain't gonna cut it against the Pens unless the concussions turn rampant.
NY Islanders (2) def. Philadelphia (3) in six: That Tavares kid finally looks like a leader, huh? Assuming the same rate of growth for their first-rounders, Edmonton will be destroying the competition in another decade or so.
Pittsburgh (1) def. NY Islanders (2) in five: Nobody really buys that Marc-Andre Fleury is a bad goaltender. He's just got terrible defense in front of him, right? Good enough to get 'em to the conference final again, anyway.
Boston (1) def. Montreal (4) in seven: Stop me if you've heard this one before: a facebook-libertarian gets fed up with the New England crowd that made him famous, moves to Florida, and suddenly starts showing his age. Huh? Tim Thomas? No, I was talking about Ted Nugent. Oh, the Nuge is from Detroit? And he's not really a libertarian? What's going on here? How did I end up in this bizarre dimension?
Ottawa (3) def. Detroit (2) in six: The Red Wings are now learning one of the few downsides of having Daniel Alfredsson on your team, as he missed most of the preseason with a groin injury. He's great when he's on, but I wonder if he might just coast through the year without that "C" on his chest. Not that I'm obsessed or anything! *makes a little paper Red Wings jersey to tape over poster of Alfie with*
Boston (1) def. Ottawa (3) in seven: One thing I am looking forward to is the Buffalo Sabres season. Not because I think they'll be any good (they stunk enough to get Lindy Ruff fired last year, and they haven't improved at all) but because they've got a bunch of brickheaded goons with nothing to lose on their roster. Boston could win the division solely on their ability to hang tough with the inevitable line brawls.
Chicago (1) def. Phoenix (4*) in six: Backhand Shelf's preview of the Coyotes (and you should read all of them, they're way better than mine) refers to Mike Smith as "good one year, a sieve the next". So... we're saying he's gonna improve from his 2.58 GAA and .910 save percentage last year? Or was that just a small sample size? I don't know, I can't get into a pro/con analysis on a team that acquired free agent journeyman BRANDON YIP! #yipyipyip
St. Louis (2) def. Nashville (3) in six: The Blues are one year better, so I figure they'll go one round deeper in the playoffs. Funny how that doesn't work out the same way for the Preds, who are arguably one year worse. The whole "this year" phenomenon in sports is a cheap crutch for legitimate analysis, anyway. I should use it more often.
Chicago (1) def. St. Louis (2) in five: And for that matter, can we talk about this weird idea that Phoenix is somehow losing its "underdog edge" because they finally have stable, non-league ownership? Seems to me the ownership thing always fit the pre-crafted narrative: when the 'Yotes were good, they were "underdogs", and when they were bad, it was "confusion regarding the team's status". Good luck running with that flip-flop journalism, Ice Arizona!
Los Angeles (1) def. Vancouver (4) in four: I loved it, loved it, when the Canucks got swept by the Sharks and immediately blamed it on the refs. One by one, all of the just-defeated players (starting with both Sedins, working through the two-headed goalie monster, and eventually coming down to the likes of Chris Higgins and Kevin Bieksa) denounced the boarding penalty as a BAD CALL. That's the kind of self-deception in the face of abject disaster that's gonna put Johnny Torts on the map this year! That, and death pools on who's going to take the first puck to the chops on a muffed shot-block.
San Jose (2) def. Anaheim (3) in five: Joe Thornton still plays for his team. Bobby Ryan doesn't. Oops, there I go with the Ottawa centricism again. Where's my Chicago Bears poncho?
Los Angeles (1) def. San Jose (2) in seven: Yeah, I'm picking the last four Cup winners to win their respective divisions and go to the conference finals again. What you might call laziness, I call consistency. Don't come crying to me when you're reading a thousand "what happened to parity?" articles come next June.
Boston def. Pittsburgh in six: The Penguins are too good to get blown out two years in a row. The Bruins are too good to let that stand in their way. Need I remind you that Adam McQuaid scored the series-winning goal last season?
Chicago def. Los Angeles in seven: Whenever Johnny Oduya touches the puck, I catch myself saying "Oh, do ya?" in my head. It drives me crazy. Everything about the Blackhawks seems to be designed for maximum aggravation. They score, they hit, they're completely ridiculous. I hope I'm completely wrong about them being good again this season.
Stanley Cup Final
Boston def. Chicago in six: Everybody knows how back-to-back Finals rematches work. Team A wins the first year, Team B wins the second. Islanders-Oilers. Red Wings-Penguins. Wouldn't be surprised to see it again here.
And that's it. See you in Sochi!