Season preview: Refitted champs back in big pack

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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It's not often that a Stanley Cup champion has as little love as the reigning one does coming into the next season. But check the trades, the blogs and the talking heads these days, and you'll be hard pressed to find anyone -- outside of Chicago at least -- who thinks the Blackhawks will repeat.

Then again no one is saying they won't.

Could Antti Niemi lead the Sharks to a Stanley Cup title as he did the Chicago Blackhawks? (Getty Images)  
Could Antti Niemi lead the Sharks to a Stanley Cup title as he did the Chicago Blackhawks? (Getty Images)  
These Blackhawks may look like a stripped down version of the team that skated the Cup around in June, certainly Thursday when they open in Colorado because the Avalanche will have a pre-game reunion of their 1996 championship team. But in today's league where so much parity exists, having a core group that starts with Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Patrick Kane means you are still among the elites no matter what.

And potentially better than last year. That's where Marty Turco comes in.

The Blackhawks' new goaltender is at a career stage where his chances of winning a Cup are dwindling, so he took a big pay cut from his last contract in Dallas and turned down more money elsewhere to sign a one-year deal with Chicago. But a motivated Turco is coming off a couple of seasons with the Stars in which his game seemed to slip. And he's 35.

To be fair the Stars weren't a very good team for the last couple of seasons and Turco was an All-Star when they were. But most important, he was a bargain at $1.3 million, less than half the money Antti Niemi won in arbitration this summer.

Of course, Niemi also won a Stanley Cup as a rookie. But he narrowly won a roster spot in Chicago last season, and got the opportunity to start only because Cristobal Huet continued to be a costly mistake. The Blackhawks got Huet off the books this season by loaning him to a European team, but they let Niemi walk rather than accept his $2.75 million salary award.

In other words, the Stanley Cup champions felt they could get quite nicely without either of the goalies they had last year.

No doubt they will if Turco has a comeback of the year type season. And Chicago is a good place for him to do it because of the way he plays the game. Turco is one of the few NHL goalies who really makes a difference with his puck-handling skills, and with Chicago's speed and breakout ability, he could make their explosive offense even more dangerous.

"We like to control the game and our defensemen all can handle the puck, so with the way Marty moves it, it will help them maybe avoid some hits and spend even less time in our own end," GM Stan Bowman said. "That's an element we saw last year when we played Dallas.

"You kind of have to change your game a little bit when you play against a goalie like Marty because you can't just shoot the puck in; you have to be aware of what you do. All of a sudden you're thinking more than you used to so that's an advantage for us."

Could be. In the meantime, a look at how the two conferences shape up:

Western Conference

One of these years, the San Jose Sharks will figure out what it takes. They've been the league's biggest underachievers since the lockout, starting every season looking like a potential Cup winner and finishing with thoughts of what could or should have been.

The Sharks got a little further last season but were swept out the Conference finals by Chicago, although San Jose did exact a measure of revenge by sending an offer sheet to Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and raising his price tag for Chicago, and then signing Niemi. Maybe the arrival of a Stanley Cup goalie along with fellow Finnish goalie Antero Nittymaki will take San Jose where Evgeni Nabokov couldn't.

2010-11 Season Preview

But the Sharks will probably have to go through the Red Wings again, and that could be a lot tougher than last season if Detroit manages to stay healthy. The Wings didn't a year ago, but looked unstoppable when they were, and they'll be better rested after a longer summer than they've had in three years. And their offense will get a spark with the return of Jiri Hudler and the addition of Mike Modano.

That's not necessarily good news for the Blackhawks, who broke Detroit's stranglehold on the Central Division title, but Chicago isn't likely to want for goals either. Still the best in the West when it comes to scoring goals figures to be the Canucks again. Everyone on Vancouver's top two lines scored at least 25 times last season, and they're all back and they'll get the puck more efficiently with the additions of Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard on the blue line.

But don't be surprised if the Los Angeles Kings make a case for joining the conference's upper echelons. Los Angeles is young, very talented and has made the subtle lineup tweaks that could make a big difference this season, and along with the others should be in the playoff picture at the end.

Meanwhile the battle for the other three spots will have several contestants. The Coyotes, who added a pretty good offensive player in Ray Whitney, should be in the mix, along with the Predators, who always find a way to be, and the St. Louis Blues, whose youthful lineup may not be far behind the Kings now that Jaroslav Halak will play goal.

Colorado was there last year with its young lineup, but there are a lot of question marks there now. And Anaheim seems destined to find the start of the post-Scott Niedermayer era harder than it seemed.

Dallas is stuck in neutral while its sales process plays out, and Minnesota is still trying to figure an identity after Jacques Lemaire branded his on the team for so long. And as far as Columbus and Edmonton go, well there's always the chance for a lottery pick.

Eastern Conference

The Philadelphia Flyers are the champions here although the Washington Capitals probably should be, a situation that could well be remedied by this time next year. Unless, of course, the Pittsburgh Penguins get in the way. Or the New Jersey Devils. Maybe even the Boston Bruins if things break right.

Ovechkin looks for much better things than last season's playoff disappointment. (AP)  
Ovechkin looks for much better things than last season's playoff disappointment. (AP)  
This quintet is set apart from the rest of the conference, and most likely contains the team that will represent it in the next Stanley Cup Finals.

With Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom out front, Washington is the league's most explosive and is driven after being embarrassed in last year's playoffs. But the Caps have questions about their defense and very young goaltending.

The Flyers have goaltending questions too, but there is some serious firepower distributed through at least three lines, and Chris Pronger leads a top-four defense that is as good as any. The Flyers made some smart moves by adding veteran depth to the blue line in the offseason and this is arguably a better team than it was in the Finals.

It's hard to say if the Penguins are better than last year when they were pretty good, although that's probably moot with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and, when he returns from injury, Jordan Staal down the middle. Pittsburgh's wingers still leave something to be desired, and the Penguins attack will be different without Sergei Gonchar. But newcomers Paul Martin and Zybnek Michalek offer better two-way balance on defense.

No team will have more scrutiny though than New Jersey with its new $100 million man Ilya Kovalchuk. He's a big-time scorer who will have to make his talents work in a very structured system, and that may not be easy for someone who thrives on free flow. But the Devils have other offensive weapons like Zach Parise besides him, a solid defense and goalie Martin Brodeur. That could be enough to get them beyond the first round for a change.

Everyone else in the division would probably be thrilled just to get that far. Well maybe not the Sabres, who were bounced quickly after finishing first in the Northeast, although they made few changes. Buffalo is counting on better offensive seasons from Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy and Jason Pominville, but when you come down to it, the Sabres will go as far as goalie Ryan Miller can carry them.

But certainly the Tampa Bay Lightning would look at a playoff spot as a big stepping stone, although with the scoring power Steve Yzerman has assembled there for rookie coach Guy Boucher, the Bolts look capable of much more if their goaltending and defense holds up.

Toronto's defense might be the best part of the team this season with new captain Dion Phaneuf and Tomas Kaberle leading a group that has a good mix of puck movers and punishers. Toronto is fitting more into the mold GM Brian Burke wants each season, and with a little more offense from anyone not named Phil Kessel, could get into the playoff hunt.

If they do, they'll probably be fighting it out with Canadiens, Rangers, Senators and Thrashers. All of those teams have elements to give them some hope, just not the kind to set them apart enough from each other.

But at least none of them should be worrying about falling into the cellar with the Islanders and Florida Panthers around.

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