Tribune’s NHL Preview

ATLANTIC DIVISION

New York Rangers: After finishing first in the East and advancing to the conference final, the Rangers fell short to their division rivals, the New Jersey Devils, last May. In response, the team made the biggest acquisition of the off season in trading for star winger Rick Nash, who should help bolster a lineup that has struggled offensively. The back-end remains virtually the same as last season. But goals against shouldn’t be a problem for the Rangers because Henrik Lundqvist is a rock in net. Expect the Rangers to finish first in the Atlantic and make a deep playoff push in June.

Pittsburgh Penguins: An annual cup favourite, the Pittsburgh Penguins look to bounce back after exiting the playoffs in the first round last season. They dealt centre Jordan Staal to Carolina, but still have a depth in their roster that few teams possess. Tomas Vokoun was signed in order to help stabilize the goaltending position behind Marc-Andre Fleury. As long as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin stay healthy in this shortened season, the Pens will be right up there with the league’s best.

Philadelphia Flyers:  The Flyers enter 2013 with virtually the same roster that advanced to the second round last season. They failed to land star defenseman Shea Weber, who would have given them a boost in this division. However, they have four strong lines and are led offensively by emerging star Claude Giroux. If goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov can bounce back and regain the form he once had in Phoenix, then the Flyers will have the ability to beat any team in the NHL.

New Jersey Devils:  After riding Martin Brodeur all the way to the Cup Final in 2011-2012, the New Jersey Devils will surprise no one in the East this year. Despite whispered rumours of Brodeur’s retirinment at the end of last season, he re-upped with the team for two years. However, the Devils lost offensive leader Zach Parise to Minnesota in free agency, and will need Ilya Kovalchuk, and playoff star Adam Henrique to shoulder more of an offensive load. This could turn out to be a let-down year for the Devils.

New York Islanders: In a division loaded with star-studded teams, the only virtual lock seems to be that the Isles will finish last in the Atlantic. Not all is lost on Long Island, though, as the team is building a roster that features some really talented young players—notably John Tavares, Michael Grabner, and Nino Niederreiter. The Isles will struggle on the other end of the ice, as they feature little defensive presence and are shaky in goal. Their move to Brooklyn could not come sooner.

Steven Lampert

NORTHEAST DIVISION

Boston Bruins: With Tim Thomas taking a leave of absence this season, Tukka Rask will be relied upon to deliver the goods in goal for the Bruins. His experience as a starter in 2009-2010 should benefit his team. Additionally, the balanced combination of a steady defence and a quick strike offence make the big-bad-Bruins the favourite to win the Northeast division.

Buffalo Sabres: After a disappointing season for Buffalo in 2011-2012, the Sabres will show that they have what it takes to be a playoff team. With an above-average defensive group, and an elite goaltender starving to prove his critics wrong, the Sabres will finish second in 2013. Despite the lack of top-end production on the offensive side, Head Coach Lindy Ruff may squeeze enough out of Tomas Vanek and Jason Pomminville for a successful season.

Montreal Canadiens: Following a disastrous 2011-2012 campaign that resulted in a last place finish, the Habs will show that they have reason to be optimistic about the future. With a healthy Andrei Markov, the Canadiens should receive a boost on the back-end, especially on the power play. Furthermore, after missing games last season, Brian Gionta will help the Canadiens offensively on a second line with Tomas Plekanec. In goal, Carey Price will be relied upon after signing a six-year, $39 million contract last May. If things fall into place, Montreal will finish third in the Northeast and should compete for a playoff spot.

Ottawa Senators: Although the Sens had a very positive season in 2011-2012, Ottawa will take a bit of a step backwards in 2013. Despite featuring stars like Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson, Ottawa’s lack of depth will prove problematic should they run into injuries. While Craig Anderson was stellar for Ottawa in its postseason series against the Rangers last May, there are still question marks in goal after an inconsistent regular season.

Toronto Maple Leafs: After the controversial firing of general manager Brian Burke last week, Dave Nonis is faced with the daunting task of trying to get Toronto into the playoffs for the first time in eight years. However, with holes on defence and below average goaltending, the Leafs will struggle to make it there. While the Leafs may have improved offensively with the addition of James Van Riemsdyk, without a competent NHL goaltender, Toronto will ultimately finish last in the Northeast division.

—David Stein

SOUTHEAST DIVISION

Washington Capitals:  Head Coach Adam Oates takes over a Capitals team that struggled to find an identity under Dale Hunter. The core of the team remains the same; the main change is that Mike Ribeiro replaces enigmatic forward Alex Semin, who bolted for division foe Carolina. If youngsters like John Carlson and Brayden Holtby take further steps in their development, the Capitals should be the best in what has become a very tough division.

Carolina Hurricanes:  The sexy pick to take the Southeast in 2013, the Hurricanes made major strides in the offseason by signing Jordan Staal and Alex Semin. Joe Corvo returns to Raleigh once again and will be his usual offensively prolific self on the blueline. Cam Ward should be solid as always and should lead Carolina back to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

Tampa Bay Lightning:  Time is running out for McGill alum and Lightning Head Coach Guy Boucher, whose team failed to qualify for the playoffs last season, after making the Eastern Conference Final the year before. General manager Steve Yzerman brought in a lot of above-average talents in Matt Carle, Sami Salo, and B.J. Crombeen, but the biggest uncertainty will be in goal, where Anders Lindback replaces Dwayne Roloson. Lindback put up good numbers as Pekka Rinne’s backup in Nashville, and he will have to maintain those stats on a regular basis if Tampa is to return to the postseason.

Florida Panthers:  The Panthers were surprising winners of the Southeast last season, after completely remodeling their roster with average big name players. This offseason was more relaxed, which is troubling since the other teams in the division have improved. Peter Mueller and Filip Kuba replace Mikael Samuelsson and Jason Garrison, and star prospect Jonathan Huberdeau may break through. The Panthers will hope that retaining a similar nucleus will help them overcome the quick schedule in 2013, especially as a limited training camp gives other teams fewer opportunities to mesh.

Winnipeg Jets:  After over a decade without a team, Jets fans are used to waiting for their season to begin. It’s a good thing that they really love their team, because sadly, it just isn’t good enough to be competitive in what has become a deep Eastern Conference. Newly-signed Olli Jokinen and Alexei Ponikarovsky bring some extra punch up front, but Ondrej Pavelec will be tested again in net. Playing the entirety of the season in the East will mean heavy travel tolls for the geographically-challenged Jets; but at the same time it should also help them maintain home-ice advantage against their Southeast rivals.

—Adam Sadinsky

CENTRAL DIVISION

St. Louis Blues: All indicators point towards another dominant season by the Blues. St. Louis posted the lowest goals against average in the league last year, and the squad touts a roster full of players on upward trends.  Brian Elliot and Jaroslav Halak are a shutdown goalie duo and will split time again this year. Look for the Blues to come out of the gate strong and make a significant push into the playoffs.

Chicago Blackhawks: After bowing out in the first round last year, the Chicago Blackhawks return this season with Stanley Cup potential. Provided Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews are not hampered from last season’s concussions, the team’s offence should remain one of the most lethal threats in the league. The Blackhawks’ talented blueline, headed by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, remains intact from the previous year. Goaltending will be an issue heading into the season though, as Cory Crawford will need to prove he can handle being a first string goalie.

Detroit Red Wings: The Niklas Lidstrom era has finally come to a close in Detroit and the team will certainly miss his presence. Fortunately for the Red Wings, they still have significant fire power in Johan Franzen, Henrik Zetterberg, and Pavel Datsuyk, despite the loss of Tomas Holmstrom. The team’s defence is a cause for concern. Nikolas Kronwall must live up to his Norris candidate potential, and Jimmy Howard needs to prove to the world that his success between the pipes wasn’t just a result of having Lindstrom in front of him.

Nashville Predators: The current Nashville Predators roster is full of question marks. Gone are forwards Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn. Yet, most notably, the Preds lost all-star defenseman Ryan Suter to the Minnesota Wild. The saving grace of the offseason was matching the deal Philadelphia offered Shea Weber, ensuring that he remains Nashville’s property for years to come. Whether or not rookies Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi can step up and fill the void created by Suter’s departure is yet to be seen. While netminder Pekka Rinne may steal a few games, there’s too much up in the air to guarantee this team a playoff spot.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Coming into the 2013 season, the Columbus Blue Jackets will be fighting for the first overall pick—not a spot in the playoffs. The Blue Jackets unloaded franchise player Rick Nash to the New York Rangers—in return for a motley crew of players—­all of whom are unlikely to make any difference for the perennial cellar dwellers. With a high amount of divisional games in this shortened campaign, a season in the tough Central will hurt the Blue Jackets and send them to the basement of the conference.

Peter Laing

NORTHWEST DIVISION

Vancouver Canucks: The back-to-back President’s Trophy winners return to the ice with what has proved to be a talented veteran roster. The Sedin twins should return to their scoring ways, while waiting for fellow star Ryan Kesler to recover from injury. Defensively, Jason Garrison joins Keith Ballard, Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis to provide depth and toughness to the blue line. However, the major story surrounds All-star goaltender Roberto Luongo’s future with the club, which could derail this major contender’s hopes for the Stanley Cup.

Minnesota Wild: The presumptive winners of the free agency period are betting the bank on big name free agent signings, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, to lead the team to the playoffs for only the fourth time in franchise history. Joined by veterans Mikku Koivu, Danny Heatley, and Devin Setoguchi, Minnesota has the foundation for a high-octane offence to make up for defensive pairings that show promise, but are inexperienced. If all the pieces meld together, look out, because the Wild could make noise come June.

Edmonton Oilers: The recipient of countless draft lottery jokes over the past three years, the Oilers finally look poised to stop accumulating top draft picks and to shed the rebuilding label. Look for this young, fast, and exciting team, headlined by the wunderkind trio of Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to improve as the season progresses. If the mediocre D-line holds up its end of the bargain, and goaltender Devan Dubnyk delivers on his potential, the Oilers will push for a playoff spot.

Calgary Flames: The Flames ended last season behind the Canucks, coming in second place in the division, thanks to a strong late season showing. Led by Jarome Iginla, Alex Tanguay, and Mike Cammalieri, the Flames are a veteran team with little upside and virtually no serviceable depth. In addition, they are riddled with underachieving defenceman with bloated contracts. Look for this team to play spoiler down the stretch, but don’t expect them to be in the hunt for Lord Stanley.

Colorado Avalanche: The Avalanche are an unproven commodity with a bevy of exciting young forwards—namely Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny, and last year’s Calder Trophy winner, and new captain, Gabriel Landeskog. The ageless Milan Hejduk joins the offence, but little else in terms of NHL level talent exists past him. Erik Johnson is a solid defenseman, but has little talent backing him. In net, look for a timeshare between Semyon Varlamov and J.S. Giguere, as neither has proved to be number one material. Overall, this should be a bleak season in the mile high city.

Mayaz Alam

PACIFIC DIVISION

Phoenix Coyotes: Phoenix will prove that last year’s playoff run wasn’t a fluke. A relatively unchanged team, the ‘Yotes should benefit from familiarity in this shortened season. The club’s most underrated move this off-season was the re-acquisition of defenseman Zbynek Michalek. A shot blocking machine, Michalek was constantly injured and wasn’t a great fit in Pittsburgh. Expect him to rekindle his previous success in a more defence-minded system. Of course, having Mike Smith protecting the crease is always reassuring.

Los Angeles Kings: Los Angeles will finally raise a championship banner after a lengthy lockout. The Kings face adversity early this season, as star centre Anze Kopitar is sidelined with a knee injury he sustained overseas. His absence may prove costly if Mike Richards and Jeff Carter can’t improve on last season’s paltry offensive totals. L.A. can’t afford another slow start with fewer scheduled games. Goaltender Jonathan Quick should ease the pain, however, as the reigning playoff MVP looks to continue his stellar play.

Dallas Stars: The Stars sacrificed Steve Ott’s grit for some much needed firepower. A lineup featuring Jamie Benn, Michael Ryder, Loui Eriksson, Derek Roy, Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney is very impressive. These are all players who possess a high-end offensive skill set. The defence, though not flashy, doesn’t have to be with Kari Lehtonen between the pipes. A top 10 goaltender in the league, he posted a career best .922 SV per cent and 2.33 GAA last year. If the stars align, Dallas might just squeak into the playoffs in 2013.

San Jose Sharks: The Sharks have been a consistently great regular season team, but continually fail to impress in the playoffs. Their goaltending must be addressed via trade. There aren’t enough games this year for Antii Niemi to find his groove, and backup Thomas Greiss simply isn’t the answer. San Jose has one more shot at making a deep run before key offensive players are shipped out for younger prospects. San Jose has a decent team, but an overall competitive division means it will miss the playoffs.

Anaheim Ducks: Teemu Selanne will be a hot commodity at the trade deadline, as the Ducks will find themselves too far out of a playoff spot. He might not be the only superstar to leave Anaheim either, since the Ducks face the difficult task of resigning both Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry at the season’s end. The addition of Scott Niedermayer to the coaching staff is a nice, sentimental touch, but one which is unlikely to have an impact, record-wise.

—Hrant Bardakjian

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