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NHL season preview

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Posted: Thursday, October 1, 2009 8:46 pm | Updated: 12:36 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

It's time to drop the puck on a season that has already seen many changes from last year.

Sidney Crosby nestled into a chair at a New York hotel at the end of the busiest summer of his young life.

The latest in a list of countless interviews and guest appearances was taking place, and the youngest captain of a Stanley Cup champion couldn't have been happier.

Oh, how different this year is from last.

Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins avenged a loss in the 2008 finals by rallying from a 3-2 series deficit and wresting the Stanley Cup away from the champion Red Wings in Detroit in a stirring Game 7.

That helped erase the sting of the previous year when the Red Wings celebrated following a Game 6 victory in Pittsburgh.

"The mood was a lot better," the 22-year-old Crosby said in his typical understated fashion. "It was a pretty tough summer sitting on a loss in the finals and not knowing when I was going to get the chance to get back there or if it would ever happen.

"I am really happy we were able to get back there and finish it off right this time."

Don't be surprised if these two powerhouses go for a three-peat in a rubber match next June.

"For both teams to get there in back-to-back years, it's amazing. It really is," Crosby said. "Both teams kind of defied the odds in getting back there, but now both have to try to do it again. You have these high expectations when you go that far and everybody wants to beat you. So it just gets tougher."

While Washington's Alex Ovechkin basks in the glow of back-to-back MVP awards, Crosby will try to take their personal rivalry to a new level this season with a repeat championship.

The Capitals likely pose the biggest threat in the Eastern Conference to Pittsburgh's return to the finals. With a lineup that boasts Ovechkin, the NHL leader in goals each of the past two seasons, fellow forwards Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin, and high-scoring defenseman Mike Green on the back end, Washington is looking to make its big splash in the playoffs.

Ovechkin forced Crosby and the Penguins to a Game 7 in the second round, but couldn't seal the deal.

The Boston Bruins figure to have something to say about who comes out of the East as they try to build off a season in which they surprisingly vaulted from the No. 8 playoff seed in 2008 to No. 1 in 2009.

While goalie Tim Thomas (Vezina Trophy), defenseman Zdeno Chara (Norris Trophy) and Claude Julien (coach of the year) were honored individually, the Bruins were stung by a second-round playoff loss to Carolina — a Game 7 defeat at home after they rallied from being down 3-1 in the series.

The San Jose Sharks can relate.

They posted the best record in the NHL and their best in team history, before bowing out early — again. The Sharks couldn't even get out of the first round, falling quickly to Pacific Division-rival Anaheim.

General manager Doug Wilson was angry and didn't sit back. In a big move just before the season, the Sharks plucked disgruntled star forward Dany Heatley from Ottawa in a blockbuster move that sent forwards Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek to the Senators.

It is critical that the Sharks get the guy who has scored 50 goals in a season and not the one who publicly talked his way out of Ottawa. One thing San Jose forward Joe Thornton and the rest of the remaining Sharks can feel good about is that big Anaheim defensemen Chris Pronger (Philadelphia) and Francois Beauchemin (Toronto) have moved on to the Eastern Conference.

Detroit, with its fine mix of champion veteran players and up-and-coming kids, is still the team to beat out West — even if just on reputation.

"We all understand how long the journey is," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "It's a marathon and we're just focused on getting out of the gate. The first 20 games is what we're always talking about.

"We're fortunate that we've got a real good core, so we've still got a chance to win. It's not like these teams are going away. They're going to be back and they're going to try to get themselves into better positions this year."

While it's fun to talk in September about might happen in May and June, the NHL season has much to offer before it even gets to the playoffs.

The Philadelphia Flyers will meet the Bruins outside in the Winter Classic in Boston's Fenway Park on New Year's Day, just more than a month before the league takes its two-week hiatus for the Winter Olympics.

This one carries even more significance than usual because the Olympics will be held in the NHL city of Vancouver, and might be the last that features pro players. Collective bargaining will determine that in the coming years.

Now it's time to drop the puck.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. Detroit: Marian Hossa is gone and the defense isn't getting any younger. But with Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Tomas Holmstrom around, the Red Wings are still the team to beat, especially if Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm match their impressive playoff efforts.

2. San Jose: The Sharks accomplished much in the off-season. Yes, the defense lost some experience and there's pressure on Dany Heatley to deliver big-time, but San Jose added some of the grit and tenacity on its third and fourth lines that Stanley Cup aspirations require.

3. Chicago: Can the Blackhawks survive the front office turmoil that cost GM Dale Tallon his job? Probably. This is where Hossa landed, even though that meant Martin Havlat had to leave. No more goalie controversy with Cristobal Huet the clear-cut starter between the pipes.

4. Anaheim: Tradeoffs in the off-season: defense loses Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin, offense picks up Saku Koivu and Joffrey Lupul: but that playoff run doesn't look like a fluke. The Ducks remain the Sharks biggest rival for Pacific Division honors.

5. Calgary: Bigtime makeover with Jay Bouwmeester joining Dion Phaneuf on the blue line, and a new coach in charge as Darryl Sutter hires brother Brent to replace Mike Keenan. The Flames still seem to lack scoring depth, but an improved enough roster to win the Northwest.

6. Vancouver: The major accomplishment of the off-season was getting signatures of the top three Canucks "" goalie Roberto Luongo and the Sedin twins "" on long-term contracts. Defense took a hit with Mattias Ohlund going to Tampa Bay, so Vancouver may drop a notch.

7. St. Louis: No major acquisitions, though it'll feel like it as Paul Kariya and Erik Johnson return after missing a combined 153 games because of injuries. Young talent such as T.J. Oshie, David Perron and David Backes should get the Blues back into the playoffs again.

8. Dallas: A horrendous string of injuries weakened the Stars last season, but the G.M. and coach still ended up taking the fall. New G.M. Joe Nieuwendyk emphasizes offense and Marc Crawford is behind the bench, but it is Brenden Morrow's return that should give fans hope.

9. Los Angeles: The Kings may be the most improved team in the West over the past two seasons, but still may not be good enough to reach the playoffs because of suspect goaltending. Rob Scuderi adds valuable experience to young defense featuring Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson.

10. Columbus: the Blue Jackets squeezed into the playoffs for the first time last season only to be humbled by Detroit "" and could be back in the post-season if Steve Mason's second year is anything like his first. Signing Rick Nash to a long-term deal was the off-season's major event.

11. Minnesota: Former Sharks assistant Todd Richards has the challenge of establishing an offense-oriented system where defense-first has been the watchword since the franchise's inception. Havlat replaces Marian Gaborik as the prime scoring threat.

12. Nashville: The Predators have a way of overachieving, but it's hard to see them back in the post-season with no major new faces in the lineup and the departure of role players such as Scott Nichol and Vernon Fiddler. Still, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter do nice blue line work.

13. Edmonton: Nikolai Khabibulin came to the rescue after Dwayne Roloson jumped to the Islanders, but the big problem is scoring: which had to make Dany Heatley's trade veto all the more galling. Other major change saw Pat Quinn replace Craig MacTavish as coach.

14. Phoenix: Where to begin? With all the ownership issues and bankruptcy proceedings, the Coyotes lead the league in disarray. They were lucky to be able to attract the talented Dave Tippett as coaching successor to The Great One, but they'll still be bottom-dwellers.

15. Colorado: The Avalanche seems to be a franchise adrift with a rookie G.M. and a rookie coach. Factor in Joe Sakic's retirement and the departure of Ryan Smyth and Ian Laperriere, and it's hard to see this team coming anywhere close to its former glory.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Pittsburgh: Hard to bet against the defending champs as long as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal are around and Marc-Andre Fleury stays sharp in goal. Penguins did lose Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill, but were able to pick up defenseman Jay McKee.

2. Washington: Alexander Ovechkin's 56 goals were tops in the NHL and Mike Green's 31 were the most from any defenseman. Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin rack up impressive numbers, too. Blue-line play, goaltending remain a little questionable, though.

3. Philadelphia: Solid offense led by Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Simon Gagne, the Flyers wanted to get tougher and brought in Chris Pronger and Ian Laperriere. One giant question: Can the, um, free-spirited Ray Emery handle the role of starting goalie?

4. Boston: Not a whole lot of changes for another team whose playoffs didn't meet expectations. Phil Kessel is gone and Tim Thomas won't have Manny Fernandez backing him up in goal, but Derek Morris boosts the blue line.

5. New Jersey: It's been 12 years since the last time Jacques Lemaire started a season behind the Devils' bench, but in some ways it's as if he never left. Martin Brodeur is still in nets and defense has always been the priority.

6. Montreal: The Canadiens underwent a major roster overhaul and G.M. Bob Gainey decided to gut the core. Mike Cammalleri, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta form a brand new top line with Jaroslav Spacek and Hal Gill joining the defense.

7. Carolina: The Hurricanes reached the Eastern Conference finals before losing to Pittsburgh and have chosen to stand pat. Eric Staal anchors the offense, but Rod Brind'Amour (39) and even the still-productive Ray Whitney (37) are getting up in years.

8. Buffalo: The Sabres remain a bubble playoff team, but did enough change during the off-season to push them back into the post-season? Goalie Ryan Miller staying healthy will help.

9. Toronto: G.M. Brian Burke added toughness in Colton Orr, Mike Komisarek and Garnet Exelby. He convinced Swedish goalie Jonas Gustavsson to sign, then gave up serious draft picks for Phil Kessel. Still, playoffs wait another year.

10. N.Y. Rangers: The remade Rangers are still likely to go as far as goalie Henrik Lundqvist can carry them, further if Marian Gaborki can stay healthy. Can coach John Tortorella and Sean Avery stay best friends?

11. Ottawa: The Senators were hurting even before the Heatley trade. But adding Alexei Kovalev, as well as Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo, to a lineup that still has Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza is something.

12. Tampa Bay: It almost looks as if this mismanaged franchise had a plan "" select Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, then sign Swedish veteran Mattias Ohlund as a free agent to tutor him.

13. Florida: Only a tie-breaker kept the Panthers out of the playoffs last season, but Jay Bouwmeester's departure and no influx of scoring probably means Florida won't come that close next spring.

14. Atlanta: When you turn to Toronto for help in the form of D Pavel Kubina and RW Nik Antropov, things probably will be better, but not by much. Will Thrashers improve enough to get LW Ilya Kovalchuk to re-up?

15. N.Y. Islanders: The presence of No. 1 overall pick John Tavares makes them more interesting, but it won't keep Isles out of the running for another top pick. Net is crowded with Rick DiPietro, Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron.

BIG MOVES

Chris Pronger: NHL's most punishing defensemen makes the Flyers even meaner.

Saku Koivu: Teemu Selanne's longtime friend now his linemate as ex-Canadien moves to Anaheim.

Jay Bouwmeester: Ex-Panther could be one of three Calgary defensemen on Canada's Olympic team.

Marian Hossa: Only player on losing side in last two Stanley Cup finals now a Blackhawk.

Nikolai Khabibulin: Too many goalies in Chicago, too few in Edmonton, so Khabibulin now an Oiler.

Phil Kessel: Boston's salary cap squeeze becomes Toronto's gain as 36-goal scorer now a Leaf.

KEY DATES

Nov. 27: Sharks at Edmonton

It's a good thing the press box in Edmonton has so much extra space because media across the Great White North will be on the scene when the Sharks play the Oilers on the day after Thanksgiving. It will be Dany Heatley's first trip back to Canada, the country that vilified him all summer "" and, for extra measure, Heatley will be facing the team (and the town) he rejected in July when Ottawa tried to trade him to Edmonton.

March 3: Trade deadline, noon PDT.

April 11: Regular season ends.

April 14: Stanley Cup playoffs begin.

Olympic break

The NHL shuts down for two weeks starting Feb. 15 as the game's elite players head to Vancouver for the Olympics. Everybody else gets an extended winter break. The really good news? Intense international competition means no frivolous All-Star game until 2011. (The most intriguing element of the 2011 All Star game is where it will be played. It's tentatively scheduled for Phoenix, which might not have a franchise by then.)

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