Here is Off The Post’s list of teams likely to play below expectations in 2008-09.
1) Montreal Canadiens
Habs fans certainly had many reasons to cheer during last season as the team posted a 47-win, 104-point campaign on the way to the top of the Eastern Conference after finishing out of the playoffs the previous year. Expectations will certainly be magnified in Montreal as a result of last year’s success, combined with the franchise entering its 100th season. However the bleu, blanc et rouge may have raised the bar a little bit too high for themselves. The departure of defenceman Mark Streit to the New York Islanders via free agency deprives the team of the point man who was instrumental in propelling the team to having the top-ranked power-play in the NHL in 2007-08. Blueliner Andrei Markov will now shoulder the load of power-play duty on the Habs’ point, however any of Roman Hamrlik, Mike Komisarek or newly-reacquired Patrice Brisebois will have a challenge in complementing Markov in Streit’s absence.
In bowing out of the Mats Sundin sweepstakes by signing Robert Lang, the Habs are still minus a point-per-game playmaking centre. The team’s highest offensive threat last season, Alexei Kovalev will be called upon to carry the offensive reins, having racked up 84 points in 82 games last season. The bad news for Canadiens fans is that, despite Kovalev’s immense talent, only three times in 15 NHL seasons has the 35-year-old winger averaged more than a point per game in one year, and only once in his career has he achieved the feat in consecutive seasons: 1999/2000 and 2000/01 with Pittsburgh.
With the emergence of goalie Carey Price and youngsters Tomas Plekanec and Christopher Higgins, the team is certainly among the elite in the Eastern Conference. However they may not have the fortitude to repeat as conference champions.
2) Pittsburgh Penguins
The strength of the Penguins is undoubtedly in the centre position, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal forming a trio of pivots as good as any in the league. However the departure of Marian Hossa leaves the team devoid of a superstar winger, decreasing the potency of the team’s 1-2
offensive threat on the top forward line. The departure of hometown favourite Ryan Malone to Tampa Bay leaves the Penguins minus their two highest-scoring wingers in their Eastern Conference championship playoff run from last season.
Wingers Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis, and Ruslan Fedotenko, all acquired in the off-season, are very serviceable NHLers but can hardly replace Hossa. Pittsburgh will also be hard-pressed to replace the grit and sandpaper that was lost when feisty players such as Gary Roberts, Georges Laraque and Jarko
Ruuttu left town.
Head coach Michel Therrien’s squad also faces the intangible Stanley Cup finalist curse which has seen just 1 of the past 11 Cup finalists advance past the first round of the playoffs in the following year (Dallas, 2001), with four of those bridesmaids from the previous year missing the post-season entirely.
3) Anaheim Ducks
The expediency in which the Dallas Stars dispatched the then-defending Stanley Cup champions in last year’s playoffs surprised many observers. If the abrupt end to Anaheim’s season is any indication, the Ducks fortunes are more likely to turn for the worse before they get better. The team’s blueprint for success revolves around their leader; captain Chris Pronger. One year removed from a Stanley Cup and Norris Trophy nomination, Pronger was instrumental in Anaheim’s two wins in the matchup versus Dallas, but practically invisible in the Ducks’ four losses in the series.
Undoubtedly Anaheim’s key weakness is their lack of discipline, no more exemplified by their compilation of 1,465 penalty minutes in the regular season, adding up to the most time spent in the sin-bin out of all the 30 NHL teams. Todd Bertuzzi’s departure to Calgary somewhat alleviates some of the situation, yet the team still employs three of the top 40 leaders in PIMs from last year in Pronger, George Parros and Corey Perry.
All hands on deck will have to play smarter, and by the rules, if the Ducks have any chance of avenging last year’s early exit.
4) Calgary Flames
Todd Bertuzzi was signed in an attempt to spark the Flames’ offence, which was a mediocre 14th in the regular season last year. However, despite the potential of forming a lethal duo alongside fellow power forward and 2006 Olympic teammate Jarome Iginla, there is no guarantee of this combination’s
success. Bertuzzi appears a shadow of the dominant force that he was as a Canuck, with herniated disc problems taking their toll on the 33-year-old Sudbury native. Meanwhile Calgary has jettisoned soft players like Kristian Huselius and Alex Tanguay, but are also without the services of underrated utility forward Stephane Yelle.
The biggest wild card in the Flames’ season is the play of Mikka Kiprusoff, who had a very ordinary save percentage of .906 last year and seemed to have followed the pattern of many NHLers whose level of play declines in the year of signing an enormous contract. Kiprusoff’s save percentage has increased from the previous year in each of the last two seasons. If the trend isn’t reversed, the Flames may be challenged for a post-season berth.
Thus Calgary is listed as likely to play below expectations. While the presence of stars like Iginla and Dion Phaneuf should justify the assumption that the team will make the playoffs, the possibility of a failure of Bertuzzi to ignite scoring – or a fizzle in the pipes for Kiprusoff – could spell disaster in Cowtown.
Rob Del Mundo is the author of Off The Post, a regular column at TMLfans.ca