Sunday, October 3, 2010


I love October. It is a time for thanksgiving, for families to get together and celebrate what we have and enjoy. It is a time of colour on the trees and pumpkins at our windows, of little ghost and goblins scaring us for tricks and treats. And, for the sports fan, it is a time for completely pigging out on our favourite games. Major League Baseball heads into the playoffs and World Series. The CFL, NFL, and college football are in full swing. NASCAR heads into the Chase for the Cup. Basketball, for its fans ( I am not one ) begins. And, best of all, the National Hockey League serves up a new season. The so-called experts have made their predictions. Now it's time for me to correct their errors and make the true and lasting predictions. You can take these to the bank.

The Eastern Conference seems to be a contest between the two marquee teams and marquee players. Look for the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins to battle it out for supremacy. Crosby and Malkin versus Ovechkin and Semin. Need I say more?

The Capitals feature some of the best young talent in the game. When you scan their roster, you notice that their best players are around the middle twenties. That means that they are, as a group, heading into their most productive years. They have youth, confidence and talent in abundance. Pittsburgh is in the same situation. What will separate them are the intangibles: injuries, slumps, and coaching mistakes. Washington's Bruce Boudreau, who looks like he belongs on a TV game show featuring C-list celebrities, is a good coach who motivates his players, as if they need motivation. But is he another Scotty Bowman? Hardly. I mean, he was a Leafs draft pick once upon a time: how good can he be? Pittsburgh's coach is Dan Bylsma... exactly. A real house-hold name, isn't he? He looks like he should be coaching in Harvard. But he knows his stuff. Maybe it boils down to goaltending: Varlamov in Washington versus Fleury in Pittsburgh. Or maybe both teams will just have to content themselves with scoring more goals than these guys let in, which will be a lot.

Montreal Canadiens fans were more excited than ever ( if that's possible ) last spring when they got hot at the right time, rode a hot goaltender's unbelievable talent, and went deep into the playoffs. Here's the good news: they won't do that again. The Habs traded the wrong goalie last year, and the smart money says Carey Price will play lots and win some games, but will fall flat on his face at some point. So, the Habs can count on.... wait for it....Alex Auld to bail them out. Oh well, it was a nice dream, eh Habs fans? The rest of the team is overrated: Cammalleri, Gionta, Plekanec and Gomez sound like some European law firm, and the defence will depend on PK Subban. I like Subban, but he's a hot dog and will cost them some stupid goals. I joyfully predict the Habs will struggle to get to post season, where they will crash and burn. Yay !!

The rest of the conference will be a free-for-all. The New Jersey Devils will probably contend again, but they are so boring and predictable, no one will care. The Boston Bruins will depend on Tukka Rask, and hope that Tyler Seguin can score some goals ( the rest of the team can't ). If those names make Leaf fans shudder, it's because of what might have been. Ottawa will depend on Sergei Gonchar to improve their power play, but they have too many fragile players because of age or confidence. They'll be somewhat flashy, but won't get far. Philadelphia? How they made it to the Cup final last year is still a mystery. No goaltending. Too many idiots on the team. Party on, boys !! Buffalo have always been a miserable team, but Lindy Ruff just may be the best coach in the NHL and Ryan Miller is incredible in goal. One thing's for sure: the Sabres can beat the Leafs any time they want to. Too bad for them they only play the Leafs six or eight times.

Which brings me to my beloved Maple Leafs. Beloved? I actually don't like this team, which makes me sad. What I mean is, I have always rooted for them, and followed them through thick and thin. (Mostly thin) But this current edition is so bad, it is almost comical. I really don't like Brian Burke: he comes across as an Irish thug, all bombast and bluster. But he seriously misjudges the talent on his teams. Ron Wilson is a poor coach: he enjoys publicly criticising his players and lashes out at the media ( of which I approve, by the way), but that's all he can do. And the players? There's no one to get excited about. I don't much like the players. Kessel is good, Kaberle has talent, but plays soft and timid, Kadri is worth waiting for, and Bozak has some potential. The rest are hockey morons. They may be nice guys, but who cares? Pick these guys to finish near the bottom of the conference, along with such hockey powers as the Panthers, Thrashers, Islanders, and Hurricanes.

In the Western Conference, the favoured teams are predictable: Vancouver, Chicago, Detroit and San Jose. All of these are fine teams. But there are always teams that come from out of nowhere to rise up in the standings. Last year it was the Phoenix Coyotes. This year, two different teams will emerge as powers and make some real noise in the playoffs, and they're both in the Wild West.

The Vancouver Canucks boast some good forwards and a defence corps that just may be the best in the league. The additions of Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard are key in the success of the defence. Their problem is in goal: I know this may surprise many, but I am not sold on Roberto Luongo. In the Olympics, his appearances were nothing short of an adventure. And what has he accomplished in 10 seasons? Exactly. Nothing. Which is what he'll accomplish this year. Look for Vancouver to skate swiftly, score goals, wins many games and then flame out early in the playoffs.

Which brings us to the perrenial powerhouses in the West, Detriot and Chicago. These are two of the so-called original six and it is heartening to see them back in prominence again, especially Chicago with their Cup victory last year. But they present some problems this year. In Detroit's case, when you scan the roster, you see too many players on the wrong side not just of 30, but 35 !! Injuries will take their toll on this group of geezers. Mind you, after having seen them live last year, I'm a huge fan of Johan Franzen: he may be the most underrated player in the league. Zetterburg and Datsyuk are still good, but Jimmy Howard in goal? Come on !! You're kidding, right? As for the 'Hawks, I've never seen a championship team dismantled in so sudden and dramatic a fashion. The core is still there ( Toews, Kane, Seabrook, Keith, Hossa ) and Joel Quenneville, a former Leaf, is a great coach. But who's playing goal? Marty Turko on a last hurrah. Enough said. The 'Hawks will be good, but not good enough.

The rest of the Conference features the San Jose Sharks, a team that can be counted on to screw up in the playoffs. Joe Thornton is another Mats Sundin: a captain who will lead his team to nowhere. Phoenix was a great story last year, but that's all they get: they will become an irrlevence in the desert again. Colorado will only be good if they can resurrect Joe Sakic, Ray Bourque and Patrick Roy: in other words, maybe in the next life they'll win a Cup, but not in this one. Nashville, Columbus and Minnesota have teams ?? Who knew?

Which brings me to my most outrageous predictions: greatness for either or both of the Los Angeles Kings and the St. Louis Blues. Start your howls of indignation now !!

In the case of the Kings, they feature several fine young players, including the best two young defensemen in the game: Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson. Doughty was the most interesting player to watch on Team Canada in the Olympics. Jackson is an American Olympian who plays big and skilled. Add a fast forward unit, and the Kings will be entertaining to watch. How far will they go? That depends on the goalie with the best name for his position: James Quick. He's OK, but he needs to be great to carry this team to the cup.
And the dark horse for the entire NHL? The St. Louis Blues.
Now you know. The Blues have gotten rid of some of their old driftwood, and added one of the best young goalies on the planet in Jaroslav Halak. Brad Boyes seems ready to lead the team, and Eric Johnson is a fine defenseman. TJ Oshie is an unknown who will be known very soon. If the Blues don't win the Cup this year, they will win in the next two years.
The old saying is "youth will be served." If you're looking for the top four teams to contend this year, go young. Washington and Pittsburgh will battle it out for the East, while Los Angeles and probably Chicago will battle it out in the West. St. Louis and Boston will be lurking in the weeds for an opportunity to challenge. New Jersey, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Detroit, San Jose and Vancouver will disappoint their fans. Toronto and Edmonton will dream of better years ahead... way ahead, although Hall and Eberle in Edmonton will give the Oil some sweeter dreams than Kessel and Kadri will for the Leafs. Ah me.... thank God there's good lacrosse in Toronto.
The Stanley Cup goes to..... the Washington Capitals. All other teams must submit to the new hockey gods of Ovechkin, Semin, Greene, Backstrom and Varlamov.... Varlamov? Sure, why not? He's evolved ... his first name's Semyon... get it, like a monkey?? Evolved ??? Ah crap, they can't all be gems.

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