The Good News: Quite simply, after half a century of suffering, the Stanley Cup was returned to the Second City after a sublime playoff run in 2009-10. This was accomplished due to a truckload of returning talent. C Jonathan Toews used the 2010 Winter Olympics and NHL playoffs to show the world he is one of the top hockey players in it. RW Patrick Kane will compete with guys like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin for the scoring title as soon as this year. C/LW Patrick Sharp and RW Marian Hossa are superstar talents playing on the second line. Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith was the best defenseman in the NHL last year on both sides of the puck and then was the best player in the NHL in the playoffs. His partner, Brent Seabrook, is a mack truck with a laser outlet pass, perhaps the most underrated defenseman in the circuit.
The Bad News: Due to cap concerns, the Blackhawks lost more talent during the 2010 offseason than, say, the Columbus Blue Jackets have acquired since Rick Nash. LW/D/folk hero Dustin Byfuglien will be sorely missed in the corners and in front of the opposing nets. G Antti Niemi was replaced with aging Marty Turco. Wingers Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager, and John Madden will all be missed as well, as will D Brent Sopel and Kim Johnsson. While top rivals Detroit and Vancouver got deeper this off-season, Chicago was cap-strapped and got thinner.
Fantasy Focus: In the www.fantasyhockey.com experts draft, I took Jonathan Toews in the 6th round. To commit a greater theft, I would have to take the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, or hijack the Winnipeg Jets and take them to a desert where nobody knows they exist or something. After an injury-plagued start to the 2009-10 campaign, Toews broke through for 63 points in his final 61 games. He then followed this up with a sublime playoff run in which he scored 29 points in 22 games. An 85-point season is inevitable. A 95-point year is not out of the question.
Fearless Forecast: News of Chicago’s demise as an NHL power have been severely exaggerated. The loss of their depth creates a slack which young mega-stars Toews, Kane, Sharp, Hossa, Keith and Seabrook are more than prepared to fill with an increased workload. Along with Detroit and Vancouver, the Chicago Blackhawks stand in the Western Conference elite, and a return to the Stanley Cup finals is far from out of the question.
Central Division: 2nd place
Western Conference: 4th place
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
The Good News: Talent-crushing joke of a coach Ken Hitchcock is out, and new coach Scott Arniel actually believes on-ice talent is more valuable than an outdated, trapping system. This is fantastic news for young uber-talented wingers Nikita Filatov and Jakub Voracek, who are both poised for breakthrough seasons. This would take a load of pressure off LW Rick Nash, who has been forced to carry the entire offensive burden for Columbus seemingly since the team’s inception.
The Bad News: Will the real G Steve Mason please stand up? Are you the puck-stopping machine of 2008-09 or the perforated Swiss cheese of 2009-10? The blueline also needs help. Anton Stralman helped the power play last year, but this team has little offensive ability from the defense corps. Antoine Vermette is a very good second-line winger forced to play as a first-line center in a team that is startlingly weak up the middle. They will need Derick Brassard to take the reins as a top-line pivot if they have any hope of competing in the upcoming season.
Fantasy Focus: Nikita Filatov has truly sublime goal-scoring talents. Ex-head coach Ken Hitchcock did everything in his power to crush the kid, benching him after the tiniest positioning error and not rewarding him for flashes of offensive brilliance. Finally out of Hitchcock’s gargantuan shadow, Filatov is one of the fantasy wild-cards of the 2010-11 season. Given top-line status and power play time, this kid could score 35 to 40 goals. Or Hitchcock could be right where I’m wrong, and Filatov could finish the season in the AHL. You’ll have to choose who to listen to in this instance, just be sure when it comes to physical fitness advice you pay heed to me over Hitch. I weigh as much as one of his thighs.
Fearless Forecast: The perennially rebuilding Blue Jackets will have to rebuild again. Only a Vezina-type season from Mason and 80+ goals from Nash and Filatov can get them in the playoff hunt.
Central Division: 5th place
Western Conference: 13th place
DETROIT RED WINGS
The Good News: Henrik Zetterberg is moving up from centering the second line to flanking stud two-way center Pavel Datsyuk on the first line. This tandem has been unstoppable in the past and should be once again. A healthy year by Johan Franzen and the return of Jiri Hudler creates enormous depth on the left wing. G Jimmy Howard looked great last year, and should be the Red Wings’ goaltender for a number of years. Even an aging Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski makes quite a formidable top pairing, and a healthy Niklas Kronwall gives Detroit a stunning top-3 on the blueline.
The Bad News: The Central Division looks to be far-and-away the toughest in the West, and it won’t be easy reclaiming the top spot from Chicago. Several of their top players are on the other side of 30-years old which make injuries a nagging concern. The sophomore slump remains a concern for Howard, and the Wings need a complete return to form by Kronwall, who was a hitting machine and a 50-point presence on the blueline before having his 2009-10 season wrecked by a dirty knee-on-knee hit by George Laraque.
Fantasy Focus: After a breakthrough 34-goal campaign in 2008-09, injuries limited Franzen to a 10-11-21 line in 27 games during the 2009-10 season. A full healthy season by The Big Mule with top-unit power play time alongside Datsyuk and Zetterberg could ascend him into the rarified air of the 40-goal plateau.
Fearless Forecast: Lidstrom could be the most dominant NHL-er since Gretzky and Lemieux, and this could turn out to be his final season. Expect the Wings to dominate during the regular season and then rally behind their future Hall-of-Fame captain for a long playoff run.
Central Division: 1st place
Western Conference: 2nd place
The Good News: Barry Trotz may be one of the finest coaches in the NHL, annually making his Predators a fierce group to compete against. He leans heavily on his blueline, one of the elite units in the circuit, led by the cannon-shot and shut-down ability of Shea Weber. He is joined on the backline by Ryan Suter, an extremely underrated stud who plays Brent Seabrook to Weber’s Duncan Keith. Off-season addition Ryan Parent is extremely steady in his own end, and the unit is filled out by a trio of youngsters with two-way upside: Cody Franson, Kevin Klein, and rookie Jonathon Blum. G Pekka Rinne emerged as a solid starter last season, but is he the real deal (see Tomas Vokoun) or one of a long line of marginally talented net minders to thrive in Trotz’s defensive system? (see Mike Dunham, Dan Ellis, Chris Mason, et al)
The Bad News: As elite as the defense is, the wingers are a mediocre group heavy on grinders and lacking in goal scoring. C Jason Arnott was dealt to New Jersey in the off-season to pave the way for future team star Colin Wilson, a physical and skilled kid who oozes character and plays well in all three zones. He will likely be joined on the top line by emerging goal-scorer Patric Hornqvist and the injury-prone but perennially under-appreciated Steve Sullivan. Outside of that far-from-frightening unit, the Nashville forward corps is filled with moderately talented grinding types, a group only supplemented in the summer by the underperforming Sergei Kostitsyn and the overachieving Matthew Lombardi.
Fantasy Focus: Here is the formula for a true fantasy sleeper: a non-Canadian top prospect breaks into a major role on a team in a non-major market. This year, the equation adds up to Colin Wilson, whose hockey talents are slightly superior to those of Nazem Kadri and Jordan Eberle, though one would never know it reading most fantasy columns. Wilson is destined to emerge as the top pivot in Nashville during the 2010-11 season, and 55 to 65 points are a strong possibility from a guy you can probably take a flier on in the very last round of your draft.
Fearless Forecast: The Predators will compete behind very good coaching and a dominant blueline, but will ultimately lack the goal-scoring to overcome all of the teams fighting for the final playoff berths in the competitive Western Conference.
Central Division: 4th place
Western Conference: 9th place
ST. LOUIS BLUES
The Good News: G Jaroslav Halak was absolutely stolen from Montreal and behind an excellent defensive club is likely to break through in 2010-11 as the NHL’s next goaltending superstar. Judging by his otherworldly performance in the 2010 postseason, he is the best bet since Dominik Hasek to become the league’s next Dominik Hasek. D Erik Johnson is a full year removed from major knee surgery and has the talent to break through this season as the team’s rearguard since Chris Pronger. 50+ points are not out of the question for him as the leader of a very good unit which includes defensive stalwarts Barret Jackman and Eric Brewer and is joined this year by the Hockey News’ #1 prospect in the NHL, two-way future star Alex Pietrangelo. C/LW David Backes and C/RW T.J. Oshie are both extremely underrated, both guys who love to hit and have 30+ goal upside.
The Bad News: The Blues are physical and now have a star-caliber goalie, but who is going to score the goals to improve them from a 17th best showing last year at 2.66 goals-per-game? Backes and Oshie should both top 20 goals, as could Andy McDonald, Alexander Steen and David Perron, while Brad Boyes and Patrik Berglund should both improve on last season’s dismal point totals. Yet St. Louis sorely lacks the type of game-breaker who frightens opponents and puts opposing defenses on their heels. 2010 first-round picks Jaden Schwartz (14th overall) and Vladimir Tarasenko (16th overall) both have this type of potential, but it is unlikely either one are ready for the NHL game in 2010-11.
Fantasy Focus: If your league counts penalty minutes and/or hits, don’t sleep on Backes. One of the most underrated players in the NHL, he may be the top hitting forward in the league and is a slam dunk to pass 100 PiM, while a return to his 31-23-54 line of 2008-09 seems likely after dropping to 17 goals in 2009-10.
Fearless Forecast: While goals will need be scored by committee, these Blues are instruments of destruction with the way they hit and play relentless, two-way hockey. With the addition of Halak, they should easily make the postseason dance where they will have an opportunity to play party-pooper to conference powers Chicago, Detroit and Vancouver.
Central Division: 3rd place
Western Conference: 6th place
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