Monday

4-13-09: NHL Regular Season: Fin

Hello again everybody...

First off, I'd like to take this chance to thank all of you who responded with your thoughts on Friday's column. It was a bit different than my usual columns, so I was moderately concerned about how it would be received. But based on the reaction I've gotten so far, those concerns were pretty much unfounded.

I'm always happy to hear from readers with their comments, compliments and yes, even criticisms. So whatever you've got for me, I'm happy to hear it! Thanks again to all those who wrote in!

Unfortunately, Nick Adenhart's passing wasn't the only one we'll be dealing with early in the season. Today came the news that Phillies broadcasting legend, Harry Kalas, has passed away at the age of 73. One of my early radio mentors, Mike Sullivan, is a huge Phillies fan, and I cringe at the the thought of how this news must be affecting him. Also cringe-worthy is the thought of these things coming in threes. I'm trying not to think of who's next. Honestly, I'm trying.

Moving on.

This week marks the beginning of the NHL post-season. That means it's time for some special columns looking back at the season that was, and looking ahead at what might be the best post-season in all of professional sports. And of course, if The Sports Take is talking hockey, it's going to be the Hammer doing the talking!

Coming up this week we'll have the Hammer's post-season predictions, as well as perhaps the finest document in hockey history: the Hammer's 2009 NHL Playoff Manifesto. Don't have a playoff team and need some guidance in who to root for? The Manifesto can help you out. But before all that, we have to look back. Today, the Hammer reviews his regular season picks.

Let's light the lamp!

"I love quotations because it is a joy to find thoughts one might have, beautifully expressed with much authority by someone recognized wiser than oneself."
- Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992), American actress and singer

Any of you wondering why I include a quote with every column? There you go!

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Back in October, The Sports Take's resident hockey expert, the Hammer, brought you his Eastern Conference and Western Conference previews. As is usually the case, some of those picks worked out, some didn't. But I'll promise you this, he got a lot closer to right than I would have!

But that doesn't mean he got them all right. And being the stand-up guy that the Hammer is, he's sent me what he likes to call his "Mea Culpa". Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Hammer:

EASTERN CONFERENCE:

15. New York Islanders

Hammer’s preseason pick: 15th
This one wasn’t hard to nail. There was turmoil from the beginning of the season and then Rick Dipietro got hurt and missed most of the year. They are the favorites to win Tuesday’s draft lottery and choose between John Tavares or Victor Hedman.

14. Tampa Bay Lightning
Hammer’s preseason pick: 8th
I wrote at the start of the season that this team had too much talent to miss the playoffs. I didn’t realize how bad their defense was when I wrote that. I also didn’t realize how dysfunctional the ownership situation was. Once Barry Melrose got fired 16 games into the season I knew this team would miss the post-season. I don’t think Rick Tocchet is the answer behind the bench. Another thing to watch out for is if the lightning try to trade Vinny Lecavalier before the draft.

13. Atlanta Thrashers
Hammer’s preseason pick: 14th
This team finished about where I thought it would. They are still trying to rebuild their team after trading Marian Hossa last season. They may have to do the same thing next season with Ilya Kovalchuk as he approaches free agency.

12. Toronto Maple Leafs
Hammer’s preseason pick: 13th
This team also finished around where I thought it would. The difference between them and Atlanta is they have stability in the front office with Brian Burke as GM. If you look what he did in Vancouver earlier this decade and Anaheim a couple years ago it won’t be long until Toronto is back in the post-season.

11. Ottawa Senators
Hammer’s preseason pick: 10th
After talking to some hockey people last season I had a feeling this team was in trouble. With one line, no depth at defense and no goaltending Ottawa struggled right out of the gate. They were able to turn it around late in the season after firing Craig Hartsburg as head coach but it was too little too late. One key issue is whether Ottawa trades Jason Spezza before his no trade clause kicks in July 1st.

10. Buffalo Sabres
Hammer’s preseason pick: 9th
I said in my preview that goalie Ryan Miller was the key to their playoff hopes. He suffered an ankle injury in February. Buffalo proceeded to stumble out of the playoff picture and missed the post-season for the 2nd straight season. What Buffalo needs to do is get some offense so they don’t have to depend on miller to carry this team.

9. Florida Panthers
Hammer’s preseason pick: 12th
I wrote in the preview it would be interesting how Florida would handle the Jay Bouwmeester situation with him becoming a free agent at the end of the year. They decided to hold on to him and make a push for the playoffs. They finished tied with Montreal for the final playoff spot but lost out via tiebreaker. Fortunately Florida stockpiled defenseman last off-season in case Bouwmeester walks and can use that money to get a top six forward.

8. Montreal Canadiens
Hammer’s preseason pick: 1st
I couldn’t have been more wrong if I tried. They started out strong but everything started to come undone around the all-star break. Goaltender Carey Price lost his confidence and Guy Carboneau lost his job. The Habs limp into the post-season with a lot of questions surrounding them.

7. NY Rangers
Hammer’s preseason pick: 4th
This team also came very close to missing the post-season. It took the return of Sean Avery and John Tortorella replacing Tom Renney behind the bench for the Rangers to make the playoffs the 4th straight year. It might be too late for this season but I’m curious to see what Tortorella can do with a full season in charge.

6. Carolina Hurricanes
Hammer’s preseason pick: 11th
This team was limping along when they fired Peter Laviolette and replaced him with Paul Maurice. That and the return of Erik Cole from Edmonton sparked the canes on a 10-1-1 run in March to get into the playoff picture and clinch the 6th seed. This team will be unpleasant to play in the post-season.

5. Philadelphia Flyers
Hammer’s preseason pick: 5th
My mom always said if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all. I hate this team. Let’s just move on.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins
Hammer’s preseason pick: 2nd
The Penguins also struggled in the middle of the season, which cost Michel Therrien his job. It wasn’t until Sergei Gonchar returned from injury and Bill Guerin was acquired from the NY Islanders that allowed this team to make a late charge and clinch home ice in the 1st round.

3. New Jersey Devils
Hammer’s preseason pick: 6th
I said as long as Martin Brodeur was the goalie this team would be in the playoffs. He then goes out and injuries his bicep in October and doesn’t return until March. Scott Clemensen fills in his absence and the Devils don’t miss a beat. The offense steps up and they win the Atlantic Division. This team struggled near the end of the season but for as well as they played all year a lull was expected. This team is a threat to whomever they play.

2. Washington Capitals
Hammer’s preseason pick: 3rd
They have the most exciting player in hockey in Alex Ovechkin. Even if you aren’t a hockey fan take some time this post-season to watch Ovechkin. I think you will enjoy what you see.

1. Boston Bruins
Hammer’s preseason pick: 7th
I like the nucleus of this team but I didn’t think they would be this good this early. Tim Thomas may be the most underrated player in all of hockey. I still think they are a player short but with 114 points this season who am I to judge.

WESTERN CONFERENCE:

15. Colorado Avalanche
Hammer’s preseason pick: 11
When I looked at the roster this off-season I felt that it would be a tough year for Colorado because of their goaltending and lack of depth. Sure enough Colorado struggled because of their goaltending and lack of depth due to injuries. This is a far cry from those Colorado teams in the mid-90’s. Winning the NHL Draft Lottery on Tuesday and getting John Tavares would be the best thing to happen to the Avs this season.

14. Los Angeles Kings
Hammer’s preseason pick: 15
Truth be told this team is better than their ranking. They have a good young nucleus of talent and the acquisition of Justin Williams from Carolina at the trade deadline will only help them going into next season. Most importantly they are 13 million under the salary cap and are ready to make an impact in free agency July 1st.

13. Phoenix Coyotes
Hammer’s preseason pick: 13
The Coyotes paid a step price trading Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton this past off-season for Florida Center Olli Jokinen. I’d like to say the moved paid off because later this week Olli Jokinen will be preparing to play in his 1st playoff game. Unfortunately for Coyotes fan(s) it will be in Calgary because Phoenix traded him at the trade deadline. The Coyotes got rid of two good defenseman for a guy that played for them for five months. That’s the mess on the ice. Things are worse off the ice where the franchise is hemorrhaging money. (I know, I can’t believe hockey is failing in the desert either.) I’ve talked to some people close to the Phoenix organization and the word is the Coyotes will be very different a year from now. What does that mean? Stay tuned.

12. Dallas Stars
Hammer’s preseason pick: 4
Last year the Dallas Stars got all the way to the Western Conference finals before losing to the Detroit Red Wings. Their major move this off-season was to sign Sean Avery to a 4 year deal hoping to be a pest and get under the skin of their opponents. Avery was a pest, to his teammates and management. His stay ended after about a month when he made some comments about former girlfriend, actress Elisha Cuthbert. If that wasn’t bad enough the Stars lost captain Brendan Morrow to a knee injury early in the year and where never able to recover. I think this team is better than 12th place. They just had a horrible run of bad luck this season.

11. Edmonton Oilers
Hammer’s preseason pick: 7
This team can’t make up its mind as to what kind of team they want to be. They miss the playoffs in '07 and figure they need a puck moving defenseman so they trade for Joni Pitkanen from Philadelphia. Then they feel they need a little more grit up front so they trade Pitkanen to Carolina for Erik Cole before the start of the season. Then at the trade deadline the Oilers need scoring so the send Cole back to Carolina as part of a three way deal for Kings forward Patrick O’Sullivan. They have a good young nucleus of players and the Oilers need them to step up if they want to return to the post-season.

10. Nashville Predators
Hammer’s preseason pick: 9
I think Barry Trotz is one of the best coaches in the league and he does a great job of getting more with less but all the free agent defections finally caught up to Nashville and they miss the post-season for the 1st time in four seasons. I think they are one or two players from being a playoff team but I’m not sure if they have the cap room to make a move.

9. Minnesota Wild
Hammer’s preseason pick: 3
This was the most frustrating season in team history for Wild fans. It doesn’t help that their best scorer, Marian Gaborik missed 4/5ths of the season due to injury and now seems certain to leave as a free agent. On top of that Jacques Lemaire steps down as head coach. A lot of people blame GM Doug Risebrough for the situation the Wild is in. Myself, I’ll wait to see who he hires as head coach and what player moves he makes this off-season before I judge him.

8. Anaheim Ducks
Hammer’s preseason pick: 5
I don’t understand how a team with this much talent struggles to clinch a playoff spot during the season. They are a little older on the blue line but they have a good nucleus at forward. Jonas Hiller has been splitting time with JS Giguere in goal. At this point I don’t know if they are going forward or backwards. They should be better than where they finished.

7. Columbus Blue Jackets
Hammer’s preseason pick: 10
I wrote in October that I thought it would be another season before Columbus made the post-season. That is before I knew who goaltender Steve Mason was. His 10 shutouts in goal allowed him to take the job from Pascal Leclaire and give the Jackets the steady goaltending needed to make their 1st post-season appearance. The city of Columbus is going to love playoff hockey.

6. St. Louis Blues
Hammer preseason pick: 14
This team was dead last in the Western Conference in February and lost numerous players with injuries during the season. All they did was go on a run and have the best record in the league in the last 30 games to clinch a playoff spot. If Andy Murray isn’t the coach of the year there is something wrong here.

5. Calgary Flames
Hammer’s preseason pick: 6
Before the season I wrote “This team will be very tough to beat in the regular season but I think they will underachieve once again in the playoffs.” After watching them lose the Northwest Division lead to Vancouver during the last few weeks I have no confidence in the Flames in the post-season. I wished I lived in Vegas so I could bet against them.

4. Chicago BlackHawks
Hammer’s preseason pick: 8
I knew they were on the right track after how things went last year. I didn’t expect them to clinch home ice in the 1st round this season. They have a good young nucleus and for the 1st time in nine seasons Detroit may have a serious threat to the division title. Most importantly Dave Anton (WCCO Production Guru) is happy.

3. Vancouver Canucks
Hammer’s preseason pick: 12
Going into the season I wondered how Vancouver was going to replace Markus Naslund & Brendan Morrison. I said Pavol Demitra was not enough. In December they signed Mats Sundin. It took about a month for the team to adjust but now they are clicking on all cylinders and because of that they have won their 2nd division title in three seasons. I’m curious to see if Sundin can do with Vancouver what he couldn’t do in Toronto which is get them to the finals.

2. Detroit Red Wings
Hammer’s preseason pick: 1st
Everyone questions whether Detroit has the goaltending to win the Cup this season as Osgood has looked less than stellar in recent months. While that is a fair question I think the problem has been more along the Detroit blue line than in goal. Brad Stuart and Brian Rafalski have missed significant time due to injuries this season but both appear to be healthy for the post-season. As for the goaltending I’ll say this, if Osgood is the guy they have a chance to repeat. If Ty Conklin becomes the starting goaltender the cup will leave Hockeytown.

1. San Jose Sharks
Hammer’s preseason pick: 2
Going into the season I felt this was the biggest threat to Detroit in the Western conference. After watching them it is clear to me that they are built to win the Cup this season. Every free agent and trade GM Doug Wilson has made this season had the Sharks acquiring a player whose name is on the Cup. After three consecutive exits in the 2nd round for the Sharks it’s all or nothing this year.

So there you have it. Hammer's Mea Culpa on his 2009 NHL picks. Make sure you check back tomorrow. We'll have either his post-season predictions, or the Manifesto. I'll let you know when I find out!

Until then, thanks for reading!

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