"Everybody anticipated with the salary cap that it would level the playing field, and definitely that's the case. I think that's what makes it exciting for the fans coming to the game. On any given night, anybody can beat anybody else."
-- Pierre McGuire
Fast forward to the eve of the 2009-10 season, it's hard to find the "it" team that hockey experts agree will dominate the NHL landscape.
The Philadelphia Flyers made a pair of bold moves, acquiring defenseman Chris Pronger from the Anaheim Ducks and signing goaltender Ray Emery. But after spending last season in Russia because NHL teams didn't want to take a chance on the troubled netminder, is Emery going to be the weak link or the final piece of the puzzle?
"I think Philadelphia, if Ray Emery can keep it on the rails, will be very, very tough to beat," said TSN and NBC analyst Pierre McGuire.
"They're true to their roots, aren't they?" said CBC and NBC analyst Mike Milbury. "They bring in a guy like Pronger and he's going to be a huge part of that. The question mark is the goaltender, as it's been for 30 years with Philadelphia. And it's a gutsy proposition to go with a guy who wasn't in the League last year and faced challenging issues."
And you can't forget about the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. They're looking to reach the Stanley Cup Final for a third-consecutive season and have the weapons to do just that. But will the losses of Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi on defense be enough to keep them from repeating?
One thing is for sure – in today's game, it's getting harder to figure out who's a contender and who's a pretender.
"Everybody anticipated with the salary cap that it would level the playing field, and definitely that's the case," McGuire said. "I think that's what makes it exciting for the fans coming to the game. On any given night, anybody can beat anybody else."
"Today, I have a much harder time to choosing the good teams than the bad teams than 25 years ago because there's so much parity," said Hockey Night in Canada analyst Kelly Hrudey.
The lack of clarity on the upcoming season is just as prevalent in the Western Conference.
The San Jose Sharks have been among the NHL's elite in recent years, but have had their obvious problems when the regular season ends and the playoffs begin. Will the acquisition of Dany Heatley be enough to finally push coach Todd McLellan's group to the next level?
"I think Dany Heatley is the guy to put them over the top," said TSN and ESPN analyst Matthew Barnaby, who also said he sees Washington coming out of the East this year. "I think Todd McLellan wants to break it down and say you know what, we have underachieved and we have to get to the next level. And I think Dany Heatley has something to prove. And playing with Joe Thornton, I think they're going to be magical together and have a great year."
The general consensus among those who watch and break down hockey for a living is the top five teams in the West (San Jose, Detroit, Chicago, Calgary, Vancouver) from last season will again be the teams to beat this season and just about anyone else in the conference can land those final three playoff spots.
The team that many feel can make the climb into the playoffs this year is the Los Angeles Kings.
"I think L.A. is going to make a huge improvement," McGuire said. "I like the direction they're going. I think their young players are starting to evolve.
"Dustin Brown is one of the best young leaders in the game and he's one of the most ferocious hitters in the game. I can tell you right now if you called (Kings GM) Dean Lombardi today and said 'I want to make a trade for Dustin Brown,' he'd say untouchable, can't have him."
"Not only does the organization feel that for the first time in a long time they have a really strong core than can really compete against the other organizations, but their players believe it," Hrudey said.
"If you talk to any of the teams right now, they're all the team to beat," Laviolette said. "The year we won the Cup, people were having this conversation and they were picking us 29th and 30th."
Will there be a team like the '06 Hurricanes that shocks the world this season? Will the Penguins make it three straight trips to the Final? All of your questions will start to be answered when the curtain raises on the 2009-10 season Thursday night.
Contact Dave Lozo at email@example.com.