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Canadian Press writers look into crystal ball and see Wings with Cup again

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TORONTO - The Stanley Cup returned to Hockeytown last year and that's where it's going to stay once all is said and done this season.

So say the hockey writers at The Canadian Press, anyway, in our annual predictions for the 2008-09 NHL season. Bill Beacon, Robin Brownlee, Shi Davidi, Chris Johnston, Gregory Strong and Chris Yzerman had plenty to offer when asked to weigh in on what we think is going to go down in the coming eight months, with a Detroit Red Wings repeat at the top of the list. The addition of Marian Hossa to a near bulletproof team that lost no one of consequence on their roster has a majority of us believing the Red Wings will become the first team to win consecutive Stanley Cup championships since they themselves did in 1997 and '98.

"The Wings were head and shoulders above everyone else last season and have only gotten better," said one writer. "Can you say dynasty?"

The Pittsburgh Penguins, San Jose Sharks and Dallas Stars also each got a vote as Stanley Cup champ, while the Montreal Canadiens were a popular choice for runner-up.

Two writers predict the Habs will fall to Detroit in an Original Six clash, while another sees Dallas taking them out. The Stars, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers were also picked to lose in the final.

Still, we have a lot of love for the Canadiens, with five of us picking them as the country's best team. The Calgary Flames got the nod from the other.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are a similarly decisive choice as Canada's worst team, with two honourable mentions for the Vancouver Canucks.

"The new Leafs coach seems already about to have a nervous breakdown," said one writer.

Predictably, we see the Red Wings being the best regular season team as well, with a sole dissenting voice picking the Penguins to win the Presidents' Trophy.

The New York Islanders and Los Angeles Kings each get two votes as the NHL's worst team, with Toronto and the Atlanta Thrashers also picked for the dubious honour.

"The Islanders stink," said one writer. "So do Toronto, Florida and L.A., but the Isles smell the worst."

We foresee another big year for Alexander Ovechkin and expect the Washington Capitals sniper to outperform fellow superstar Sidney Crosby.

Ovechkin was a near-unanimous pick to lead the league in goal-scoring and win the Maurice Richard Trophy, with only one voter opting for Rick Nash to bag it again in Columbus.

We split down the middle between Ovechkin and Crosby for the Art Ross as the top point-getter, while only one writer picked Sid the Kid to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP.

Ovechkin got three votes there, with Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk and Calgary's Jarome Iginla also selected.

"Ovechkin will have a better supporting cast than Crosby," said one writer. "I still say Crosby's the better player, though."

The only thing we could all agree on is that the Vancouver Canucks will make Alain Vigneault the first coach fired this season.

Apparently we don't think the extension through the 2009-10 season he signed back in May will do much to change his fate.

"GM Mike Gillis is going to get his own man in there sooner rather than later," said one writer.

When it came to choosing surprises, we were all over the map.

Two of us believe the Blue Jackets will snag an unexpected playoff berth, while others expect Tampa Bay, Phoenix, Florida and Edmonton to do the same.

The Colorado Avalanche and New Jersey Devils each received two votes as surprise teams to not make the post-season, with consideration to Ottawa and Philadelphia.

The Buffalo Sabres were the popular pick for the NHL's most underrated team with three votes, with two others selecting Phoenix and one thinking Tampa Bay isn't getting enough props.

A couple of us feel the Washington Capitals are the NHL's most overrated team, although the Rangers, the Flames, the Penguins and the Anaheim Ducks each received a vote too.

"The Capitals are a glamour pick as a team on the rise," said one writer, "but serious questions remain in goal."

We were split on which free agent signing will make the biggest impact. Two of us think Hossa's addition in Detroit was sheer brilliance, while two of us think Brian Campbell's addition to the Chicago Blackhawks blue-line was the shrewdest move.

Three of us feel Toronto's decision to give Jeff Finger a US$14-million, four-year deal will prove to be the off-season's worst free agent signing.

Finally, when it comes to the heavy stuff, we covered all corners.

When it comes to burning issues for the NHL, we think the league needs to focus on how the financial crisis in the United States is going to affect the game, from gate receipts all the way to salary-cap implications.

There was also concern that the rising cap is creating a new imbalance between small and large market teams and that a new TV deal with wider exposure in the U.S., is going to become more of a necessity.

We also think the upstart Continental Hockey League (KHL) in Russia is a looming issue that's going to blow up in the next year, with the lack of a player-transfer deal being part and parcel to that.

As for things that no one else sees coming, we're going with the Devils replacing Brent Sutter with Ted Nolan behind the bench, Mats Sundin retiring to join the pro poker circuit, and Barry Melrose's return behind the bench in Tampa Bay leading to a revival of the mullet in the NHL.

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