|Columbus head coach Ken Hitchcock's bold statement this week regarding how many points it will take for teams to reach the playoffs was a real eye opener.
As Ice Age
readers well know, I pay close attention to what Ken Hitchcock has to say from week to week – for a number of reasons.
First of all, he is very well spoken, a “good quote” in the jargon of the business. He also has forgotten more about hockey that I’ll ever know, so there’s always the opportunity to learn something new.
That was the case this week. In reading a story about the prospects for the Columbus Blue Jackets, Hitchcock had this to say: "This might be the first time in the history of hockey that - and I really believe this - you might need 100 points to get in the playoffs. There's so many competitive teams now."
Quick! To the standings!
Last season four Eastern Conference teams reached triple figures in points. In the West, seven reached 100 or more points, so Hitch may well be on to something here.
The Flames held off the Avalanche by a point for the eighth spot in the West, getting into the postseason with 96 points. In the East, the Islanders were the eighth seed with 92 points.
The roles were reversed in 2005-06, with the East boasting the most 100-point clubs with six and the West having four, with two teams finishing on the cusp with 99 and 98 points.
So, is Hitch right about this season? In the East, the improved New York Rangers would seem to be a 100-point team. Two other Atlantic Division teams are in that neighborhood, certainly the Penguins and possibly the Devils, depending upon how things shake out. Buffalo and Ottawa look like 100-pointers in the Northeast and something tells me Carolina and possibly Tampa Bay are in the vicinity as well. That would put seven Eastern Conference teams at 100 points for the season.
In the West, the Northwest Division looks like a bear. Colorado is revitalized. Calgary should be improved and both Vancouver and Minnesota topped 100 points last season. Anaheim, San Jose and Dallas were in triple figures last season and Detroit and Nashville topped 100 points in the Central. So, unless one of these teams drops off significantly, there might be a 100-point team that doesn’t make the playoffs.
Getting back to Hitchcock and the Blue Jackets, does this formidable array of 100-point teams mean postseason hopes in Columbus are over before the season even begins? The math would support the argument.
But as always, Hitchcock has an interesting take.
"We look at it from this standpoint,” Hitch said. “With the coaching change, we were a .500 hockey club, which is 85 points. To get in the playoffs, we need a win a month more. That gets us in."
’Canes on comeback trail – Ken Hitchcock has a feeling about 100-point teams. I have a feeling about the Carolina Hurricanes. In Ice Age’s always humble opinion, Carolina comes back big this season. I’m talking winning the Southeast Division and then being a very tough out in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
|Hurricanes' captain Rod Brind'Amour feels his team will be on a mission this season after falling short of the playoffs last year.
The 2006 Stanley Cup champs are eager to prove that missing the 2007 postseason was a fluke. Those words come from Hurricanes captain Rod Brind’Amour, another NHLer whose opinion is always worth considering closely.
"The fact that we didn't do well last year kind of has a fire back under us," Brind'Amour said.
Goalie Cam Ward shed 20 pounds, Matt Cullen is back after a season with the New York Rangers and there is plenty of talent in the dressing room. Factor in the positive karma of this being the Hurricanes’ 10th season in Carolina and I’m sensing positive waves all around.
"There's kind of a renewed hunger in here," Cullen said. "You can tell the guys are very well-prepared and focused for the season. Last year was a disappointment, so you can feel that renewed dedication."
"We expect to win, we want to win, we know we can," Eric Staal told reporters. "We know we have a core group of guys that can get it done. Everyone here's got high expectations to win.”
Three key Panthers – Florida Panthers GM-coach Jacques Martin knows Tomas Vokoun needs to be one of his key guys this season. Ditto Olli Jokinen, Ruslan Salei and the other veterans.
But for the Panthers to be successful, it’s going to be the kids who carry the day, and that means Stephen Weiss, Rostislav Olesz and Nathan Horton. The three didn’t have a great training camps, scoring just two goals and an assist among them, so Martin has put the onus on them for a fast start to the season.
"They have to raise their game now," Martin said. "They haven't produced much in camp. We're counting on them. They have to get some production, get involved. That's a line that has been successful in the past."
Proof’s in the pudding – So, Sidney Crosby, let’s cut to the chase: Can the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup this season.
”We have to prove that,” Crosby said. “You can't talk about it. We're not going to talk about it. Sure, it's easy to say we are, but we have to prove that. I think we're working hard, are prepared to first of all get in the playoffs, but we have to prove it.
”You need depth obviously,” Crosby continued. “Any team that wins a Stanley Cup has great depth. They have four solid lines, great goaltending, good defense. I mean, you need a complete team.
”One or two star players on a team aren't going to win a Stanley Cup,” he said. “You definitely need a supporting cast and overall complete team.”
A couple of factors would point toward the Penguins being a strong presence this season. First, Crosby leads a lot of talented, young players, including Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Ryan Whitney. The Pens also got some playoff experience under its collective belt last spring.
”As for the playoff experience, I definitely think that was a great learning time for us,” Crosby said. “Just to get the taste of the playoffs, I think we really needed that. So when the opportunity comes again, we'll know the situation and be a little bit more familiar with it.
”Obviously it's easy to say ‘yes, we are ready.’ But a lot of good teams don't make the playoffs. So I think we have to, first of all, make sure we're fighting and battling to get to the playoffs. We know our division's gotten stronger. We got to make sure that we're ready from the start here.”
Lidstrom eyes the prize – Nicklas Lidstrom has three Stanley Cups and a closet full of Norris Trophies at home, so when he talks about the state of the Detroit Red Wings, it pays to listen.
Lidstrom and the Wings come into the season thinking they shortchanged themselves last season, when injuries played a crippling role in a Western Conference finals loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks.
|Red Wings' defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom feels that the 2006-07 season was a lost opportunity to add another Stanley Cup to Detroit's trophy case.
”We thought that we had a great opportunity to be in the Final and fight for the Stanley Cup,” Lidstrom said. “I thought we had some unlucky breaks in that Anaheim series. Being without Mathieu Schneider
and Nik Kronwall didn't help us. Having two top-four defensemen not playing in that series hurt us a bit. Even though we were missing some players, we were real close to taking the next step.
”It's disappointing, but on the other hand we have some young players that really got a great experience out of playing in the playoffs and going deep in the playoffs and realizing what it takes to win,” Lidstrom said, opting to accentuate the positive. “It's a completely different mentality once you reach the playoffs. Hopefully our younger players learned a lot from last year's experience.”
Lidstrom says that experience, plus the Red Wings’ speed game, will allow Detroit to have a major say in who wins the Cup this season.
”We feel that, yeah, we can win the championship with the style that we have,” Lidstrom said. “I think we're tough to play against, meaning that we try to keep teams on the outside, try giving them shots from bad angles, counting on our goalies to make the saves, kind of pushing teams on the outside. That's the style we're playing defensively.
”Offensively we try to be creative and use our speed. I think we're going to be a little quicker this year than last year. That's one of the things we've been working on, using our speed a lot more.”
New look for Luongo – Roberto Luongo may be a relative newcomer to the Vancouver area, but if you check out his new mask design you’ll see it is steeped in the history of the team and region.
“Ever since I got here, I’ve been a big fan of Johnny Canuck,” Luongo said. “So, I just decided to go with that and try to make a little bit of intimidation there with this face. It came out pretty nice.
“It took a couple weeks. I came up with the idea with my brother-in-law in Florida and we discussed it one night for a couple hours and came up with the main guy and the way we wanted it to look.
“I wanted a little bit of everything in there, you know, the tower in here, that wasn’t in last year, and obviously a lot of trees and stuff like that.”
Age is relative –By most standards, Brent Sopel is a veteran: He’s 30 years old and played more than 400 NHL games.
Sopel went to the Red Wings’ camp as an unsigned free agent last month and discovered the atmosphere there a lot different than in Chicago, his new home this season.
"The ice time in Detroit for me wasn't going to be there," Sopel told reporters. "Here in Chicago, as young as we are, they said they're going to give me an opportunity to play. I jumped at that. I'm only 30; I've got many years still to go."
In Detroit, Sopel was almost a rookie.
”That's right," he laughed. "They've got three guys over 40, 10 guys over 35 ... this is completely different. Coming to this team with the talented young guys here, for me to help out and watch these kids grow and kind of teach them, that's great for me."
Material from personal interviews, wire services, newspaper, and league and team sources was used in this report.