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As training camp has come and gone, it’s about that time – time to predict who finishes where, who wins the Stanley Cup and who gets to hone their golf skills in early April. Of course, no one can predict trades made during the season to improve or hurt a team’s standing, so this is just based on current rosters, and what my crystal ball told me.

2003 Eastern Conference Predictions:

1) Ottawa Senators: GM John Muckler managed to keep practically all of last season’s team together, the exception being Magnus Arvedson, who has packed his bags and is heading to the West Coast. However, a full season out of Bryan Smolinski and Jason Spezza can only make this year’s edition better, not worse.

2) New Jersey Devils: Last season’s Cup-winning team looks pretty much the same, but for the first time in several seasons, depth may be a problem. With regulars Nieuwendyk, Daneyko and Tverdovsky gone, it will be up to the youngsters to fill the void. But when your team has Martin Brodeur in goal, you know you’re in solid shape.

3) Washington Capitals: For yet another season, the team that wins the Southeast Division will undeservedly finish 3rd in the conference. However, if any team can snap this streak, the Caps can. With Olaf Kolzig between the pipes and Jaromir Jagr and Peter Bondra leading the way on offence, this team could go far.

4) Philadelphia Flyers: Yes, Roman Cechmanek is gone, and with Jeff Hackett replacing him, goals allowed will increase. But with the depth that this team possesses both on offence and defence, the Flyers’ record at season’s end will still be good enough for home-ice advantage in the playoffs.

5) Toronto Maple Leafs: Very little has changed in Leafland, besides the GM. Despite losing chronic underachievers in Jonas Hoglund and Jyrki Lumme, there are still too many overpaid players who don’t live up to their salary expectations. Currently the league’s oldest team, fatigue could become a problem at season’s end, which may hurt the team come playoff time.

6) New York Rangers: Do not consider adjusting your screen, what you read is correct, the Rangers will make the playoffs this season. Full seasons out of Alexei Kovalev and Anson Carter easily offset Pavel Bure’s loss, and Eric Lindros can’t be any worse this season (or can he?).

7) Tampa Bay Lightning: This team is pretty much the same from last season, with the exception of losing Vaclav Prospal. To replace him, the team picked up Cory Stillman who can make up for Prospal’s loss offensively. This year’s edition of the Lightning isn’t as good as last season, but Tampa Bay should be able to qualify for the playoffs again. 

8) Boston Bruins: For the second straight season, the Bruins have a new number 1 goalie, this year, it’s Felix Potvin. If he performs as he is capable of, Boston should be a playoff team, but if not, it will be a long, frustrating season for fans in Beantown.

9) Atlanta Thrashers: One of the hottest teams down the stretch last season, Atlanta has a legitimate shot at making the playoffs this year. Although there are no major additions, a full season with head coach Bob Hartley makes this team much better, more than words can say. Add to that the continued progression of Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk, and things are looking up for Thrasher fans.

10) Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres could easily be the surprise of the season, if everything goes the way management believes it can. Chris Drury gives Buffalo some secondary offence behind Miro Satan, and there is plenty of young, promising talent in goal. However, if the young talent continues to struggle as was the case the previous few years, it will be another rough year for the Sabres.

11) New York Islanders: In terms of defensive depth, the Isles are right up there with the elite of the NHL. Unfortunately for them, they can’t say the same for offence. Behind Yashin and Peca, the cupboard is practically bare, and in goal, it’s even worse. If Rick DiPietro doesn’t shine this season, this team is going nowhere fast.

12) Montreal Canadiens: This season will almost certainly be a frustrating one for Hab fans, as nothing has been done to improve the team on the ice (off the ice, that’s a different story.) The team, like several others, are letting some prospects have a chance to play this year. If all exceed expectations, coupled with a rebound season from Jose Theodore, then maybe, just maybe the team can make the playoffs, but don’t expect that to happen.

13) Carolina Hurricanes: After a disastrous 2002-03 campaign, the ‘Canes seem poised to rebound. Full seasons out of Rod Brind’Amour and Erik Cole will make this team better, and the team does boast a solid defence corps. Depth beyond the front line is a concern however, meaning another season out of the playoffs for Carolina.

14) Florida Panthers: The future is looking bright for the Panthers, but the future is not the present. Aside from Olli Jokinen, there isn’t a real scoring threat, not to mention Jokinen had a career year last season and is unlikely to repeat his solid production. The defence is a disaster, but on the bright side, Roberto Luongo is set to become an elite goalie in the league. It’s too bad for the Panthers that having Luongo is the only thing going for them into this season.

15) Pittsburgh Penguins: The Penguins are a great example for the NHL, too bad it’s for the term “one-line” team. Behind Mario Lemieux, Martin Straka and Aleksey Morozov, there is no depth whatsoever, and that’s not just at forward either. After Dick Tarnstrom, there is little depth on defence, and Sebastien Caron doesn’t appear ready to become a number 1 NHL goalie, especially after starting last season in the minors.

2003 Western Conference Predictions

1) Colorado Avalanche: Yes, I’m well aware that the Avalanche don’t have a proven netminder, but their offence already was top-notch, before Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne arrived. The offence can easily offset the extra goals allowed. Don’t discount the defence either though, as Blake, Foote, Skoula and Morris pose a formidable top-4.

2) Detroit Red Wings: Another team that has added some top-line talent, the Wings look poised to contend for the Cup after a humiliating first-round exit to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Detroit will be more defence-oriented, as they brought in Derian Hatcher from rival Dallas, and coaxed Dominik Hasek to return for one more season. The loss of Sergei Fedorov will hurt the offence, but this team is deep enough to replace his production.

3) Dallas Stars: For the first time in a while, a Western Conference “powerhouse” has actually gotten worse over the summer, not better. Derian Hatcher’s loss will hurt the team’s defensive play immensely, although Teppo Numminen can replace his offensive output. Despite the offseason losses, the Stars still have plenty of offensive weapons, and should win the division again this year.

4) Vancouver Canucks: GM Brian Burke has finally been given the go-ahead to add a little more to the payroll to get that extra component to bo beyond the second round. He has spent that money wisely, bringing in extra depth at every position, most notably in goal, acquiring Johan Hedberg from Pittsburgh. This could finally be the year for the Canucks, if their top line stays healthy.

5) Anaheim Mighty Ducks: Last year’s Cinderella team, the Ducks have made some major changes in the offseason, and have seemingly improved the team, at least on paper. Sergei Fedorov and Vinny Prospal replace Paul Kariya and Adam Oates respectively, adding some needed grit to the team. The biggest question however is, can the team build on last year’s success, or will they collapse like Carolina?

6) St. Louis Blues: Another team who has fallen far below expectations, the Blues have made a few changes this season. Out are two key components in Cory Stillman and Martin Rucinsky, with no one brought in to replace them. This will cause the offensive production to fall below 3 goals per game. However, a healthy Chris Pronger will help the defence, leaving this team in better shape than some think.

7) Los Angeles Kings: The best thing going for the Kings this season is this – last year is over, that means the players are ‘relatively’ healthy. I mention relatively, as there are a few injuries, including forward Adam Deadmarsh, but the current injuries are nowhere near as bad compared to last year. The goaltending has improved as well, with Roman Cechmanek replacing Felix Potvin. If this team remains healthy, they could be the surprise of the season.

8) Columbus Blue Jackets: This team is on the way up, not only because they can’t go down after last year’s 15th place finish, but because there now is depth at each position. Darryl Sydor gives the team a legitimate defender, which will do wonders for goalie Marc Denis. The offence is improving each year, and now look ready to lead the team to the promised land.

9) Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers look to have taken another step back this offseason, which is becoming an annual tradition in Edmonton. This year, Todd Marchant is gone, and Mike Comrie is sitting at home without a contract, waiting to be traded. Their replacement: rookies, joining the rookies that already had spots locked up on the 3rd and 4th lines. The youngest team in the NHL this year, the Oilers have the potential to make the playoffs, but everyone must improve on last year’s performance for it to happen.

10) Minnesota Wild: It looks as there is a major setback in Minnesota this year, as the team has lost Cliff Ronning to free agency, and Marian Gaborik and Pascal Dupuis, the top two scorers from last year, are holding out. Offence already was a problem for the Wild, but this season, the lack of it will be their downfall.

11) Calgary Flames: The Flames have made a few moves, but for the most part remain the same team as last season. Dean McAmmond, who now is eligible to play and Steve Reinprecht will replace Chris Drury’s offence, and give the forwards some much needed depth. There is finally reason for optimism in Calgary, although the team doesn’t appear ready to make the playoffs just yet.

12) San Jose Sharks: It’s hard to believe that a team can improve on its previous year’s performance after losing Teemu Selanne, but given the decline of some other Western Conference teams, it’s doable. Aside from Selanne, the team remains the same from the end of last year, meaning the team will go as far as the youngsters will take them. A full season out of Evgeni Nabokov will also boost the Sharks’ performance.

13) Phoenix Coyotes: The Coyotes have made several changes this offseason, particularly on defence, where 3 regulars have been dealt away, or lost to free agency. However, there remains some talent in the organization, at least at forward. The team now boasts 3 offensive lines, which will help build on last year’s lack of scoring, however goals allowed will mean another year out of the playoffs for Phoenix.

14) Chicago Blackhawks: On paper, this team doesn’t look half bad, however, the ‘Hawks always seem to find a way to underachieve. Chicago should be able to improve in the scoring department with full seasons out of rookies Tuomo Ruutu and Igor Radulov, but the team’s biggest problem last season, defence, was not addressed, meaning another rough year for Jocelyn Thibault and the ‘Hawks.

15) Nashville Predators: It’s hard to be optimistic if you’re a Nashville fan, as a team who seemed to be improving toward the end of last season lost 11 regulars this summer, with no proven replacements for any of them. There are plenty of talented youngsters in the organization, but even if all produce, the team will still miss the playoffs. Brighter days are ahead, but not anytime soon.