It’s Canada’s favourite time of year

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There is no shortage of Canadian talent lined up for the 2011-12 NHL season

Colin Buchinski
Contributor

With the NHL set to open its regular-season doors one week from today, the country is buzzing about which Canadian teams will be fighting to hoist the Stanley Cup.

Much of the attention in Canada is surrounding the Winnipeg Jets. Fifteen years after losing their team to Phoenix, the city of Winnipeg once again has NHL hockey. This year, the Jets opened their pre-season schedule against the Columbus Blue Jackets at home. The atmosphere was so electric you could have almost mistaken it for a playoff game. It is almost certain the MTS Centre will be rocking this year. After losing their team once before, fans in Winnipeg are much more appreciative of what they have and it’s going to show in the stands.

The Jets already have a great fan following, but don’t expect it to translate into on ice success. In Atlanta, the team finished 12th in the Eastern Conference and going into this year, they have not fixed any of the gaping holes in their roster. Let’s face it, if Blake Wheeler, Andrew Ladd, and Bryan Little are candidates to play on your first line, you aren’t going to be that good. If goaltender Ondrej Pavelec stands on his head, the Jets just may have a chance to finish 10th.

In Toronto, the Leafs are continuing to rebuild. After a surprising year, James Reimer takes over as the team’s starting goaltender. It is unknown whether Reimer will be able to handle the workload or the pressure of playing in Toronto. Up front, the team has filled some holes in the middle by acquiring centre Matthew Lombardi and signing former Buffalo Sabre, Tim Connolly. 

If Phil Kessel, Nik Kulemin, and others can have good seasons, it is possible the Leafs will squeak into the playoffs. Their defensive core is a very talented one which includes Dion Phaneuf, Luke Schenn, Mike Komisarek, and new addition John Michael Liles. The team has surely improved since last year, but in my mind, there are a lot of question marks up front.

The bottom line is, the Leafs are on the right track, but not quite there yet. Give them two to three years and they may once again be contenders.

Flying in under the radar are the Montreal Canadiens. Right now, they are one of the most underrated teams in the NHL. Despite key injuries to defencemen Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges, the team came within one goal of beating the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Boston Bruins, when they faced them in conference quarterfinals.

This year, both Markov and Gorges are slated to return to the lineup along with forward Max Pacioretty. The Habs have also added size up front with the signing of veteran forward Erik Cole. With goaltender Carey Price in near-Vezina form, it is entirely possible for the Habs to finish in the top three in the East.

Another key item to note is the many youngsters that will rise to their potential and put this team over the top. Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais, and Lars Eller are 20-goal candidates. P.K. Subban will have a great sophomore season and rookie addition Alexei Yemelin will be a pleasant surprise. In recent years, the Canadiens have been very successful. They are among the top teams in the league for playoff games played, and much credit for this goes to head coach Jacques Martin and director of scouting Trevor Timmins. Look for the Canadiens to be among the top teams in the league this year.

Just down the road in Ottawa, the Senators find themselves at the start of a rebuild. Up front, captain Daniel Alfredsson is aging and Jason Spezza has been the subject of many trade rumours. Outside of these two players, the Senators have no star power. As a result, the Sens are going with many youngsters this year, including forwards Erik Condra and Colin Greening, along with defencemen Patrick Wiercioch, David Rundblad, and Jared Cowen. The team is also going with Craig Anderson and Alex Auld in net. With a new coach and a very young team, the Sens will be hard pressed to find any type of success this year. They will likely find themselves picking first overall in the 2012 NHL entry draft.

Out west, the Vancouver Canucks begin their quest to get back to the Stanley Cup final. Outside of defenceman Christian Ehrhoff,  pretty much all of last year’s Eastern championship rosters return to the fold. With so much talent up front and a fantastic defensive core, there is no reason this team shouldn’t be back in the cup final in 2012. If the Sedin twins can find a way to carry their dominant regular season play into the playoffs, the Canucks would be the hands down favourite to win it all.

In Edmonton, the Oilers have been a very fun team to watch. As one of the youngest teams in the league, the Oilers lack experience, but there is certainly no shortage of skill. In fact, the Oilers are handling their rebuild very nicely. After adding Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Magnus Paajarvi to the roster last year, they now look at adding another first-overall pick, Ryan Nugent Hopkins. This year, the Oilers will likely be improved, but will still be a lottery team. The Oilers are giving their young players tons of ice time and the experience will pay off will in the long run. It also makes for a very exciting brand of hockey. Add another top five pick in next year’s draft and the Oilers roster will come together very nicely. In three years, the Oilers will be a contender.

Just down the road in Calgary are the Flames. After a very disappointing first half of the season last year, they fired GM Darryl Sutter and hired former Lightning GM, Jay Feaster. In the second half of the season, the Flames played very well and they hope to carry that style of play into a new year.  Up front, the Flames still have a star player in Jarome Iginla. Also returning to the fold are Alex Tanguay, Michael Backlund, Olli Jokinen, Rene Bourque, and Daymond Langkow.  On defence, Jay Bouwmeester is overpaid and Mark Giordano is really the team’s only other quality defencemen. Thanks to poor decisions by management, the Flames have a lack of depth and really no quality prospects on the horizon.

In my mind, their fans have little to be excited about for now, but Feaster is a quality GM and given time, he will turn this sinking ship around. Look for the Flames to finish outside the playoffs once again. After a projected poor finish in 2012, the Flames should really think about dealing Iginla. If the team was to trade Iginla, it would most likely get quality pieces to begin a rebuild, while providing Iginla the opportunity to win with a top contender team.

With the return of the Jets and the possibility of numerous Canadian teams fighting for a playoff spot, Canadian hockey fans will have plenty to cheer about this season.

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