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Power Structure Still Intact

October 03, 2006|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

Canadians may sob in their Labatt over this geographic fact, but not only has the Stanley Cup not made it north of the border since 1993, the last two seasons it was hoisted way down south in Dixie.

The Cup toured the Gulf Coast (Tampa Bay Lightning) in 2004, then took a trip down Tobacco Road (Carolina Hurricanes) last season, meaning the NHL's Southeast Division has won more Stanley Cups this century than the vaunted Southeastern Conference has won Bowl Championship Series football titles.

And all that can be said about this season is, oh Canada, look away, look away, because the chances of another celebration in the land of cotton aren't bad. The Dixie Cup, anyone?

Basically, nothing happened over the summer to drastically change the power structure in the Eastern Conference. Of course, no matter who wins, that team will have plenty of Canadians on the roster.

In predicted order of finish, the top eight teams qualify for the playoffs:

1Carolina Hurricanes. Just when that college basketball-thing was about to catch on in North Carolina, the Hurricanes go out and win the Stanley Cup. Cam Ward is back in goal, with the Conn Smythe Trophy in tow, and Erik Cole and Eric Staal return to cause more defensive headaches.

2Buffalo Sabres. General Manager Darcy Regier sat through 12 arbitration hearings this summer. The payoff: nearly everyone returns. The Sabres were one victory from the Cup finals. With Ryan Miller in goal and a no-name defense of free skaters, that one more victory is there.

3New York Rangers. They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway, but that's nothing compared with the glow from the bulb that clicked at Madison Square Garden last year: Hey, let's stop giving retirement contracts to guys who have name, but no longer have game. Young players such as goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and forward Petr Prucha helped produce a Broadway revival.

4Ottawa Senators. Another year, another playoff disappointment, a seasonal event in Ottawa, like the Rideau Canal freezing in winter. Losing defenseman Zdeno Chara hurts, but Jason Spezza-Dany Heatley-Daniel Alfredsson is the NHL's most dangerous trio. Goaltender Martin Gerber takes over for the ancient ruin that was Dominik Hasek.

5New Jersey Devils. A nip here, a tuck here, Alexander Mogilny's failed physical and, voila, the Devils absorbed a few cost overruns -- re-signing Patrik Elias, Scott Gomez's arbitration victory. Someday there will be a slide, and it may be approaching, but Martin Brodeur is in net, so it won't be this season.

6Philadelphia Flyers. Center Peter Forsberg had only one ankle surgery during the off-season. That was the good news for the Flyers, because he's ready to play. The bad news? The defense still has a molasses quality when in motion.

7Atlanta Thrashers. This may be Atlanta's best pro team this year. Although that's certainly grading on a curve, Steve Rucchin and Niko Kapanen give the Thrashers quality depth and the goalie situation is better with a healthy Kari Lethonen.

8Tampa Bay Lightning. New goaltender Marc Denis has an easy mandate: Stop a few more shots than John Grahame. The core of the 2004 Cup team remains. Of course, it was also around for last season's first-round playoff exit.

9Montreal Canadiens. The line of succession: Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy ... Cristobal Huet? Yes, the hopes and dreams of La Sainte-Flanelle (the holy sweater) are on Huet's back. Les Habs won't light many goal lights; Huet must keep his dark.

10Toronto Maple Leafs. Eric Lindros and Jason Allison left the training table and the team. Goaltender Andrew Raycroft won the Calder Trophy two seasons ago. But a lot has changed in two years, just ask former union chief Bob Goodenow.

11Boston Bruins. From Joe Thornton's ashes comes Chara, as good a defenseman as there is in the NHL. But who's in goal? Tim Thomas, 32 and as yet unproven, or Hannu Toivonen, which in Finnish may mean "Tim Thomas"?

12Pittsburgh Penguins. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury -- someday Penguins, someday. Not now. The only suspense is where the Penguins might move if no arena is built.

13Washington Capitals. Alexander Ovechkin and a defense resembling the Bolshoi Ballet is hardly the thing on which to base a marketing campaign. Of course, neither is, "Ovechkin scores; Caps lose."

14Florida Panthers. Todd Bertuzzi was sent as far from Vancouver as possible, and even further from the Stanley Cup playoffs. Goaltender Roberto Luongo and General Manager Mike Keenan are gone. Luongo will be missed more.

15New York Islanders. Neil Smith may turn out to be the lucky one. Fired 40 days after being hired this summer, he'll be spared watching up-close what is about to happen on the Island. A 15-year, $67.5-million contract for goaltender Rick DiPietro? Call it comedy central.

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