Welcome to buckeyehoppy's NHL Preview for the 2008-2009 season.

This is buckeyehoppy's 4th edition NHL Preview and he hasn't come close to picking a winner yet for taking it all. This season is a bit more cut and dried, as there is one team that starts the season heads and shoulders above the rest. Nevertheless, the season must be played and anything can happen.

I am setting up my projections a little differently than in the past. I will project how I feel the conferences will shake out from worst to first during the regular season. I will proceed to then pick who I feel will win the conference playoffs and finish with who I feel will hoist the Cup in June.

Each projection, as in the past, will come with an explanation for why I feel the team profiled belongs where they are picked.

So, let's have at it and see what buckeyehoppy thinks of the upcoming NHL season.

Eastern Conference
Toronto Maple Leafs- this team is living like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day”. Perhaps they will figure it out one day and actually be able to move on to what's next. With this try at a team is a new bench boss in Ron Wilson, the coach who didn't have enough to lead an uber-talented team in San Jose to the Stanley Cup. The difference between last year's Sharks and this year's Leafs is talent level: the Leafs have very little, if any. The Leafs are now “on the clock”

New York Islanders- the Isles are saddled by being an average at best team in a meat grinder of a division. They have veteran leaders and a competent, when healthy, net minder in DiPietro. But the team is too green and young otherwise to afford a lot of hope on The Island. How they compete in the division will tell the story of how well or how badly their season will go.

Atlanta Thrashers- a team led by Ilya Kovalchuk should always be a threat. That's particularly true in the Southeast Division, the NHL's least competitive. But they will also have to play the rest of the conference and league. That's where this team doesn't have much. The Thrashers are in the same boat as the Islanders to a great extent, and with a questionable defense, at best, they will come to a similar end of season result.

Tampa Bay Lightning- the off-season for Tampa was eventful. With the addition of some pretty gritty bench help and a new bench boss in His Mulletness Barry Melrose, if they get top play from all their new additions plus a fast start from Steve Stamkos, the #1 overall pick in the entry draft, this is a team that could surprise. A prediction much higher than this in the pre-season seems pretty ambitious, especially with a suspect blue line. But, I wouldn't be surprised if the Lightning proves me wrong.

Florida Panthers- the Panthers have the opposite problem of their counterparts on the Gulf Coast. They have a very good, albeit developing, blue line with a questionable attack. But their defense should be solid enough to carry them through the bulk of the season and, assuming they get any kind of surprise from their forwards, the Panthers could have a season to build on.

Ottawa Senators- this team can't be counted out under any circumstances. Not with guys like Heatley, Alfredsson and Spezza populating the roster. This team will score lots of goals...and they will all be needed. They will also give up a raft of goals as well. Marty Gerber is serviceable, but we'll see how he holds up as the #1 goalkeep over a full season with a blue line that will need to come out of the gate fast as they are young and susceptible to break down. I know this projection will come as a shock, but I see the Sens letting down big time this season.

Carolina Hurricanes- the 2006 Stanley Cup Champions have failed the last two seasons to even qualify. Last season's end was a disaster. The way the 'Canes pick up the pieces of that meltdown, could be the difference in how their season this year will go. They still have Cam Ward and have an above average set of forwards on the attack. Their blue line should give Ward too many gray hairs. But they will have to do no looking back for a successful season this year, as that Cup run from three years ago is out of the rear view mirror.

Buffalo Sabres- lost in the reality of the Sabres 2007-08 meltdown was the equal reality that this was a team that had a good, young, well-balanced cadre of young talent already in the pipeline that provided some stretch run heroics to the team that won the President's Cup in '07. Those players are now a year more experienced and coupled with enviable organizational stability and some of the steadiest net minding in the league, the Sabres should be able to play themselves into the playoff hunt with authority after a one year hiatus.

Boston Bruins- as is sometimes the case, the Bruins took a few steps back to move forward the last couple years. This season should see some payoff in that philosophy, as the players received in trade begin to mesh into a formidable team. They may have the league's best overall player in Chara and the rest of that blue line is formidable protection for the goalie tandem of Thomas and Fernandez. Coupled with a modest, yet productive, attack and the Bruins are poised to be thick in the playoff hunt all season.

New York Rangers- the NHL's glamour boys are poised for another season on Madison Square. The Rangers, however, will factor in the playoff hunt so long as they have a healthy Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes. The rest of the Rangers roster is well balanced enough that with any degree of over-achievement they could go the distance. But that has been a problem in the past and based on this past off-season, a projection much higher than this simply doesn't seem likely.

Philadelphia Flyers- the Flyers were last season's cinderella story in the NHL, bowing out in the Eastern Conference finals to Pittsburgh. This year's Flyers are a year older, but have moved some players to and fro and seem to be at least equally equipped to do the same damage. They won't sneak up on anybody this year, but that shouldn't make a difference with a Flyers team that has some good all-around balance and will be well into the playoff equation emerging from the grueling Atlantic Division.

New Jersey Devils- as goes Marty Brodeur, so go the Devils. Without question, he should be enshrined in Toronto the day he retires. The rest of the Devils, to be fair, are also a formidable crew and with the addition of Brian Rolston they may be able to score some goals this year, too. At least Rolston's addition adds weight to a forward line that just seems to be getting better little by little. With a serviceable blue line and the unconscious goal keeping of Brodeur, we will see the Devils in April, maybe beyond.

Washington Capitals- the Caps play in the NHL's worst division. While there is some talent there, it is mostly sporadic and equally populated with inconsistency. The Caps, while young, don't seem to have any of those problems. And they are led by one of the most dynamic young players in the league in Ovechkin, a player who has as much confidence as talent. The Caps should score a ton of goals, as Ovechkin isn't the only weapon in the arsenal. How the blue line and the goal keeping hold up will tell much of the story of the Caps season.

Montreal Canadiens- last season's regular season leaders in the East, the Canadiens played aggressively and with a free spirit that is unlike the Habs of the past. Those qualities seemed to be abandoned in the playoffs, but this is a team that brings plenty to the table come playoff time. Adding Tanguay will just add difficulty to the Habs puzzle. This is also a squad with a forceful blue line in front of a very young, yet supremely talented pair of goalies in Price and Halak. If they can cobble some consistency into their playoff recipe, they should be in the hunt to play in June.

Pittsburgh Penguins- the defending Eastern Conference Champions are still a fairly young crew at their heart. With another season under their belt, they will be that much more formidable. Assuming reasonably good health, this team could be downright frightening come playoff time. But this is the NHL, where injuries happen. Hence, a lower projection than first for the regular season. The Pens are still saturated with a vein of talent throughout the lineup. A return trip to the finals is clearly not out of the question and a more favorable result once they arrive there may come to pass as well.

Western Conference
Los Angeles Kings- somehow you have to feel awful for the Kings. That is especially so considering that they have future superstars in Kopitar, Johnson and Bernier. Beyond that trio, however, is a club that will struggle to find much consistency among their pervasive youth. If new coach Terry Murray can keep the core of this team together through these tough times, he should be rewarded 2 or 3 years from now. Until then, there will be plenty of growing pains.

Nashville Predators- the Preds are likely to be one of those teams that hibernates for a year or two before you see them awaken from slumber to go searching for dinner again. This will be one of those years in the cave for the kids from Music City. They have a stable of developing talent that will be tossed out to see how they react to the big time. They also didn't make a splash in free agency. Therefore, they will take some lumps before getting back into real contention again.

St. Louis Blues- things in St. Louis haven't been the same since their playoff streak ended a few years back. Since then, the drawing board has been busy trying to formulate a winning combination. The Blues have made progress in their playoff drought. But this is a team that still has the feel of being a year away. Losing Johnson before the season starts doesn't help, hence we are aiming low with the Blues. They have plenty of veteran presence, but they will have to find a way to put the biscuit in the basket consistently if they hope to be a factor at stretch time.

Vancouver Canucks- even on a team that has a world-class goalie like Roberto Luongo, there needs to be a supporting cast. Despite adding Pavol Demitra to pair off with the Sedins, the Canucks got clobbered in free agency. There's not much of a blue line in front of Luongo and aside from the aforementioned trio of attackers, the Canucks are lacking there, too. With a GK like Luongo, you can stay in most games, so Vancouver could be foolers this year. It just doesn't appear that it will turn out that way.

Colorado Avalanche- there is a huge “if” factor at play in Denver this year. Some of the ifs were quelled when Sakic announced his return. I'm sure that, and a healthy Ryan Smyth, helped Tony Granato breathe a little better. Outside of that, however, emerges a greener team in the Rockies than has been evident lately. The pace at which this team progresses in growth will tell much of the story of this year's team. Unfortunately for the Avs, it comes in a very unforgiving Western Conference.

Phoenix Coyotes- this year's 'Yotes have set a high bar for themselves and with a lot of luck and some top-notch play from their new blood, the Stanley Cup Playoffs could reappear in the desert for the first time in six years. The Great One's charges had plenty of fire power, then Olli Jokinen was added to the wealth on the attack. But the blue line in front of Ilya Bryzgalov has plenty of question marks outside of Jovanovski and that's assuming he remains at 100%. The West takes no prisoners, so the 'Yotes will have to have a lot going for them to play past mid-April.

Minnesota Wild- Marian Gaborik may well be the most fearsome forward in the NHL today, so a good playoff run would seemingly be in the cards in St. Paul. But losing two reliable forwards in Demitra and Rolston and replacing them with Andrew Brunette and Owen Nolan doesn't look like a straight-up trade. Gabo will need to have a career year to adequately make up the difference. The blue line and the goal appear solid, but not very deep, so their younger players will need to step up to realize playoff potential in the volatile West.

Columbus Blue Jackets- Cowtown is still the only NHL market to not sniff the NHL playoffs. In seven previous seasons, the closest the Jackets have come came in last year's 80 point campaign. They were still 11 points short. But Ken Hitchcock and GM Scott Howson have quietly built one of the league's most formidable and underrated blue lines and they have apparently found a goalie that can be built around in Leclaire. Now, the Jackets have added Umberger, Huselius and Torres to a young attack led by future superstar Rick Nash. It might be only the last playoff slot, but the Jackets blue line should get them to the post season for the first time in club history.

Chicago Blackhawks- hockey is poised to re-emerge in the Windy City for the first time in a long time. Management has a new set of rules and the shroud of secrecy that blanketed the club has been torn asunder. With a well-balanced team of mostly young players and a peppering of vets, the Hawks will be advancing to the first of what appears to be a series of consecutive playoff appearances. Kane and Toews are to Chicago what Crosby and Malkin were to Pittsburgh just a couple years ago. The results for the Hawks might start resembling the Pens of that era starting this year.

Edmonton Oilers- like in much of Canada, hockey is religion. That would be the case in Edmonton and Craig MacTavish is the high priest...or head coach, if that's more comfy. He doesn't have lots of stars, just a bunch of guys who play that way or are headed that way once noticed. Sam Gagner appears to be in that last group. As old as Gretzky was when he emerged, he had a 49 point season at 18 years old. The Oilers appear to be at the top of the class of teams with a lot of young talent in the fold. That could make them an unpleasant chore to deal with at playoff time.

Anaheim Ducks- the Disneyland Ducks are getting a little long in the tooth. No worries. Signing Niedermayer and Selanne before the season starts will make the difference between a team that is in Stanley Cup contention and one that struggles to make the playoffs. The attack is downright muscle-bound, with Perry, Getzlaf and free agent Morrison making it that much more potent. With Giguere already among the NHL's best in goal and Niedermayer and Pronger protecting, the Ducks may be aging but they are doing so gracefully and will be a tough out in the playoffs this year.

Dallas Stars- last season's run to the Western finals was a sweet reward for a tough playoff exit the year before. The Red Wings sterling playoff run kept the veteran Stars from achieving a Stanley Cup bench press. But these guys, backed by one of the surest things in goal, Marty Turco, are still formidable and have been able to keep much of their relevant core together, including guys that were picked up at last year's trade deadline. With younger guys emerging to relieve aging vets, the Stars have no glaring weaknesses. This adds up to another year of contention in the Lone Star State.

San Jose Sharks- it's hard to suggest that adding a rookie head coach like Todd McLellan to replace a veteran bench boss like Ron Wilson could possibly be an improvement. But the development of the Sharks had been arrested under Wilson's tutelage. Loaded with scoring, the Sharks have a very good chance to get over the hump if Toskala can give them a full season without wearing down and the blue line can get some emergence from up and coming players like Ehrhoff to take pressure off proven vet additions Boyle and Blake.

Calgary Flames- this is a team that has talent up and down the roster. Their series with the Sharks in last year's opening round was an unfortunate pairing at that point in the tournament. They are poised for greater things this year...if they don't kill Mike Keenan first. The abrasive head coach is butting heads with his awesome goalie Miikka Kiprusoff. They'll need to iron things out fast before things go sour. That would be too bad if that happened. The Flames have contenders for all of the veteran post season awards in Kiprusoff, Phaneuf and, of course, Iginla. Adding Cammalleri to all of that is just sick. We'll just put them down in the contenders column.

Detroit Red Wings- where do you begin with these guys? Their successful run to lift the Cup in June was a clinic on how to dominate the Stanley Cup Tournament. I haven't mentioned that they have rented Marian Hossa for this season yet, have I? OK...they did. The almost perfect Wings became almoster perfecter with that player add. They lost no one but the Dominator between the pipes from the Cup run. He was relegated to the bench in the playoffs. The only perceptible Achilles heel for the Wings is that they'll be asking Osgood to go the distance with the inconsistent Conklin backing him up. On the other hand, when Lidstrom is the leader on the blue line, is there any real reason to worry? It's hard enough to repeat, but the Wings are as well-positioned as any team in recent memory in any sport to do just that.

Eastern Conference Playoff Outlook
The way I see the East going should be fairly cut and dried. I don't see great first round pairings among the top two seeds, although you never know how injuries could factor into the mix during the playoffs. But the other two pairings should be dog fights. After some hearty second round play, I can see a finals matchup between Pittsburgh and New Jersey happening after the Pens get over the Rangers yet again and New Jersey gets by the Flyers in a close one.

New Jersey has the look of a team that is looking for one final push from a still very awesome Brodeur and with a revamped forward attack, the Devils will definitely be a handful for any team they match with. The defense is solid, but the new blood on offense will need to drive home their point consistently enough to show they belong, since the Devils were near the bottom of the league in scoring production last year.

Pittsburgh lost a little in free agency in the off-season, but it was largely in bench depth where they lost. The team that will hit the ice this season has improved every year in the Sidney Crosby era. If that happens again, the Pens will be skating the Cup. Before they get ahead of themselves, the young Pens must prove they can keep developing an already keen attack, while showing a stout wall on the blue line and the continued steeling of Marc-Andre Fleury, who had a coming out party of sorts in last year's playoffs.

The final outcome in the East will feature a return trip to the finals for a still young but probably pending juggernaut in the Pens, who showed an amazing ability to keep teams off-balance throughout the Conference portion of their run last year. With another year of work together, that ability will continue to grow as a headache for opposing teams. It won't be as easy as last year, but look for the Pens to get another shot at the Cup with a seven game thriller over the Devils.

Western Conference Playoff Outlook
The top two seeds should cruise through the first round relatively unscathed. Detroit and Calgary will prove to be too much for the upstart teams in Columbus and Chicago. The other two first round pairings should be just the opposite, but veteran presence should rule the day in the matchups that apply. Dallas and Anaheim should be war. Too bad the winner gets to play Detroit next.

When the dust settles to determine the finals, Detroit should be a no-brainer. Although I don't know how big of a chunk of flesh the Dallas/Anaheim winner will take from them. I just feel like either one of those teams will get the Wings into a dog fight. Calgary should emerge from their second rounder with San Jose the same way they advanced from them last year: by going the distance.

Detroit is inured to long playoff advances, so this isn't new ground they're breaking here. They are the most complete team in the league coming into this year in terms of player depth and experience. They will also have the target on their back the same way they did last year, but, perhaps, even more so. How will the Wings hold up to the onus of being the team to beat in this tournament?

I'd expect Calgary will give Detroit all they want and more. Unless Mike Keenan wears out his welcome during the course of the season, I definitely expect the Flames to get this far and to give the Wings a seven game battle for the right to get to the Cup Finals.

But, ultimately, it will come down to players. The Game 7, since it will be in the Motor City, will obviously favor the Wings and they will prove to be the deeper of the teams that night. The goalie matchup will favor Calgary, but these Wings are deep enough to get over that if they play well enough in the clutch.

Teams like the Wings don't come around often enough in sports anymore. I can't see them being denied in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals...and they won't be.

Stanley Cup Finals: Detroit v. Pittsburgh
“The Rematch” is set.

The Pens are a fairly obvious choice in the East, although I expect that the road to these finals will be bumpier for them this time around. But they will have proved, by getting this far again, that getting through the East won't be a cakewalk in the future if the road goes through Pittsburgh.

The West is already a meatgrinder compared to the East. That's perhaps the agent that leavens the bread for the team that wins the conference. The Wings will find that out first hand this year. Their road to the finals won't be a smooth as last year. But getting through the teams they'll beat to get this far will give them loads of confidence, not that they would need much in the first place...they're the defending champions.

This matchup will go the distance this time. It's will be hard to tell with these two teams how getting this far in the tournament two years in a row will affect them in this battle of wills. Some will say the younger legs would have the advantage, favoring the Pens. Still others will say that experience gives the leg up instead and improves the will, favoring the Wings.

I am sure that the team with home ice in this matchup (i.e. the team that wins the Presidents' Trophy) will host the Game 7. I feel that even though the Pens come from a weaker conference, they will emerge from a much stronger division overall than the Wings. That will make all the difference in the Wings winning the Presidents' Trophy this season. Even though the Wings had their roughest times last season in their own division, they pretty much ruled every one else. I think the Wings do the opposite this time around.

They'll host Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals and the Detroit Red Wings will lift the Cup again in June.