back to the Black Table

Ah, hockey. While everyone talks football and baseball playoffs, the NHL drops the opening puck on its 2003-2004 season tonight. That's right. It's time for another glorious season of the sport that no one follows until the playoffs, no one watches on the television and no one except Canadians care about.

But with 30 different teams in the NHL, including stops in such hockey hotbeds as Phoenix, Ariz. and Columbus, Ohio, we figured it might be a good idea to check things out, before the league's crippling labor crisis whittles the league back down to six teams. This is our preview. The top eight teams in each conference make the playoffs.

The Eastern Conference


#1. Ottawa Senators

The Sens came within a game of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 2003. In 2004, anything less than the Cup will be deemed a failure. After all, this is a team that finished third in team scoring last year. And this is also a team that plays overly defensive hockey. So this is a team that is a pretty good team.


#2. New Jersey Devils

The defending champion Devils lost veterans Joe Nieuwendyk (free agent to Toronto) and Ken Daneyko (retired) over the summer. But they still have Martin Brodeur in goal. Which means they could probably field a herd of cats on skates and still have a chance of winning it all. And I would love to see that. Would they wear tail pads? Not the feral ones.


#3. Tampa Bay Lightning

I like this team. They're young and they're talented. And the Harlem Globetrotters could compete in their division. The big caveat for the Lightning will be injuries. Lose Vinny Lecalvier or newcomer Cory Stillman and "Sweet Lou" Dunbar could be hoisting the division banner come April.


#4. Boston Bruins

The Bruins will rely almost solely on offense this year. And why not? With Joe Thornton, Glen Murray and Sergei Samsonov up front, they should certainly manage to fill the net on the same torrid pace as last season. Yes, inconsistent goalie Felix Potvin could find himself on the hot seat with the Boston fans, but, then again, the Bruins went through five goalies last year. Maybe all the fans want is a stable goalie-figure that will be there for them.


#5. Toronto Maple Leafs

Hogtown added sweetheart Bryan Marchment to their band of lovable curmudgeons over the summer. Tie Domi, Darcy Tucker, Ed Belfour and Bryan Marchment? Gather the children, honey. The Leafs are putting on a fair-play clinic. Fortunately, Toronto should disappear in the playoffs again. Hopefully before we're all sick.


#6. Philadelphia Flyers

Well, GM Bob Clarke has finally done it. He's at long last signed a playoff-proven goalie to lead his team to the Promised Land. And that goalie's name? Jeff Hackett. Yep. Jeff Hackett. Are you kidding me, Bobby? Who's next? I have no idea, but if I were Gus the field goal-kicking mule, I'd be getting me some goalie pads. Ever heard of a two-sport donkey?


#7. New York Islanders

Dave Scatchard led the Islanders in goal-scoring with 27 last season. I'm happy for him. He's a hard-working, tough-as-nails forward. But Alexei Yashin is on the Islanders. And when Dave Scatchard is out-scoring Alexei Yashin, you know there's a problem. Some say it's a problem of team chemistry. But I think it has more to do with the fact that Alexei Yashin didn't score more goals. I tend to keep things simple.


#8. New York Rangers

Okay, so my friend who lives in New York told me that the Rangers are actually owned by the mob, and that what the mob does is it takes a whole load of its "dirty" money and pays exorbitant salaries to aging and/or lazy NHL stars. Then, once the players get their money, they kick 90 percent back to the mob and skate out their careers, striving above all to avoid serious injury. And that's the best explanation I've heard so far: The Rangers suck because they are first and foremost a money-laundering operation.


#9. Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres have new ownership, and this time everything appears to be on the level. (The Sabres' most recent owner, John Rigas, founder of bankrupt Adelphia, was arrested a short time ago for hiding $2.3 billion in liabilities from investors.) The Sabres have also added a future superstar to the lineup. His name is Chris Drury. Yes, the same Chris Drury (though not as chubby now) who led a rag-tag bunch of Trumbull, Connecticutites to the 1989 Little League World Series Championship. His salary? A cool $2.3 billion.


#10. Montreal Canadiens

La prediction de La Presse, le journal de Montreal, pour les Canadiens? 4e rang dans la Division Nord-Est. Ah, oui. Bien sur. (English translation: The prediction from Montreal's La Presse newspaper for the Canadiens? Fourth in the Northeast Division. Ah, yes. Of course.) In either language (broken French or boring English), it's bad news for the Habs.


#11. Washington Capitals

The Caps are looking to become as popular in D.C. as the Redskins. And I'm here to say I think they can do it. All they need to do is win the Super Bowl. And land a Major League Baseball team. And run for President. All at the same time.


#12. Atlanta Thrashers

Everything was looking pretty positive for the Atlanta Thrashers. That is, until 22-year-old superstar Dany Heatley split his Ferrari in half. The single car accident claimed the life of teammate Dan Snyder. Heatley, who burst on to the scene as the MVP of the 2003 All-Star game, and fellow sniper Ilya Kovalchuk still promise an exciting future for the club, but, for now, hockey is just a silly, meaningless game.


#13. Carolina Hurricanes

The Canes were last in team scoring in 2003 averaging barely two goals per game. That might cut it in Italian soccer, but Carolina will have to find significantly more goal production if they hope to challenge for a playoff spot in 2004. New addition and 1977 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year, Ricky Rudd, should bring some fans out to the arena.


#14. Florida Panthers

Goalie Roberto Luongo had more rubber fired at him than a WTO protester last season. And he was up to the task, posting an impressive .918 save percentage in 65 appearances and keeping the Panthers in a load of games in which they were blatantly outplayed. It promises to be another rough year in Miami, but fortunately for the Panthers' players, coach Mike Keenan's revolutionary hug-therapy program should keep their spirits up.


#15. Pittsburgh Penguins

Pens' fans are going to have to be patient this year. Really patient. Thankfully, Mario Lemieux will be back for another campaign. And you know what? If the Penguins manage to ride out their current storm of poor play, build a new arena and live out a long and fruitful life in Pittsburgh, then every single Pittsburgher should be forced to accept the fact that they are truly blessed, given they have a man like Lemieux on their side. Even though they still have to live in Pittsburgh.





#1. Detroit Red Wings

Dominik Hasek is back in goal. Will he be dominant as ever? Probably not. But he's an improvement over Curtis Joseph who never seemed to regain his confidence after the Olympics. Newcomer Derian Hatcher, along with his elbows, should toughen up the defensive corps. Steve Yzerman will continue in his role as God.


#2. Colorado Avalanche

With the addition of Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne, the Avs have put together the greatest attack offense since the Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers of the 1980's. Imagine: Kariya, Selanne, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk, Joe Sakic, and Alex Tanguay all coming at you. I wouldn't want to be the goalie. Either goalie. Good luck, David Aebischer. You have been chosen to fill the shoes of Patrick Roy. No pressure.


#3. Dallas Stars

The Stars are one of those teams that are really good all around. They can score, they can defend and their special teams are good. I think if they can…zzzzzzzzzz. Sorry, I was watching a Stars' game.


#4. Vancouver Canucks

The Nucks will once again rely on the super-line of Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison for the lion's share of team scoring. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Those guys are good. On the hot seat? Goalie Dan Cloutier. Choke again in the playoffs, Danny boy, and some guys might take you for a tour of Giants Stadium.


#5. Los Angeles Kings

The Kings make the Vegas oddsmakers very nervous. Two of their top players, Jason Allison and Adam Deadmarsh, were bitten by the concussion-bug (it's a big bug, and it carries a hammer) not long ago, so who knows about them? Also, new goalie Roman Cechmanek can either be outrageously brilliant or shockingly appalling. I hope he's outrageously brilliant. Just to piss off shockingly appalling Bob Clarke.


#6. St. Louis Blues

The Blues are a tough team to figure out. Why can't they break through in the playoffs? A lot of people look to their goaltending as the downfall. But I'm not sure about that. Chris Osgood won a Cup with the Red Wings. He might not put up the best numbers in the league, but he shouldn't have to, not with the firepower the Blues possess. So I'm calling you out, Blues. You better check yourselves.


#7. Mighty Ducks of Anaheim

Yes, the Ducks lost Paul Kariya and Adam Oates. But they subsequently signed Sergei Fedorov and Vaclav Prospal. I'd take that trade. The key will be goalie Jean-Sebastian Giguere. If he can maintain the form he displayed in the playoffs, the Ducks could bore (either meaning) their way to a playoff spot.


#8. Edmonton Oilers

The Edmonton Athletics have once again parted ways with their pricey veterans and replaced them with speedy youngsters. The fans can't be all that happy about their apparent farm-team status, but at least they play an exciting brand of hockey. (I'm looking at you, Minnesota.) Sadly, they'll probably lose to Dallas in the first round again. They're getting good at doing that.


#9. Minnesota Wild

The Wild relied on a suffocating defensive system and counter-punch offense last season. It got them to the conference semifinals, because in the present day NHL, that system works. However, I would like to think the Wild owe their great fans a little more. Like maybe a coffee to keep them awake.


#10. Calgary Flames

The Flames could be much improved this year, especially if Jarome Iginla can rediscover the form that netted him 52 goals two seasons ago. New addition Steven Reinprecht is one to keep an eye on. You know, I hope the Flames make a return to greatness soon. I miss hating them.


#11. Columbus Blue Jackets

Todd Marchant is meant to be the savior for the Jackets this year. You can see where I'm going with this. Yes, they should be better in their own end, but with the loss of offensive threats Ray Whitney and Mike Sillinger, I'm not sure if it's going to make much of a difference to the overall bottom line. And what's a blue jacket? A blue bee? That doesn't sound right.


#12. Chicago Blackhawks

The Hawks' management point to Theo Fleury as the source of last season's letdown. Gee, who woulda thunk it? A guy with an admitted substance abuse problem doesn't turn out to be your go-to guy. True to form, management is rearing to go again this year. You see there's this blind guy who hangs around outside the United Center. Inside sources point to him as the real reason behind the lackluster Hawks power play.


#13. Phoenix Coyotes

The Coyotes have new uniforms this year. Isn't that something?


#14. San Jose Sharks

The Sharks missed the playoffs this year. The Sharks have lost Teemu Selanne and Owen Nolan. The Sharks have added Nils Ekman and Scott Parker. The Sharks will miss the playoffs this year.


#15. Nashville Predators

I don't like the Preds' chances of making the playoffs. And that's OK. After dumping a load of veterans over the offseason, the team is determined to develop its promising crop of youngsters. Dan Hamhuis and Scottie Upshall are the future of the Predators. And watch out for Jordin Tootoo. Really, watch out. This kid is the best young body-checker in the game.



Playoff Predictions


Eastern Conference Finals: over .
Western Conference Finals: over .
Stanley Cup Finals: over .



Jason Brough is from Canada, which pretty much explains why he likes hockey.