Haggs' NHL 2008-09 Preview

October 09, 2008 - 1:37 pm

"The feeling [the team] got after Game 6 I want them to remember, and the feeling they had after Game 7 they should remember too. They should have gained some experience from that playoff series, and hopefully we can take it to the next level this year. We want to continue to improve. We have some good young talent this year." These are the encouraging words of a highly competitive man with a vested interest in the return of the Big Bad Bruins: Bruins Vice President and link to Boston's Black and Golden past, Cam Neely. Neely was talking about this year's edition of the Boston Skating Club with Glen Ordway, Brian Daubach and Lou Merloni on the Big Show Thursday afternoon. Neely certainly sounded optimistic about the team's chances of building on a first round playoff loss that included the best hockey game ever played (Game 6) at the TD Banknorth Garden since its inception. Neely's words couldn't be more cogent or prophetic when it comes to this year's team. The Bruins showed last season that they could scrape, claw, bleed and punch their way to the playoffs with defensive intensity, opportunistic scoring when an opponent made a mistake, athletic goaltending and the physical intimidation that once seemed a birthright along with a Bruins jersey. The B's weren't as talented or explosive as teams like the Sabres, Hurricanes or Lightning, yet they were still standing on their skates after those other teams had been eliminated from consideration for Lord Stanley's Annual Cup tournament.  The team must embrace and repeat the work ethic and snarl that made them playoff quality last season, but also need to raise their scoring output and skill level. Both objectives should be helped immensely by the return of Patrice Bergeron to the lineup. Bergie is easily the best two-way hockey player on the Bruins and was ascending into  one of the best in the NHL last year at 22 years old when a concussion knocked him out of commission just 10 games into the year. Bergeron's return along with the maturation of skilled skaters like Phil Kessel, David Krejci, Blake Wheeler, Vladimir Sobotka and Milan Lucic should help a boost team that finished second from the bottom in scoring (the Islanders actually scored 18 fewer goals than the B's last season) among Eastern Conference teams last season. Kessel will be a huge key if he can play like he did following his benching in the playoffs. Immediate chemistry between Marc Savard and Michael Ryder would also go a long way toward giving Boston the scoring punch they were missing with the clearly calcified Glen Murray last season.  The biggest key, though, is for the players to remain hungry for respect around the NHL and bent on success in the dormant hockey city of Boston. The trick is to accomplish this without losing sight of what them such a formidable foe in the first place. If you go back and watch Game 6 of last season's matchup with the Canadiens (I can't imagine there's a serious Bruins fan out there who still doesn't have the game on DVR), that is all the proof you need that people will come -- and watch -- if there is quality hockey on the frozen sheet.  It'll be interesting to see if the Bruins are able to add another defenseman at some point in the season, as the hockey buzz is that Florida Panthers D-man Jay Boumeester is going to be up-for-sale when the playoff sun sets early in Sunrise, Fla. He would be the perfect puck-moving compliment to Zdeno Chara, but for now the Bruins will have to make due with one bruising #1 blueliner on their roster along with a gritty group of 3's and 4's. There'll be plenty of time this season to pick apart the B's, however, so here's Haggs' predictions across the NHL for the 2008-09 season.

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division: This is probably still the strongest division in the Eastern Conference and I could easily see four playoffs teams coming here. A full season of Malkin and Crosby will be something, but the injuries to Whitney and Gonchar really hurt their blueline bottom line. Bold denotes playoff-bound. 1) Penguins 2) Flyers 3) Rangers 4) Devils 5) Islanders. Northeast Division: The Canadiens are still very good and could again end the regular season as the Eastern Conference #1 seed. It all depends on Carey Price. The Sens are on their way down and the Maple Leafs will bottom out this year. 1) Canadiens 2) Bruins 3) Sabres 4) Senators 5) Maple Leafs. Southeast Conference: Washington is clearly the class of this division and ready to take another step up, but watch out for the Lightning and their mullet-maned coach. The Panthers are another member of the Rock Bottom Club. 1) Capitals 2) Lightning 3) Hurricanes 4) Thrashers 5) Panthers. MVP: Alex Ovechkin, Coach of the Year (Adams): Claude Julien, Norris Trophy Candidate: Zdeno Chara, Vezina Trophy: Henrik Lvndquist, Rookie of the Year (Calder): Steve Stamkos

Western Conference

Central Division: The Red Wings got richer with Marian Hossa (I must say that I actually kind of applaud his willingness to take a one-year deal to win a title) and will have only the baby-faced Blackhawks as competition. 1) Red Wings 2) Blackhawks 3) Blue Jackets 4) Blues 5) Predators.

Northwest Division: 10 points separated the top from the bottom in this division last year, and that could very happen again this season. No team stands out, but all could win a hockey game on any given night. This division could change radically if the Canucks ever find a way to score some goals for Roberto Luongo 1) Wild 2) Flames3) Oilers 4) Avalanche 5) Canucks.

Pacific Division: The most talent-heavy division in the Western Conference and there could be a new sheriff in the form of the Dallas Stars. It all depends on which hot Hollywood starlet Sean Avery goes after next. Could Robin from How I Met Your Mother fame be next? 1) Stars 2) Sharks 3) Ducks 4) Coyotes 5) Kings.

MVP: Brendan Morrow, Coach of the Year: Mike Keenan, Norris Trophy: Nik Lidstrom, Vezina Trophy: Marty Turco, Rookie of the Year: Kyle Turris.

Eastern Conference Finals: Penguins against the Canadiens. Penguins advance in seven games.

Western Conference Finals: Red Wings against the Stars. Stars advance in an epic seven games series.

Stanley Cup Winner: Dallas Stars. Sidney Crosby is again the bridesmaid and starts to get the Peyton Manning, A-Rod "Big Athlete that can't win the Big Game" treatment.