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TGS 2011-12 NHL PREVIEW...SEASON "OVER/UNDER" POINTS FORECASTS!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


The puck drops Thursday night for the 2011-12 NHL season! But before the fun begins, a quick TGS update on how the season is shaping up, and selected predictions on the best ?over/under? season points totals posted at various sports books in Las Vegas.

Let the division-by-division preview commence. Posted point totals ( ) being offered in Las Vegas for the season are included ...

EASTERN CONFERENCE


ATLANTIC DIVISION: Pittsburgh Penguins (103 ½)...We still have to see about Sidney Crosby?s return from concussion symptoms, although most suspect he?ll be back at full speed by November. The Pens totaled 106 points without Crosby for the final four months of last season, and his return gives Pittsburgh the best trio of centers in the league along with Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. The defense, led by Brooks Orpik, is robust, and Marc Andre-Fleury is an MVP candidate in goal. Granted, power play numbers were abysmal last season, but just having a healthier Malkin (who enjoyed a great preseason) and Crosby?s projected return to the lineup should alleviate those concerns. ?Over? at the new igloo.

Philadelphia Flyers (98 ½)...The NHL?s wild card team this season after GM Paul Holmgren blew up the roster in the wake of the humbling Stanley Cup playoff sweep administered by eventual Cup winner Boston. Adding GK Ilya Bryzgalov from Phoenix gives the Flyers their first top-line goalie since the days of Ron Hextall, but coach Peter Laviolette has to replace the 59 goals from Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, both traded in the offseason. ?Under? at Wells Fargo Center.

New York Rangers (94 ½)...
Adding Brad Richards from Dallas finally gives the Rangers a true first-line center and perhaps the key to unlocking linemate Marian Gaborik?s talents on the wing. If Richards proves the upgrades expected of him, and coach John Tortorella gets another big year from GK Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers should get back to the playoffs. ?Over? at MSG.

New Jersey Devils (90 ½)...
The Devils dug themselves too deep a hole last season before New Year's, although they made an admirable run during the second half of the campaign. Veteran coach Jacques Lemaire has stepped down, however, with ex-Florida coach Pete DeBoer now in charge. Getting a healthy Zach Parise back on the wing should be a bonus, and Ilya Kovalchuk is a special talent, but the absence of C Travis Zajac (Achilles tendon) for at least a month is a negative. Getting one more big season from GK Martin Brodeur (who turns 40 in May) will be necessary to return to the playoffs. No call at the Pru Center.

New York Islanders (81 ½)...
Hard as it is for those of us who recall the Trottier-Bossy Cup winners of the ?80s, this is a franchise in trouble, with an aging arena on the island and no plans for facility upgrades anytime soon. Could the Islanders relocate to Kansas City, or somewhere in Ontario far enough away from the Maple Leafs? protected territory? On the ice, young talent seem to coagulate as last season progressed for coach Jack Capuano, but lack of depth and keeping GK Rick DiPietro healthy are significant concerns. No call at Nassau Coliseum.

NORTHEAST DIVISION: Boston Bruins (102 ½)...There?s a big difference between the Bruins and their Cup-winning predecessors from Chicago, as unlike the Blackhawks a year ago, Boston returns mostly the same lineup from its title team. The Bruins still don?t have a major goal scorer, and could use an upgrade with a defenseman who can get the puck up the ice (the departed Tomas Kaberle wasn?t a consistent answer last year), but they have depth and Tim Thomas in goal. A threat to go back-to-back, although they might not take flight until after the All-Star break. No call at TD Garden.

Buffalo Sabres (98 ½)...
The Sabres are spending money like a hockey version of the New York Yankees, adding high-priced defensemen Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff, plus forwards Ville Leino and Ales Kotalik to what is now the NHL?s highest payroll (really!). The heart-and-soul of the team remains GK Ryan Miller, in the prime of his career at 31 years of age, and memories of early Cup exits the past two seasons should spur Buffalo onward. ?Over? at HSBC Arena.

Montreal Canadiens (92 ½)...
They?ve had an entire offseason to stew about blowing a 2-0 lead (and a pair of road wins) in the opening round of the playoffs last spring to the Bruins. The Habs are still built on defense, and any upgrades to an offense that blew hot-and-cold last season would help (C Scott Gomez is on alert after posting his worst numbers in years last season). Look for second-year defenseman P.K. Subban to emerge as one of the new stars of the league, and GK Carey Price remains a workhorse. ?Over? at Molson Centre.

Toronto Maple Leafs (89 ½)...
It?s going to be 45 years at the least between Cup wins for the Leafs unless they pull the impossible this season. But no Johnny Bower, Dave Keon, or Red Kelly are on hand in 2011-12, and under-the-gun coach Ron Wilson is still trying to cobble together a couple of productive lines; perhaps adding center Tim Connolly will alleviate some of those concerns. Or maybe it won?t. ?Under? at Air Canada Centre.

Ottawa Senators (74 ½)...
The bar hasn?t been set too high for the Sens, but one of the league?s most impotent attacks (only 192 goals, second worst in the league) doesn?t appear to have been appreciably upgraded. Lots of pressure on GK Craig Anderson to keep Ottawa afloat. No call at Scotiabank Place.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION: Washington Capitals (107 ½)...The Caps have had all offseason to brood about their shock playoff ouster at the hands of the Lightning, which has put coach Bruce Boudreau under the gun. GM George McPhee decided to add some veteran leadership to the clubhouse (wingers Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer, former Caps captain Jeff Halpern, GK Tomas Vokoun, and a few others) in order to upgrade the chemistry. With all of the existing firepower on hand led by Alex Ovechkin, the sky is the limit in D.C. ?Over? at Verizon Center.

Tampa Bay Lightning (98 ½).
..No pun intended, but Tampa Bay really did catch lightning in a bottle in the playoffs, getting yeoman?s work from over-40 GK Dwayne Roloson and confounding the opposition with coach Guy Boucher?s unique ?zone trap? system. We suspect, however, that the Lightning might miss departed winger Sean Bergenheim, who was a revelation in last year?s playoffs. This team could still be dangerous come Cup time. ?Under? at St. Pete Times Forum.

Carolina Hurricanes (83 ½)...
They aren?t asking the Hurricanes to do much to clear that number, which should be in reach for any team with a potential dominator such as Cam Ward in goal. But too many defensive breakdowns like a year ago could scuttle any playoff talk in Raleigh-Durham. No call at RBC Center.

Winnipeg Jets (85 ½)...
The relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers and a rebirth of Winnipeg Jets II has all of Manitoba atwitter, but it also makes for an awkward scheduling year for the Jets (Winnipeg, in the Southeast?). Winnipeg will have a real home-ice edge at the MTS Centre, and GK Ondrej Pavelec looks like a star in the making, but lack of depth on the attack lines and defenseman Dustin Byfuglien?s recent off-ice problems are concerns. No call at MTS Centre.

Florida Panthers (83 ½)...
GM Dale Tallon went into full rebuild mode in the offseason and might have delivered upgrades to a franchise that hasn?t seen the playoffs in ten years. But questions in goal with Jose Theodore being the main option have us wondering how much the Panthers can improve upon last year?s mere 72 points. ?Under? at National Car Center.

WESTERN CONFERENCE


CENTRAL DIVISION: Chicago Blackhawks (102 ½)...The Hawks lost an awful lot from their Cup-winning side of 2009-2010, so last year?s backslide was not totally unexpected. But after a year of retooling, expect another run at the Cup this season, with the additions of winger Michael Frolik from the Panthers and rugged defender Steve Montador from the Sabres looking like useful upgrades to go along with the veteran core of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Only concerns are in goal, where second-year Corey Crawford must prove his encouraging rookie season was no fluke. ?Over? at United Center.

Detroit Red Wings (104 ½)...
How long can the veteran core continue to keep the Wings afloat? Twenty straight playoff appearances speak to the consistent excellence of the franchise, but the desperation which the club used to coax 41-year-old defender Niklas Lidstrom to put off retirement for one more year suggest some concerns. The lines paced by Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zettterberg remain potent enough to get the Wings back to the playoffs, and young wing Justin Abdelkader is a star on the rise, but not sure Detroit is a top-shelf Cup contender this year unless Jimmy Howard steps it up in goal. ?Under? at Joe Louis Arena.

Nashville Predators (92 ½)...
Slow and steady, the Mitt Romneys of the NHL, the Preds enter 2011-12 off of their first-ever playoff success (beat Anaheim in 6 games in last spring?s first round). Stability reflected in the fact that GM David Poile and coach Barry "The Vampire" Trotz have held those positions since the franchise was formed, and there is now real star power at Preds game with Carrie Underwood a regular spectator to watch hubby Mike Fisher score goals. Defenseman Ryan Suter and Shea Ward are among the league?s best, and any team with giant Pekka Rinne in goal is going to be tough. The Trotz system that mucks up action at center ice will frustrate enough foes to get Nashville back to the postseason. ?Over? at Bridgestone Arena.

St. Louis Blues (91 ½)...
Can it be more than 40 years since the Plagers, Glenn Hall, Jacques Plante, and Red Berenson made the Blues the rage of the first wave of expansion teams in the late ?60s? Another sale of the franchise casts more questions upon the operation, but winger Chris Stewart showed lots of upside after being acquired from Colorado midway last season. Still, better work is needed from GK Jaroslav Halak to get the Blues back to the playoffs and perhaps save the job of coach Davis Payne. No call at Scottrade Center.

Columbus Blue Jackets (85 ½)...
They?ve never had much of a power play in Columbus since the Blue Jackets were formed in 2000, but there?s hope that offseason addition center Jeff Carter can perhaps alleviate some of those woes. Adding defender James Wisniewski and winger Vinny Prospal look to be other useful upgrades, but we still have big questions about GK Steve Mason. No call at Nationwide Arena.

NORTHWEST DIVISION: Vancouver Canucks (106 ½)...It was kind of a traumatic way to end last season, first collapsing in the Cup finals vs. Boston, losing Game Seven at home after blowing a 2-0 series lead, then watching your city go up in flames after the humiliation on the ice. Unnerving to say the least. The Canucks were still the best NHL team for much of last year and retain much of the nucleus that got the franchise to the Finals for the first time since 1994. The core of that bunch, led by the Sedin twins, remains, so don?t expect much dropoff unless Ryan Kesler's hip injury and absence lingers into November. No call at Rogers Arena.

Calgary Flames (90 ½)...
After Christmas, the Flames were one of the league?s best teams last season (27-11-9), although they were wretched the first two-plus months of the campaign. There is enough firepower at coach Brent Sutter?s disposal, especially if veteran Jarome Iginla rediscovers his best goal-scoring form, but not sure the Flames can play the type of defense Sutter demands. Expected quality and depth in goal with Miikka Kiprusoff and Henrik Karlsson makes Calgary a team to watch. ?Over? at Scotiabank Saddledome.

Minnesota Wild (82 ½)... GM Chuck Fletcher didn?t sit on his hands in the offseason, jettisoning coach Todd Richards and promoting coach Mike Yeo from minor league affiliate Houston. Then he made a couple of bold personnel moves, adding sniper Devin Setoguchui and former 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley from the Sharks to inject some life into a pedestrian offense. If the changes work, the Wild can exceed last year?s 86 points. ?Over? at St. Paul?s Xcel Center.

Edmonton Oilers (77 ½)...
Perhaps this will be the year the rebuild process in Edmonton begins to deliver some results; then again, maybe it won't. Youth has been complemented by some veteran skill (Eric Belanger to help the worst face-off team in the NHL) and toughness (Danny Hordichuk and Ben Eager). But unless GK Nikolai Khabibuiln rebounds in a big way from a disappointing 2010-11, hard to see the Oilers improving more than 15 points from last year?s league-worst total of 62. ?Under? at Rexall Place.

Colorado Avalanche (75 ½)..
. After allowing an NHL-high 288 goals last term, GM Greg Sherman knew where the Avs needed upgrades--defense and goaltending. So he went about seeking to improve both areas in the offseason. Size was added on the blue line with Jan Hejda and Shane O?Brien, while former Ducks star Jean-Sebastian Giguere is the new number one keeper. If the upgrades deliver, the Avs could be better than expected. ?Over? at Pepsi Center.

PACIFIC DIVISION: San Jose Sharks (103 ½)...Tired of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals doorstep, only to continually be turned away, Sharks GM Doug Wilson tweaked the formula in the offseason, sending out Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley, adding a rugged defender in Brett Burns and perhaps an upgrade over Heatley on the wing in Martin Havlat. The clock is ticking, however, on forwards Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, and defender Dan Boyle, all on the other side of 30. ?Over? at HP Pavilion.

Los Angeles Kings (102 ½)...This might be the year GM Dean Lombardi?s well-constructed rebuild plans finally come to fruition. Getting star defender Drew Doughty to end his contact squabbles was a big plus, but keeping center Anze Kopitar and wings Justin Williams and newly-added Simon Gagne healthy for the long haul are question marks. At least GK Jonathan Quick looks like the Kings? best netminder since Rogie Vachon, or Kelly Hrudey for those partial to the Gretzky years. No call at Staples Center.

Anaheim Ducks (95 ½)...
Plenty of firepower at coach Randy Carlyle?s disposal with Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaff, and Bobby Ryan forming one of the most-potent lines in the league. But not sure about GK Jonas Hiller and his worrisome vertigo systems that could force backup Dan Ellis into first-string status at any time. No call at Honda Center.

Phoenix Coyotes (87 ½)...
Thanks to the city of Glendale stepping in to bail out the team on a short-term basis, it was Atlanta, and not Phoenix, that moved to Winnipeg in the offseason. Given a reprieve in the desert, the Coyotes still don?t have much money to spend upon reinforcements, and watching GK Ilya Bryzgalov leave for Philadelphia puts a big question mark in goal with ex-King Jason LaBarbera and ex-Lightning Mike Smith now manning the nets. A dropoff from last year?s 99 points looks inevitable, but we?re not sure how far. No call at Jobing.com Arena.

Dallas Stars (87 ½)...
The franchise has emerged from bankruptcy with new ownership, but the loss of star center Brad Richards to the Rangers hardly helps the on-ice product. ?Under? at American Airlines Center.

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