We're going to try a new feature on the Globe on Hockey blog this season, posing a question to our team of puck writers every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning.
Then we'll sit back and let our experts debate the issue throughout the day. We hope you'll follow along and offer your opinions - we'd also like to hear the topics you'd like to see come up for discussion.
Our first question: Which Canadian team has the best chance of winning the Stanley Cup this season?
I'll go with the herd here, and pick the Vancouver Canucks as the Canadian team with the best chance of winning the Stanley Cup.
Reasons: Most teams, whether they acknowledge it or not, try to build a winner with a 6-4-1 formula; six quality forwards; four defencemen that can play in every situation; and a workhorse goaltender that provides reliable netminding from night to night. Among Canadian teams, and only after Alex Burrows returns to the line-up, the Canucks come closest to meeting that criteria. Even if the Sedin twins, who both enjoyed breakout offensive seasons last year, don't match last year's scoring numbers (in which Henrik averaged 1.37 points-per-game to win the scoring title and brother Daniel was right there at 1.35), they are two of the best in the world at what they do and compare to what the other elite teams have up front. The Sedins are ably supplemented by Ryan Kesler, an attractive second-line centre, because he developed a scoring touch last year to go with that abrasive personality. The two additions on defence, Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis, add a physical dimension that was lacking last year; and Roberto Luongo - without the Olympic distraction and the need to wear the 'C' - will be better than he was a year ago (a 2.57 GAA compared to his first three seasons on the Left Coast when he was 2.34, 2.38 and 2.29).
As for a long shot, the only team capable of doing what Montreal did last year - and upending a couple of heavily favored top seeds is Calgary - and only because the Flames have the closest thing to Jaroslav Halak in goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, who had another strong exhibition season to follow up an excellent regular season. Calgary is a middle-of-the-pack team, but they were a middle-of-the-pack team in 2004. Sometimes, otherworldly goaltending makes up for a lot of other sins and shortcomings.
The best way to predict the near future is to look at the immediate past, no? What? Really? Oh. Well bear with us anyway.
Montreal went deeper into the playoffs than any other team, so they have to be Canada's team right?
Um, no, not really.
Rational analysis suggests we have to cast a sidelong glance to the Left Coast, where the Canucks are in pole position after Great Chicago Fire Sale.
Goaltending, depth on defence, grit, offence, Sedins, they have all the pieces.
But if they stumble, we say Montreal will be the next best hope (such as it is - we reckon it's going to be very hard for any Canadian team to get it done this year).
Well, if we've learned anything recently, goaltenders matter way, way, way too much. Their importance is, I think, out of all relation to the way the game was intended. No Halak, no Montreal run. Luongo bobbles, Vancouver sinks. And so, in the end it will all come down to goaltending, especially if any Canadian team - with the taxes/wife/weather problems they have in attracting the highest-quality free agents - is going to challenge.
That said, the only goaltender with that possibility at the moment is Calgary's Mikko Kiprusoff. Hard to imagine the Flames rebounding so far, but anything is possible in a hockey world where hot goalies rule. When you look at the other teams and their goaltenders, not much hope, in my opinion. Vancouver should have the best team in Canada, but we have no evidence at all that they have the goaltender required - and don't make the mistake of saying the Olympics proved that. Still, if Luongo could ever get his post-season in order, that would make the Canucks a true contender. Personally, I do not see a Canadian team in the 2011 Stanley Cup final.
Okay, the Vancouver Canucks look like the best Canadian team with a shot at the Stanley Cup. Nothing like picking the obvious, right? ("And in other news, the sun will shine somewhere tomorrow …")
But ever the contrarian, my question is: which Canadian team will finish with the worst record in the NHL this season? Now that's a race with stomach-churning possibilities. Do the Toronto Maple Leafs kerplunk better than the rookie-laden Edmonton Oilers? Do the Ottawa Senators flop, the Calgary Flames fizzle?
And what about the Montreal Canadiens with Carey Price in goal? Are we talking a meltdown of national proportions?
Sure, the Canucks look to be the best of the bunch. But the worst? Let the ansgt-filled losing begin.
As much as Vancouver might win this straw poll for the reasons Eric outlines, the Canucks also win by default.
Edmonton is entering a long rebuild. The Flames have no semblance of a plan. The Leafs have no centres, and the Habs have turned goaltending (the most important position) from an area of strength to an area of doubt. And there's Ottawa, who couldn't get it done with a super team a few years ago, so what makes you think the Sens can get it done with much less?
A couple of words of caution on the Canucks as Cup contenders. For starters, this team hasn't even reached the midway point of a Cup conquest, having been bounced in the second round two years running. Second, Luongo's goaltending hasn't been nearly good enough in the last two postseasons, so improvement there - or in the overall defensive game - must be vast.
Much as I hate joining the crowd, the only sensible answer here is the Vancouver Canucks.
Other teams can approach the Canucks on offence, even if the Canucks boast the Sedin twins, but none of the other Canadian teams come close to Vancouver's combination of goaltender and defencemen. By adding Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard, GM Mike Gillis brought in two durable two-way guys who can make goaltender Roberto Luongo's life easier and move the puck. Both of them are also far more durable than the likes of Sami Salo who is already on his favourite list - the disabled one.
Most of all, though, I like this team because of Luongo. Say what you like about him the last two seasons but it looks like he is getting himself together this time now that saner heads prevailed over that ridiculous experiment that saw Luongo named captain last season.
Luongo finally decided to change his game this summer, taking advice from a new coach about kicking his habit of lunging for the puck. He also got himself into the best physical shape of his career. Some people who should know say he is ready for his best season.
It is, of course, only a coincidence that yours truly just coughed up Matt Duchene for Luongo, his $41 salary and Marian Hossa in an attempt to win the Toronto Media Hacks Hockey Pool. But if he crashes and burns this year, some of those people referred to above will not have a moment's peace.
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