Ilya Kovalchuk has two years remaining on his contract with the Thrashers. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
Every season in the NHL is important, but some franchises are facing make-or-break campaigns in 2008-09. Here’s a rundown of which teams are looking at turning points in the near future.
Eight seasons, one playoff appearance, zero playoff wins. And all the losing is wearing on franchise face Ilya Kovalchuk, who may not be in Georgia much longer if the Thrashers can’t find a center to set him up. And if Kovalchuk leaves town, how long before the team follows? This franchise needs something good to happen – fast.
No, the Sabres aren’t about to fold up shop and leave town. But the team that made back-to-back runs to the conference final before falling flat last season – missing the playoffs – needs to re-establish itself as an Eastern Conference contender. If someone (say, Thomas Vanek) steps up as a game-breaker, the Sabres have the depth and the defense to keep pace with the league’s top teams. The supporting cast has to be just that, however.
The Hawks are back on TV and back on the road to respectability, too. If Martin Havlat can finally stay healthy, Brian Campbell lives up to his billing, and one of Cristobal Huet or Nikolai Khabibulin can provide solid netminding, the Hawks will make the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
The Avs have been a top contender (and two-time Stanley Cup champion) since relocating to Denver from Quebec City in 1995. Fans in Colorado have been spoiled by a succession of 100-point regular seasons and long playoff runs. This year, however, might be a harsh reality check. Joe Sakic is still wavering on returning for a 20th NHL season – the smart money says he’ll be back – and a goaltending tandem of Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft does not intimidate. Missing the playoffs for a second time in three years is very possible.
Columbus Blue Jackets
It’s been a tough existence for Jackets fans, who have had to try and support a team that’s traditionally been eliminated from playoff contention by January. The past couple of seasons have brought hope in the form of Ken Hitchcock and marginal improvement in the standings, but only a playoff appearance – preferably, an extended one – will provide real relief. New faces R.J. Umberger and Kristian Huselius will get all the ice time they can handle.
After making it to the Stanley Cup final in their third season in 1996, not much has gone right for Florida. Two summers ago, they traded away Roberto Luongo. This summer, they sent top forward Olli Jokinen to Phoenix and franchise defenseman Jay Bouwmeester opted to sign a one-year deal, making him eligible for unrestricted free agency at the end of the season. Young guns Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss offer hope for the future, but Florida needs the future to be now.
In many ways, the Preds are the model expansion franchise of the 1990s. They’ve been patient, building through the draft and developing their own top-notch prospects. They have the same GM and the same coach as when they joined the NHL in 1998. They’ve made the playoffs four consecutive seasons. Problem is, the specter of relocation has chased several top players to leave Nashville (and surely has discouraged most free agents from signing). Not to mention the Preds’ top drafted player, young winger Alexander Radulov, signed in Russia despite having one more year on his NHL contract. Credit the Preds for remaining competitive as everything falls apart around them, but how long can they keep it up?
The expectations can’t get much lower for a team that has been bland and unexciting for far too long. Mike Comrie and Doug Weight as the top two centers is scary if you’re an Islanders fan, but not to anybody else. Twenty-five years after winning four straight Cups, the Isles have been reduced to a glorified expansion team that too few people care about.
Their on-ice advances last season were somewhat overshadowed by the fact the Coyotes can’t draw crowds. Phoenix has lost big money season after season; how long will the owners throw around good money? The Dogs have to make some noise in the standings and generate local buzz; otherwise…it might be back to Winnipeg.
Sam McCaig is The Hockey News' senior copy editor and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears weekly.
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