It’s that time again! The ice is painted, the pucks are frozen, and the gates are open. The National Hockey League is ready to begin the 2006-07 season. As an avid hockey connoisseur, I figured I’d put a few examinations and predictions out there. So here it goes:

Eastern Conference:

1. Buffalo

2. Rangers

3. Carolina

4. Ottawa

5. Philadelphia

6. Toronto

7. Boston

8. Montreal

9. Tampa Bay

10. New Jersey

11. Florida

12. Atlanta

13. Islanders

14. Penguins

15. Washington

Western Conference:

1. San Jose

2. Nashville

3. Calgary

4. Anaheim

5. Dallas

6. Vancouver

7. Columbus

8. Detroit

9. Edmonton

10. Minnesota

11. Chicago

12. St. Louis

13. Colorado

14. Phoenix

15. Los Angeles

Now that it’s out there, here’s the why:

Eastern Conference:

1. Buffalo: Despite an astronomical amount of arbitration cases, they managed to get under the salary cap and keep much of their core such as goalie Ryan Miller and Fairfield native Chris Drury. Their speed and goaltending depth will carry them far in the playoffs.

2. NY Rangers: Aside from being a HUGE Rangers fan, I can’t see many weaknesses in this year’s squad. The additions of Brendan Shanahan, Matt Cullen, and Aaron Ward will give the Rangers the veteran leadership they were lacking last year. If long-time Blueshirt Brian Leetch returns, fuggedaboutit!

3. Carolina: The 2005-06 Stanley Cup Champions did a great job maintaining their team and bringing in some help as well. The defensive acquisitions of Tim Gleason and David Tanabe will add some offensive punch. The one question will be whether Playoff MVP Cam Ward can continue his rookie success into his sophomore season.

4. Ottawa: A team loaded with offensive talent, but riddled with playoff non-success. Why? Nobody really knows, but the team will be good enough to at least finish fourth in the conference. The acquisition of goaltender Martin Gerber will solidify the net, a major question over the past few seasons.

5. Philadelphia: Any team that has Peter Forsberg will be good enough to make the playoffs. How far they go will be indicative of his health. In addition to re-signing Simon Gagne, the Flyers acquired Kyle Calder in the off-season which should balance the scoring.

6. Toronto: Perhaps the hockey capital of the world, this team has no choice, but to make the playoffs after last seasons debacle. The acquisitions of goaltender Andrew Raycroft and forward Micheal Peca will provide key stability that will lead them into the playoffs.

7. Boston: Zdeno Chara. Marc Savard. Shean Donovan. This club has taken a major retooling including at management with new Head Coach Dave Lewis and General Manager Peter Chiarelli. Will the changes work out or too much too soon?

8. Montreal: The return of Saku Koivu will be key as long as fellow forward Alexei Kovalev can balance the scoring. Goaltender David Aebischer will fight with rookie Christobal Huet for the starting spot, which will only make each better. The addition of Janne Niinimaa on defense will just be enough to get the Habs to the playoffs.

9. Tampa Bay: Sorry Lightning fans, this was a long time coming. Despite adding Filip Kuba on defense and Marc Denis in net, this team just doesn’t have the depth or chemistry to make it.

10. New Jersey: O.K. so you finally got under the cap, though by somewhat questionable means. However, (though this is more of a gut feeling) what goes around comes around. Goaltender Martin Brodeur has lost some consistency over the long haul and there was just too much confusion this offseason to build on.

11. Florida: Forward Todd Bertuzzi and goaltender Ed Belfour were nice additions, but any team that axes “Iron” Mike Keenan is going to be cursed for at least a season.

12. Atlanta: As much as I would love to put the Thrashers in the playoffs, they just don’t have that grit to get there. Though they solidified their goaltending with Fred Braithwaite and Johan Hedberg, there just isn’t that depth.

13. Islanders: As a Rangers fan: HA! As a hockey fan: HA! As an objective sports journalist: Huh? Your ex-back-up goalie Garth Snow is your new G.M. You sign your still unproven goalie to a 15 year contract. And you rule by committee. Snicker…Da da da dada…Potvin sucks!

14. Penguins: Following the Malkin saga, you will have an incredible young team. Just too young to be successful. However, if there was one team that has the most potential to start a dynasty in three seasons, it’s the Pens.

15. Washington: I love Alex Ovechkin. Then can anyone tell me who else plays for the Caps?

Western Conference:

1. San Jose: Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo for an entire season? Enough said.

2. Nashville: The Preds were relying heavily on repeat performances from goaltender Tomas Vokoun and forward Paul Kariya, but the acquisitions of forwards Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont will make their offense lethal.

3. Calgary: Acquiring Alex Tanguay from Colorado will make them a potent offense with Jarome Iginla. Rookie defenseman Dion Phaneuf should also continue his prowess with added experience. Mikka Kiprusoff isn’t the best goalie in the league without reason.

4. Anaheim: The Ducks were a deep team last season. Then, they acquired the greatest defenseman in the league in Chris Pronger. If their goaltending issues turn into a positive with the competition amongst Bryzgalov and Giguere, they can do a lot of damage.

5. Dallas: Eric Lindros will be the most underrated acquisition this offseason. Perhaps taking the captaincy away from Modano and giving it to Brendan Morrow will take the pressure off of one and give some inspiration to the other. Watch for Mike Ribeiro to have a nice rebound season.

6. Vancouver: When you acquire a goaltender of Roberto Luongo’s status, you immediately become a playoff bound team. However, the question mark will be how they fare without Anson Carter and Todd Bertuzzi up front.

7. Columbus: Their first playoff appearance in history is imminent this year. The re-signing of Zherdev, acquisitions of Anson Carter and Federik Modin will be enough for a playoff spot. A major question will be their defense, but the offense will offset that enough.

8. Detroit: Can you ever count out the Red Wings from the playoffs? Despite losing Shanahan to the Rangers and Yzerman to retirement, the Red Wings will be able to give some younger talents, such as Jiri Hudler, a chance. It will also be a prime spot for players like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg to step up.

9. Edmonton: Oh Edmonton. I first want to apologize. So close last year, then your team affectionately says, “See ya!” I love Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky, but this team needs another year to retool.

10. Minnesota: I really want to give Minnesota their due this year, but my gut is telling me just one more year. Many will argue this, but I just don’t see an established leader, someone to just steal that essential game. Hopefully I’m wrong.

11. Chicago: Better, much better. But I can’t give any team that won’t televise their home games consistently a playoff berth. It won’t be as bad as last year though.

12. St. Louis: I love John Davidson. Any former Ranger in a managerial position sits well with me. Although they signed many free agents such as Martin Rucinsky and Doug Weight, I get the feeling that they are putting a band-aid on an amputation. Give it time.

13. Colorado: My favorite western conference team. It has been a good run Avs fans, but every good thing must come to an end. It’s time for a change.

14. Phoenix: The Great One will lead a great team and if the west wasn’t so competitive, they would definitely compete for a spot. However, there are some rookies that will gain valuable experience such as Keith Ballard. Don’t underestimate their drafts either.

15. Los Angeles: They cleaned some house this offseason and even made some notable acquisitions, Rob Blake comes to mind. However it is going to take some work on their core players to build a team with chemistry.

Final Predictions:

I hate doing this because it seems like I am jinxing my teams, so I am giving two scenarios:

NY Rangers v. Calgary: Rangers in 7.

Buffalo v. Nashville: Nashville in 6.

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