SUN Hockey Pool

Who's best?

STEVE MacFARLANE -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 10:03 AM ET

By now you've probably heard: The Calgary Flames are expected by many to charge out of the gates and win the Stanley Cup.

But who do the favourites favour as the age of the salary cap and obstruction crackdown is set to begin?

Darryl Sutter doesn't have to look far to see what he considers the best team, beside his Flames, of course.

"I've said it from Day 1. Absolutely the team to beat out here is Vancouver," said the Flames GM/head coach yesterday.

"I think it's Vancouver at a level and then there's a bunch of us at another level."

Vancouver has taken advantage of all the pre-season penalties and finished with the third best powerplay percentage, scoring on 18 of their 72 opportunities for a 25% success rate.

"They have the best line in the league," continued Sutter, alluding to Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison. "Arguably the best powerplay in the league. They have two horses on defence that play a ton of minutes in (Ed) Jovanovski and (Mattius) Ohlund.

"To me, they're clearly, clearly the cream of the crop."

Sutter admittedly doesn't have much time to watch Eastern Conference teams in action but says Ottawa may be the team to beat on the other side.

"You look at Ottawa and, hey, if (goaltender Dominik) Hasek can regain any of what he was before -- if he's close to it -- then they're tough to beat."

Flames captain Jarome Iginla also likes Ottawa's chances but there's another Eastern powerhouse in the mix.

"I think Philadelphia looks pretty strong on the other side," said Iginla.

"Ottawa, Tampa Bay -- the firepower that they have and being the defending Stanley Cup champions."

However, picking contenders in the Western Conference isn't something The Hockey News' No. 1 player is prepared to do. At least not yet.

"I'm going to refrain from our side," Iginla said with a laugh. "No use pumping anybody's tires on our side."

Vancouver's bruising blueliner Jovanovski is hedging his bets, too. But for different reasons than Iginla. The veteran just isn't sure which teams will rise to the occasion.

"I think the parity's so high in the league, you can look at any team," Jovanovski said last week. "You can go up and down the list -- Philadelphia, us, Calgary, Edmonton -- everybody's got the possibility of winning. Me being part of this team, bias and all, I've gotta say us."

Outspoken Flames defenceman Andrew Ference isn't afraid to toot his own team's horn, either. His coach may not put much stock in the praise from Sports Illustrated but Ference just happens to agree with the magazine's prediction.

"Well, I think we are," answered Ference when asked which is the team to beat this season. "The expectations we have of ourselves and the players that we brought in, you start with yourself. That's who I'm concerned with. As far as other teams, we know that we're going to have extremely competitive games and it's going to be a bitter war to make it to the playoffs against teams in our own division.

"Outside of that, I don't look to the East. I care about Minnesota, I care about Edmonton, I care about Vancouver, Colorado -- the guys we're going to meet lots.

"They get all the focus that's left over after we focus on ourselves. I know that's kind of the right political answer but it's true."


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