In a season like this one, with all the player movement, the new rules and the one-season layoff, trying to predict the future is a precarious business indeed.
Still, having made the mandatory excuses, it seems likely that some National Hockey League teams can be expected to make a significant slide in the standings.
And if thatís the case, there must also be some teams on the rise:
Here are the four teams likely to show the biggest improvement:
Buffalo Sabres: Speed will be at a premium this year and the Sabres have plenty of it. Rookie Thomas Vanek is dazzling everyone who sees him, and Daniel Briere is another player who should benefit from the new rules. The Sabres have three high-quality goalies and only can keep two, so they may be able to deal for even more speed. Defenceman Toni Lydman will prove to be a useful addition.
Philadelphia Flyers: They were a good team before, but now they look great, with no evident weaknesses. They have superb strength up the middle, a deep defence that can play any style of game, and, in Robert Esche, goaltending that is more than adequate. To top it all off, they have an excellent coach in Ken Hitchcock and one of the easiest travel schedules in the league.
Phoenix Coyotes: This is another team thatís loaded with speed and intends to use it. The addition of Barry Smith and Rick Tocchet as associate coaches cannot be overrated. Smith is a whiz at devising strategies that make the most of his teamís attributes, and Tocchet makes life unpleasant for any talented player who thinks that talent alone is enough to keep him in the league.
Minnesota Wild: The accepted wisdom is that the Wild is in trouble because it made no player moves of any consequence. But coach Jacques Lemaire was happy with the team he had. Most of the league will need half a season to learn how to play effective defence using only positional play. Thatís the way the Wild always played. Minnesota wonít win by big scores but the team should be heading back to the playoffs.
Now, on to the teams whose fortunes are headed in the opposite direction:
Washington Capitals: All indications are that this will be the worst team the NHL has seen in many years. They have Alexander Ovechkin and goaltender Olaf Kolzig, but Kolzig is in for a rough ride with these stiffs and may well be moved at the trading deadline. After that, the Caps wonít win any more games. For that matter, they may not win any while heís there.
Detroit Red Wings: Players such as Boyd Devereaux and Mathieu Dandenault, both great skaters, are gone, leaving behind too many aging veterans. More than any player in the league, Chris Chelios likely is to have trouble adapting to the new rules. The goaltending of Manny Legace and Chris Osgood is average at best, and the Wingsí travel is brutal, not a happy circumstance for an older team.
St. Louis Blues: This once was a team with a great defence, but now both Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger are gone. The Blues kept Keith Tkachuk, then suspended him. The goaltender is Patrick Lalime, who usually plays well ó after he lets in the first shot. The Blues canít afford to be giving away any goals.
Maple Leafs: It is possible that Ed Belfour could make up for a host of sins by those in front of him. But if Belfour merely is ordinary, or gets hurt, look out below. While every other team was going for speed, the Leafs loaded up on muscle. And sure enough, theyíre likely to have a lot of fights. Too bad that most of them will be in their own dressing room.