Some answers for the burning questions as the 89th NHL season kicks off

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Like do the Carolina Hurricanes have any chance in repeating as Stanley Cup champions?

The 'Canes lost a wealth of experience in the off-season - the likes of forwards Matt Cullen, Mark Recchi, Doug Weight, Josef Vasicek, goalie Martin Gerber and defenceman Aaron Ward. Veteran blue-liner Frantisek Kaberle (shoulder) is lost for six months, leaving Carolina without two of the six blue-liners who skated in Game 7 of last June's Stanley Cup final.

Look for their young stars to try to make up the difference. Centre Eric Staal, winger Andrew Ladd and Conn Smythe goalie Cam Ward will go a long way in tempering those off-season losses if they take another step in their budding careers.

Playoff team? Definitely. Stanley Cup threat? We're not convinced.

In Columbus, the heat is on Doug MacLean, the only GM in Jackets franchise history. His team came into league in 2000-01 and has missed the playoffs all five seasons since. Their expansion cousin Minnesota Wild has gone to a Western Conference final and are primed for a big year after major off-season moves.

Making the playoffs is a must for MacLean's Jackets this season and they've got a shot. A healthy Rick Nash and consistent goaltending from new No. 1 Pascal Leclaire is the key. A humble prediction? A good run will fall just short of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Another GM with a lot riding on the 2006-07 season is John Ferguson in Toronto. He had a good off-season with the additions of Mike Peca, Pavel Kubina, Hal Gill and Andrew Raycroft, and most importantly, head coach Paul Maurice, but a second consecutive season without a playoff berth - which we suspect may be the case - might kill his chances to get a contract extension beyond this year. And that's not totally fair.

The Leafs are getting younger and focusing more on development since Ferguson took over in 2003 and it seems only right that he would stick around for two or three more years to see some of those draft picks blossom. Should Ferguson not be retained, his replacement will inherit a head coach already in place. And we know how well that worked the last time around.

Who is this year's Jonathan Cheechoo?

Look no further than his own teammate in San Jose, 21-year-old winger Steve Bernier. The Quebec City native put up 27 points (14-13) in 39 games after a second-half call-up last season and is primed for a big year playing alongside Patrick Marleau and Milan Michalek. Hockey fans will know Bernier's name by the end of this season.

Who will be the first goalie traded? There's plenty to choose from. The Sharks still haven't solved their issues with good friends Vesa Toskala and Evgeni Nabokov sharing the net to start the season.

"We feel we are blessed to have the luxury of having these two goalies on our team," Sharks GM Doug Wilson told The Canadian Press. "You look at Carolina last year, they also had two very good goalies. We'll need both these guys this year."

Having said that, we still believe Wilson will move one of them if the price is right. Complicating matters is that other quality netminders are available as well, such as J.S. Giguere in Anaheim and Martin Biron in Buffalo, and perhaps at some point this season David Aebischer in Montreal or Mathieu Garon in Los Angeles.

The problem right now is there are no takers but that could change in a hurry. If Marc-Andre Fleury doesn't get off to a solid start in Pittsburgh, the Penguins may be on the lookout for an upgrade in goal. And if 41-year-old Dominik Hasek gets hurt, as most people expect, then the Detroit Red Wings will work the phones as well.

Who will come out of the Eastern Conference?

That's anybody's guess because it's so wide-open this season, perhaps more than ever. The Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators and New York Rangers seem to be the favourite picks, and why not, but this writer likes the New Jersey Devils, which surely will surprise some.

Why? The Devils were as hot as anyone in the final two months of the season last year before losing to eventual Cup champion Carolina in the second round. The lockout hurt this team more than most others last year, with many of their key players, especially superstar goalie Martin Brodeur, not playing a lick of hockey in 2004-05 and the rust showed in the first half last season. Now the core is back again, thanks to GM Lou Lamoriello's magic tricks to get out of salary cap trouble, and the team is poised to return to their contending ways.

You heard it here first.

Who will come out of the Western Conference?

We think San Jose, Anaheim, Nashville and Calgary are the top four contenders in a superior conference. It's a tough call but with Joe Thornton and Marleau down the middle, we give the edge to the Sharks making it the final.

Who is in for a big fall?

That would be Colorado. The post-lockout world hasn't been kind to the Avalanche. Gone since the lockout ended are the likes of Peter Forsberg, Adam Foote, Teemu Selanne, Paul Kariya, Alex Tanguay and Rob Blake. The replacements aren't on the same level. Perhaps Pierre Lacroix saw the writing on the wall when he stepped down as GM and handed the reins to Francois Giguere. "Gee, thanks," should have been Giguere's reply. We see the Avalanche definitely missing the playoffs for the first time since 1993-94 when they were still the Quebec Nordiques.



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