Thursday, September 1, 2011

2011-2012 NHL Season Predictions

The New NHL season just over a month away, and while a few teams still need to do some things before it starts (like my beloved Kings getting Drew Doughty under contract), for the most part, rosters are set. Since I’ll be spending less time at the movie theater, I’ll probably be spending more time watching hockey. Here’s how I see the two Conferences shaking down.

Western Conference
The more competitive of the two conferences to be sure, I see two epic battles shaping up for division titles – the Sharks and the Kings in the Pacific and the Red Wings and Black Hawks in the Central. But seven of the eight playoff teams from last year should be back this year.

1. Vancouver Canucks – Last season the Canucks had one of the best seasons any team has ever had - statistically anyway. And the only loss that will hurt badly is Christian Ehrhoff leaving for Buffalo – but considering the Canucks defense is built on depth, not on any one player I think they’ll be fine. The Sedins will likely finish near the top of the scoring race again, and if Kesler returns to form after surgery, he’ll still be one of the best second line centers in the game. It doesn’t hurt that the Canucks are in far and away the worst division in hockey. The big question remains Roberto Luongo – but that’s mainly a playoff thing. In the regular season, the Canucks are still the team to beat in the West.

2. San Jose Sharks – San Jose is the only team to make it to the final four in each of the last two seasons, but not wanting to rest on their laurels, they made big, bold moves this offseason. Brent Burns certainly helps the offense from the blue line, but I still feel the Sharks are missing that big time d-man. But that’s about all they’re missing. Gone is the distraction of Dany Heatley, and in comes Martin Havlat, who will put up similar numbers for less money and headaches. The team is aging a bit, but they’re still a force to be reckoned with.

3. Detroit Red Wings – Every year, I want to write off the Detroit Red Wings, and every year, they come back strong. Despite injuries last year, they once again won their division – although that probably had something to do with the Hawks Stanley Cup hangover. Still, any team anchored by Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datysuk and Henrick Zetterberg is a team to not take lightly. Jimmy Howard responded well between the pipes last year, and while he’s not an elite goalie, the Wings don’t need one (right, Osgood?). It will be close but the Wings will win their division again.

4. Los Angeles Kings – The Kings made a bold offseason move, giving up their top prospect in Brayden Schenn, along with fan favorite Wayne Simmonds, to get Mike Richards out of Philly. The message was clear – the Kings time to win is now, not the future. With Richards playing behind Kopitar, the Kings have a one-two punch down the middle that stacks up against anyone in the league. Their defense remains intact (as long as Doughty signs – and he will), and they were one of the best d-cores last year, and should be this year. The goaltending tandem of Quick and Bernier are as strong as anyone has. Ryan Smyth is gone – and good riddance – and Simon Gagne should provide similar numbers for far less money (and more defense to boot). Yes, it was sad to see Handzus go, but the truth is the Kings didn’t need him. They will compete for their division title this year, and hope to make their first deep playoff run in years. If they don’t, it will be a major disappointment.

5. Chicago Blackhawks – The Hawks had a very disappointing year last season. Part of that was Stanley Cup hangover, and part of it was a Salary Cap that screwed them. But with the cap crunch off, and a better rested team, I think the Hawks can regain their form for their Stanley Cup winning season. They still have Toews, Kane, Keith and Seabrook as their core, Corey Crawford as a stellar goaltender, and a much deeper supporting cast this season than last. Sometimes when you win a Cup, it takes a while to get over it. The Hawks are now out of excuses and I expect to see them return to form.

6. Anaheim Ducks – There are several questions facing the Ducks this season. Will Selanne come back? Is Hiller over his vertigo problems? Was Corey Perry’s Hart winning season the real deal or a fluke? And while those are all legitimate questions, I still think the Ducks have a good enough team to make the playoffs. After all, even if Perry overachieved last year, he-Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan are still perhaps the best line in hockey. I don’t doubt Selanne will be back, and coming off of an 80 point season, even if he declines a little bit, he’s still solid. Depth is a real issue for the Ducks, in that they don’t have it, but for the regular season, they’ll be fine.

7. Nashville Predators – Let’s face facts – given the team they have, the Nashville Predators should never make the playoffs, but they do every year. As long as Barry Trotz is behind the bench, that will continue. True, they may never be able to lock up Shea Weber long term, and Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne, their other cornerstones, may leave at the end of the season, but for now, the Preds will continue to pull of the impossible, and make the playoffs. Don’t ask me how they do it.

8. St. Louis Blues – This team has been poised to make a jump for a few seasons now, and never seem to be able to do it. But as long as they stay healthy, I think this is their year to go back to the playoffs. Backes and Stewart are both excellent power forwards who can score, Alex Pietrangelo is one of the best young d-men in the league, and I expect Halak to rebound from a lackluster season. Throw in veteran leadership from Arnott and Lagnebruner, and you have a solid team, who should be able to scrap their way into the playoffs.

9. Calgary Flames – The definition of insanity is to try the same thing repeatedly and expect different results. And that is pretty much what the Flames are doing for the third season in a row. They have a solid team, yet no real young talent to give them energy. Dealing away Robyn Regher helped their cap situation, but hurts their blue line. Mikka Kipprusoff is aging, and not quite what he once was. Ditto Jarome Ignila. And yet, they were one of the best teams in the second half of last season, before collapsing in the final weeks. If they don’t dig themselves such a huge hole this year, maybe they can make the playoffs. But I doubt it.

10. Columbus Blue Jackets – Columbus is under tremendous pressure to make the playoffs again – which is why they gave up promising Jakob Vorocek and a first round pick for Jeff Carter, and threw a ridiculous amount of money at James Wisenewski. Both of those players will certainly help the Jackets be better this season, but I still have my doubts. For one thing, Carter is a sniper, as is his line mate Rick Nash. Carter is undeniably the best center Nash has played with in the NHL, but do they fit together? And the big question is still Steve Mason in net. The Jackets need him to be the goalie he was in his rookie year, not the one who has struggled ever since. If he can regain his form, perhaps the Jackets can really compete. If not, it will be another long year.

11. Colorado Avalanche – I seriously do not get some of the moves the Avalanche have made recently – mainly trading away Chris Stewart for Erik Johnson, and trading away a first round pick for Varlamov. And yet, on paper, the Avalanche do not look like such a bad team. They just need Varlamov to prove me wrong, and they could even claw their way into the playoffs. They have an extremely talented group of young forwards who can score, and while their defense isn’t stellar, they are adequate. There’s no doubt they are still in rebuild mode, but perhaps they can move the process along a little bit this season.

12. Phoenix Coyotes – Dave Tippett has proven himself to be a great NHL coach, leading the cash strapped Coyotes to two straight playoff appearances. But the reality is, the system Phoenix plays depends a great deal on having a top notch goalie, and since they replaced Bryzgalov with Mike Smith, they don’t have one. Bryzgalov helped to keep the Coyotes in games, and let their team effort on offense and defense work, but without him I don’t see the Coyotes having much of a shot in a tough Conference and division. This may very well be the last season in Phoenix for this team, and it looks to be a painful one.

13. Minnesota Wild – Give the Wild credit – they made some ballsy moves this offseason. First was trading away their top defensemen in Brent Burns for Devin Setoguchi, an extremely talented winger, who has consistency issues. The second was trading away the steady Martin Havlat for the enigmatic Dany Heatley. This was a team in desperate need of an offensive upgrade, and those two should provide it – hopefully anyway, because if not you just have a very expensive long term problem in Heatley. But their defense, usually their strong suit, has taken a major hit. Honestly, I think the end result of these trades is a further step back for the Wild, but who knows? Perhaps I’m wrong.

14. Edmonton Oilers – There is no question that the Edmonton Oilers are an exciting young team. They are in the best position long term of any of the non-playoff teams in the Western conference – but they still need to wait for their young talent to truly hit their stride. Their goaltending is still lackluster at best. Their defense core still lacks any legitimate top pairing talent. And their young offensive stars play on the wing – unless Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who needs more time, makes the team this year. The Oilers are building towards something to be sure. But it’s still quite far away.

15. Dallas Stars – Let’s face facts – The Dallas Stars were a mediocre team last year who missed the playoffs despite having Brad Richards. This year they lost him, and didn’t replace him with anyone. New additions Michael Ryder and Sheldon Souray will not help all that much. Money issues are a real concern for the Stars right now, and they simply do not have a good enough team to compete on a nightly basis. There will be bright spots, but I think they finish at the bottom this year.

Eastern Conference
The Eastern Conference is not quite as strong as the Western Conference is. All you need to do to see that is look at the point total required to get into the playoffs each year for each conference, and you’ll see the East is lower by five points or more. Still, this is where most of the media attention will fall, and there are some great races shaping up. When all is said and done though, I still think the same 8 teams make the playoffs.

1. Washington Capitals – It’s silly to question the Washington Capitals, who despite their stumbles in the playoffs, are always at the top of the Eastern Conference in the regular season. And this Capitals team may just be the best one in recent memory. They added much needed grit up front in Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer, a strong veteran d-man in Roman Hamrlik, and finally a truly great goalie in Thomas Vokoun. As long as Ovechkin can regain his form (and he will), and Backstrom and Semin step up (less sure), then the Caps will once again rule the Eastern Conference – and may well be the team to beat for the Cup this year.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins – Who knows when Crosby will be back for the Pens? If it’s early, then they can truly push the Caps for tops in the Conference. If not, the Pens still have a great one-two punch down the middle with Malkin and Staal. And the Pens found a better team game than ever before after the injuries last season. James Neal should step up more this season, and Steve Sullivan may well turn out to be a great pickup. The d-core is solid and Marc Andre Fleury has never been better. If they get Sid back, watch out. Even if they don’t, they’ll be formidable.

3. Boston Bruins – The defending Cup champs are pretty much the same team they were last year. Take out Michael Ryder (who was inconsistent) and Mark Recchi, and that’s basically it. This will give someone like Tyler Seguin a real chance to play this year. With Tim Thomas in net, and Zdeno Chara on the blue line, the Bruins are still the best in their division. With the right breaks, they may even be able to defend their Cup. I doubt it, but it’s possible.

4. Philadelphia Flyers – No team took bigger chances this offseason than the Flyers – dumping their Captain Mike Richards, and leading scorer Jeff Carter, to bring back prospects and young players. And then they added Jaromir Jagr. And of course finally solving their goalie woes (they hope) with Ilya Bryzgalov. This team has long been dysfunctional, with players split between Richards and Pronger. With Richards gone, this is Pronger’s team. But he’s aging, and may be injured to start the season. Still, this group of players – with Giroux and Briere leading the way offensively – is just too good to finish that low this year. If they do, heads will roll. But I still think this is a great team.

5. Tampa Bay Lightning – The Lightning surprised a lot of people last year simply by making the playoffs – then went all the way to the Conference finals. They won’t surprise anyone this year, but they should still be a solid team. They need Stamkos to be more consistent – after getting off on a tear last year, he disappeared from much of the second half of the season. They also need to hope that old guys like Martin St. Louis and Dwayne Roloson still have enough left in the tank, and that the resurgence of Vinny Lecavlier continues. This is a solid team all the way through their lineup – and one that should have no problem making the playoffs this year.

6. Buffalo Sabers – The Sabers days of being a have not team are certainly over, as they made some bold moves this offseason, which certainly improve their team. Still though, I doubt if all of those moves will really make this team one of the truly elite teams in the Eastern Conference. Their improved defense should help Ryan Miller be the goalie he can be (and too often wasn’t last season), but they still need a little more firepower up front. They should make the playoffs no problem this year, and could be a team to contend with, but I still think they need a few more pieces before they make a big move.

7. New York Rangers – Congrats to the New York Rangers landing the biggest free agent fish in Brad Richards. Now, they just have to hope he turns out better than Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, Wade Redden and Marion Gaborik did for them, when they were the offseason big fish they landed. The Rangers are becoming a better team – their youngsters are becoming better every season, and they still have one of the best in the league in Henrik Lundqvist. But they are still a notch below the best this conference has to offer.

8. Montreal Canadians Carey Price was robbed of a Vezina trophy nomination last season, and he looks once again to be the main reason why the Canadians make the playoffs this year. Here’s hoping that PK Subban has matured a little bit this offseason, and that Eric Cole adds the power forward they desperately needed. But really, other than Cole, did the Canadians really improve this off season? How many games will it be before Markov hurts himself? The Canadians are still a bubble team.

9. Toronto Maple Leafs – Every year desperate Leaf fans hope that this will finally be the year they make the playoffs (along with the Panthers, they are the only team not to make it since the lockout). This year, they may actually do it. With James Reimer hopefully being a goalie they can rely on, and Cody Franson and John Michael Liles solidifying an already good d-core, the pressure really comes down on the forwards. Can Clarke MacArthur do what he did last year? What about Kulemin and Grabovski? Can Tim Connelly finally be the center Phil Kessell needs? The real question is whether the Leafs will remember that the season starts in October, not January.

10. Carolina Hurricanes – The Hurricanes came up just short of the playoffs last year, and I think they do the same thing this year. They still have one of the best in Eric Staal, and Jeff Skinner is a legitimate star, but their cap issues will always keep them below the rest of the conference. They have a solid, but unspectacular team. If they can overcome some consistency issues, they may well make a push this year.

11. New Jersey Devils – The Devils are hoping that having Zack Parise healthy all season will lead them back to the playoffs this year, after a disastrous season. Perhaps it will, as he is their best player, and perhaps first round pick Adam Larsson will prove to be a great d-man. And perhaps Martin Brodeur will regain his form. But that’s an awful lot of perhaps, and not a lot of certainty. Another season out of the playoffs could spell big changes for the Devils, so they will try to ensure that doesn’t happen, but I remain unconvinced.

12. New York Islanders – Despite the fact the Islanders are facing life without a home in a few years, the fact that they have a crazy owner, and a GM who has made some questionable moves, the truth of the matter is that the Islanders are one of the most exciting and fast young teams in the NHL. They are kind of like the Oilers of the east. This means a lot of entertainment value, but not necessarily a lot of wins. They are building towards something, but they aren’t there yet.

13. Winnipeg Jets – The good news is that the Jets could lose every game this season, and the folks in Winnipeg would still be over the moon in love with them. The bad news is while they will win sometimes, this is still a team riddled with holes in their lineup. This is a young team, that could really do something down the line – but those holes, and the horrible travel schedule they’ll face, will keep them near the bottom this year.

14. Florida Panthers – They spent like drunken sailors on free agent day and despite the fact that this team looks better than the one last year (if you ignore the goaltending of course), that doesn’t make them very good. They overpaid a lot of their players, and helped out Chicago big time by taking Brian Campbell’s ridiculous contract off their hands. They have some promising youngsters on their team, but they are years away from competing.

15. Ottawa Senators – They are in full rebuild mode at this point, and their lineup looks kind of like a really good AHL team, with a few veterans thrown into the mix. The Senators probably waited a year or two too long, holding onto hope that they were still an elite team. They still have some good players, but the real mission for the next few seasons will be to be really bad and pick up some great draft picks to build around. Because right now, they suck.

Stanley Cup Final Prediction
And now, just for the hell of it, my Stanley Cup final prediction.

San Jose vs. Pittsburg. Winner: Pittsburg.

Why? The Sharks have been building to this for a while, and I really do think the attitude on that team is now or never. There off season moves should help to solidify their defense and penalty killing, while maintaining their potent offense. Say what you want about Antii Niemi, but his playoff series record now stands at 6-1. They could even be good enough to challenge the Canucks in the regular season, but the fact that Vancouver plays in a horrible division helps them a great deal.

As for the Pens, it really does look like Crosby will be out to start the season, which is bad news, and could very easily lead to them being behind the Caps, and others, when he comes back (and I do believe he will be back at some point). Yet, with Crosby, I really do think the Pens are the best in the league, and you know he’s keeping as in shape as possible – it’s just the type of guy he is. As long as he has a few months before the start of the playoffs, he’ll be back in top form – and I think the supporting cast is good enough that they can, and will, win the Stanley Cup.

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