After 113 days of CBA, HRR, he said-he said temper tantrums, make whole and general unpleasantness, the NHL lockout is finally over. Which means, the nastiness can now go where it belongs. On the ice. Because of the lockout, the league has reduced its schedule to a 48 game season. This won’t be a marathon. This will be a sprint. A fast start is vital for success. Teams must stay healthy and hope to the hockey gods they have a hot goalie to ride them to the Stanley Cup. To be honest, I’m not 100% certain what to expect so I’m not confident in my predictions. But I’ll try my best. Here we go.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins seem to have it all. A healthy Sidney Crosby. The reigning MVP in Evgeni Malkin. A stud defenceman in Kris Letang. And plenty of motivation after a harsh first round playoff loss to their bitter rivals from Philadelphia. The one question, goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury was terrible in the playoffs, so the Pens brought in Tomas Vokoun, formerly of Washington and Florida. Will Vokoun push Fleury to make him a better goalie? Or does the Czech take over from the Canadian? Stay tuned. Otherwise this team is loaded and will be very difficult to beat.
2. Boston Bruins
The Bruins won a Stanley Cup in 2011, but slipped last season. They’re hoping that 2013 will be a bounce back year. Tim Thomas won’t be with the Bruins this season, as he decides his next conspiracy theory from his bunker at home. Tuukka Rask takes over the starting goalie job, and he will be under the microscope immediately. The Bruins are hoping young guns Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton are the real deal. The rest of the roster is getting older and with Milan Lucic showing up a tad overweight, the youngsters will need to shine. Still this team is big and nasty. Zdeno Chara is still a force on the blueline. This team will contend for the Cup.
3. Carolina Hurricanes
The Hurricanes had high expectations last season, but a disappointing season caused changes in Raleigh. Kirk Muller is the new head coach in Carolina, replacing Paul Maurice. The Hurricanes weren’t done, pulling off a blockbuster trade at the draft, acquiring Jordan Staal from Pittsburgh for a first round draft pick and two prospects. Jordan joins his brother Eric to form a dynamic duo up the middle. With Cam Ward between the pipes, expect the Hurricanes to surprise some people and top the Southeast division.
4. New York Rangers
The Rangers will live and die with goalie Henrik Lundqvist. The Vezina trophy winner, will be the main reason for any success the Broadway Blueshirts have this season. The Rangers did address their offensive woes, by acquiring Rick Nash from Columbus in the offseason. Nash joins Brad Richards up front to form a deadly one-two punch. Will that be enough for the Rangers? Can head coach John Tortorella not drive his team crazy when things aren’t going well? We shall see.
5. Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers have loads of talent up front. New captain Claude Giroux, Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell and youngster Brayden Schenn will make sure the Flyers score lots of goals. The question is can the Flyers keep pucks out of their net? Ilya Bryzgalov returns as the number one goalie, but his play is inconsistent for the most part. Bryzgalov must be more in tune with his game and less involved with the expansion of the universe for the Flyers to succeed. With Chris Pronger not medically cleared to play, the blueline is lacking depth and experience. Luke Schenn comes over from Toronto in an offseason deal, to rejuvenate his career. But the Flyers will need more help on the blueline if they are to go far this season.
6. Washington Capitals
Some experts have written of the Caps this season, but don’t count them out yet. Alexander Ovechkin struggled last season, recording a career low 38 goals last season. While that’s not a terrible statistic, it is below par for what some considered the best player in the world. Ovechkin needs to up his game, if the Capitals are to contend in the East. Braden Holtby will get his chance to be the number one goalie in DC. His terrific playoff run, gives the Caps much promise between the pipes. If Ovechkin can find his game again, look out.
7. Ottawa Senators
The Senators were one of the surprise teams last season, making the playoffs while most experts had them in last place in the Eastern Conference. Jason Spezza had a great season for Ottawa, leading the Sens in goals (34), assists (50) and points (84). With Daniel Alfredsson returning for one more season, the Sens are ready to prove last year was no fluke. There is a concern on the blueline as a lack of depth could hurt the club. The exception being Erik Karlsson, who is poised to win Norris Trophies in the future. Goalies Craig Anderson, Ben Bishop and promising youngster Robin Lehner will be asked to steal games for the Sens. Ottawa will be fun to watch, but will be in a dogfight, to return to the postseason.
8. Tampa Bay Lightning
There is no doubt that Steven Stamkos is the face of the franchise. The Rocket Richard award winner, netted 60 goals last season and will be counted on to lead the way offensively for Tampa Bay. Veterans Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier will bring experience and championship experience. Youngsters Teddy Purcell and Brett Connolly bring enthusiasm and hope for the future. The blueline is headed up by Victor Hedman who showed great strides as the season wore on. If Anders Lindback can bring stability between the pipes, the Bolts can make the playoffs. But it won’t be easy.
9. Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres came painfully close to make the playoffs, but just missed out in the end. Many thought the Sabres lacked toughness was the reason Buffalo fell short of the postseason. General manager Darcy Regier tried to address that issue in the offseason, by signing Steve Ott away from the Dallas Stars. Ott brings an agitator’s attitude to a team that desperately needs it. Ott will be asked to protect Thomas Vanek, Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson who will be targeted by the opposing team’s tough guys. Tyler Myers brings size to the blueline. His 6’8 frame can lock down the top scorers on the other side. Goalie Ryan Miller had a down season last year, but still remains one of the best in the business. The Sabres will be in a battle all year for a postseason spot.
10. New Jersey Devils
Last year’s Stanley Cup finalists took a major hit in the offseason, as Zach Parise took his 31 goals to Minnesota in the offseason. With Ilya Kovalchuk’s longterm future somewhat uncertain, the Devils do have some questions up front. The bigger question is how long can goalie Martin Brodeur last? The future hall-of-fame goalie is likely to hang up the skates at the end of the season. While Brodeur had a solid playoff run, he had a mediocre Stanley Cup Final series versus Los Angeles. The 40-year-old netminder will need a dip in the fountain of youth, if the Devils are to make the playoffs.
11. Montreal Canadiens
There were major changes in La Belle Province in the offseason. Gone is head coach Randy Cunneyworth and GM Pierre Gauthier. Replacing them are Marc Bergevin as GM and Michel Therrien in his second go-around as coach of the Habs. Bergevin is already under the gun, as defenceman P.K. Subban is holding out for a new contract. It looks like Subban won’t start the season with Montreal, and if this goes on for an indefinite period, the trade rumours will be flying. Goalie Carey Price will be asked to win games yet again for Montreal. Price is an excellent goalie, but he can’t do it all by himself. Montreal is hoping rookie Alex Galchenyuk is the real deal. Galchenyuk was solid for the USA at the World Juniors and the Habs are hoping that translates to the NHL. Montreal will be better than last season, but I don’t see a playoff berth this year.
12. Winnipeg Jets
My beloved Jets didn’t embarrass themselves last season. I, along with the rest of Winnipeg were just thrilled to see the NHL return to the city. However, the honeymoon will be over, and the fans will become more demanding. The Jets are solid up front with Andrew Ladd, Evander Kane and Blake Wheeler leading the way. Wheeler in particular is a breakthrough star for the club. The blueline is thin, sadly. Zach Bogosian is still recovering from offseason wrist surgery. More consistency will be asked of Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom and Mark Stuart. Ondrej Pavelec can win games between the pipes, but will also need to show more consistency as well. For more on the Jets, I write about them at fightingforstanley.ca
13. Toronto Maple Leafs
The team with the longest playoff drought is also the team with the longest Stanley Cup drought. The Leafs haven’t hoisted Lord Stanley’s mug since 1967 and haven’t made the playoffs since 2004. If the Leafs are to make the playoffs, the goaltending must be better. James Reimer and Ben Scrivens will share the netminding duties, while rumours continue to swirl about Roberto Luongo heading over to Toronto. Dion Phaneuf is the leader of the defence. Phaneuf is a physical presence, but needs to be more composed in crunch time. The forwards are decent. Phil Kessel is a top-notch goal scorer, while youngster Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak will have every chance to make an impact. With volatile GM Brian Burke now gone, the Leafs are headed in the right direction. But they are a couple of years away.
14. Florida Panthers
The Panthers were a big surprise last season, winning the Southeast division, and pushing New Jersey to double overtime in Game 7 of their first round series. I’m not sure if they can duplicate their success. Jose Theodore was OK last season, but I’m not sold if he has much left. Scott Clemmensen might see more of the load, in the net. Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleishmann were the best players on the Panthers last season, and will be asked to shoulder the offensive load. The blueline has experience in Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski, but too many question marks after that. I’m projecting a fall for the Panthers.
15. New York Islanders
It’s hard to imagine the Islanders were once a dynasty. From 1980 to 1983 the Islanders ruled the NHL, and were one of the best organizations in the league. How times have changed. The Isles are now a laughingstock, playing in the dilapidated Nassau Coliseum, and considered to be one of the least valuable franchises in sports. John Tavares is a bright spot on the Island. Tavares led the team with 81 points and is building block of the franchise. Matt Moulson’s 36 goals led the club and he will provide support for Tavares. Mark Streit is an underrated defenceman who excels at quarterbacking the power play. The oft-injured Rick Dipietro will be pushed by veteran Evgeni Nabakov between the pipes. Not expecting very much from the Islanders this season.
1. Vancouver Canucks
If the Vancouver Canucks were a soap opera, it would be called As The Goalie Turns. (OK, it’s a horrible title. I hate soap operas. Forgive me.) Corey Schneider goes into the season as the number one goalie, as Roberto Luongo awaits his fate. Trade rumours have dogged Luongo all summer and with his future uncertain, this could affect the Canucks. However this team knows how to win in the regular season. The Sedin twins and Alexandre Burrows will lead the offence into high gear. When Ryan Kesler is healthy, (he is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery) he too is a force up front. The Canucks added Jason Garrison from Florida in the offseason to add more offence from the blueline. Garrison possesses a booming shot from the point and is a power play specialist. The Canucks can win in the regular season. Can they win in the playoffs remains to be seen.
2. Los Angeles Kings
The defending Stanley Cup champions return with minimal changes to its roster. The Kings will be a force to reckon with again in 2013. Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick emerged as one of the best goalies in the world, and is looking to duplicate his success. Drew Doughty is one of the favourites to win the Norris Trophy. Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter provide the goals for the Kings. This team has an excellent chance to repeat.
3. Detroit Red Wings
There are those that are saying the Red Wings days are numbered. I’m not one of them. Yes, Nicklas Lidstrom retired. Yes, Tomas Holmstrom won’t be around to irritate opposing goalies. But the Red Wings can never be counted out. Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Mikael Samuelsson will be around to score goals. Datsyuk in particular is one of the most dazzling players in the game today. Niklas Kronwall is around to throw devastating open ice hits from the blueline. Jimmy Howard is a rising star in net. One thing the Red Wings love to do is prove people wrong. Don’t be surprised if they do it again.
4. Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks have plenty of talent to go around. But do they have a goalie that can save them from themselves? There is little denying that Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp are skilled top line forwards. Toews is one of the best players in the league and a leading candidate for the Hart Trophy. The blueline is solid with Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson manning the points. But the big question mark is Corey Crawford. After excelling in the 2011 playoffs in which Crawford nearly led the Blackhawks to an incredible comeback against Vancouver, Crawford struggled with his game in the 2011-12 season. Crawford was mediocre in the playoffs last year, which was the main reason Chicago was knocked out by Phoenix in the first round. If Crawford can find his game, the Blackhawks are Cup contenders. If not, a first round exit is highly likely yet again.
5. Minnesota Wild
The Wild have been known to be patient in their short history. Waiting for their young players to develop, while the team plods along on the ice. That trend stopped this past summer. After another disappointing season in the Twin Cities, the Wild decided to act like their moniker and went on a free agent spending spree. The Wild landed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in the offseason, bolstering their lineup in an instant. With the likes of Dany Heatley and Mikko Koivu up front, the Wild have a chance to be one of the more exciting teams in the NHL. Suter joins a defence corp that lacks depth, but has potential. Niklas Backstrom is an excellent goalie who can steal games. I expect the Wild to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
6. San Jose Sharks
This is a make or break year for the Sharks. For the last several years, the Sharks have been one of the upper echelon teams in the NHL, but have failed to come through in the playoffs. With the likes of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Martin Havlat getting older, it will be up to 23-year-old Logan Couture to lead the Sharks in the future. Dan Boyle is also getting up in age as well, so expect Brent Burns to take a more active role of leadership on the blueline. The Sharks will need to get better goaltending from either Antti Niemi or Thomas Greiss if they want to make one more run at the Cup. The window is rapidly closing on this Sharks team, and they need to take advantage, before time runs out.
7. Nashville Predators
The Predators always seem to lose a top player, but keep on trucking anyways. This offseason, the Preds lost Ryan Suter to Minnesota in the offseason, but don’t count out Nashville. Coach Barry Trotz knows how to get the best out of his players. Shea Webber is a Norris Trophy candidate, and now that he’s locked in long-term in Music City, he is the piece the franchise can build around. The Preds added Scott Hannan and Hal Gill in the offseason, for depth and experience on the blueline. Martin Erat, Mike Fisher and David Legwand will be asked to supply the offensive punch for Nashville. Pekka Rinne is an excellent goalie for Nashville. Can Trotz work his magic again in Nashville? Stay tuned.
8. Phoenix Coyotes
Every year, the Coyotes are considered an endangered species. Every year, they prove their critics wrong. Last season, with rumours of the demise of the franchise looming over their heads, the Coyotes had their best season in team history, advancing to the Western Conference Finals, before bowing out to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings. Shane Doan is the unquestioned leader in the desert. Doan’s experience and savvy are much appreciated on this young team. Radim Vrbata led the team with 35 goals last season and he will be called upon for a repeat performance. The blueline is solid, thanks to the likes of Keith Yandle, Derek Morris and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. But the main guy last year was Mike Smith. The 6’4, 215 pound goalie was superb for the Coyotes last year, and was their MVP without question. While there is still talk about the Coyotes future off the ice, this is a solid team on the ice, that should make the playoffs in 2013.
9. Colorado Avalanche
A team on the rise, but not quite ready for postseason play as of yet. Young stars Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene are the future of the Avs, and are expected to show leadership despite their age. Veteran Milan Hejduk will be there to help ease the transition but this team belongs to the young stars up front. Erik Johnson came over in a midseason deal from St. Louis, and his play improved as the season drew to a close. The Avs are hoping that Johnson has adjusted to Colorado, and live up to the potential of a first overall pick. Goaltending is still a concern in Denver. Semyon Varlamov showed flashes of brilliance, but still has lapses in his game. Veteran J.S. Giguere may be playing his final season in the NHL, but can still provide relief between the pipes. The future looks bright in Colorado.
10. St. Louis Blues
The Blues surprised many people by finishing in first place in the Central Division last season. While many observers think the Blues may repeat that performance, I’m expecting a fall from this team. The blueline is solid with the likes of Alex Pietrangelo, Barret Jackman and Kevin Shattenkirk which is the strength of the team. Up front the Blues do struggle to score goals. David Backes led the team with 24 goals last season while David Perron notched 21 goals. They were the only Blues to top 20 goals last season. More is expected from the likes of T.J. Oshie, Alex Steen and Patrick Berglund in the goal scoring department. The goaltending duties were split between Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott last season. One of them must step up to become the number one guy. Ken Hitchcock returns as coach, and he will drive his players hard. He may drive them over the edge as well.
11. Edmonton Oilers
A team loaded with young stars just waiting to breakthrough. While I see improvement on the Oilers, I don’t see a playoff spot just yet. This will be an exciting team to watch, thanks to the likes of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Sam Gagner and first round pick Nail Yakupov. Nick Schultz will anchor the blueline while Justin Schultz (no relation to Nick) is a rising star on defence. Goaltending is a concern in Edmonton. Devan Dubnyk will go into the season as the number one goalie. While Dubnyk has had his moments, he has yet to put it all together regularly. Nikolai Khabibulin is still around, but injuries and age have slowed him down considerably. The Oilers are a year or two away from being playoff bound.
12. Dallas Stars
The Stars have been agonizingly close to making the playoffs the last two seasons. They are hoping that the additions of Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr will put them over the top. Both are experienced skilled players, but both are on their last legs of their respective careers. This is a major gamble for Dallas that must pay off, or this could hurt the franchise. Loui Eriksson, Michael Ryder and Brenden Morrow will be asked to put pucks in the net. The loss of Mike Ribeiro (to Washington) will hurt the club. Stephane Robidas, Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley are the leaders of the blueline. Kari Lehtonen is an excellent netminder who will be asked to steal games for the Stars. I’m not sold on the additions of Whitney and Jagr. This team needs to get younger not older.
13. Anaheim Ducks
Big concerns in Orange County. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are unrestricted free agents at season’s end and their futures in Anaheim are cloudy at best. Both were key players in the Ducks Stanley Cup victory in 2007, and both would command a hefty price at the trade deadline. If the Ducks get off to a slow start, expect trade rumours to be swirling around Getzlaf and Perry. This will likely be Teemu Selanne’s last season in the NHL. The best player to ever come out of Finland, Selanne is a great ambassador to the sport, and he will be missed if he decides not to lace up the skates after this season. Cam Fowler is the leader of a defence corp that lacks depth. Jonas Hiller is solid between the pipes for Anaheim. This could be a transitional year for Anaheim.
14. Calgary Flames
The Flames are still stuck in 2004. How else do you explain the moves the organization made in the offseason. Flames management still believes that Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff can lead them to the promised land. Iginla is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and if the Flames start the season poorly, expect trade rumour to heat up around the long-time Flames captain. The Flames added Mike Cammalleri and Jiri Hudler in the offseason in hopes of boosting a sagging offence. The blueline is decent, but it is now or never for Jay Bouwmeester to show his potential. If he doesn’t, he’ll go down as one of the most disappointing players in NHL history. Kiprusoff might play all 48 games this season. The Flames better hope Kipper doesn’t get hurt. If he does, this will be a disastrous season for Calgary.
15. Columbus Blue Jackets
The worst team in the NHL last season, could very well repeat that dubious feat this season. The Jackets finally dealt disgruntled star Rick Nash to the New York Rangers in the offseason. In return, Columbus received Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, Tim Erixon and a first round pick in the 2013 draft. With Nash gone, the offence will have to come from the likes of Nick Foligno, Vinny Prospal, Derick Brassard and R.J. Umberger. Jack Johnson came over from Los Angeles at the trade deadline, and will be asked to anchor the blueline. Steve Mason and Sergei Bobrovsky will share the netminding duties. This team isn’t very good plain and simple. Another long season in the Ohio capital.
Eastern Final: Pittsburgh over New York Rangers
Western Final: Los Angeles over Vancouver
Stanley Cup Final: Pittsburgh over Los Angeles
Worst Team: Columbus
You can follow me on Twitter @jstar1973