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By Sean Hartnett
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We’re one day away from the puck dropping, and with it comes a sprint to the playoffs. The shortened 48-game season will make this the most difficult NHL season to predict since the 1994-95 season of the same length.
That being said, I’m prepared to give you my fearless NHL predictions ahead of what is going to be a frenzied rush for teams to lock up playoff berths. There won’t be many breathers between Saturday’s opening night and the Stanley Cup Finals.
It’s vital that teams don’t stumble out of the gates. If teams get in a hole early, they will find their playoff chances fading quickly.
Few predicted the Los Angeles Kings to lift the Stanley Cup at the start of the 2011-12 season. Can they do it again or will the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins or St. Louis Blues knock them off their perch? I’ve looked into my crystal ball and have my answer for this and more as the new season gets under way.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins - Think about this for a moment: Sidney Crosby only played 22 games during the 2011-12 season and the Penguins only finished a point shy of winning the Atlantic Division. Pittsburgh will have a healthy Crosby from the get-go and they have a lot of cap space to add to an already stacked roster.
The signing of Tomas Vokoun is an important one for the Penguins as it will allow them to give Marc-Andre Fleury breaks when needed over the sprint to the playoffs. Losing two-way center Jordan Staal will hurt, but Brandon Sutter will be an ideal replacement.
2. Boston Bruins - I’m not sure exactly how the Bruins are better in 2013, but they’re still pretty darn good. They are by far the class of the Northeast Division.
Without Tim Thomas around, the pressure will be on Tuukka Rask to repeat his stellar 2011-12 season without having Thomas around as his security blanket. I don’t foresee this or the loss of a few veteran defensemen being any reason why the Bruins shouldn’t win the Northeast.
Zdeno Chara and hulking rookie blueliner Dougie Hamilton will give the Bruins two towering defensemen that will do a good job protecting Rask’s net.
3. Carolina Hurricanes - The Southeast Division is up for grabs, but the Canes are ready to prove that they’re the cream of their division after a horrendous 2011-12 campaign. Acquiring Alexander Semin and Jordan Staal is going to make Carolina a lot more explosive. I see goaltender Cam Ward having a bounce-back season.
4. New York Rangers - Last season, it was up to Henrik Lundqvist to be a superhero every night. Adding Rick Nash changes everything for a team that lacked goals and struggled on the power play for much of 2011-12. He will add a new dimension for a Rangers team that was accused by many of being overly reliant on shot blocking.
The target will be on the Rangers’ backs from game one. While I don’t think they’ll win the Atlantic, this team is built for the playoffs. Glen Sather has brought in a good group of veterans in Taylor Pyatt, Jeff Halpern and Arron Asham to fill out the Rangers’ checking lines.
5. Philadelphia Flyers – Ilya Bryzgalov: It all comes down to him, doesn’t it? That’s not exactly comforting for Flyers fans. No matter how many goals Claude Giroux and Danny Briere score, Bryzgalov has to play consistently between the pipes. They’re a lot weaker on the blue line without Matt Carle and missed out on RFA Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.
The loss of Jaromir Jagr cannot be underestimated and I don’t think Philly got the better of the deal when they shifted James Van Riemsdyk to Toronto to bring in Luke Schenn. I see the Flyers’ power play taking a big hit.
6. New Jersey Devils - The loss of an all-around talent in Zach Parise is sure to hurt any team, but the Devils can absorb his loss. Ilya Kovalchuk will do a lot of the heavy lifting, but Patrik Elias continues to deft age. Having a healthy Travis Zajac from the start will be huge for New Jersey and I expect Adam Henrique to continue taking positive steps forward.
Ageless goaltender Martin Brodeur still has a lot left in the tank, but the Devils could use a younger backup than Johan Hedberg. Having two old goaltenders is a major concern, especially in a 48-game season.
7. Washington Capitals - I see a similar finish as last year for the Caps. Sure, they brought in Mike Ribeiro, but they lost the goal-getting of Alex Semin. I don’t think Washington has a lot of identity behind superstar Alexander Ovechkin and I’m not sold on Braden Holtby in net.
8. Ottawa Senators - The Senators haven’t made any big additions, but they’re a team that’s about the future. Swedish forwards Mika Zibanejad and Jakob Silfverberg are going to be a lot of fun to watch. There is going to be exciting moments, but there will be some growing pains. Ottawa needs Erik Karlsson to follow up his Norris Trophy-winning season and goaltending is an issue.
Craig Anderson looked the part during the playoffs, but it remains to be seen if he can establish himself as a true number one goalie.
How the rest of the conference will shake out: 9. Tampa Bay Lightning 10. Buffalo Sabres 11. Montreal Canadiens 12. Florida Panthers 13. Toronto Maple Leafs 14. Winnipeg Jets 15. New York Islanders
1. St. Louis Blues – Last season, the Blues shocked a lot of fans by nearly winning the Presidents’ Trophy. Once considered a promising young team, they’re a team that is coming of age.
No team boasts a better duo of young defensemen with Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. A new wave of talented youngsters are coming through led by winger Vladimir Tarasenko, who will turn a few heads.
They’re a team that doesn’t leak too many goals, and Ken Hitchcock’s system emphasizes two-way play. St. Louis boasts two solid goalies who are capable of being a number one in Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott.
2. Vancouver Canucks – I think it will be the same story for the Canucks in 2013 — a huge regular season and playoff disappointment.
Cory Schneider has escaped the shadow of Roberto Luongo and will be a very solid goalie for the Canucks. The dilemma is whether should they trade Luongo to fill some of their needs or hold onto him to cope with the abbreviated 48-game season.
They’ll put up plenty of goals on the scoreboard in the regular season, but I’m concerned that they don’t have the right mix of players to do it in the playoffs. Mike Gillis needs to shake things up a bit before I take the Canucks’ Cup chances seriously.
3. Los Angeles Kings - The question everyone is asking is whether the Kings can avoid a Stanley Cup hangover. I think they’re built to make a serious run at going back-to-back.
Just look at their depth chart. Go ahead, I’ll wait for you. That’s everything you need to know about the Kings, who are the deepest team in the NHL from top to bottom. Reigning Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick is as good as it gets, and backup Jonthan Bernier will help take some of the load off of Quick.
All signs point to the Kings holding onto Bernier, who could start for a number of teams around the league.
4. Minnesota Wild – The Wild landed the two biggest fish in the free-agent pond in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. The question is whether they have enough depth below them.
They have a good pool of prospects led by Mikael Granlund, who is making the jump. He’ll be one to watch in the Calder Trophy race. They’ve stockpiled a lot of high draft picks and I’m wondering when young defensemen Mathew Dumba and Jonas Brodin will get their shot in the NHL.
Having a top goalie in Nicklas Backstrom solves a lot of the Wild’s depth/lack of experience issues.
5. Chicago Blackhawks - It comes down to this: Is Corey Crawford anything more than a serviceable starting goaltender? My thoughts are that the Blackhawks need a major upgrade between the pipes.
They’re not an improved team in any measure. It’s pretty much the same group – Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp, Keith and co. That’s still a lot of talent, but Chicago did not make a notable free-agent signing and that’s why they’ll be looking up at Parise and the Wild.
6. Detroit Red Wings - The loss of Nicklas Lidstrom is nearly impossible to fill. There isn’t one player who could have filled his legendary skates. On top of that, they missed out on the package deal as Parise and Suter opted to join the Wild. Losing Lidstrom and Brad Stuart has really hurt Detroit on the blue line.
Sure, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg will score some highlight goals. I’m not sure they’ll score enough to make up for their losses on the defensive end, and goalie Jimmy Howard could be exposed.
7. San Jose Sharks - New year, same story. If this team was ever going to make their run into the Stanley Cup Finals it would’ve happened years ago.
Acquiring Stuart from the Red Wings is a solid pickup and the Sharks’ top six forwards are impressive. Perhaps their biggest addition came in the coaching staff, as penalty-kill specialist Larry Robinson was lured from the Devils to fix a brutal Sharks PK.
Still, I don’t like the makeup of this team. It seems like they missed their chance to establish themselves as a Western Conference powerhouse and are now paying the price for it.
8. Dallas Stars - Unsigned star forward Jamie Benn hovers like a black cloud over Dallas, but he’s nearing a new deal.
The additions of over-40 club members Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney is curious, but it makes sense for a Stars team that struggled on the power play last season. Kari Lehtonen will have his work cut out for him as Dallas is weakened on the blue line. Expect high-scoring games, but the Stars are equipped to win more than they lose.
How the rest of the conference will shake out: 9. Nashville Predators 10. Phoenix Coyotes 11. Anaheim Ducks 12. Edmonton Oilers 13. Calgary Flames 14. Colorado Avalanche 15. Columbus Blue Jackets
Sidney Crosby: Hart Memorial Trophy – I’m expecting the majority of Hart Trophy candidates to come out of the Atlantic Division.
With reigning Hart Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin, Claude Giroux, Kovalchuk and the returning Crosby, the Atlantic Division is loaded with Hart Trophy favorites. But let’s not forget about Steven Stamkos, who might be the biggest game-changer in the league.
Can Malkin do it again? It will be a lot harder with Crosby returning. A healthy Crosby is far and away the favorite to win the Hart Trophy in any season, but he comes into 2013 with a big chip on his shoulder. I think he’ll beat out Giroux in a close race and take the Hart Trophy. Crosby also gets my nod to win the Art Ross Trophy.
Zdeno Chara: James Norris Memorial Trophy – With Nicklas Lidstrom hanging up his skates and Erik Karlsson taking a giant leap forward by winning the 2011-12 Norris Trophy with a 78-point season, the race for the Norris is wide open.
Karlsson, Alex Pietrangelo, Drew Doughty — there’s a lot of talented young blue liners across the league. That being said, I’m choosing an experienced defenseman to walk away with the Norris.
Zdeno Chara lost out to Karlsson at the 2012 NHL Awards and finished behind Shea Weber despite having a tremendous 2011-12 campaign. Chara is the best two-way defenseman in the league and I don’t think any defenseman in the league helps his goalie’s statistics more than Chara. In a shortened season, he’ll be the steadiest of all defensemen and will win the Norris.
Henrik Lundqvist – Vezina Trophy - The Henrik Lundqvist-Jonathan Quick debate dominated last year. That’s not going to change in 2013. Pekka Rinne, Cory Schneider, Kari Lehtonen, Mike Smith — there’s a lot of terrific goalies around the league, but these two are in a class of their own.
Many felt Quick was robbed of the award because of his stellar play that single-handily pushed the low-scoring Kings into the playoffs. We all know how that ended, as Quick won the Conn Smythe and delivered the first Stanley Cup in Kings history.
Still, Lundqvist was my choice last year and I’m picking him again. The Atlantic Division is stacked with talented scorers. With the heavy in-division schedule, Lundqvist will be tested like he’s never been tested before. If Lundqvist and the Rangers win the Atlantic, there isn’t a reason why he shouldn’t repeat as the Vezina winner.
Glen Gulutzan: Jack Adams Award - This award is always about the coach who is able to get the most out of a team not expected to do wonders. We saw the way Ken Hitchcock turned around the Blues’ season and almost won the Presidents’ Trophy.
Gulutzan has been given a lot of new pieces in Dallas, but the Stars also lost a lot of talent in Mike Ribeiro, Steve Ott and Sheldon Souray. I think the Stars are going to sneak up on people in 2013. I like the mix of players that GM Joe Nieuwendyk has put together. Gulutzan will win the Jack Adams by getting the Stars into the playoffs in a packed Western Conference.
Mikael Granlund: Calder Trophy - Nail Yapukov, Mikael Granlund, Justin Schultz, Jonathan Huberdeau – and the list goes on. 2013 brings a very talented rookie class, but I’d give the nod to Granlund, who will be given a big role on a talented Wild team. He has tremendous upside and I have a feeling we’re going to see some tremendous things from Granlund right away.
David Backes: Selke Trophy – Patrice Bergeron took the Selke at the 2012 NHL Awards. Pavel Datsyuk, Bergeron, David Backes, Jordan Staal and Ryan Kesler should be in the mix this year. Backes defines what a shut-down center is all about. Considering the talented stars around the NHL’s Central Division, if the Blues win the Presidents’ Trophy then Backes should win the Selke.
Who’s Ready To Lift The Cup?
As an eighth seed, the Kings unexpectedly went on a dream run by dominating Western Conference powerhouses in the Canucks and Blues on their way toward lifting the Stanley Cup.
Western Conference Finals: LA’s depth is impressive, and they’re clearly going for a repeat as GM Dean Lombardi has been given the green light to add to his talent-rich roster if a need arises. I expect them to meet the Blues in the Western Conference Finals, where they’ll punch their return ticket to the Stanley Cup Finals. I don’t think it’s the Blues’ time yet.
Eastern Conference Finals: The Penguins and Rangers are miles ahead of the rest of the Eastern Conference and will meet in the Eastern Conference Finals. When I look up and down the Penguins’ roster, I don’t think they’re nearly as deep or as tough as the Rangers. That’s why I foresee the Rangers marching on to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Stanley Cup Finals: A matchup of Lundqvist and Quick would make for a mouth-watering battle between rival net-minders. Both of these elite goaltenders can win games on their own, but I think the Kings have the edge when it comes to depth in scoring.
Rick Nash and Marian Gaborik are game-winning players — but how many of those guys do the Rangers have? Brad Richards is more of a provider than a goal-getter and Ryan Callahan tends to find the net through sheer effort rather than jaw-dropping skill.
The Kings have a group of players who can raise their game under pressure, with Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Justin Williams and captain Dustin Brown. They aren’t reliant on one or two star scorers and are very solid in net and on the blue line. That’s why I think we’ll see the Kings become the first hockey dynasty since the late 1990s Red Wings.
Who do you see lifting Lord Stanley at the end of the 2013 playoffs? Tweet me at @HartnettWFAN and leave your comments below…