Monday, January 21, 2013

NHL Predictions 2012-13

Had the NHL season started on time, my pick for 2012-13 Stanley Cup Champions would have been the St. Louis Blues, with Jaroslav Halak winning the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP to go with his regular-season Vezina grab.

However, a shortened season coupled with only intra-conference games has led me to change my picks for this year. They are now as follows:

Eastern Conference:

1. Pittsburgh Penguins

So much firepower, so much depth - and now a decent #1B goalie in Tomas Vokoun to back up Marc-André Fleury. All season long, they will destroy opposing defenses and inflate other teams' goals-against, but they will lose steam come playoff time. They could have up to 4 point-per-game players, and a 30-goal man in James Neal.

2. Boston Bruins

The best team in a division that includes two arch rivals who also happen to be much weaker teams, the Bruins start with pretty much 8 free wins. Tyler Seguin will have close to a point per game, but the Bruins' strength is in having two full lines who can produce 40-point seasons in this shortened season (60 normally).

3. Washington Capitals

Alex Ovechkin will be allowed to roam free on offense again, and will have two master passers feeding him: Nicklas Backstrom on his regular shift, and Mike Ribeiro on the powerplay. I expect Ovie to reach the 35-goal plateau.

4. New York Rangers

The most talented team in the NHL - period. They might take a bit of time to gel, Marian Gaborik might miss 10 or 15 games, they might end up a point behind Pittsburgh which will cost them 3 positions in the standings, but they have the best goalie in the world (Henrik Lundqvist), the best top-4 defensive unit assembled in the last 20 years, and their #1 center (Brad Richards) is also one of the best two-way forwards in the league, the Canadian Pavel Datsyuk, if you will. Nothing stops this team from winning the Cup, save themselves. Rick Nash scores 30. Nash (Olympics), Richards (Cup, Conn Smythe, World Cup), and Lundqvist (Olympics) have all won at high levels, they will lead this team down the path to glory.

5. Ottawa Senators

The reigning Norris trophy winner (Erik Karlsson) will have another stand-out year (well, half-year), Jason Spezza will get 50 points (most of them assists), Milan Michalek will score 20 goals and Daniel Alfredsson will come close, but the big reason why the Sens will end up second in their division is because Guillaume Latendresse will score 25 and the goalies (Craig Anderson, Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner) will work miracles.

6. Buffalo Sabres

 Ryan Miller has had the summer and fall to get over last year's concussion and subsequent downfall and will regain his position as one of the 5 best goalies in the league; Ville Leino will show why he's worth top-line money, and Jason Pominville will keep producing like a Swiss clock.

7. Philadelphia Flyers

 Led by new captain Claude Giroux, they remain a force to be reckoned with offensively, but the fact that their top-5 on defense from last year is either on injured reserve or playing in Tampa (Matt Carle) will slow them down some. Not enough to miss the playoffs, but enough to be perhaps 5 wins away from the division lead.

8. Florida Panthers

Former Vezina and Hart winner José Théodore will keep making minor miracles in nets, Dmitri Kulikov will emerge as a powerplay quarterback, Brian Campbell will remain good for 0.75 points per game, and the offense will be a bit more dangerous than in seasons past with the direct-to-second-line additions of Jonathan Huberdeau and Alex Kovalev. Too bad they're in the same division as Washington and Tampa, that will cost them some points.

9. Tampa Bay Lightning

Oh, so close. They'll probably end up being tied to the Panthers but lose on some technicality, be it wins or goals for, despite boasting such offensive talent as Steven Stamkos (who will score close to 40 goals in 48 games), Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. But I feel they're going to pay dearly for using rookie Anders Lindback as their #1 goalie, and they deserve to see the playoffs pass them by for giving Matt Carle - Matt fucking Carle, not P.K. Subban!!! - 33 million dollars for 6 years, an average of $5.5M per.

10. New Jersey Devils

 It can't work every time... The Devils are overdue to not make the playoffs, and letting Zach Parise walk away and handing Bryce Salvador the captaincy are dumb - if inevitable - moves. A stupid - but entirely their fault - move was giving Travis Zajac twice what he was worth. Ilya Kovalchuk will score 30 goals, though, so at least there'll be some entertainment in Newark.

11. Montréal Canadiens

Trouble will come from unexpected places for Montréal this year... Andrei Markov's knee? It will hold up and he'll post close to 40 points. Is Tomas Plekanec in decline? Nope, he just needed wingers who could finish what he sets up. Back to point-per-game status for him... The ''top line'' will produce at half-a-point-per-game, almost as good as last season, but in a 48-game schedule, it'll look less impressive (30 points apiece for Max Pacioretty, Erik Cole and David Desharnais), P.K. Subban will miss over a month in a contract dispute and will thus relinquish his #1 d-man status to Markov, and Carey Price will keep earning 0.4 wins per game, usually not enough to make the playoffs when playing the bulk of available minutes.

12. Carolina Hurricanes

They have decent up-and-coming players, especially on defense, but so do many other teams, which means the Hurricanes may have improved a bit over the summer, but not enough to not have to fight - and lose - the battle for the final three playoff spots with 6 other teams.

13. Winnipeg Jets

They'll travel the most among Eastern teams, and will play against Washington too often to make up for it by beating the Leafs. I like their goaltending (Ondrej Pavelec), they have three studs on defense in Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom and Zach Bogosian, and I'd take Evander Kane on my team any day of the week, but depth on offense is seriously lacking.

14. Toronto Maple Leafs

Take an awful team - the Leafs, for example - and bench their saviour in nets (James Reimer) to be replaced by a rookie (Ben Scivens). Buy out the grit players (Colby Armstrong) and the best center (the oft-injured Tim Connolly), and pray Phil Kessel doesn't get injured. Too easy? Ok, fire the team's GM the day training camp opens, and watch the castle crumble. They'll win the 5 games against Montréal out of pride alone, as usual, but I can't see them winning 10 more for the rest of the season...

15. New York Islanders

How many goalies can you use in a 48-game schedule? How many AHLers can John Tavares turn into 30-goal (well, 15-goal in this shortened season) scorers? How will their powerplay manage to get the puck into the opposing team's zone if Mark Streit gets injured again? How long before they ask Doug Weight to un-retire, or make him head coach?

Western Conference:

1. Los Angeles Kings

Usually, Cup-winning teams experience a drop in the standings from shortened summers spent celebrating. Those teams don't experience lock-outs - which level the playing field a bit - and, most of all, those teams aren't coached by Darryl Sutter. Expect Dustin Brown to score 25 goals, Anze Kopitar to miss 10 games and still reach the 50-point plateau, Jonathan Quick to win 25 games, Drew Doughty to gather 40 points and Simon Gagné to, uh, not die. If there was one team who could be the first to repeat as Cup champs since the 97-98 Red Wings, it would be the Kings. But it won't.

2. Chicago Blackhawks

Captain Jonathan Toews: 45 points. Patrick Kane: 20 goals. Marian Hossa: 20 goals, 40 points. Patrick Sharp: close to 40 points. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook: 25 points each. Corey Crawford and Ray Emery: 16 wins each, 32 total for the team. That's really good.

3. Vancouver Canucks

By default, as the best team in a relatively weak division, the Canucks will finish third, ahead of the Oilers. They will have goalie problems, but are solid everywhere else, starting with the Sedin twins, and with Alex Burrows up front, and a very deep top-6 on D.

4. Edmonton Oilers

Many think it'll take a year longer, and maybe they're right, but I think this high-flying offensive talent, the best top-6 we've seen in over a decade, is due to make a splash, perhaps with 4 guys in the league's top-20 in scoring, led by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle (30 goals). Devan Dubnyk will be somewhat uneven but will win 25 in the end, although he'll likely struggle a bit in the playoffs this year, a learning curve Fleury's had with the Penguins. Justin Schultz will sneak ahead of Nail Yakupov for the Calder with roughly the same number of points (35 or so); he'll get the edge 'cause he's a defenseman.

5. St. Louis Blues

Oh, how I love this team! Rookie Vladimir Tarasenko will be spectacular, David Perron will break out, Jaroslav Halak will stop everything shot at him, Alex Pietrangelo will become a perennial Norris trophy candidate, Chris Stewart will bounce back (15 goals), and Wade Redden, of all people, will get his 25 points, too.

6. San Jose Sharks

 These guys will always make the playoffs, and always get eliminated. Their core is changing, Logan Couture is taking over from Joe Thornton, Antti Niemi is fine in nets, and the defense is strong with Brent Burns and Dan Boyle. There's just something about the Sharks - they're not allowed to get to the Finals. It's God's way, don't question it.

7. Calgary Flames

Teams coached by Bob Hartley never lose without a fight, and the Flames are tougher than almost every other team out West. Jarome Iginla (25 goals) looks like he'll never age, Miikka Kiprusoff remains one of the best in the world, Alex Tanguay is reliable for 35 points, rookie Sven Bartschi will impress, Mike Cammalleri will score 30 goals, and Dennis Wideman will help Mark Giordano man the powerplay. In an 82-game schedule, I see them missing the playoffs by 2 points; in a short one, they're in by sheer willpower.

8. Dallas Stars

I like Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr as much as the next guy, and I'm fairly certain they can take the team to the playoffs (with the help of Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn, of course), but they are aging and the Stars are no longer one of the top teams. They could lose in the first round of the playoffs in 4 straight games. Kari Lehtonen is a good goalie with a tendency to get injured, and the defense is solid if unimpressive, led once again by Alex Goligorski and Stéphane Robidas.

9. Detroit Red Wings

GM Ken Holland alluded to it earlier this week: this could be the first year in two decades the team misses the Stanley Cup playoffs. While they're usually excellent at replacing leaving talent, usually by throwing big bucks around but also through a decent farm system that keeps developing late draft picks into competent hockey players, they haven't replaced future Hall Of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom. As a matter of fact, they even lost Brad Stuart while they were at it, so their defense corps is stretched a little thin. Tomas Holmstrom's retirement will hurt less, but could still cost 5, maybe 10 powerplay goals this year.

10. Anaheim Ducks

 Sure, Ryan Getzlaf will bounce back; maybe he'll even get close to 45 points as he and linemate/friend Corey Perry (who could score 25 goals) both get ready to leave Anaheim as a pair of free agents next summer; good thing Bobby Ryan is good for 20 goals, as is the ever-dependable Teemu Selanne. Selanne scoring means the venerable Saku Koivu will get assists, 20 of them, perhaps, for a total of 25-some points. Sheldon Souray will help an anemic powerplay, but I'm not sure goalie Jonas Hiller is as good as he once was.

11. Minnesota Wild

 In a few years, when their AHL talent can come and take over for Mikko Koivu and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, then, fine, they'll make the playoffs and even contend. In the meantime, Zack Parise can't play alone, and Ryan Suter will realize it's harder to rack up points when Shea Weber's not by his side, and should be exposed for the defensive-minded defender he really is.

12. Nashville Predators

 It's about time the Preds lose top-end talent and not make the playoffs. Pekka Rinne is a sure shot in nets - one of the 5 best in the league - and Shea Weber is the same on D, but there are just too few guys who can put points on the board after Sergei Kostitsyn and Mike Fisher.

13. Colorado Avalanche

Three centers who would/could/should be #1 on almost any other team (Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene and O'Reilly), a 19-year old captain wunderkind in Gabriel Landeskog, and still, there are questions about the attack. It's also Erik Johnson's make-or-break year.

14. Phoenix Coyotes

Sure, the trap Dave Tippett's got going works wonders, and Sean Burke has got Mike Smith to play in nets like, well, Sean Burke. But I'm told hockey is a sport in which to win a game, one team must score more than its opponent. It doesn't matter if Smith finishes the season with a 1.00 goals-against average, if the team doesn't score, he'll lose all 48 games. Luckily, Shane Doan is good for 15 goals, as is Antoine Vermette, and Keith Yandle will get 30 points, so the Coyotes will only end up losing 30 games.

15. Columbus Blue Jackets

The Islanders might be a laughingstock with their life-long/billion-dollar contracts to mere semi-stars, but they can always count on the Jackets to make even worse hockey decisions, such as drafting guys who will never make the team in the first round, trading away the face of the franchise (and captain) for a bunch of second liners, or trading for guys who will supposedly be the cornerstone of their team for years to come only to trade them away two months later - to the team that ends up winning the Cup. Oh, and forcing guys to come back from injuries too early. This team needs to fire its GM, who will have to start rebuilding his scouting, coaching and training staff from scratch, a 5-year process at best, to have a shot at even making the playoffs, let alone contend. Or relocate, and start from scratch there.

Stanley Cup: New York Rangers, in 6 games
Cup Finalist: St. Louis Blues
Conn Smythe: Brad Richards
Art Ross (regular-season points): Evgeni Malkin
Hart (MVP): Jason Spezza
Ted Lindsay (MVP according to players): Evgeni Malkin
Rocket Richard (regular-season goals): Steven Stamkos
Lady Byng (least penalized): Jordan Eberle
Vezina (best goalie): Jonathan Quick
Selke (best defensive forward): Tomas Plekanec
Norris (best defenseman):Krystofer Letang
Calder (best rookie): Justin Schultz
Presidents Trophy (regular season champs): Pittsburgh Penguins

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