With less than 24 hours remaining in our hockey-less lives...I thought I'd share my predictions for the upcoming season.
Western Conference Playoff Teams
1. Vancouver Canucks - Yes...Ryan Kesler's injured hip will keep him out, and for a long time, but the weak Northwest Division will put the Canucks on top of the West again. They are still one of the most talented teams in the NHL. The Sedin brothers remain in their primes. Despite endless trade rumors, Roberto Luongo is still a Canuck, and the tandem of Luongo and Corey Schneider is a huge advantage, especially in a shortened season. If Luongo eventually is dealt, Schneider will have to carry the load, but it's a job he's fully capable of doing...and doing well.
2. Los Angeles Kings - The defending champs are back, and haven't lost a thing. They will start the season without Anze Kopitar, who's recovering from a knee sprain, but he should be back by the middle of next week. They have the best goaltender in the conference in Jonathan Quick. Captain Dustin brown leads a deep corps of forwards, including Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, and a resurgent Dustin Penner. On defense, Drew Doughty brings Norris Trophy level play, while young Russian Slava Voynov will have his first full season with the Kings. In his rookie season, the 26 year old recorded 20 points in 54 games, and played well in the Kings' Cup run.
3. Chicago Blackhawks - At the risk of sounding like a homer...I think the Blackhawks win the Central Division, but they're far from perfect. Center depth, if you can even call it that, remains a problem. Corey Crawford and Ray Emery haven't exactly inspired confidence in anyone, and the bottom 3 defensemen remain a question. All of that said, the core of Jonathan Toews, a seemingly focused and re-committed Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, and Duncan Keith is as strong as any in hockey. It's going to be a race to the wire with the St. Louis Blues, but I think the Hawks' depth puts them over the top in the Central Division.
4. St. Louis Blues - The Blues have some of the best young forwards you've never heard of. David Backes and TJ Oshie each put up 50+ points last season. David Perron would have done the same had he not started the season injured. He put up 42 points in 57 games. Expect a statistical jump from each of these kids this season. Combine that with a diverse, talented and mean defense, and the Jennings Trophy winning goalie team of Jaroslav Salak and Brian Elliott, and you have the makings of a Cup contender. In fact, they're my Western Conference Champ.
5. Minnesota Wild - The big winners in free agency this summer will finally make the jump to the elite ranks of the Western Conference. After landing forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter this offseason, the Wild won't just win...they'll finally be worth watching. I expect a big season from goalie Nick Backstrom...who's toiled with an offensively challenged team for what seems like an eternity. Also, make sure to keep an eye on rookie Mathew Dumba. He was the Wild's first round pick this summer. He's made the team out of camp, and could be a contributor.
6. Detroit Red Wings - Is this finally the year the Red Wings start to falter? Probably not. While the retirements of players the caliber of Nick Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom would cripple most teams, the Red Wings (like the St. Louis Cardinals in baseball) always seem to find a way to be competitive and a playoff threat. The Wings added some toughness in Jordin Tootoo, while Rookie Damien Brunner is expected to be in the discussion for the Calder Trophy.
7. San Jose Sharks - Talent...speed...blah blah blah. They're a good regular season team. All the names you remember are still there. Joe Thornton, Ryan Clowe, Dan Boyle, Martin Havlat and the boys will have another solid regular season and disappoint in the playoffs. I'm not sure the offseason addition of Adam Burish is enough to get them over the hump.
8. Dallas Stars - Assuming Jamie Benn's contract gets done, the Stars will be one of those scary playoff matchups. They've added veterans Jaromir Jagr, Ray Whitney and Derek Roy to an already strong core of young forwards. If Kari Lehtonen can stay healthy, the Stars could win a round or two.
Western Conference Finals : Blues over Kings
Eastern Conference Playoff Teams
1. New York Rangers - The team with the best record in the Eastern Conference last season added Rick Nash this offseason. He'll join Ryan Callahan, Marian Gaborik, and Brad Richards up front. That's a solid top four. Henrik Lundqvist is, in my opinion, the best goalie in hockey. If there's one concern for the Rangers, it's their blue line. While it's reasonably deep, it lacks star power. There is no one elite defenseman. Other than that, I like the Rangers to win the East, and the Stanley Cup.
2. Boston Bruins - Goalie Tim Thomas is staying at home with his foil hats and bibles this season. That means Tuukka Rask is the man in goal for the Bruins. Last season, he posted a goals against of 2.05 and a .929 save percentage. They'll be fine in goal. Milan Lucic and Tyler Sequin lead a talented and physical group of forwards, while perennial Norris Trophy candidate Zdeno Chara patrols the blue line. Look for Chara's D partner, Johnny Boychuk, to have a solid season. He could be a nice late round fantasy pick up.
3. Washington Capitals - To me, there is one key to the Caps season...Mike Green. If healthy, Green is one of the two or three best offensive defensemen in the league. That's if healthy. He's played in only 81 games the last two seasons. This could finally be the breakout season for defenseman John Carlson as well. In goal, Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth will likely split duties, unless one emerges as the season goes on.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins - The Pens and Rangers will be neck and neck all season. The long offseason can only have helped Sidney Crosby and his concussion problems. Evgeni Malkin has been playing in Russia during the lockout. He did decent. Only 65 points in 37 games (!). The Pens added defenseman Paul Martin to an already strong blue line, and now have Tomas Vokoun backing up Marc-Andre Fleury in goal. Two Hart Trophy contenders on one team make them dangerous, and a certain Cup contender.
5. Philadelphia Flyers - If Ilya Bryzgalov can be two thirds of the goalie he was in Phoenix, the Flyers can win a Stanley Cup. That's a big if. The aloof goalie didn't adapt well to the pressure of playing in a hockey market. Claude Giroux, who was just named captain, is back and could be a Hart Trophy contender this season. This offseason, the Flyers traded James Van Riemsdyk to the Toronto Maple Leafs for defenseman Luke Schenn. His brother Brayden will likely play on the top line with Giroux. He could be another nice fantasy addition.
6. New Jersey Devils - I wasn't a huge believer in the Devils last season...even as they were making their Cup run. I wasn't impressed. Martin Brodeur is another year older. Ilya Kovalchuk wants to stay in Russia, but his NHL contract won't let him. The Devils are a solid team top to bottom, but a disgruntled Kovalchuk could be a big problem. Meh.
7. Tampa Bay Lightning - Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier, and Martin St. Louis will be enough to get the Lightning in the playoffs. Stamkos is the best and most exciting goal scorer in the NHL. Beyond that...I'm not sure how much to expect. Their D corps is solid if unspectacular. The Wild Card is goalie Anders Lindback. Lindback was Pekka Rinne's backup in Nashville for the last two seasons, where he put up solid numbers (.914 save percentage, 2.53 goals against). If he can play to that level as a starter, the 'Ning could jump a spot or two.
8. Florida Panthers - The Panthers are a fun team to watch, but aside from Brian Campbell and newly named captain Ed Jovanovski, they lack real star power. However, former Hawk Kris Versteeg (who's still only 26 years old) put up very solid numbers last season. The team also signed veteran winger Alex Kovalev. Kovalev probably has very little left, but he's a guy who can help a power play. So what do I like about the Panthers? They're scrappy as hell. Dale Tallon built this team with guys who try hard all the time. They'll be fun to watch in the regular season, but unless Jose Theodore can return to the elite level of play he had that one magical season in Montreal...the first round is the limit.
Eastern Conference Finals - Rangers over Penguins
Stanley Cup Finals - Rangers over Blues
Let me know what you think in the comments section or on my Twitter. Thanks for reading. Now let's drop the puck!
Filed under: Adam Burish, alex ovechkin, Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, brad richards, brent seabrook, brian campbell, Chicago Blackhawks, Chicago Sports, Corey Crawford, Dale Tallon, dallas stars, danny mac show, duncan keith, goaltending, hockey, Ilya Kovalchuk, jay zawaski, khl, kris versteeg, LA Kings, marian gaborik, marian hossa, martin havlat, new york rangers, NHL, nhl playoffs, norris trophy, Patrick Kane, patrick sharp, philadelphia flyers, red wings, roberto luongo, San Jose Sharks, Shea Weber, sports, stanley cup, Stanley Cup Champions, stanley cup finals, Tim Thomas, toronto maple leafs, Uncategorized, vancouver canucks, viktor stalberg, wscr