Hockey is back! After months of waiting, frustration, and perhaps even some crying, the NHL lockout is finally over. And I know as a fan you have every right to still be upset with Gary Bettman and anyone else responsible for a shortened season, but hey, it’s better than no season.
Now that there is a season, there have to be some predictions. Although nothing significant happened as far as player transactions during the lockout, there were some big moves over the summer. Rick Nash was traded to the Rangers. Jordan Staal was traded to the Hurricanes in hopes of winning a Stanley Cup with his brother Eric. And the biggest move of all: Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed with the Minnesota Wild, making them a much bigger threat in the West. While those teams improved greatly, that doesn’t mean the other 27 teams are out of the picture. Here are the predictions for the 2013, 48-game season.
- New York Rangers (1st in the Atlantic, 1st in the East) – A team who reached the conference finals and won arguably the toughest division in the league last year should have no problem doing it again, thanks to the huge addition of forward Rick Nash. With a big move like this, there’s always the risk of too many stars not playing well together (the Lakers for example), but it doesn’t happen that often in hockey, and I don’t see it happening to the Rangers. The Rangers are once again the favorites in the East because they have the talent.
- Boston Bruins (1st in the Northeast, 2nd in the East) – The Bruins made a surprisingly early exit in the playoffs last year to
the 7 seeded Capitals. Although it’ll be Tukka Rask in net and not Tim Thomas who is retired (sort of) I still like the Bruins chances to win their division. Tyler Seguin put up great numbers in Switzerland (25 goals and 15 assists) and should carry that success over in the NHL.
- Florida Panthers (1st in the Southeast, 3rd in the East) – They made the playoffs for the first time since 2000 last year, and almost pulled off the series victory against the Devils in overtime of Game 7. Florida didn’t lose much, which gives them a great shot at defending their division title in 2013. There are still talks about obtaining Roberto Luongo, but even if they don’t get him they still have a solid lineup. However, Carolina, Washington and Tampa Bay will all be right behind them; and I mean right behind them when it comes to point totals. I think it could come down to the very last day, but the Panthers will come out on top.
- Pittsburgh Penguins (2nd in the Atlantic, 4th in the East) – With the two best players in the world in Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby being 100% healthy at the start of the season for the first time in what seems like ages, there’s no doubt the Pens will have a good season. One thing that does worry me though: the loss of a great way two-way player in Jordan Staal. Brandon Sutter won’t be good as him, but if he plays well enough it still should work out for the Pens. With the addition of Tomas Vokoun to backup Marc Andre Fleury in net, the lackluster performance in last year’s playoffs from Fleury won’t happen again.
- Carolina Hurricanes (2nd in the Southeast, 5th in the East) – Okay, so the first four picks were just like last year, but here’s something different. The combination of the Staal brothers, along with a good season from Cam Ward will propel the Canes into the middle of the Eastern Conference. It’ll be interesting to see how the Canes use the two Staal brothers. Both are centers, but there’s also the possibility of one of them moving to the wing so they can be on the same line. Either way, more pressure will be on Jordan Staal. He’s finally out of the shadows of Crosby and Malkin and it’ll be interesting to see how he handles it.
- Philadelphia Flyers (3rd in the Atlantic, 6th in the East) – Claude Giroux really showed skill last year against Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs and not surprisingly was recently named Philadelphia’s captain. Even with the loss of Jaomir Jagr, the offense should still be very good. But like every year since the Ron Hextall days, the Flyers will have questions in net. Ilya Bryzgalov didn’t look like a 51 million dollar player, which is unfortunate for the Flyers, because that’s exactly what they’re paying him. This team will make the playoffs, but one of the biggest keys to having success in the playoffs is a hot goaltender. Unless Brzygalov plays to his potential, don’t expect this team to make a deep run.
- Washington Capitals – (3rd in the Southeast, 7th in the East) – Although they upset the Bruins in the first round of last year’s playoffs, this team still has failed to reach the Eastern Conference Finals in the Ovechkin era. So, will this be the year? If it’s going to be, Ovi needs to put up better numbers than he did last year (38 goals 27 assists). If Michal Neuvrith can do a good job in net, the Caps will be back in the playoffs. But that isn’t enough anymore for the fans in DC.
- Buffalo Sabres – (2nd in the Northeast, 8th in the East) – This one’s tough. Tampa Bay, New Jersey and Montreal could all go in this spot as well. But the Sabres were so close last year, and with the addition of tough guys John Scott and Steve Ott (I’m sure there will be nicknames for those two) to protect Miller, the Sabres will sneak in the postseason.
- Tampa Bay Lightning – (4th in Southeast, 9th in the East) – This team has good offense in Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, and 60-goal scorer Steven Stamkos. They have a new goalie, former Nashville backup Anders Lindback, who will surely improve their league-worst stat of allowing 3.39 goals per game. And with the addition of Matt Carle from Philadelphia, they have some defense too. The problem is they had most of this last season too and put up poor numbers, including a 25th ranked powerplay. They’ll fall short of the playoffs, but only by one or two points.
- New Jersey Devils – (4th in the Atlantic, 10th in the East) – The Devils magical run in the playoffs was only overshadowed by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Kings, but if you remember, New Jersey had to beat all of their East foes on the road as a six seed. This year will be tough. The loss of Zach Parise will really effect the team, simply because it’s hard to replace a guy like him. Not only that, but there’s still the possibility of Ilya Kovalchuk staying in the KHL. No Parise? No Kovalchuk? No chance. 40-year-old Martin Brodeur can only do so much from the net.
- Montreal Canadiens – (3rd in the Northeast, 11th in the East) – I was wondering where all those Canadian teams went! Montreal, like Buffalo added some toughness to their lineup in the offseason that should help them. Another new addition came behind the bench in head coach Michel Therrien. Therrien started his NHL coaching career in Montreal, then led the Penguins to the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals, and after a few years out of the league is back for a second chance up north. If Carey Price has a good enough season the Habs could sneak in with a little luck, but their lack of size will hurt them this season. Hey, at least they can’t do worse than their last place finish last year.
- Ottawa Senators – (4th in the Northeast, 12th in the East) – If the Stanley Cup was awarded to “coach with the greatest mustache” then Paul MacLean and the Sens would be a lock. But unfortunately that’s not the case. The Senators had eight players play overseas during the lockout, so that’s one advantage over any opponents that just practiced and worked out here in the States. But that’s really only the advantage they have. They have Daniel Alfredsson returning for another season at the age of 39, but in the end it won’t be enough.
- Winnipeg Jets – (5th in the Southeast, 13th in the East) – The Jets were a great story last year, returning to a Winnipeg city that deserves to have a hockey team. And while they played well at home, they recorded the fourth worst road record in the league. They still struggle in net and on defense. And unlike the other four teams in their division, they didn’t really make any moves to improve their playoff chances.
- Toronto Maple Leafs – (5th in the Southeast, 14th in the East) – The James van Riemsdyk pickup from Philadelphia was good for the Leafs, but an even greater move would be getting Roberto Luongo from Vancouver. Like Florida, Toronto has been talking to the Canucks for the goaltender. Only time will tell. Not to say Luongo will propel them into the playoffs, but it’ll certainly help.
- New York Islanders – (5th in the Atlantic, 15th in the East) – Maybe moving to Brooklyn will help the Islanders in the big picture, but as far as the immediate future goes, this team still has a lot of problems. John Tavares is becoming the Rick Nash of the East: Very talented but no one around to help. Rick DiPietro always gets injured, and backup Evgeni Nabakov is 37 years old, so there’s a question in how much he has left in the tank. It also doesn’t help having four teams that qualified for the playoffs last year and players that include Nash, Lundqvist, Malkin, Crosby, Giroux and Brodeur in your division.
- St. Louis Blues – (1st in the Central, 1st in the West) – The Blues are coming off a season in which they exceeded
expectations. This season, there are many higher expectations, and the Blues still have the talent to meet them. The goalie duo of Brian Elliot and Jaroslav Halak is arguably the best in the league, thanks to both of them recording a top five GAA of 1.56 and 1.97, respectively. They also have depth, which always helps in the playoffs, and they have Ken Hitchcock behind the bench, who knows how to win. Watch out.
- Phoenix Coyotes – (1st in the Pacific, 2nd in the West) – The Coyotes were a great story last season, coming into the playoffs even with all of the relocation and bankruptcy stories about them throughout the past couple of years. They just ran into a better story, and team, in the LA Kings and fell in the Western Conference Finals. Still, they have Mike Smith, one of the best goalies in the league. They have depth on defense, including newly acquired Zbynek Michalek. And although they lost Ray Whitney to Dallas, the offense should be okay thanks to new Coyotes Steve Sullivan and David Moss. Yes, the Sharks are always good in the regular season and the Kings are the defending champs, but the Coyotes are the team to beat in the Pacific.
- Minnesota Wild – (1st in the Northwest, 3rd in the West) – Remember when the Wild started red hot last season? 20-7-3 to be exact. Then this happened. This time, with a shorter season and two stars, Zach Parise on offense and Ryan Suter on defense, this team won’t crash. Put Parise with Mikko Koivu and Dany Heatley, and that’s a pretty scary offensive attack. The team spent money like they were contenders, and when the puck drops they’ll play like contenders as well.
- Chicago Blackhawks – (2nd in the Central, 4th in the West) – If any player needed the lockout the most it was Marian Hossa. After suffering a hit from Coyote Raffi Torres in the playoffs last year, Hossa recovered during the extra time off ready to go. With him, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp all healthy, they should be able to have a good season. Two weaknesses though: Lack of a solid, reliable goaltender, and their special teams (26th on the powerplay and 27th on the PK).
- Nashville Predators – (3rd in the Central, 5th in the West) – The Preds kept a lot of their players, except for that Suter guy. They still have a top-five goalie in Pekka Rinne and a top-five defenseman in Shea Weber (He’s probably the best, but just for the sake of not arguing I’ll say top-five). They also had the best powerplay last season, something that could carry over into this season as well. They might’ve fallen short of people’s expectations (I had them in the Finals), but that’s the great thing about being good: You get a second chance.
- Detroit Red Wings – (4th in the Central, 6th in the West) – The Red Wings lost Nik Lidstrom, but still have a lot of talent. Most of the players are old, but with a 48-game schedule that shouldn’t play a big role on their performance. Like last year the Central will be very competitive, and the Red Wings have always proven they can play with the best, seeing as they haven’t missed the playoffs in 21 years.
- Vancouver Canucks – (2nd in the Northwest, 7th in the West) – Don’t worry folks, no more Central Division teams for a while. The Canucks will now rely on Cory Schneider in net, now that Luongo has been in trade talks for a while. The question is how far can Schneider lead the team. They still have some offense with the Sedin twins, Mason Raymond and Alex Burrows, but this team isn’t what it used to be only a couple years ago.
- LA Kings – (2nd in the Pacific, 8th in the West) – They are the team to beat. Plain and simple. But, remember, they were an eight seed last year for a reason. Jonathan Quick was one of the biggest reasons they had such a hot run last spring, and his success will determine whether or not they get a shot to defend their title. They kept the rest of their roster in tact, but that’s the thing. Can this roster really compete with teams like St. Louis and Nashville? Or was there some luck in last season’s Cup run too? We’ll find out.
- San Jose Sharks – (3rd in the Pacific, 9th in the West) – They picked up Brad Stuart from Detroit, so that should improve their 29th ranked penalty kill, and 11 players have been playing on Europe, so rust won’t be the reason this team won’t make the playoffs. They’ve made the playoffs eight years in a row, but have never reached the Finals. Last year they snuck in as a seven seed and lost in the first round. This team is good, but just a little off, and this ninth place finish might help them figure out what the problem is.
- Colorado Avalanche – (3rd in the Northwest, 10th in the West) – The Avs made a big signing in the offseason when they grabbed former Islander P.A. Parenteau. He played well with Tavares, so at least in my eyes it seems like a good move. The Avs also have Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog on offense. But the inconsistent goaltending from Semyon Varlamov and the chance that the Parenteau signing doesn’t work out could hurt them.
- Dallas Stars – (4th in the Pacific, 11th in the West) – This team has some offensive talent with Jamie Benn, and adding Jaomir Jagr and Ray Whitney will only help. However, the Stars need some kind of identity or leader on the team. Perhaps that will propel them into the playoffs, something they haven’t seen since reaching the 2008 Conference Finals. Maybe they need a logo change, which reportedly will happen next year. Whatever the problem is, it won’t be fixed this season in a competitive Western Conference.
- Anaheim Ducks – (5th in the Pacific, 12th in the West) – Head coach Bruce Boudreau and the Ducks made a late push in the second half of the season but fell short of the playoffs. The good news is Teemu Selanne is returning for another season. With him, Bobby Ryan, Cory Perry and Ryan Getzlaf on the roster and healthy, this team might surprise some folks and sneak in. You never know.
- Edmonton Oilers – (4th in the Northwest, 13th in the West) – They have young talent. They really do. Columbus should know; the Oilers have robbed them of the number 1 pick for three straight years now. Give them one more high draft pick (which I’m sure they’ll get, even if the draft lottery is now expanded to 14 teams) and hockey will officially be back in Edmonton.
- Calgary Flames – (5th in the Northwest, 14th in the West) – The clock is ticking on Jarome Iginla. He’s a free agent after this season, and could very likely leave the Flames. This team has upper management problems, so with a poor season this year, you can almost count on Iginla leaving Calgary.
- Columbus Blue Jackets – (5th in the Central, 15th in the West) – There’s that last Central division team! When you were the worst team last season with your superstar, and then lost your superstar in the offseason, what do you expect? Simply put: The Blue Jackets will be playing spoiler from the very beginning of the season.
EAST: Rangers over Penguins
WEST: Blues over Wild
FINALS: Rangers over Blues – Rick Nash doesn’t have to wait long to get what he’s deserved his whole career: The sweet taste of victory.