14 January 2013

2012-13 NHL Season Preview & Predictions

Better late than never, as they saw. We may have missed a little less than half of the 2012-13 NHL season due to that pesky lockout but with the lockout now over, there will be a 48-game season that begins on January 19th with only intraconference play.

Now that we are finally close to some actual hockey in what should be one of the weirder seasons in memory, which team will fight through to win the Stanley Cup? Here is my 2012-13 NHL season preview.

1. Pittsburgh Penguins
Their postseason struggles aside, this is a team that even without Sidney Crosby for the majority of the season finished a point out of the top seed in the East. A healthy Crosby should be enough to put them over the top of the Rangers by such a slight edge. Marc-Andre Fluery is always an adventure in goal but this is a gifted offensive club, even with the departure of Jordan Staal. Evgeni Malkin should have another great season and the team has money to spend should they choose to make a move for some defense.

2. Washington Capitals
Washington did stumble pretty badly in 2011-12 but they did come close to seizing the division title from Florida and they were very close to reaching the conference finals but did not have enough for the Rangers. Adam Oates looks to be a good fit to coach his former club and they have the same amount of firepower as they always do and I'm expecting a bounce-back year for Alex Ovechkin and the rest of the team's stars. Braden Holtby looks to be the man in net and boy did the youngster impress in the postseason last year.

3. Boston Bruins
The Bruins are deep and loaded and are geared up for another Cup run. They have a deep offense with Tyler Seguin looking like a star in the making. Their defense will be strong as always, as many will be when you have an anchor like Zdeno Chara. The only real concern with this Bruins squad will be in goal, as Tim Thomas is supposedly taking this year off. The key will be on Tuukka Rask to be the glue in net that Thomas has been and he has the capability but not the experience of the man he is replacing.

4. New York Rangers
It was a tough decision to put the Blueshirts at second in the Atlantic division considering their strong offseason, highlighted by a great move to bring in Rick Nash to juice up their offense, plus a full season of the talented Chris Krieder to go with a ever-strong defense that will only get better and the brilliant work of Henrik Lundqvist in net. Even though I do think the Penguins will slightly get the divisional crown, this Rangers club is dangerous and a real threat to win their first Cup since 1994. The key will be how Nash works out in a much bigger market and on a real playoff team for the first time.

5. Philadelphia Flyers
As we saw in the postseason, when the Flyers are cranking offensively, they are awfully tough to slow down (just ask the Penguins). And they look to be loaded on the wings once again as Claude Giroux is a beast and the rest of the wings are very good. The backend of the team as well as in net are where the questions lie for Peter Laviolette's club. The defensive corps have been hurt by injuries, especially Chris Pronger, and you never know what you are going to get in net with Ilya Bryzgalov.

6. Tampa Bay Lightning
The questions with the Lightning do not come with the tremendous offense, led by Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Ryan Malone and Teddy Purcell.. The questions have been with the defense and with the goaltending, which both have hurt the team in recent years. Steve Yzerman was aggressive in trying to address both issues and made good improvements in both where the team should be able to reach the postseason. Matt Carle and Sami Salo are solid defensemen and I think that Anders Lindback will be a good goalie.

7. Buffalo Sabres
Buffalo was never able to rebound from their poor start last season despite finishing strong but they ultimately came up just shy of the postseason. I do think their strong finish, as well as some strong moves in the offseason to bring in some tough, gritty guys like center Steve Ott and left winger John Scott, will push them into the postseason. A bunch of guys had disappointing seasons this past year but I think that greater continuity will bode well for them, as well as having Ryan Miller back in net and he's rock solid back there.

8. Ottawa Senators
Not too many of an NHL observer thought that the Senators would be a playoff team last year but not only did they sneak in with the eighth seed, they had a 3-2 series lead on the top seeded Rangers before allowing New York to capture the series. The Sens will not sneak up on anybody this season but with the talented youngsters that they have like center Kyle Turris, left winger Jakob Silfverberg and center Mika (don't call me Brzezinski) Zibanejad, as well as the brilliant defenseman Erik Karlsson they should be able to take advantage of other team's potential injury struggles with the shortened season. Craig Anderson may have played out of his mind against the Rangers in goal but he should provide some solid play in net.

9. Carolina Hurricanes
I think the Hurricanes could be a surprise team this year and make a push for the playoffs, even as I have them finishing jusy shy. I feel that way because I really like the moves they made in the offseason to bring in Alexander Semin and Jordan Staal to upgrade an offense that was in need of some juice. The talented Jeff Skinner should also have a bounce-back season after he disappointed in his sophomore campaign. Cam Ward is also very good in net but I think the team's weakness on the defensive end will hurt just enough for them to miss the postseason.

10. New Jersey Devils
It is going to be a long season for the Devils this year, something they are not that unaccustomed to thanks to their long period of consistent success. But with some financial troubles on the horizon, plus with Martin Brodeur on his last legs, and Zach Parise in St. Paul, a step backwards is likely. That said, we have learned to never count out Lou Lamoriello making a move here and there and Peter DeBoer has shown the ability to coach up this team as he did this past season but there is a lot of pressure on Ilya Kovalchuk on the offensive end and the defense is not deep.

11. Florida Panthers
Florida may have been one goal away from knocking out the favored Devils in the first round of the playoff this past year but there is no question that the team's slide late in 2011-12 was disconcerting, even if they did win the Southeast. Nobody in their right minds is expecting the Panthers to repeat as division champions as it would take quite a feat given that many of their top performers exceeded expectations and with questions in net with an aging Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmenson, I wouldn't even expected this to be the top hockey club in the Sunshine State.

12. Montreal Canadiens
Old is new again in Montreal with Michel Therrien returning to the bench and while his tough style could push the Canadiens into the postseason if the right buttons are pushed, we are more likely to see a playoff run next season. Carey Price is good enough to carry this team and he has developed into quite the netminder but the Habs risk wasting his good play in goal if they struggle once again to score. And even with some solid acquisitions, they still are a little undersized at forward.

13. Toronto Maple Leafs
First off, while I am not opposed to the firing of GM Brian Burke, to me, the timing did not make any sense. But as we all know, I do not run a hockey club. There really is not that much to like about this Leafs team but that could all change if they finally acquire a goaltender, with rumors pointing to Roberto Luongo, who looks to be done in Vancouver. Until they get a goalie, this team appears to be stuck in neutral, which it has been for years now, as Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and co. can only do so much.

14. New York Islanders
With the Islanders, the problems are going to start with the goaltending. We already know that Rick DiPietro is going to struggle to stay healthy and even if he did, he is not exactly rock-solid in net. It also does not help matters that the Islanders are stuck in a very deep division with three legitimate Cup contenders. But there is hope with the club this year and that is because it appears that John Tavares is on his way to being a legitimate NHL star. I think he is good enough to keep New York out of the basement of the conference but one man can only do so much.

15. Winnipeg Jets
The Jets are going to be at a disadvantage until the league puts in some realignment because the only thing that Winnipeg is considered to be in the Southeast is Manitoba, and that's it. The club does have some young talent that it is hoping to continue to development but their struggles on offense will really hurt this team, as well as inconsistent play in net with Ondrej Pavelec, even though their defense is solid.

1. Los Angeles Kings
In case you forgot, this team just won the Stanley Cup after an impressive run through the postseason as the eighth seed and returns everyone. So yeah, this team is loaded and while some may think that there could be a hangover, the lockout may hinder that. Having a full season with Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne should only make them better and they could very well repeat as Cup champions.

2. St. Louis Blues
The Blues had a brilliant season a year ago and they owed that one to tremendous goaltending by Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, a fantastic defense and swell coaching by Ken Hitchcock. Unfortunately, they only got to the second round and it is possible that they got worn down by Hitchcock's style but with a shortened season, that may not happen. While I do not expect the goalie play to be as lights out, the defense should still be very strong and I think their offense will be better as well behind center David Backes, right winger T.J. Oshie, defenseman Alex Piantrangelo and left winger David Perron.

3. Vancouver Canucks
One of these days, the Canucks are going to trade Roberto Luongo; it is inevitable. The team seems set with Cory Schneider in net going forward and while he has the capabilities to be a very good netminder, the pressure will be on him. That said, this is a team that returns pretty much every key contributor from the past two Presidents' Trophy winners and who knows, could they finally get that long elusive Stanley Cup?

4. Chicago Blackhawks
Remember when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup? Don't be surprised if this team makes a run at it this spring. They are very strong up front with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Marion Hossa. Their blueline is very solid with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. But the Hawks will go as far as their goalie play takes them and thus the onus will be on Corey Crawford or Ray Emery.

5. Minnesota Wild
Minnesota stole the offseason (which seemed so long ago, doesn't it?) with the signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter and both should see to improve what was an awful offense a year ago. Who knows, maybe they can get Dany Heatley to have a bounce-back season? It will be a disappointment if the Wild don't make the playoffs but as to how far they go rests on the mid-thirties shoulders of goalie Niklas Backstrom.

6. San Jose Sharks
It appears that the clock may be ticking on the Sharks to finally break through in the postseason because their core of Jumbo Joe Thornton, Dan Boyle and Patrick Marleau is not getting any younger. Regardless, the Sharks should be strong as usual offensively and they have themselves a solid blueline corps with Boyle and Brent Burns as the anchors. Antti Niemi was not as good in goal as he was the year before and the 29-year old Finn will be key for the Sharks if they finally want to raise a Cup.

7. Detroit Red Wings
The last time the Red Wings missed the playoffs, Mikhail Gorbachev was the President of the Soviet Union (for those of you counting, that was 1990). But the glory years in Motown could be coming towards a close as a bad offseason leaves this club ever older and particularly with holes on defense after Nicklas Lidstrom retired and Brad Stuart was dealt to the Sharks. Even with a crop of forwards as deep as any with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk leading the charge (even with both on the wrong side of 30), the holes in the defense put a lot of pressure on Jimmy Howard.

8. Nashville Predators
Expecting this team to be as good as they were a year ago without Ryan Suter is unrealistic, but it would be unwise to count this time out. After all, Barry Trotz is a brilliant coach, as nobody is better at getting the most of his team. Also, Pekka Rinne is an elite goalie and as always, it is hard to score on him. Shea Weber is still on the club as well as he is still one of the best defensemen. And while you would not have expected it, the Preds were eighth in scoring a year ago, showing they are better offensively than you would have thought.

9. Phoenix Coyotes
As long as Dave Tippett is running the show in Glendale, the Coyotes will be well-coached and competitive but it is hard to see where the offense will come after scoring leader Ryan Whitney left for Dallas and Shane Doan could be next to leave the desert. The defense should be very good and Mike Smith looks to be brilliant once again in net but having to really on low scoring games grinds a team down. But at least it looks like they will have some stable ownership and a future in the desert, as well as a potential name change to the Arizona Coyotes, similar to the Cardinals in the early 90's.

10. Dallas Stars
Could the Stars make their first postseason since 2008? I say ultimately no but they are in the right direction, which is more than you can say of the club over the past few years. Kari Lehtonen has improved into a solid goalie and if the team wants to get into the postseason, he will have to have a good season. The team is building around left wingers Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson and have brought in the solid Ryan Whitney as well as hope that Jaromir Jagr still has some gas in the tank but I still do not think the defense is good enough.

11. Anaheim Ducks
Remember when the trio of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan was kicking ass and taking names? Well those were the days but after all three disappointed last season, it will be key for them to get back to their prior levels in order for Bruce Boudreau and the Ducks to return to the playoffs. They also need another good season from Teemu Selanne, which considering he is 42 will be a tall task. Jonas Hiller will need to be stellar and the defensemen will have to step up.

12. Colorado Avalanche
I am not sure how many people thought that Joe Sacco and the Avs would finish with 88 points last season with a pretty young roster but that is what happened and has some thinking playoffs this year. I do think they are a year away from real contention but there is a lot to like with this team, particularly up front. The key will be what the team can get from their defense and Erik Johnson in particular and from goalie Semyon Varlamov.

13. Calgary Flames
The key players behind the Flames' recent run at success remain in Jerome Iginla and Miika Kiprusoff but both are not getting any younger as they are 35 and 36, respectively. The real problem is that there is no great young players on this team and this is a team that will be stuck in neutral until their two key guys retire and then they bottom out. Calgary may not be willing to do so but they really should be looking at scrapping what's in place and begin a rebuilding process.

14. Edmonton Oilers
All those awful finishes at the bottom of the league have resulted in a club with some great young talent on the wings with Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Nail Yakupov but this is a club that is a year away from serious playoff contention in the Western Conference. They still have yet to find a goaltender unless Devan Dubnyk steps up and the defense leaves something to be desired and in a tough conference, both will hurt.

15. Columbus Blue Jackets
Let's face it, the Blue Jackets have sucked even with Rick Nash, wasting much of the career with awful teams around him. Now with their franchise player in New York, and without a great haul in return, the Blue Jackets have a one way ticket to the cellar of the West. The team does not have great depth throughout the roster and there will be a lot of pressure on Sergei Bobrovsky in net as he takes over for Steve Mason.

(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (8) Ottawa Senators
The youth on the wings for Ottawa will make them interesting in a shortened season but as I said earlier, they are not surprising anybody this season and with a loaded Penguins team back to 100% with the return of Sidney Crosby, this will be a tough go for the Sens this round.
Penguins in 5

(2) Washington Capitals vs. (7) Buffalo Sabres
Buffalo will benefit from keeping their core together and bringing in some tough guys to get back into the postseason but I am not sold on how far they can go come postseason because I do not think they have the firepower that Washington has. Lindy Ruff and his club should make it interesting but I do not think they can do much more than that.
Capitals in 5

(3) Boston Bruins vs. (6) Tampa Bay Lightning
I think we are ripe for an upset in this series. Boston is gunning for another Stanley Cup but I think what leaves them vulnerable in their play in net with Tuukka Rask. The Bruins were upset by a team with some tremendous wing play a year ago in Washington and we all know how good the Lightning are on offense. I think that their defense will hold up to pull off an upset.
Lightning in 7

(4) New York Rangers vs. (5) Philadelphia Flyers
This looks to be the best series in the East in the conference quarters but the Flyers are going to have to hope that their defense is healthy and that you get the good Bryzgalov because the Rangers' offense looks to be much improved and if the Flyers are off defensively, it will be tough for Philadelphia. Their offense will always have them in the mix but with the strong defense and the King in net for New York, have to like the Blueshirts.
Rangers in 6

(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (6) Tampa Bay Lightning
While I did like the Lightning for an upset in the opening round, I think their luck will run out this round against Pittsburgh. I am not as sold that the Lightning can hold up on defense and in net against a team as loaded on offense like the Penguins are. I do think that Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury will do enough to make it interesting but not enough to turn the tide towards Tampa.
Penguins in 6

(2) Washington Capitals vs. (4) New York Rangers
Well how about that, a rematch of a semifinals matchup from a year ago. The roles have reversed somewhat with the Caps having the home-ice advantage but I really do not think it will change a thing because this Rangers club is loaded. I still have not seen it in the Capitals to where they can win deep into the postseason and after the Rangers' breakthrough last year to the conference finals and their offensive upgrades, I'm going with New York.
Rangers in 6

(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (4) New York Rangers
This is the matchup that I think everybody should be looking for in the conference finals because in my opinion, these are the two best teams in the conference. Both teams will be able to score at will and having Crosby back for a full (and they hope, healthy) season will be huge for them. But when it counts the most, you need to have great defense and most importantly, great goaltending. I have yet to find somebody who would rather be in a foxhole with Marc-Andre Fleury rather than Henrik Lundqvist.
Rangers in 7

(1) Los Angeles Kings vs. (8) Nashville Predators
Could we see the Kings fall in a similar fashion to how they upset the Canucks in the postseason last year en route to their title? I don't think so because I do not believe that the Predators are good enough offensively but with how good their defense and their goalie is, it should be a fun series.
Kings in 6

(2) St. Louis Blues vs. (7) Detroit Red Wings
I must say, I am not that high on the Red Wings and while I love Mike Babcock and their veterans are still very good on the wing, their age will come back to haunt them. St. Louis has the ability to shut down their scorers and playmakers and they will take this series with ease.
Blues in 4

(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) San Jose Sharks
If the Canucks were upset once again in the conference quarterfinals, who knows what will happen with the team for next year. But you know what, I think it is going to happen. The Sharks will come out hungry to prove that they will not fold like prior Sharks teams have and will blitz Cory Schneider hard.
Sharks in 6

(4) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (5) Minnesota Wild
Like most folks, I love what the Wild did in the offseason and I think that their aggressive moves put them right in the heart of the Western Conference playoff mix. However, I have real concerns with the aging Backstrom in net and against a team that is as loaded up front as Chicago is, I think it could be a real problem. Minnesota will steal a game due to Chicago's inconsistent goaltending.
Blackhawks in 5

(1) Los Angeles Kings vs. (6) San Jose Sharks
Could the Sharks pull off another upset in this series? Call me crazy, call me maybe but I am thinking yes. To beat the Kings, you need to have top-notch goaltending and I think that Antti Niemi can step up and perform at a high level. Los Angeles will overlook their rivals to the North and be upset by a team with nothing to lose.
Sharks in 7

(2) St. Louis Blues vs. (4) Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks' average play in net will finally catch up to them here in the semifinals against St. Louis. Since it is very hard to score on the Blues thanks to their defense and their goaltending, your play in net has to be very good and while I think that Corey Crawford has the capabilities, he is too inconsistent and he will be vulnerable against an underrated Blues attack.
Blues in 6

(2) St. Louis Blues vs. (6) San Jose Sharks
Unfortunately for Sharks fans, their run will end here against the Blues because quite simply, they will run out of gas. A younger Blues team will wear them out on both ends of the ice and Ken Hitchcock will push the right buttons to get the Blues to their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance since 1970.
Blues in 5

With two clubs that play tremendous defense and benefit from great play between the crease, this should be a classic, low-scoring, defensive oriented Stanley Cup Final. While I could easily see either team hosting Lord Stanley's Cup come June, I do believe that the Blues will ride their talented young horses and get the goaltending they need to fend off a good Rangers attack to win their first ever Stanley Cup.
Blues in 6

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