01 October 2013

2013-14 NHL Predictions

Believe it or not, hockey is back my friends and hey, we've got a full regular season this time! As we all remember, the Chicago Blackhawks won Lord Stanley's Cup back in June and as their loaded club returns nearly intact, will they repeat for the first time since the Red Wings did it in 1998 and 1999? And we've got some realignment fun and a new playoff format, so will that make it even more wild? Here are my predictions for the 2013-14 NHL season.

Coaching Carousel

As I have noted, there was divisional realignment into four divisions (Pacific, Central, Atlantic, Metropolitan) across the two conferences, which remain Western and Eastern). The top three teams in each division will get into the postseason while there are two wild cards for the conference, meaning one division could have five playoff teams and the other three. For the opening round, the matchups will be within the division as the division champs will play the wild card teams with the highest division winner playing the lowest wild card and the second and third teams in the division will play each other. The winners of those matchups will play for the division title and the winner of the divisions will play with the winner going to the Stanley Cup Finals.

*Wild Card
1. Boston Bruins
The defending Eastern Conference champions are locked and loaded for another deep run in the Cup playoffs, even after the dealing of Tyler Seguin to Dallas and losing Nathan Horton to Columbus. Having guys like Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith (both acquired in the Seguin trade) and Jerome Iginla joining the show should help keep the show rolling as much of the core returns from an excellent offensive club as well as stellar goalie play from Tuukka Rask. Don't be surprised if they get back to the finals and just may hoist Lord Stanley's Cup.

2. Ottawa Senators
Being without captain Danny Alfredsson will be a big change for the Sens and their fans, but where they lost in the heart and soul and leadership, they did upgrade by signing Bobby Ryan from Anaheim to replace him. This team disappointed somewhat by finishing seventh in the conference but they did still get to the conference semis. The key will be having a healthy Jason Spezza alongside Ryan, a healthy Erik Karlsson to head up the defensive corps and a healthy Craig Anderson in net. This is a talented, deep and underrated club that can and will make some noise.

3. Detroit Red Wings
Seems like the same old song and dance for the Wings, talented and loaded but old, and they are not to be overlooked, as the Blackhawks found out. Their offense is led by the ageless Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and should only get stronger thanks to the shrewd acquisitions of Stephen Weiss (Florida) and Danny Alfredsson (Ottawa) as well as the continued development of Justin Abdelkader. The defensive corps is not great but at least there is plenty of depth as the unit goes seven deep. Jimmy Howard is an excellent player in net.

4. Montreal Canadiens*
The Habs surprised many a hockey observer by winning the Northeast Division last year when many had them a year away from truly breaking out, but they also disappointed in falling to the Sens in five in the quarterfinals. Nobody will be surprised by them this year and largely the same corps returns with the addition of veteran center Danny Briere. There is still plenty of young talent across the units, even if the majority of them are small, such as guys like Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk and P.K. Subban. The team needs Carey Price to find his old form as he struggled down the stretch and in the postseason.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs*
We all remember how the Leafs' season ended as they completely fell apart as the Bruins came back from being down 4-1 in the third period to win in overtime. Now it looks like the Leafs are prone for a setback this year as luck was very much on their side in 2013. However I do still think that they are a playoff club, if not by much. Their offense is still quite good and they now have a luxury many clubs do not have after acquiring goalie Jonathan Bernier, who will share time with James Reimer, who was pretty good after coming back from injury trouble. David Clarkson was a fine acquisition (for the short-term anyway) and Paul Ranger should help out on the blue line.

6. Tampa Bay Lightning
The Bolts were a big disappointment last year and it cost coach Guy Boucher his job late in the season. Jon Cooper will be the new head guy and it would take a nice effort to get to the postseason. The captain Vincent Lecavalier is gone having been bought out but the offense should still be strong with the awesome Steven Stamkos teaming up with the wily Martin St. Louis and flashy rookie Jonathan Drouin. The key for the club will be the defense, which is largely the same unit that was a mess in 2013, and in net, where Anders Lindback struggled a year ago and will be pushed by Ben Bishop, who was acquired from Ottawa.

7. Florida Panthers
Well that was a pretty stark drop-off from the year before when the club reached the postseason but of course, it never helps when your club loses 361 games to injury as the Panthers did. They had the worst record in the NHL and they did not even win the draft lottery, settling for the second pick (Alexsander Barkov). A number of guys left, most notably Stephen Weiss, so there is pressure on Barkov, a bit of a surprise pick, to contribute right away as well as cheap signing Scott Gomez in a mentor role. The defense needs to continue riding Brian Campbell and hope Ed Jovanovski can stay healthy and Tim Thomas will come out of retirement and play in net.

8. Buffalo Sabres
It certainly will be a little unusual seeing a guy lead the Sabres other than Lindy Ruff for the first time since Newt Gingrich was Speaker and while Ron Rolston is a fine coach, he is in for a long season for a club that seems destined to be awful. The big questions will be if Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek, mainstays for the team for many a season, will be on the team at the end of the year considering both are free agents. There is a nice young core that has some talent but it will be a while before it truly starts to blossom.

1. Pittsburgh Penguins
When you have got a pair of stars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin running the show, not only are you going to be a strong club every year, you are going to have an elite offense. The rest of their offense is deep and talented and their defensive corps is solid as well. But as usual, the conversation will have to start and stop with the play in net as Marc-Andre Fleury is consistently inconsistent, particularly come playoff time. Tomas Vokoun is a good backup that is more than capable of being a starter but he is no spring chicken.

2. New York Rangers
The Rangers will be unchained offensively as they will move from the conservative, defensive approach favored by former coach John Tortorella to a more wide open style as promoted by new coach Alain Vigneault. There is talent on the offensive side, they just were not given the free rein but they will now with such players as Derek Stepan, Rick Nash and Ryan Callahan (and if Brad Richards comes back from a disappointing 2013, even better). The defensive corps is tough and physical and Marc Staal heads up the unit. And it never hurts to have a Henrik Lundqvist in net.

3. Washington Capitals
Washington was a disaster to start off the 2013 season but they rallied in a big and impressive way to get into the playoffs. The Caps need the Alex Ovechkin that ended 2013, on a roll and leading the turnaround, rather than the inconsistent one that started the year. There is much to like on the offensive end with Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, scoring defenseman Mike Green, John Carlson and the newly acquired Mikhail Grabovski, who will replace Mike Ribiero. Unfortunately, their offensive unit is not deep and the defense isn't that great either, but at least Braden Holtby is a very good goaltender.

4. New York Islanders
The Icelanders were a pleasant surprise in getting to the playoffs last year and making Pittsburgh sweat a little in the quarterfinals and while I am not sure if they can do that again, they will be in the mix as long as John Tavares is leading the offense and he was excellent. He should only get better and the club will need that with alongside Matt Moulson, who was tremendous in his own right. Mark Streit was a big loss on the blue line unit and there is a lot of pressure on netminder Evgeni Nabokov, who is not a spring chicken and saw a lot of minutes last year.

5. Philadelphia Flyers
Philadelphia had high hopes going into last year but the wheels fell apart early and they never got back on track, missing the playoffs cleanly. The big issue was the very inconsistent goal play from Ilya Bryzgalov, who is gone, having been replaced by the tandem of Ray Emery and Steve Mason. Emery was excellent for the Hawks, but there must have been a reason he didn't see much playoff time, plus had some hop troubles, and Mason has never been an answer for anybody. The offense will be there as Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmons and Bobby Hartnell are joined by Vincent Lecavalier and the defense will hopefully be better as the club shelled out Mark Streit. I wouldn't be surprised if the Flyers make the playoffs but it is such a logjam for those wild card slots.

6. New Jersey Devils
There is no question that when you lose a guy like Ilya Kovalchuk to an out of the blue retirement in the middle of June, it hurts you considerably considering he was the best player on the ice for New Jersey. Their offense is going to struggle now that he and David Clarkson have left town and thus there is pressure on veteran signees Jaromir Jagr and Michael Ryder to bring some pop. That said, the Devils' offseason was not all bad as the big highlight had to be flipping their first rounder to Vancouver for goaltender Cory Schneider, who brings a major upgrade to the goalie position over Johan Hedburg and will team with the legend Marty Brodeur. New Jersey probably won't be a playoff team, but they just may make it interesting.

7. Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets came that close to making the playoffs for the first time and had they started the season better, they may have made the party. But while they get their long-desired move to the East, they are in a tough division and thus the playoff party will probably have to wait. The biggest reason why Columbus came so close was because of the steller net work of Sergei Paplinsky Bobrovsky, who won the Vezina Trophy. Can he pull off another strong campaign in a full year? The offense is inconsistent with a lot of pressure on Marion Gaborik and the acquired Nathan Horton, who is out until January, and the defense needs a little work too. But hey, at least there is progress.

8. Carolina Hurricanes
Because I think the Metro division is very tough, I don't think the Hurricanes are going to be awful even though I have them last. They just project like the worst of a quality group of clubs. The defensive unit was a real issue and now with Joni Pitkanen being out for the season, that certainly will not bode well. That leaves a lot of pressure on Cam Ward in net, who is a pretty solid goalie when healthy (only played in 17 games a year ago). Fortunately, Eric Staal is excellent and should make for a solid threesome with Alex Semin and his brother Jordan, who was hit-or-miss last year.

1. Chicago Blackhawks
The defending Cup champions look like the favorite to win it all again and it is pretty easy to see why as the entire core returns. There is plenty of starpower with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and the club is balanced as there really is not much of a weakness. Patrick Sharp, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith are all excellent player. Corey Crawford was tremendous in 2013 and can he keep it up with a brand new contract extension?

2. St. Louis Blues
Now St. Louis may not be as strong as the Blackhawks (who are?) but this is still a strong club that will be mighty tough to score on thanks to a fantastic defensive corps. When you add a Jay Bouwmeester with Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, that's an impressive defensive corps. The offense is not as much in the spotlight but they can get the job done with some talented players like David Backes and Vladimir Tarasenko being joined by the acquired Brendan Morrow and Derek Roy. Jaraslav Halak should be the man in goal.

3. Minnesota Wild
The Wild had a lot of hope going into 2013 after the big signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter and while they did make the playoffs, they were only the eighth seed and so after Mike Yeo's squad has had a year to build off each other, hopes are higher for this year. The offense was inconsistent this past season but should improve with Jason Pominville being on the team for the full year. The defense is led by the excellent pairing of Suter and Jonas Brodin but can goalie Niklas Backstrom hold up as he is getting older?

4. Dallas Stars*
The Stars are a club that I think is going to take a big step forward and push its way into the postseason for the first time since 2008. Bringing in a veteran coach like Lindy Ruff helps but acquiring Tyler Seguin and drafting Valeri Nichuskin to go with Jamie Benn makes this is a very talented forward corps. They have a good mix of veterans and youth but the keys will be the defensive corps, far from a strength, and the goaltending, where Kari Lehtonen has to improve.

5. Nashville Predators
Last year was a complete fiasco for the Predators as they fell to the second-worst record in the conference but they should be better this year because frankly, it cannot get any worse. The offense looks mediocre yet again as there does not appear to be a high-volume scorer on the roster. There is a reason why there is a lot of hope for fourth-overall pick Seth Jones and it because he is a star in the making at defenseman. It will be crucial for Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne to rebound from disappointing 2013's.

6. Colorado Avalanche
With Avalanche legend Patrick Roy leading the show in Denver, you know that things are going to be fun to watch but what will bring down this club will be its troubles on the defensive end, not to be overstated, and in net, where they could use a young Roy. But the forward crop this club has is extremely impressive especially considering they are all youngeons and all very talented with top pick Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Ryan O'Reilly and Gabriel Landeskog. All in all, next year will likely be the big year.

7. Winnipeg Jets
The Jets got a win in finally getting the realignment they needed to where they were no longer playing in the old Southeast division (although their issues were probably a little overstated) but this is still going to be a long season. There is talent on the roster (Andrew Ladd, Evander Kane, Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler) and thus a bright future, as well as some rock solid veterans but the goalie issues are going to magnified in a tough division.

1. Los Angeles Kings
I fully expect the Kings to remain the kings of the Pacific division and a key reason why I feel that way is because their core remains together and it is a very strong one at that. Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Justin Williams all return and thus the offense will be strong yet again. The defense is on the rise as well and Jake Muzzin and Slava Voynov are a pair of guys whose names you will hear more and more if you follow the league. And while he was not as great as usual last year, Jonathan Quick is still an excellent goalie.

2. San Jose Sharks
Meanwhile, the Sharks were very good in the regular season as per the norm and they did come within a game of Los Angeles. The same club returns for this year and could this be the year they finally break through and get to the Cup Finals? It certainly helps when you have a goaltender that is as good as Antti Niemi. And we know they are loaded offensively with such talents as Logan Couture, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau and Brent Burns.

3. Edmonton Oilers
I believe that this is the year the Oilers make the push forward and get to the postseason for the first time since losing in the Stanley Cup Finals to Carolina back in 2006. When you have the prodigious offensive talents as Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov, as well as a talented new coach in Dallas Eakins, that is a great way to start. Of course, Nugent-Hopkins and center Sam Gagner start off the season with injuries but I am still bullish. They made some fine moves in the offseason and Devan Dybnyk is solid enough to be a goalie on a playoff team.

4. Vancouver Canucks*
Going from Alain Vigneault to John Tortorella is a sharp change and hence why a lot of folks predicting disaster right off the bat. I am more confident that at least initially, Tortorella will be able to toughen up a soft club and give them some needed edge. I do wonder how his relationship with the embattled Roberto Luongo, who will have to carry the load with Cory Schneider in Newark, will be like and that has me the most worried. What Tortorella will love is a deep defensive corps and this team does have plenty of offense as always.

5. Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks were riding high before looking inconsistent down the stretch and then they were a mess against Detroit in the quarterfinals and I think they are taking a step back out of the playoffs this year. This is a club that lost Bobby Ryan and is still relying on the aging Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne to help lead the offense with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. They also do not have a great deal of depth and I am not confident in their play in goal either.

6. Phoenix Coyotes
It seems like the 'Yotes have been having ownership issues ever since they moved from Winnipeg but at least they appear to have some stability with their new ownership and a new lease with the city of Glendale. Of course, they are not out of the woods, but at least they are in a better spot. Fortunately, Mike Smith is a very good goalie and Phoenix has a pair of excellent defensemen in Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle, but I do not see enough offense for the club to make it into the playoffs, even after overspending for Mike Ribiero.

7. Calgary Flames
The one team in this division with no chance of the playoffs is the Flames and they seem like far and away the worst team in the West and likely the NHL as well. Calgary will be the Astros of the NHL, a team that has blown it up after many years of wasting money and being a middling club at best. Brian Burke is well known for his rebuilding jobs and he will have his work cut out for him. But at least they will have a high pick in the 2014 draft.

Eastern Quarterfinals
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
At least Toronto's goaltending will help them remain somewhat competitive but this will be a sharp change from last year's playoffs.
Boston in 4

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Montreal Canadiens
Montreal will be game as they do have talent but they are not as capable to deal with an inconsistent Carey Price as the Pens will be with their own netminder.
Pittsburgh in 5

Ottawa Senators vs. Detroit Red Wings
I went back and forth a number of times with this series as I truly think this could go either way. I do think the youth of Ottawa will win out.
Senators in 7

New York Rangers vs. Washington Capitals
Once again, the Caps will take on the Rangers in the Cup Playoffs but I think they are a much inferior club when compared to what should be an energized Rangers squad.
New York in 5

Western Quarterfinals
Chicago Blackhawks vs. Vancouver Canucks
With John Tortorella running the show, who really knows. With Rob Luongo in net, who really knows. Vancouver is a crap-shoot and I think they can steal just one. 
Chicago in 5

Los Angeles Kings vs. Dallas Stars
Dallas is going to break through and get to the Cup Playoffs, but they are no match for Los Angeles. 
Kings in 4 

St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild
Minnesota is still a playoff club but they are still too flawed, particularly in goal and with their lack of depth, to go much further. 
Blues in 5 

San Jose Sharks vs. Edmonton Oilers
The Sharks are a much stronger team than Edmonton. But the Oilers have the youth movement and I think they are going to let loose and shock a lot of folks here.
Oilers in 7

Eastern Semifinals
Boston Bruins vs. Ottawa Senators
I like the Bruins a lot this year and thus this is a tough pick for me to not pick them, as they can win it all. But I really am feeling the Senators and I like them to take out Boston. 
Senators in 7

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Rangers 
This is where the issues with Marc-Andre Fleury will sprout up against a Rangers offense that will be unleashed. 
Rangers in 5

Western Semifinals
Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues
The Blues play great defense but I don't think Halak could stand up in goal against the Hawks during an entire series.
Blackhawks in 5

Los Angeles Kings vs. Edmonton Oilers
I do think the Oilers are going to surprise a lot of people and upset a very good San Jose team, but that is where their journey will end as they will get creamed by Edmonton.
Kings in 4

Eastern Finals
Ottawa Senators vs. New York Rangers
This will be a fun series and I really think that this could be the year the Rangers win it all for the first time in a long time. But I don't think it will and I think the Rangers will fall short again against a talented Senators team that I think is going to break out. 
Senators in 6

Western Finals
Chicago Blackhawks vs. Los Angeles Kings 
These two are built to be the rivalry for years to come in the Western Conference and there is a reason why they have won the last two Cups. I still give the slight edge to Chicago because I think they are a bit stronger on both sides of the ice. 
Blackhawks in 7

Chicago Blackhawks vs. Ottawa Senators
I know that a lot of folks are thinking that a loaded Blackhawks club is on the inside track to repeat at Cup champions, and I think they are certainly capable. But this, as I have said, is a very strong Ottawa club that has the defense to slow down the Chicago wingers and Bobby Ryan gives them more pop offensively. 
Senators in 7

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