Tuesday, October 11, 2011

NHL 2011-2012 Preview

I won't lie to you; I'm a new hockey fan. In my life, I've probably watched 250 hockey games, and 200 of them were in the past three years. The vast extent of my knowledge comes from watching Capitals games and playing hockey video games...including NHL Breakaway '98. Granted, there are only like three players still in the NHL from that game, but between Jagr, Pronger, and Brodeur, I get that little historical edge that some of my colleagues lack...

...okay, they have the same edge, it's just fun to remember Breakaway.

Anyways, despite my limited experience as a hockey fan, I'm excited to offer you my preview of this year's NHL season. I'll give you a quick blurb on each team and let you know who I expect to make the playoffs, who I expect to advance in the playoffs, and what players I expect to win a couple of the higher-profile trophies this season.

* indicates predicted playoff team

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Central Division
  1. * Nashville Predators - Pekka Rinne is an elite goaltender who gets put into good situations by a great defensive team, led by Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, indisputably the best pairing in hockey (with apologies to Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook). There are again questions as to where the goals will come from, but the questions were there last year, and they found a way to win.
  2. * Chicago Blackhawks - The aforementioned Keith and Seabrook are a dynamic duo, but the real bright spot for Chicago is their offensive prowess. Between Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa, they've got four of the most gifted scorers around. Points, both on the scoreboard and in the standings, should be plentiful.
  3. * Detroit Red Wings - Skilled veteran leadership is abundant for the Red Wings, and I believe Pavel Datsyuk is one of the five most talented players in the game. But a tough division and my complete disdain for Jimmy Howard force me to put them third in the division, and 5th or 6th in the conference.
  4. * St. Louis Blues - David Backes is one of my favorite players, and I acknowledge that as a factor in my picking the Blues to slide into the playoffs. But they're a talented young team that could get even more talented if David Perron is able to return from a concussion suffered last season. Of course, they'll have to overcome the Jamie Langenbrunner curse that killed the Devils early and ended the Stars' season...
  5. Columbus Blue Jackets - Columbus actually had a good offseason, picking up Jeff Carter to center the top line. But they play in an impossibly tough division, and Steve Mason doesn't seem to be the goalie we thought he was two years ago. Here's hoping they can retool and improve, though, so my brother can enjoy playing with them in NHL '13.
Northwest Division
  1. * Vancouver Canucks - I really don't like them, but they play in a weak division and they're damn talented. Ryan Kesler is going to miss early time, but the creepy Sedin twins should be able to generate enough offense to overcome his absence, and the whole back end (goalies and defensemen) for the Canucks is full of plus players.
  2. Edmonton Oilers - Taylor Hall is just one of a plethora of talented but unproven players on the Oilers, including this year's #1 overall pick, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who made the opening roster due to injuries. It's too much to expect them to be a playoff team this season, but they're headed in the right direction...finally.
  3. Calgary Flames - The Flames continue to basically be a two-man show, with Jarome Iginla and Mikka Kiprusoff highlighting an otherwise pedestrian squad. Former Capital Scott Hannan signed late in free agency, and you have to wonder how much his value took a hit because of his mistake in the playoffs last year that gave a breakaway goal to Tampa Bay in overtime.
  4. Colorado Avalanche - I do believe the Avalanche vastly overpaid for Semyon Varlamov, but there's no denying the guy's talent. And future draft picks are unknown quantities. Varly has a chance to dominate on any given night, regardless of the opponent. And it goes unnoticed sometimes, but Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny actually make the Avs pretty strong down the middle.
  5. Minnesota Wild - I wish I could say that the Wild will get back into the playoffs this year, but I just don't see it. They made a couple big trades with the Sharks, getting Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley, but they had to give up Martin Havlat and Brent Burns, which to me is mostly a push. The other Niklas Backstrom can be a very good goaltender, but he needs help that he's not going to get.
Pacific Division
  1. * San Jose Sharks - I do get a kind of gratification from making "gutsy" calls, but there's simply no picking against the Sharks this year. They were dynamite last year, and they rearranged their team to be a little stronger defensively by adding Brent Burns from Minnesota. The potency is there for San Jose to win it all this year.
  2. * Los Angeles Kings - Conventional thinking is that, to be successful come playoff time, your team has to be strong down the middle. That means centers, defensemen, goalie. By adding Mike Richards in the offseason, the Kings have two elite centers (Richards and Anze Kopitar), a great defenseman in Drew Doughty (and a should-be-better guy in Jack Johnson), and one of my favorite goalies in the league, Jonathan Quick. They're geared up for a run.
  3. * Anaheim Ducks - I really wish they were still called the Mighty Ducks, but I guess that ship has sailed. The Ducks have probably the best single line in hockey, with Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Bobby Ryan. Jonas Hiller has good skill, but he gets a ton of shots sent his way because the Ducks can't/won't play defense. They're a fun team to watch, but I don't expect more than another first round exit from them.
  4. Dallas Stars - The loss of Brad Richards is a big one, but the front line of Mike Ribeiro, Brenden Morrow, and Loui Eriksson is more potent than it gets credit for. If Sheldon Souray can recapture some of his old magic, and if Kari Lehtonen can be solid in net, Dallas could give Anaheim a run for 3rd in the division and the last playoff spot.
  5. Phoenix Coyotes - I'm not of the belief that Ilya Bryzgalov was some elite goaltender who didn't get enough opportunities to succeed by playing in Phoenix. I think he's a nice goalie who had Keith Yandle and a gritty group of forwards in front of him. That being said, I don't feel good at all about Mike Smith or Jason LaBarbera. Yandle, Shane Doan, Daymond Langkow and company are good, but not good enough for anything other than 5th place.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlantic Division
  1. * Pittsburgh Penguins - From a personal standpoint, I really don't like the Penguins. But from an objective, "how well is this team going to do this season," you really can't like them enough...assuming they're healthy. Sidney Crosby is obviously one of the most electric players in the game, and as soon as he's back on the ice, Pittsburgh will have three top flight centers. They showed they can win without Crosby last year; with him, they're a powerhouse.
  2. * New York Rangers - The story for the Rangers always starts with Henrik Lundqvist, perhaps the best goalie in the world. New York has built their team around supporting him, surrounding him with shot-blocking defensemen and gritty forwards. Adding Brad Richards to partner with Marian Gaborik should make their top line a lot more productive, and while they still won't blow anybody out of the building, they shouldn't need to.
  3. * Philadelphia Flyers - I think the Flyers overall did a pretty poor job in the offseason, but that's from a completely chemistry-immune standpoint. We all heard that Richards and Carter were locker room problems, so I can't argue their departures completely, but there's no question that the talent level in Philly is lower than it was a year ago. Their only hope can be that Bryzgalov solves their goaltending question.
  4. New Jersey Devils - I really wanted to predict the Devils to leapfrog the Flyers and get into the playoffs. I truly believe last year was an aberration, and that they'll be a better and more explosive team than in 2010-2011. But they traded Dave Steckel to the Maple Leafs just before the beginning of the season. Mark my words: they'll rue the day.
  5. New York Islanders - The Isles should actually be improved this year, with more developing talent on board, and John Taveres seemingly coming into his own. But they're still soft at goalie with Rick "Glass Jaw" DiPietro and the unproven Al Montoya splitting time. Growing pains are likely, but a fast maturation is possible.
Northeast Division
  1. * Buffalo Sabres - So, initially I had the Sabres out of the playoffs altogether in my preview. But I knew they were in it last year, so I figured I'd better give due diligence. Good thing. While I think Ville Leino was overpaid, Thomas Vanek and a healthy Derek Roy give the Sabres a stronger front line than they had last season. To say nothing of the fact that Christian Erhoff should dramatically improve their blue line offense. And we all know who Buffalo's goalie is.
  2. * Boston Bruins - Last year's Stanley Cup champions figure to be back in the playoffs, despite the long season they played. Tim Thomas and Tukka Rask are a great 1-2 punch that give the Bruins every chance to win, every night. Zdeno Chara leads a very strong defensive corps, and though the forwards aren't superstars, they showed last year that they can plant the puck when they need to.
  3. Toronto Maple Leafs - The aforementioned acquisition of Steckel probably doesn't merit this, but that was my deciding factor between Toronto and Montreal at #3 in the Northeast. Phil Kessel is a great scorer, and Dion Phaneuf is a dynamic defenseman. If youngster James Reimer can take the next step in his development in goal, the Maple Leafs could surprise some people.
  4. Montreal Canadiens - I hate the Canadiens, for obvious reasons. But unlike the Penguins, I can feel comfortable projecting a mediocre finish for Montreal. I've never thought much of Carey Price, and I actually think P.K. Subban is overrated. They've got solid veterans all over the lineup, highlighted by Mike Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec, and Brian Gionta, but I just don't see a scary team when I look at their depth chart.
  5. Ottawa Senators - Speaking of unimpressive depth charts...jeez. Granted, if Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson can turn back the clock a couple years, they'd have a couple of legit 80-point threats. But clocks don't normally work that way. Erik Karlsson is a nice young defenseman, but the depth is suspect, and having Craig Anderson as the starter in net has to terrify Ottawa fans.
Southeast Division
  1. * Washington Capitals - The Caps have won the Southeast four straight seasons, and there's no reason to think they won't do it again. An active offseason has them reshuffling their lineup, but there's still a lot of skill across the board. Most of all, they boast perhaps the best top 6 D-men in hockey, with Mike Green, Roman Hamrlik, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Dennis Wideman, and Jeff Schultz. I'll tell you this, though: if the Caps don't at least get to the Conference Finals this year, there's just no way Bruce Boudrou survives next offseason.
  2. * Tampa Bay Lightning - Tampa was one of the big stories during last year's playoffs, winning three straight to oust the Penguins, then sweeping the top-seeded Caps in the conference semifinals. Most of the team returns, and their offense has still got a trio of superstars in Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, and Vincent Lecavalier. I don't see them getting the same insane performance out of Dwayne Roloson this season, though, so I see them as more of a 6 or 7 seed.
  3. * Winnipeg Jets - Why not, right? Last year's Thrashers might not have scared anybody, but you know the Jets will draw a crowd every night, and there's more skill on this team than you might expect. Andrew Ladd and Evander Kane are very solid and very young, and Dustin Byfuglien might be the most exciting player in the division, because anything can happen when he's on the ice. Ondrej Pavelec showed flashes of dominance at times last year, so why not a storybook run to the playoffs (before being crushed by the Penguins)?
  4. Carolina Hurricanes - They still have a fabulous center in Eric Staal, a workhorse goalie in Cam Ward, and a budding star in Jeff Skinner. But while Tomas Kaberle was a nice acquisition, their lineup still feels thin. And I mean, come on. There's a limit to how many Ruutu's I can project into the playoffs...it's zero.
  5. Florida Panthers - The Panthers have already outperformed my expectations, as I didn't think they'd win a game. Truthfully, though, it's a ragtag bunch that could have some really good nights. Jose Theodore has been unimpressive in the past few years, but he's still got some fight left in him. Stephen Weiss, Tomas Kopecky, Kris Versteeg, Scottie Upshall, and former Capital Tomas Fleischmann all have decent scoring touch, and Ed Jovanovski and Brian Campbell, while overpaid, both have some upside. Still...I don't see a ton of wins going their way down south.
Eastern Conference Finals
Pittsburgh Penguins over Washington Capitals

Western Conference Finals
San Jose Sharks over Chicago Blackhawks

Stanley Cup Finals
San Jose Sharks over Pittsburgh Penguins

Hart Trophy
Winner - Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim Ducks
Finalist - Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
Finalist - Zach Parise, New Jersey Devils

Vezina Trophy
Winner - Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers
Finalist - Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings
Finalist - Antti Niemi, San Jose Sharks

Norris Trophy
Winner - Shea Weber, Nashville Predators
Finalist - Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks
Finalist - Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets

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