Next week some time I’ll be doing my predictions for the Eastern and Western Conference final standings, and undoubtedly nailing 100% of my predictions as I usually do. Like last year, when I had Ottawa finishing last in the East, and the Islanders finishing ahead of the Rangers and Devils. (The picks weren’t all that bad, though those two were admittedly awful. I had Florida in playoffs at least! Check ‘em out if you like: East, 2012. West, 2012. )
Anyway, it’s not time for that yet. What it is time for, is some “prop”-style prognostication. Here are a handful of things I see happening this year, and why.
Tyler Seguin challenges Steven Stamkos for the Rocket Richard
In the early days of Tyler Seguin in the NHL, you could see the potential. He wasn’t quite strong enough, wasn’t quite fast enough, and didn’t quite shoot it hard enough…but it was pretty clearly there. Then we saw him explode in a playoff game with speed we hadn’t seen before. We saw him start scoring on the strength of his shot. But mostly, we saw that he was going to be a guy who met his (high) expectations.
Last year, during only his sophomore season, he led the bruins in points, coming a single frustrating goal of cracking Plateau 30, and was only a few points shy of 70. This season, his third one, it seemed he was poised for a holy-shit-lookout type year.
But as you know, the whole lockout thing happened. Boo. So he took his talents to Switzerland to stay in shape, and looked absolutely terrifying, even when stacked up against his fellow NHLers that made the trip to play in the National League A.
At one point after the 20-game mark he was averaging a goal a game, eventually leaving the league after 29 games having scored 25 goals. It’s his time, and the confidence gained from pouring them in over in Switzerland will only do him good.
Steven Stamkos is the best goal-scorer in the NHL, but I think he’s got company. I see these two going neck and neck, and Seguin surpassing his goal total from last season.
Victor Hedman emerges as an elite d-man
Victor Hedman was drafted number two overall in 2009 by the Tampa Bay Lightning, one spot behind John Tavares, and one spot ahead of Matt Duchene. He’s been a reliable force for the Bolts on the backend, never scoring less than 20 points in any of his three seasons there, and logging big minutes for the team, including in situations when it matters.
After putting up a quick 20 points in 26 games in the KHL this season, I think we’re about to see Hedman blossom. He’s an absolute monster back there at 6’6″ 230 pounds, and most defensemen, particularly the larger ones, usually take some time to develop. I’d say year four is a good time for us to see his status as an elite defenseman emerge.
Another “love for young NHL d-men” note I should add: I think Phoenix Coyotes defender Oliver Ekman-Larsson is going to reveal himself to be damn near in Erik Karlsson’s category this season. He had 32 points in the NHL last season, and he’s well over a point-per-game clip in the AHL this year, tallying 28 points in 20 games.
The defending Eastern Conference champion Devils will miss playoffs
If we’re all being honest with each other, and we should be, the Devils over-achieved last season. Take that 6th place team, then figure: they lose their captain, 30+ goal-scorer Zach Parise. They lose Alexei Ponikarovsky (not a killer or anything, but some depth scoring). They lose assistant coach Adam Oates, then their other assistant coach Larry Robinson. Patrick Elias maxed-the-fuck out last season with nearly 80 points, finishing in the top-10 in NHL scoring. We’re not seeing a repeat of that. He’s a year older, as is Martin Brodeur, who I’d say probably an average starter right now (*he writes so people don’t yell at him for thinking less*). Ilya Kovalchuk is coming back, or maybe not, but probably, but… still. Odd situation there.
I don’t think they’re going to be a trainwreck or anything, they’ve still got talent on the roster, but taking all those factors and having your off-season highlights being “re-signed some d-men, added Bobby Butler” to me puts them at risk for missing playoffs given that they’re playing in one hell of a tough division.
The St. Louis Blues are going to come out of the gates like gangbusters
It’s not that I think the Blues are the best thing since sliced bread or anything, but there’s no denying they’re a good club. They were great last year (2nd in the Western Conference, 49-22-11), and most of their talent is young, so the extra year of age just means they’re poised to be better. Their roster is basically staying the same as last season, something very few teams can say, so they’re not going to need the same adjustment period as some other teams. Combine that with Ken Hitchcock’s ability to prepare his teams (and they know what he expects from day one), and the addition of a player I’m quite impressed with, Vladimir Tarasenko, and I think they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.
Combine all that with the fact that their division looks pretty powder soft and teams are playing a ton of divisional games, and they should be licking their chops. Nashville will be worse: lost Suter, gained…Scott Hannan, I guess? Lost back-up Anders Lindback, added…Chris Mason? Detroit could be worse – they lost Nick Lidstrom, after all. Their D is Sus. Pect. Columbus is still Columbus, at least for the time being. And Chicago will be good as always, but I’m not sure they’re in the Blues’ class when you stack up Corey Crawford and Ray Emery vs. Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot.
There will be way, way less coaches fired this year
Last season was an absolute blood bath for coaches in the NHL. The following teams replaced their coach during, or after the 2011-2012 season started:
That’s ten teams that switched horses in the middle of the ’11-’12 ride (one-third of the league), and…
…all hired new coaches to start the 2011-12 season. As in, 16 of the 30 current NHL coaches don’t have a game more than one season tenure with their teams.
The point here, is NHL teams have been going through coaches like underwear. This season however, the lockout will provide excuses, excuses, excuses. ”Camp was too short to get our team ready.” … “Our guys weren’t in great shape to start the year.” … “We didn’t click early on and in a shortened season, it was too late.” … “A shortened season caused our team to pile up the injuries.”
With all the new faces and the million excuses available to coaches this season, and I’d be surprised if we see the axe fall even half as often as we did last season.