Another NHL offseason is in the books. Some teams will enter the 2011-12 season better than they were in 2010-11, others will enter worse.
Of course, the ultimate prize—the Stanley Cup—is not won or lost during June, July and August. While pundits and analysts can try to "predict" what will happen, those predictions are shots in the dark. No one really knows what will happen when the puck hits the ice and the regular season begins—injuries, breakout seasons, momentum shifts and more.
But, since hockey has not yet returned, why not take a few shots in the dark? Here are five playoff teams from 2010-11 that might not make it back in 2011-12.
Let me start by saying that the Pittsburgh Penguins are a team I believe will end up making the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.
However, the team is surrounded by a number of serious, unanswered questions—questions that could prevent the Pens from making a return trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The first—and most important—is the health of Sidney Crosby. Recent reports have indicated that Sid the Kid is still suffering with post-concussion syndrome, which threatens to prevent Crosby from attending training camp and playing in the early part of the Penguins' regular season. If these symptoms continue, and Crosby is unable to play at all (or very limited minutes) during the 2011-12 season, it could seriously damage the Penguins' playoff hopes.
The second concern is the health of Evgeni Malkin, who is recovering from mid-season knee surgery. In his training videos, "Geno" has looked phenomenal, but that is not a clear indication he'll be able to handle full-speed, full-contact NHL hockey.
The third question concerns the rest of the Penguins team, especially goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and offseason acquisition Steve Sullivan. If one or both of Malkin and Crosby is sidelined for a considerable stretch of time, the rest of the team will need to play consistently excellent hockey. Both Fleury and Sullivan have a history of inconsistent play, and in the absence of one or both of the Penguins' superstars, both will need to bring their "A" game every night. If they can't, the Penguins could miss the playoffs.
After an offseason of change in the City of Brotherly Love, quite a few questions remain unanswered.
The Flyers have certainly found their franchise goaltender in Ilya Bryzgalov, but what is the status of their franchise defenseman, Chris Pronger? The entire hockey world witnessed just how important Pronger's presence is to this team during the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs. If he is unable to go early in the season, will this team be able to tread water until he returns?
The team has acquired and developed an exceptional young core with Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Sean Couturier and Andrej Meszaros, but will those players be able to handle the pressure that comes with being "the guys" for a major-market hockey franchise like the Flyers?
Finally, and most importantly, this is a team that has lost nine major players from last year's roster, including the Captain (Mike Richards) and an alternate captain (Jeff Carter). Will all of these new faces from various places be able to come together?
I believe the Flyers will close out the season hot, and if they make the playoffs, they'll be a team to be feared. But the biggest question is this: can they keep themselves in contention during the early parts of the season?
The Montreal Canadiens seem due for a playoff absence after another lackluster offseason. The team has hobbled into the post-season the last two seasons, finishing as a sixth and eighth seed, respectively.
The Habs do have quite a bit of talent on their roster—PK Subban, Carey Price, Tomas Plekanec, Scott Gomez and Andrei Markov—but for some reason, the group never manages to stay healthy and productive over the course of a full NHL season.
I'd be willing to wager that Subban and Price will each have another excellent season, but beyond that, it's a crap shoot.
With a number of upstart teams in the Eastern conference, including the Toronto Maple Leafs, New Jersey Devils, Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers, at least one team from last year's playoff pack needs to fall. I'm betting that team will be the Canadiens.
Hear me out for a second.
The Predators are a mid-market team that's going to need to make a few changes during the season. At least one of Ryan Suter, Pekka Rinne and Shea Weber will be traded in order to avoid the risk of losing all three to unrestricted free agency.
Nashville was already a club that struggled to find consistent offense last season, with Martin Erat and Sergei Kostitsyn tying for the team scoring lead with 50 points. Add in the offseason departure of emerging power forward Joel Ward, and you have a recipe for offensive mediocrity.
With at least one of Rinne, Weber and Suter likely to depart mid-season, the team could find itself in trouble at both ends of the rink. There is also the concern that goaltender Pekka Rinne will be unable to continue to produce at his 2010-11 levels over the course of another full NHL season.
When it's all added up, it could be the Predators stuck without a playoff seat when the music stops.
The Phoenix Coyotes are a franchise in crisis. The ownership is likely to change during the upcoming season, their franchise goaltender is gone and there are question marks up and down the lineup.
Keith Yandle is coming off a great season, but will he suffer from Drew Doughty syndrome? Can the club deal with the loss of veteran blueline anchor Ed Jovanovski? How can the club replace the play and skill of departed role players Vernon Fiddler and Eric Belanger?
Even if all of those questions are successfully answered, the club still must overcome the loss of Bryzgalov. Current goaltender Mike Smith has not posted a save percentage above 0.900 percent during the last two seasons with Tampa Bay; the departed Bryzgalov managed to surpass the 0.920 percent mark in each of the last two seasons. Without his strong regular season play, it is unlikely the Coyotes would have been a playoff team in either of the past two seasons.
Now that he is gone and has not been replaced, the Coyotes will not return to the post-season.