2011-2012 NHL Predictions: A Look Into the Crystal Ball
The 2010-2011 NHL season had a little bit of everything. There was a game where there were three fights in the first four seconds.
There was a game between the Penguins and Islanders that resulted in a record amount of penalty minutes. There were two playoff series which were each one step short of two of the most epic comebacks in sports history.
And the Stanley Cup Final was a bitter, seven game, finger-biting match between two of the greatest hockey cities in the game, which resulted in the greatest prize in sports traveling to Beantown for the first time since 1972.
The 2011 offseason has been much of the same: there have been many drastic roster re-toolings, complete uniform overhauls, and a relocation that is making many fans North of the border pretty happy right now.
This sets up the 2011-2012 season to be a very exciting one for every fan, especially with the parity in the game this year. This is one of those seasons where anything can happen, and the beginning is less than two weeks away.
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1. Pittsburgh Penguins
2. New York Rangers
3. Philadelphia Flyers
4. New Jersey Devils
5. New York Islanders
No Crosby, no Malkin? No problem. The Penguins showed that they were one of hockey's deepest teams after playing great hockey without their top two players for a large chunk of the season.
Believe it or not, the Penguins' record last year was the second best in their history: better than any year Crosby or Malkin had been on the team.
Go figure. Now just imagine what they can do with Malkin back right away and Crosby back at some point along the line.
The Rangers once again made a big splash in free agency by signing Brad Richards. They always seem to be one of everyone's big picks to have a good year, but it never seems to work out.
This year, however, they have a brand new star in Brad Richards and possibly the league's best goalie in Henrik Lundqvist, including the young talent in Ryan Callahan, Artem Anisimov, Brian Boyle, Derek Stepan, and Mats Zuccarello-Aasen.
Philadelphia has been a great team the past few years, but they have had well-documented goaltending issues that they had to solve this offseason.
They took care of it by signing Ilya Bryzgalov, but they had to free up some cap space to do so.
This meant dumping Mike Richards, Ville Leino, Kris Versteeg, and captain Jeff Carter: four of the top seven scorers from last season.
The defense looks solid if Pronger can stay healthy and the goaltending issue has finally been solved, but the offense will definitely take a few steps back this year.
After getting off to one of the worst starts in recent history, New Jersey had a tremendous second-half surge and just barely missed the playoffs.
With a new coach this year in Peter DeBoer and with star Zach Parise healthy again, this team can make another legitimate run at the playoffs.
The Islanders once again find themselves at the bottom of a very competitive division, but they may see the playoffs in the very near future.
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1. Boston Bruins
2. Buffalo Sabres
3. Toronto Maple Leafs
4. Montreal Canadiens
5. Ottawa Senators
The defending Stanley Cup Champions are looking to defend their title, and they very well may do so. They have a terrific team with many players in their prime and a terrific goalie in Tim Thomas.
Thomas will not perform as well as he did last year because, well, it's almost impossible. However, he still is one of the league's elite goalies and Boston should repeat as division champions.
The Sabres look to be one of the most exciting teams in the league this year.
After having a decent season last year, they went out and added Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regher to improve their already stellar defense which is backed up by star goalie Ryan Miller.
They also added star forward Ville Leino, looking to improve their offense as well. With Derek Roy back from an injury, Buffalo may see one of the best teams in their history.
Toronto gave their fans some hope at the end of last year, led by rookie goalie standout James Reimer.
They are the only team that has not made the playoffs since the lockout, but they appear to be getting closer and closer.
This team has a plethora of young talent and they seem poised for success.
In my opinion, their success depends on two things: Dion Phaneuf playing like he did in Calgary and James Reimer playing anywhere as good as he did last year.
Be patient Toronto; good things are coming.
Montreal has a solid team, but they lost a couple of key players in the offseason from their team that suffered a mild first round collapse against Boston.
They will again make a run at the playoffs, but there is more competition and less room to move this year.
After making the playoffs in 2010, the Senators fell flat on their face in 2011. There is too much competition to crawl out of the cellar this year, but Ottawa is not an overly terrible team and they could be back in the thick of things in the near future.
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1. Washington Capitals
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Florida Panthers
4. Carolina Hurricanes
5. Winnipeg Jets
The Capitals underwent a minor roster overhaul, but they gained a proven goalie and also kept their potent offense just as, if not more talented than before.
This is easily one of the best teams in hockey and a slightly different look could definitely help them overcome their playoff woes.
Tampa Bay was the surprise of hockey last year, going from one of the league's worst teams to one goal away from the Stanley Cup Final.
Expect them to have success again this year if Dwayne Roloson plays anywhere near as good as last year.
Florida underwent the biggest roster makeover this offseason and has added a lot of experience and talent to go with their young and unproven roster. A healthy David Booth will be the key to one of their better years.
Carolina is a decent team, led by Cam Ward, Eric Staal, and Jeff Skinner.
They lost out on a playoff spot on the last weekend of the season, but they may not come as close this year after the departure of Eric Cole.
Jeff Skinner, however, is blossoming into a superstar and may help the Hurricanes surprise a few people this year.
The biggest story of the offseason is that hockey is back in Winnipeg. To go along with the excitement, the team looks promising on paper and looks to have a bright future.
However, the excessive traveling that they will suffer from being in the Eastern Conference this season will come back to bite them: every divisional trip is over a thousand miles.
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1. Detroit Red Wings
2. Chicago Blackhawks
3. St. Louis Blues
4. Nashville Predators
5. Columbus Blue Jackets
The Red Wings lost a few players to retirement, but there are plenty of younger players reaching the top of their game.
The addition of Ian White should be a good replacement for Brian Rafalski.
In what appears to be Nicklas Lidstrom's last season, the defending Norris Trophy winner appears to be determined to win one more Stanley Cup, and he has the team to do it.
Chicago seems to be everyone's big pick this year, but I have trouble seeing why.
Despite backing into the playoffs on the last day of the season but almost pulling off a miracle comeback against Vancouver proved that the Hawks were better than a borderline eight seed.
Unfortunaltely, the losses of Brian Campbell, Tomas Kopecky, and Troy Brouwer may hurt them this year.
They added more grit with Dan Carcillo, Andrew Brunette, and Jamal Mayers; but they do not appear to have any depth whatsoever at the left wing position.
Corey Crawford cannot be expected to perform as well as last season.
The loss of Campbell and Chris Campoli seems to be a hit to the defense, but Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are better than they showed last season.
Even though they are not as good as everyone thinks, Chicago is still a playoff team.
The Blues could have definitely made the playoffs last season had it not been for the injury bug. They have an extremely talented young core and David Backes may be the most underrated player in the game.
To help out the young talent, St. Louis added veterans Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, who should both provide a spark to the offense.
The defense is solid and if Jaroslav Halak can have a better year than last year, the Blues should definitely be a playoff team and challenge Chicago for second in the division.
Nashville took some positive steps last season, winning its first playoff series in franchise history.
However, the offense took a few hits in the offseason by losing J.P. Dumont, Marcel Goc, Matthew Lombardi, Steve Sullivan, and playoff hero Joel Ward.
Other than Mike Fisher and Martin Erat, this team does not have a lot going offensively and the fact that star defenseman Shea Weber is unhappy with the team right now makes the situation worse.
However, the spectacular goaltending of Pekka Rinne and one of the league's best coaches in Barry Trotz will be able to help this team make yet another run at the playoffs.
Columbus made some great moves during the offseason by picking up Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski, but they have too much competition within the division to finish any higher.
This is a very good team, but they have a few steps to go and Steve Mason needs to regain his 2009 form before they can make a good run.
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1. Vancouver Canucks
2. Colorado Avalanche
3. Minnesota Wild
4. Calgary Flames
5. Edmonton Oilers
Vancouver is obviously the clear-cut winner of this division.
The Canucks had the best record in hockey last year and were one win away from winning the Stanley Cup, and they were the only team in this division to even make the playoffs.
Picking Colorado at second may be a surprise, but Matt Duchene is becoming a star. Gabriel Landeskog should be a good young player.
Peter Mueller is back from an injury, and the Avs have improved their goaltending by adding Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastian Giguere.
Minnesota traded their best defenseman Brent Burns and one of their top forwards Martin Havlat to San Jose, but got scorers Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi in return.
The Wild had a good defense in the first place, so they could afford to get rid of Burns and add some more offense. The key to the Wild's success will be goaltender Nicklas Backstrom, who faltered near the end of last season.
Calgary is not a terrible team, but they do not have a lot of talent outside of Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff.
In order to make the playoffs, they will need very strong performances out of Olli Jokinen and Jay Bouwmeester, who have been blatant underachievers in their years with the Flames.
The Oilers have a lot to look forward to, but nothing will happen just this year. Edmonton has possibly the best future of any team in hockey, and may see the playoffs as soon as next season.
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1. Anaheim Ducks
2. Los Angeles Kings
3. San Jose Sharks
4. Phoenix Coyotes
5. Dallas Stars
Let me explain this pick before you start yelling at me.
The Ducks had only one less win than the division champion Sharks last year and have in my opinion the best line in hockey with the Ryan-Getzlaf-Perry line.
Jonas Hiller is back from vertigo troubles, and he can be one of the best goalies in the game when healthy. Also, Teemu Selanne is back for one last chase for the Cup, and young defenseman Cam Fowler is turning into a star.
This can be a very good team.
Los Angeles is one of the favorite Stanley Cup picks this season, as they added Mike Richards from Philadelphia.
Jonathan Quick is one of the league's best goalies, and the defensive corps is very good; especially if they can come to an agreement with Drew Doughty. If they fail to do so, however, they may be in trouble.
I have the Sharks at third but they are by no means a bad team in any way.
However, key forwards Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi are off to Minnesota and the Sharks' roster has been slightly downgraded.
Also, the near-collapse against Detroit has raised many questions about the team that the somewhat unsure roster will have to answer.
Phoenix took a big hit in the offseason by losing goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov to Philadelphia, and are facing even more trouble trying to find someone to buy the team.
The Coyotes are not as good as the past two seasons, but there is still some young talent that may be good enough to get them into a race for the last playoff spot.
Dallas is not a bad team, but the loss of Brad Richards may be too tough to overcome.
After losing out on the playoffs on the last game of the season, people are looking at the Stars as a team of possibilities.
They have talent in Loui Eriksson, Brenden Morrow, Jamie Benn, Mike Ribeiro, and Michael Ryder; and they may have enough to make a run at the playoffs this year.
Eastern Conference Playoff Lineup
1. Washington Capitals
2. Boston Bruins
3. Pittsburgh Penguins
4. Buffalo Sabres
5. New York Rangers
6. Tampa Bay Lightning
7. Philadelphia Flyers
8. Toronto Maple Leafs
9. New Jersey Devils
10. Montreal Canadiens
11. Florida Panthers
12. Carolina Hurricanes
13. Winnipeg Jets
14. Ottawa Senators
15. New York Islanders
Western Conference Playoff Lineup
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1. Vancouver Canucks
2. Detroit Red Wings
3. Anaheim Ducks
4. Los Angeles Kings
5. San Jose Sharks
6. Chicago Blackhawks
7. St. Louis Blues
8. Nashville Predators
9. Columbus Blue Jackets
10. Phoenix Coyotes
11. Dallas Stars
12. Colorado Avalanche
13. Minnesota Wild
14. Calgary Flames
15. Edmonton Oilers
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
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1. Washington Capitals over 8. Toronto Maple Leafs in four games
The Maple Leafs will crack the top eight for the first time since before the lockout, but the Capitals are too good to allow the Leafs to do anything.
2. Boston Bruins over 7. Philadelphia Flyers in six games
These two meet for the third year in a row, but Boston proves they are the better team as their well-rounded attack proves to be too much for the Flyers.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins over 6. Tampa Bay Lightning in six games
In a rematch of last year's first-round series, the Penguins will look for revenge after their collapse from a 3-1 series lead. They will do so as they will have a healthier team and Tampa will not have playoff hero Sean Bergenheim.
4. Buffalo Sabres over 5. New York Rangers in seven games
These are both great teams that feature probably the two best goalies in hockey, and they both have a lot of good young talent.
This may be one of the best series in the playoffs, and Buffalo will slightly edge out the Rangers with a slightly better defensive corps.
Western Conference Quarterfinals
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1. Vancouver Canucks over 8. Nashville Predators in five games
These two met in the playoffs last year, and the Canucks will once again be a better team as the Predators lost some of their clutch playoff performers over the offseason
2. Detroit Red Wings over 7. St. Louis Blues in six games
The Blues are a good team, but the Red Wings just know how to win in the playoffs. This should be a very good series, but the Red Wings will find a way to score on Halak and stop the Blues' offense.
3. Anaheim Ducks over 6. Chicago Blackhawks in seven games
The Blackhawks also know how to win in the playoffs, but it will take an awful lot from goalie Corey Crawford to stop the Ducks' top line.
Remember, the Blackhawks lost Tomas Kopecky, Brian Campbell, and Troy Brouwer, and if Crawford succumbs to any type of sophomore slump, the Blackhawks will be in a lot of trouble.
4. Los Angeles Kings over 5. San Jose Sharks in seven games
In order for the Sharks to win this series, they will need some of the big players to score.
Last year, it once again seemed to be a combination of secondary scoring and Devin Setoguchi, who is now in Minnesota.
Also, new Kings Simon Gagne and Mike Richards know how to win in the playoffs, and the defense and goaltending will be too good for the Sharks to put up with.
Eastern Conference Semifinals
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I pick the Capitals every year and nothing happens.
Yes, their team is a little different this year, but Bruce Boudreau cannot find a way to get past the second round and the Capitals are still lacking depth at center.
They will have trouble getting past Buffalo's defense and scoring on Ryan Miller while the speedy Sabres should be able to pull off the upset.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins over 2. Boston Bruins in six games
The Bruins will put up a good fight, but the Penguins and coach Dan Bylsma will be able to find a way to win if the team remains healthy.
There is a lot of depth and experience that will help the Penguins get back into the Conference Final.
Western Conference Semifinals
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4. Los Angeles Kings over Vancouver Canucks in six games
Roberto Luongo has trouble in the playoffs.
The Kings have improved their playoff experience by adding Simon Gagne and Mike Richards: two players who have combined for eleven playoff series wins the past two seasons.
When Jonathan Quick is on his game, he is very tough to beat, and the Kings' defense will also be very tough on the Canuck offense.
2. Detroit Red Wings over 3. Anaheim Ducks in six games
Detroit has many bright young players that have contributed to a lot of playoff success as well as MVP candidate Pavel Datsyuk.
The Wings have proven that they can never be counted out, and it will be very tough for the Ducks, who lack a slight bit of offensive depth, to keep up with Detroit's finesse and passing magic.
Eastern Conference Final
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4. Buffalo Sabres over 3. Pittsburgh Penguins in six games
The Sabres are an extremely well-rounded team with a goalie that seems good enough to stop Crosby, Malkin & Co.
If Nathan Gerbe and Ville Leino can repeat past playoff success, they should be good enough to penetrate the Penguin defense and advance to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1999.
Western Conference Final
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4. Los Angeles Kings over 2. Detroit Red Wings in six games
In my opinion, Jimmy Howard is not good enough at this point in his career to win a Stanley Cup.
He gives up too many goals in clutch situations, and the Kings have a lot of players who can score those goals.
While Detroit is a very good team, the travel will once again hurt them in the playoffs and the Kings will advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1993.
Stanley Cup Final
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This would be a very good series, featuring two teams who have not been at this stage in a while.
In fact, these teams have each been around for over forty years and neither has won a Stanley Cup.
Neither has a lot of experience, and both are strong in each facet of the game. The difference in this series will be Ryan Miller.
I believe he is slightly better than Jonathan Quick.
The Sabres' perfectly balanced offense will find a way to give some of the best fans in sports something that they have never seen in their over forty year history: a Stanley Cup.
Buffalo Sabres over Los Angeles Kings in six games