Bold Predictions for the Upcoming NHL Season: Expect the Unexpected

Jon Neely@@iamjonneelyAnalyst ISeptember 30, 2009

ANAHEIM, CA - FEBRUARY 18:  Anze Kopitar #11 of the Los Angeles Kings celebrates with teammates at the bench area after a goal against the Anaheim Ducks in their NHL game at Honda Center on February 18, 2009 in Anaheim, California. The Kings defeated the Ducks 4-3.  (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)

Ah fall, a time when leaves change colour, the air turns crisp, and fantasy pool fanatics sweat over whether they should take Crosby, Ovechkin, or Malkin first overall.

Yes, a new season is upon us, and once again we find ourselves bombarded with overwhelming statistics and predictions from the experts telling us exactly what to expect in the upcoming season, as is the norm every year. And yet, there comes a time when you simply cannot listen to another TV personality tell you that this is really the year the San Jose Sharks will win the Stanley Cup.

Enough is enough, I come before you today with some predictions you won't find on your everyday preview show. Let's break through that wall of normality folks, let's go out on a limb and have some fun while we're at it.

The winds of change are blowin' in the NHL, and it's about time we started expecting the unexpected.

We'll start in the West.

Pacific Division

The Los Angeles Kings will make the playoffs this year with a second place finish in their division. The rebuilding efforts in LA will finally pay off, and the Kings will leap-frog over the Anaheim Ducks, who are slowly being ripped apart at the seams.

No more Chris Pronger in Anaheim means troubling times ahead defensively, and the 'Mighty' will be lost from more than just their name.

Scott Neidermeyer's age will finally catch up with him and he cannot carry the defense on his own, and no, Ryan Whitney is not the answer. Jean-Sebastian Giguere is not the goalie he once was, while Jonas Hiller, at age 27, has only played 69 regular season games in the NHL and is going to be seeing a lot of Dany Heatley.

Meanwhile, the Kings, with their young-guns ready to explode, will fill the net on a regular basis. Superstars-to-be, Anze Kopitar and Alexander Frolov will both be pushing 40 goals, and with Dustin Brown and Ryan Smith (still a nimble 33 years old) roaming around the net, there will be no rest for opposing net minders.

With a healthy Jack Johnson, the soon-to-be Norris Trophy nominee, Drew Doughty getting better every day, and the addition of Rob Scuderi and his shiny Cup ring, the defense in this King's court is looking rather sturdy.

Goal tending might be the only question mark on the Kings, but we'll know the answer to that question rather quick.

The only thing the Dallas Stars can look forward to is they don't have to start the season with the Sean Avery virus. But seriously, that's where the positives end for this team. It doesn't matter how many goals Loui Eriksson scores, which will be 40.

As for the Phoenix Coyotes, where ever they end up this year, it won't be in the postseason.

And no, San Jose will not win the Cup, even though Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley will combine for 200 points this season.

Central Division

Marian Hossa will play in, and be on the losing-end of, a third-straight Stanley Cup Final. The Chicago Blackhawks will need little help scoring this season, as the Hawks substituted the oft-injured Martin Havlat, for the less-often injured, more lethal weapon in Hossa.

Throw in a tough guy who can score on John Madden to the mix, and these Hawks will be flying high all the way to the title of Western Conference Champions.

Defensively, the Hawks could call their troops "Team Canada" if they so pleased, as at least half of their young, skilled defenders have as good a shot as any to make the Canadian Olympic team. And as long as Cristobal Huet doesn't allow six goals a night, they should be fine in net (although for Huet, that wouldn't be a surprise).

In Detroit, it will be same old, same old, key word: old. The Red Wings will no doubt be in the race for the Conference title, but with an aging Osgood in net, they might not have such an easy time doing it.

The Columbus Blue Jackets can call themselves "one-hit wonders" this season, because, after Rick Nash and Steve Mason, they don't have much in the way of help to launch them up the charts into the playoffs this year. Hitchcock can scheme until he is blue in the face, or jacket, but this team will be sitting on the sidelines come the real season.

As for the St. Louis Blues, the biggest story for them right now is whether or not coach Andy Murray will ever allow his prized-defender, Erik Johnson, back onto a golf course again. The Blues will contend for a playoff spot, but that's about it, they've still got some work to do.

And to the Nashville Predators, good luck.

Northwest Division

None of the teams in this Division will be as good as advertised. And before you Canucks and Flames fans jump through the screen, let me tell you why.

Roberto Luongo is arguably the best goaltender in the NHL. Andrew Raycroft is not. If Vancouver wants to finish tops in the Conference, and have a deep playoff run, Luongo is going to have to play a lot, and I repeat, a lot of games, because the backup support is essentially non-existent. It's not a stretch to say he could carry his team on his back all season, but as we saw last year in the playoffs, you get awfully tired come April and May.

The Canucks blue line is improved with the addition of Christian Ehrhoff from San Jose, but this team has never had trouble keeping the pucks out, as much as they have had trouble putting it in at the other end. Up front they added Mikael Samuelsson, whose solid playoff performance last year overshadowed the fact that he's never gotten more than 45 points in a season, and this is his ninth year.

The biggest thing they did in the offseason was re-sign the Sedin twins, which was great, but keeping them isn't an improvement.

Don't expect a deep playoff run in Vancouver.

Speaking of goalies playing a truck-load of games, buckle up, Mikka Kiprusoff.

Kiprusoff is arguably the best goalie in the NHL. Curtis McElhinney is not.

The Calgary Flames look incredible on the back end with new Flame Jay Bouwmeester in town. But as they found out last year, the addition of a player who has never stepped foot in playoff water, doesn't always help you a whole lot in the postseason.

The Flames will once again deceive their fans by playing extremely well in the regular season, raising expectations extremely high, and then abandoning ship in the first round, like they've been doing since coming oh-so-close to Cup glory in 2004.

My guess is new bench-boss Brent Sutter and Dion Phaneuf trade punches by December, especially if Phaneuf plays like he did last year.

Phaneuf will also trade punches with Sean Avery, but that will be over an entirely different matter.

Pat Quinn can work wonders with young players, or at least an All-Star team of young players in the World Junior Championships, so the jury is out on how this year will go in Edmonton. The key will be the young players stepping up and playing much better than they have in previous years.

Also, Nikolai Khabibulin is a great addition, but the last time he won 30 games or more was in 2003. He'll have to step up his game if the Edmonton faithful are expecting to show the NHL once again why they are the best playoff crowd in the league.

In Minnesota, the Wild are slowly moving away from their all-defensive minded hockey, and focusing more on offense these days. It won't work, but hopefully Martin Havlat can stay healthy longer in a season than Marian Gaborik ever could.

And by the end of this season, when someone says "Koivu," you will think "Mikko." With his big brother out of the media hot bed that is Montreal, the league will finally recognize that the Koivu sibling that can actually put up some points has been in Minnesota all along.

Opening night in the NHL is Joe Sakic night in Colorado. But from there, the Avalanche's season will be as its name suggests: downhill.

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division

The Philadelphia Flyers boast one of the most skilled and intimidating defenses in the NHL, and they still won't win the Division, even with the acquisition of "Hockey's Dirtiest Player," Chris Pronger.

They have always been able to score goals, but with Danny Briere and Simon Gagne racking up more injuries than goals lately and the team relying on Brian Boucher and Ray "Me Against The World" Emery to take them all away, there could be some major disappointment in Philly at the end of this season.

Here's a promise though, the Flyers will lead the league in "Games Lost to Suspension" this year.

On the Island, New York Islanders brain trust obviously are planning on Rick DiPietro once again sustaining a season-ending injury. Why else would they sign Martin Biron and Dwayne Roloson as well? DiPietro is still leading in the race to be the biggest waste of money in all of sports history, but he'll be too busy counting his money for the next 12 years to care.

John Tavares will lead the team in points at season's end, with 50. And no, Islander fans, Rob Schremp will never actually play a full-time role in the NHL, sorry.

On the other side of town, the Rangers entire season rests on one man, and one man only. No, I'm not talking about Sean Avery, but he will continue to steal headlines for another few seasons before everyone just stops caring. Or are we past that point already?

The No. 1 man in New York now is Marian Gaborik. With his incredible scoring ability, and terrible ability to stay healthy, he has been one of the biggest busts in the NHL lately. But if he plays more than 75 games, I bet my first-born child that he scores 50 goals this season (and that's a big if).

With Gaborik healthy, the Rangers are scary good. With him sitting in the press box, they're just the same the old "Sean Avery Show."

Let's pray the team doctors don't get to know "Gabby" too well this season.

Martin Brodeur will still be in the running for the Vezina Trophy after this season, and Zach Parise will once again challenge for the Rocket Richard Trophy.

Other than that, New Jersey will still be the most boring team to watch in the NHL.

No matter how hard they try, or how many game plans they come up with, GMs in the Atlantic Division will still wonder why they wasted all that money on defense every time Crosby and Malkin come to town. Both will have career years in goals and points this year, but neither will win the Hart Trophy.

Until one of the other teams in this Division proves they can stand up to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Crosby, and Co. will once again run the show in the Atlantic. They really have nothing to prove this year, having been a part of Stanley Cup festivities the past two seasons. They're essentially sitting atop the East right now saying, "Come and get us."

And try as they might, no one's coming to get them this year.

Pittsburgh will finish on top of the Atlantic.

Southeast Division

The final season of the Ilya Kovalchuk Era in Atlanta will be downright terrible.

But you already knew that.

In Florida, the Panthers will rely on goalie Thomas Vokoun to squeak them into the playoffs. Unfortunately he'll go down with an injury sidelining him for three months, but thankfully they signed Scott Clemmensen, who will come in and go 25-13-3, like he did last year, saving the Devils' season, and then get tossed out with the trash at the end of the year. Re New Jersey, Toronto, New Jersey...

One day a team will realize just how good Clemmensen is.

One day.

The Tampa Bay Lightning should have been a good team last year. They weren't. They should be a very good team this year. But they won't be.

Vincent Lecavalier will have the season of his life, and Marty St. Louis will continue to be a valuable sidekick. Newest Bolts Victor Hedman and Alex Tanguay make this team look even more dangerous on paper, but paper only gets you to the opening face-off.

The good news is, after picking Stamkos first overall in '08, and Hedman second in '09, the Lightning seem destined to get the third pick overall in the 2010 draft. So yes, they will be better than last year, sort of.

In Carolina, expect more of the same after last season’s impressive postseason performance. Eric Staal is going to prove this season that he should be in the conversation for best player in the NHL, and Cam Ward will get a Vezina Trophy nomination. The Canes will be dangerous and battle for home-ice advantage in the playoffs.

Rod "The Bod" Brindamour will have a miserable season in Carolina this year, and it will be his last once Hurricanes management realize they no longer have use for his services or incredible ability to have the worst plus/minus in the league.

As if the life of Alexander Ovechkin could get any better, it will this season. After wowing fans across the league last season, he walked away with a handful of trophies, and even more reasons to smile. This season he has already had his face plastered on the cover of NHL 2K10, the game filled with plenty of over-the-top celebrations that we can watch without punishment from Gary Bettman.

He will find many more reasons to smile, not that he needs them, at the end of this season, when he lifts the Stanley Cup high above his head in June.

The Washington Capitals' offense this season will be unstoppable, especially with the newest Capital, Mike Knuble, adding yet another weapon to the arsenal.

The combination of Ovechkin, Knuble, Niklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin could score 150 goals this season if healthy, and with offense like that, who needs anything else?

But just in case, rookie Simeon Varlamov looks to build off his incredible two-round performance in the playoffs by showing the league he can do it for a whole season too.

Look for the Capitals to dominate the Eastern Conference, and don't think for a second that Gary Bettman and his mighty men can scare Ovie out of showing off his latest goal celebrations.

Oh, and Mike Green will win the Norris Trophy.

Northeast Division

In Buffalo, the Sabres won't even get a sniff of postseason play. Injuries will once again ravage the team, which already has questions on the blue line. Ryan Miller will have a stellar season in net, but it won't be enough to get this team anywhere close to where it needs to be.

And Thomas Vanek will become the first 40-goal scorer to do it while not getting a single assist.

The rest of the division got rather interesting this offseason.

The Montreal Canadiens' best offensive weapon is playing in Ottawa, and their best defender is in Toronto. Meanwhile, Boston's top scorer is also in Toronto, and Buffalo's best defender flew all the way over to Montreal. Meanwhile, Ottawa's top scorer whined and complained his way out of town, out of country, and out of mind.

Confused yet?

Needless to say, this offseason saw a lot of in-conference sharing going on in the Northeast.

Boston will win the Division, and then lose Marc Savard at season's end, since they can't afford him either.

Ottawa was forced into shipping out Dany Heatley, and his 50-goal seasons, for a couple of players, Milan Mihalek and Jonathan Cheechoo, who combined won't score 50 this season. Suddenly Jason Spezza won't have anyone to pass to, so if you have him in the pool, prepare to be disappointed.

Same goes if you're a Senators fan, Pascal Leclaire is not the answer, and Martin Gerber will be back in a Sens uniform before Christmas.

In Montreal, as a TSN analyst put it best: "I can't remember a team that had this much turnover, that didn't involve a plane crash." GM Bob Gainey did in hockey what businessmen do at work when they find out they have a PowerPoint presentation the next day and throw one together last minute.

They lost their top scorer in Alex Kovalev and added three players who will score less, and cost more. A lot more.

And in case you were wondering, Carey Price won't bounce back in season 101, and Juroslav Halak will be the No. 1 goaltender in Montreal by the end of the year.

In Toronto, GM Brian Burke built a Leafs defense that is a force to be reckoned with, and come November, when Phil Kessel comes off the injured reserve and onto the ice, the Leafs will be a much improved team.

The issue will be in net, well, for the first few weeks, until Ron Wilson gets fed up with Vesa Toskala and names Jonas 'Monster" Gustavsson the starter for the rest of the year.

And Viktor Stalberg will make voters think a little before picking Tavares for the Calder Trophy, mark my words.

So that's that, folks—a look at what you can expect, or not, in the upcoming season in the NHL.

But no matter what happens, for the love of God, let's just get it on already!


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