Now, I know what you're all thinking. Bold predictions? The guy's just going to take some blind stabs in the dark, then say "I told you so" when/if they happen. Well...You'd be about 90% right. I am going to take some blind stabs in the dark and I most likely will feel a sense of self-fulfillment if they happen. But this is much less about predicting the future (with my team biases involved) and much more about stimulating conversation. News has been slow in the hockey world and team, division and conference previews can only go so far before you either see people's biases showing or you just get sick of hearing how terrible some teams will be or how good some teams will be. So, for your reading pleasure, I submit to you my bold predictions for the NHL; not just this coming season, but beyond as well.
The Coming Season...
1) The playoffs will look much like they did last season.
-- Say what you will about the Anaheim (formerly Mighty) Ducks, they're built to compete and win in the NHL. They play a fast-paced, hard-hitting style that is built for playoff dominance. The loss of Teemu Selanne will be a blow, as will the indecision of Scott Neidermeyer and the loss of Dustin Penner. But Mathieu Schnieder will fill the gap left (for now) by Neidermeyer, Bertuzzi will (to a lesser extent) fill the gap left by Selanne and Getzlaf will step up and fill the secondary scoring gap left by Penner. Andy McDonald will finally be thrust into a top scorer role, in which I think he'll flourish and the Ducks will, once again, be a force to be reckoned with in the West. On top of that, the only difference I think we'll see in the playoffs this year (especially in the West) will be an extra team from the Northwest Division (Colorado) and one less team from the Pacific Division (Dallas). In the east, the teams in the playoffs may be juggled around a bit, but the playoffs will still be about the top four teams in the conference: Ottawa, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres. The Sens have lost virtually no one from their Cup quest last playoffs, while the Rangers have gotten much better, adding playmaker Scott Gomez and playoff powerhouse Chris Drury. The Pens...Well...They still have Sidney and the Sabres will not be nearly as bad as everyone thinks without Drury or Briere. The playoff landscape in the East may look much different than it was this season; but, overall, the top teams will still separate themselves early and often. Look for Ottawa v. Anaheim in the Stanley Cup Finals once again.
2) Dustin Penner will disappoint....
-- ....Right away. It makes sense when you think about it, too. When met with the pressure of contributing in the playoffs, Penner shied away and had, not a terrible playoffs, but one that was not consistent with the regular season contributions that he had. The pressure to contribute in Edmonton will be much more than even the pressure of the playoffs was in Anaheim. The hockey crazed fans of the Oilers expect perfection from their stars, and will not tolerate anything less from a player that is making as much as Penner is now making. Penner will have a solid tenure with the Edmonton Oilers, but will be a disappointment to many next season.
3) Marian Gaborik will have a breakout season (finally!)
-- Say what you will about the numbers that Gaborik has produced, but he has not yet had his "breakout season" with the Minnesota Wild. Last year he was set back, once again, by a groin injury and by sub-par conditioning in the off season. Last year was also a real eye opener for the young star from Slovakia. In just over a half season last year (48 games), Gaborik posted 30 goals and 27 assists for 57 points. On top of this, he also showed improved discipline in his own zone, posting a +12 rating. At that pace, he would have tallied 97 points and had a +20 rating. It would have easily been his best season and he would have been the Wild's first 50 goal scorer in franchise history. His career, however, has been marred by a holdout and injuries, causing the front office of the organization to question his dedication in the off season. This season, however, Gaborik has said that he feels that he is in the best shape of his life and is 100% healthy. If this is the case, the NHL should watch out because Marian Gaborik makes the Minnesota Wild one of the most dangerous teams in the Western Conference and even the entire league. My bold prediction for Gaborik's season this year is that he will finally have a healthy season (playing 82 games), reach the 60 goal mark and will tally 110 points.
4) The supposed "have-nots" will not be as bad as everyone thinks...For the most part.
-- Chicago, Los Angeles, the Islanders...These are all teams that everyone thinks will still struggle this season. And far be it from me to disagree that there will be low points to these teams' seasons. But looking at the line ups for these teams, they will not be as bad as everyone thinks. The Isles have a solid goalie (DiPietro), a solid back up (Dubie), a solid leader (Billy G) and some players that have long been searching for an identity on any team (Comrie and Fedotenko). Chicago is packed full of young stars, just waiting to have a break out season (Havlat, Ruutu, Seabrook, Keith and Barker), as well as some seasoned vets wanting to prove that they can still play (Lang, Perreault, Khabibulin and Lalime) and some fresh faces looking to prove themselves in the NHL (Toews, Skille and Kane). Los Angeles has probably improved the most out of these teams, picking up some solid d-men to play in front of whomever they put in net (Preissing and Stuart), some solid veteran forwards (Nagy and Handzus) and some solid youngsters that are ready to contribute (Kopitar, O'Sullivan, Brown and Johnson). These teams may not make the playoffs, but they will not be as bad as everyone thinks and will give the teams that play them fits.
5) JR will have a resurgence with the Sharks
-- Contrary to what many people think, I believe that Jeremy Roenick still has some gas left in the tank. Is he past his prime? Yes. Are his skills diminished? Yes. Does that mean that he can no longer play and contribute in the NHL? No. There is no question that not playing during the lockout hurt JR's career. After the lockout, he was a shadow of his former self. But there is no doubt in my mind that he can still be a productive player in the NHL if he has the right people around him. In Los Angeles and Phoenix, he was asked to shoulder the load. A tall order for any NHLer, much less one in the twilight of his career. On the other hand, JR will have a strong cast of players surrounding him. Thornton, Michalek, Cheechoo, Marleau etc. should all provide a solid group of players for Roenick to feed off of. Roenick won't have a career season by any means next year, but he will easily get his five goals to make the magic 500. Roenick will end up with 15-20 goals this year and around 40 points.
1) Gary Bettman's Tenure Will End Soon
-- It's only going to take one or two more bonehead moves by the NHL's resident idiot to make it clear to the NHL's board of governers that he needs to be replaced. In my opinion, the only reason he has not been thus far is because of the lack of people ready and willing to take the job. Bettman has taken the NHL from one of the "top 4" to a niche sport in the matter of a decade. The fans dislike him (seems as if he's booed everywhere he goes), the players don't much care for him (man it was funny watching Rob Brind'amour take the Cup from him) and he's a, for lack of a better word, putz with the media (dodging questions, letting the NHL languish on Vs. etc.) By the end of the decade, my bold prediction is that Gary Bettman will not be employed by the NHL and will have been run out in such a fashion that would make him virtually untouchable by any other professional sports league.
2) The West wins 4 out of the next 5 Stanley Cups
-- This is a harder one to predict, especially because of the fluidity of player movement these days. But, typically, the West has been the stronger overall conference over the last couple years. Yes, the East has one or two teams that typically stand out (the Hurricanes in the '05-'06 season and the Sens and Sabres in the '06-'07 season), but overall, the West has had to beat better teams in order to get to the Finals. The one team in the East that I think could buck this prediction would be the Penguins. They are currently set up for a dynasty run, but it will take much better goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury in order for this to happen. That being said, over the next 5 years, here are the teams that I think will win the Stanley Cup (in no particular order). The Anaheim Ducks, the San Jose Sharks, the Minnesota Wild, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Vancouver Canucks. Anaheim is set up for the here and now. They are coming off of a great Cup run and are still a powerhouse. The Sharks will make a serious play at the Cup this year, but the next couple of years will be the telling tale for this team. The Wild are just a key component away from making a serious Cup run. The Pens are, as I said, set up to have the potential to be a dynasty. The Canucks are a scoring threat away from being the best team in the West.
3) The cap will level out and maybe even drop...
-- ...Leaving teams such as the Rangers, Flyers and other traditionally big-spending teams in serious trouble. The cap will level out eventually; and most likely begin to drop. This will leave teams that are spending right up to the cap in a serious bind. There will be more players left out in the cold and there will be more players forced to take a "hometown discount" in order to be employed. Meanwhile, teams that have left themselves a cushion will begin to flourish; as the teams that do not have any cushion will be forced to get rid of, not their stars, but the roleplayers that make a difference not only on the ice, but in their locker rooms as well. This is when the small markets will begin to shine once again. It may take a couple of years, but pariety will make its way back into the free agent market.
4) The NHL will expand to Canada and...*shudder* Las Vegas
-- This is both a bold prediction and an unfortunate inevitibility. Don't get me wrong. This is not unfortunate in the fact that the league will expand to Canada. Canada deserves another, if not two other teams. The unfortunate part of this deal is that the league will expand to Las Vegas; most likely into the hands of Jerry Bruckheimer. Now, again, don't get me wrong. What Bruckheimer brings to the table could be and will be fantastic for the league. He brings a large bank account, a love for the game and media saavy that is unmatched in the league. He would be a godsend for the league. Unfortunately, Las Vegas would not. THN's Adam Proteau put it best when he said that hockey is the last thing on anyone's mind when they visit Sin City. The move to Vegas would be yet one more cash grab by the league. Canada, however, should and will get another team. Hamilton showed that there would be more than enough fan support. Now all they need to show is the corporate support, of which there should be much. It may not be next year...But expansion will happen again and it will be to Hamilton and Las Vegas.
5) The NHL will end up back on ESPN
-- This will have many, if not all hockey fans screaming the "Hallelujah" chorus. The league has suffered greatly with the decreased exposure from ESPN and the fact that you can maybe find Vs. on your TV if you're in a traditional hockey market or have an expanded cable pack or so on. The move to Vs. and NBC was one of the biggest marketing blunders that the NHL or any major sports league has made in a long, long time. Without ESPN, the NHL has been reduced to a niche sport, competing with the likes of the MLS (which even gets more coverage on ESPN than the NHL does). The NFL, NBA and MLB have all bounced around channels over the past few years, but none have made the move quite like the NHL did, moving from a channel that was in every single home to a channel that you might be able to find if luck was on your side. With new talks beginning between ESPN and the NHL, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The NHL will end up back on ESPN, maybe not next season, but soon.
So there you have it. A few bold predictions. Now, take all of these with a grain of salt. These aren't the gospel truth. They're just a couple of predictions to stimulate conversation amongst us and to ease the end of free agency doldrums.