With a new NHL season fast approaching, hockey fans everywhere are studying all of the off-season changes to forecast the events of next season. In many ways, this is a fruitless endeavor, as no one can foresee which players will suffer unexpected injuries, which young players will make the big step and which stars will have off years that hurt their team's chances of playoff glory. It doesn't mean, however, that it isn't a lot of fun to do.
I freely admit that I will likely look back on these predictions in several months and cringe at how little I understood what will happen this season. For those with good memories, there will be ample opportunity to look back and laugh at how wildly incorrect some of these predictions will turn out to be. My only hope is that there will also be several that I predict correctly, and can therefore use as counter-arguments to prove my validity as a sports writer. None of us can see the future, but I hope that my use of statistics, projections and sheer intuition will be enough to get most of these predictions right.
Some of these picks are fairly safe, while others are bold predictions at best and wild guesses at worst. They are not a comprehensive list of everything I think will happen this season, but I hope that each one provides a source for discussion, thoughtful consideration and perhaps even controversy.
25 The Return of the NHL All-Star Game Will Garner Little Enthusiasm
The NHL will play its first All-Star Game in three years this February in Columbus, but did anyone actually miss it? The NHL has tried to revamp it several times recently, but the event has lost its luster and will remain a footnote to the season, rather than the mid-season spectacular some desire. The only way they could've made this work is by doing a World vs North America type game.
24 Only One Canadian Team Will Make the Playoffs For a Second Consecutive Year
Montreal was the only team north of the border to make the playoffs last year, and will remain so this year as well. The Canadiens are a legitimate contender to make it to the Cup Finals out of the East, whereas every other Canadian team possesses significant flaws. The Leafs and Senators are bubble teams at best and the 3 Western teams are bottom dwellers.
23 Edmonton Will Continue to Flounder At or Near the Bottom of the Standings
This team lacks identity. Edmonton has begun to course correct by drafting Darnell Nurse and Leon Draitsil, whose size will help the roster, but the team has too many small, inexperienced forwards, possesses little skill at the blueline and lacks leadership. Major changes still need to be made.
22 Randy Carlyle Will Be Fired As Coach of the Maple Leafs Within the Next 12 Months
Shanahan has shown he pays attention to advanced statistics by hiring assistant GM Kyle Dubas, and the Leafs under Carlyle have consistently been one of the league's worst in most advanced statistical categories. Barring a miraculous playoff appearance, Shanahan will put his own man behind the bench before the start of next season. This will be Carlyle's 3rd full year behind the bench and his time might be running out.
21 Jason Spezza (Dallas), Ryan Kesler (Anaheim), Paul Statsny (St. Louis) and Thomas Vanek (Minnesota) Will All Have Great Seasons With Their New Teams
It's rare so many moves make so much sense, but I see each one of these players having successful seasons in the competitive Western Conference. Vanek will score the most goals, but Spezza will record the most points. Kesler and Stastny will provide an important spark to both their teams in different capacities. Kesler will provide grit down the middle and Stastny will provide an extra spark of creativity on the Blues' offensively challenged team.
20 John Tavares Will Finish Top Five in the League in Both Goals and Points
Tavares is one of the NHL's truly elite scorers, and will prove it in an injury-free 82 game schedule. He finished third in goals in the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season, but has never finished top ten in points. With Okposo finally reaching his true potential on Tavares' wing, it's easy to see Tavares passing 40 goals and 90 points this season, both good enough for top 5 last season.
19 Erik Karlsson Will Not Finish as the Highest Scoring Defenceman in the NHL For the Second Consecutive Year
Without Spezza and Hemsky, Ottawa's offensive capabilities are much detracted. Karlsson's skill will not change, but the quality around him is not equal to last year and teams will be able to focus on shutting him down. He'll still be one of the highest scoring defensemen, but he won't top the list. Milan Michalek? Come on.
18 Martin Brodeur Will Not Be Signed
The name outweighs the reality at this point. Brodeur wants to start or play significant minutes, and other goalies will play as well or better for less money and far less controversy and attention. Brodeur should remain a one-team player and retire with grace. There would be nothing stranger than seeing Brodeur with a rival team like the Penguins or Flyers.
17 Winnipeg Will Fire GM Kevin Cheveldayoff Unless He Trades For a New Goaltender
Cheveldayoff has made mistakes, but his inexplicable loyalty to Ondrej Pavelec is his greatest. His backups often outplay him, and Pavelec's presence as starter weighs the rest of the team down. Winnipeg needs a new goalie to be playoff contenders, and if Cheveldayoff can't find one, he deserves to be replaced with someone who can. Al Montoya or Michael Hutchinson? That can't possible be the answer.
16 The Flyers Will Miss the Playoffs and Be Replaced By the Devils
The Devils finished 0-13 in shootouts last year and finished just five points outside of a playoff spot. With one of the best Corsi/Fenwick ratings of any non-playoff team and Schneider firmly established as the starting goalie, New Jersey should emerge as a playoff team. They will take the place of the Flyers, whose defensive core is far too fragile to withstand the loss of Kimmo Timonen to blood clots. The Flyers can score, but not enough to make up for their defensive deficiencies.
15 Patric Hornqvist Will Finish the Season With More Goals Than James Neal
Neal is a very skilled scorer, but with Fisher injured, the Predators have resorted to Mike Ribiero and Derek Roy to fill their need at centre. Even Laviolette's offensive strategies won't be enough to propel him ahead of Hornqvist, who once managed to score 30 goals for an offensively-starved team in Nashville and has a chance to play with Crosby or Malkin, two of the league's best players.
14 Detroit's Playoff Streak Will Finally Come to an End
Detroit has failed to replace Lidstrom on defence, and Jimmy Howard will never be considered an elite goalie in the NHL. Their forwards are also all either experienced but injury-prone or on their last legs (Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Alfredsson, Franzen) or young but unproven or inconsistent (Nyquist, Sheahan, Tatar, Mantha). They have a chance, but it's hard to see them as a playoff team this year.
13 13. Buffalo Will Not Finish in Last Place for a Second Consecutive Year
Buffalo rushed their young players to their peril last year, but added veterans in Moulson, Gionta, Gorges and Meszaros to mentor their young players and help them develop. If either Gorges or Meszaros can partner with Myers to help him rediscover the form of his rookie season, the team will play noticeably better. They won't be good, but their days of finishing last, let alone 14 points behind the 29th place team, are now over.
12 Roberto Luongo Will Record a Better Save Percentage Than Cory Schneider (New Jersey) and Ryan Miller (Vancouver), But Win Fewer Games
Luongo thrived with a big workload in his first stint in Florida, and the team will finish several spots higher in the standings due to his presence in net. He will bail his team out on several occasions, and therefore finish with a high save percentage, but the number of shots on goal will lead to some 35 or 40 save losses and prevent him from equaling his former teammate or his replacement in Vancouver in the wins column.
11 Neither Stanley Cup Finalist Will Make It Back This Year
Few expected to see the Rangers in the Finals at all, let alone to see them in consecutive years. They lack the scoring power and overall depth to make such a run twice in a row. Picking against the Kings is risky, but no one since Detroit in 1997 and 1998 has repeated as Cup champions, and it seems likely one of Chicago, Anaheim and St. Louis will replace them this year.
10 Colorado Will Have the Biggest Drop in Points Compared to Last Season
Colorado can score a lot of goals, but aside from Erik Johnson, the team lacks defensemen who can move the puck while remaining responsible in their own end. That's especially true when considering that Tyson Barrie is working his way back from injury. Varlamov has never been consistent, and the Avs had one of the poorest Corsi/Fenwick numbers of any playoff team. Minnesota exposed their vulnerabilities in the playoffs, so expect others to continue to exploit them this season.
9 Age Will Finally Catch Up to Martin St. Louis This Season
He's in phenomenal shape, but at 39 years old, he has to slow down soon. As part of a forward group that does not stand up against the most dangerous in the league, it's easy to fear that his stats this season will be closer to the 7 points in 19 games he had with New York last season, rather than the 61 in 62 games he had with Tampa Bay before the trade.
8 Calgary Will Not Make the Playoffs, But Will Come Close and Show Vast Signs of Improvement
The Flames have rejuvenated their line of prospects in recent years, and coach Bob Hartley has instilled a strong work ethic in his young core. Hiller will improve their goaltending, Giordano anchors a quietly stable defensive group, and rookies Sam Bennett and Johnny Gaudreau will fit well alongside Monahan, Backlund, Baertschi and Granlund. They won't make the playoffs, but they'll impress a lot of people and come a lot closer than last year.
7 Sam Bennett (Calgary) Will Narrowly Beat Jonathan Drouin for the Calder Trophy
As we mentioned earlier, Calgary is building intelligently, and there's huge potential with Sam Bennett, who has already drawn comparisons to a young Doug Gilmour after playing for him in Kingston. He has the chance to play a top-six role and use his speed to succeed and put up a lot of points. Drouin is also in place to succeed on a dangerous Tampa team, but I give the edge to Bennett.
6 The Norris Trophy Will Go to a First-Time Winner (Either Doughty or Weber)
Chara, Karlsson, Subban and Keith will all be looking to add to their Norris totals, but Chara is past his prime and Karlsson is on a weaker team. Subban and Keith will likely be in the hunt, but I see it going to either Doughty, who is my pick for the best defenceman today, or Weber, who has the chance to put up huge numbers under Laviolette's new system in Nashville.
5 Steven Stamkos Will Win the Rocket Richard Trophy By At Least Ten Goals
Last season, Stamkos scored 25 goals in 37 games, which would put him at a pace for 55 in 82 games. Last season, Ovechkin finished first with 51 goals, and Corey Perry finished second with 43. If Trotz turns Ovechkin into a complete player as they're hoping, his goal total will likely drop to around 40. Stamkos would therefore stand in position to not only win the Rocket Richard Trophy, but run away with it by a double digit margin.
4 Jarome Iginla Will Not Be a Good Fit in Colorado
Colorado's top two centres, Matt Duchene and Nathan McKinnon, both rely on blazing speed to succeed. How does a 37 year old who is far from one of the league's fastest players fit on a line with either of those players? Everyone loves Iginla, and he may find a way to make it work, but I fear the situation is set up for him to underwhelm.
3 John Gibson Will Not Only Emerge As the Ducks' Starting Goalie, But Also Finish in the Top 15 in Both GAA and Save Percentage
There's a lot to like about Gibson and it's confusing as to why he hasn't already played more for Anaheim. Many young goalies flounder early on, but few of them play behind a team as good as the Ducks. Gibson has the talent and surrounding cast to succeed early and often, and I truly think he'll surprise a lot of people this season.
2 The Dallas Stars Will Win a Playoff Series
GM Jim Nill and coach Lindy Ruff are building this team properly. Adding Spezza and Hemsky to a forward group that already included Benn and Seguin ensures the team will score, and Lehtonen has finally emerged as one of the league's better goalies. Questions remain on the defense, but it's easy to feel like the team is strong enough to take a big step up this year.
1 Barry Trotz Will Get Washington Into the Playoffs and Win the Jack Adams Trophy
If anyone can transform Ovechkin into a complete player, it's Barry Trotz. His Nashville teams were disciplined and defensively sound, and Washington possesses far more firepower than he ever had with the Predators. He can work with their goaltenders and defensemen, but it all pivots on his ability to convince Ovechkin to sacrifice offense to help the team in other ways. If Trotz can do it, he's coach of the year for sure.