Well, hockey fans, we did it. It took several months, a multitude of cancellations that shrunk the NHL season to 48 games and the axing of the beloved Winter Classic and All-Star Game, but we survived the lockout. At a moment when it seemed hockey would be lost to the doldrums of professional sport, the NHLPA and NHL shook hands on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, and a sigh of relief echoed throughout the hockey world.
Hockey is back, and not a moment too soon.
Now let us throw out the comparisons to the lost 2004-05 season. Let us forget — for now — that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman may be the worst commissioner in the history of professional sports. And let us instead remember that last year was one of the most successful and dramatic years in hockey history and focus on what matters most to die-hard puck fans.
The greatest athletes on Earth are getting back on the ice for a 48-game sprint to the finish line, awaiting the chance to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup.
There is no grace period in a 48-game schedule; no time to take it easy and shake the rust off. Any team that wants even the most minute of chances to sniff the postseason needs and come out swinging from the first puck drop. That fact alone should provide the NHL the chance to build off of what they established last year and give the fans what they deserve: One of the most exciting hockey seasons in recent memory.
Regular Season Preview
Northeast Division Winner: Boston Bruins
The Bruins ended their season on a disappointing note after a Game 7 loss to the Washington Capitals in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. The B’s should be back with a vengeance this time around. Veteran goaltender Tim Thomas is gone on a self-appointed sabbatical, leaving the promising Tuukka Rask to mind the net for the Bruins.
Nathan Horton is fully recovered from a concussion that held him out of the playoffs, which should solidify Boston’s standing as one of the deepest and best five-on-five squads in hockey. Look for fellow forward Milan Lucic to have a big year with Horton’s return, and don’t be surprised if the men wearing the spoked “B” make another deep playoff run.
Team that could give the Bruins trouble: Ottawa Senators
While Toronto is still a mess and Montreal continues to search for a defensive identity that can complement its promising young offense and goaltender Carey Price, Ottawa looks ready to build off their impressive ending to the 2011-12 season. The Senators pushed the New York Rangers to seven games in the first round of the playoffs before being eliminated, but it was clear they have found something in the Jason Spezza-Milan Michalek pairing up front and reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson providing offense from the blue line. How reliable netminder Craig Anderson is could determine if this team can challenge Boston and what they accomplish come playoff time.
Atlantic Division Winner: New York Rangers
Many have dubbed the Blueshirts the early Stanley Cup favorites. As a Bruins fan, it pains me to say those words are not without some merit. To go along with rising stars Chris Kreider and Carl Hagelin — not to mention reigning Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist in net — the addition of Rick Nash has solidified the Rangers as one of the deepest teams in hockey. They defend, they block shots, and they come to play every night — a formula that’s sure to bring New York success in the postseason.
Teams that could give New York trouble: Pittsburgh Penguins
If it weren’t for the NHL’s seeding format — which rewards division winners with the top four seeds regardless of points at the end of the regular season — the Pens would probably finish in the top three in the Eastern Conference. Though not as deep or well-rounded as the Bruins or Rangers, you would be hard-pressed to find a more offensively talented squad. With Sydney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal leading the charge, this Pittsburgh team could be dangerous if they start out hot.
Don’t discount the Philadelphia Flyers, either. They may have had a drop off from last season, but Claude Giroux and co. should still slide into the fifth or sixth spot in the top-heavy East, provided goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov plugs up that five-hole issue.
Southeast Division Winner: Washington Capitals
The Caps started out last season with realistic Stanley Cup aspirations that quickly evaporated. They surged in the back half of the season to capture the seventh seed in the East before beating Boston in a thrilling seven-game opening round playoff series behind the stellar play of 22-year-old netminder Braden Holtby. Holtby’s progression will be the key to their success this season, but Alex Ovechkin must continue his metamorphosis into a more all-around player for Washington to get past teams like the Rangers, who eliminated them in the second round last season.
Teams that could give them trouble: Florida Panthers
Although I don’t see anyone other than the Caps securing the division crown, that’s been said before. Florida surprised everyone by skating into the three-seed last season as the Southeast Division champs, and if their offseason moves mesh well with the young talent they have like Calder Trophy candidate Jonathan Huberdeau, the Panthers should continue their upward trend. Tampa Bay will score plenty of goals with stars Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier leading the pack. Unfortunately for the Bolts, they just don’t have the defense or the goaltending to truly pressure Washington and Florida for the division title and will probably miss out on the postseason for the second straight year after losing to the Bruins in the 2011 Conference Finals.
Northwest Division Winner: Minnesota Wild
As tempting as it is to say Vancouver will bounce back after their embarrassing sweep at the hands of eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles in the opening round of last year’s Western Conference Playoffs and run away with the division, I won’t. The Canucks are too offensively talented to lose out on a playoff berth, but with Ryan Kesler’s return from shoulder and wrist surgeries uncertain and question marks surrounding their goaltender situation, a 48-game schedule doesn’t help Vancouver’s chances for the division.
The twin signings of left-winger Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter in the offseason immediately bolstered an already talented roster in Minnesota. Perhaps division-crown expectations are a bit premature for a team that is bound to be a work in progress, but if the Wild click ahead of schedule, a top-four seed in the West is not out of the question.
Teams that could give the Wild trouble: Vancouver Canucks and Colorado Avalanche
The Avs’ young talent has shown promising signs as they continue to mesh. Their playoff hopes hinge on the consistency of goaltender Semyon Varlamov. If he shines, the Avs could be the sleeper out West as the seven- or eight-seed. If not, another third place finish in the Northwest looks likely.
Central Division Winner: Chicago Blackhawks
Much like Vancouver, Chicago has the talent to run away with their division if they start strong. Both Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are top-15 players in the NHL, and Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith provide one of the best defensive pods in hockey. Expect the Hawks’ goal-scoring to carry them through to a top-three seed in the West, but how they fare in the postseason rests on the shoulders of backstop Corey Crawford. If he can forget last season’s struggles and regain top form, Chicago could become the team to beat regardless of conference.
Teams that could give Chicago trouble: Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues, Detroit Red Wings
The Central will finish the season as the top division in hockey once again with their four viable playoff contenders. Nashville and Detroit will see a bit of a drop off following the departures of Ryan Suter and Nicklas Lidstrom, respectively, but the Preds still have quality forwards and a top-five NHL netminder in Pekka Rinne, and the Wings still offer one of the deepest offensive teams in the West. Both squads should skate into the playoffs with decent seeds.
The team that is sure to keep the heat on Chicago, however, is the St. Louis Blues. Featuring a solid team, top to bottom, and two consistent goaltenders with Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot, the Blues style and personnel provide the perfect mix for a playoff run. This team is poised for a top-five seed in the West and could surpass Chicago if Crawford struggles.
Pacific Division Winner: Los Angeles Kings
How could I not pick the defending champs, right? Barring the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover — which should be irrelevant since the Kings are more than eight months removed from hoisting the hardware — LA is poised to pick up right where they left off. The Kings retained all of the significant pieces from their dominant run through the playoffs last spring: Jonathan Quick is still the best goaltender in hockey, and LA’s tough style of play should fare well against anyone this postseason, including potential Stanley Cup matchups against the Rangers, Bruins or Penguins.
Teams that could give the Kings trouble: San Jose Sharks, Dallas Stars, Phoenix Coyotes
San Jose has continued to underwhelm the hockey world for the majority of the last 10 years. On paper, this team looks like a perennial Cup contender, with solid goaltending and a balanced attack led by Joe Thornton. The Shark’s talent should result in a playoff berth, but beyond that, a deep playoff run would be a shock. The Stars should be much improved from last season, but in a loaded Western Conference, anything better than a top-10 finish would be a surprise. Phoenix will try to repeat what was a stellar 2011-12 for the franchise, but much like the Stars, the West may be too deep for the Coyotes to crack the top eight and make the playoffs for the second straight year. Goaltender Mike Smith will give them a chance every night, but it may not be enough for an offense that struggles to put points up.
Team Award Predictions
Stanley Cup Champions: Los Angeles Kings
Prince of Wales Trophy (Eastern Conference Winner): Pittsburgh Penguins
Clarence S. Campbell Bowl (Western Conference Winner): LA Kings
President’s Trophy (Top point-getter in the regular season): New York Rangers
Individual Award Predictions
Conn Smythe Trophy (Most Valuable Player in the playoffs): Jonathan Quick, LA Kings
Hart Memorial Trophy (Most Valuable Player in the regular season): Sydney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
Vezina Trophy (Best goaltender): Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators
Calder Memorial Trophy (Best rookie): Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers
Art Ross Trophy (Top individual point-getter): Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
Lady Byng Memorial Trophy (Gentleman’s award, plays the game with sportsmanship and skill): Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
James Norris Memorial Trophy (Top defenseman): Mike Green, Washington Capitals
Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard Trophy (Top goal-scorer): Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
Frank J. Selke Trophy (Best defensive forward): Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks.