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SI.com's 2013 NHL Crystal Ball predictions

Our puck prognosticators offer their thoughts on the big winners, surprises, stories to watch and more. For additional NHL preview content, check out our division previews (Atlantic, Northeast, Southeast, Central, Northwest, Pacific), preseason Power Rankings, Eastern Conference questions, Western Conference questions, gallery of the 20 most intriguing players to watch and more.
Conference Champions & Stanley Cup Final
 
Allan Muir
  WESTERN CONFERENCE   EASTERN CONFERENCE   STANLEY CUP FINAL  
  over   over   over  
  Western playoff field: Blackhawks, Red Wings, Oilers, Kings, Wild, Coyotes, Blues, Canucks
Eastern playoff field: Bruins, Hurricanes, Rangers, Senators, Flyers, Penguins, Lightning, Capitals
 
 
 
Sarah Kwak
  WESTERN CONFERENCE   EASTERN CONFERENCE   STANLEY CUP FINAL  
  over   over   over  
  Western playoff field: Canucks, Blues, Sharks, Blackhawks, Red Wings, Wild, Kings, Predators
Eastern playoff field: Penguins, Bruins, Capitals, Rangers, Flyers, Devils, Senators, Lightning
 
 
 
Brian Cazeneuve
  WESTERN CONFERENCE   EASTERN CONFERENCE   STANLEY CUP FINAL  
  over   over   over  
  Western playoff field: Canucks, Red Wings, Blackhawks, Kings, Wild, Sharks, Blues, Predators
Eastern playoff field: Penguins, Rangers, Flyers, Bruins, Capitals, Sabres, Devils, Lightning
 
 
 
Adrian Dater
  WESTERN CONFERENCE   EASTERN CONFERENCE   STANLEY CUP FINAL  
  over   over   over  
  Western playoff field: Canucks, Red Wings, Blackhawks, Wild, Kings, Coyotes, Oilers, Blues
Eastern playoff field: Bruins, Flyers, Rangers, Hurricanes, Penguins, Devils, Panthers, Capitals
 
 
Major Award Winners
 
Muir
  Hart
Trophy
  Ross
Trophy
  Norris
Trophy
  Vezina
Trophy
  Calder
Trophy
  Selke
Trophy
  Adams
Award
 
               
  Claude
Giroux
  Evgeni
Malkin
  Zdeno
Chara
  Tuukka
Rask
  Justin
Schultz
  Pavel
Datsyuk
  Ralph
Krueger
 
 
 
Kwak
  Hart
Trophy
  Ross
Trophy
  Norris
Trophy
  Vezina
Trophy
  Calder
Trophy
  Selke
Trophy
  Adams
Award
 
               
  Steven
Stamkos
  Evgeni
Malkin
  Drew
Doughty
  Henrik
Lundqvist
  Justin
Schultz
  Patrice
Bergeron
  Alain
Vigneault
 
 
 
Cazeneuve
  Hart
Trophy
  Ross
Trophy
  Norris
Trophy
  Vezina
Trophy
  Calder
Trophy
  Selke
Trophy
  Adams
Award
 
               
  Sidney
Crosby
  Claude
Giroux
  Shea
Weber
  Jonathan
Quick
  Jonathan
Huberdeau
  David
Backes
  Barry
Trotz
 
 
 
Dater
  Hart
Trophy
  Ross
Trophy
  Norris
Trophy
  Vezina
Trophy
  Calder
Trophy
  Selke
Trophy
  Adams
Award
 
               
  Sidney
Crosby
  Sidney
Crosby
  Ryan
Suter
  Henrik
Lundqvist
  Justin
Schultz
  David
Backes
  Kirk
Muller
 
 
Most Intriguing Storyline
 
Sidney Crosby :: Jerome Davis/Icon SMI
Muir
The impact of injuries. Staying healthy, or at least reasonably so, is critical to a team's chances in any given season, but able bodies could be in shorter supply than ever in 2013. Lack of prep time and insufficient rest between games is sure to lead to pulled muscles -- Calgary's Jarome Iginla and Vancouver's Dan Hamhuis and David Booth were sidelined by groin strains on the first day of camp -- and other lingering injuries that will wreak havoc with roster integrity. Look for at least two quality teams to see their playoff hopes dashed as key players languish on the IR.

Kwak
Sidney Crosby's health. The Penguins' superstar center has played just 28 games, including playoffs, since Jan. 5, 2011. Granted, when he's been on the ice, he has been his old self, racking up 45 points, but the question will be if he can maintain his health and his form.

Cazeneuve
What will the fans do? Hockey enthusiasts may be no less fickle than any other sports fans -- defiantly indifferent and then suddenly rabid once their team goes on its first streak or slides into its first slump -- but three work stoppages in less than two decades have knocked out one full season and half of two more. We may not see the boycotts that people always call for during league labor impasses, but just how much of the buzz generated by the NHL's recent good years has been killed?

Dater
The statistics. How much better will players who saw game action during the lockout be as opposed to those who didn't?
 
Most Improved Team
 
Ryan Suter and Zach Parise :: Marilyn Indahl/Icon SMI
Muir
The Oilers. My cheerful colleague Adrian Dater recently earned universal acclaim for his positioning of the Oilers at No. 3 in his Preseason Power Rankings. All right, so the mockery from some quarters suggests it wasn't exactly universal acclaim, but the pick was hardly made for shock value. Edmonton is poised for a breakthrough this season, not just as a playoff team, but as the most entertaining club in the Western Conference. Look for the Oilers to get off to a smoking hot start thanks to the game readiness of key stars like Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and ride a hot power play and wave of confidence to their first playoff berth since 2006.

Kwak
Minnesota Wild. The additions of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are just what this team needs. Both players make those around them better, and with a cadre of talented prospects waiting in the wings, Minnesota will make the playoffs for the first time in five years.

Cazeneuve
Minnesota Wild. OK, this is an easy out of sorts, but after years of low expectations fueled by the mentality of low-budget thinking, the Wild changed its mindset during the offseason, scoring prized free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, both of whom have ties to the area. Given the great hockey culture at all levels, from pee wee to juniors to college throughout the state, everybody how follows the Wild is expecting a breakout season and this could be it.

Dater
Carolina Hurricanes. Kirk Muller is an excellent young coach and the Staal brothers will rule Raleigh.
 
Most Improved Player
 
Rick Nash :: Reuters
Muir
Victor Hedman, Lightning. The big defender has been a work-in-progress since he was drafted second overall in 2009, but he started to assert himself more prominently in the second half of last season with an improved physical presence and growing confidence. Several reports out of Russia, where he spent the lockout skating with Barys Astana, suggest his offense is coming around as well. (He had 21 points in 26 games.) He's ready to be a difference-maker on the back end for the Bolts.

Kwak
Mike Komisarek, Maple Leafs. The 29-year-old defenseman still might not live up to his potential or his contract, but he has dropped a few pounds and comes into the season knowing that improvement is a necessity. He likely won't be what Maple Leafs fans want him to be, but he'll be better than the five points he contributed in 45 games last season.

Cazeneuve
Dwight King, Kings. The King of Kings has never been a knock-your-socks-off scorer. He amassed just 11 goals and 29 points in 50 games with L.A.'s AHL affiliate in Hershey last season and scored just five times in his 27-game stint with the NHL club. But his performance in the playoffs -- five goals in 20 games -- during the Kings' Cup run suggests that the 6-foot-3, 234-pound left wing is gaining the confidence to match the size that the 23-year old already has.

Dater
Rick Nash, Rangers. Hello, he's out of Columbus now.
 
Biggest Breakout Player
 
Justin Schultz :: Cal Sport Media
Muir
Brayden Schenn, Flyers. Sometimes all a player needs is the right opportunity to show exactly what he has to offer. Schenn was barely a blip on the radar in Philly last season, sliding up and down the lines during an injury-shortened campaign. But he impressed in the postseason, scoring nine points in 11 games, and was AHL Adirondack's most effective weapon during the lockout with 33 points in 31 games. Schenn could assume Jaromir Jagr's role on Philly's top line alongside the splendid Claude Giroux and grinder Scott Hartnell, giving him a shot at 30 goals and 70 points.

Kwak
Justin Schultz, Oilers. Racking up 48 points in 34 games in the AHL, the defenseman is the early Calder Trophy favorite.

Cazeneuve
Sean Couturier, Flyers. Acquired as a draft pick in the Jeff Carter deal with Columbus, the 19-year-old looked like a polished veteran during Philly's opening-round playoff victory over Pittsburgh, showing the greatest improvement in his defensive game. Matched often against Penguins star Evgeni Malkin, Couturier limited him to one even-strength point while frequently frustrating him. Couturier led the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in scoring three years ago, so he can fill the net, too. Look for his minutes and production to go up this season.

Dater
Justin Schultz, Oilers. This kid out of Wisconsin put up 48 points in 34 AHL games as a defenseman. There's a reason why teams coveted and fought to get him.
 
Hottest Seat in the League
 
Lindy Ruff :: Gregory Ball/AP
Muir
Lindy Ruff, Sabres. Ruff's been with Buffalo so long that his stat line includes both ties and overtime losses, but the league's longest-tenured coach may be on the unemployment line before the end of this abbreviated campaign. His Sabres came in well below projections last season and have been idled for three of the past five playoffs. GM Darcy Regier toyed with the chemistry in the offseason, giving Ruff a nastier, meatier lineup while at the same time eliminating his excuses. It's win or go home time for Lindy.

Kwak
Scott Howson, Blue Jackets. In October, John Davidson was hired to oversee hockey operations, which is the opposite of a ringing endorsement for what Howson has done as GM during five seasons in Ohio. His leash is so short, it's basically just a collar.

Cazeneuve
Todd McLellan, Sharks. He's in his fifth year behind the bench and while his club's regular-season results have been superb (431 points in four seasons; four division titles) under his watch, the Sharks are still seeking their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final. With talent like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle, Logan Couture, Brent Burns and Martin Havlat on the roster, it is time to get there or change course with an overhaul, and that could start with the coach.

Dater
Mike Yeo, Wild. He better get off to a good start now that he has Zach Parise and Ryan Suter on his roster.
 
Unsung Hero to Watch
 
David Backes :: David E. Klutho/SI
Muir
Andy McDonald, Blues. The truth is that a string of injuries reduced McDonald to a Lohan-like level of reliability -- he's played something close to a full season just once since 2007-08 -- but when he's healthy, he's one of hockey's truly underappreciated assets. His savvy, puck-possession game can be a difference-maker for the Blues, especially on the power play. Look for him to continue the dominance he demonstrated during the 2011-12 playoffs and finish as a point-per-game player, or close to it, this season.

Kwak
Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Sharks. The 25-year-old defenseman won't wow with end-to-end rushes or no-look passes, but what he lacks in flash, Vlasic makes up for with subtle shut-down effectiveness. Upgraded to the top pair alongside Dan Boyle last season, Vlasic eats tough minutes against the league's best offensive players, and at $3.1 million this season and $4.25 million for the next five years, he's a grand bargain.

Cazeneuve
Chris Kelly, Bruins. He's one of the game's most versatile and reliable forwards among players who won't make the All-Star Team. A glue guy who can play any position up front, win face-offs, kill penalties, handle an opponent's best forward and produce adequate offense for a third-liner, Kelly followed his strong postseason during the Bruins' Cup run in 2011 by scoring 20 goals last season and registering a plus-33. He'll play a vital role again this season.

Dater
David Backes, Blues. The best forward you've never heard of.
 
Biggest Surprise
 
Simon Gagne :: Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Muir
Simon Gagne. He was the forgotten man of last year's Cup-winning Kings, missing 63 games before returning midway through the final in a reduced role that reflected the deep layer of rust on his wheels. But Gagne, 32, should return to his impactful form in 2013, skating on a potent second line with Mike Richards and Dustin Brown. Look for the two-time 40-goal scorer to assert himself as one of LA's top offensive weapons.

Kwak
Wade Redden and Scott Gomez will play in the NHL again. When they're not eating up ungodly amounts of cap space, both can be serviceable players. If teams start seeing big injury and depth problems, a gamble on Redden or Gomez will begin to look more appealing.

Cazeneuve
The season itself. The short schedule will mean fewer days off and a greater premium on points as playoff spots are likely to remain up for grabs until the final games. Add a mix of players who have either already logged a fair number of minutes in Europe or will be thrust into game action before they are truly ready to go at full speed, and you have a nasty, combustible, unpredictable formula for streaks as well as aches and pains. Star players will be expected to play through small injuries that could become bigger ones. When they strike, how and which teams are affected, and who emerges as an unlikely savior will be anyone's guess and a constant source of suspense.

Dater
Fans will actually enjoy a short season. Because every game matters so much right off the hop.
 

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