|SI.com's NHL Season Predictions|
|NHL analysts Michael Farber, Darren Eliot, Adrian Dater and Brian Cazeneuve provide their 2011-12 forecasts. Click here for our division previews.|
|The season's most intriguing storyline will be...|
|Brendan Shanahan: Reuters|
This is a two-part answer. Initially all eyes will be on Brendan Shanahan in his new role as the NHL's Vice President for Violence (OK, "player safety"). But after the fascination with his brand of justice wears off around All-Star weekend, attention will drift to the CBA, which expires after the season, and the possibility of a 2012-13 lockout.
The return of hockey to Winnipeg and how the Jets fare in the Southeast Division, which of course leads to realignment for next season as voted on in December at the Board of Governors meetings.
Adrian Dater Brian Cazeneuve
Sidney Crosby's return from concussion. We all pine for the The Kid to put the sexy back in the NHL. Let's hope his return comes soon.
How the league's more aggressive players change their games to accommodate the NHL's increasing emphasis on safety. Will a loose cannon like Matt Cooke pull up instead of going for a big hit that has the potential to get him in trouble? How might this new caution change the way that coaches coach and general managers build teams as this season moves along and they approach next year?
|The most improved team will be...|
|Michael Farber |
Los Angeles Kings: Assuming Drew Doughty is in reasonable NHL shape, the Kings, with their off-season acquisition of Mike Richards, should move into the elite group of Western Conference teams..Darren Eliot
Edmonton Oilers: Their collection of young stars will continue to mature and grow together under the tutelage of head coach Tom Renney. Adrian Dater
St. Louis Blues: They were starting to get it in gear late last season before time ran out. They had a good summer bringing in solid veteran leaders like Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott, so St. Louis should be back in the postseason tournament again.Brian Cazeneuve
Buffalo Sabres: New ownership has breathed a wealth of capital and optimism into a franchise that has never won the Stanley Cup. The additions of forward Ville Leino and defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr will certainly improve the club's skill level, as will the maturation of backline gem Tyler Myers. This team still lacks the size necessary to get all the way through the playoffs, but the puzzle pieces are coming in.
|The most improved player will be...|
|Michael Farber |
Marcus Johansson, Capitals: The Capitals' first-round draft pick in 2009 got his skates wet last season, recording 27 points in 69 games. He will make a colossal splash this season, especially if coach Bruce Boudreau decides to give the young center most of his ice with Alexander Ovechkin, a combination that clicked in preseason. Also watch for Philadelphia Flyers left winger James van Riemsdyk, whose seven goals in 11 playoff games last spring augurs well for a bright future. Darren Eliot
Tyler Seguin, Bruins The second-year center will be an impact player for the Bruins as they defend their Stanley Cup. He will play more and get time in critical situations and the B's will need that infusion of exuberance and skill Adrian Dater
Craig Anderson, Senators: People forget that he was a top-10 vote-getter for the Hart and Vezina trophies in 2009-10. Expect a return to form in Ottawa.Brian Cazeneuve
James van Riemsdyk, Flyers: The 22-year-old left wing had a strong second half of the season in Philadelphia, where he started to fulfill his promise as a bona fide power forward. He scored 21 goals last season and seven more in what was otherwise a disappointing playoff run for the Flyers. This season he's likely to see time with fellow sniper Jaromir Jagr and playmaking center Claude Giroux. That should make for one of the league's more dangerous and intriguing lines to watch.
|The biggest disappointment will be...|
|Michael Farber |
Winnipeg Jets: Alas, Winnipeg will be a better story than it will be a team. The Jets (née Atlanta Thrashers) made some strides last season under GM Rick Dudley and coach Craig Ramsay, but they will slide back this season, in part because of the added travel for this now misplaced Southeast Division team. Not that the fans in Winnipeg, among the best anywhere, will care. At least not this season.Darren Eliot
Florida Panthers: They'll prove that massive roster changes don?t necessarily make you better or lead to a different outcome. (See also the Wild and Flyers.)Adrian Dater
Florida Panthers: Sorry, but just too many highly-paid mercenary types here now for this thing to work. I mean, $4.5 million a year for Tomas Fleischmann?Brian Cazeneuve
Phoenix Coyotes: They survived offseason concerns that they would have to leave Arizona, but are no longer going to surprise their opponents this season. They did little to improve during the summer. Goalie Mike Smith, a backup or co-No. 1 during his five seasons in Dallas and Tampa Bay, will be the new face in goal, but nobody else is likely to help the club's poor power play (23rd in 2010-11) or penalty kill (26th).
|Hottest seat in the league belongs to...|
|Ron Wilson: Reuters photos|
Ron Wilson, Maple Leafs: Other than Brendan Shanahan (see above), the Leafs' coach is working without a contract extension. Worse, he's working with a team that, in terms of raw NHL talent, is a quart low. If the Leafs get off to another dismal start in the first quarter of the season, he might not be around for Toronto's seemingly annual late-run-to-the-playoffs tease. Darren Eliot
Brendan Shanahan: He's taking over the thankless job of meting out league discipline and will provide full disclosure with video explanations of his rulings. I love the concept, but even with pictures, the subjectivity required in rendering decisions that are separate and distinct makes the task anything but clear-cut and decisive -- especially in this "heady" era we've entered?Adrian Dater
Davis Payne, Blues: Yeah, they're my pick for most improved team, but they'd better get off to a good start because patience is running out with the brass. This team must make the playoffs for Payne to keep his job. Brian Cazeneuve
Bruce Boudreau, Capitals: The coach showed last season that he could transform is run-n-gun arsenal into a disciplined defense-first squad, yet the Caps still got knocked out in the second round by a clever system they couldn?t overcome. They made some key offseason moves by getting grittier players (e.g. Joel Ward) who may well be better suited for the playoffs than the likes of Nick Backstrom and Alexander Semin, but if this team isn't around in June, the affable skipper may be gone by September.
|The most unsung or undersung hero to watch is...|
|Michael Farber |
Mike Ribeiro, Stars: As his premier franchise continues to fall off the edge of the Earth, Ribeiro still produces. During the past four seasons while playing mostly with middling wingers, Mickey Ribs has averaged about .9 points per game. For a stick figure of a centerman, he is remarkably difficult to knock off the puck.Darren Eliot
Bob Murray, Ducks: Anaheim's GM will navigate a course that presents several dangers including the health of his goaltending and production from aging veterans.Adrian Dater
Dave Tippett, Coyotes: It can't be easy coaching the NHL's version of the Witness Protection Program, but somehow amid all that apathy and anonymity in Phoenix, Tippett wins a lot of hockey games.Brian Cazeneuve
Evander Kane, Jets: The No. 4 overall pick in the draft two seasons ago could well become the new face of Winnipeg in a market that is aching to grab onto a hero. Having veteran left wing Andrew Ladd playing ahead of him on the top line will keep some heat off this 20-year old who jumped from 26 points to 43 in his second season and figures to keep getting better.
|Season Predictions Part 2: SI experts weigh in with conference and Stanley Cup champions plus major awards|