|SI.com's NHL Season Predictions|
|NHL analysts Michael Farber, Jim Kelley, Darren Eliot, Sarah Kwak and Brian Cazeneuve provide their 2010-11 forecasts. Click here for Allan Muir's division previews. (Send comments to email@example.com)|
|Team That Will Take The Next Big Step|
Capitals: After untimely playoff exits -- losing a Game 7 at home to Pittsburgh in 2009 and furballing that first-round series to Montreal last spring -- the Caps are ready to win their first Stanley Cup. This team can outskate and outscore most of its mistakes, not unlike Chicago did last season. The duo of Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov is no worse than what passes for playoff-caliber goaltending in the salary-cap era.
Sharks and Canucks: San Jose is my pick to win the Cup, but like the Sharks of seasons gone by, it's put-up or shut-up time for Roberto Luongo and the Canucks. They're a good team, with solid scoring up front and improved defensive depth on the back end. Winning Olympic gold in a tense final game with all the pressure Canada can muster on its native sons, and on Canadian soil no less, is a pretty fair indication that Luongo's time is now to make a deep playoff run. Secondary scoring might be an issue, but then every team says that. Teams that win the Cup (the Blackhawks were a good case in point last spring) seem to find it.
Kings: Drew Doughty and company will serve notice that they have arrived by going all the way to the Western Conference Final.
Sharks: After years and years ... and years ... of playoff underachievement, they will finally make it to the Cup final. They have more scoring options to lean on in Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi and Ryane Clowe, and a capable duo in net (Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki). That should be enough to get them there.
Canucks: They will get out of the West and make a serious run at the Cup. Without the "C" and the pressure of leading his country to an Olympic gold, goaltender Roberto Luongo will be fresher for the playoffs. With the additions of Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis in front of him, there will be more avenues to see the puck. The team's great forwards speak for themselves.
|Player Who Will Take The Next Big Step|
Zach Bogosian, Thrashers: The Kings' 20-year-old defenseman Drew Doughty might be what we used to call a phenom, but the player drafted one spot behind him, Bogosian, is ready to join the Norris Trophy conversation. He had a sizzling start last fall -- eight goals in his first 17 games -- before a hand injury severely limited his effectiveness the rest of the season. Hall of Famer Denis Potvin views Bogosian as a 50-point player.
Steven Stamkos, Lightning: Last season, he proved to the hockey world that he is as good as advertised. Anyone who scores 51 goals in just his second NHL season on a team that had as many on- and off-ice problems as Tampa Bay is clearly talented. Now the Lightning have a new coach in Guy Boucher and he's not unfamiliar with Stamkos' talent from their days in junior hockey. There's also a new GM in Steve Yzerman, who knows a little something about talent and channeling it into winning. Stamkos is going to leave a mark in that area.
Erik Johnson, Blues: The defenseman, who was so promising as a rookie after being drafted first overall in 2006, came back impressively last season after missing all of 2008-09 due to knee surgery. He should progress even more and become the Blues' top player.
James van Riemsdyk, Flyers: Slimmed down and bulked up, the young forward won't fall into the sophomore slump after a rookie season that saw him score 15 goals. The 2007 No. 2 overall draft pick will get more opportunity and greater responsibility in Philadelphia. He'll be a bigger presence around the net, and should up his goal total in his second full season.Cazeneuve
Drew Doughty, Kings: It's a matter of time before this backliner goes from emerging star to Norris Trophy-winner. At age 20, Doughty ranked third among defensemen with 59 points, tops with five game-winners and second with nine power-play goals last season. He and his team will only get better and this could be his Norris season.
|Biggest Surprise For Better Or Worse|
Tuukka Rask, Bruins: The NHL's best Finnish goalie won't be Miikka Kiprusoff but Rask. You will want to buy vowels in any case. Kipper should be his garden-variety terrific self for a Calgary team injury-riddled at center, but Rask, who supplanted Tim Thomas as Boston's No. 1, should build on last season when he had a .931 save percentage and 1.97 goals-against average. He is 6'3", agile, technically sound, and a potential Vezina-winner who will join Buffalo's Ryan Miller on the top step of the position. Kelley
Your Atlanta Thrashers: Okay, they're not yours and no one is exactly sure who owns them. If you can't name one player now that Ilya Kovalchuk has moved on to the sullen shores of Newark, you aren't alone. New GM Rick Dudley may not be a name in your household, but he's among the most respected talent evaluators in the NHL. He had a hand in building the Blackhawks, maintained some years of success in Ottawa, and helped build a championship team in Tampa. He's relentless in pursuing talent, often making trades that other teams just don't seem able to get done. He's also gone out and hired a coach, Craig Ramsay, who is one of the brightest minds in the game. Ramsay was on the bench when Tampa won the Cup and he helped the Bruins survive injuries and a lackluster offense to make the playoffs and advance to the second round last season. He's a teaching coach and Dudley spent the summer swinging deals with Chicago and others to get him the kind of talent that can win a lot of games. Playoffs may still be a stretch, but I won't bet against them.Eliot
Joe Thornton, Sharks: I see Jumbo Joe having the dream season that everyone has envisioned since he entered the NHL in 1997, challenging the 100 assist mark on his way to leading the league in scoring.Kwak
Rick DiPietro, Islanders: He will play in more than 10 games. What wouldn't be surprising is if the seemingly never-healed goalie, who has played 13 games during the last two seasons, didn't make it to 10. All parties seem to be saying (praying?) that he's ready to at least share the load in net.Cazeneuve
Martin Brodeur rests: Apart from the shock of seeing Mike Modano in a Red Wings jersey, we will see a lot more of Brodeur, 38, on the bench. Yes, that doesn't mean the injury list. Coach John MacLean will dutifully give 37-year-old Johan Hedberg 25 starts this season, finally allowing Brodeur the type of healthy rest he needs to be fresh for the playoffs.
|Biggest Redemption Story|
|Mike Green : Francois Lacasse NHLI via Getty Images|
Carey Price, Canadiens: After being booed for allowing four goals in nine shots in the opening exhibition game, Price suggested that Montreal fans "Chill out." Fair enough. But if you are feeling sorry for the poor kid because of the rough treatment, don't. He's not a kid. He is 23, the age at which ex-junior stars such as Roberto Luongo and Martin Brodeur were either recording dazzling save percentages or winning a Cup. Price signed a two-year deal after playoff hero Jaroslav Halak was traded to St. Louis. He has the bona fides and no competition as the Canadiens' No. 1 goalie. There should be no need to kiss his psychological boo-boos.Kelley
Mike Green and the Capitals: The Caps are too good not to come back from last spring's playoff disappointment, and it will be Green, the oft-criticized defenseman, who makes a difference. He is an offensive power in the regular season, but seems to feel pressure to do more in both ends of the rink when the games go to another level. That hasn't worked for him, but he's not oblivious, and when the light bulb goes on this season, the Caps will be better for it.Eliot
Rick DiPietro, Islanders: Returning to health and acrobatic action in goal on Long Island may not be redemption -- more services owed -- but it will be welcome league-wide nonetheless.Kwak
Marc Savard, Bruins; Ian Laperriere, Flyers; David Booth, Panthers: After taking that brutal hit from Matt Cooke, Savard starts the season with post-concussion syndrome even though he played a couple of playoff games. Laperriere rushed his return in the playoffs and won't start the season, either. Booth is finally returning after a season lost to two concussions. Here's hoping the redemption story of the season isn't about a player fighting through a concussion -- and then making it worse. Cazeneuve
Capitals: Hold this question until the spring, because the teams that need to answer it have already proven themselves in the winter. Redemption could reach Boston or San Jose, but we'll give the nod to the Caps, their superstar and his posse, as long as they get some good spring goaltending from Semyon Varlamov.
|Hottest Seat In The League|
|Glen Sather: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images|
Glen Sather, Rangers: Really, at some point James Dolan has to look at his team president and say, "Er, Slats ... about this playoff thing you fellows have in hockey..." Since Sather was named GM in 2000, the Rangers have made the postseason four times and won two rounds. Some of their wealth advantage vanished with the advent of the salary cap. (Although how many teams could afford the luxury of burying defenseman Wade Redden, whom Sather handed an egregious free-agent contract, in the minors?) But an NHL heritage franchise really should be giving Madison Square Garden more bang for its bucks. The question: If Sather isn't on the hot seat, why not?Kelley
Darryl Sutter, Flames: It says here that you shouldn't be able to touch with asbestos gloves the seat that Sather sits on, but he's been around a long time and the more pressure people put on Dolan, the more Dolan digs in for his beleaguered GM. That being the unfathomable case, take a look at Sutter. His team has done nothing of consequence since the year he led it to the 2004 Cup final and lost. It's old, largely devoid of meaningful talent and up and coming prospects, and ownership this past offseason went out and hired Jay Feaster as assistant GM -- the same Feaster who was GM of the Lightning when they beat the Flames for the Cup. That ought to heat things to a boiling point in chronically cold Calgary.Eliot
Ilya Kovalchuk, Devils: Not at the bank, but from a performance standpoint. How he fares will determine how much heat the Devils' ownership and management get for their summer saga to get the Russian sniper under contract.Kwak
Glen Sather, Rangers: Without question, Sather should be sitting in a BBQ pit. Grotesque overspending hasn't led to much in terms of postseason results: two playoff series wins since the lockout. In preseason results, though, it did lead defenseman Wade Redden and his fat contract to New York's AHL affiliate in Hartford. Oh, and four years at $1.65 million per for Derek Boogaard? That's about $4,700 per minute on the ice. FYI, Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom makes $2,973 per minute of ice time. Yeah, think about that. Cazeneuve
Alex Ovechkin, Capitals: You could also split this one between the Caps and Sharks or between their two biggest stars, Ovechkin and Thornton. But Thornton has already lived with the banner of underachiever for years. After a poor Olympics and a sudden playoff crash against Montreal, Ovechkin is under the gun not just to perform, but to get his team to excel along with him once the leaves turn green again.
|Minnesota Wild : Kimmo Mantyla/AFP/Getty Images|
Wild: I have no credibility in this category. Zero. Last season, I figured Phoenix for 30th, only because the NHL doesn't have 31 teams. You know what happened. Anyway, the apparent good news for the splendid hockey city of St. Paul is that your servant predicts the Wild will fend off Florida for the privilege of the best lottery odds. The severe injury to back-up goalie Josh Harding and the empty seats at preseason games have done nothing to brighten the mood in an arena that offers a better hockey experience than it does a hockey team. The best hope for a soft landing is playing in the relatively weak Northwest Division.Kelley
Panthers and Stars: In the East, we think new Panthers GM Dale Tallon will "go for it" and move a decent goalie in Tomas Vokoun at or before the deadline and try to pile up picks, including one in the lottery, simply because it's time to start doing it right in Florida. It's different in the West, but if the goaltending doesn't hold up in Dallas -- and history and medical records say starter Kari Lehtonen won't -- the Stars are in serious trouble. In addition, if forward Brad Richards pushes for a move at the deadline, the Stars, out of the playoffs two years running and devoid of the kind of veteran presence that kept them focused in the past, will drift into lotteryville and management won't be overly disappointed.Eliot
Oilers: Unless something changes dramatically during the course of the season, they could have their second successive first overall selection in the entry draft, come June of 2011.Kwak
Islanders: Oh, the poor Isles can't catch a break. With a tough luck preseason, and losing Kyle Okposo and Mark Streit for extended periods, a slow start will just be the beginning of another long, painful season on Long Island?Cazeneuve
Wild: Last season, they got off to a horrible start, had nobody score more than 25 goals, and got little offensive help from the backline (no defenseman scored more than three even-strength goals). A more offensive posture is one thing, but the results won't be very fruitful.
|Most Intriguing Storyline|
|Crosby and Ovechkin: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images|
Ilya Kovalchuk's contract: In a fluid season, the only guarantee is the ripple effect of Kovalchuk's megadeal in New Jersey. It will be fascinating to watch how it has an impact in the short term (the players the Devils have had to derrick, Kovalchuk's move to right wing because of the presence of Zach Parise on the top line), and how it might affect the team in the medium term. (What will Parise, potentially an RFA after the season, want?) Of course, down the road we will all come to understand the long-term effects of what became, in its second iteration, a scary 15-year, $100 million contract for a winger with four career playoff games.Kelley
The new head shots rule: It will be intriguing to see if the NHL is truly committed to getting gratuitous shots out of the game. The league rewrote the rules in a painful process that seemed to torture the GMs. It then produced a comprehensive DVD to show game officials, fans, media and even reluctant GMs what it wanted stopped. Still, the calls will be at the discretion of the on-ice officials, and unless the NHL operations department gives them its unbridled support, the new rule calling for a major penalty and possible supplementary discipline could go the way of the oft-touted crackdown on diving and the endless bluster regarding truly cutting down on oversized goaltending equipment.Eliot
Parity: The intrigue for me is how teams find a way to prevail, whether it be overcoming adversity, getting career performances out of players, or just with good ol' fashioned consistent, honest and hard-working hockey. Kwak
Penguins and Capitals: I'm most intrigued to see the HBO 24/7 show featuring the Pens and Caps in the weeks leading up to the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh. I'll be interested to see the reaction and how real the players and coaches are going to get. There will be no love lost between the two clubs, and seeing just how deep it runs will be what gets me through the first half of this season. Cazeneuve
The NHLPA: Right now, the league and its owners have about a seven-goal lead on the union. If Donald Fehr finally jumps in or if any other strong leader gives the players a sense of direction and a skate to stand on, it could be a compelling off-ice game after all.
|Season Predictions Part 2: SI experts weigh in with division, conference, and Stanley Cup champions plus major awards|