Saturday December 26th, 2015

With the year coming to a close, we’ve taken a look at our top 15 moments of 2015. Now it’s time to consider what lies ahead for 2016. 

Big trades? There’ll be plenty of them. Coaching changes, too. There will be All-Star scandals, a happy reunion, a first-time Stanley Cup winner, big free-agent moves and some surprising stars in the summer’s biggest event. Here are 16 can’t-miss predictions for the year ahead:

• The Blue Jackets and Ryan Johansen will kiss and make up

Taking everything into consideration—the fractious contract talks, the brutal start to the season, the coaching change—maybe the level of tension that exists between one of the league’s worst teams and its underperforming star player is understandable. But unless there’s something going on behind the scenes that has completely poisoned their relationship, it makes more sense for the Blue Jackets to mend fences than to cut ties with a franchise center. Cooler heads will prevail.

• John Scott will not be an All-Star

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The grassroots fan vote campaign to elect the Coyotes goon as the Pacific Division captain for the new All-Star Game tournament in Nashville has the NHL in a tough spot. It could honor the spirit of the voting process and allow hockey fans to add a fun twist to the midseason classic, but in the process it would open itself to ridicule from the mainstream media. One guess as to which thing the league is more interested in.

• The Kings will sign Anze Kopitar

No surprise here. Kopitar is too important to the Kings, and they do offer his best chance at more championships. GM Dean Lombardi might need to shuffle some pieces over the summer, but this deal gets done, and probably for a smidge less than $10 million per season.

•​ The Hurricanes will trade Eric Staal

While the idea of retaining a franchise icon has some appeal, the 'Canes can’t afford to be sentimental. It’s clear they aren’t winning now with the 31-year-old UFA-to-be, and their fortunes aren’t likely to change any time soon. Dealing him for an intriguing piece of a contending puzzle not only moves the franchise in the right direction, it makes a lot more sense then losing him for nothing at the end of the season.

•​ The Lightning will trade Steven Stamkos, but ...

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Despite his recent—and kinda awkward—pronouncements of loyalty to the franchise, there is a growing sense that Stamkos wants to explore his options next summer. The Bolts will try to woo their captain with a bold final offer, but recognizing his desires, and long list of other players who need new deals, they will look to acquire assets rather than watch him simply walk away. The trick will be finding a destination that appeals to Stamkos, who holds a no-movement clause and can control his fate. He’ll probably want one more chance to compete for the Stanley Cup now before settling into rebuild mode next season as a free-agent signing of his hometown Maple Leafs.

•​ The Jets will trade Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien

Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff appears to have misjudged his organizational depth, and with his team’s postseason chances looking grim—and a tight budget limiting his re-signing options—it makes sense to address some holes by moving the pending UFAs. Both players hold limited no-trade clauses, but they’d likely waive them to move to a contender.

•​ Jakub Voracek will go off

Voracek’s struggles this season have been well documented. One year after finishing among the league’s scoring leaders with 22 goals and 81 points, he’s on pace for seven and 55 respectively. For now, anyway. In four games since lining up with Sean Couturier and Wayne Simmonds, he has two goals six points, an indication that he’s finally found his comfort zone. Expect a big second half from the Czech winger, something along the line of 12 goals and 40 points.

• Jim Nill will make a dramatic trade

With his team in Cup contention ahead of schedule, the GM of the Stars will look to improve his chances with a bold move ahead of the Feb. 29 trade deadline. A physical winger to help them better match up with the Kings, Blues and Blackhawks would help. So would some veteran depth to shore up a defense that has improved (2.49 goals per game, 12th in the league), but is not quite up to championship caliber. Nill’s done a terrific job enhancing the depth of this organization, so he can afford to overpay if the deal brings in the right asset. Expect fireworks.

• The Lightning will miss the playoffs

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It seems almost inconceivable given the talent on hand, but the defending Eastern Conference champs will fall just short. The injuries (Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin, Brian Boyle, J.T. Brown, Joel Vermin ...) that have been an issue throughout the first half will continue to plague the Bolts, as will the lingering uncertainty over Steven Stamkos (who, as predicted above, won't be a part of this club for the stretch run).

• The Panthers will make the playoffs

If you want to make the cut in the Eastern Conference, you need to be solid defensively and take advantage of your opportunities. Florida is quietly doing both. The Cats are sixth in the East in terms of points per game (0.6) and third in goals-against (2.29). Their offense is still a little too inconsistent to simply hope for the best, but GM Dale Tallon has done a good job of responding to needs in the past. He’ll see the opportunity they have here, make a low-wattage move or two, and give this team enough of a boost to slide into the top eight.

The Ducks will right themselves

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We’re not ready just yet to cut bait on our preseason pick to win it all. As bad as the Ducks have been—and by any measure, they've been turrrible—they do have the good fortune of playing in the most forgiving division in hockey. Even now, they sit just five points in back of third-place Vancouver and a guaranteed playoff berth while holding three games in hand. The way things are going in the Pacific, the Ducks have a legitimate chance to close that gap before the calendar flips to 2016. Still, this is a team that needs something to change if it hopes to make some real noise down the stretch, and that will mean the end of the line for Boudreau. As widely respected as he may be, he’s clearly run out of ideas in Anaheim. A fresh voice is exactly what this team needs.

The Capitals will win the Stanley Cup

Because Braden Holtby is just that good.

•​ Guy Boucher will be the first coach hired in the off-season

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The 44-year-old Boucher took the Lightning to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011, but was fired midway through the 2013 season. He's spent his time since then honing his skills with Switzerland’s SC Bern, where he says he's picked up a few tricks to enhance an already offensively-minded approach to the game. With so much of a team's success based on its transition abilities, he's ideally suited to soup up a young team's attack.

Also: Ron Wilson hasn’t coached in the NHL since being fired by the Maple Leafs in 2012, but the veteran of more than 1,400 games and 648 career wins has the experience and the gruff demeanor to take a soft team to task. Wilson is currently coaching Team USA at the World Juniors. If he leads the Americans to the gold medal, his name moves into the mix for any available job.

•​ The Oilers will win the draft lottery

Because the hockey gods have shown no sign of tiring of this joke yet. Edmonton will take, of course, plum prospect Auston Matthews.

•​ Travis Hamonic will be dealt to Winnipeg

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GM Garth Snow has been put in a tough spot by Hamonic’s trade demand, but it is inevitable that he will acquiesce and agree to move his team’s best all-purpose option on the blueline ... eventually. But if Snow is going to accommodate the player’s desire to move closer to his Manitoba home and leave the Isles without too big of a hole on their back end it could require the involvement of a third team to make a deal happen. Winnipeg is loaded with forward prospects, which might appeal to a defense-rich club like Nashville. Cap considerations could complicate matters, but a deal will get done.

•​ Canada will win the World Cup

With Carey Price sidelined by injuries and Sidney Crosby largely ineffective, the defending champs will rely on the goaltending of Braden Holtby and a revamped offense led by Tyler Seguin, Taylor Hall and Jamie Benn to defeat Sweden in the final and further cement Canada’s dominance on the international scene. 

 

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