Not to brag, but half of PHT staffers correctly predicted the Los Angeles Kings would win the Stanley Cup last season. We’re back to try again in 2014-15. Feel free to add your picks below. Also, don’t forget to suggest we have no idea what we’re talking about. Like last year when all those people ripped two of us for picking the Rangers to make the Final.
Jason Brough: Tampa Bay Lightning over St. Louis Blues
The first thing that any Cup winner needs is great players. Analysis! (But seriously, sometimes people forget this.) Well, the Lightning have three players who have shown they can be elite at their respective positions. Steven Stamkos is, obviously, one of the best in the game. But there’s also Victor Hedman, who finished ninth in Norris Trophy voting last season, and Ben Bishop, who finished third in the Vezina Trophy race. Other things to really like about Tampa Bay: a deep defense, a strong contingent of contributing youngsters, a handful of experienced vets, and a good coach. Maybe I’m getting sucked in by a trendy pick and I should just play it safe with Chicago or L.A. But that’s boring, and this group that Steve Yzerman has assembled gets my nod.
Mike Halford: Pittsburgh Penguins over Los Angeles Kings
You guys remember what happened the last time Pittsburgh changed coaches, right? Granted, the switch from Michel Therrien to Dan Bylsma happened during the season rather than over the summer, but the fact still remains — there’s a new face behind the Pittsburgh bench, and that’s probably a good thing. There’s no denying the Pens got stale and frustrated under Bylsma, and it’s wise of Mike Johnston to preach (for now, anyway) that they should be enjoying themselves, rather than suffocate under the pressure of expectations. And hey, this is still a pretty good team. Pittsburgh has the NHL’s best player (Sidney Crosby), the best one-two center combo in the league (assuming Evgeni Malkin’s healthy), its best bottom-six forward depth in years and gifted puck-movers on defense in Kris Letang, Christian Ehrhoff and Paul Martin — guys that can get pucks onto the forwards’ sticks. Too many people are sleeping on the Pens.
James O’Brien: Chicago Blackhawks over Montreal Canadiens
It’s easy to imagine the Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings playing hot potato with the Stanley Cup for ages, yet with just one more season of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews being paid below market value, the clock may be ticking on Chicago’s staggering depth. Luckily, they still have the 2014-15 season to flaunt their almost unfair array of talent, and guys like Brandon Saad (and maybe eventually Teuvo Teravainen?) seem primed for great things. Oh yeah, it doesn’t hurt to employ Brad Richards when he has a) plenty to prove and b) money to earn. Meanwhile, out East, Montreal is positioned to take a big step forward after an often-promising 2013 postseason run. P.K. Subban and Carey Price are up there with any one-two punch, Alex Galchenyuk seems ready to leap and P.A. Parenteau bolsters a forward group that suddenly looks pretty deep.
Ryan Dadoun: St. Louis Blues over Boston Bruins
I (incorrectly) picked the Blues to win the Stanley Cup last season, and I’m sticking with that prediction for 2014-15. There’s no shortage of worthy contenders, but what makes me gravitate towards St. Louis is its elite defense and offensive depth. The big X-factor is Brian Elliott. In the past, when he was hot, he was one of the best goalies in the league. It’s just that, when he was cold, he was unworthy of a roster spot. But he’s been a superb backup in St. Louis, and at the age of 29, perhaps he can become more consistent as the number one goaltender. As for the Bruins, they have an elite netminder and a balanced offense. Zdeno Chara isn’t getting any younger, but he’s still a force, and they’ve got some great young defensemen that seem capable of taking the torch.
Cam Tucker: Chicago Blackhawks over Pittsburgh Penguins
Preface this by saying my prediction will almost certainly be wrong. But let’s get on with it anyway… The Chicago Blackhawks were one goal away from reaching last season’s Stanley Cup Final and their core group of players still includes Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith. So they do have the top-end talent, and I’m not overly worried about their goaltending with Corey Crawford. I still think that in a very difficult Western Conference, this team will remain at or near the top, and when the playoffs conclude, they’ll be back atop the NHL like they were two years ago. The Penguins should’ve knocked off the New York Rangers last year and didn’t. It’s a gamble with them this season. They have a new coach in Mike Johnston and Marc-Andre Fleury has struggled at times in the postseason. But if Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are at their best, the Penguins should still be a force in the East.
Dhiren Mahiban: Chicago Blackhawks over Boston Bruins
Chicago’s core is solid. More than solid, actually. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa up front along with Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya on the back end know what it takes to win, and will lead this team back to the promised land. The Blackhawks’ time to win is now, before Kane’s and Toews’ new monster deals kick in next season and some tough choices may need to be made. Add offseason signing Brad Richards, who will want to prove his doubters wrong after how things ended in New York, and this team has exceptional depth (I didn’t even mention Marian Hossa or Brandon Saad). The Blackhawks have been the model of consistency — winning at least 44 games each season, excluding the lockout-shortened season — since 2008-09. There’s no big reason things will change this year.
We made a list of 30 questions ahead of the 2014-15 NHL season, then we tried to answer those questions. Enjoy:
1. Of all the teams that missed the playoffs last season, the most likely to make the playoffs this season is…
Jason Brough: Washington. I considered a few teams here, but I think Barry Trotz will be good for the Caps, and I liked the Matt Niskanen signing.
James O’Brien: The Isles. The Capitals and Devils are awfully tempting choices, but I love what Garth Snow did this offseason.
Ryan Dadoun: The New York Islanders. I think their top two forward lines look pretty good and Jaroslav Halak should be solid between the pipes.
Cam Tucker: Vancouver. Outside of trading Ryan Kesler, the core didn’t change, but they’ve added younger players and a new coach known for getting the most out of his players.
Dhiren Mahiban: Can’t argue with the Islanders choice. The additions of Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy and Halak certainly make them better on the back end. Throw in a healthy John Tavares and this is a playoff team.
Mike Halford: Isles. Three of the Metro’s playoff teams from last year — Rangers, Flyers and Blue Jackets — have their issues and could take a step back.
2.Of all the teams that made the playoffs last season, the most likely to miss the playoffs is…
JB: Philadelphia. The blue line was already a concern before Kimmo Timonen was diagnosed with blood clots. Can’t say I’m the biggest believer in Steve Mason either.
JO: Philadelphia. Even if that offensive attack is so potent that it’s very scary to pick against them.
RD: Columbus. I really want to believe in the Blue Jackets, but with Nathan Horton out and Ryan Johansen missing training camp, I’m really wondering about the offense.
CT: Detroit. Aging core group of forwards that’s struggled to stay healthy. And that playoff streak, at 23 years now, has to end eventually, right?
DM: Detroit. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are coming off injuries and are a year older. Youngsters Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco won’t be catching anyone by surprise this season.
MH: Columbus. Will get off to a slow start (Horton/Jenner/Murray out, Johansen trying to get up to speed) and never recover.
3. The Red Wings have made the playoffs 23 straight seasons. Will they make it 24?
JB: No. I absolutely hate betting against a Mike Babcock-coached team, but it feels like the end of an era in Detroit.
JO: Yes. It won’t be pretty, but Babcock will scowl his way into another postseason and then gain the Bill Belichick-like power he craves … just maybe not in Detroit.
RD: Yes. They’re lucky they moved from the Western Conference to the East when they did.
CT: No. Again, health a big concern. Not entirely sold on their goaltending, either.
DM: No. Health and young players providing a repeat performance are big concerns.
MH: Yes. I don’t get why everybody’s so down on the Wings. They had 93 points last year with basically half their roster. Zetterberg’s healthy, Howard’s healthy and Nyquist is primed for his first full NHL season.
4. The Edmonton Oilers have missed the playoffs eight straight seasons. Will they make it nine?
JB: Yes. Too many good teams in the West, combined with too little experience down the middle. I think they’ll be harder to play against though.
JO: Yes. This is the first time I’ve nearly been lured in by the siren call of their potential, but a stacked West provides the beeswax to resist for one more year.
RD: Yes. I think the Oilers are moving in the right direction, but I look at their competition and I just don’t see how Edmonton can squeeze into the playoffs.
CT: Yes. They play in the Pacific Division.
DM: Yes. The Pacific Division is just too strong and the Oilers are predominantly young and inexperienced.
MH: I want to say no just to be different, but yes.
5. The worst team in the NHL will be…
JB: Calgary. But holy heck could the Flames be dangerous in a few years if they get Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.
JO: Buffalo. The Sabres’ third jersey should be a tank … with swords.
RD: Buffalo. The Sabres were remarkably bad last season and I don’t think they’ve closed the gap between them and the rest of the league.
CT: Florida. Even with Roberto Luongo and Shawn Thornton.
DM: Carolina. Jordan Staal is out 3-4 months. Now Jeff Skinner’s health is in question.
MH: Carolina. Even the owner wants out of this mess.
6. The biggest wildcard team (i.e. could be good, could be awful) is…
JB: Islanders. On paper, they’re a lot better than last season. That said, I always get nervous about “good on paper” teams, and I have trouble putting 100 percent faith in an organization that hasn’t won a playoff series since 1993.
JO: Edmonton. They actually employ two goalies who could conceivably be above average. But…Oilers.
RD: Washington. If Braden Holtby plays well, if Barry Trotz can get the most out of the players, then they could be something special. This team has plenty of risks though.
CT: Toronto. The Leafs give up a lot of shots, and it caught up with them last season. But this team has good players. They just need to be used the right way.
DM: Toronto. So many “ifs” on this team. The roster has potential though.
MH: San Jose. I literally have no idea what to expect from a team that may have had a nervous breakdown this summer. The Sharks could win the division. They could also be a steaming pile of diapers. Neither would surprise me.
7. Are the San Jose Sharks more likely to be a complete disaster or Stanley Cup champs?
JB: Stanley Cup champs. I just remember what people were saying about the Bruins after they blew that 3-0 lead to the Flyers in 2010. We all know what they did the next year. (That being said, I’m not ruling out complete disaster.)
JO: Stanley Cup champs. Even after a dopey offseason, the Sharks didn’t blow everything up. I will change my tune if they foolishly trade Joe Thornton and/or Patrick Marleau, however.
RD: Stanley Cup champs. It’s hard to look at their roster and see them as anything other than a playoff team.
CT: Stanley Cup champs. I would define complete disaster as missing the playoffs. Don’t see that happening.
DM: Stanley Cup champs?! C’mon, this team has never been past the conference final. It’ll stay that way.
MH: Complete disaster. No, wait, Stanley Cup champs. No, wait, complete disaster. No, wait…
8. True or false: the Colorado Avalanche will prove the analytics guys right and regress.
JB: True. Tough to say how far they’ll regress, but I sure don’t see them winning the Central again. Wouldn’t be shocked if they missed the playoffs.
JO: True. I don’t think Semyon Varlamov can replicate that “Dominik Hasek carrying Buffalo” impression from 2013-14.
RD: True. I can’t see them matching last season’s 52-22-8 record, but they should still make the playoffs.
CT: True, but they’ll still qualify for the playoffs.
DM: True, they set the bar awfully high last season, but they’ll still make the playoffs.
MH: True. And I, for one, welcome our new fancy stats overlords and would like to remind them that as a trusted internet blogger, I can be helpful in browbeating others into their nerdy ways.
9. One team that isn’t getting enough respect is…
JB: Pittsburgh. Yes, the Pens have had some serious postseason letdowns in recent seasons, but it’s not like they’ve gone out in the first round every year. I also really liked the Christian Ehrhoff signing.
JO: Vancouver. Their core is getting a little creaky, but everyone (save the occasional Chris Higgins) looked worse in John Tortorella’s ill-fitting system.
CT: Pittsburgh. Never really considered leaving them off.
DM: St. Louis. They haven’t made it past the second round since 2002, but the pieces are coming together nicely.
MH: Tampa Bay. Love the upgrades.
13. The best team to miss your cut was…
JB: Minnesota. With the goaltending uncertainty and all the other tough Western Conference teams going against the Wild.
JO: The Rangers. Henrik Lundqvist heals many wounds, but they suffered some tough losses this offseason.
RD: Dallas. I have concerns about their blueline and that’s what kept them off my list, but they’re strong in every other respect.
CT: Montreal. They’re a final four team, but getting to the next level, I’m not sure.
DM: The Rangers. They got to the final last year, but lost some key players this summer.
MH: Anaheim. Loaded up front, not so much on defense.
14. The Canadian team with the best chance to win the country’s first Stanley Cup since 1993 is…
JB: Obvious answer is Montreal. The sad thing for Canadian hockey fans? Vancouver ranks No. 2 on my list. And while I think they’ll fight for a playoff spot, it’s hard to call the Canucks Cup contenders anymore.
JO: Montreal faces the easier path to the championship round, boasts an elite goalie (Carey Price) and an elite blueliner (P.K. Subban) plus very good prime-age players and a potential breakout candidate in Alex Galchenyuk. They’re a tempting finalist pick even beyond the Canadian confines, honestly.
RD: Montreal by default. Don’t get me wrong, I think the Canadiens are a good team, but it’s not like they have much competition among their Canadian counterparts.
CT: Montreal. Wouldn’t surprise me if the Habs are the only Canadian team to make the playoffs — again.
DM: Montreal. With Carey Price healthy last season, they could’ve been in the final last year.
MH: Montreal. There’s no other real answer here.
15. The goaltending storyline you’re most interested to follow is…
JB: The one in Anaheim, where the Ducks are going with “the kids,” John Gibson and Frederik Andersen.
JO: Anaheim’s my first vote, although I’m quite excited to see what happens regarding contract years for Marc-Andre Fleury and Antti Niemi, too.
RD: Anaheim’s, but for the sake of being different, I’ll say St. Louis. I’m a big fan of the Blues and part of that is because I believe Brian Elliott is capable of leading that team.
CT: Vancouver. Ryan Miller was the big free agent signing and is working with a new goalie coach in Rollie Melanson. Plus, back-up Eddie Lack has looked good in the preseason. Plus, what is Vancouver without a goaltending controversy? Come on…
DM: Toronto. The Leafs brought back James Reimer despite an obvious rift with head coach Randy Carlyle. What happens if Jonathan Bernier suffers a significant injury this season? We all remember how it went down the stretch last year.
MH: Carolina. Is Cam Ward going to be the league’s highest-paid backup? And if he is, how bad will that look on what could be the NHL’s worst team?
16. A young player you expect to burst onto the scene is…
JB: Leon Draisaitl in Edmonton. Currently pegged as the Oilers’ second-line center. A big job for an 18-year-old rookie, but a big opportunity, too.
JO: Seth Jones, unless that’s cheating because he already did burst onto the scene? Peter Laviolette’s system could be a fantastic fit for his skills.
RD: Jonathan Drouin. He might start the season on the sidelines, but he could end up leading all rookies in points if he gets a top-six role in Tampa Bay.
CT: Johnny Gaudreau. Might not be the biggest guy, but his skill is unreal.
DM: Johnny Gaudreau. From what I’ve seen in the rookie tournament and preseason action this kid has high-end skill.
MH: Curtis Lazar. Played his way onto Ottawa’s roster despite turning 19 just nine months ago. Bryan Murray loves the kid and already suggested he’ll be up for the whole year, not just a nine-game cameo.
17. One big-name player that will get traded before the deadline is…
JB: I had been all set to answer Bobby Ryan here, but now that he’s signed, I’ll have to go with…ummm…not many quality pending UFAs, are there…ummm…fine, screw it…Evander Kane.
JO: Antti Niemi strikes me as “the odd Shark out.”
RD: I think Evander Kane’s time in Winnipeg is finally drawing to a close.
CT: Evander Kane. Seriously, is he happy in Winnipeg?
DM: Boston still has defensemen Adam McQuaid and Matt Bartkowski, who become unrestricted after this season. With Dougie Hamilton and Torey Krug also restricted after 2014-15, doubt both McQuaid and Bartkowski finish the season in Boston.
MH: Assuming the trade of Matt “Big-Name” Bartkowski doesn’t knock the earth off its rotational axis, I could see Jaromir Jagr going if the Devils are out of playoff contention.
18. The player with the most to prove is…
JB: It’s a tie, between Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Not only do they still have to prove it to everyone outside the Sharks organization, now they have to prove it to their coach and GM as well.
JO: P.K. Subban is already a magnet for often-absurd criticism, but slap a $9 million price tag on him and he best cure all of Montreal’s ills.
RD: Braden Holtby. The Capitals have put a lot of trust in him by signing Justin Peters rather than going with someone with a more realistic shot of competing for the starting gig.
CT: Steven Stamkos. Was on a torrid scoring pace when he suffered a devastating injury. Played in only 37 games last season. He’s the best scorer in the game and I think he wants to prove that over a full 82-game season. (And maybe win a Cup?)
DM: Ryan Johansen. After one good season he spent all summer in a bitter, well-documented contract dispute with the Jackets. I’d say he’s got something to prove.
MH: Mike Richards. The Kings showed faith by not buying him out and Richards returned the favor by actually working out this summer. Seems like both sides are expecting a bounce-back campaign.
19. True or false: this will be Marc-Andre Fleury’s last season in Pittsburgh.
JB: False. Mostly because, who else is going to be the starter? It’s not like the Pens have some stud youngster knocking on the door, and the options are going to be limited in free agency.
JO: True. Thomas Greiss showed some promise in backup gigs (and would probably receive a much cheaper extension), while this new front office is in no way married to “MAF.” Why pay a premium on average goaltending?
RD: False. I think if the Penguins were completely comfortable with Fleury, they would have made more of an effort to re-sign him before the start of the season, but the Penguins’ alternatives aren’t great.
CT: True. Flip of the coin, really. Pending UFA at the end of the season. Perhaps a change of scenery next summer might do him some good?
DM: True. Pending UFA and has some disastrous showings in the playoffs in years past. Not even his pal Sidney Crosby can save him now.
MH: False. Go look at the UFA goalies for 2015. Now tell me the Pens are ready to dump Fleury and test the market.
20. True or false: Barry Trotz will be good for Alex Ovechkin.
JB: True. I really don’t think Trotz wants to turn the Caps into a grinding, defensive team. I think he’s excited to coach a group with so much offensive potential, given that’s what he lacked during most of his tenure in Nashville. Washington just needs a bit more structure, and Trotz is the kind of coach who can teach them that. Which will help, not hinder, Ovechkin.
JO: True, mainly by being smart enough to move him back to LW and by merely not being Adam Oates or Dale Hunter. “Can they coexist?” is a fun story, no doubt, but the true key is getting more out of Ovechkin’s supporting cast.
CT: True. Trotz has always been able to get more from less in Nashville. His biggest star was a defenseman in Shea Weber. Interesting to see what he can get out of with so much scoring ability.
DM: True. Trotz will get more out of Ovechkin than Adam Oates and Dale Hunter did.
MH: True. Moving Ovi back to left wing was a good start, too.
21. The most successful new head coach will be…
JB: Willie Desjardins in Vancouver. A much better fit than the last guy.
JO: Desjardins, mainly by not being Torts.
RD: I’ll take the easy way out and say Willie Desjardins. The bar has been set very low.
CT: Mike Johnston. He has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Helpful.
DM: I’ll go Johnston. Crosby and Malkin. Enough said.
MH: Gerard Gallant in Florida. Mostly because the bar was set so low. Also, he hasn’t been mentioned yet.
22. The least successful new head coach will be…
JB: Bill Peters in Carolina. Not because of him, necessarily. That’s just not a very good team.
JO: Peters. Blame the people shopping for the groceries instead of the “cook” in this case, though.
RD: Peter Laviolette. He’s expected to make the Predators a better team offensively, but has he been given the tools to do that?
CT: Bill Peters. Carolina, man.
DM: Agreed Bill Peters has almost no chance with the way the injury bug has bitten already.
MH: Rhymes will Pill Beaters.
23. The first head coach to be fired will be…
JB: Randy Carlyle in Toronto. Frankly, I was surprised he kept his job at all.
JO: Logically it would be Carlyle, but I get a weird feeling he’s going to linger around. So, instead, I think Paul MacLean will be the fall guy in Ottawa.
RD: Dave Tippett. I realize I’m going against the board and certainly the popular opinion here, but Arizona seems to be setting itself up for a disappointing campaign and I think Tippett will ultimately be the one that pays for that.
CT: Randy Carlyle. The Leafs ended last season on a disastrous note. Honestly, how long does he last with a poor start to this season?
DM: Carlyle. With the promotion of Steve Spott, it appears Brendan Shanahan may have Carlyle’s replacement already on the bench.
MH: Ken Hitchcock in St. Louis. First sign of trouble and he’s gone. Remember, Doug Armstrong fired Davis Payne just 13 games into the ’11-12 campaign.
24. The NHL general manager on the hottest seat is…
JB: Has to be Doug Wilson in San Jose. Such a bizarre offseason. Nobody’s opened himself up to more criticism.
JO: Dave Nonis is basically Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross at this point, watching in anger as some punk kid tries to tell him how to analyze hockey/sell real estate.
RD: David Poile. He removed Trotz. When that doesn’t get Nashville back into the playoffs, I think he’ll be next.
CT: Dave Nonis. He’s a remaining part from the Brian Burke era. Leafs might be best served to just get a fresh face in that post.
DM: Dave Nonis. Like Carlyle’s replacement, Shanahan is high on Kyle Dubas — could be Nonis’ replacement.
MH: I feel like James should go back and re-watch that movie. Anyway, my answer is Doug Wilson.
25. The best offseason addition (player joining a new team) will turn out to be…
JB: Ehrhoff. That guy’s gonna rack up some points with the Pens.
JO: Eschewing sheer value picks (like Steve Downie on the cheap) in favor of overall impact, the Islanders needed reliable goaltending badly and Jaroslav Halak fits that bill.
RD: If we were going on impact compared to his cap hit, I really like the value Chicago is getting in Brad Richards. In terms of overall impact though, I think Ryan Miller will play a big role in turning Vancouver around.
CT: Radim Vrbata. Right-handed shot that loves to shoot, could help Sedin twins get back to their old offensive ways.
DM: Scott Hartnell. Adds experience to a young team.
MH: Ryan Kesler in Anaheim. Him and Getzlaf represent the West’s best one-two punch at center.
26. True or false: This will be Mike Babcock’s final season as head coach of the Red Wings.
JB: True. I don’t think he looks at that team and sees a Stanley Cup in the near future.
JO: Winnipeg. Ondrej Pavelec is the Tyler Myers of goalies; his struggles have been lampooned for long enough that I almost feel kinda bad kicking that dead horse.
RD: Minnesota. Josh Harding is out and they can’t rely on Niklas Backstrom to stay healthy. The Wild have to hope that Darcy Kuemper doesn’t regress, because he might end up as their starter for significant stretches of the season.
CT: Tampa Bay. The Lightning are one Ben Bishop injury away from having to rely on 39-year-old Evgeni Nabokov. He is, however, a step up from the previous back-up, Anders Lindback.
DM: Winnipeg. With just three NHL games to his name, I’m not sure how much better Michael Hutchinson is behind Pavelec.
JB: The Oilers making the playoffs. Not my finest moment. Though I did nail the Canucks being a disaster. So, you know…whatever…gimme a break, predictions are hard.
JO: Let’s just say I was a bit too eager about the rebirth of the Seattle Sonics (in the form of an NHL team).
RD: Calling Vincent Lecavalier the best offseason signing and Valtteri Filppula the worst? Yeah, that didn’t play out like I thought it would.
CT: Oilers making the playoffs. I followed that up by saying that of the teams that made the playoffs in 2013, the Habs were the most likely to miss the post-season in 2014. Brutal.
DM: I’m new here, but trust me, my predictions are never wrong.
MH: I said nobody would challenge Luongo in Vancouver and ’13-14 would be like his first season as a Canuck, “when he played a career-high 76 games and earned a Vezina nomination.” Whoops.
29. The prediction you’re least confident about this season is…
JB: Um, all of them? But if I had to pick one, my instincts are telling me not to be so bullish about the Capitals.
JO: It’s a 28-way tie! Really though, forecasting firings makes me really uncomfortable, especially since Paul MacLean is a pretty good coach with an absolutely breathtaking ‘stache.
RD: I have a feeling I’ll be proved wrong when it comes to Tippett being fired.
CT: Trotz being good for Ovechkin. Just not confident.
DM: Dubas replacing Nonis as GM. Does he even have a driver’s license yet?
MH: Hitch getting fired first. Two years ago I said Joel Quenneville would be first out the door, and Chicago won the Cup. I’ve really got my finger on the coaching pulse.
30. Finally, make a crazy prediction that probably won’t happen, but on second thought, you never know…
JB: Andrew Barroway takes control of the Coyotes, promises to keep the team in Glendale, then starts making a lot of business trips to Seattle for some reason.
JO: Antti Niemi gets traded, then leads his new team to a playoff series victory against San Jose … because that’s just the kind of thing that always seems to happen to the Sharks.
RD: Joe Thornton will win the Art Ross Trophy. After being stripped of the captaincy, listening all summer about how the Sharks need to focus on their future, and perhaps being asked to waive his no-trade clause, he’ll have his best season since Boston sent him to San Jose.
CT: The Stanley Cup finalists come from California and Florida. I can see the headlines: ‘Sun shines on Stanley Cup Final’ and ‘Stanley Cup Final heats up.’ I’m bad with headlines.
DM: The Calgary Flames end their five-year drought and qualify for the playoffs. Hey… they’re further along in the rebuild than Edmonton.
MH: The Canucks and Ducks meet in the first round of the playoffs. In overtime of Game 7, Kesler gets called for diving, the Canucks score on the power play, and Luongo tweets something funny.
1. Pekka Rinne – It might come as a surprise to see Nashville’s $7 million man as a risk factor, but it’s hard to guarantee great results after two troubling seasons.
In 2013-14, Rinne’s health-related luck was horrific … he’s one of the few (only) athletes to ever be sidelined with E. Coli. Beyond the unusual nature of that ailment, it all stems from hip issues. Dealing with problems in that area isn’t exactly ideal for the goaltending position (just ask the many who reasonably wondered if Ray Emery could come back from his very serious problems). Rinne looks pretty young, yet at 31, he’s not exactly a spring chicken either.
“The hip feels great. I had a good summer. I worked hard and stayed healthy. I’m just really excited for this upcoming season. I feel like I’m ready to go,” Rinne said. “I still have to pay attention to it, but I don’t have to change anything, I don’t have to skip any training because of that. It feels normal, I feel like I have the strength back in my legs this summer. It feels great and it’s nice not to think about it all the time.”
Healthy or not, the less settling notion is that Rinne hasn’t enjoyed much success since Ryan Suter defected to Minnesota.
After putting up Vezina-caliber stats in 2010-11 and 2011-12, Rinne’s been under .500 since the Predators last made the playoffs (25-26-11 combining the last two seasons) with underwhelming individual stats (.910 in 2012-13 and .902 in 2013-14). Granted, that accounts for only 67 of his 317 career regular season appearances, so it’s not exactly time to panic just yet.
Of course, there’s one other question floating around: if the Predators open things up, might that expose their towering netminder, especially if his lateral mobility is even slightly inhibited by an aching hip?
Nashville’s obviously confident in the big Finn, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily should be. Carter Hutton earned some useful experience last season, but the bottom line is that Nashville will go as far as Rinne can take them.
2. Square peg, round hole? – After 15 years of bending to Barry Trotz’s preferences, the Predators did what they could to acclimate to the about-face that is hiring far more offensive-minded head coach Peter Laviolette.
Will his tactics translate well against brutal Central Division competition? Teams like the Chicago Blackhawks would probably happily go toe-to-toe with Nashville offensively while the St. Louis Blues of the world may just smother them.
Laviolette can be a pretty volatile personality at times. Will Predators execs get a little nervous if their second-ever head coach experiences some serious growing pains?
That said, this team has been molded in Trotz’s image for more than a decade, so the transition can be awkward … and opponents won’t show any mercy.
3. Lack of firepower – This one dovetails with the Laviolette questions: while the Predators boast a group of defensemen that could really push the pace and create chances from the blueline, Nashville’s forwards still leave a bit to be desired (at least on paper).
It’s not to say that the Predators haven’t made strides offensively. As useful as Patric Hornqvist has been for the team, James Neal seems to have a higher ceiling as one of the league’s most dangerous power forwards. Olli Jokinen and Mike Ribeiro might not be the most exciting additions, but they’re low-risk veterans.
Still, few teams are going to be shaking in their boots when they look at Nashville’s set of forwards. When you scan Nashville’s list of forwards, Neal is still the only forward who really seems like an obvious first-line talent, and considering the fantastic centers he’s benefited from in both Dallas (Brad Richards in his prime) and Pittsburgh (Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby), even Jokinen/Ribeiro at their best will be a dramatic step down. It remains to be seen if the volatile power forward can create the same kind of chances without world-class passes reaches his stick.
Even if Neal can make a smooth move to Nashville and a few players thrive with more creative freedom – Colin Wilson, perhaps? – this offense isn’t the stuff of nightmares for opposing coaches.
It might take some time for this team to truly be molded in Laviolette’s vision … assuming that’s even the best vision for this club (as we discussed in the second risk factor).
And there are already whispers that some of the Blues players have grown tired of his approach.
No doubt, Hitchcock is a widely respected hockey mind. He coached Dallas to a Stanley Cup in 1999, and he was on Mike Babcock’s gold medal-winning Team Canada staff in Sochi.
But here’s something else to consider: In his last five trips to the NHL postseason as a head coach, he’s won just a single series. Two teams during that stretch, Philadelphia and Columbus, felt the need to fire him mid-season.
“The playoffs tell you everything as a coach,” Hitchcock said in April. “They tell you everything about yourself, they tell you everything about your players, they tell you everything about how close you are … what you need to do better, what you’ve done well … they tell you everything.”
Which is interesting, because that comment came right after St. Louis had been eliminated for the second straight year in the first round of the playoffs. First it was to Los Angeles. The second letdown, against geographical rival Chicago, really hurt. Especially considering the Blues had held 2-0 leads in both series, only to drop four straight on their way out.
In May, Hitchcock was granted a one-year contract extension — not exactly an overwhelming vote of confidence from management — to remain head coach. A couple of months later, the Blues signed Paul Stastny, arguably the best player available in free agency.
Bottom line: there may not be a team in the league that needs to make a deep playoff run more than St. Louis. Which means there may not be a coach that’s under more pressure than Hitchcock.
“My job is to find more from the group that I’m given,” he said. “So you find ways and you try to create an atmosphere to even get more from your team.”
The risk there? Hitchcock pushes too hard and the players tune him out.
“He had the same message from Day 1. Maybe guys had heard it over and over again and it got to be a little too much.”
2. Brian Elliott may not be up to the job
True, you could say that about any goalie. Even guys who’ve been up to the job in the past can become vulnerable; that’s just the nature of the position.
Still, there are different degrees of risk that GMs can assume when it comes to their goaltenders, and Doug Armstrong is assuming a pretty big risk with his.
The fact is, Elliott is a 29-year-old who’s spent most of his NHL life as a back-up. His .911 career save percentage is fine. Just…fine. As in, nothing special whatsoever. And if Elliott can’t get it done, the Blues’ backup is Jake Allen, a 24-year-old with just 13 NHL starts to his name.
And so, once again, Blues fans are left to cross their fingers and hope for the best from their goaltender. Despite the franchise’s tortured history telling them to expect otherwise.
3. To win the Stanley Cup, “good” isn’t good enough
You need to be great. Which begs the question — do the Blues have any truly “great” players?
A St. Louis player hasn’t won a major award since Chris Pronger took the Hart and Norris in 2000. And based on recent history, there’s a distinct correlation between players that win major awards and players that win Cups.
Sidney Crosby (two Harts) has a ring. So does Evgeni Malkin (one Hart).
Jonathan Toews (one Selke) has a ring. So does Patrice Bergeron (one Selke) and Pavel Datsyuk (three Selkes).
Duncan Keith (two Norris Trophies) has a ring. So does Zdeno Chara (one Norris).
It’s not a perfect correlation. The Kings haven’t won any major individual awards lately, and they’ve got two Cups in the last three years. But not many would argue that Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar aren’t great players.
Through all the changes in the Penguins organization, nagging injuries could still have a big impact on the team. Sidney Crosby’s first preseason came tonight for a variety of reasons, but playing it safe with his healing wrist has to be one of them. Malkin had his own struggles last season, as he was limited to 60 regular season games because of a foot injury and a lower-body issue. He hasn’t enjoyed a fully healthy season since 2009-09, though he did just fine in 2011-12 (109 points in 75 games on his way to his lone Hart Trophy win).
As much as people beat up on the Penguins’ old regime, former head coach Dan Bylsma managed significant injuries as the team remained a perennial contender. Johnston might face a tough start in Pittsburgh if key figures like Malkin aren’t 100 percent or are unavailable.