2013 NHL Preview

Ok, we’ve all gotten the lock-out bitterness out of our systems right? ok, well if you’re still angry, please read elsewhere because WhitSport is moving forward! I’m proud to present a quick look at what to expect for the 48 game season that the NHL will conduct in the coming months.

The last time the NHL salvaged a strike-shortened season (1995) there were also 48 games played, with the Devils taking home the Stanley Cup in the end. Many teams think their teams can get hot and make a run at the playoffs this year, despite disappointing results in 2012. Back in ’95 this was not the case, as only 3 teams who made the playoffs in ’94 failed to do so after the lockout. This does not bode well for teams like the Maple Leafs, Oilers, and Islanders who are looking to end long playoff droughts. Last year saw tons of drama with more upsets than ever before in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The LA Kings took home Lord Stanley’s trophy, and in the process, became the first 8th seed to win the Cup.

With the amount of craziness that continues to go on display once the Playoffs roll around, it becomes nearly impossible to predict who will be vying for the Cup in June. Nevertheless, let’s have a go!

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Penguins– with Crosby healthy, and Malkin already warmed up after playing in Russia, the Pens, who finished just 1 point behind the Rangers for the top spot in the East last year, look to avenge their early post-season departure with a deep run this season
2. Bruins– the B’s are a fairly young team and showed some consistency last year after winning their division for the 2nd straight season. Plus, with Tim Thomas on sabbatical, it’s Tuuka time!!
3. Capitals– with new coach Adam Oates around, the culture should improve in Washington. Ovechkin seems to be returning to normal, and may be given a longer leash than he had under Dale Hunter.
4. Rangers– John Tortorella certainly won’t let his foot off the pedal now. The Rangers have the personnel to make a great run, only questions surround whether Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik, and company can all live up to their billing.
5. Devils– it’d be hard to put the reigning Conference Champs any lower, with Brodeur back and rested, this young team could prove why last spring was no fluke. Watch out for emerging young stars like Henrique and Larsson.
6. Sabres– Nice additions in the offseason. If Ryan Miller steps back up to the level we know he can play, Buffalo has a shot to make some waves.
7. Flyers– with the goaltending situation at a crossroads, there could be bumps along the road. A solid scoring department may barely save them
8. Lightning– I’m expecting a big year from Stamkos. If the defense can improve, even just slightly, they’ll be in the mix.
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9. Panthers– they’re just one of those teams who played well last year, but a shortened season could prove fatal, only saving grace is their division
10. Jets– I like what they’re doing here. Their young consortium of talent is progressing nicely, but might be a goaltender away from the playoffs
11. Senators– I just don’t see enough here to warrant another playoff run, especially since the odds of Eric Karlsson putting up similar #’s to last year are slim
12. Canadiens– slight improvement over last year, but seriously need some scorers to contend for the playoffs again.
13. Islanders– this high? really? I think Tavares has his break out season, but a hefty schedule against the rest of the Atlantic keep the Isles humbled.
14. Hurricanes– the decline has been quick, and shows no signs of turning around this year. Contracts like Jordan Staal and Alex Semin have bad news written all over them.
15. Maple Leafs– goaltending is too flaky, and scoring is too thin behind Kessel. Bottom of the barrel here.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. Blues– Ken Hitchcock was St. Louis’ savior a year ago, and they aren’t about to turn back now. Expect the Blues to continue stifling defensive play throughout the year.
2. Canucks– Roberto Luongo is as good as gone, but Schneider is more than capable, and all of the offensive weapons are back. They should contend for the President’s Trophy again
3. Coyotes– this team continues to impress despite a major lack of star power. I like Mike Smith to have another great year in net.
4. Blackhawks– I think the Blackhawks, now healthy, should put together a nice season. Patrick Kane is poised for a bounce-back campaign.
5. Ducks– yep this is my sleeper pick. Bruce Boudreau had this squad playing back up to their potential last year, but ran out time to snag a playoff berth. Look for bounce back years for Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf
6. Red Wings– losing Nik Lidstrom might take more of a toll than some people think. I like their young talent a lot, but it’d be crazy to put them too much higher.
7. Predators– With Rinne back, they’re pretty much a lock for a playoff spot. Some worries about loss of Suter, but signing Hal Gill and re-signing others will help.
8. Stars- could repeat last year and get off to a red-hot start, but this time, a shortened schedule means they make the cut in April.
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9. Kings- what?! how could I leave the defending champs out of the playoffs? First off, they sneaked in as an 8-seed, and secondly, they’ve still got some major questions on offense
10. Sharks– we saw the decline begin last year, they have some good young players, but not enough depth.
11. Wild– two huge signings, but you need 4 full lines to make a decent NHL team. They could make things interesting if net-minder Niklas Backstrom stays healthy.
12. Avalanche– lots of good young talent, but really just too young for a playoff sprint (their Captain is only 20 years old!).
13. Oilers– just too much talent to finish any lower. Looking forward to seeing Yakupov and his new friends in action, even if the wins aren’t plentiful.
14. Flames– last year they did their normal routine and limped out of contention as the months dragged on. With an aging squad I don’t see much improvement on the horizon
15. Blue Jackets– just nothing here to think they’ll finish above bottom. With Nash gone they can begin to rebuild

In terms of pre-season Cup picks, I have never even been close to correct, but I’ll made some silly picks anyway…

Rangers fans hope to light em up with King Henry this summer

Stanley Cup: Rangers over Blues
Conn Smythe (Playoff MVP): Henrik Lundqvist
Hart (Reg Season MVP): Claude Giroux
Art Ross (Most Points): Claude Giroux
Rocket Richard (Most Goals): Steven Stamkos
Vezina (Best Goalie): Mike Smith
Norris (Best Defenseman): Kris Letang
Calder (Best Rookie): Nail Yakupov
Jack Adams (Best Coach): Adam Oates

Any comments, disagreements, praise, questions, quips, queries, and quandaries are all welcomed here. Looking forward to the puck finally dropping!

Total Winter Classic Preview

Forecast, January 1, 2011: Temperatures around 50°F… Cloudy with Rain Showers likely… Hardly the weather NHL execs had hoped when deciding on having their annual bonanza in Pittsburgh. However, it seems as though the game may go off, and could still be a huge success. Should the game be delayed until Sunday, the teams will still likely come out with the same tenacity and put on a brilliant display of outdoor hockey. Sure TV ratings will likely dip, especially when pitted against the media giant known as the NFL. But who cares? 90% of people planning on watching the game will still likely tune in, at least for a period or two.

NHL Execs are hoping for more of a winter wonderland

But first, I need to address the issue with the selection of the decision made months ago, mainly the teams and location involved in the 2011 Winter Classic. As a Penguins supporter/defender, some might be surprised at my chagrin towards the choices made by Bettman and company. By no means am I a Bettman hater, the man is trying to bring back the sport that stooped to the lowest of lows in 2004, when a lockout cost the league an entire season, and with it TV contracts, sponsorship, and millions of fans across the United States. So monetarily the choice of Penguins vs Capitals was a slam dunk… it brings in the most mula. When you can showcase the leagues two most recognizeable players on the biggest stage, you’ll jump at the chance. Bettman will never get to see Crosby and Ovechkin duke it out in the Stanley Cup Finals, so he’s settling for this. But hockey purists, and even casual fans recognize that this media stunt is a bit forced, and frankly unfair to many other teams, cities, and markets across North America. Fans in Montreal would kill to host a Winter Classic; instead they’ll have to settle for the Flames in a much less hyped “Heritage Classic” in February.

Avery: clearly peeved that the Rangers have yet to play in a Winter Classic

Hockey purists will argue that the annual game should include Original Six Teams first, with NY Rangers, Montreal, and Toronto still having yet to feature in one. But, the main argument is equity. Why should the Pens get a second Winter Classic, before 25 other teams even get to play in one?! I already answered that question above ($). Regardless, let’s take a look at some other matchups that could still draw huge crowds, garner interest, and showcase some of the NHL’s lesser known players and teams:

NY/NJ Rivarly: Rangers vs Devils (New Meadowlands Stadium or Yankee Stadium)

Ovi vs Stamkos: Capitals vs Lightning (FedEx Field)

Battle for Canada: Maple Leafs vs Canadiens (Rogers Centre… roof open)

Gretzky Game: Oilers vs Kings (Commonwealth Stadium)

If the NHL was still insistent on having Crosby vs Ovechkin, why not have the game in Washington? FedEx field, RFK, Nationals Park… they’d all be great locations. How about this for a radical idea… have the game on the national mall… right there, in front of the most iconic monuments in America. If DC can cram a million people in for the Obama inauguration, I’m sure they can fit 80,000 in for a hockey game.

Back to business: HBO’s coverage of the two teams have provided more hype than usual, has let us into the inner workings of a hockey team, and especially what coaches say when their teams struggle (see Bruce Boudreau). The Pens are flying high, winning 16 of their last 20 games, and scoring the second most goals in the NHL. The Caps are reeling, after losing 8 in a row, they’re just now starting to recover, and still cling to their division lead. So what should we expect? For starters, expect a close game: 9 out of their last 13 contests have been decided by just 1 goal, with 6 of those games going to Overtime.

The rivalry continues? Expect a calmer game, for the sake of the NHL

With that being said, let’s get into the game itself:

Injury Report:

Capitals: Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon OUT… Tom Poti, Mattieu Perrault QUES.

Penguins: Mike Comrie, Jordan Staal OUT… Eric Godard DOUBTFUL

Expected Lines:

Capitals:

Off: 1-Ovechkin, Backstrom, Knuble… 2-Laich, Johansson, Semin… 3-Chimera, Beagle, Fehr… 4-Hendricks, Steckel, Perrault

Def: 1-Green, Hannan… 2-Erskine, Schultz… 3-Carlson, Alzner

Goalie: Varlamov

Penguins:

Off: 1- Kunitz, Crosby, Dupuis… 2- Talbot, Malkin, Cooke… 3- Conner, Letestu, Kennedy… 4- Rupp, Adams, Asham

Def: 1- Orpik, Letang… 2- Martin, Michalek… 3- Goligoski, Engelland

Goalie: Fleury

Players to watch:

Capitals: Jason Chimera (right)- one of the fastest skaters in the NHL, and is the only Capital with experience playing in a pro game outdoors (1st Heritage Classic with Edmonton).

Penguins: Sidney Crosby- coming off his first point-less game in over a month, he’ll be looking to get back on the score sheet. He also stole this show 3 years ago, scoring the shootout winner in Buffalo.

Well, that’s that. Enjoy the show ladies and gents, no matter when the puck ends up dropping.