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!

NFL: Regular Season Wrap Up

Urlacher lead the Bears to an NFC North title

Ever notice how much things change when you look back just a few weeks in an NFL season? I was reading a Sports Illustrated from early November yesterday, and a few things caught my eye… the Bears offensive struggles had people predicting a failed season to come (yet they ended up winning NFC North)… the Giants were ranked as the NFC East’s best on most experts’ power rankings (one 4th quarter meltdown and DeSean Jackson punt return changed all that)… the Chargers were closing in on spoiling the Chiefs AFC West party (so much for that Norv Turner)… the Colts were finally going to miss the playoffs (Peyton Manning had other ideas). The point is, the NFL changes so much from Weeks 10-17, that it’s near impossible to predict final standings more than half way through; we can’t say the same thing about the NBA now can we (already putting $ down on a Lakers-Heat Final).

The overall theme of this season has to be parity. The league and the game itself have become so balanced that A) no team was a run away favorite 10 games into the season, and B) teams that were awful last year competed and grabbed playoff spots this year (and vice versa, see Panthers). So many kudos can go around to various players and teams, whom all deserve them, so let’s begin:

OFFENSE

Players of the Year:

AFC: Arian Foster- in a once pass-happy offense, this once spurned RB led the league in rushing yards and TDs, and delighted those who snagged him late in fantasy drafts.

NFC: Michael Vick- amazed fans as the dual threat QB showed that he can still run. The lack of INTs also surprised many who hadn’t forgotten his last three years in Atlanta

Breakout Seasons:

AFC: Peyton Hillis- had you ever heard of this guy before 2010? The guy got 13 carries last year, but turned his 270 hauls this year into pay-dirt.

NFC: Roddy White- solidified himself as the best wide out in the NFC, had 20 more catches than anyone else in the conference.

MVP:

AFC: Tom Brady- the lack of interceptions and ability to win defines him as a competitor

NFC: Aaron Rogers- league’s 2nd best rated passer, and Packers’ offensive heart and soul

Rookies of the Year

AFC: Maurkice Pouncey- centered every game for the 12-4 Steelers in his first season, and is already a Pro-Bowler.

NFC: Sam Bradford- dude had to throw over 50 times in his 1st NFL game, and carried the putrid Rams to within one win of a division title.

DEFENSE

Players of the Year:

AFC: Jerod Mayo- led the league in tackles and showed how much of a non-joke the Patriots defense really was.

NFC: Brian Urlacher- 126 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 interception, the man did it all, including lead a defense that ranked 4th overall in the NFL

Breakout Seasons:

AFC: Cameron Wake- this beast of a man had 14 sacks as a linebacker, nuff said.

NFC: Terrell Thomas- provided solid play where the Gmen have lacked in recent years.

MVP:

AFC: Troy Polamalu- the Steelers really missed the Hair in the home loss to the Jets, his health is the key to the Steelers postseason plans.

NFC: Clay Matthews- with 13.5 sacks in just his 2nd year, he’s becoming a force to be reckoned with; watching him plays frightens me on my couch

Rookies of the Year

AFC: Devin McCourty- the 1st rounder out of Rutgers stepped right in and intercepted his way to a 14-2 record. Already a top 5 corner in the league

NFC: Ndamukong Suh- showed no learning curve, he jumped right in to a porous Lions defense and made an impact.

Check back tomorrow for Full Playoff Predictions…