With the beginning of the 2013 NHL season literally just hours away, I thought it would be fun to make some predictions. Not just predictions – bold predictions. No. Not just bold predictions – fearless predictions.
It’s no secret that I’m optimistic about how the Lightning will fare in the coming season. That said, I don’t think the Lightning are a contender. There’s an old adage in sports gambling that says “You’re never as good as you look, and you’re never as bad as you look either.” The Lightning aren’t as good as they looked in 2011, but they also aren’t as bad as they looked in 2012. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, and I believe that’s the Lightning team that we’ll see in 2013.
League-wide, I think this is the year the St. Louis Blues finally win a Stanley Cup. There are a number of contending teams though, so picking a Stanley Cup Champion is never something one does with a lot of confidence. A prediction I am confident about, however, is that Alexander Ovechkin will have a long-awaited bounce-back year. Adam Oates, the new coach in Washington, preaches a high tempo forecheck that Ovechkin is uniquely suited to.
I also have Justin Schultz, of the Edmonton Oilers, winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. And, though I think our own Cory Conacher will be in the discussion, I don’t think the competition will be particularly close. It’s often said that AHL success doesn’t always translate to NHL success, but the kind of success Schultz was enjoying in the AHL is a little bit shocking. Add to that two factors: 1. Schultz outplayed his NHL teammates in the AHL, and, 2. Because he’s playing for the Oilers, there will be no lack of offensive opportunities.
Finally, I think Sidney Crosby will run away with the scoring race. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Crosby healthy for an entire NHL season, and it’s probably more of a risk to predict he will stay healthy than it is to predict he’ll lead the league in scoring. But over 48 games, I think Sid can keep himself in the lineup more often than not, and as long as he plays 40+, he shouldn’t have much problem winning the scoring race.
All that said, let’s take a look, first at my Lightning predictions, and then at my league-wide predictions.
Fearless Tampa Bay Lightning Predictions
1. The Lightning power play will finish inside the top 10 in the NHL – I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the power play in my previous articles, particularly about how it has gone largely unnoticed as a cause for last year’s catastrophe. For the coming season, I think the Lightning have worked the bugs out, thanks mostly to some added help at the blue line and the emergence of Victor Hedman. Last season’s power play operated at just a 15.2% clip, good for 26th in the league. No one has ever doubted the Lightning have a lot of pieces up front that can produce offense, and now that they’ve addressed the back end, my belief is they will have one of the more potent power plays in the league.
2. Cory Conacher will be a finalist for the Calder trophy – Conacher should be able to step right into the Lightning lineup without too many growing pains. He’s made it to the NHL the hard way, being ignored every time a draft came around, but playing so well in college and in the minors that he couldn’t be ignored forever. I think 2013′s Rookie of the Year honors will ultimately go to Justin Schultz in Edmonton, but Conacher, playing on the Lighting’s second line, with perhaps some power play opportunities, should be in the race.
3. Steven Stamkos will repeat as the “Rocket” Richard trophy winner – If you watch Steven Stamkos game-in, game-out, you’re left a little bit amazed. He doesn’t quite look like any player you’ve ever seen before. He can take a puck from behind him, from between his feet, from between your feet, from the rafters, and put it in the net before you have time to realize he’s in position to shoot. Last year, Stamkos scored 48 of his 60 goals at even strength, which is both incredible and terrible, depending on how you’re looking at it. With an improved power play this season, there’s no reason to believe he won’t be able to score at least year’s pace, provided he stays healthy.
4. Victor Hedman will score 25 points – And yes, I remember the season is only 48 games long. Hedman returned from his concussion last season a different player. And a better player. From there, he went to the KHL and dominated. It’s clear that he’s eager to take the next step. This season, he should spend plenty of time manning the blue line with Matt Carle on the power play, and when you’re feeding the puck down low to the likes of Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, good things will happen. This will be Hedman’s break out year.
5. Martin St. Louis will score 55 points – There has been a lot of talk about age catching up to St. Louis last season, mostly due to the fact that his points dipped from 99 to 74. However, a closer look at the numbers reveals St. Louis scored an identical number of even strength points (58) in each of those two seasons. The difference was, again, the power play. I don’t believe St. Louis is showing any signs of slowing down, and I think he’ll finish inside the top 10 in NHL scoring.
6. The Lightning will trade at least one defenseman – Several teams are looking for help on the blue line, and the Bolts could be in position to provide that help if all goes smoothly this season. As of right now the team is carrying eight defensemen, and Mark Barberio, who will likely have a spot with the team next year, is in the AHL (and was named the AHL’s defenseman of the year last season). By season’s end, plenty of teams will be willing to pay a high price for a depth defenseman, and the Lightning will have at least one worthy candidate riding the bench. My guess is the Lightning will try to acquire a player that will boost the third or fourth line.
7. The Lightning will make the playoffs, and finish above the eighth seed – I think the Lightning will be somewhat comfortable going down the stretch, possibly fighting for a higher seed rather than fighting simply to be in.
The Playoff Picture
1. New York Rangers (Forget Nash. It’s all about Lundqvist.)
3. Washington Capitals (Big year from Ovechkin under Oates. Will lead the Southeast)
5. Philadelphia Flyers (condition: Goaltending)
6. Tampa Bay Lightning
7. Carolina Hurricane
8. Buffalo Sabres (will surprise a lot of people)
1. St. Louis Blues
2. Vancouver Canucks (Need a 2nd Line Center)
6. Detroit Red Wings (Life after Lidstrom…)
And the Awards go to…
(League MVP) Hart Memorial Trophy Winner: Sidney Crosby
Nominees: Steven Stamkos, Alexander Ovechkin
(Scoring Leader) Art Ross Trophy Winner: Sidney Crosby
2. Steven Stamkos
3. Alexander Ovechkin
(Goal-scoring Leader) Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy Winner: Steven Stamkos
2. Alexander Ovechkin
3. Marian Gaborik
(Best Defenseman) Norris Trophy Winner: Shea Weber
Nominees: Zdeno Chara, Mike Green
(Best Goalie) Vezina Trophie Winner: Henrik Lundqvist
Nominees: Cory Schneider, Pekka Rinne
(Best Rookie) Calder Trophy Winner: Justin Schultz
Nominees: Cory Conacher, Mikael Ganlund
*Damien Brunner, 26, not eligible
Stanley Cup Champions: St. Louis Blues