SI.com staff predictions for the 2009-10 season
Here's who our NHL writers predict will make the playoffs, win conference titles, the Stanley Cup and major awards, plus their picks in other categories including breakout player and biggest disappointment.
Eastern playoff teams: Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh, Carolina, New Jersey, Buffalo, Tampa Bay
Western playoff teams: San Jose, Detroit, Vancouver, St. Louis, Chicago, Anaheim, Columbus, Dallas
Eastern Conference champion: Philadelphia. The East is so densely packed that a fair argument could be crafted to support Boston, Pittsburgh or Washington, but there's just something that about this Flyers team that catches my eye. The 2007 Ducks redux? This group has that feeling to it.
Western Conference champion: Detroit: As much as I want to go off the board with this choice, I can't contrive the justification. San Jose? Very dangerous, but still lacking the heart of a champion. Anaheim? Maybe if they can improve their depth. Chicago? I don't trust Huet. I go up and down the list and the only strike against the Red Wings is that they feel like a default pick. That's a lousy reason not to go with the team that has it all: experience, depth, coaching, proven goaltending. At this point, how can it not be Detroit?
Stanley Cup: Flyers. The Wings will be out of gas by the time they reach their third consecutive Cup final. Led by a belligerent Chris Pronger, a focused Ray Emery and a deep offense that comes in waves, the Flyers will wear down Detroit before capturing the Cup at home in Game 6.
Ross (scoring): Alex Ovechkin, Capitals
Breakout performer: Derick Brassard, Columbus. To be fair, the 22-year-old pivot might have enjoyed his breakout in 2008-09 were it not for a dislocated shoulder suffered in a December bout with Dallas' James Neal. The injury curtailed a season in which Brassard had already scored 10 goals and 25 points and earned recognition as the NHL's Rookie of the Month for October. Now fully recovered, and given the plum role on the Blue Jackets' top line between Rick Nash and Kristian Huselius, look for Brassard to flirt with a point-per-game average.
Biggest surprise: Tampa Bay Lightning. There were plenty of reasons why they had the second-most balls in the hopper last spring.GM Brian Lawton acted aggressively, and wisely, to address all of them, save for the injuries. The defense was demolished and rebuilt from the ground up. The goaltending was stabilized (backup Antero Niittymaki) and the forward corps received upgrades in talent (Alex Tanguay) and depth (Stephane Veilleux). Everything still needs to be fit together, but the pieces are there for a significant turnaround. Playoffs? You bet.
Biggest disappointment: Colin Campbell. No one's suggesting that the league's chief disciplinarian has a paint-by-numbers job, but a track record of suspensions that fail to either pay heed to precedent or accurately reflect the severity of the incident make it a safe bet that Judge Softy will offer up a few aggravatingly lenient sentences this year.
Unsung hero: Jarmo Kekalainen. Though he's held in high regard around the league, it's safe to say the average fan has no idea that the former Boston/Ottawa spare part (five goals and 13 points in 55 career games) is the driving force behind the resurgence of the St. Louis Blues. In his role as Director of Amateur Scouting, Kekalainen has crafted an enviable home run-to-strikeout ratio with selections like David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Erik Johnson, Patrik Berglund, David Perron and Alex Pietrangelo. Add the depth he's stockpiled for the system (Lars Eller, Aaron Palushaj, Ian Cole, Brett Sonne) and it's no surprise that the Blues recently awarded this quiet genius a three-year extension.
Eastern playoff teams: Washington, Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Carolina, New Jersey, Buffalo, Toronto
Western playoff teams: San Jose, Chicago, Detroit, Vancouver, Anaheim, St. Louis, Columbus, Calgary
Eastern Conference champion: Pittsburgh: The Penguins have just enough to get past the Capitals and benefit from a surprise upset of Philadelphia in the first round, which will likely be the result of Flyers having three players suspended going in and then picking up a fourth before the series is over.
Western Conference champion: San Jose: Sharks GM Doug Wilson finally gets it and puts together a deadline day trade package that balances grit, offensive talent (Dany Heatley having so much to prove) and hot goaltending at just the right time.
Stanley Cup: Sharks. In a matchup of teams that can actually skate, shoot and score, the total return of lunkhead hockey is put on hold for one more year and the best skating, passing and scoring team outlasts its equal in a seven-game cliff-hanger that is decided by Patrick Marleau converting a Joe Thornton pass off a play started by Dan Boyle.
Ross: Sidney Crosby, Penguins
Breakout performer: Jay Bouwmeester, Calgary. With a world of experience around him, he finally lives up to the promise that never quite came to fruition in Florida.
Biggest surprise: Jonas Gustavsson, Toronto. Rookie goaltender grabs the starter's role at midseason and carries the Leafs to the postseason.
Biggest disappointment: Nikolai Khabibulin, Edmonton. Secure in a new multi-year contract, the goaltender finds Edmonton not to his liking, reverts to his usual not-playing-for-a-contract form, and falters down the stretch.
Unsung hero: Pekka Rinne, Nashville.The goalie plays brilliantly and consistently, but the Predators' failing offense just misses on a playoff bid.
Eastern playoff teams: Boston, Pittsburgh, Washington, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Carolina, Montreal, NY Rangers
Western playoff teams: Chicago, San Jose, Calgary, Detroit, Vancouver, Anaheim, St. Louis, Columbus
Eastern Conference champion: Boston: With a focus on goaltending and defense, plus balanced scoring and the experience of their playoff flameout, the Bruins surprise the champion Penguins.
Western Conference champion: Chicago: This is predicated on new GM Stan Bowman manipulating the salary cap and finding an upgrade for Cristobal Huet at the trading deadline.
Stanley Cup: Chicago: With (fill in the blank ... J.S. Giguère? Tomas Vokoun?) in goal and Jonathan Toews providing the leadership, the Blackhawks win their first Cup since 1961.
Ross: Evgeni Malkin, Penguins
Breakout player: Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay
Biggest surprise: Martin St. Louis finishes in top five in hart voting.
Biggest disappointment: The San Jose Sharks, a perennial favorite, will again find a way to mess up a Stanley Cup season.
Unsung hero: Goalie coach François Allaire, who will improve the Maple Leafs' goaltending (and thus their penalty killing) and help them make a run at a playoff berth.
Eastern playoff teams: Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Carolina, Atlanta
Western playoff teams: Chicago, Vancouver, San Jose, Detroit, Anaheim, Calgary, Dallas, Edmonton
Eastern Conference champion: Washington. Their two-year rise continues with Ovechkin motivated to avenge a Gold medal loss to Canada at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Western Conference champion: San Jose. Nabokov consistent...Thornton-Heatley combo unstoppable...depth of scoring is the best in west...
Stanley Cup: Washington. A healthy Mike Green makes the difference this spring.
Ross: Joe Thornton, Sharks
Breakout player: Erik Johnson, Blues. Finally healthy.
Biggest surprise: Toronto Maple Leafs. GM Brian Burke works his magic and Leafs are better than expected.
Biggest disappointment: Martin Havlat, Wild. Filling Marian Gaborik's skates is too tall an order.
Unsung hero: Ryane Clowe. Winger's contributions to Sharks' succcess are lost in the Heatley-Thornton-Marleau shuffle.
Eastern playoff teams: Boston, Pittsburgh, Washington, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Carolina, NY Rangers, Montreal
Western playoff teams: Chicago, Detroit, San Jose, Calgary, Vancouver, St. Louis, Los Angeles
Eastern Conference champion: Boston. The loss of Phil Kessel will be offset by the continued development of David Krejci and a resurgence from Patrice Bergeron. Milan Lucic will continue his rampage. The Penguins and Capitals are the only obstacles in the Bruins' path.
Western Conference champion: Blackhawks. A little older and a little wiser than last season, but deeper and just as explosive. This the latest Funnest Team to Watch. If the Blackhawks need to make a trade for a goalie before the playoffs, and they might, they won't be shy about doing so.
Stanley Cup: Blackhawks. Marian Hossa picked right this time. The postseason haul through the west, which is littered with very good teams in Detroit, San Jose, Anaheim and Calgary, will be long and hard. But Chicago has the young legs to get through it.
Ross: Alex Ovechkin, Capitals
Breakout player: Erik Johnson, Blues. Healthy and ready to make an impact.
Biggest surprise: Los Angeles Kings. Poised to make a leap and be counted.
Biggest disappointment: Eastern Conference. After the top four teams, not a lot to get excited about.
Unsung hero: Mark Recchi, Bruins. A steadying influence who has grown into his game as it has changed over the years, he can still provide a big goal in a big spot.
Eastern playoff teams: Boston, New Jersey, Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Carolina, Montreal, NY Rangers
Western playoff teams: San Jose, Chicago, Calgary, Detroit, Anaheim, Vancouver, St. Louis, Columbus
Eastern Conference champion: Boston. Yes, the Bruins will miss the finishing touch of Kessel, who had a team-high 36 goals last season. But they also have enough firepower to compensate with the healthy returns of Patrice Bergeron and Marco Sturm. Their defense is solid, and his Vezina Trophy won't change Tim Thomas. But most of all, the Bruins won't make the fatal mistake of underestimating a playoff opponent like they did last spring against Carolina. "We won four out of four against them in the regular season, and we thought it was going to be easy playing against them," Milan Lucic admitted this summer. "The mindset going into that series could've been different. Having a better start would've made a big difference."
Western Conference champion: San Jose. Maybe I'm shooting myself in the foot, but the addition of Dany Heatley could be just what the Sharks need to get out of their perennial playoff funk. His tournament resume -- Canada's all-time leading scorer in World Championships (modern era) and 2007 playoff scoring leader with Ottawa (though 2008 was decidedly less impressive) -- was a big reason why GM Doug Wilson wanted him. Both Heatley and Joe Thornton are playing for Olympic bids, which should light a fire in them early, and if they're sick of hearing that they're choke artists, well, this is about the last legitimate chance they have to prove otherwise.
Stanley Cup: Boston. It doesn't matter that their scoring depth took a hit, or that they're pinned right up against the salary cap (which makes mid-season tweaking tough) or that Thomas is still a heart attack in the crease, the Bruins have an undeniably strong team with a nice mix of proven veterans (Mark Recchi, Marc Savard, Zdeno Chara) and promising youngsters (David Krejci, Blake Wheeler, Lucic).
Ross: Evgeni Malkin, Penguins
Breakout player: Claude Giroux, Flyers. Philadelphia parted ways with a couple of 25-goal scorers during the offseason, which means the 21-year-old Giroux moves up the depth chart and will see more time on the power play. His playoff performance last spring -- five points in six games against the Penguins -- made plenty of people around the league take notice.
Biggest surprise: Phoenix Coyotes. They will draw 17,125 people to Jobing.com Arena in Glendale . . . not all at once. Don't be ridiculous. But they have 41 games, and I think they have a good shot at reaching that total.
Biggest disappointment: Versus and DirectTV. They won't reach an agreement, and marquee NHL games will be blacked out in bars across America. (DirectTV seems to be a popular choice in the food and drink service industry). Subsequently, the NHL won't reach the customers who actually like hockey.
Unsung hero: Mark Streit, Islanders. The versatile defenseman led this woebegone team in scoring last season and will continue to be overlooked as everybody dissects John Tavares' every move for the next seven months.