Third annual wheels off predictions
Among my 19 offbeat, bank on 'em forecasts for 2009-10: no coaches will be fired
The Leafs boast the most active pugilists, but Sid The Kid's in the bout of the year
Peter Forsberg will indeed return, but just not where you expect him to end up
With the ol' crystal ball warmed up and finely calibrated after Thursday's round of playoff and hardware revelations, it's time to gaze even deeper into the mystical smoke-filled orb for my annual list of predictions you can take to the bank: the players, personalities and events that will shape the 2009-10 season.
Granted, some of these may shock and startle you -- especially if you count yourself a Thrashers fan -- but these events are guaranteed to play out exactly as I describe them (legal disclaimer: not guaranteed to play out exactly as described).
Ready to be astounded? I know I am.
1. First coach to get the opportunity to spend more time with his family:
Last year, we called the Barry Melrose meltdown. This year's blank space is not just the latest manifestation of post-concussion syndrome. It says here that not a single coach will be fired this season.
Hard to believe in a sport where bench bosses are cashiered more frequently than a celebrity or politician gets caught in an affair? Maybe...but consider that 20 of the league's 30 bench bosses have been on the job less than 24 months. In most cases -- basically, those that involve anyone not rockin' a mullet -- that time frame falls within the grace period a coach is allowed to knock his charges into line. Of those in place prior to last season, just two -- Buffalo's Lindy Ruff and Nashville's Barry Trotz -- face any real danger of missing the postseason...and those guys both work in cities where tempered expectations make it almost impossible for them to fail.
Prepare the pink slips for: the deep thinkers behind the NHL's latest advertising campaign. Where's Don Draper when you need him? Mad Men's alpha ad exec would barely lift his eyes from his glass of Canadian Club before pronouncing that static images and tinkling piano notes couldn't sell jai alai, let alone hockey. Three words, gentlemen: grace and carnage. That's your game.
2. The first victim of the new "We're not getting screwed like the Panthers did" mentality: Ilya Kovalchuk, Thrashers
Atlanta fans clutch desperately to the notion that a loaded Brink's truck and the love of a good city will convince Kovalchuk to re-sign with the team that drafted him. But in their hearts, they know that all he cares about is winning...and that's a caveat the promising Thrashers aren't quite ready to deliver on. Not yet, anyway.
But wait, you say. What if Atlanta makes the playoffs? Wouldn't that be enough to secure his long-term future in Blueland?
Maybe...but probably not. Here's the thing: Say the Thrashers sneak in and lock down the eighth spot in the final week of the season. Kovy's as good as inked, right? Not necessarily. They might make the playoffs, but what it really comes down to is whether they feel secure in their positioning by the trade deadline. GM Don Waddell can't put himself in the same position the Panthers did last season with Jay Bouwmeester, holding on to Kovalchuk based on a slim hope of making the postseason and then being forced to sell his bargaining rights for pennies on the dollar. So unless the Thrashers put together a ridiculous first half -- say they rank in the top five or so by Jan. 1 -- look for a fan shop fire sale on Kovalchuk jerseys the day after the deadline.
3. Ten others who should pack a bag and plan the quickest route to the airport on deadline day: Marek Svatos (Colorado), Matthew Lombardi (Phoenix), Brett Clark (Colorado), Pavel Kubina (Atlanta), Marek Zidlicky (Minnesota), Adam Foote (Colorado), Dan Hamhuis (Nashville), Jordin Tootoo (Nashville), Ruslan Salei (Colorado)
Not many game-changers there, which suggests the demand for Kovalchuk will be fierce. Still there are some good soldiers who can make a difference in a depth role.
4. Rule that will be chucked by the GMs this season: penalizing goalies who handle the puck in the corner.
In theory, preventing a netminder from corralling dump-ins creates more opportunities on the forecheck. In reality, most dumped pucks enter the zone with sufficient momentum to eventually make their way behind the net, where the goalie can legally handle it, or they are intercepted by him before they cross the end line. As a result, a puck blasted toward the corners generates less excitement than the Kiss Cam and diminishes the potential impact of a skill set mastered by few and desired by all. Goalies have given up a lot over the past few years. Time to give something back.
5. First man to 20 goals: Rick Nash, Blue Jackets
Granted, he's not one to bolt out of the starting blocks (just five goals in his first 15 games last season, for instance) but Nash finally has a legitimate playmaking center in Derick Brassard and the chance to skate on a power play where he's not blanketed as the only threat to score. He's also playing with the weight of high expectations for the first time in his career. Look for an explosive response.
6. Minute-muncher you don't know now, but will by Christmas: Chris Butler, Sabres
Jaroslav Spacek's free agency defection to the Habs opened a spot on Buffalo's top pairing and this 2005 fourth-rounder simply blew away the competition. Slick of hand and foot, Butler plays the game with a quiet confidence that belies a mere 47 games of NHL experience. Partnered with Craig Rivet, Butler will have the green light to make things happen in transition.
7. There should be an All-Star Game this year just so he can finally be in it: Mikko Koivu, Wild
It's been a slow process for the 26-year-old whose speed and offensive skill were muted by Jacques Lemaire while his defensive acumen was nurtured. Under new coach Todd Richards, the Wild are expected to play a more aggressive style that dovetails with Koivu's full skill set. There may not be a midseason classic to highlight him, but with all those tools at his disposal expect Koivu to nab the Selke nomination that finally earns him his due as one of the best two-way forwards in the game.
8. The Phoenix Coyotes will: start packing the vans for Winnipeg.
The Count carried the day in court and managed to protect the league's right to determine where and with whom it would do business. But that business will not suffer for long as millions of dollars are burned in the desert. So as soon as the NHL amends its bid and is awarded control of the 'Yotes, the commish will start looking for someone else to hold the bag. Problem is, Glendale is a no-win proposition and the list of cities clamoring for the team is shorter than the line for Kanye West tickets. With Hamilton a non-starter, the solution is simple and elegant. In a magnanimous gesture to Canadian fans, Bettman will let symmetry carry the day.
9. Jim Balsillie's next gambit: buying a minority stake in the Florida Panthers.
You didn't really think he'd slink away quietly, did you? With the Panthers ownership situation in flux, this will serve as the front door that all those harumphing owners claimed they'd be willing to let him use.
10. Team with the most balls in the Taylor Hall lottery: Colorado Avalanche
Hope fans DVR'ed that Joe Sakic Night win over the Sharks, because they're going to need some taped joy this winter. Not so long removed from Cup contention, this Avs lineup is so threadbare it might need all seven games of a series to take down Hall's Windsor Spitfires. This season is going to redefine suffering for Colorado's fans, but at least they'll start and finish it on high notes.
11. The season's first noteworthy trade will involve: Alexander Frolov, Kings
Despite his prodigious talent, Frolov's always starred in his own movie: The Fast and the Frustrating. With unrestricted free agency looming, GM Dean Lombardi has a tough decision to make on the 27-year-old winger. Is he really part of the solution or more valuable as a bargaining chip? Look for Lombardi to start making calls in December to gauge the market
12. The Second Annual Jeff Finger Free Agency Bonanza Award goes to: Kent Huskins, Sharks
Doug Wilson probably deserves a pass after piling up so many deals in the W column, but his decision to offer a two-year, $3.4 million deal to a 30-year-old blueliner with just 142 NHL games on his resume is as flat-out goofy as the writing on True Blood. The contract ended up magnifying a cap crunch that led, in part, to the loss of Christian Ehrhoff and createe an almost certain need for a defensive upgrade before the playoffs.
13. The duo that will lead the league in dance partners: Colton Orr and Jay Rosehill, Maple Leafs
Shortly after being introduced as Toronto's new GM last November, Brian Burke offered up one of the great quotes in hockey history: "We require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence. That's how our teams play." Given the opportunity this summer, Burke gathered the pieces to bring life to his monster ... and it looks plenty mean. These two may never see the ice after the first period, but they'll push each other to the pinnacle of pugilism in an effort to please the boss.
14. The highlight reel fight of the year will feature: Mike Richards vs. Sidney Crosby
With the Flyers poised to challenge the Pens for supremacy in the East, the most vitriolic feud since Conan O'Brien and Newark mayor Cory Booker will finally come to its inevitable, violent conclusion. Look for Sid to be the instigator of a middleweight tilt that will feature doffed helmets and a flurry of two-fisted action before Richards lands the deciding blow. Just hope it's after the Olympics. Speaking of which...
15. Post-Olympic bragging rights in the Penguins dressing room will go to: Evgeni Malkin
The crystal ball is still a little cloudy on this one, but it looks like pre-tournament injuries and a disappointing performance from the goaltenders will conspire to ruin Canada's Olympic homecoming. Malkin's Russians, loose, arrogant and determined, will send Crosby's Canucks to their most emotionally destabilizing loss since the finals of the 1981 Canada Cup and allow Mike Liut (who allowed eight goals in that blowout) to finally rest in peace...well, whenever he gets around to dying, anyway.
16. Player that every fan will regret not snagging in their fantasy draft: Justin Williams, Kings
A spate of injuries that limited him to just 81 games over the past two seasons lowered his pre-draft stock, but Williams is in position to return to the form that saw him score 30 goals in back-to-back seasons with the Hurricanes. He'll be playing on L.A.'s top line (and first power play) alongside Anze Kopitar and Ryan Smyth and, thanks to an improving blueline, he won't be a plus/minus bleeder like so many high-scoring Kings forwards of recent vintage. Williams is owned in fewer than 10 percent of all fantasy leagues, so check your waiver wire today.
17. Best rookie no one's talking about...yet: Jamie Benn, Stars
So I don't get called on it later by one of my colleagues, I'll admit to being highly skeptical of Benn's chances when camp started. But the smooth-skating, hard-shooting winger showed he could handle the physical demands (he enjoyed a nice tussle with Florida's Mike Duco in the preseason) and defensive responsibilities that face a top-six forward. His play knocked Fabian Brunnstrom, last summer's prize acquisition, into roster limbo and earned him the coveted first line slot beside Mike Ribeiro and Brenden Morrow.
18. Most likely to dread playing home games: Donald Brashear, Rangers
If he'd remained in Washington, Brashear wouldn't have given another thought to last season's despicable mugging of Rangers forward Blair Betts. Problem is, he moved his act to Broadway over the summer where the critical reception for a man who attacked one of their own was less than warm. Good on Rangers fans for proving they're not simply sheep who'll support anyone wearing their laundry.
19. Peter Forsberg will sign with: Dancing With The Stars
Yeah, this one sure seems like an odd match, but my usually reliable crystal ball assures me that old Foppa will perform a passionate, tumultuous tango with former House Majority leader Tom DeLay -- and let DeLay lead -- before he sets foot on NHL ice again. Or maybe Forsberg and his famously balky ankles will sign with the Capitals. There's definitely some kind of Washington connection here.
NHL Truth & Rumors