Hockey predictions for 2011
Rookie center Logan Couture of the Sharks won't be under the radar much longer
Defenseman Duncan Keith and the Blackhawks are steadily gaining momentum
New NHLPA boss Don Fehr will make his presence felt in the NHL's TV negotiations
1. The Capitals will find their focus and steel their resolve for a postseason push. Actually, their push is already underway. After losing eight straight, the Caps are back to winning again. In the bigger picture, enduring adversity early isn't a bad thing. As GM George McPhee put it to me, "At least you have time to adjust and work on what you need to. Come playoff time, there is no time."
2. People will start talking about Logan Couture and what he means to the Sharks on his way to winning the Calder Trophy. According to coach Todd McLellan, people in the Sharks' camp "aren't surprised that he is our go-to guy right now." That's probably true from the standpoint that Couture played well in 25 games plus the playoffs last season -- as lengthy a preview of a young player that a team can get. Still, leading his team and all rookies in goals so far this season will lead to exactly the kind of recognition outside of San Jose that Couture needs to garner rookie of the year honors.
3. Duncan Keith won't finish the regular season with a minus rating. The Blackhawks are playing better and so, too, is Keith. Only Dan Boyle of San Jose logs more ice time, so when Chicago was giving up goals at an alarming rate early on, Keith was both a party to and a victim of its largesse. Now he seems to be asserting himself and controlling the play more. As a result, he went a season-best five straight games at even or plus, from December 15-26, amassing a +6 in that span. The Blackhawks, not coincidentally, were 4-1 in those games. Look for the 2009-10 Norris Trophy winner to maintain his form down the stretch and into the playoffs.
4. The Blackhawks finish strong as they get ready for their title defense. As their blueline corps re-establishes itself and goaltender Cory Crawford continues to supply dependable, big-body netminding, the Hawks will become much tougher to play. Add in the fact that their schedule gets lighter in the second half, and that will give them more rest than they got in the first half when they were one of the league's busiest teams. Of no small consequence is the return to health of Marian Hossa (lower body injury) and Patrick Kane (ankle). By spring, the Blackhawks should be playing their best hockey collectively when it matters most.
5. The Thrashers make the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history, but the Blue Jackets fall short. Ondrej Pavelec is supplying Atlanta with the type of consistent, top-flight goaltending that all postseason-bound teams need. The Jackets got it a couple of years ago from then-rookie Steve Mason, who has been wildly inconsistent for the second straight season. Even with backup Mathieu Garon's stellar play, Mason's ongoing unreliability is not conducive to reaching the playoffs. And somehow I feel that Thrashers GM Rick Dudley will be more aggressive than his Columbus counterpart, Scott Howson, in making a move if he needs to bolster his roster.
6. Chris Osgood of the Red Wings finally won career No. 400 (congratulations!), but with workhorse Jimmy Howard as his partner, it's his last hurrah. Based on talking to Osgood last season, 400 was really important to him. And why not? Only nine NHL goaltenders had reached that milestone. There was a time when reaching Terry Sawchuk's Red Wings' franchise mark of 352 wins seemed plausible. But at 38 years old and with the emergence of Howard as an effective workhorse (63 games and 37 wins last season as a first-time regular), Ozzie's opportunities will be in spot duty as a once-a-week backup. It's a role that he has embraced as a mentor to Howard, which is good for the Wings, but Sawchuk is no longer within reach, in 2011 or beyond.
7. Keith Allain's Yale Bulldogs will win the NCAA Frozen Four. It will be the first such title for an Ivy League school since Harvard in 1989. Allain is currently coaching Team USA in the World Junior Championships in Buffalo and trying to guide it to a repeat gold medal. He will later have the task of proving that his up-tempo, five-man attack strategy is the way to go -- not only in making his ECAC and Ivy League competitors look stodgy and behind the times with their chip-and-charge conservatism, but also by taking on the NCAA hockey universe as a whole and prevailing. For the good of hockey everywhere, but particularly in the ECAC, Allain and his Bulldogs need to prevail. I say they will.
8. Tom Renney (Oilers) and Craig Ramsay (Thrashers) will be finalists for the Jack Adams Award. Ramsay will certainly be in contention if the Thrashers make the playoffs. Renney's recognition will be more of a nod to the progress made by his young team. The Oilers will need a couple of good runs of games to win more than they lose this season, but to date, I really like what Renney has done in Edmonton.
9. No fewer than three teams will make second-half coaching changes. The process has already begun with the change on Long Island from Scott Gordon to Jack Capuano, and in New Jersey from John MacLean to Jacques Lemaire. Look at the league's underperforming squads and those in peril of falling out of the playoff picture too early. You can come up with some likely scenarios on your own, but Calgary and Toronto are certainly places to start.
10. New NHLPA boss Donald Fehr will make his presence felt. The new CBA negotations are still more than 20 months away, but Fehr will be taking the pulse of the players and consolidating his power as he settles in with an eye on the NHL's negotiations with the Comcast/NBC entity, which also owns Versus. He'll want to make sure that the players' interests are heard on the matter of a new U.S. TV contract and, as the NHL expands its event programming -- European games, outdoor games and behind-the-scenes specials -- that the players' increased openness and availability has a defined value ... in the spirit of partnership with the league, of course. "There are legal definitions of partnership and then there are other definitions," Fehr told THN.com after his official appointment. "I think we're in the other."
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