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The Hockey News 2011-12 NHL predictions

Daniel and Henrik Sedin are the two key offensive weapons in Vancouver's arsenal. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Daniel and Henrik Sedin are the two key offensive weapons in Vancouver's arsenal. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

It's that time of year again when everything is put on the line and prognostications are made for the upcoming season.

In keeping with a THN tradition, we have debated the merits of each organization and after much back-and-forth, settled on our rankings from 1-15 in each conference.

Discuss and enjoy!

THE HOCKEY NEWS 2011-12 PREDICTIONS
EASTERN
WESTERN
15 OTTAWA SENATORS
15 EDMONTON OILERS
Why: After finishing second-last in NHL scoring in 2010-11, it's clear the Senators have fallen long and hard from their days as a league powerhouse. The team started down the rebuild road and traded away many veterans, but still have Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson to hang their hat on. Ottawa has some tantalizing talent on its way up, namely Erik Karlsson on the blueline, but the future isn't here yet. Why: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was added to the exciting core of youth in Edmonton, but like the Senators, the Oilers still have a couple years of bumps and bruises ahead of them. While the prospects should have fans giddy with excitement, the fact is Edmonton is buried in a deep conference full of Stanley Cup contenders, so expectations have to be tempered. Once their prospects earn some experience, the Oilers will be off and running.
14 FLORIDA PANTHERS
14 PHOENIX COYOTES
Why: The Panthers are an entirely different team this season, starting with Kevin Dineen behind the bench and including a gaggle of free agent signings. Among the most interesting acquisitions is Tomas Fleischmann, whose 2010-11 season was cut short due to a blood clot - can he re-gain his goal-scoring touch? Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski were cast off from their former teams and bulk up the Panthers core a little, but Jose Theodore is expected to carry the load and that will hurt over 82 games. There are too many "ifs" in Florida. Why: The Coyotes played over their heads the past two seasons and a large part of why they were able to do that in the regular season was goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. But with the Vezina candidate now in Philadelphia, Mike Smith represents a sharp downgrade. Scottie Upshall and Ed Jovanovski are a couple other noteworthy losses. What the Coyotes still have going for them is the coaching of Dave Tippett, who is consistently one of the better bench bosses in the league. If he can get this team to the post-season it'll be a Jack Adams-worthy season.
13 WINNIPEG JETS
13 DALLAS STARS
Why: It's a whole new era in Winnipeg, but that doesn't mean the team will start out as an immediate powerhouse. Though the Jets have a significant buzz surrounding them, it has much more to do with a return to Canada than the on-ice product. Don't get us wrong, the Jets have a promising future with the likes of Zach Bogosian and Evander Kane and some intriguing pieces such as Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd, but they lack veterans and a winning pedigree. Ondrej Pavelec has some proving to do in net as well. With the NHL back in the 'Peg, we're sure the fans can live with whatever happens in Season 1. Why: Once a Western Conference powerhouse, the Stars have financial and ownership concerns, which has negatively impacted the team. The team lost Brad Richards to free agency and didn't replace him (the best pick up they had was Michael Ryder). If Kari Lehtonen can stay healthy for another season it will only help the Stars, but that's hardly a scenario to count on. Loui Eriksson should continue his rise to stardom, but Dallas needs Jamie Benn to step up offensively if they hope to exceed expectations. The defense is a little suspect and the acquisition of Sheldon Souray only bolsters that point.
12 NEW YORK ISLANDERS
12 COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Why: The patience of this team has to begin paying off this season. After years of embarrassment and struggling, the Islanders should start showing some progress. There are a lot of pieces to like on this team and as long as the injury bug doesn't hit like it did last year in knocking Mark Streit off the defense corps, it should all start coming together. As usual, goaltending is an area of concern on the island. Will Al Montoya be able to keep up his surprising play from the end of last season? And we have to ask yet again: will Rick DiPietro ever live up to his long-term contract? At least the Isles don't have to deal with a conference as difficult as the West's 12th seed and have a little more room for error. Why: There's no doubt GM Scott Howson was swinging for the fences this off-season trying to get his team back to the playoffs. Ranking in the bottom one-third of the league in goals for and against last season, Howson's acquisitions of Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski certainly added an offensive tinge to the roster. Still, this club will live and die with its goalie Steve Mason who, after winning the Calder Trophy in 2008-09, has had back-to-back seasons with a GAA over 3.00 and a save percentage hovering around .900. The Jackets were last in the Central in 2010-11 and despite a couple of upgrades there's no guarantee they'll be able to climb out from that spot in a tough division.
11 NEW JERSEY DEVILS
11 MINNESOTA WILD
Why: Which Devils team will start the 2011-12 season? Will it be the one that broke out of the gate at a snail's pace last season and ultimately forced the team short of a playoff spot for the first time since 1996? Or will it be the one that caught fire down the stretch and played as the NHL's best second-half team? The Devils defense isn't what it was in their championship days and Martin Brodeur is only a year older. The offense has to find a way to click and new coach Peter DeBoer, who didn't win anything in Florida, has a difficult task ahead. In the end, the Devils are somewhere in between a basement-dweller and a playoff team. Why: Few teams had an overhaul like the Wild and it will be interesting to see how it all comes together. Brent Burns and Martin Havlat were the two biggest pieces moved, replaced by Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, an uncharacteristic upgrade on offense. With new coach Mike Yeo in charge, perhaps the Wild really will shift from a defense-first mindset to an all-in offense for the first time. With Niklas Backstrom still between the pipes anything is possible on any night, but the defense corps needs some work and they lack much depth at center, a crucial position in the NHL. The Western Conference is full of stronger lineups, so the Wild have an uphill battle ahead, but at least the summer moves were lauded as a positive.
10 TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
10 CALGARY FLAMES
Why: The Maple Leafs are showing progress and are at least moving in the right direction after making a few noteworthy acquisitions in the summer. The biggest was adding puck-mover John-Michael Liles to replace the long-tenured Tomas Kaberle. Liles is younger than Kaberle and is coming off his best points-per-game season of his career so his continued production is crucial. But perhaps the most crucial player on the roster is goaltender James Reimer, who showed flashes of brilliance last season and has Maple Leafs fans giddy they have finally found another goalie. Toronto is still lacking a forceful, big-bodied center and that is an area that will hold them back. Why: The ageing Flames missed the post-season last year so after a summer of little change it's hard to anticipate much improvement. If the Flames get off to a rocky start and are out of the playoff picture shortly after mid-season, will Jarome Iginla be traded for futures? There's no doubt the Flames' cupboard is bare and they'll have to start thinking tomorrow at some point. Alex Tanguay and Olli Jokinen both had improved seasons in 2010-11 and will be relied for repeat performances. The loss of Robyn Regehr is huge and it's hard to see Chris Butler, who they recieved in return from Buffalo, stepping into the same role. Scott Hannan has some game left in him, but he also will be hard-pressed to match what Regehr brought to the table. Miikka Kiprusoff is the wild card who could carry this team to exceed expectations, but he'll be 35 in October. Right now, Calgary is caught in the middle.
9 CAROLINA HURRICANES
9 COLORADO AVALANCHE
Why: Carolina's porous defense hindered the Hurricanes' playoff hopes last season as the team allowed the most shots-against per game in the league. Will the arrival of Tomas Kaberle help or hurt this area, keeping in mind Joe Corvo was traded to Boston? Carolina's 12th-ranked offense certainly benefitted from rookie Jeff Skinner's performance, so any hint of a sophomore slump from the Calder Trophy winner will be a setback to one of the team's strengths. There is no doubting this team is carried by Eric Staal and Cam Ward, who had a terrific 2010-11, but to make the playoffs a lot of help from other areas is needed. The fact Carolina is in the Southeast will benefit them, but if Winnipeg or Florida exceed lowly expectations it'll come at the expense of the Hurricanes. Why: All the focus this season in Colorado will be on newly-acquired netminder Semyon Varlamov, who arrived in a controversial trade with Washington. The Avs gave up a first round draft pick in the deal and for a team that finished 14th last season, it's a huge risk. But it's easy to forget this team made the playoffs just two years ago. Matt Duchene is a year older and wiser and Paul Stastny, at 25, should bounce back from a disappointing 57-point season. The team lost offense from the blueline in trading John-Michael Liles to the Maple Leafs, but went big and defensive in signing Jan Hejda. A lot is up in the air and on the line in Colorado, but we have them pegged as the second-best team in a weak Northwest Division - just falling short of a playoff spot.
8 MONTREAL CANADIENS
8 NASHVILLE PREDATORS
Why: Call them too small or say they have too many support players without any stars, but the Montreal Canadiens have found a way to win and have been a playoff team in each of the past four seasons. Roman Hamrlik and James Wisniewski were lost off the back end to free agency, but the team is hoping the emergence of Alexei Emelin will help shore up the depth of the blueline. Returning from extended injuries last season are Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges, two top-four defensemen who will greatly influence how the Habs do. Up front, Mike Cammalleri and Tomas Plekanec pull the load, but questions surrounding size will surely pop up during the team's first slump despite the addition of Erik Cole. Carey Price put together a Vezina-type season in 2010-11, a performance the Habs need him to duplicate. Why: If there's one thing the hockey world has learned it's that you can never completely count out the Nashville Predators. A model of the team game, Nashville had its best season in 2010-11 by making it to the second round of the playoffs and were able to keep their franchise defenseman, Shea Weber, around for at least one more season. They did lose Joel Ward and a couple other support crew in the off-season, but it will be interesting to see what someone such as the newly-acquired Niclas Bergfors can bring to the table. Pekka Rinne will surely be one of the league's best again and Nashville will live and die by how few goals it allows. Once again, the offense will be by committee. While we're predicting a little fall-off in the regular season, coach Barry Trotz won't let his team fall out of the playoff picture.
7 NEW YORK RANGERS
7 ST. LOUIS BLUES
Why: One of the best defensive teams in the NHL last season backed by one of the game's elite goalies in Henrik Lundqvist, the young blueline led by Marc Staal and Dan Girardi will take another step forward in 2011-12. The area the Rangers needed improvement on was offense and that was addressed by adding the summer's top free agent, playmaking center Brad Richards. How much will Richards help the Blueshirts? Well, he doesn't automatically make them a powerhouse, but the thought of him alongside sniper Marian Gaborik is tantalizing. The Rangers can't be worse after improving their greatest need, but also won't jump too far ahead of where they were a year ago. Why: The young Blues were decimated by injuries last season, a development that shouldn't be replicated. Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott were brought in for veteran experience up front on the third line and make for an intriguing checking line with Alexander Steen. The Blues forward unit is deep, to the point where 21-goal scorer Matt D'Agostini will have difficulty earning a decent role. On the backend, the blueline is led by an emerging Alex Pietrangelo and the Blues surprisingly held their competition to the second-fewest shots-againt per game last season. Jaroslav Halak had a good first season, but can stand for an improvement. Overall, the Blues' worst-case scenario season from a year ago is unlikely to be repeated. There's much to like on this budding team.
6 TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
6 ANAHEIM DUCKS
Why: After a nice recovery season, the Lightning look like a playoff constant. Gone are noteworthy players Sean Bergenheim and Simon Gagne, but neither had a regular season impact the team will miss. Goalie Dwayne Roloson will be 42 in October, but has proved time and again that age has not negatively impacted his game yet and the Lightning need that story to continue. The combination of Steven Stamkos and Martin St-Louis might be the league’s best and despite not being the player of old, Vincent Lecavalier is a nice second-line pivot. Coach Guy Boucher took this team forward in his first year and should continue to trend in that direction. The only question is if they are good enough to keep pace with division-rival Washington. Why: With the unstoppable trio of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan, the Ducks can never be counted out. The three big bodies regularly run roughshod over all comers and are the heart and soul of the team. Perhaps the best news the team got all summer, though, was goaltender Jonas Hiller saying he’s ready for training camp and over his vertigo symptoms. Hiller is capable of being one of the best goalies in the league, so adding him to an already-tight team just makes them all the more better. Of course, Teemu Selanne still has to decide his intentions for the coming season and at 41, he’s still one of the better scorers in the league, coming off a 31-goal campaign. The defense has a number of puck-movers and more offense-oriented than anything else, which can cause problems in their own end, but pay off later on. All-in-all, the Ducks are a handful for any team in the NHL.
5 BUFFALO SABRES
5 DETROIT RED WINGS
Why: Everyone knows the Sabres are built around Ryan Miller and that hasn’t changed. What has changed, though, is the team’s willingness to spend and bring in others to make Miller’s job at least a little less stressful. Through a trade with the Flames in which the Sabres didn’t lose any main pieces, Robyn Regehr came to town to shore up a defense that already included Tyler Myers. Christian Ehrhoff was also added to the blueline, making it an intriguing collection of size, puck-moving and two-way thinking. The most talked-about addition, though, was Ville Leino, who signed a six-year pact with the team. Despite the fact he hasn’t scored 20 goals in a season yet, Leino has proved himself as a playoff player, which in turn has raised regular season expectations for him. With the regulars Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Jason Pominville and the like still around, the Sabres should improve on last year’s seventh-place showing and make for an interesting team to watch in 2011-12. Why: Always in the discussion for the division title, the Red Wings caused a divide in the THN offices and ultimately ended up here. Kris Draper and Chris Osgood retired, but neither player plays a key role on the team anymore - it’s the loss of Brian Rafalski that will be felt the most. But the Wings have a knack for effective under-the-radar signings and defensemen Ian White and Mike Commodore fall into that category. The team is still led by the veterans who brought it a Cup four years ago: Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen and Nicklas Lidstrom. Despite year-in, year-out concerns over goaltending, Jimmy Howard has proven worthy of the gig, though improvement is still necessary. The Wings bring a deep collection of players who collectively can play any style of game and, by now, everybody knows what to expect from them. The question always asked of this team is if they are too old, so we’ll save everyone the trouble and just answer it now: No. No they are not.
4 PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
4 LOS ANGELES KINGS
Why: There were two seasons in Philadelphia this past year: winter and construction. No team undertook more changes than the Flyers, who sent out cornerstones Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. This is now Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk’s team, though veterans Daniel Briere, Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen still play key roles. The return of Jaromir Jagr to the NHL will be a storyline throughout the season. What are reasonable expectations from him? How important will he be to the power play? Is he too old? But the biggest philosophical shift came in net where the Flyers went all-in on Ilya Bryzgalov to provide a steadying presence. The Flyers weren’t far off before and, even after this much overhaul, we still don’t think they are. Why: It’s fitting that the Kings and Flyers share this spot, considering theirs was the most-talked about deal of the summer. Mike Richards combines with Anze Kopitar to make one of the most lethal center combinations in the league. On defense, we’re betting Drew Doughty settles on a contract with the Kings and continues to play an integral role from the blueline. Jack Johnson complements him nicely, but Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi cannot be underestimated with their shutdown style. Jonathan Quick was one of the league’s top netminders last year and some will say he was robbed of a Vezina nomination. The Kings long re-build is paying off as the team enters the truly elite this season.
3 BOSTON BRUINS
3 CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
Why: When you’re the Cup champs you don’t need to tinker with the roster much. Aside from Mark Recchi retiring and Tomas Kaberle and Michael Ryder leaving as free agents, the Bruins lineup is intact. The team’s only noteworthy addition was the puck-moving Joe Corvo to replaced the departed Kaberle. Once again, Boston enters the season with the ageless wonder Tim Thomas ready to dominate between the pipes, but even if he falters, Tuukka Rask is equally up to the task. Zdeno Chara is a year older, but still brings it every night, while Milan Lucic continues to rise as a significant part of the depth chart. The Bruins need Patrice Bergeron to have another healthy season. Why: The Blackhawks weren’t as affected by the salary cap this season as last, but there’s no doubt the Brian Campbell trade was all about salary. This summer, the team had its eye back on the post-season, adding veterans Andrew Brunette and Sean O’Donnell plus a little sandpaper in Jamal Mayers and Dan Carcillo. There are still concerns in some corners about Corey Crawford’s ability to continue as a legitimate No. 1, but until he shows signs of weakness, Crawford is the future in net. The Hawks are still all about Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook – and will be for a long while – and big seasons from those five is money in the bank.
2 PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
2 SAN JOSE SHARKS
Why: When debating the placement of the Penguins, talk inevitably turned to Sidney Crosby. Will he play? If he doesn’t what impact will that have on the Penguins? While his loss would be monumental, the fact is the Penguins still won 49 games without Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal for long stretches last season – having Crosby makes them all the more dangerous. The Alex Kovalev experiment is over and in his place comes Steve Sullivan, who you know will give you his best effort each night. It’ll be interesting to see how James Neal comes along as well. The defense and goaltending are still areas of strength and the Pens are a force in the East, even with Crosby on the sidelines. Why: Even after a dreadful start last season the Sharks still won the Pacific and finished second in the West; counting on San Jose at or near the top of the standings is as close to a sure thing as you can get. After back-to-back Western final appearances, the Sharks were still short of their ultimate goal and that prompted significant roster changes. Out went Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi and in came Martin Havlat and Brent Burns. Michal Handzus will also bring a sizeable defensive presence to the depth lines. The Sharks are as dangerous as ever and no doubt continue as one of the league’s top franchises. It’s just a matter of how well and quickly the new players gel.
1 WASHINGTON CAPITALS
1 VANCOUVER CANUCKS
Why: The Capitals made an all-out effort to improve the sandpaper element they felt was missing in the playoffs and contributed to past early exits. The trade of a first round pick for Troy Brouwer raised some eyebrows and the $3 million acquisition of free agent Joel Ward is about the cap on hat you’d want to pay a player in that role. There’s no doubt the best signing was Tomas Vokoun for a miniscule $1.5 million on a one-year deal to bring a hungry, proven veteran into the fold. Alex Ovechkin is of course the face and most important player in the franchise, but for the team to excel when it matters most it needs more out of Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Semin. The playoffs are another story for this team, but when it comes to the regular season, the Capitals are the team to beat in the East. Why: No team would have been as devastated about the end of their season than the Vancouver Canucks, who ran way with the Presidents’ Trophy only to fall one win short of the Stanley Cup. Ryan Kesler is coming off a Selke Trophy and emerged as the heart and soul of the team, while the Sedins will continue on as Hart Trophy candidates for the foreseeable future. The only substantial loss was Christian Ehrhoff, who went to Buffalo, but the Canucks defense was so deep to begin with the hole should be patched up as long as injuries don’t play into the season as much as in 2010-11. Mason Raymond and Jannik Hansen are two young players the team would like to see take a step up this season, but the hottest spotlight will shine on Roberto Luongo, who fell out of favor with the faithful as Cory Schneider breathes down his neck.

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