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The Hockey News 2012-13 NHL regular season predictions

THN believes the Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues will be the teams to beat this season. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

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THN believes the Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues will be the teams to beat this season. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

The lockout is over and NHL hockey will be back on the ice in the coming days. Here's how we see things finishing up when the shortened season is complete.

For further analysis, check out our team-by-team video Puck Panels , plus Darryl Dobbs' Fantasy Pool Look off-season breakdown on each of the 30 clubs.

THE HOCKEY NEWS 2012-13 PREDICTIONS
EASTERN
WESTERN
15 NEW YORK ISLANDERS
15 COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Why: Eventually this team is going to take a step forward and it's probably going to come out of nowhere to surprise everyone. That's the general feeling around this team and though a few THN staffers feel the Isles are on the cusp of moving on up, it always comes back to the fact they're stuck in the difficult Atlantic Division. The Islanders will be hard-pressed to move out of the No. 5 spot in that grouping, which immediately puts them at a disadvantage. Goaltending is still a concern with or, more likely, without Rick DiPietro, though John Tavares is on track to superstardom. Why: More accurately, the explanation here should be preceded by "why not?" The Blue Jackets traded away their only star and didn't inspire any fans with the return; Steve Mason and Sergei Bobrovsky don't provide any more security as a tandem than Mason did alone; and the depth of talent on this team is lacking. Even though the Central Division took a hit this season, Columbus was a unanimous choice to finish at the bottom of the barrel. You can write them in as our choice for No. 30 overall, too.
14 WINNIPEG JETS
14 COLORADO AVALANCHE
Why: The Jets were awful on the road last season so a sudden improvement there would go a long way. Still, what this team has in talent on the blueline, it greatly lacks up front. Blake wheeler and Evander Kane had career years in 2011-12, but will they continue that ascension, stall, or fall back? Can Bryan Little regain the 30-goal form from 2008-09? The Jets offense needs a stud to assume control and for their plethora of youth to continue to rise. But when you rely on things like this to happen for your team to be successful, you're walking a thin line. Why: Colorado was a point of contention when THN staffers debated the Western Conference. Some of us liked their collection of youth and presume a step forward - others looked at the goaltending and lack of reliable star power and saw a bottom-feeder. No matter how you view the Avs, a number of things have to click for them to get back into the playoffs. Semyon Varlamov needs to be healthy and consistent. Erik Johnson has to be convincing as a No. 1 defender. And the Matt Duchene's and Paul Stastny's of the roster need to shine bright.
13 MONTREAL CANADIENS
13 EDMONTON OILERS
Why: While Montreal found a wonderful line of Erik Cole, Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais last season, the team still doesn't score enough goals. They added grit in the form of Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong that will beef up an undersized forward corps, but that doesn't address the need for offense. If Andrei Markov can stay healthy the Habs are a different squad, but the Russian can't be relied on for a full year anymore. If Carey Price has a Vezina caliber season the Habs will be ripe to exceed expectations, but as everything stands right now, this is still a non-playoff team. Why: There were a couple of voices in the THN office making a case for the Oilers to be a playoff team, but in the end, the majority decided it was still too soon. We do believe the Oilers will improve from recent showings and maybe even move out of the draft lottery. Nail Yakupov is dynamic, but first-year expectations should be tempered. Defense and goaltending is still a big question mark and in a loaded Western Conference those are debilitating shortfalls. Sure, Justin Schultz was added to the blueline, but he's far from a difference-maker at this point. Can Ryan Whitney stay healthy? Can Devan Dubnyk be a legit No. 1? Until these questions become solid answers, Edmonton is still on the outside looking in.
12 TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
12 CALGARY FLAMES
Why: Toronto's shortcomings were magnified down the stretch last season as the team faded badly in the playoff race - and those shortcomings still have to be addressed. The Maple Leafs still need a bona fide, proven No. 1 goalie and fans hope that acquisition is on the way. James van Riemsdyk may be tried at center, but the natural left winger likely isn't the answer there. Time remains to address these positions, but in the meantime, the Maple Leafs are mostly the same as the team that landed the fifth overall draft pick this summer. Why: The Flames are your prototypical bubble team - too good to bottom out, not good enough to guarantee a playoff spot. The backbone of the team - Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff - are just getting older and without anyone else to lead the charge, Calgary seems to be moving further and further away from a No. 8 seed. Patchwork was done via the free agent market, but overpaying for marginal talent isn't what the doctor ordered for this team. Until they decide to rebuild, the flames will be headed in the wrong direction.
11 NEW JERSEY DEVILS
11 ANAHEIM DUCKS
Why: The last time a Stanley Cup finalist missed the playoffs the following the season was 2006-07 when Carolina and Edmonton both went bust. The Devils are primed for a similar fall. Zach Parise has fled this sinking financial ship and although Martin Brodeur remains on board, the defense in front of him remains perilously thin. And don’t forget this team was one goal away from being eliminated in Round 1. Why: The magic of the Getzlaf-Perry-Ryan trio must be rekindled, which is tough since Bobby Ryan doesn’t seem to want to be a Duck anymore. Anaheim is still relying on 42-year-old Teemu Selanne for scoring otherwise, while there will be a lot of young forwards trying to prove they belong in the show. The defense corps is marginally better than last season, but it won’t be enough to keep up with the rest of the tough Pacific Division, let alone the Western Conference.
10 FLORIDA PANTHERS
10 PHOENIX COYOTES
Why: The Panthers may have won the Southeast last season, but no one backed into the playoffs the way they did. Florida’s success mostly had to do with the early-season explosions from Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann and Jason Garrison, among others, but faded down the stretch. It’s hard to believe things will go as smoothly this year and we’re betting the Panthers will end up being a flash in the pan. Why: Though the Desert Dogs are well-coached and always scrappy, eventually attrition takes its toll. Ray Whitney led the team in points last year and he’s gone; and at this point it looks to be a good bet that heart-and-soul leader Shane Doan will follow him out the door, too. Goaltending, with Mike Smith thriving under the tutelage of goalie coach Sean Burke, and the defense are still strong, but the team can only scratch out low-scoring wins for so long before it catches up to them.
9 CAROLINA HURRICANES
9 DALLAS STARS
Why: From bust to bubble team, the Carolina Hurricanes were among the most aggressive this off-season and there’s little doubt they’re better off. Still, the defense is a little sketchy and if Alexander Semin doesn’t improve from his 21-goal performance, his acquisition will be moot. At this point in the standings, one bounce can determine if you’re in or out – and the Hurricanes will be right on that line. Why: A mixture of new/old snipers (Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney) and young stars (Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn) will have the Stars knocking on the door of the post-season, a place they haven't been since 2007-08. Kari Lehtonen (2.33 GAA; .922 SP last season) has proven himself to be an excellent No. 1 goalie, while a more free-spending owner means the Stars won’t have to put away the checkbook should GM Joe Nieuwendyk need to tweak his roster mid-campaign.
8 OTTAWA SENATORS
8 NASHVILLE PREDATORS
Why: The Sens surprised many (THN included) when they made the playoffs last season. However, now that offense-minded dynamo and reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson has blossomed into a superstar, they won’t be able to sneak up on opponents. The good news is that with goaltending depth (Craig Anderson, Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner), a buttressed blueline (with the addition of Marc Methot) and promising youngsters including Kyle Turris, Jakob Silfverberg and Mika Zibanejad up front, they don’t need stealth to in order to win. Why: We’ve seen this Music City movie many times before. The deck is stacked against the Preds, who lost a crucial piece in defenseman Ryan Suter, but while they’ll have more trouble keeping pucks out of their zone and they lack a dynamic scoring threat, with the Alexander Radulov gone again, there’s a lot to like. Nashville still  has captain and two-time Norris Trophy finalist Shea Weber. It still has two-time Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne. Perhaps most importantly, it has coach Barry Trotz, who always gets maximum effort from minimal talent. The Preds have made the playoffs seven times in the past eight seasons. Don't bet against them.
7 BUFFALO SABRES
7 DETROIT RED WINGS
Why: The high expectations on the Sabres last season were immediately tempered by a collective stumble out of the gate – and while they made a valiant playoff push late in the year, it wasn’t enough. That should tell you this is a team that has to maintain its hardworking identity established under coach Lindy Ruff all season long to keep pace in the East. With new additions Steve Ott and John Scott, they’ll certainly have more grit to dole out. You know Ryan Miller will hold up his end of the bargain between the pipes, so the questions that will decide the Sabres season are: Can the big acquisitions from the summer of 2011 step up? Can Cody Hodgson become a true No. 1? Can Tomas Vanek return to 40-goal form? Why: Welcome to the Twilight Zone. Detroit, on the playoff bubble? It feels odd to even type those words, but the Red Wings’ off-season was disastrous. They lost their best defenseman ever, Nicklas Lidstrom, to retirement, and traded Brad Stuart. The assumption was they’d land a big free agent fish or two to replace them, but GM Ken Holland swung and missed. Even if rookie Brendan Smith shines, the Wings can’t possibly replace what they’ve lost on the back end. That said, Detroit still boasts one of the league’s deepest forward corps, led by Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and newcomer Jordin Tootoo gives them sorely needed sandpaper. The Wings remain a playoff team, but aren’t a serious Cup threat anymore.
6 TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
6 SAN JOSE SHARKS
Why: With big guns such as Steven Stamkos, Martin St-Louis and Vincent Lecavalier up front, there was never any doubt the Bolts could produce, but last season's goaltending exposed the team's soft underbelly. In acquiring goalie Anders Lindback from Nashville, GM Steve Yzerman brought in a capable up-and-comer to replace grumpy ol' Dwayne Roloson. And with a retooled defense headlined by returning son Matt Carle, Tampa now has the horses to make noise in the Southeast again. Why: Though Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Martin Havlat aren’t putting up the numbers they once did, the Sharks have great depth up front when you add Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Ryane Clowe to the whiteboard. There are also pieces to like on the blueline, with Dan Boyle and Brent Burns among the league's upper-crust, along with the annually underrated M-E Vlasic. New additions Adam Burish and Brad Stuart (on his second NoCal sojourn) will make the Sharks a lot less fun to play against, too.
5 PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
5 MINNESOTA WILD
Why: The Orange and Black attack is rugged, relentless and guaranteed to get goals in bunches. Claude Giroux is a bona fide superstar and there are a plethora of 20-goal men around him. But defense and goaltending are far from sure things. Blueliners are falling fast, with Chris Pronger still a no-go and Andrej Meszaros remains a question mark while rehabbing a torn Achilles. And Ilya Bryzgalov inspires about as much stability in net as the Greek economy. Sit back and enjoy the ride, anyway, because it’ll be fun to watch Philly play firewagon hockey all season long. Why: One thing we know for sure is Minnesota's offense can't get any more anemic after hitting an NHL 10-year low last season. The free agent signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter will see to that. Having a stronger cast will surely squeeze more out of Dany Heatley. The Wild added a ton of grit as well (Zenon Konopka, Jake Dowell) and rookies Mikael Granlund and possibly Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle provide skill and gumption. Minnesota effectively bolstered all four lines by adding five or six new faces and re-distributing others where they're better suited. There's still a question mark or two on the blueline.
4 NEW YORK RANGERS
4 CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
Why: The Blueshirts will finish fourth, not so much because they won’t be as good - with Rick Nash and Chris Kreider for a full year, they’ll improve offensively - but because the Penguins will be that much better with a healthy Sidney Crosby. Henrik Lundqvist remains the heart of the team, but he won't need to be a game-saver on most nights as a better offense in front of him will take a lot of the pressure off. The additions up front are obvious, but the 'D' will be better, too, another year of experience in the pocket of Michael Del Zotto and Ryan McDonagh. Post-season positioning won’t matter much, anyway, for a team that is built for another long, tough playoff run and was tied for the best road record last season. Why: Chicago has tremendous star power up front with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and  Marian Hossa (if healthy), enough to make us believe last year’s power play woes were an anomaly.  The Hawks settled for status quo this off-season, failing to add a marquee free agent or pull a major trade. That means a few problem areas weren’t addressed. Goaltending remains a question mark with neither Corey Crawford nor Ray Emery running away with the starting job. The blueline, led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, is talented, but also expensive and undersized. With rivals like Detroit and Nashville set to regress, Chicago should float up the Western Conference standings.
3 WASHINGTON CAPITALS
3 LOS ANGELES KINGS
Why: After a down year, here’s betting the Capitals take back the reins of the Southeast. To suggest they’re in decline would be to overlook the vast star quality they have. Even though this team still hasn’t lived up to post-season expectations, they’ve proven a more than capable regular season team that nearly won its division during a season in which it stumbled. Braden Holtby is a clear-cut favorite to assume the No. 1 role in net, which has been a sore spot in recent years. Why: The Kings brought every player back from last season’s main lineup and why not? All they did was win the Stanley Cup. Though a hangover may loom, the Kings didn’t get their act together until late last season, but a full campaign with Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne also makes them very different from last October’s squad. Plus, Drew Doughty will be at training camp this year instead of working out a new contract, so there’s another distraction to cross off the list.
2 BOSTON BRUINS
2 VANCOUVER CANUCKS
Why: The Bruins still have most of the components of the team that won a Stanley Cup championship and are the class of the Northeast Division, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have challenges. Getting by without “retired” goalie Tim Thomas and leaning solely on Tuukka Rask is the most notable, but the expected improvement of youngsters such as Tyler Seguin and their all-important depth at center should keep them in the upper echelons of the Eastern Conference. Why: Since the creation of the Presidents' Trophy in 1986, six teams have won it in back-to-back seasons, but never has it been won three consecutive years. The Canucks have an excellent opportunity thanks to a lineup that looks virtually the same. Sami Salo and Aaron Rome were lost on the blueline, but newcomer Jason Garrison brings a booming shot and offensive bent. The wildcard is the return the Canucks will receive when they get around to trading goalie Roberto Luongo. Cory Schneider can't afford any growing pains.
1 PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
1 ST. LOUIS BLUES
Why: Critics take note: the Penguins finished one point out of first overall…and Sidney Crosby played all of 22 games. He says he's fully healthy and teammates who worked out with him during the lockout are in awe of his physical development - The Kid has become a man. Yes, we know Jordan Staal is gone, but Brandon Sutter slots in beautifully on the third line. Keep in mind, too, that GM Ray Shero has just $61 million on the books and cap space to play with to upgrade the flanks and the ‘D.’ The Flyers may be in their heads, but the rest of the league is in their wake in terms of talent. Why: Meet the Western Conference’s new juggernaut. The St. Louis Blues came within two points of first in the West last season, largely because they were the NHL’s top defensive team, riding amazing efforts by goaltenders Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak. With budding superstar Alex Pietrangelo anchoring the blueline, captain David Backes proving a menacing two-way presence up the middle and Jack Adams Award winner Ken Hitchcock getting every guy to buy into his system, the Blues should once again be impossible to score on.

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