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Penguins and Hurricanes predictions, CBA talk and Taylor Hall's contract

Marc-Andre Fleury had a miserable playoffs, but posted a .913 save percentage in the regular season. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

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Marc-Andre Fleury had a miserable playoffs, but posted a .913 save percentage in the regular season. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Still trying to be optimistic we’ll have at least part of an NHL season, but if not, that means more sojourns to Ontario League towns and trips to the Ricoh Coliseum, home of the American League’s Toronto Marlies. No NHL doesn’t equate to no hockey.

But for now, I’m still in the NHL frame of mind, looking forward to a season we all hope is on the way. In the meantime, here are some hockey-related thoughts that have run through my head over the past few weeks.

• Carolina had an aggressive off-season and improved pieces of its forward corps. I’m still a little skeptical, however, of just how much better Carolina will be.

As much as I like Jordan Staal – and believe he will hit 40 goals at least once in his career – Alexander Semin is far from reliable in any scoring role and that’s a major problem for a one-dimensional player. Much will depend on which Semin shows up this year. If he’s a secondary scorer who logs 20 goals, Carolina won’t get what it needs out of him. If he can recover to 30-40 goals, however, it will really give the Canes a strong two-line attack - that difference will determine if this worthwhile gamble paid off.

The defense is also lacking. Justin Faulk had a great first year, but will he take a minor (or major) step back in Year 2? Can Joni Pitkanen stay healthy after sustaining a concussion? How much will the team miss Bryan Allen’s defensive presence? Barring any major addition on the blueline between now and Game 1, the Hurricanes are still a bubble team and, in my mind, they’ll settle on the wrong side of it.

• Back to Staal for a second: as good defensively as Brandon Sutter is (and he’s a nice option for Pittsburgh’s third line), he’s not going to seamlessly replace Staal. Way too many people have been lobbying the point Sutter brings the same defensive capabilities as Staal. Give me a break.

Staal was a finalist for the Selke Trophy once already and though he hasn’t hit his offensive potential yet, he was always a great fill-in on the top two lines when Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby went down with an injury. If either of those two gets injured again, the Pens will immediately notice the loss of Staal’s safety net. There’s no doubt this was a one-for-one downgrade, no matter how you look at it.

• Staying with the Penguins: THN’s prediction that they’ll finish first in the East has, predictably, been met with a lot of uncreative name-calling (people still say ‘Cindy Crysby’?). But our pick also took a lot of flak from those who pointed to the team’s miserable first round ousting last spring and, more directly, at Marc-Andre Fleury’s implosion.

How can such a small sample size influence opinions so greatly? The Penguins were horrendous in Round 1 against the Flyers, yes, but that has nothing to do with predicting success over 82 games – especially for a young team that has proven to be a year-in, year-out contender.

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This year’s editorial prediction meeting was one of the most heated in my five years at THN, because every team has a legitimate drawback as well as a reason to believe. Considering everything, the Penguins are a sound pick. You think Fleury will log an .863 save percentage and 4.63 GAA this season? You lose.

• In 2004-05, public opinion was heavily in favor of the owners and their cap system. Since they seemingly won that battle and are now seeking more concessions from players while the league is booming, public opinion this time around has swung in favor of the players. Maybe fans and media feel a little duped by the owners and refuse to fall for it again.

But before deeming one side as the wolf and one as the sheep, this game has to play out. Naturally, we look at the NHL in a romantic, fan-centric way and always believe there is an easy solution to everyone’s problems, but the league is a business and the business world is harsh and complicated. The reality is, to a degree, both sides are to blame if we actually miss hockey games again. The current negotiations are nothing but a dance with each side posturing into a position to get what it really wants and, in a secondary way, trying to win a PR war. Instead of rushing to conclusions of who is right and wrong, we need to sit back, watch a couple proposals roll in and see how this plays out. We’re still early in the proceedings and this isn’t fun for anyone, but it’s the world we live in.

If you already look at either side as 100 percent right, you might be falling for the same game as last time.

• I’m not yet convinced Taylor Hall’s contract extension will be a good one by the time we’re in the middle of it. A $6-million commitment for seven years to a player who has been hurt in his first two NHL seasons is questionable, especially when you consider the ongoing CBA discussions and the fact Hall has one year left on his current deal.

John Tavares’ six-year deal averages $500,000 less than Hall’s against the cap and Tavares is on another level so far in his career. A couple more of Hall’s unrestricted free agent years were eaten up in his deal, but that doesn’t make it any better if he turns injury-prone.

It’s always good to invest in your best young assets, so while Hall’s contract signing isn’t the same sort of gamble as, say, signing Dustin Penner to an offer sheet, it’s still risky.

Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His column appears regularly only on THN.com.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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