Cold as Ice

Editor’s note: Popblerd’s hockey scribes Jay Kumar and Stephen Mapes are happy to be back writing about the NHL. On the eve of the start of an abbreviated season, Jay and Stephen chat about what to expect and make some bold predictions.

Jay:  So Stephen, here we sit in mid-January with a 48-game season about to start. How are you feeling about the NHL right now? Excited or still pissed off over the lockout?

Stephen:  Honestly, until I sat down and started doing research for tonight’s chat I was pretty annoyed and just found myself out of the hockey spirit. But in the end, all the possibilities and story lines and stats and anticipation were too much. I’m disappointed, NHL, but I ain’t mad at you.

Jay: Yeah, I was fairly sour on the league throughout the entire lockout. Both sides really got on my nerves and I got sick of hearing about all the BS and maneuvering. But since the announcement was made that they had preserved a shortened season, I’ve been getting fired up.

So let’s preview the season…how is the West looking?

Stephen:  In doing my research, I was struck at just how tight the West could be this season. The contenders last year, for the most part, look intact, and even some of the duds from last year have made some serious efforts to get things started. In fact, the only team that I am not optimistic about is the Flames. They did very little and still think that Iginla and Kiprusoff will be their salvation. Brings to mind the old saying about insanity and doing the same thing over.

Jay:  Yeah, those guys are getting old.

Stephen:  Yeah, and compared to the equally wayward Blue Jackets, who shed the Nash era and are investing in young guys, it’s a bit of a bummer to see so little action there.

My gut, though, is that the short season is going to favor defensive teams, because there will be less time to wear down front lines with injuries. That’s why I really think the Blues have a shot at making it deeper in the Cup run this year. And why Phoenix will continue their miracle in the desert.

But I think we might also get some surprises from some of the younger squads this year too. Edmonton has a rock solid roster of young guns, and Colorado could go big if Landeskog doesn’t hit a sophomore slump.

Jay:  Defense always seems to win out in the end. How do you think the shortened schedule will affect teams? I saw one prediction that Edmonton will do well simply because almost all their young players were playing in Europe or the minors during the lockout.

Stephen:  I saw that too, and while I hesitate to say that really matters, it’s key for such a young team. They needed that extra experience and they got it. Honestly, I think that the shortened schedule is going to help superstar driven rosters and lessen the impact of roster depth. Last year the Kings won by outlasting injuries and time with a deep roster. With so few games by comparison, it’s more viable to ride a hot top two lines to Lord Stanley.

So part of me wonders if we’ll see a hotshot team take it this year. And I wonder if this is the year San Jose and Detroit see their playoff streaks snap. Both are aging rosters with depth, but you wonder if they have the speed and fire for a short schedule.

Jay:  On the other hand, the shortened schedule could help veterans who won’t get as worn down by a long season.

Stephen:  That’s true. It adds so many variables. But I just have a gut feeling it’s going to be a changing of the guard in the West.

My dark horse for the conference though is the Ducks. After their early season meltdown last year they righted the ship with Boudreau and went out strong, and if Hiller can settle down in net and Perry, Ryan, and Getzlaf can click, they’ll be dangerous.

Jay:  Interesting. There’s certainly a lot of talent on that team.

Stephen:  Definitely. And the last big question of the West is if the Kings will avoid the Cup hangover. I think they have the talent to do it, but they also have a huge target.  They smartly kept Bernier on board to ease the load of Quick, so it’ll remain to be seen if the players can catch that same fire again. And stay defensively minded.

Jay:  Kopitar’s hurt, but it doesn’t appear to be serious. They’ve kept pretty much the whole Cup-winning team intact, so they should be tough.

Stephen:  Indeed, and they have the city behind them now, especially with the Dodgers and Lakers both falling apart to varying degrees this year.

I didn’t even touch on the goalie situation in Chicago (is Crawford a franchise man?), the drama in Dallas between the Stars and Cowboys, the Wild spending like crazy to fix their mess, the Predators hoping to continue their success on the back of Rinne, and Vancouver figuring out what to do without Kesler and how to spend Luongo’s impending trade.

Lots of stories, to be sure. And in the end, that just means some great hockey, even with the short season.

Jay: Dallas also went old, signing a couple of 40somethings in Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney. Not that there’s anything wrong with being in your 40s (ahem).

Stephen:  The team needed veteran leadership, so it’ll be interesting to see if that works. But man, Jagr shut me up last year in the playoffs. He’s still got it.

Jay:  Okay, let’s turn to the East. Like the West, there are some fairly strong teams in the mix here. Namely the Bruins, who suffered an upset loss in the first round to Washington last year, the Rangers, the Flyers and the Penguins.

Stephen:  The East definitely has a clean batch of front runners. Who do you like of those four?

Jay:  Certainly the Bruins are the deepest team. Sure, Tim Thomas is spending the year riding out the Apocalypse in his Colorado bunker, so the Bruins’ net will be tended by capable young Tuukka Rask, but Rask has proven he can handle the job. The B’s roster is about as deep as it gets: Seguin, Krejci, Lucic, Marchand, and a healthy Nathan Horton on offense, with Chara and Seidenberg leading a solid defensive corps that will start the year with first-rounder Dougie Hamilton.

But the Rangers added to their full cupboard by trading for Rick Nash in the offseason. Nash will team with Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik to form a lethal top line. The Blueshirts still have one of the best goalies in the game in Henrik “The King” Lundqvist, when he’s not playing guitar on late night talk shows. There is a sense of urgency in the Big Apple to take advantage of Lundqvist while he’s in his prime to make a run at the Cup.

Stephen:  Especially after coming so close to tasting it last time.

Jay:  Once again, the Pens have to hope that the concussion woes of Sidney Crosby remain in the past. IF healthy, he and Evgeni Malkin are the best two players in the league. Pittsburgh made a splash at the draft by trading Jordan Staal to Carolina for Brandon Sutter, who should slide nicely into the third-line center job. Kris Letang, who signed with a Russian team about 12 hours before the lockout ended, leads the defense, and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury should get some relief now that Tomas Vokoun is his backup. The team should be hungry after the hated Flyers knocked them off in the playoffs last year. How are you feeling about your favorite team?

Stephen:  The two big question marks are how Fleury responds to the dreadful Flyers series last year, and if the defense, especially the $25 million man Paul Martin, can provide some semblance of cover in front of the net. We can score goals with our top lines, but I don’t want the Pens to be the New Orleans Saints of the NHL: throwing up a lot of points and letting up even more. I’m optimistic though. Fleury’s better than his .830 save percentage from the playoffs last year, and the D-line got a good shaming that should get them back in shape.

Jay:  Speaking of the Flyers, they had to sit back and watch as former mainstays Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, who they had shipped away the previous season, won a Stanley Cup with the LA Kings. But there’s plenty of offense from the likes of Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn, who is reunited with d-man brother Luke now that the Flyers acquired him from Toronto for James Van Riemsdyk. As always, questions remain in goal, as the supremely spacey Ilya Bryzgalov was far from the answer last season.

Stephen:  It’s been like a bad reality show in Philly the past few years: “Who Wants to Tend Net for the Flyers?” Bryz seems the best bet of their rotating door of goalies, but like you said, he can be spacey.

Jay:  One team that could make some noise is the Carolina Hurricanes. They made a few big moves in the offseason, acquiring Jordan Staal from the Penguins to team up with his older brother, Carolina captain Eric Staal, and signing flashy but erratic Alex Semin from the Caps.

The team has a strong supporting cast with Jeff Skinner, Jussi Jokinen, and Tuomo Ruutu on offense, young Justin Faulk and veteran Joni Pitkanen on D and dependable goalie Cam Ward between the pipes. They should win their division easily. Should.

Stephen:  But there’s definitely some competition there, in the form of the overachieving Caps of last season and the always enigmatic Bolts.

Jay:  I think Ottawa, Buffalo, the Devils (who somehow made it to the finals last year), Tampa and the Caps will all be on the bubble. The Senators were another surprise squad last season, led by ageless wonder Daniel Alfredsson and Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson. They have a surplus of quality goaltending in Craig Anderson, Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner, who’s been one of the top goalies in the AHL this season. The defense is a little thin after Karlsson, though. Look for one of the goalies to be dealt for some depth.

The Sabres added some muscle after watching goalie Ryan Miller get pushed around last season, but they don’t really have a top center anymore. The Devils lost Zach Parise to Minnesota and still have the 74-year-old Martin Brodeur (I keed, I keed) in net. Tampa picked up Anders Lindback to be their number one goalie, and they’ve got the best pure goal scorer in the league in Steven Stamkos. And the Caps have their third coach in the last year  in Adam Oates, who’s hoping to light a fire under Ovechkin, Backstrom et al.

Stephen:  I notice we haven’t hit on your Leafs yet…

Jay:  Yeah, there’s a reason for that. The Leafs got off to good start last year and appeared ready to make the playoffs, but then just imploded halfway through the season. In the offseason, GM Brian Burke traded for James Van Riemsdyk to bolster a decent offensive core of Phil Kessel, Mikhail Grabovski, Joffrey Lupul and Clarke MacArthur, but there are still big holes at center and in net, where James Reimer struggled after suffering a concussion early in the season. Then last week, Burke was promptly fired by the team’s new owners and assistant GM Dave Nonis took over. There were many rumors the Leafs would acquire Roberto Luongo from Vancouver, but it appears less likely now. The question now is do they try to make the playoffs with the guys they’ve got or just blow it up again? Ugh.

Stephen:  What are your thoughts on the new GM?

Jay:  Nonis is a proven NHL GM and has been working with Burke the last few years. He seems a little more reasonable and less prone to taking wild, cocky gambles than Burke, and that’s a good thing. But it looks like another year of futility in Toronto. I also don’t see much happening with the Jets, Panthers, Islanders and Habs this season.

Stephen:  Not that surprising, but do you see any possible diamonds in the rough there? Do they even have the rosters to over-achieve this season?

Jay:  Well, the Panthers made the playoffs last year and pushed the Devils to seven games, but they haven’t done much in the offseason. I think there are too many teams on the bubble in the East for them to squeak in this year. The Islanders have a ton of young offensive talent in John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner, Matt Moulson and Blake Comeau thanks to all those high draft picks over the years, but they still don’t have much of a defense or goaltending corps.

So do you want to make some predictions? I know ours were excellent last year (not really). Who do you see in the Cup finals?

Stephen:  Hey, we each got one thing right (I picked Landeskog for the Calder)!

But allow me to tilt some windmills and make some predictions… Blues vs. Flyers in the finals. Flyers take it in six. Giroux is MVP.

Your educated guess?

Jay:  I’ve got Rangers over Blues in the finals in five. King Henrik gets his Cup.

How about regular season MVP? I’ve got Giroux for that.

Stephen:  Regular season MVP? I’m biased, but I like Crosby’s chances if he can keep his head on straight (literally).

And I like Rask for the Vezina. He has a huge hole to fill, and I think he can do it.

(That’s a horrible sentence out of context)

Jay:  Bwahaha! Wow. Gutsy. I’m taking Rinne for the Vezina. Who’s your rookie of the year? I’m going to say Mikael Granlund of Minnesota.

Stephen:  Ah, great minds. He’s my pick too. High profile, coming into a team that needs him right away. Reminds me of Landeskog from last year.

Jay:  Well, I’m certainly ready for games to kick off on Saturday. I’m looking forward to yelling at my TV again (for hockey, anyway). And I’m psyched to be doing these chats again. Talk to you next week about the first hockey games since June.

Stephen:  Same here! Here’s to a slightly shorter but hopefully just as sweet season!

 

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