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January 17, 2013 | 6:56pm ET


A New York State of Mind
 TFP Senior Writer Dennis Bernstein offers his annual Stanley Cup prediction.

LOS ANGELES -- The NHL returns on Jan. 19, 2013 and not a moment too soon. It's my hope that the darkest four months in the history of the game will fade quickly and by the time we're watching the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the magnificence of the sport will give us selective amnesia about the L word.

In a battle that had no winners, I implore those fans who've pledged to walk away to reverse their field and return with renewed vigor.

One of the few things that Gary Bettman was right about throughout this travesty is that this group of fans is the best of any professional sport. To return to a sport that you dearly missed doesn't make you a lemming, it makes you an awesome fan. If you want to show your displeasure in a small way, like not buying NHL Center Ice or not going for a $250 authentic jersey to celebrate the season's return, that's fine, but to stay away from something you dearly love just on principle only punishes you.

The players are returning to checks/cheques with boxcar numbers and the owners won't lose their generous tax write-offs, so why should you miss out?

Come back with the rest of us and observe the magnificence of Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos, the coolness of Henrik Lundqvist, and the nastiness of Shea Weber. The dude in the Back Bay needs to bring back the full on hate for the Habs and it's okay for the good folks in the Canadian prairies to despise the Canucks through winter.

The sooner we bring things back to normal as a collective, the sooner we'll forget what "Make Whole" means (assuming we ever did).

If you'll join me in going forward, the time-honored tradition of making my selection for the Stanley Cup winner is at hand. In a game steeped in tradition, I'm looking to break one; the over decade-long whiff of selecting the team that will parade the best trophy in sports around the ice in June. The 48-game season will have a huge impact on the contenders and pretenders, a fast start by a dark horse could carry them to a playoff spot and a five game losing streak in March could be a death knell for an odds-on favorite.

Looming even larger will be the injury list, I expect a higher-than-average amount of pulled groins and hamstrings before Valentine's Day. We've seen evidence of what potential damage a single knee injury can do with the news that the defending champion Los Angeles Kings will start the season without No. 1 center Anze Kopitar. In what was scheduled to be his final appearance with Mora IK in Sweden's tier-two league, the Slovenian pivot was felled with a Grade II MCL sprain that will likely put him on the shelf for the first two weeks of the season.

It's injuries like this one that will have a far greater impact and will quickly change the fate of any contender of the shortened season.

Staying on point with the champs, the Kings will benefit from the shortened season due to the masterful chess board maneuvering by GM Dean Lombardi. He's brought the entire roster back from last season, something never seen in the salary cap era. With the help of assistant GM Ron Hextall (who will receive calls after the next GM firing) and capologist Jeff Solomon, Lombardi has tiered contracts that will keep the core of this team together for the foreseeable future. To see this team go from Ladislav Nagy and Scott Thornton to Stanley Cup champion has been a lesson on how to build a champion and is likely a blueprint for others in sports, not just the NHL.

But there's a reason why teams haven't repeated in the NHL since 1997 and it's likely to recur in the City of Angels. Their collective health is already in question as there are more issues besides the Kopitar injury. Glue guy Willie Mitchell, a difference maker on and off the ice "tweaked" his knee a month ago and at 35 years old, I wonder about his ability to withstand the rigors of a scheduled shoe horned into the calendar. While those are essential assets, it's the status of the one irreplaceable King, Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick that the fan base should be concerned with. He's been cleared to play after being way under the radar for the majority of the lockout after back surgery. If he's anything less than 100% physically, Los Angeles' repeat dream turns into a nightmare.

Adding to the burden of wearing the crown is the fact that in every one of those 48 games, they'll have a huge target on their backs. They won't be able to slip into Columbus unnoticed, the heat they'll feel in the Shark Tank with be hotter than ever and there's no telling how this part of the team's character will respond to a challenge they've never faced. For Sutter, there's a new ground to break too, he was brought in to kick an underperforming team in the butt but now deals with a locker room full of Stanley Cup rings and will be interested to see how the young and well paid core will respond to the taskmaster.

Sans a repeat, I like the Chicago Blackhawks prospects of returning to the Final. Yes, they must coax a far better season out of Corey Crawford, but their depth and experience is still championship caliber. With Jonathan Toews back to full health, he's the X factor that can lead this team to a No. 1 seed in the West. Having sat and chatted with him during a TFP photo shoot last month, the passion that flows through his veins is as strong as ever and I think he'll fully impose his will on the franchise as he did in the Stanley Cup season.

The St. Louis Blues are intriguing, but their inability of their forwards to show up in primetime against the Kings in the second round leads me to believe they'll need another year of seasoning to get to contender status.

The Vancouver Canucks will be deep, but without Ryan Kesler and David Booth at 100% and Cory Schneider having to prove it all night, every night, they'll be more disappointment on Robson Street come springtime.

The Kings' final dance partner, the New Jersey Devils, won't be around for the final pairing either. The loss of Zach Parise is massive; he was the face of the franchise that will take years to replace. He should have done the right thing and taken a hometown discount to return to the franchise that developed him and the fan base that loved him but he thought taking more to play for a pretender and not a contender was the right career move. It's awesome to see Martin Brodeur return for a last ride but as the spring arrives, he may be looking deciding if he wants to go to a contender rather than prepping for another long playoff run.

The Pennsylvania Daily Double will be in it to win it. I'm hearing that both Crosby and Kris Letang are in beast mode; their off-season workout regimen was off the charts and their primed to make people forget that ugly exit against their cross-state rivals last April. Jordan Staal's departure won't keep this team from the Final, it's the blueline depth behind Letang that will. While there's good talent coming down the line on defense, they lack the physicality need to support Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun to go the distance.
The Flyers... they still have Ilya Bryzgalov, don't they? That should kill their chances. Given last year's performance, the Russian cosmonaut owes most of his paycheck to Dave Tippett and Sean Burke in Phoenix. They're a deep and talented team along the forward wall but the defense average at best and to have their destiny tied to arguably the most overpaid player in the league ain't a good thing.

The Northeast precincts will be heard from, but both the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres have more questions than answers as the season starts. Will Tuukka Rask respond to being THE guy between the pipes in an intense sports market and will the Sabres show the heart they lacked throughout the 2011-12 campaign? We vote a maybe and a no, respectively, on those two propositions.

Wholesale changes were made in the U.S. capital and despite Braden Holtby's playoff heroics, this team will go as far as Alex Ovechkin carries them. His running mate Alex Semin finally departed D.C., so Ovi will be asked to produce more in the face of dwindling production. It's hard to believe, but with another 65 point season, we're talking about Ovechkin being on the downside of his career. It's a huge ask to have rookie coach Adam Oates to take this team the distance and they're likely to repeat their second round playoff elimination.

Steven Stamkos will get 60 again, but could be available for the World Championships in April with the Tampa Bay Lightning's defense and goaltending still huge question marks.

That leaves the New York Rangers as the squad to emerge from the Eastern Conference after falling two games short of the Final in May. Given John Tortorella's penchant of leaning heavily on his top four defensemen, the 48-game schedule will be tricky to navigate, but likely gives Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Michael Del Zotto fresher legs than what they showed in the elimination round against the Devils.

The moment the ink dried on the Rick Nash deal, the Rangers became the short money choice to win it all and the bookies are right. If they're healthy, there's not a deeper team along the forward wall as they'll go Nash-Brad Richards-Marian Gaborik backed with Carl Hagelin-Derek Stepan-Ryan Callahan. When can't miss prospect Chris Kreider likely gets only third line minutes this season, it will a nightmare matchup for the opposition every night.

But like the Kings before them, the key to a title comes down to the performance in the crease. The final jewel in Henrik Lundqvist's crown would be a Stanley Cup championship and the likely Conn Smythe Award that follows. His stats were sterling in the playoffs, 1.82 GAA, .931 save percentage with three shutouts, more than championship worthy and with the three time All Star only 30 years old, he should be able to stand up to the rigors of a tight schedule given the minimal travel Atlantic Division teams will face.

With expectations high every year on Broadway, the additional pressure of being the odds-on favorite won't affect this team. Nash had to agree to come to New York and although he's not a big city dude, all he has to do is pot those feathered passes from Brad Richards, he no longer has the weight and fate of an entire franchise on his broad shoulders.

The Blueshirts have the right guy behind the bench, the always entertaining, never disappoint John Tortorella. He's won a Cup in Tampa, has the right mentality to deal with the pressure of the marketplace and if Glen Sather can give him some better blueline depth at the trade deadline, he can be the first coach to win multiple Cups since his boss did in Edmonton did the trick with the powerhouse Oilers of the 1980s and the first to do with win different teams since William Scott Bowman (Bowman has multiple wins after Sather but his second Cup win was in 1976).

The Rangers will deal with the additional pressure of the reality of a $64.3 million salary cap next season. With 17 players signed for a total $57.4 million against the 2013-14 cap (courtesy of CapGeek.com) and deals not yet signed for McDonagh, Stepan and Hagelin, this troop of Rangers will be a one-time gathering.

But my thinking is the fans won't mind the high probability of an entirely different roster in September when the Stanley Cup rolls down the Great White Way in June.

Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.

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