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
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
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
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
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
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.