Greg Kaplan: First things first, I’m just beyond happy that we’re even having the opportunity to talk about the NHL in a positive light. I have to admit, I surrendered to what felt like a likely total lost season about a month ago, fearing that Gary Bettman was either too incompetent to come to an agreement, or too stubborn to reach a middle ground. It would have been a travesty not just to the game, but to probably the most loyal of fan bases in professional sports.
When I found out that the NHL was ending the lockout early Sunday morning, I felt like a kid on Christmas. Which, when you think about it, is remarkable, since I’ve never celebrated a single Christmas in my entire life. The only instant sports-related euphoria I felt when I saw that the NHL reached an agreement I can compare to was when the my buddy Ted, a fellow life-long Mets fan, interrupted my Elementary Italian II class freshman year of college with constant phone calls and texts saying the Mets acquired Johan Santana. There wasn’t someone I didn’t text that I know either in Savannah or up north that isn’t a hockey fan. I’m dying to know what the schedule is going to be this year, because I need to plot out a way to see as many games as I can this year, since Georgia is so wonderful to not have a pro team. Jerks.
Anyway, Mike, I’m sure you felt a similar rush of positive vibes?
Mike Aurigemma: It really was like Christmas came twice this year when the NHL finally ended the lockout. I had already came to the conclusion that the season was lost as we all knew they were okay losing a whole season since it has already happened before. Luckily, they came to their senses this time around and we will at least get to see half of a season.
Now, don’t get me wrong I am still extremely frustrated with how all of this turned out. I do not care who was more responsible for it, but the fact that this league was once again on the verge of losing a whole season is an absolute joke. It still shows how poorly run this sport is and you have to think that there will be another lockout sometime in the future.
Back to positive thinking and I am really excited to get this season underway and hope to see the gloves dropped right away.
Eastern Conference Favorite
GK: I’m playing a little bit of the homer card, but I think it’s also fact at this point in how the team is built. In my mind, there isn’t any question that the New York Rangers are the conference favorite heading into this shortened, 48-game 2013 season.
This is a team that after adding Brad Richards into the fold last off-season finished the 2011-12 campaign at the top of the Eastern Conference. Still in need of a scoring boost to go along with their superb defensive play, New York went out this off-season (which feels like years ago) and added one of the top wingers available in Rick Nash. Nash adds to the incredible depth the team already has, being one of the top six forwards along with Marian Gaborik, Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan, Chris Krieder and Richards. Even the potential Rangers third line of Brian Boyle centering Carl Hagelin and Arron Asham can create trouble for opposing teams.
Even with Nash in the fold, the team’s strength will still likely be their defensive play, all of which is anchored by all-World goalie Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers boast two of the toughest defensive pairings in the league with Dan Girardi/Marc Staal and Ryan McDonough/Michael Del Zotto, then have enough depth to mix and match with their final pairings from the likes of Stu Bickel, Steve Eminger, Matt Gilroy and Anton Stralman. Not to mention the extremely talented youngsters the Rangers currently have skating with their AHL affiliate in Hartford, including two of their first round picks in defensemen Dylan McIlrath and wingers J.T. Miller and Ryan Bourque. Very few teams in the NHL, let alone in the East, can compete with that type of quality and depth from top to bottom.
<MA: Well since Greg is going to be a homer so am I in this situation. I think the Boston Bruins will be the frontrunners in the Eastern Conference because of the little moves that they did make in the offseason. I think with the very little practice time some of these teams will have not only at the start of the season, but throughout the season will make it tough to integrate new players no matter what level of talent those players are. The Bruins will be returning just about all of the same lines from last year with maybe just the return of Nathan Horton and implementing rookie Dougie Hamilton into the defensive pairings. This will be a huge help for this team throughout the year and it helps that so many of their players will be in-game shape already after playing overseas.
Obviously people will look at Tim Thomas as a big cloud over this team, but maybe him being away from the team will help them out. Tuukka Rask will be the full-time goaltender for the team going forward and I think that will be a plus as he will be more consistent in net.
There is no more hangover for this team after their last Stanley Cup run so they should be hungry, which at times it looked like that was lacking last season. With a young roster the amount of games in such a little span should not tire this team so I fully expect them to have an outstanding season.
Western Conference Favorite
GK: In order to be the kings, you’ll have to beat the Los Angeles Kings. Since the lockout has dominated the NHL headlines and pushed the league further out of the casual sports fan’s mind, it’s easy to forget that the Kings are the defending Stanley Cup champions. This team has much more staying power than previous NHL champions because of their diverse mix of talent, much like the Rangers in the East.
You can make the argument that the Kings top six forwards of Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Simon Gagne, Dustin Penner, Dustin Brown and Justin Williams could be the most evenly balanced line-up any team has to offer. Yes, the team went through periods of drought last season, but there is simply too much talent on the roster to forecast another stretch like that one they went through last season. Add in the fact that the team has one of the league’s top scoring defensemen in Drew Doughty and some guy between the pipes named Jonathan Quick, who will always be in the conversation for the Vezina, and you have yourself an absolutely stacked line-up.
MA: The Kings are of course going to be tough to knock off, but I think they will still suffer from the Stanley Cup hangover. I really do not think champions in any other sport party more than in hockey so it makes it that much tougher to repeat.
The team that I think will knock off the defending champs will be the St. Louis Blues. The main reason is their amazing goaltending combination in Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot. This will be extremely important as the amount of games in such a short span may tire out some goalies. Having both of these goalies fresh come playoff time will help them out a long way.
One thing that held this team back in their last postseason run was in my opinion their lack of experience in the playoffs. They had so many players who had never felt playoff hockey before, but that will not be the case this time around for the Blues.
Eastern Conference Sleeper
GK: I had a hard time figuring out which team I wanted to anoint my top sleeper, because I do think there are a couple to be had in the Eastern Conference this year. However, I finally settled on the Tampa Bay Lightning for a couple of reasons.
Naturally, if we’re talking about the Lightning, the top of the list has to start with one of the league’s most talented scorers, Steven Stamkos. Stamkos has scored 156 goals over the last three seasons, 60 of which came last year, and he won’t even turn 23 until February. It almost doesn’t matter who you put on the wings around Stamkos, he’s going to find a way to break down the defense and create scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. Then you add in the veteran leadership players like Martin St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier and Ryan Malone bring to the table and you have yourself a very formidable offensive.
On the defensive end, the Lightning still have the likes of Victor Hedman, who needs to bounce back from a down season last year, and Matt Carle, who the team picked up from the Philadelphia Flyers, and you have to like the potential. League insiders have been buzzing about the addition of goalie Anders Lindback, who only saw limited action with the Nashville Predators over the last two seasons, and Lindback may indeed be the key to just how successful Tampa Bay can be next year. Either way, I like how the team is structured, and I think they may just surprise a few people around the league with the condensed schedule.
MA: It is tough to really consider any team in hockey a sleeper especially with such a shortened season so this makes this pretty tough.
If I had to pick one team that I feel may really surprise people this year, it’s the Buffalo Sabres. They have really tried to change things around there and add some toughness to that team after everything that happened with Milan Lucic running over Ryan Miller. This will definitely be an added bonus to the team if they can start to play with a higher level of intensity.
But really we all know the only reason this team can make noise is because of Ryan Miller. With him in net and playing a good amount of the games they should find themselves in position to make a serious run in the playoffs.
Western Conference Sleeper
GK: Unlike the East, the sleeper out West was much easier to figure out, and this team may not even be a sleeper considering the noise they made in the off-season. That would be the Minnesota Wild. This team made huge splashes in the free agent department over the summer, dropping large bills on arguably the two most-sought after players on the open market, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. The addition of those two stars, plus the return of impact players Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi and Kyle Brodziak, seem to have the Wild positioned for a run towards the top of a crowded Western Conference.
However, the key for Minnesota will be a test of how well they can gel in such a short period of time. There won’t be the extended training camp like in years past to build the necessary chemistry among teammates needed to perform at a high level. There is familiarity from the standpoints of Parise and Suter, as both players have experience alongside on the USA National Team. But, there will need to be a quick learning curve if Minnesota has desires to compete deep into the summer playoffs.
MA: I am not sure many people will consider the Wild to be sleepers after all of the offseason moves they made Greg. But I do think they will be near the top of the Western Conference.
I am going to go with the team that was hurt by some of the Wild’s moves in the Nashville Predators. Once again I think it is tough to pick a sleeper team, but I feel like people may be down on the Pred’s this coming season because of the loss of Ryan Suter. While that will undoubtedly be a big blow to this team the fact that they still have Shea Weber manning the blue line and Pekka Rinne in net still makes this team a really tough out come playoff time.
Hart Trophy Winner (League MVP)
GK: Right now, I really do feel as though it’ll be Steven Stamkos’ trophy to lose. It’d be wrong to say that he’s primed for a breakout, but the shine on his growing star is only getting brighter as he comes closer to reaching his absolute potential. Again, this is a guy that won’t turn 23 until the season is underway and already has a 50-goal season and 60-goal season under his belt. If he’s able to elevate his play and help lead this Tampa Bay team to new heights, I think he’ll get the proper recognition for his accomplishments.
However, he will face stern competition from the likes of Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh and Claude Giroux in Philadelphia. I just believe that Stamkos will make the most out of this season with fewer parts around him, and that, in my mind, makes him truly more valuable to his team.
MA: Well Greg you mentioned the player that I will be going with to walk away with the Hart Trophy in Evgeni Malkin. I think he will carry Pittsburgh throughout the regular season and post some amazing numbers. With Crosby still a health concern from here on out, Malkin will have to shoulder the load for the Penguins as the season goes on.
The type of style the Penguins play should help him put up some monster numbers as they have always been a more high scoring team than the Bruins or Rangers. This really could be an open race and it will be tough for someone to separate themselves from the rest, but I am going with Malkin.
Vezina Trophy Winner (Top Goalie)
GK: It’s going to be a battle between Henrik Lundqvist and Jonathan Quick, but I think the Rangers will finish the season with more points than the Kings, making it easier for voters to reward The King. Lundqvist has been one of the top three goalies in the league for the past couple of seasons, but we really won’t know the affect of a shortened season on the players until we see the first couple of games. There’s more history in the favor of Henrik in the face of adversity than there is Quick, though not enough can be said with how he single-handedly put the Kings on his back last season and led them to the Cup.
MA: Well we have to agree on something and it looks like it will be this category. Lundqvist is an absolute beast and I feel like he will have no problem handling the brutal schedule of game after game throughout this season. Add in the fact that the Rangers really help him out by blocking a ridiculous number of shots and there is no way his numbers will not be good enough to stop him from walking away with the Vezina this year.
Stanley Cup Prediction
GK: I’ve been saying it since Day One of the lockout: the reason I was angriest about the play stoppage and possible season cancellation was because I was convinced this would be the year the New York Rangers put it all together and take home Lord Stanley’s Cup. Now that the league is back, I’m sticking to my guns. This was a team that was one offensive weapon away from going to the finals last year, and they upgraded that need with one of the best wingers in the league. I don’t think it’ll be an easy road necessarily, especially with the strength in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and even Boston. But, to me, there isn’t a more complete team in hockey right now than the Rangers.
I’m taking them to the bank.
MA: I will be singing the blues all the way to the finals as I think the St. Louis Blues will be this years NHL Champions. Once again I really do not think that last postseason could have been a better experience for this team as now they have a taste of playoff hockey. With that goalie combination of Halak and Elliot in net and one of them likely to get hot come playoff time, I see the Blues being the team that gets to party all summer long with the Cup.