NHL 2011-12 season predictions – timing is everything

Predictions – everybody loves them and if you’re correct about half the time, you’re doing pretty well.

Two years ago I had the Los Angeles Kings finishing sixth in the Western Conference. Nailed it.

Last season, I slotted the Kings at fourth during my NHL season preview article. That’s certainly where they should have finished, if not for their horrible losing streak in November. As such, they ended up seventh – three notches back.

Further, as noted at the time… If GM Dean Lombardi added a high-end player before the trade deadline, the Kings would challenge the Sharks for the Pacific Division.

Which sort of brings us to this present.

Sure, Lombardi added Dustin Penner at the deadline last February. And getting a guy to play on the top line with Anze Kopitar definitely qualifies as a big move. However, the addition didn’t net the desired results. Couple that with a power play that saw a huge drop off from the year prior and the aforementioned losing streak to dig out of – well, the timing wasn’t right for a run at the Sharks.

Things have now changed.

Penner spent the summer committing himself to conditioning. Check.

Lombardi went out and acquired the long-needed second line center in Mike Richards. Check.

With Ryan Smyth’s departure to Edmonton, the Kings had a new hole at left wing.  They could have moved a prospect in – an unproven commodity – or have relied on a role player to fill the hole, essentially asking somebody to try and overachieve. Instead, Lombardi signed veteran forward Simon Gagne.  Second line, check.

On defense, all six starters from last season – and arguably the best collective unit of six in the Western Conference – return and are back on the blueline. Check.

In net, it’s Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier reprising their roles in Battle of the Goalies part II. Quick has spent two years rewriting the Kings record book and Bernier was lights out in the second half of the last season. Coach Terry Murray says he’s going with the hot hand this year, rather than a planned 60 games-22 games split. So, goaltending – check.

What does this mean for the Pacific Division and the Western Conference?

After hearing bits and pieces leaked over the last few weeks during various radio appearances and on twitter, here are the official MayorsManor predictions for the 2011-12 NHL regular season…

Western Conference

1. Vancouver Canucks

Taking nothing away from the talent on this team, there’s no denying they play in the weakest division, which helps them pile up a boat load of points. Any team with the Sedin twins and Roberto Luongo is going to win their fair share of games, no doubt. However, when you can mop on subpar teams most nights, another 110-point season is practically on auto-pilot. One possible concern for the Canucks is how long Ryan Kelser will be out. If his recovery from hip surgery ends up dragging well into the season, either of other division winners could challenge for the top spot here.

2. Los Angeles Kings

For all the reasons listed in the intro, this looks to be the season the Kings will the Pacific Division.   LA now has depth down the middle, with Kopitar, Richards and Jarret Stoll at center – not to mention Trevor Lewis, who has developed into one of the better defensive forwards on the team. The Kings power play should be much improved also, due to the additions of Richards and Gagne, plus Penner for a full season. All the ingredients are there.

3. Detroit Red Wings

Jimmy Howard is an under-rated goalie. Their system allows defensemen to play in the optimal role, rather than asking a guy to give more than he’s capable of. And if you want to talk strength down the middle, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are the envy of every NHL General Manager. While they should win their division, they’ll be getting perhaps the best competition in years from the other four teams in the Central. That tightness is what will most likely not allow them to gather up enough points to finish second in the West.

4. San Jose Sharks

The NoCals are another team with a strong one-two punch at center, in Joe Thornton and Logan Couture. However, the jury is out on replacing Dany Heatley with Martin Havlat on the right side. On defense, people are hyping the acquisition of Brent Burns from Minnesota. I’ve said it before though, I’ll say it again – I’m always hesitant about taking the best guy from the worst team. Time will have to tell if the Sharks off-season facelift achieves what they were going for.

5. Anaheim Ducks

Last year, I didn’t pay the Ducks enough respect coming into the season, listing them 11th in the West. At the time, I wasn’t sold on their defense and wondered if Teemu Selanne and/or Saku Koivu had much left in the tank. Those questions still exist, deny them all you want Duck fan. Goaltending is another question mark, as Jonas Hiller still isn’t sure what happened inside his dome early last season (vertigo?) and it could return at any point. Their top line is deadly though and they will make the playoffs again. My biggest worry here is that I’m subconsciously giving them a little too much respect now, when they should really be a spot or two lower.

6. Chicago Blackhawks

Who are the Chicago Blackhawks? Will somebody please tell us. Yes, we know they won the Stanley Cup two years ago and then dismantled the team and lost their grit. They added two solid veterans in Sean O’Donnell and Andrew Brunette – but, Dan Carcillo probably isn’t somebody they need these days. These aren’t Bob Probert’s ‘Hawks. Their high-end guys are some of the best in the league, on offense and defense. It’s their next tier of players that raise most of the questions – along with goaltender Corey Crawford, is he the real deal? All of that said, they’re still better than the next nine teams.

7. Nashville Predators

Rinse, repeat. Small market team, lacking a big name scorer. Awesome defense, led by Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. Even better goaltending in the form of Pekka Rinne and Anders Lindback. Plus, consistently good coaching by Barry Trotz. What did I write last year, maybe I’ll just cut/paste it in here to save time.

8. St. Louis Blues

They can’t have another year with as many injuries as last year, can they?  If time heals all wounds, the Blues are already in better shape than we we last saw them.  But, is Jaroslav Halak the goalie from two years ago in Montreal or the one who slumped at times in St. Louis last season? Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner can still produce, right? From high atop the arch, they hope so.  At least Chris Stewart will continue to put up numbers from the right side, that one’s for sure. Finally, former Blues great, Keith Tkachuk, told NHL radio this week he sees St. Louis running neck and neck with Detroit in the standings this season. Um, no. But, they should make the playoffs.

9. Dallas Stars

For every team listed 11-15 there are a host of things not to like – and enough of them that the playoffs should be well out of reach. The Stars are different. Yes, they seem to be a few horses short of competing with the eight teams above them. However, if St. Louis falters or Nashville slips, that could be just the break they need in Dallas to steal a spot on the postseason bracket. With the Stars, you have to love Brendn Morrow. He’s just one of those guys who has the ‘it’ factor. Mike Ribeiro and Loui Eriksson just keep getting better. If Jamie Benn has a breakout season – like some expect – he could make up for the goals they lost with Brad Richards signing in New York. On defense, Alex Goligoski looks to be exactly what this team needed. Many questioned them trading away James Neal to get him. Yet, so far, it looks like the right call. Goaltending is a big worry in Dallas though. Can Kari Lehtonen hold up all year? If not, Andrew Raycroft isn’t enough to get the job done on a nightly basis in the rough and tough Pacific Division.

10. Minnesota Wild

Like the Stars, the Wild are just a tad short on talent compared to the clubs ranked just above them. Even so, any team with Niklas Backstrom in net has a chance to be competitive. They lost Brett Burns on defense and Andrew Brunette from their offense. On the new additions – Dany Heatley‘s numbers could/should decline and Devin Setoguchi is a nice complementary player, not a go-to guy. What the Wild really need is to develop two or three key pieces internally – and via the 532 trades they made with the Sharks this summer, they now have the cornerstone player to build the franchise around, center Charlie Coyle.  The only problem is, he’s starting his sophomore year at Boston University.  So, he’s several years away from seeing big time NHL minutes. Thus, the Wild aren’t very wild at all right now.

11. Columbus Blue Jackets

This might be the strangest roster mix in the NHL, or at least in the U.S. if you want to give that title to the Calgary Flames (more on that in a moment). Jeff Carter was great in Philadelphia. What will he mean to a Blue Jackets team that doesn’t have much of a supporting cast?  Rick Nash is world class, but one man can only carry a franchise so far. Their defense was already thin and now they’ll start the season short-handed due to the James Wisniewski suspension. For Columbus to even still be in contention come March, Steve Mason will have to radically step up his game between the pipes.  Time is standing still in Columbus, waiting for somebody to identify who this team is or will become.

12. Phoenix Coyotes

The savior in the desert is gone. With Ilya Bryzgalov now in Philadelphia, the Coyotes will have (gulp!) Jason LaBarbera and Mike Smith in net. That Oliver Ekman-Larsson may end up being good on defense. But, Keith Yandle needs more help now. Like Morrow in Dallas, Phoenix captain Shane Doan is one of those special players you have to have to win. You can never count out a Dave Tippett coached team, he’s one of the very best bench bosses in the NHL.  Unfortunately though, the most exciting thing about the Coyotes right now are the tweets coming from Paul Bissonnette.

13. Edmonton Oilers

Three years ago, the talk was the Kings were going to develop into the Blackhawks 2.0. That transition is complete, minus the Stanley Cup (be patient, it’s coming).  Now, we can officially crown the Oilers as Blackhawks 3.0. They have a deep pool of high-end prospects and if they can ever get a solid goalie, watch out. It just won’t be this season. The Oilers will be improved from the past few seasons and that needs to be enough…for now.  Their time will come, just not this season.

14. Calgary Flames

Jarome Iginla, winner. Alex Tanguay, congrats – you found a way to make it work (and thanks for mentioning me in that Hockey News interview all those years ago, love you too buddy). Jay Bouwmeester – he’s the best they have, but not a top-tier defenseman in the loaded Western Conference. Scott Hannan was a nice pick up – IF he finds his game again. Miikka Kiprusoff is still good, but there’s more to winning than he who stops the puck.  Overall, their time is in the rear view mirror.  The Flames now need to press the reset button and find a new roadmap for the years ahead.

15. Colorado Avalanche

If Frozen Fury was a regular season NHL game, wow – these guys look good. It wasn’t and they don’t. Matt Duchene will be a beast in three years. Ryan O’Reilly is good, but probably still two years away from being a proven commodity.  On defense, the fact the Blues were willing to trade Erik Johnson should have been a red flag. But, the fact they raped the Avs in the deal may have been the death punch to team already light on collective talent.  For this year’s team performance, anything but a cellar season would be a stellar season.

There you have it.  Bookmark it for later.  There will be a pop quiz in late March, early April.

Until then, remember this – to properly build a team for a potential Stanley Cup run, five essential pieces usually have to be in order – two centers, two defensemen and a top goalie. With the moves Lombardi made this summer, he finally has the right roster on paper for the Kings.

Will it work? 

Time will tell.

Or, said differently, has the time finally arrived for the LA Kings?

In about two months we’ll have an early read on things.

Until then, leave some of your predictions down below.  Let’s see what you think too.

Where do you agree or disagree?

Oh, and one more thing, Penner scores 35 goals this season.

The Mayor

photos above appear via courtesy from Michael Zampelli at LetsGoKings.com

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