Our (sometimes wacky) '09 predictions
What can we expect from the NHL in 2009? Here are 10 picks to ponder:
Scott Burnside1. The new year will see the end of Nicklas Lidstrom's stranglehold on the Norris Trophy for the NHL's best defenseman. Lidstrom has won six of the past seven Norris Trophies, but at age 38, he is just now starting to act his age. This isn't to suggest Lidstrom's game is in decline; he had 24 points in his first 34 games and was a more-than-respectable plus-13. Still, those numbers pale in comparison to the standard at which Lidstrom has become accustomed. On pace for about 55 points, that would be 15 fewer than last season, when he led all NHL defensemen with 70 points and was a plus-40.
So, who replaces him? There are a number of interesting candidates, chief among them Shea Weber, who anchors a talented young Nashville blue line and began the new year third in scoring among NHL defenseman. Also, veteran Dan Boyle. The former Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman is enjoying a strong season in San Jose and leads all blueliners in scoring. We like Weber because of his all-round game, physicality, puck smarts and his shot -- one of the hardest in the NHL.
2. Mats Sundin will keep his Stanley Cup dry spell intact by once again failing to secure a championship ring or even appear in a Stanley Cup final. Although Sundin will provide needed scoring depth down the middle, the Canucks do not have enough juice to keep up with the big boys in the Western Conference. Also, Roberto Luongo's lingering groin injury will keep Vancouver from securing a much-needed Northwest Division crown, leading to an early exit from the playoffs -- if it makes it at all. Sundin will later deny suggestions he chose the Canucks over the New York Rangers or Montreal Canadiens because Vancouver provided almost no hope of winning a Stanley Cup to begin with, ensuring his annual vacation in Spain would not be interrupted.
3. By the fall of 2009, the Continental Hockey League will not once be referred to in any reputable domain as a legitimate challenge to the NHL. Why? The ongoing embarrassment of the Alexei Cherepanov tragedy, the problems with teams meeting payroll (thanks to the worldwide economic downturn) and continued lurid stories about the Wild West philosophy that permeates the Russian league. The notion that the KHL will grow to rival the NHL as a hockey destination is an idea that will end up on the hockey scrap heap, along with the Cooperall and glowing puck.
4. Colorado Avalanche captain and first-ballot Hall of Famer Joe Sakic will return for one more season with the Avs. His one-year incentive-laden contract will include a clause that requires him to stay at least 10 feet away from any piece of machinery and/or sharp objects. Sakic is expected to miss most of the rest of the current season with back problems and torn tendons in his hand suffered after a mishap with his snowblower.
5. In spite of wishful thinking by BlackBerry mogul Jim Balsillie and many Canadian media and fans that pine for days of NHL hockey in Quebec and Winnipeg, no NHL franchise will fold, declare bankruptcy or relocate in the coming year. This doesn't mean things will get appreciably better in places like Atlanta, which may as well be called "Dead Franchise Walking"; or Phoenix, where the team is in desperate need of a new lease, not to mention new ownership; or Long Island, where the Isles continue to play in the league's most embarrassing building. So, like it or not, the current 30-team slate is here at least for the foreseeable future. Balsillie, denied in his bid to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators, will announce he has purchased the Liverpool soccer club from Montreal Canadiens owner George Gillett and will move the team to Waterloo, Ontario.
Pierre LeBrun1. Evgeni Nabokov of the San Jose Sharks will be the first Russian goaltender ever to win the Vezina Trophy. He probably deserved to win last season, but the 30 general managers who vote on the award always favor seniority, and New Jersey Devils superstar Martin Brodeur got another one. Brodeur will finish a close second in voting this season despite playing only 16 games. Boston's Tim Thomas will be nominated for the award, but won't be allowed into the awards show by NHL security because they won't take his word that he's an NHL goalie.
2. The Tampa Bay Lightning will win the draft lottery and get the first overall pick in the 2009 draft this June. However, Ontario Hockey League phenom John Tavares, providing flashbacks of Eric Lindros, will refuse to wear the Lightning jersey after being taken with the first pick, scared to suffer the kind of misery that has fallen on Steven Stamkos this season. Even the offer of a bit part in "Saw VI" from Bolts owner and Hollywood movie producer Oren Koules won't be enough to bridge the gap. Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke will steal the day by acquiring the rights to Tavares before the end of the night in a blockbuster deal that sends Luke Schenn and Toronto's first picks in 2009 and 2010 to Tampa.
3. The Florida Panthers will squeak into the NHL playoffs, but few people will notice. The NHL club will have the misfortune of going head-to-head with an open spring practice for the South Florida Bulls college football team. In the meantime, Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina will waive their no-trade clauses and agree to join former Toronto teammate Bryan McCabe in Florida. "Welcome, buds," McCabe will tell them. "Low income tax here!"
4. Claude Lemieux will get called up by the San Jose Sharks in late March and play a key playoff role for the eventual Cup champions. He will overshadow his amazing comeback story, however, by cross-checking Kris Draper of the Detroit Red Wings from behind into the boards during the Western Conference finals. Darren McCarty will once again pummel Lemieux. Mark Messier, inspired by Lemieux's improbable comeback at age 43, will announce his return to the NHL during a teary-eyed address on MSG. The Rangers, with no cap room, will be unable to sign the Moose, but the rival Islanders will swoop in and sign him to a four-year contract. Messier will begin the season with Doug Weight and Bill Guerin to form "The Viagra Line."
5. In August, the NHL will announce the next Winter Classic will be played in Boston. The Bruins comply with league rules and immediately sign unrestricted free-agent goaltender Ty Conklin so the Alaskan can start in his fourth career NHL outdoor game.
Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com. Neither writer plans to make an on-ice comeback anytime soon.
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ESPN.COM'S LOOK AT THE YEAR AHEAD
What to expect across the sports spectrum in 2009? ESPN.com offers things you might see coming, some you won't and some that will just flat-out surprise. Predictions to consider: