With the NHL's second half set to kick off Tuesday, our experts took some time to ponder what lies ahead. ESPN.com's Scott Burnside, ESPN The Magazine's E.J. Hradek and ESPN analyst Barry Melrose answer these 10 burning questions:
Who will win the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP?
Scott Burnside: With Sidney Crosby out for the next month and a half, this race is wide open. With the Flames looking like a playoff team and the Lightning and Thrashers not, we like Jarome Iginla to win narrowly over Vincent Lecavalier and Ilya Kovalchuk. Watch out for Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo to edge into the voting.
E.J. Hradek: I'm going with Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin. A.O. is going to lead Washington to its first playoff appearance since 2003. And he just might win the Maurice Richard Trophy as the league's top goal scorer, too.
Barry Melrose: My choice is Roberto Luongo. Without him, Vancouver wouldn't nearly be a playoff team. He is just the embodiment of the award -- most valuable player to his team. Not the best player, but MVP to his team. The Canucks have no scoring, so Luongo knows he has to win games 2-1 or 1-0 almost every night.
Peter Forsberg will return to the NHL before the end of the season. Yay or nay?
Burnside: Yay. My guess is he ends up in Detroit.
Hradek: Peter Forsberg will return to the NHL before the end of the season, and he'll turn up in Colorado or Philadelphia. Buyer beware, though. Forsberg is oft-injured and he's not the same player he was earlier in his career.
Melrose: Yay. I think he's still a young man in relative terms; he's not 50 years old. I think he feels that he doesn't want his NHL career to end the way it did last season (Philly traded Forsberg to Nashville and the Preds were ousted in the first round). He wants one more crack at the Stanley Cup, and this time, he'll really get to chose where he goes because he's a free agent.
Will Mats Sundin be traded before the Feb. 26 deadline, and if so, where?
Hradek: Sundin will be traded before the trade deadline. The best fit? Detroit or Calgary.
Melrose: I think he will be traded. Sundin wants to win the Cup; he has a no-trade clause, so he'll pick where he goes. I'll go off the wall and say he'll end up in Anaheim. This is a deal that has GM Brian Burke written all over it. Only a couple of GMs can pull this off. And don't forget, Burke and the Ducks have extra (and valuable) picks because of the Dustin Penner offseason deal, and those picks are what want Toronto needs.
What is the best trade rumor out there that won't happen?
Burnside: Mats Sundin to just about anywhere; Detroit, Calgary, Vancouver, Minnesota.
Hradek: Most of the trade rumors won't happen. The most interesting deals that happen are the ones nobody hears about.
Melrose: Mats Sundin to Detroit. Makes too much sense!
We had an idea of which teams would make the playoffs before the start of the season. But which East and West clubs will be the odd-team out come April?
Burnside: I think St. Louis has hit the wall in the West; the teams that are in the playoff picture now will be there in early April. In the East, you have to imagine the Rangers will sneak back into the picture, while the floundering Carolina Hurricanes will succumb to the revitalized Washington Capitals (did we mention we picked the Caps as our "Team Can Dream" dark horse?)
Hradek: In the East, Carolina started strong, but faded in the second quarter of the season. If they don't win the Southeast Division -- and I don't think they will -- they could be making an early trip to the golf course for the second straight spring. In the West, the Avalanche have really been crippled by injuries to important players. I really like their team, but it might be too much to ask to overcome long-term injuries to Joe Sakic and Ryan Smyth.
Melrose: In the East, I think the Rangers won't make it. Isn't it the Tin Man that had no heart in the "Wizard of Oz?" That's the Blueshirts right now. They are playing with no passion; it looks like work for them. Compare that to the play of the Islanders, who look like the better team right now, and it's will beats skill. In the West, I think Columbus falls short. I just think there are eight better teams than the Jackets right now despite a good season, great goaltending from Pascal Leclaire and other positives. But at the end of the day, they are not in it.
What will we be surprised by most in the second half of the season?
Burnside: We will be surprised by the number of trades at the deadline. Every year everyone predicts the trade market will be dry because of parity and the cap, and yet every year there are oodles of deals. This year will be no different.
Hradek: In the second half, we'll be most surprised by the Rangers' continued inconsistency. They will have to struggle to make the playoffs.
Melrose: I think we'll get to the trade deadline and we won't have one East team out of playoff contention, which means it's going to be really interesting to see who is going to the buyers and sellers in the conference.
Where will the Penguins be over the next few months without Sidney Crosby?
Burnside: Well, without getting too esoteric about it, this is a journey of self-discovery for this team. What is its character in the face of adversity? Can goalie Ty Conklin continue to hold the fort? What will Marc-Andre Fleury be like when he gets back in two-to-three weeks? Can Evgeni Malkin carry the Penguins in a way he's never been asked to before? They'll slide, but only a bit, and should still be a playoff team.
Hradek: Without Sidney Crosby, the Penguins' offense will struggle. That's obvious. That will put more pressure on the defense and goaltending. Can they handle it? I think that's a tough call.
Melrose: I think they'll drop to 10th place in the East without Crosby, but close enough that when he comes back, they have chance to make the playoffs.
How are you feeling about your preseason Cup predictions? Any changes?
Burnside: I picked the San Jose Sharks again this season and may continue to do so every year until they get it right. Detroit and Anaheim, and even Dallas, are more dangerous than the Sharks right now. But they don't play the playoffs in January, so I'll stick with them out of sheer stubbornness. I had the New York Rangers facing the Sharks in the Cup finals and that has me more concerned. Still, lots of talent and terrific goaltending in New York, so who knows?
Hradek: Cup picks? I had the Wings over the Rangers. So, I feel real comfortable with the Wings, who've been dynamic in the first half. They do face a significant challenge from the defending champion Ducks, though. The Rangers? Not so much. I think the East is wide open. Whoever gets hot in April and May will advance to the finals. The Senators must be considered the favorite, though.
Melrose: I had the New York Rangers and San Jose, but I think I am changing to Montreal and San Jose. The Sharks haven't been as dominant as I thought they would be, but they are still right there in the mix. The Canadiens? I like the way they are playing right now and have good depth in net. I have to change at this point as the Rangers just don't look strong right now. Ottawa had a strong start, but it just doesn't look dominant anymore.
Which coach will be looking over his shoulder by the end of the season?
Burnside: Paul Maurice is in a tenuous position given his Leafs will almost certainly fail to make the playoffs again this season and there'll be a new GM/president in house before the start of the 2008-09 campaign. Unless the Sharks win at least two rounds this spring, it's also hard to imagine Ron Wilson returning to San Jose.
Hradek: Maple Leafs coach Paul Maurice has been looking over his shoulder since Opening Night. I'd say Maurice and Los Angeles' Marc Crawford won't be feeling too secure.
Melrose: If the Rangers continue to struggle, Tom Renney will feel the pressure. With all of those free-agent acquisitions, this team should be a winner by now. In the West, Marc Crawford might be on the hot seat. The Kings shouldn't be the worst team in the NHL, not with Michal Handzus, Ladislav Nagy, Brad Stuart and others in that lineup.
Which NHL mascot is the next to be, um, "confronted" by a coach, a la the Craig MacTavish/Harvey the Hound melee?
Burnside: Carlton the Bear. Creepy to the max. He doesn't generally go near opposing benches, but he could get caught in a dark hallway at the Air Canada Centre.
Hradek: I could really see the Islanders' mascot, Sparky, getting mauled by Devils coach Brent Sutter. They have a feud dating back to Sutter's playing days on Long Island. I think the dispute was over a woman. Plus, the Isles have owned the Devils this season, winning their first five meetings. It could happen during their last meeting of the regular season on April 1.
Melrose: You know, something like this will always happen in Alberta because the passions are so high there. Harvey the Hound is living in dangerous times, and it's not because Iron Mike is in town. It's because Edmonton likely will be on the outside looking in again. Those fans and coaches in Edmonton will be looking for retribution, and, unfortunately, Harvey the Hound likely will pay the price again.