How well did we judge this season?
When we previewed the 2010-11 season back in the fall, we made some predictions and we forecasted what the big storylines would be. So, how did we do? Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun look back at their fall outlooks and have a few reality checks:
1. After deciding Evgeni Nabokov wasn't the guy to get them over the hump, the San Jose Sharks went with not one, but two Finnish netminders in the hopes of solving their Stanley Cup puzzle. Remember, the Sharks were the original home of Finnish goaltenders Miikka Kiprusoff and Vesa Toskala, who both went on to varying degrees of success elsewhere. Now, it's Antero Niittymaki and Cup-winning netminder Antti Niemi, who was set free by Chicago after they declined to agree with an arbitrator's salary ruling. It's an interesting decision that will certainly be followed by an interesting battle.
Reality check: Well, the San Jose Sharks picked just one Finn, Antti Niemi, who recently completed a stretch in which he started 34 straight games with a 25-4-4 record, 2.05 goals-against average and .929 save percentage. The man who came out of nowhere last season to steal the starting job and help the Hawks win the Cup has stolen the show in San Jose. It is a move that should garner GM Doug Wilson some votes as GM of the year. No goalie has won more games since Jan. 1. And while Niemi won't likely shoulder his way into Vezina discussion (fair or not), the Sharks will just be happy if he replicates his playoff successes from last season. As for Antero Niittymaki? Wednesday night was his first start since Jan. 13 and he was lit up for six goals on 34 shots versus Anaheim. Enough said.
2. There are many storylines in New Jersey after the adventure-filled summer that was the Ilya Kovalchuk contract mess. The Devils got their man, but at a king's ransom. There will be pressure to live up to all that. So, how does the big Russian play? Do he, Zach Parise and Travis Zajac become the NHL's hottest trio? Is there lingering resentment in the locker room after the cap issues Kovy's contract created? Those feelings will certainly be blunted if Kovalchuk can help the Devils get out of the first round for the first time in four seasons.
Reality check: New Jersey's summer of upheaval bled right into the fall of despair with Kovalchuk playing a major role in what was a down-and-up season for the Devils. The sniper struggled out of the gate, scoring just four times in the first two months of the season. Rookie coach John MacLean, who benched Kovalchuk over what was believed to be tardiness for a team meeting, was fired and two-time Devils coach Jacques Lemaire was repatriated. Then, the Devils turned it around. Through 80 games, Kovalchuk led the Devils with 30 goals, his ninth straight campaign with at least 20 goals. While the Devils' spirited playoff bid ultimately fell short, there remains much optimism for Kovalchuk and the Devils next season.
3. Will there be a reduction in the kinds of sickening blows to the head we saw last season, when Mike Richards essentially destroyed David Booth's season and Matt Cooke took out Marc Savard with a blindside hit that continues to haunt Savard and the Bruins? When the NHL rushed through its new blindside rule late last season, there were no more events of this nature. Coincidence? We'll find out whether the new laws prohibiting these kinds of predatory hits actually make players think twice. If we aren't discussing the issue at the end of this season, it will be a good thing.
Reality check: Head shots were still the hot-button issue for the league in large part because Sidney Crosby's Hart Trophy season was cut short by a concussion that has sidelined him since Jan. 6. Savard came back, but was later sidelined again after being crunched into the end boards in Denver. Whether he will ever play again remains unknown.
Brad Richards, Mike Green, Max Pacioretty, Andy McDonald, Dave Bolland and David Perron were among the key players who missed time with concussions this season, and the league and its GMs took steps to try to introduce procedures and rules to reduce the number of concussions and penalize those who played recklessly. Matt Cooke, the poster boy for reckless, was handed a late-season suspension that would include the last 10 games of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs. Whether the harsh suspensions will continue and the other measures will provoke an appreciable decline in head shots and head injuries won't be known for some time, but much will depend on the appetite from the league to make it so.
4. Once again, the Chicago Blackhawks are going to be one of the top stories in the NHL regardless of how things go. If they struggle with a lineup remade thanks to serious salary-cap woes, GM Stan Bowman will receive some criticism on how he handled the difficult hand dealt to him. If, as we believe, there will be almost no drop-off in the team's level of play, Bowman should come in for some heady praise. The battle for the top spots in the Western Conference should be interesting with Detroit, San Jose and Vancouver all primed for a run at the roses.
Reality check: As we pen this piece, Chicago's season remains more than a little out of focus. Even with a clutch come-from-behind overtime win against St. Louis on Wednesday, the defending Cup champs were clinging to the final playoff berth in the Western Conference heading into a pivotal home-and-home set against Detroit. It would seem inconceivable that the Hawks would miss the postseason, but a combination of uneven play, the loss of top scorer Patrick Sharp down the stretch and the inspired play of teams like Phoenix, Anaheim and Dallas have conspired to make Chi-Town fans nervous. The bottom line: the loss of key pieces like Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Brent Sopel robbed the team of much-needed chemistry. Although the Hawks boast the fourth-ranked power play and an impressive plus-32 goal differential, the penalty kill is 25th and they can't seem to close the deal in the third period. It's all an illustration of the upheaval that has gone on in Chicago.
5. Will Winnipeg ring in the New Year with a new NHL franchise or will the Phoenix Coyotes' ownership situation/new lease agreement finally be settled with the plodding City of Glendale? As ESPN.com first reported, Chicago businessman Matt Hulsizer appears to be the last best shot for hockey in the desert, but as with everything connected to Glendale, progress has been measured in glacier-like increments. But the clock ticks toward a tipping point. The NHL can make plans to move the team if no owner is in place by Dec. 31. It will be an absolute shock if the league does not quickly exercise that option and announce the return of NHL hockey to Winnipeg with the structure of a deal already in place with Canadian billionaire David Thomson.
Reality check: As the Phoenix debacle reached a two-year anniversary, who knew the team's future in Arizona remains no more certain? What a colossal embarrassment for the City of Glendale, which has botched this at almost every turn, and the NHL itself. The emergence of the Goldwater Institute, a public interest group, has thrown a monkey wrench into the deal with Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer, and a resolution seems far from certain. What we didn't know at the start of the season is that Winnipeg would be seen as a potential safe haven for not just the Coyotes, but also the beleaguered Atlanta Thrashers. If a deal cannot get done in Glendale, the NHL will move quickly to relocate the team to Winnipeg for next season. That much is certain. But sources familiar with the situation have told ESPN.com if the Coyotes can get the deal done to secure their future in Arizona, there is a good chance the Thrashers' dysfunctional ownership group will be given permission to sell the team with an eye to relocation, and they will move to Winnipeg.
6. Is this it for the venerable Darryl Sutter (and presumably his brother the coach, Brent) if they suffer through another desultory season? Sutter rebuilt his roster in the middle of last season, trading blue-chip defenseman Dion Phaneuf to Toronto and center Olli Jokinen to New York for a bunch of spare parts. The results were predictable: Calgary sputtered through the second half of the season and failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2003. Sutter then inexplicably brought back Jokinen and Alex Tanguay in the offseason.
Reality check: GM Darryl Sutter was forced from his post as the Flames floundered near the bottom of the Western Conference standings. When interim GM Jay Feaster took the helm, he freed Brent Sutter to coach as he saw fit without having to look over his shoulder. Players like Jarome Iginla, the oft-criticized Jokinen and spare-part pickups Brendan Morrison and Tanguay responded to the new regime and the Flames went on a tear. The loss of Morrison to injury marred their playoff efforts and the Flames were finally eliminated from playoff contention Wednesday night. Still, the problems facing Feaster (assuming ownership does the right thing and makes him the full-time GM) won't go away even with the team's inspired play down the stretch. The Flames are old and saddled with too many onerous contracts thanks to Darryl's mishandling of the cap, and the pipeline of new talent would most charitably be characterized as a trickle. While rebuild efforts are showing promise in Edmonton, Ottawa and Toronto, the future remains murky in Calgary.
1. Mike Comrie could be one of the best under-the-radar signings of the summer. For $500,000? He may perhaps be the best bang for the buck, as well. He's a smart player and will find a way to make plays with No. 87 if that's the way the Penguins choose to deploy the wing/center.
Reality check: I could not have been more wrong. After burning up the preseason playing with Evgeni Malkin (I did at least write this before the preseason), Comrie went cold early in the regular season and then missed most of the year due to injury. He's just recently returned. Perhaps he could have had a bigger impact if he wasn't out. We'll never know. But I struck out on that prediction, big time. I feel shame.
2. Absolutely love what new GM Steve Yzerman is doing in Tampa Bay. The Lightning will make the playoffs in the East this season (I'll also predict a 90-point season for Vincent Lecavalier).
Reality check: Cha-ching! Give me some props for that one, baby. Everyone now pretends they knew the Lightning would have this kind of season, but I didn't hear too many people saying it in September. OK, I was off on Lecavalier netting 90 points, but the main prediction here is the Bolts surprising the hockey world after finishing 25th overall last season. Stability at the top of the organization, a terrific hire behind the bench in Guy Boucher and a clever pickup in veteran goalie Dwayne Roloson were all contributing factors to the turnaround, among others. I'm batting .500 so far in these September predictions!
3. I believe the St. Louis Blues will bounce back this season; whether that's good enough in the tough Western Conference, who knows. This is the season T.J. Oshie, Erik Johnson, David Perron and the rest of the young core take ownership of the team.
Reality check: I feel cheated on my Blues prediction. Long-term injuries to Oshie and Perron, not to mention nearly half the team, really muddied the picture. But facts are facts: I had the Blues back in the playoffs and I was wrong. I was also dead wrong about Johnson making this his season. The Blues were so disenchanted with him, they shipped him to Colorado in that mega-deal in February. If the Blues weren't so hammered by injuries this season, I honestly believe they would have challenged for a playoff spot. Still, my record falls to 1-2 in my predictions. I'm hanging my head down as I type.
4. Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith and, yes, Nicklas Lidstrom will be nominees for the Norris Trophy. After what I witnessed from him with my own eyes last spring, ol' Nick is going to deliver a gem of a season in Detroit despite his age.
Reality check: The 40-year-old Lidstrom has delivered a "gem of a season." And while Doughty and Keith likely won't earn Norris nominations, I'll take a win on this prediction given that it was mostly based on Lidstrom coming back strong after failing to get nominated for a trophy he's won six times. He will definitely earn a Norris nomination this season and may even win it. That improves my record to 2-2. Got a strut in my step now!
5. The Vancouver Canucks are serious Cup contenders. "They're the team to beat in the West in my mind," an NHL GM requesting anonymity told ESPN.com on Tuesday. We agree. Detroit, San Jose and Chicago (maybe Los Angeles, too?) will have a huge say, but the additions of Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard on the Canucks' blue line addressed the one area that needed addressing. Veteran center Manny Malhotra was a sneaky signing, as well. Just have a hunch about Vancouver this season.
Reality check: The Canucks being "serious Cup contenders?" Well, I couldn't have hit that one out of the park any farther. Again, you'll have a lot of revisionists now claiming they were in on Vancouver all along. There was a good share of pundits on the Canucks' bandwagon in September, but an equally dismissive group that thought Vancouver was overrated. Through the regular season, anyway, the critics are dead wrong. The Canucks earned their first Presidents' Trophy in franchise history and are headed to the playoffs as the No. 1-rated team to win it all. That runs my record to 3-2. Hey, I'll take it!
Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com.
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