Hockey season begins tonight, and with it comes expectations of success from Vancouver to Tampa Bay. The beginning of hockey season is one of the most exciting times of the year, which is why we at Bob Long Sports decided to give our predictions for the 2011-2012 season.
Northeast Division Winner:
Bob: Boston Bruins- Quite simply, the Bruins are, have been, and will continue to be the best team in the Eastern Conference. The Bruins won the Stanley Cup last season (predicted by yours truly) and would have been in the Stanley Cup the year before were it not for a collapse of epic proportions against the Flyers in that series. Tim Thomas is one of the top 3 goaltenders in all of hockey, Zdeno Chara is the top ice-logger in the NHL, and the offense is developing with players such as Brad Marchand and David Krejci.
Chris: Boston Bruins- The defending Stanley Cup Champions deserve respect as many of the core players from last year’s playoff run remain with the team. Tim Thomas, who has emerged as one of the best goaltenders in the league, and the strong defense that includes veteran Zdeno Chara will make this team tough to beat. The Bruins forwards will use their physical play to intimidate opponents and the offense, which will be sparked by the young forward Brad Marchand, will score just enough goals to win games.
Atlantic Division Winner:
Bob: New York Rangers- The Rangers won the offseason Brad Richards sweepstakes, and he will make an immediate impact in New York. Henrik Lundqvist is one of the best goaltenders in the league, and is the best goaltender in the Atlantic Division. In addition, as New York dramatically improved in the offseason, the rest of the division took steps back. The Philadelphia Flyers lost the team’s two top goal scorers, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. The Pittsburgh Penguins still are uncertain about the future of Sidney Crosby, who is still recovering from a severe concussion that he suffered in January. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sidney Crosby never returns to full capacity, judging by the care and limitations Pittsburgh has put upon him since the concussion. Therefore, the Rangers will take a big step from missing the playoffs in 2010-2011 to winning the Northeast Division in 2011-2012.
Chris: Pittsburgh Penguins- While much of this pick seems to rely on the almost immediate return of Captain Sidney Crosby, that is not necessarily the case. For them to win, Crosby will need to return at some point. However, Head Coach Dan Bylsma has been able to bring this team together without Crosby for significant stretches of the season. Without Crosby for most of the second-half of last season, the Penguins finished with the same number of points as the Atlantic Division winner, the Philadelphia Flyers. With Jordan Staal helping Evgeni Malkin make up for the lost offensive power and Marc-Andre Fleury playing solid in net, the Penguins will remain in the race until Crosby returns. When he returns, which I am assuming will be by the All-Star break, the Penguins will be set to win a close race in the deep Atlantic Division down the stretch.
Southeast Division Winner:
Bob: Washington Capitals- Same story, different year. The Capitals play in a fairly weak division (besides Tampa Bay) and has the most dominating regular season player in Alex Ovechkin. The goaltender situation is still not a strength. Michael Neuvirth played slightly better down the stretch last season, but still is not the caliber of goaltenders like Roberto Luongo, Tim Thomas, or Ryan Miller…the caliber of goaltenders necessary to make runs in the playoffs. However, the Caps will once again win the Southeast Division and will be the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Chris: Washington Capitals- This team can win in the regular season. Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin are two of the premier goal scorers in the league, providing highlight-reel goals on a weekly basis. Furthermore, the offense benefits from forward Mike Knuble, who is there to pick up any rebounds in front of the net. While the goaltending situation has been inconsistent, the team has plenty of talent in front of whoever is in net (most likely Michael Neuvirth), and the only contender in the division, the Tampa Bay Lightning, doesn’t have an elite goaltender either. The Capitals will win the Southeast Division and finish near the top of the Eastern Conference.
Bob: Detroit Red Wings- I was extremely tempted to pick the Chicago Blackhawks this year to win the Central Division. Patrick Kane began to lead this team down the stretch last season, and Corey Crawford is becoming a household name in net. The Hawks nearly won 4 straight games to beat the Vancouver Canucks in the playoffs after being down 3-0, and Chicago will take this momentum and play very well together this season. However, I think Detroit barely beats out Chicago this year because of their experience and talent. Chicago will be a very dangerous 4 seed in the Western Conference, however.
Chris: Detroit Red Wings- It is hard for me to pick against the Red Wings. The team distributes its scoring and doesn’t beat itself. The key player to this team’s success is Pavel Datsyuk, who is a tremendous two-way player who netted 23 pucks last season. Nicklas Lidstrom plays like he is 20 years old and, though he may lose a step, will remain a leader for the defense. The Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators will be tough teams to face throughout the year, but I simply can’t pick against the Detroit Red Wings because of their ability to win year in and year out.
Bob: Vancouver Canucks- The Canucks won this division by 23 points last season, and this spread will not change dramatically this season. Ryan Kesler and the Sedin twins still contribute to the most dangerous offense in the Western Conference, and Roberto Luongo is still very good. Vancouver will once again run away with this division, and will be the top seed in the Western Conference. Luongo’s performance in big playoff games, however, is a completely different discussion.
Chris: Vancouver Canucks- The Canucks dominated the whole Western Conference during the regular season last year. The Sedin twins lead the offensive attack and Roberto Luongo is a great goaltender during the regular season. The Canucks are similar to the Washington Capitals for the reason that they have a talented team that wins during the regular season. Furthermore, the other teams in the division simply don’t have enough firepower to challenge the Canucks, so Vancouver will easily win the Northwest.
Bob: San Jose Sharks- This division has three teams with a realistic shot to win this division. The Sharks, Ducks, and Kings all make very good cases for the division crown. However, the Sharks were the 2nd seed in the Western Conference last season, and still return Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, and Joe Pavelski on offense. Antti Niemi is now a year older and more mature. Many people forget that this will only be Niemi’s third full year in the league. In his two previous years of play, Niemi has won the Stanley Cup and has advanced to the Western Conference Finals. While he has faced some criticism, his success has spoken for itself, and his game will only mature and improve this season.
Chris: Los Angeles Kings- This is a three-team race between the Sharks, Ducks, and Kings. My pick is the Los Angeles Kings. Jonathan Quick is a top ten goaltender who is often forgotten about because he plays out west. The team added one of the best two-way players in the league in Mike Richards who will be reunited with his old teammate Simon Gagne. The defense is led by two young stars, Jack Johnson and Drew Doughty, who will continue to develop with more time in the league. The team will benefit from the return of their leading goal scorer Anze Kopitar, who was out for the final stretch of the season, and will win a loaded division.
STANLEY CUP CHAMPION:
Bob: Boston Bruins- I hate to go back to the well, but I was one of the only people to pick the Bruins from start to finish last season as the Stanley Cup Champions. The Bruins have constructed a team the way hockey teams should be. Top of the line goaltending with Tim Thomas, efficient and effective defense with Zdeno Chara and Andrew Ference, and an offense that can both aid on defense and have timely scoring. If the Bruins can just improve the power play from last season, there is no question that this team will be able to advance deep into the playoffs, if not win the Stanley Cup.
Chris: Los Angeles Kings- I understand this is a bit of a bold pick, but the Kings have built a strong team that can advance further in the playoffs than last season. There is nothing too flashy about this team offensively, but the Bruins, who won it all last season, didn’t have the offensive star power to match up with other teams either. However, like the Bruins, the Kings can get timely scoring from several players including Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Justin Williams. The goaltender Jonathan Quick has the ability to carry the team during a series in the playoffs and if the young players on the back line continue to improve, the Kings have a legitimate shot to win the Stanley Cup.