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Tom Jones' 2013 NHL season preview

Lightning preview

Tampa Bay Times columnist Tom Jones gives his Two Cents perspective on the upcoming season.

Eastern Conference

Northeast

The Bruins won the Cup in 2011 then were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs last season (on an overtime goal in Game 7). But this team remains loaded and very deep with six 20-goal scorers. As long as they can straighten out their goaltending with Tuukka Rask, the Bruins remain the team to beat. The Senators shocked the NHL last season with a 92 points and remain a big, gritty team that's hard to face. Look for a rebound year from the Sabres, who struggled last season partly because of injury problems with goalie Ryan Miller. Canada's two most famed franchises, the Maple Leafs and Canadiens, are a mess. Both missed the playoffs last season and have new general managers. The Leafs have big issues in goal, and the Canadiens have major problems scoring.

Atlantic

The addition of Rick Nash, a seven-time 30-goal scorer, makes the Rangers among the favorites for the Stanley Cup, especially if Marian Gaborik can return well from shoulder surgery. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist needs to have a big season, but he always does. If Sidney Crosby can stay healthy, the Penguins remain a Cup contender, too. Even without Crosby, the Pens are dangerous with Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. The Flyers have plenty of offense but need goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to rid himself of the inconsistency that plagued him last season. The defending East champion Devils need 40-year-old goalie Martin Brodeur to continue to drink from the fountain of youth, and perhaps the shortened season will benefit him. But they lost a big piece when Zach Parise left for Minnesota via free agency. The Islanders will miss the playoffs for the sixth straight season. But they are building a nice core of young players with John Tavares (31 goals last season), Matt Moulson (36) and Kyle Okposo (24).

Southeast

This might be the most tightly contested division in hockey. Every team has a legitimate chance to come out on top. The Capitals, with new coach Adam Oates, are probably the favorite provided Alex Ovechkin can become a dominant scorer again and Braden Holtby becomes the No. 1 goalie they have lacked during the Ovechkin era. The Lightning plugged holes in goal with Anders Lindback and on defense with Sami Salo and Matt Carle. If that works, the Lightning will be fine because it has plenty of firepower up front with Steven Stamkos, Marty St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier, Ryan Malone and Teddy Purcell. Look for improvement from the Hurricanes with the addition of forwards Alexander Semin and Jordan Staal. But as always, Carolina will lean heavily on goalie Cam Ward. The Panthers had a nice bounce-back year last season. Their top line of Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann is outstanding, but depth remains a question. The Jets added scoring with Olli Jokinen and Alexei Ponikarovsky, but they haven't won enough on the road. Maybe that's because most road trips are so far away for a team that should be in the Western Conference.

Western Conference

Central

The Blues are a boring team to watch. (They were 22nd in goals last season.) But the defensive system of coach Ken Hitchcock works. It's essentially the same team that finished second in the West last season with the addition of highly rated prospect Vladimir Tarasenko. You keep waiting for the Red Wings to take a slide, and they never do. The difference this season is they won't have defenseman Nick Lidstrom for the first time in 20 years. They'll miss him, and the Wings will need a huge year from goalie Jimmy Howard. The Predators have a sensational goalie in Pekka Rinne, but they also can score. They were eighth in goals last season. They'll miss defenseman Ryan Suter, who left for the Wild as a free agent. The main pieces of the Blackhawks — Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith — remain. But something seems to be missing from their Cup-winning team of 2010. The Blue Jackets were already bad, and now they don't even have Rick Nash.

Northwest

The Canucks are a season removed from the Stanley Cup final and were eliminated last season by the eventual-champion Kings. No team has piled up more points over the past two seasons. And there's no reason to believe the Canucks can't get back to the final, especially with superstars such as the Sedin twins. The Oilers have the most exciting young players — Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and No. 1 overall pick Nail Yakupov — in hockey. I'm predicting a playoff spot because I'm predicting a really hot start. That's big in a shortened season. No team made a bigger offseason splash than the Wild, which spent $196 million to add defenseman Ryan Suter and forward Zach Parise. But the Wild still doesn't score enough goals. The Avalanche has some nice young pieces up front, but last year was an inconsistent scoring season in Colorado. That's not good when you have a thin defense and an up-and-down goalie such as Semyon Varlamov. Flames general manager Jay Feaster hired his old buddy, Bob Hartman, to coach. But the Flames seem old and worn. Hard to believe Jarome Iginla is already 35.

Pacific

The defending-champion Kings should be in the Cup mix again as long as goalie Jonathan Quick (back surgery) and top forward Anze Kopitar (knee) are healthy. Kopitar, who injured himself in Europe during the lockout, might miss a couple of weeks. The Sharks have tons of proven talent with Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Dan Boyle. But I'm still not sold on goalie Antti Niemi even though he won a Cup with Chicago. The Coyotes were the surprise team of the NHL last season. But can ex-Lightning goalie Mike Smith play out of his mind again? You have to love watching the Ducks top line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan, but you don't have to love watching the rest of this team. I'm not sure what the Stars are trying to do. But when you're adding geezers such as Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney and expecting them to make major contributions, you might be in trouble.

Five thoughts about this season

1. Look for Penguins star Sidney Crosby (above) to have a huge season. A long layoff for a guy trying to finally shake concussion problems once and for all is just what the doctor ordered, so to speak.

2. For now, I'm not picking them to make the playoffs. But if I had to predict a team to come out of nowhere and win the Eastern Conference, I might say the Hurricanes because of key offseason additions.

3. It has been 20 years since a Canadian-based team won the Stanley Cup. That's when Jacques Demers' Canadiens beat Barry Melrose's Kings. Will the string end this year? Only the Canucks have a chance.

4. With only 48 games and every single point crucial, shootouts will be more important than ever. The differences between the teams that finish seventh and eighth in the conferences and make the playoffs and those that finish ninth and 10th and just miss will be those extra shootout points.

5. Injuries always play a pivotal role in hockey. But with 48 games in 99 days, little ones could turn into major missed time. Before, a two-week injury might mean five missed games. This season, a two-week injury could mean as many as nine missed games.

Predictions

East playoff teams (in predicted order of finish): Rangers, Bruins, Capitals, Penguins, Flyers, Senators, Lightning, Hurricanes

West playoff teams (in predicted order of finish): Canucks, Kings, Blues, Red Wings, Sharks, Predators, Oilers, Blackhawks

Stanley Cup: Rangers over Canucks

Hart Trophy (MVP): Alex Ovechkin (Capitals)

Norris Trophy (best defenseman): Zdeno Chara (Bruins)

Vezina Trophy (best goalie): Henrik Lundqvist (Rangers)

Calder Trophy (best rookie): Nail Yakupov (Oilers)

Jack Adams Award (best coach): Adam Oates (Capitals)

Today's games

Penguins at Flyers, 3 *

Senators at Jets, 3

Blackhawks at Kings, 3

Capitals at Lightning, 7

Rangers at Bruins, 7 #

Maple Leafs at Canadiens, 7

Devils at Islanders, 7

Hurricanes at Panthers, 7:30

Red Wings at Blues, 8

Blue Jackets at Predators, 8

Coyotes at Stars, 8

Avalanche at Wild, 9

Ducks at Canucks, 10

* Ch. 8 # NHL Network

Tom Jones' 2013 NHL season preview 01/18/13 [Last modified: Friday, January 18, 2013 11:39pm]

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