10 Predictions for the 2017-18 NHL Season

COLUMBUS, OH - JANUARY 24: A general view of the NHL logo prior to the 2015 Honda NHL All-Star Skills Competition at the Nationwide Arena on January 24, 2015 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The 2017-18 NHL season will commence tomorrow, with the Maple Leafs taking on the Jets in Winnipeg with four games on the slate.  Last season, I tried to be a little bit more… bold in the selections that I was making for this award and that division winner.  I ended up getting, I think, one thing right out of anything on my list.  My classmate and fellow hockey fan, Daniel Foltz, found that…  amusing.  On top of that, for the first time in a while, his Ducks had also done better than my Blackhawks.  I was humiliated.  So I resolved to do some more research for this year, and to be accurate instead of bold with my predictions in order to avoid being made fun of by one of the few people that actually read my hockey post.  So Daniel, these are for you:

  1. Neither the Penguins nor the Predators will make the Stanley Cup Final

I made this basic prediction last year, as well, and of course the Penguins decided to prove me wrong and become the first repeat champion since the 90’s.  Maybe that was because the only teams that truly made big steps forward were either bad teams (Maple Leafs, Oilers) or the Predators themselves, who, of course, were no match for Sid the Kid and his crew.  There were no moves by last year’s contenders that really moved the needle, but I do feel that both of last year’s Final participants will take a step back this year.  For Pittsburgh, they lost Nick Bonino and Trevor Daley, among others, to free agency, and Marc-Andre Fleury to the expansion draft, leaving them dangerously thin in many areas.  The Preds, meanwhile, lost their captain and 2nd line center Mike Fischer to retirement, and their bottom two lines don’t instill much confidence.  These losses will contribute to other teams catching the defending conference champs and prevent them from getting back into the Cup Final.

2. The Tampa Bay Lightning will win the Stanley Cup

The Lightning are a popular pick to win it all this year—heck, NHL 18 has them topping the Oilers in their simulation of the season.  They struggled to get it going last year, especially after captain Steven Stamkos was lost to injury, but the return of the Canadian sniper should give Tampa one of the most dangerous, and deep, offensive potential in the league.  I do have some concerns about their back end—this will be Andrei Vasilevskiy’s first year as the team’s undisputed starting goaltender, and their defense will could either be a boom or a bust.  That being said, the preseason performance of Vasilevskiy and young defenseman Mikhail Sergachev have me confident that the Lightning defense will be more than adequate enough to allow Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Tyler Johnson to do their thing.

 

  1. Jaime Benn will win the MVP

Dallas was a bit of a mess last season—injuries swept through their forward lines, diminishing the potential of one of the most potent offenses in the league, while the defense and goaltending were… not great.  The additions of Marc Methot and Ben Bishop will definitely bolster the Stars’ back line, boosting them into contention for post-season spot.  The signings of Alexander Radulov and Martin Hanzal, meanwhile, will take some of the scoring, and defensive, pressure off of Benn and Tyler Seguin, making the team’s forwards even more dangerous than they were before.  With Radulov around, the two stars’ goal totals might be hurt a little bit, which is why I’m taking Benn for MVP over Seguin—the captain has more of a well-rounded game than his teammate.

 

  1. Mike Babcock will win Coach of the Year

The Maple Leafs were supposed to be a rebuilding for at least another year or two; instead, they surprised almost everyone by making the play-offs last season, keeping both the Lightning and the Islanders on the outside looking in.  This year, with the addition of veterans Patrick Marleau and Ron Hainsey, they might even challenge for a division title this season.  While I think that it’s still slightly beyond them to pull that off, the fact that they could even be in that position at all is a testament to the work that Babcock has done with this roster.  He was already thought of as a fantastic coach for the job that he did coaching the Red Wings, but he might be doing even better in Toronto, and deserves to be rewarded for his work.

 

  1. Nico Hischier will win Rookie of the Year

Unlike last season, when Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine were clear pre-season frontrunners for this award, there is no consensus as to who the best rookie will be this season.  Hischier is one of perhaps ten that are currently in the conversation; out of all of them though, I think he has a couple advantages.  The first is that Hischier will be one of very few rookies to have the opportunity to get top-6 minutes right out of the gate—the Devils are still in a bit of a rebuild mode, so they’ll have the minutes to allow the #1 overall pick of this past summer’s draft to develop.  The other advantage is size—while only 18, Hischier is 6’1” and a healthy 176 pounds.  He’s a good skater, and as he adds on a little bit more weight, he has the potential to be one of the few forwards that can beat players with both speed and strength.  He might not reach all of that potential this year, but we’ll see enough of it to see him earn the Rookie of the Year award.

 

  1. The New York Rangers will not make the playoffs

The Rangers made the post-season relatively comfortably last year, snagging 102 points and extending their streak of reaching the play-offs to 7 seasons.  That being said, some cracks started to show a little bit towards the end of last season—Henrik Lundqvist had games that made him look remotely human, and there were games where the young guns couldn’t help step up and make up for some slowing veterans like Rick Nash.  Going into the off-season, they needed to address issues at the center, defenseman, and backup goaltender spots.  They did a good job of getting Kevin Shattenkirk for a relative discount, but losing Antti Raanta and Derek Stepan are big worries.  It leaves the team needing big seasons from Nash, Lundqvist, and Mika Zibanejad to have great seasons to keep the burden of carrying the team from falling on some that aren’t quite ready for it yet.  At this point in all of those players’ careers, I simply don’t think they can do it.

 

  1. The Arizona Coyotes will make the playoffs

This is, perhaps, one of the two truly bold picks that I will make in this post.  The Ducks and Oilers are virtual locks for the post-season, and the strength of the Central division probably means that the third play-off spot in the Pacific will be the final one.  The ‘Yotes will be up against the Sharks and Kings, who have been among the top performers in the league over the past decade.  However, I feel that they’re both on a decline—John Stevens reinvigorated the Kings after last year’s poor start but still didn’t see any additions to bolster their lagging offense (24th in goals last year), and the Sharks’ aging core has a lot of wear and tear on their legs and don’t have many people in line to replace them.  Arizona, meanwhile, added veterans Derek Stepan and Niklas Hjalmarsson to a tantalizing young core of Jakob Chychrun, Max Domi, Clayton Keller, Dylan Strome, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.  Gaining experience and maintaining consistency will be crucial for the team, and in the long run, I think they’ll find enough to make the post-season.

 

  1. Patrik Laine will lead the league in points

Part of this comes down to pre-season performance—Laine has been absolutely electric in his brief time on the ice, which not many others can say.  The right winger put up 36 goals as a rookie last season, and if his performance thus far is any indication, he’s primed for more—of course, it doesn’t hurt that the youngster has one of the best passing centers in the game, Mark Scheifele playing to his left.  The strengthening of Winnipeg’s defensive corps will be beneficial to Laine, too, especially the return to health of possession-driver Tyler Myers—it’ll grant him a little bit more freedom to get out of the defensive zone early and utilize his speed to create opportunities.  The Jets will be a play-off team this year, and Laine will be a big reason why.

 

  1. Matt Duchene will be traded to the Nashville Predators

Duchene is the best player on what is perhaps the league’s worst team, the Colorado Avalanche.  Joe Sakic and Jared Bednar definitely realize that Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog are the only two tradeable pieces preventing the club from going into full retooling mode, which explains why both of them have been circulated in trade rumors for much of the past year or so.  As a prolific two-way player, Duchene is in more popular demand, with Ottawa, Nashville, and Columbus being among the center’s suitors.  I think it will come down to a battle between the neighboring Blue Jackets and Predators—Ottawa has other, perhaps larger roster holes to fill before addressing its number 2 center spot—and in the end, I think that the Preds will be the one to snag him.  They signed Nick Bonino to replace Mike Fischer, but Bonino’s stats were not good in high-leverage roles for Pittsburgh last year, and the Penguins proved how critical it can be to have multiple star centers on the roster.  I think they’ll give up a high draft pick and a player from their large stable of defenseman to land him, which should be enough to satiate Colorado’s wishes.

 

  1. John Tavares will re-sign with the Islanders

This is probably the only other truly bold prediction that I’m making here.  The Islanders management situation is a real mess—the arena that they share with the Brooklyn Nets is out of the way for the core of their fan base and has been blasted for having some of the worst ice in the league, while the players that they signed to try and up the level of performance around their star center largely flopped.  Rumors have been flying about Tavares, whose contract expires at the end of this season, for some time now, with many destinations being floated about being his new home.  Tavares’s camp and the Islanders’ front office have maintained that this deal isn’t about money, which makes sense with how inconsistent they’ve been in the last eight seasons.  Despite the temptations of big payouts and big success elsewhere, however, I ultimately think the Canadian stays in New York long-term.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlantic

Lightning (#2)

Maple Leafs (#5)

Canadiens (#6)

Senators (WC #2)

Sabres

Bruins

Panthers

Red Wings

Metropolitan

Penguins (#1)

Capitals (#3)

Hurricanes (#4)

Blue Jackets (WC #1)

Islanders

Rangers

Devils

Flyers

Western Conference

Central

Wild (#1)

Predators (#4)

Stars (#5)

Blackhawks (WC #1)

Jets (WC #2)

Blues

Avalanche

Pacific

Ducks (#2)

Oilers (#3)

Coyotes (#6)

Sharks

Kings

Flames

Golden Knights

Canucks

PLAYOFFS

Eastern Conference

First Round

Penguins def. Senators

Hurricanes def. Capitals

Lightning def. Blue Jackets

Maple Leafs def. Canadiens

Conference Semifinal

Hurricanes def. Penguins

Lightning def. Maple Leafs

Conference Final

Lightning def. Hurricanes

Western Conference

First Round

Wild def. Jets

Predators def. Stars

Blackhawks def. Ducks

Oilers def. Coyotes

Conference Semifinals

Wild def. Predators

Oilers def. Blackhawks

Conference Finals

Wild def. Oilers

Stanley Cup

Lightning def. Wild

Rapid Reaction: Super Bowl LI

What started as a bland, boring match-up turned into a game for the history books, as the New England Patriots completed the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history with a 34-28 overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

Things started off incredibly slow—there was no scoring in the entire first quarter—but things got going quickly in the second.  New England was driving, but Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount had the ball stripped by Atlanta rookie linebacker Deion Jones, and when Atlanta recovered, the Falcons went on an incredible run.  Falcons stars Devonta Freeman, who scored the team’s first touchdown, and Julio Jones had their way with the Patriots defense, and while the legendary Tom Brady was effective, he wasn’t quite able to crack the young Atlanta D.  That D was able to crack him, though, as on the team’s deepest first half drive outside of the one that culminated in Blount’s fumble, Brady was picked off by cornerback Robert Alford, who returned the ball 82 yards for a touchdown.  While the Pats were able to tack on a field goal before the half, they still found themselves down 18 points, which, even at that time, would have been the biggest lead ever overcome in the history of the Big Game.

The hole got bigger in the third quarter, when Tevin Coleman plunged in to give the Falcons a 28-3 lead.  It seemed as if the Falcons were left for dead.  But Brady, who wound up finishing with a Super Bowl-record 466 yards passing, was having none of it—he led his team down the field to get a score in before the end of the quarter, and then kept up the momentum by getting a field goal on the first drive of the fourth quarter.  The Patriots defense came up big, forcing the league’s MVP, Matt Ryan, to fumble the ball and give it ball to Brady, who responded by quickly tossing a touchdown to Danny Amendola and calling a gutsy play for a two-point conversion.  The Falcons had a chance to put the Patriots away on their next drive, as they were still up 8, and an incredible sideline catch by Jones seemed to do just that.  However, after a sack and a costly holding penalty, Brady and company got the ball back.  They drove swiftly and efficiently down the field, capping their drive with a one yard plunge by running back James White, who had a Big Game-record 14 catches on the day, and a two-pointer by Amendola to tie the game.

The game went to overtime for the first time in Super Bowl history, and when the Patriots won the toss, they elected to receive.  The Falcons wouldn’t see the ball again.  Brady, who was named MVP for the fourth time in his five Super Bowl wins, marched his team down the field, and when White dove past the goal line to secure the victory, all of New England went bananas.  The Patriots were champions again.

Derrick Rose and Abuse in Sports

I am a proud Chicago sports fan.  In many years, that is a quite disappointing fandom, this one included.  The White Sox drastically under-performed expectations.  The Blackhawks got knocked out of the play-offs in the first round for the first time in forever, and they’ve started this season very poorly.  The Cubs have been perennially bad for a very, very long time (though are good this year, which is a major conflict in my White Sox-leaning heart).  The Bears had a horrible 2015 season, and have started off this new-year on a bad note by losing in very ugly fashion.  The Bulls missed the play-offs this past season, too, but initiated a roster turnover this off-season to help improve, and the featured move of that turnover was the trade point guard Derrick Rose.

Back when the Rose trade was announced, I wrote a post honoring his time in his hometown uniform, about how great he was for the city, both on and off the court.  Now, I am starting to regret some of my words.  Part of that regret can be tied back to Rose’s comments about the city not “appreciating” him, or on how the New York team that he finds himself on now is the most talented one he’s ever been on.  But most of it stems from the current rape accusations that Rose and two of his friends are facing in Los Angeles.

For those of you unfamiliar with the case, a woman filed a civil suit against Derrick Rose about a year or so ago, with the complaint being that the point guard and two of his close friends drugged her, trespassed into her apartment and gang raped her while she was unconscious on Aug. 27, 2013.  The case has been in the trial phase for about a week and a half, and has garnered much national media attention for the drama that seems to be unfolding within the courtroom.  (For more in-depth information on the case, please click here).

Rape is one of the biggest problems in our society.  7% percent of all rapists are convicted, which is a very, very small number considering the seriousness of the crimes.  Many of those rapes go unreported, for a variety of different reasons from the understandable embarrassment that a victim might feel to the truly horrifying reason of being afraid of victim shaming (which, sadly, happens all too often).  Other cases are thrown out due to “lack of evidence,” or some other preposterous rationale that gets the criminals out of punishment.  Some stories are genuinely made up, sure, but jumping to the conclusion that the person accusing someone of rape isn’t telling the truth is a horrible, horrible mistake to make, considering how many of them are real cases and how many rapists do not end up with proper punishment.

When it comes to sports, many athletes, unless they are strangely reviled, are often given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to making a major mistake.  People assume that because they are athletes, because they frequently in the public eye, that they can do no wrong.  When athletes are accused of committing a crime, no matter how heinous, many thousands of loyal fans will often leap right in to defend the athletes, and some continue to defend them for a long period of time, regardless of what evidence has been presented.  For all that I know, Rose may completely innocent of rape.  His accuser may be someone attracted to Rose who didn’t get her way but still wants to be in the spotlight.  However, I can’t find myself believing that that is the case.  There have been some very viable attempts by Rose’s defense team to discredit Jane Doe’s reason for accusing the point guard of rape, but considering the negative publicity that she is sure to be getting from many of Rose’s most vocal supporters, I feel that she is probably not in it for money or fame, but for justice.  Rose’s vagueness in answering questions concerning the night being brought into question is also pretty telling for me- he created more questions about the turmoil surrounding him.  Rumors about an out-of-court settlement of been floating around, as have rumors of when the grand jury in his case will actually convene; regardless, it really hurts to think that one of my hometown’s biggest stars may have just thrown away his career, especially deciding to engage in something is terrible as sexual abuse.

Sadly, many athletes besides Rose have been accused of some form of abuse in recent years.  Among them, former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was filmed on tape hitting his wife in an elevator before dragging her out of it.  In December of 2014, professional basketball player Jeffery Taylor was suspended by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver for 24 games after being convicted of domestic assault.  The following month, former pro baseball player Milton Bradley’s appeal of his sexual assault charges was dropped, meaning that he had to serve jail time.  In June 2015, retired NFL safety Darren Sharper pleaded guilty to drugging and raping three women in different cities across the country.  Los Angeles Kings defenseman Slava Voynov faced deportation to Russia after being convicted of a misdemeanor violence charge against his wife last fall.  These cases, along with Rose’s, have received a lot of media attention.  Some people have complained that they have received too much attention, that the focus on the athletes takes away from attention that should be being paid to the people getting abused that won’t make the headlines.  While they are right, I think that there is something else that these people should be complaining about- why professional leagues, and their teams, are not going above and beyond to combat this abuse.

Professional athletes are some of the most prominent role models in the entire world.  For that, they are held to a higher standard when it comes to personal conduct.  To me, that means that the leagues that these athletes are a part of, and, as an extension, the teams in that league, must also commit to a higher standard of conduct.  Pro sports are a vehicle for many, many great things- the NFL is relatively racially sensitive.  Both the NFL and MLB have been big promoters of breast cancer research.  The NBA has NBA Cares, which runs many local programs for underprivileged kids.  The NHL is working hard at improving the safety of hockey players, from youth levels on up.  However, when many of these professional leagues have been faced with crimes involving abuse, many of them have not done the right thing.  Some leagues have made mistakes with punishment- NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has made comments denouncing the acts of Voynov and the (supposed) acts of Patrick Kane, the Chicago Blackhawks star who was accused of rape before last season, but Bettman permitted Kane to attend the Blackhawk training camp and allowed Voynov to practice with his team while being investigated (the fact that the Kings were open to Voynov practicing in the first place is bad in its own right).  NFL commissioner Roger Goddell’s punishment of Ray Rice was not properly considered and was eventually overturned.  A problem faced by all pro sports leagues, though, particularly the MLB, which has had many former players convicted of crimes involving abuse, is that, just like most major media/advertising entities today, they done poorly with condoning crimes involving abuse, and making awareness of abuse and abuse a major talking point.

That isn’t to say that sports leagues and teams have done nothing to combat the problem of abuse, but considering the seriousness of abuse, it’s one that hasn’t been addressed enough.  Chicago sportswriter Jon Greenberg made a fantastic point in his article on the situation surrounding Kane and his rape controversy last year.  He wrote, “The Blackhawks could help combat sexual assault before it begins by funding workshops, clinics and speeches for this age group. They can help talk to the kids about sexual assault when they’ll still listen.”  Obviously, with Kane’s case being sex related, Greenberg’s thought is a little more specific than targeting all forms of abuse, but, in the grand scheme of things, it’s a great idea.  D.A.R.E programs are instituted in elementary and middle schools across the country- including my hometown, a suburb of Chicago- to teach kids about the dangers of drugs.  So why can’t there be a more widespread, and more impactful, curriculum on abuse, better than the Robert Crown programs that have such limited influence?  And why does it have to be just one pro organization, a team that may happen to have a player under investigation for sexual assault- all professional sports leagues can make a point to prove that this is a major issue.  And shouldn’t adults be targets of a similar message, too?  Just like there are major campaigns involving not drinking or texting while driving, there should be more commercials, and more athlete spokespeople, speaking up about the terrors of abuse, and encouraging victims to seek help, and providing information on how victims’ friends can assist in efforts to make sure the victim recovers and the abuser gets his/her proper punishment.  Considering how big of an issue abuse is, and considering how high profile athletes are, bringing light to this issue will make people more vigilant, and more informed, about abuse, which is something that our culture, in or out of athletics sorely needs.