Well, it's that week. It's not quite to cue the Muppet Show song yet, but we're getting there. Which means it's time for the four of us to put on the hat, hold an envelope to our forehead, and try and guess how this season will shake out. I'll try and go Hawks-centric and then out. So let's start with the Hawks stat-leaders and such:
Leading goal-scorer: Toews with 41, as I said last week.
Leading point-getter: Kane with 91, (let's go with 33 goals and 58 assists)
+/- Leader: Toews with +32, though Keith rebounds to make this close.
Penalty Minute Leader: Well that one's easy. Carcillo.
Power Play Rank: 3rd in the NHL
Penalty Kill Rank: 7th, I think it will really improve this year with a return to competence from Keith and Hammer.
Corey Crawford's stats: I'm not anticipating a sophomore slump here. What I am anticipating is a much-improved defense in front of him, which means he'll see less shots, which probably means the SV% goes down a little but the GAA goes down as well. So, 59 starts with a 40-15-4 record, .912 SV% and a 2.18 GAA.
Breakout Player: Well, I'm jumping on the ESPN trolley here, but I'm going for Michael Frolik here. I really like how spiky he's looked in preseason, creative on the attack and determined in defense. I think he and Bolland really are going to produce something here, and both will benefit from what looks to be a now-inspired Bryan Bickell with the newly Quenneville-foot in his ass.
Biggest Disappointment: I know you all want me to say Steve Montador here, but I don't have any idea why. My expectations aren't all that high. I thought about Rusty Olesz here too, but then again what did I expect from him either? So I'll go with Nick Leddy, just because I still see a kid who can get overpowered in his own zone and not ready to assert himself in the other. That doesn't mean he'll be bad or anything, but he won't be the force that the Hawks would like us to believe he's ready to be either.
And I think the top four are all playoff teams, and the Jackets might just barely miss out. I just don't understand how the Hawks are so easily dismissed by so many in the division race to an aging, unimpressive Wings squad. Lidstrom is about 60% of what he was, Ian White isn't even as good as bad Brian Rafalski was last year, Kronwall continues to be overrated by a factor of 12, and Jonathan Ericsson is a abstract sculpture constructed entirely of vomit. The forwards are still great at the top obviously, but any injuries to Zetterberg and Datsyuk and things get icky. Franzen will get hurt, he always does, and Holmstrom's 185 years old. Abdelkader is a wonderful player and will allow Filppula to move to win where he'll score more, but I'm just not that impressed. I will be when they sign Shea Weber next summer.
The Preds will be good for reasons we can't understand again, it's just the way of the world. I think the Blues make a big move this year, if healthy that forward corps can be scary. And with Kirk Shattenkirk (there you go, Gallagher) and Pietrangelo the defense isn't awful either. The Jackets will be at least interesting. I don't think Jeff Carter is a good center for Rick Nash, but I think that kid Ryan Johansen is. And if that shakes out, and Carter, Vermette, Umberger and Brassard can spread among the other lines, they'll at least score more than they used to. However, this blue line still sucks, and so does Steve Mason, and they'll go without playoffs again in Ohio.
San Jose and Vancouver, while I don't think are juggernauts, are going to get to beat up on terrible divisions all year. For San Jose, both Dallas and Phoenix are taking big steps backwards this year, and I'm not sure Anaheim won't either. The Canucks don't have anything resembling another playoff team in their division, while the Hawks will be slogging through what is far and away the best division in the West. The Kings might challenge the Sharks for the crown in the Pacific, but I don't think they get there.
This will be the third straight year I've called the Hawks going to the Final, but at least I was right in one of those. But I honestly believe that. The Canucks have stood still while the Sharks and Hawks gained ground, and we all know how much a Final run takes out of you the next year, and they didn't even win (smile). The Kings are going to make life itchy for everyone, and while so strong down the middle here, unless Simon Gagne rolls back the years I'm not convinced I see a lot of snipers here. The Sharks? Awfully tough this time around, and Burns was a smart pick up. But he can be picked apart in his own zone, and this is still the Sharks. Havlat's already hurt, and if Marleau goes AWOL again....Plus, Antti Niemi, despite David Haugh's admiration, was pretty bad against Vancouver last year in the spring and can't be counted on as a lock.
As for the East, If Crosby is healthy even for half a season, I think the Pens waltz to Prince of Wales trophy. If even just Malkin was healthy last spring, this team goes to at least the Conference Final if not further. Well, he looks all systems go and this is the best blue line, 1-6, in that Conference. Too many questions about the Flyers, and Bryzgalov doesn't exactly have a sterling playoff reputation at the moment. Good thing Philly isn't a pressure cooker or anything. The Sabres have their own issues, and Ryan Miller hasn't covered himself in glory in the spring yet either. Boston goes back to the Conference Final, just too solid not too. The Rangers are one more year away. The Caps? That nutbar behind the bench will find a way to scud them again.
There's my two cents. Save, and bring this back in April.