As next in line to have to play sooth-sayer for the upcoming season, I'd like to point out, that a) I'm generally reluctant to make bold, season-spanning predictions based solely on the fact that I'm a superstitious lunatic, and b) Sam stole a fair amount of my thunder yesterday, particularly with his finals prediction. But, that being said, that doesn't necessarily preclude me from having thoughts on how this season is going to shake out.
So, at the completely illogical risk of screwing the Hawks over by predicting good things, here's how I think things will shake out starting on Friday....
Regular Season Point Total & Conference Finish - 104 Points, #2 seed in Western Conference - While the Hawks have improved on paper in the off-season, I still have them at the same point total as last year when they were 2nd in the division and 4th in the conference. So what gives? Much like the Northwest division in the first part of the decade, I believe that the Central is now strong enough that it will cannibalize itself during the regular season given the emphasis on intra-divisional play by the NHL schedule. Both Columbus and St. Louis will be improved this year as well, and while Scum have had some significant losses, they're still very capable of icing an excellent squad. However, after all is said and done, if the Hawks remain healthy, they're simply too deep for anyone else to move past them, and the Hawks should win the division for the first time since it was the Norris.
Elsewhere in the West, despite claims of a rejuvination in Dallas, the Pacific is a two-horse race, one that San Jose should win by more than a length over Anaheim, netting them the #1 seed. The Northwest should be as competitive as ever with the exception of Colorado, and Calgary will edge out Vancouver for the #3 seed.
Leading Scorer - Patrick Kane - 33G - 50A - 83P - Had Marian Hossa not undergone surgery this off-season causing him to miss the first part of the campaign, I would have penciled him in for the Hawks scoring lead, as he would have been playing in all situations. But with him hurt to start the year, and if Kane stays healthy, I fully expect him to come out hitting on all cylinders. This blog has warned you the reader, to doubt this little shit at your own peril. Kaner has been told since the day he put on skates that he's been too small, and used that as motivation. Now with much of the media and fan base proclaiming he's the expendable one in the off-season, as well as dealing with the heat from his summer indiscretions, given how cocky he is when handling the puck, don't believe for a second that he's not intensely motivated to stuff it right up everyone's asses. The best way for Kane to do so is on the score sheet, which correlates directly to wins for the Hawks.
Leading Goal Scorer - Patrick Sharp - 44G - This year, the Hawks best natural finisher will show everyone just how silly all the trade rumors involving him over the summer were. Returning to his rightful spot on both the wing and the penalty kill should improve his play in all three zones from last year, and playing opposite either Patrick Kane or Marian Hossa with however the lines are configured will make his numbers soar.
Cristobal Huet's stat line - .920 sv%, 2.25 GAA - As the clear #1 starter, the defensemen in front of Cris should be more accustomed to having to immediately clear the rebounds he gives up due to his reliance on positioning, as well as positioning themselves in accordance with where their netminder is. Additionally, with the acquisition of John Madden, and him likely taking a good portion of the defensive zone draws, the Hawks should improve as a team on faceoffs, which will cut down on chances against Huet, and lead to improved numbers. The big question, however is going to be workload, and the Hawks will have to carefully budget his playing time with both Niemi and Crawford backing him up.
Breakout Player - Given his 4th overall pick pedigree, and career offensive numbers last year, it's difficult to qualify Andrew Ladd as a breakout player for his coming year, but it's my article goddamnit, so I'm going to anyway. While it won't necessarily reflect itself in the offensive stats, I believe this year that in working with John Madden, Ladd will establish himself as one of the premiere checking forwards in the league. He has the speed, size, smarts, and grit to be an annoyance to any opposing forward on any team, and the Hawks will lean on him heavily to neutralize them, particularly in the playoffs. With Ladd also due for restricted free agency at the end of the season, expect him to come through in spades.
Ridiculous Deadline Deal Prediction - While a lot can happen between now and March, and injuries can end up necessitating that the Hawks acquire another type of piece, but I firmly believe that at the deadline the Hawks will make a grab for Thrashers' sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, should he remain unsigned after this season. Kovy has toiled in Hotlanta for long enough and never tasted a playoff win, and the guy is truly one of the games most feared scorers. Say what you will about the front office brain trust at 1901 W. Madison, but they aren't lacking in the sack department when it comes to going for the Cup. It will likely cost them Barker or Versteeg (or both), as well as picks and a prospect, but that's a significant upgrade anyway you slice it.
As far as post-season predictions, mine pretty much echo Sam's thoughts from yesterday. Philadelphia, outside of the question mark in net (sound familiar?), is built to win the Cup, and the addition of Pronger is a match made in heaven for them. Since the lockout, Pronger has been a post-season force, and let's be honest, he was acquired for the specific purpose of making Sidney Crosby's life a living hell this spring. Couple that with a number of the Pens' players participating in the Olympics, and the Pens' deep runs the last two years, and Philly should finally be able to get past their fatigued in-state rivals to reach the Stanley Cup Finals.
And yes, I do see them meeting the Hawks, but we've already established that I'm a superstitious mental patient, and there's no way in hell I'm going to even risk jinxing this.