Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NHL Preview 2011 [Print without images]

Monday, October 3, 2011
Updated: October 4, 12:36 PM ET
Bucci's back with his Lucky 16

By John Buccigross
ESPN.com

This is Year Messier, Year 11 for this weekly, in-season hockey space-filler on ESPN.com.

The first "blogumn" appeared here in November 2001. The preamble to that first effort included, "Hockey is about family, friends, fun and rock and roll."

It also had this query: "Who knows how this [the column] will evolve?"

Followed by the credo: "I live my life around a James Joyce quote -- 'Chance furnishes me what I need. I am like a man who stumbles along; my foot strikes something, I bend over and it is exactly what I want.'"

Mark Messier
This Bucci Blogumn brought to you by No. 11.

Hockey is still about family, friends, fun and rock 'n' roll. Boston's Stanley Cup community outreach summer program proved that, conjuring up images and feelings from the 1970s minus the $400 tickets.

While the "chance" of unforeseen exponential technology has furnished us hockey fans with more vehicles to consume the sport than we could ever imagine 10 years ago, we are lucky to be born when we were.

Thus, the unpredictable evolution of this blank sheet of Internet ice has stumbled upon its latest construction plans for the upcoming season: blogumns, vlogumns and podcasts. Whatever vehicle fits the content best each week, that's what we will do. And this week, the written word rules.

We begin the season, as usual, with the difficult task of forecasting which teams may make the playoffs. With the salary cap now in its seventh year, the NHL has never been more balanced, making predictions more difficult than ever.

I truly love all 30 teams as if they were 30 identical lovable, playful otters. And I believe all 30 teams have at least a shot at the postseason, so forecasting the 2011-12 season is rather futile. But it's worth it if we can cram a Ben Folds lyric in here somewhere.

So here we go. The conference that won the Cup, that's the conference we will start with. We start with the East. The season is about to begin. You are ready. The players are certainly ready. Let's do this.

Eastern Conference: Which teams are in (in alpha order)


Boston Bruins

I can't remember why you left
And why you took back all your stuff
I'm sorry I lost your favorite T-shirt
I'll buy you a new one. A better one.

--"Bratty B" by Best Coast

Last season: The Bruins had the Cup formula. They scored the eighth-most goals and gave up the third-fewest in the regular season. They also had the second-best goal differential entering the playoffs. The Cup was not a fluke. You could argue that the Game 7 win in Vancouver was the biggest in franchise history. Boston's other five Cup wins were won with relative ease once they got to the Cup finals.

This season: The Bruins are set up to be good for some time. They are young and deep down the middle, deep at goalie and have good organizational depth. They should be a 98-102 point team again if the fire and health remains.

Bold prediction: If he gets 16-17 minutes of ice time and consistent power-play duty, Tyler Seguin will lead the Bruins in scoring.

Buffalo Sabres

Have you heard the latest re-invention in the street
Take me on a journey with the rhythm in my feet
Takes me to the left and it takes me to the right
Posing as a savior if you fall across the night
-- "Blink and You'll Miss a Revolution" by Cut Copy

Last season: The Sabres had 96 points and suffered a heartbreaking first-round series loss to the Flyers in seven games. This was an above-average offensive team with good special teams. My biggest issue with the Sabres has been their lack of on-ice leadership and maturity. That's what Chris Drury and Daniel Briere brought along with their production: adulthood. Someone has to step up. The original core is maturing and hopefully is growing while Buffalo keeps adding good players. But they have to bring the intangibles.

This season: Buffalo has a lot of hype right now, but it still lacks a strong group of centers. This may be the Sabres' downfall. But they are a deep team with strong assets coming up through the system and should battle the Bruins for the Northeast Division crown with around 100 points again.

Bold prediction: Buffalo will lead the Eastern Conference in goals scored with 261.

New Jersey Devils

I tremble, they're gonna eat me alive
If I stumble they're gonna eat me alive
Can you hear my heart beating like a hammer?
Beating like a hammer
-- "Help I'm Alive" by Metric

Last season: A tale of two seasons -- 2-11 in December and 11-1-1 in February. Zach Parise's knee injury put a huge damper on the season, as he played just 13 games. Ilya Kovalchuk tries hard, but he has now proved after nine NHL seasons that he cannot elevate a team. He cares, but he hoards the puck and hoards ice time and that has to change.

This season: I'm surprised I picked them to make the playoffs. If they do, they will barely make it. Not much down the middle, a lack of scoring depth, a 39-year-old goalie … great googly moogly! I better stop before I talk myself out of it.

Bold prediction: Parise is either traded at the deadline or lost to free agency over the summer.

New York Rangers

There is desire to fight, but I have nothing to prove
With the crowd and some lights, I start to feel things move
Do you have something to hide? 'Cause I think that we all do
I am a child inside, back up and give me some room.

-- "Natives" by Blink 182

Last season: Another average season for the Rangers that ended with a five-game first-round loss to the Capitals. They are a good goal-prevention team, but have lacked a dynamic offense to compete with the Eastern elite. If Ryan Callahan didn't miss 22 games, he would have likely topped 30 goals. Marian Gaborik missed 20 games. The Rangers need 30 from both players and a little more improvement from Brandon Dubinsky, who keeps slowly improving. Defense is still a concern from an offensive standpoint; more dynamic play from the back end is needed. Marc Staal has shown signs of slow maturation as his points total slowly drifts upward. If his concussion issue lingers, it will be a big setback for the Rangers.

This season: This is a perfect spot for the 31-year-old Brad Richards -- a young team that he doesn't have to carry. He can excel on the power play, do all the right things and provide another line of scoring to help the matchup game. That's enough. Richards had a career-high 28 goals last season. He needs to keep shooting. The Rangers need a healthy lineup, more improvement from the young players and, in the end, the addition of another defenseman down the line.

Bold prediction: A career high in goals for Gaborik.

Pittsburgh Penguins

It really feels like it's gone
Like all of it's gone
Gone away
Seems like nobody's happy now
It feels like nobody's happy now
-- "Just a Song" by Girls

Last season: A season of promise and careful construction was ruined by the concussion heard around the world, Evgeni Malkin's torn ACL and Matt Cooke's embarrassing suspension. Jordan Staal also missed 40 games. Yet Pittsburgh still proved what a fluid organization it is: well-owned, well-managed, well-coached and well-played.

This season: Their top four wingers are solid, but not scary, unless James Neal can come through playing with Malkin or Sidney Crosby. The Pens would love 30 goals from him and 25 gritty goals from Chris Kunitz. After that, Pittsburgh is the strongest team down the middle when healthy, with a deep defense and a goalie that bounced back after a down season. They are ready to win another Cup if No. 87 returns to form.

Bold prediction: Malkin will win the scoring title and Hart Trophy.

Tampa Bay Lightning

I'm at peace, I'm the man
Buying stocks on the day of the crash
On the loose, I'm a truck
All the rolling hills, I'll flatten 'em out, yeah
It's herd behavior, uh huh
It's evolution, baby

-- "Do The Evolution" by Pearl Jam

Last season: Lots of goals scored and lots of goals allowed. The energy and urgency of GM Steve Yzerman and coach Guy Boucher was like a constant IV drip of sugar. Steven Stamkos was a power-play monster, Martin St. Louis an ageless wonder and Vincent Lecavalier has figured out how to use his big body as he ages. Dwayne Roloson was a lifesaver in net.

This season: There are some concerns. St. Louis and Stamkos didn't miss a game last season. What if they miss a chunk in 2011-12? Roloson is 42 years old. The Lightning don't get a lot of offense from their defense. I almost picked them to miss the playoffs, but they have Alaska's Nathan Thompson, so I gave them the nod.

Bold prediction: St. Louis has another big season and will eventually be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2021.

Washington Capitals

When I'm down to my socks it's time for business
That's why they're called business socks
Oooh, it's business
It's business time
-- "Business Time" by Flight of the Conchords

Last season: The Capitals reinvented themselves and allowed fewer than 200 goals, which is Step 1 toward winning a Cup. But once again, they were unable to reach the conference finals as they were swept by the more explosive Lightning. Don't blame No. 8. Alex Ovechkin remains a playoff beast: 25 goals, 25 assists and 50 points in 37 games. Monstrous. Their defensive group improved and Michal Neuvirth is the guy I would go to in net.

This season: I think their defensemen are now better and deeper than their forward group. The top line will score; if the next two lines can get productivity and Ovechkin (career-low 32 goals) returns to his aggressive ways, this could be the Caps' best team yet.

Bold prediction: Bruce Boudreau does not last the season as head coach.

Winnipeg Jets

And time will take care of itself
So just leave time alone
Yeah, and pick up the tempo just a little
And take it on home
-- "Pick Up The Tempo" by Phosphorescent (Willie Nelson cover)

Last season: It just doesn't matter. New country, new city, new uniforms, new start … OK, they gave up too many goals.

This season: Winnipeg has young players who will likely improve even if they played in Ecuador this season. Add in the Winnipeg-Canada fanatic factor and the jolt players will feel knowing they will play in front of 41 sold-out home games, and this should lead to a very strong home record. Evander Kane had a 17-point improvement from his rookie season and the Jets need another jump like that from him this season.

Bold prediction: Pick up Mark Scheifele for your fantasy bench and watch him win rookie of the year honors.

Western Conference: Which teams are in (in alpha order)


Chicago Blackhawks

You stick to what you knew before
Don't know what you like
Just made up your mind
The picture still hangs on the wall
From back in the day
When you had it all
-- "Second Chance" by Peter Bjorn and John

Last season: The Cup honeymoon and cap casualties (especially in goal) made it a difficult season in Chicago. Jonathan Toews had a fantastic campaign, cementing his status as one of the game's elite players. Patrick Kane's hands and hockey sense are one of the sport's most entertaining gifts and he could go down as the most gifted USA-born player yet. The Hawks had a good power play (fourth) and a poor penalty kill (25th).

This season: They can score, but they need to prevent. They don't have the blue-line crew they had during their Cup run and are another Dave Bolland injury away from being weak down the middle. Patrick Sharp may have to play center, but he is so valuable as a high-volume, goal-scoring winger.

Bold prediction: Duncan Keith is the best defenseman in the NHL and wins the Norris Trophy.

Colorado Avalanche

You'll call me worthless
I know I'm worth this
And I've been waiting all along
Someday I'll ride this out of here
Where baby, I'll show you how I won't miss home at all
-- "Another Day, Another Struggle" by The Prize Fight

Last season: Bad goaltending. Worst save percentage in the NHL. Young and talented, but it's a team with not a lot of leadership. Good crop of centers, but Chris Stewart was so baffling. That being said, it's time for Erik Johnson to go; he's 23 and has played 225 NHL games. It's time to make the move to top-10 defenseman.

This season: Goalies Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere are huge keys. The defense has gone from small and speedy to big and slow. Ryan O'Reilly needs to make a leap and be that surprise player many forecast. They are a stretch to make the playoffs, but I have a good feeling. Sadly for Avs fans, this is the Age of Austerity in Denver. Management is married to the salary-cap floor, a far cry from the glory days. If owner Stan Kroenke would spend money, this team could make a jump.

Bold prediction: Matt Duchene will be within the top eight in NHL scoring.

Detroit Red Wings

Will you come again? It's hard to say.
I surely hope so.
Will you come again? It's hard to say.
I surely hope so.
I wish you'd see yourself as beautiful as I see you
Why can't you see yourself as beautiful as I see you?

-- "Will You Return" by Avett Brothers

Last season: A better road team than home team. The Red Wings could fill up the net, but were not a good goal-prevention team. Nicklas Lidstrom was more of a special-teams player as his equal-strength ice time lessened. Pavel Datsyuk missed 26 games. Good start, poor finish.

This season: The championship window is barely open, but if everything goes right, the Red Wings have a shot. All of their best players are over 30. They need players like Valtteri Filppula, Jiri Hudler, Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader to make leaps. I would expect Niklas Kronwall to overtake Lidstrom in ice time. The Wings are going to try to stay good as they age, so expect them to be aggressive in the restricted free-agent market and hope UFAs will take a little less money to play in Motown.

Bold prediction: Either Shea Weber or Parise will be a Wing this time next season.

Los Angeles Kings

You're gonna find your way
Find your way to be
Yeah, you're gonna get yourself a line with your own spine
You'll get it free
You'll get it free
-- "Up Up Up" by Givers

Last season: Ninety-eight points. Good goal-prevention team, one of just seven NHL teams to allow fewer than 200 goals. They were 10-2 in shootouts. I thought this team would be a Stanley Cup contender with its cap room. They added Dustin Penner. The first-round loss to the Sharks was tough, but it is something they can learn from.

This season: Mike Richards fits perfectly behind Anze Kopitar and should help the Kings' power play and overall grit. If the Kings can add some offense to their defense, they have a chance to lead the conference in points.

Bold prediction: The Kings will make a big in-season trade and acquire a first-line winger.

Nashville Predators

And it feels like all you'd have to do is step outside
Stop pacing around and waiting for some moment
That might never arrive
But you're never gonna find it
Like when you were young
And everybody used to call you lucky
-- "Stay Lucky" by Gaslight Anthem

Last season: An elite goal-prevention team. Big goalie, mobile defense and a fast-skating, cohesive team. Mike Fisher was an important and smart acquisition. The Predators got out of the first round for the first time. They ranked 21st in goals scored; not enough to win a playoff series.

This season: Pretty much the same story, but the model is working and coach Barry Trotz has been able to keep the energy level high despite his long tenure in Nashville. The biggest disappointment for me has been the discontinuation of Colin Wilson's tweeting career. That dude was a first-star performer.

Bold prediction: Shea Weber is traded before the trade deadline.

St. Louis Blues

I took everything I thought from what it means to be a man
We need words to be put to what we do not understand
While you lean into the echoes and you do not raise a hand
-- "If I Wanted Someone" by Dawes

Last season: I did a running diary column on the Blues last season and they really impressed me in a road win against the Rangers. Then T.J. Oshie got hurt, Andy McDonald's concussion issue resurfaced and Jaroslav Halak was not as good as advertised.

This season: They added Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner to bring a couple of veterans into the room. Like a lot of playoff-bubble teams, it will come down to health and goaltending. Anything positive out of Arnott, another step forward from Patrik Berglund and more David Backes, and the Blues are good and big down the middle. There is a lot of good stuff here. Coaching/molding will be very important.

Bold prediction: Chris Stewart will score 40 goals for the Blues.

San Jose Sharks

You know what hope is?
Hope is a bastard
Hope is a liar
A cheat and a tease
Hope comes near you?
Kick its backside
Got no place in days like these
-- "Picture Window" by Ben Folds

Last season: A slow start, a good finish, but still no Cup. There's not much to say about the Sharks. They have a big-time, balanced team with all of the necessary ingredients to win it all. They just have to get that feeling of making the Stanley Cup a cause, a movement, and seize the day.

This season: They make two big trades to shake up the team without shaking up the culture. Smart. Martin Havlat gives them better two-way speed come playoff time. Brent Burns is a stat-sheet filler on the back end, which the Sharks needed. Devin SetoguchiMane (brrrr) was a big price to pay. I love that dude's game. Still, I think the Sharks are better this season.

Bold prediction: Logan Couture will lead the Sharks in scoring this season.

Vancouver Canucks

I can't stand by
And see you destroyed
I can't be here
And watch you burn up
Lie for the moment
And lie as a decoy
So does it matter
If I give in easy?
So why
Is it so hard to get by?
-- "Pounding" by Doves

Last season: One win away. On home ice. The Canucks led the league in goals scored and goals against last season. It was as picture-perfect a season as one team could have. I studied the stats hard and came to the conclusion that Ryan Kesler was the most valuable and most complete player. No one did more than he did.

This season: They used a lot of fuel last season. Kesler may have had his career year. How much scar tissue will Daniel and Henrik Sedin have after their metaphorical and literal playoff facewash? They are still set up to do very well this season. Vancouver at Boston, Jan. 7, by the way.

Bold prediction: The Canucks will strengthen themselves at some point by trading Cory Schneider.

Stay tuned ...

Coming next week, Bucci will hit the podcast airwaves with special guest Ray Ferraro. Chicken Parm will be served on the side.

John Buccigross' email address -- for questions, comments or crosschecks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.