With the 2011-12 season kicking off Thursday, Scott Burnside, Craig Custance and Pierre LeBrun ponder these questions:
1. What is your projection for Evgeni Malkin?
Burnside: The former Art Ross Trophy winner will be a top-five NHL scorer this season as his knee is repaired and his pride has been dented after a couple of subpar campaigns.
Custance: Hart Trophy. At least 100 points. Malkin is as motivated as he's ever been in his career, so when you mix an improved work ethic with the talent he's always had, there's potential for big things. He said his knee feels fine and he'll be counted on to carry the load with Sidney Crosby out to start the season. He's capable and seems to relish that opportunity.
LeBrun: I predict a huge season for him, around 100 points, because he looks driven to me, like he's out to prove a point this season. One NHL scout told me he looked like a different player this season. I think Malkin may have taken it personally last season when critics denigrated his place among the elite. Maybe he's ready to prove us wrong.
2. Which team will have the better chance to win the Southeast: Washington or Tampa Bay?
Burnside: Washington. Because that's what they do. Caps GM George McPhee continues to add pieces that should make the team a Cup contender. Just a little bit better than a solid Lightning team.
Custance: The Capitals. McPhee did everything right and built this team for playoff success, but it should be just as strong during the regular season. There shouldn't be a midseason system change like there was last year, but even with that, the Capitals finished with 107 points. The Lightning are still a playoff team, but the Capitals are in another class this season.
LeBrun: How about Winnipeg? Just kidding, but wouldn't that be great? The Caps will win it. We believe the Lightning overachieved last season, and while we have them making the playoffs this season, we don't think they can overtake Washington for the division. Not this season, anyway.
3. Where will Zach Parise be by March 5?
Burnside: Far, far away from Newark. If the Devils aren't firmly ensconced in a playoff spot, team president and GM Lou Lamoriello will have little option but to deal Parise, who does not have a no-movement/no-trade clause. Our guess? How about playing the wing with Mike Richards in Los Angeles?
Custance: The safe answer is New Jersey, and the Devils should do whatever it takes to get Parise signed to a long-term deal. But I'll go out on a limb and say he's in Los Angeles on March 5. If the Kings are truly going to challenge for a Stanley Cup this season, they still need one more elite goal scorer for their talented centers, especially if Simon Gagne can't stay healthy. GM Dean Lombardi has stocked his system with enough young depth and talent that he can afford to be aggressive at the trade deadline, even after raiding the system to deal for Mike Richards. And landing Parise would be a dramatic improvement over the move to add Dustin Penner last season.
LeBrun: Still in Jersey. The Devils will be contending for a playoff spot, so even if they can't sign him to an extension by then, they have to keep him for the stretch drive. If the Devils fall out of playoff contention and haven't been able to sign him to an extension, they must look at the trade market. Then, you can list a long line of suitors. Among them, in our opinion, would be Los Angeles. The Kings really covet Parise, and if they can't get him this March, they'll try again July 1 if Parise hasn't signed in New Jersey.
4. Which revival act will be more successful: Jaromir Jagr in Philadelphia or Dany Heatley in Minnesota?
Burnside: Hmm. Good question. Look for both to be in the 80-point category with Heatley jumping back up to the 40-goal mark.
Custance: If his ice time is managed the right way, Jaromir Jagr has the potential to be the more successful addition. At least for what they're earning. Heatley has shown signs that his game is slipping and isn't worth the $7.5 million average salary he's bringing in. Jagr, for the price, is a relatively low-risk investment who has looked good during the preseason and should be an outstanding addition to the Flyers' power play.
LeBrun: My man Claude Giroux tells me Jagr looks fantastic. Good enough for me. Know this: Jagr told us a few times over the past few years that because of the bigger ice surfaces in the KHL in Russia, he thought he was in better shape playing there than he was when he was last in the NHL. Is that just Jagr-speak or is it the truth? We'll soon find out.
5. Which Roberto Luongo will we see this season?
Burnside: We'll see Luongo in full bloom during the regular season, as he was a year ago when he was a Vezina Trophy nominee. But if you're asking what we'll see next spring from the netminder, well, that's a whole other goaltending personality, no?
Custance: There has to be some lingering hangover from the disappointing performance in the playoffs, but there were also some good performances from Luongo to draw from, including that Game 7 win over the Blackhawks in the first round. He's too talented not to have a strong regular season, but the Canucks may want to make sure Cory Schneider gets regular playing time in the early going.
LeBrun: The Vezina Award nominee from last season. He's a strong person; he'll rebound from June's Cup collapse. I wouldn't be surprised if he led the NHL in wins.
6. Which California-based team will end up with the most regular-season points, Ducks, Kings or Sharks?
Burnside: This promises to be a great race and we like all three to make the playoffs as they did last spring. But still have to go with the power-laden Sharks to be at the top of the West Coast heap.
Custance: The Sharks. After their rough start last season, coach Todd McLellan has placed an emphasis on coming out strong to start the season. They didn't particularly enjoy scrambling last season to establish themselves in the Western Conference standings. The Kings will give San Jose a push though, especially if Drew Doughty can quickly put the contract negotiations behind him.
LeBrun: Duh, the 2012 Cup-champion Sharks, of course, although the Kings and Ducks won't be far behind in the NHL's most competitive division, the Pacific. My mighty prediction: All three teams will end up with 100 or more points. But I think the Sharks will edge the Kings one more time for the division.
7. Which coach will have the shortest leash this season?
Burnside: There are lots of coaches with high expectations, like Terry Murray in Los Angeles and Lindy Ruff in Buffalo; but for us, Toronto's Ron Wilson has to show immediate improvement, especially with the Leafs' perennially awful special teams, or he's in trouble.
Custance: Wilson. You can miss the playoffs only so many times before it costs you your job, even if your boss thinks highly of you. The Leafs are young and counting on James Riemer to repeat last season's breakout performance. It's quite possible he does; if not, the Ron Wilson era will be coming to an end.
LeBrun: Wilson. He's a terrific coach, but the Leafs have been out of the playoffs every season he's been here, and GM Brian Burke not extending the coach's deal this summer was a telltale sign. Wilson needs a strong start to the season.
8. How will the ownership scenario play out in Phoenix?
Burnside: In a messy fashion. Yes, there are prospective owners; there are always prospective owners. But by early January, we're guessing the NHL pulls the plug once and for all on the good folks of Glendale.
Custance: I'll pick Greg Jamison, the former Sharks CEO, to finally get the job done and put us all out of our misery by purchasing the Coyotes and keeping them in Phoenix. If Jerry Reinsdorf really wanted this team, it seems the deal would have been completed a long time ago. For the sake of GM Don Maloney, who has done a masterful job keeping this team competitive through the ownership circus, let's hope it gets done soon.
LeBrun: They will find an owner and keep the team there. Maloney told ESPN.com during camp that while he couldn't divulge much, he was quite confident it would get figured out.
9. Who will be the biggest star on this year's HBO "24/7"?
Custance: So many candidates. Max Talbot really embraces the idea and value in promoting the game through "24/7," so he's a great option. Pronger is highly quotable, but you have to wonder just how much he'll allow the camera crews to follow him around. Sean Avery is intelligent and not afraid to ... wait, what? Never mind. I'll go with Tortorella. I'll watch just to see how much he's able to censor himself when the cameras are rolling.
LeBrun: Talbot, again. Just hoping he gets to see Santa's little helpers again.
10. Which city is an early favorite to host the 2013 Winter Classic?
Burnside: We'd like Detroit to host, perhaps at the Big House at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. After three straight Eastern Conference Classics, it's time to shift focus west, and we wouldn't be surprised to see Chicago be the visitor. Although, if Colorado ever improved its play/profile, the Avs would be a natural given the historic rivalry enjoyed by these two teams.
Custance: Washington, D.C. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman didn't hide his intentions of rewarding Capitals owner Ted Leonsis with an outdoor game, and a rematch between the Penguins and Capitals may prove irresistible to NBC and those tracking the ratings. At some point, the league will have to venture west of Chicago for a Winter Classic, but I wouldn't bet on that happening next season.
LeBrun: Winnipeg. Just kidding, but wouldn't that be great? Washington is "owed" a game by Bettman. My money's on it.