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Before the 2017-18 NHL season, I predicted that the Nashville Predators would miss the playoffs after playing for the Stanley Cup last spring.
As of Thursday, they're atop the Central Division with a comfortable cushion ahead of the final wild-card spot, having added center Kyle Turris to what was already (apparently) a playoff-caliber team. And so, throughout the past three months, Predators fans have picked up my prediction as if it were a cold, dead catfish and smacked me across the face with it like a Victorian woman rejecting a boorish suitor.
All of this is meant to illustrate that when it comes to predictions, the only predictable thing about them is that they're frequently incorrect. Although a few of them will prove the "blind squirrel locating nuts" theory, and the predictor will look fleetingly brilliant.
So, tucking in my bushy tail and smelling for the nearest acorn, here are 10 audacious hockey predictions for 2018. Happy New Year!
1. John Tavares goes to market
ATTENTION NEW YORK ISLANDERS FANS WHO ARE STILL ON A SUGAR HIGH FROM THE BELMONT ARENA NEWS: This is not a prediction that John Tavares will leave the Islanders. In fact, with the new arena announced and on track, I'm fairly convinced he will stay.
I do think, however, that Tavares will go to free agency. Or at least get close enough to it where he has a good sense of the offers that are out there for his services. Steven Stamkos, his close friend (AND FUTURE TEAMMATE ... OK, I promised Islanders fans I wasn't trying to troll them here, so I digress) signed his eight-year deal on June 29, a couple of days before free agency. I think Tavares generates at least that amount of sweat.
2. The Seattle-expansion hype train slows down
Seattle is strapped to a rocket for expansion approval, both because the NHL covets the market and because the Board of Governors want that expansion dough before the Coyotes move there and Arizona owner Andrew Barroway gets it all instead as a relocation fee.
But the timeline for a new Seattle team is contingent on a few factors. The first is that Key Arena's refurbishment is scheduled for completion in Oct. 2020 -- just in time for what's expected to be another NHL lockout, as either the players or the league can opt out of the CBA in September 2019, making 2019-20 the final season under the current agreement.
We're no marketing wizzes, but launching a first-year team during a lockout seems a little foolish.
So while the end of 2017 had visions of Seattle Sasquatches (Sasqui?) dancing through our heads, the process of getting a new team could be a longer one than anticipated for Seattle. Like, perhaps, not until the 2021-22 season.
We hope the Coyotes -- uh, the Board of Governors -- are patient.
(That said -- what if the NHL wants to collect that expansion fee before the new CBA kicks in? Does Seattle play at, say, the ShoWare Center in Kent, Washington, in front of 6,500 people a night, like the Senators played at the Ottawa Civic Centre during their first season? Please note that if this comes true, it was totally our prediction.)
3. U.S. women win Olympic gold and all the attention
Sometimes, a prediction is a wish your heart makes, and having witnessed the U.S. Women's National Team get their hearts ripped out in gold-medal-game losses to Canada in 2010 and 2014, my prediction is that the Americans finally conquer their tormentors and win gold at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
In the process, they become sensations. NBC hypes them to the moon because it'll be a seminal moment for women's sports and because the U.S. men's team could lose in the first round, for all we know.
It would complete a storybook year for the USWNT, from their "boycott" threat over a lack of financial support and equal attention in 2017 to a financial windfall and Olympic stardom in 2018. And quite a moment for the NWHL, which will welcome back these players with a much higher profile.
4. Calgary gets its new arena, on bended knee
The Calgary Flames owners don't want to sell the team, and the NHL doesn't want to see a team leave a lucrative market. The city doesn't want to fund a new arena on the same level the Edmonton Oilers did, but it also wants the Flames' next building to be the centerpiece of a new entertainment district.
It says here that they make a deal in late 2018, although it will take a swallowing of pride on the part of the Flames to do so. And that's not always a gulp that Brian Burke franchises are keen on taking.
5. The offside coach's challenge review gets further defanged
We've already seen one rule passed in the past year that tried to limit the use of coach's challenges for offside reviews on goals, because essentially the NHL has smartened up to the notion that human error isn't the devil, taking goals off the board is counterproductive and the best intentions for the rule -- to rid the game of egregious blown offside calls -- have been smothered in an unending parade of pixel-counting myopia.
Will they dump it? Nah. That horse left the barn and is trotting to the next state. But here's where I think they'll inject further common sense into the rule: by adding a tweak so that time of possession in the offensive zone helps mitigate offside reviews. Because it's palpably stupid that a skate that's a half-inch over the line can negate a goal scored 15 seconds later.
6. John Carlson becomes 2018's most coveted UFA
The unrestricted free-agent market for defensemen has some interesting names: Mike Green (32), Toby Enstrom (33) and Jack Johnson (30), as well as Calvin de Haan (26). But the really intriguing one is Washington Capitals backliner John Carlson. He turns 28 in January. His base salary is $4 million. He's 23rd among defensemen in scoring over the past three seasons and tied for 75th in salary this season.
Even if Carlson wants to remain with the Capitals -- and that's a distinct possibility -- how can he not test the waters, given that Kevin Shattenkirk emerged with an $8 million salary last summer?
7. The Mike Peluso trial incriminates the NHL
Former New Jersey Devils enforcer Mike Peluso has a workers' compensation lawsuit against New Jersey, Calgary, the Ottawa Senators and the St. Louis Blues, claiming that he suffered a string of seizures while playing in the NHL that were ignored by the teams. He now has permanent brain damage.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly and former Devils' general manager Lou Lamoriello were all subpoenaed to give depositions in the case.
For all the attention the concussion lawsuit against the NHL has gotten, it could be this case that ends up making the league look worse -- especially when there's an appetite for any and all incriminating emails and documents from the NHL with regard to CTE and concussion protocols. It's certainly one to watch.
8. Nashville Gets An Outdoor Game
The Predators -- who, again, I predicted would not make the playoffs -- could potentially win their first Stanley Cup this season, and will be loaded for the next several seasons. The casual-fan interest in the team, especially when they play at home in front of those inebriated die-hards, is significant.
So there's no better time to put the Predators in an outdoor game. But not the Winter Classic.
Sadly, the combination of the Music City Bowl (Dec. 29) and potential Tennessee Titans games make it really, really difficult to schedule a hockey game in Nissan Stadium on Jan. 1. So the prediction here is a Stadium Series game in February for Nashville at Nissan.
That scratches the "nontraditional market" itch for fans who have criticized the league for ignoring them when it comes to outdoor games. But this being the NHL, you know that there will have to be an Original Six franchise across the ice from them to pump up the crowd and the ratings.
9. Manon Rheaume makes the Hall Of Fame
At an NHL event in September, I met a young girl named Dorothy who plays for a youth hockey team in Englewood, N.J. The reason she first laced up the skates? Someone who hasn't played since 2009 -- Manon Rheaume, the first and only woman to play for an NHL team. She did so during the 1992 and 1993 exhibition seasons for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"She was in the 1992 Olympics, a Canadian gold medalist. She just inspired me a whole lot. And then one day, I just randomly came home and told my mom I wanted to play ice hockey," Dorothy said.
The Hockey Hall of Fame Builders category is a collection of ex-coaches and owners and old dudes the selection committee wants to honor because they've had beers with them. The spirit of the category is to honor individuals who have "contributed to the development of the game of hockey and, as the name refers, one who has built the game forward."
With the growth of women's hockey, there's no better time to induct Rheaume into the Hall of Fame as an inspiration to countless young players over the past two decades. Especially on the 25th anniversary of her last NHL appearance.
Speaking of final NHL appearances ...
10. Jaromir Jagr retires
Yeah, this might be it. The injuries are piling up, and he has one goal in 19 games for the Calgary Flames. We shall weep in our mullets if this is the end for Jagr, who turns 46 next February. But at least Jags got one more kick at the can in the NHL before leaving for a life of poker games, Instagram trysts and a unanimous selection to the Hall of Fame.
The awful Sabres and the Winter Classic
Will you make time on New Year's Day to watch a last-place hockey team?
The Buffalo Sabres will enter their Winter Classic game against the New York Rangers at Citi Field with the worst record in the Eastern Conference. Obviously, the NHL had no idea they'd be an abject disaster when they gave them the 2018 Classic -- although, frankly, that didn't matter, since this appearance was a belated 'thank you' for hosting the first one.
It falls to NBC to try to polish this turd, which is what their talent attempted to do in a recent conference call. Here are their attempts:
"We didn't expect the Sabres to be where they are right now, but in the same breath, there's something about a big stage that makes people play a little bit better. It will create better competition. Hopefully, the Sabres step up and want to show they're better than their record indicates." -- Sam Flood, NBC executive producer
"I think it's almost irrelevant now. I think Sam put it right that these players are going to play on a big stage in front of a crowd as big as they've ever played before. I think they will be extraordinarily motivated. I think, despite the fact they've stumbled along, the Sabres will rise to the occasion. ... I think all bets are off in these games as to who's going to win them. I think there will be a level of intensity from the Sabres knowing that they're playing on New Year's Day in front of a national television audience that will get their game in gear and provide us with a kind of show that I think this day deserves." -- Mike Milbury, NBC analyst
"This game should be a launching point for Jack Eichel, Ryan O'Reilly, and for Rasmus Ristolainen. Those are the three young players -- along with Sam Reinhart. I should say four young players on that team that need to be the catalyst to engineer this rebuild. I think they're going to be challenged by their coach as an organization to show that on a national stage, and I think this will be the perfect vehicle for those players to develop the proper branding they need going forward." -- Pierre McGuire, NBC analyst
So there you have it, folks: Tune into the 2018 Winter Classic to see Rasmus Ristolainen develop his proper branding. Sold!
Refocusing on Zac Rinaldo
The NHL Department of Player Safety suspended Arizona Coyotes forward Zac Rinaldo for six games for a sucker punch on Colorado Avalanche defenseman Samuel Girard. It should have been at least 10 games; but when you look through the department's recent history, punches to unsuspecting opponents barely earn two-game suspensions. Heck, most of them simply result in a fine.
This Rinaldo play is one of those disconnects between those of us who want goons like Rinaldo punished for his continuing maliciousness and the former players running the DoPS that see this as some warped "hockey play" within the fighting code.
But the reason I wanted to mention Rinaldo was for these types of reactions:
Zac Rinaldo has 3 points this season. His career high is 9 points. He's been suspended 5 times. Can someone tell me what he brings to a hockey team?
- Jesse Montano (@jessemontano_) December 24, 2017
- Jimmy Murphy (@MurphysLaw74) December 24, 2017
No one who employs Zac Rinaldo is looking for him to score. They want him playing eight minutes a night, causing chaos, agitating opponents and throwing his body around like he did on the Nathan MacKinnon hit that started this recent nonsense. Asking why Rinaldo doesn't have more career points is like asking why Johnny Gaudreau doesn't have more career fighting majors. It's not his gig.
But about that gig: If you're someone who is enraged by this incident, and the target of your ire is the NHL Department of Player Safety, you'd best recalibrate. Zac Rinaldo has been given four NHL contracts in his career. None of them were signed by the Department of Player Safety. The Boston Bruins traded for him after he served eight games in 2015 for a hit on Kris Letang. The Arizona Coyotes signed him despite four suspensions in six NHL seasons and a five-game suspension in the AHL in 2016.
There's a really easy way for Zac Rinaldo's career to end: If NHL teams stop paying him to be Zac Rinaldo.
(This is, in the end, an argument for punitive damages for coaches and executives when their goons get rung up for long suspensions. Hey, if we ding a coach when his player dives too often, why not for something substantially more significant?)
Eric Engels is writing off the Montreal Canadiens' season: "The Canadiens have to win 30 of their remaining 44 games to break past the 95-point mark. That's what it took to qualify for a playoff spot in the East last season." [Sportsnet]
A rather charming piece about Golden Knights players asking Santa for hockey stuff. [Las Vegas Review Journal]
Really enjoyed Mike Zeisberger on the late Johnny Bower. [NHL.com]
The "Chulettes" -- former Team Canada captain Caroline Ouellette and former Team USA captain Julie Chu -- owned Christmas. [Instagram]
Finally, Slovakia's celebration after their World Juniors win over the U.S. on Thursday night was ... something.
CHECK THIS OUT: Team Slovakia celebrate their incredible win over Team USA (@usahockey) with one of the best chants we've ever heard.
- IIHF (@IIHFHockey) December 29, 2017
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)
The New York Times explores the USHL and its allure for European players. [NYT]
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
Really cool feature on Madison Square Garden, changing three times in one day for different events.