With the 2011-12 season ending Saturday, Scott Burnside looks back at the burning questions we had at the start of the season:
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.
Burnside: Let's start with what turned out to be a no-brainer. After knee surgery that cost him the last half of last season and the playoffs, offseason reports suggested Malkin was primed for a monster season, and all three of us believed it would be so. And, lo and behold, it was so. Malkin is running away with the Art Ross Trophy as the leading scorer and is the odds-on favorite to land his first Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. Kudos to Custance for predicting that Malkin was Hart-bound.
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.
Burnside: This one didn't pan out exactly the way the three of us had imagined. Given the Lightning's inspired run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final last season, the thinking at the start of the season was that they were ready to battle perennial Southeast Division champion Washington for division honors. Maybe not. The Lightning suffered from inadequate goaltending and overall shortcomings in terms of team defense, fell back in the standings and weren't really a factor in the playoff race at all, let alone the division race. Meanwhile, the Caps fired Bruce Boudreau and then struggled under Dale Hunter, securing a playoff berth only after Game 81 Thursday night. Strangely, they still have a shot to win their fifth straight Southeast Division title on the final night of the regular season, as the Florida Panthers have opened the door with their lackluster play down the stretch. Bottom line, though, is that neither Tampa nor Washington represents the kind of contender all three of us imagined them to be.
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.
Burnside: A tip of the cap to Mr. LeBrun, who believed that the New Jersey captain would remain a Devil at least through this regular season. Custance and I thought the Devils would end up trading the team's most important forward, assuming he wouldn't sign a contract extension during the season (which he didn't). In fact, both of us believed he would land in Los Angeles. Parise did not have a no-move, no-trade clause and can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, leading to much speculation at the start of the season that president and GM Lou Lamoriello would be forced to move the prime asset at the deadline instead of watching him walk away on July 1. But that was never really an option for a Devils team that has been in the thick of the playoff hunt in the Eastern Conference all season and has settled nicely into the sixth seed. There was also the issue of the team's miserable financial situation and infighting among the team's ownership group. The bottom line is that the cash-strapped Devils were and are desperate for playoff revenues, so trading Parise became a nonfactor, even if the odds still suggest he will hit the open market this summer.
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.
Burnside: In general, all three of us were cautiously optimistic that Jagr would work out to the Flyers' benefit. While he has battled some core body issues, Jagr has been a hit in Philadelphia with his attitude, work ethic and chemistry on the team's top line with Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell, who has enjoyed a career season with 37 goals. I wildly overestimated Heatley's ability to jump back to form, suggesting the 40-goal mark was an attainable goal. Maybe over two years, as the two-time 50-goal man is on pace for his lowest goal total (he has 23) in any full season in the league. Worse, the Wild went from first overall in the NHL in the middle of the season to the nether regions of the Western Conference in large part because they didn't receive timely scoring from guys like Heatley.
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.
Burnside: All three of us assumed that the oft-maligned Vancouver netminder (and Vezina Trophy nominee last year, go figure) would rebound after his disastrous turn in the Stanley Cup finals cost the Canucks what would have been their first Cup win. LeBrun suggested Luongo might even lead the NHL in wins (he has 30, tied for 14th). Not sure any of us foresaw the angst that would envelop the team's fan base as we approach the playoffs, though. The Canucks have a shot at the top seed in the Western Conference and the Presidents' Trophy, but you'd never know it. Luongo's penchant for the odd stinker -- he was jeered by the hometown crowd after being given the hook in a game earlier this week -- coupled with the otherworldly play of backup Cory Schneider has fans clamoring for Schneider to be anointed starter. GM Mike Gillis said on the radio this week that Luongo would start in Game 1 of the playoffs. As for Game 2, that's anyone's guess.
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.
Burnside: All three of us liked the Sharks to finish ahead of their Californian brethren, and it could happen: The Sharks play the Kings in the final game of the regular season and trail the Kings by a slender point. Still, it has been an up-and-down ride for the Sharks, and for a while it seemed they might miss the playoffs.
None of us anticipated the rocky start to the season that would sink the Anaheim Ducks' playoff chances and cost Randy Carlyle his job. After a spirited run under new coach Bruce Boudreau, the Ducks have settled back into the pack, and they were a disappointing 13th in the conference even though all three of us thought they would be a lock to make the playoffs.
The Kings were a surprise in many ways, too, as they struggled to score early on, which led to the firing of Terry Murray and the hiring of GM Dean Lombardi's old San Jose pal Darryl Sutter as a replacement. The Kings and Sharks look to be teams not to be taken lightly in the playoffs, even if they didn't arrive at this point in the manner expected.
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 Reimer 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.
Burnside: It turns out it was Davis Payne who was fired in St. Louis after just 13 games. Wilson, of course, didn't last the season and was pushed over the side by his longtime friend and GM Brian Burke in early March after the Leafs had flamed out of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference in spectacular fashion. Still, Wilson hung on longer than Payne, Bruce Boudreau in Washington, Randy Carlyle (who took over for Wilson in Toronto) in Anaheim, Paul Maurice in Carolina, Scott Arniel in Columbus and Terry Murray in Los Angeles. In the end, guess that's not saying much.
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.
Burnside: Predicting how the ownership situation was going to play out in Phoenix has always been a bit of a mug's game, and it was no different this season as the sad, tawdry saga continues even now to play out in the desert. LeBrun suggested the team's ownership situation would be settled and the team would stay in Glendale, and that might still happen. I suggested it would be messy, which was a little like guessing that Tuesday will follow Monday, but it has been.
Glendale mayor Elaine Scruggs recently suggested the league has misled the municipality and should give back some of the money, and the city has put in escrow to cover costs again this season. Still, there's no ownership group in sight to keep the team in Glendale (although multiple sources insist a deal is closer than people think), and with a new arena assured in Quebec City, the clock appears to be ticking down, finally, to a resolution one way or another for the Coyotes.
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.
Burnside: With the cameras rolling for a second season during the lead-up to the Winter Classic in Philadelphia on Jan. 2 between the Rangers and Flyers, there were lots of candidates for screen grabber. I picked Pronger, although his injury made him an afterthought as far as the HBO folks were concerned. Custance picked Tortorella, who was wildly entertaining. Talbot, who had been a natural the year before when he was in Pittsburgh, was LeBrun's pick. None of us, though, anticipated the emergence of Mr. Universe, Ilya Bryzgalov, whose contemplations on the nature of the cosmos and the beauty of his dog (and his children) juxtaposed with his struggles on the ice made for compelling theater, even if it was at times theater of the absurd.
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.
Burnside: This is a good way to close. I got lucky and predicted that Detroit would host the game in the Big House at the University of Michigan. We did not, however, foresee the introduction of Canadian content into the hitherto-American-only event, as the Leafs will play the visitors in next year's big outdoor festival.