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2014 Bold Predictions: Everyone hunting Hawks

The SportsXchange

The National Hockey League kicked off 2013 by bringing an end to the lockout on Jan. 6. A jam-packed six months of action on the ice culminated with the Chicago Blackhawks stunning the Boston Bruins in the final seconds of Game 6 to win their fifth Stanley Cup.

So what does 2014 have in store for NHL fans? The Sports Xchange polled its beat writers for a bold prediction for all 30 teams.

EASTERN CONFERENCE:

ATLANTIC DIVISION

Boston Bruins: Haunted by the trade that sent center Tyler Seguin to Dallas and with left winger Loui Eriksson, the primary return in the deal, continuing to deal with concussion issues, the Bruins battle through a host of injury problems and win the Stanley Cup for the second time in four years. Coach Claude Julien continues to deny he'll be running for mayor in the next election and Bruins fans continue to miss Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito -- except for the young fans who don't know who they are.

Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres finish with the worst record in the league, but show some strides under interim coach Ted Nolan. Buffalo adds Boston Bruins assistant Jim Benn as its new general manager under President of Hockey Operations Pat LaFontaine, and he'll have plenty of work to do. Even though his contract is wrapping up, goaltender Ryan Miller will re-sign with the Sabres and provide a much-needed foundation for the future.

Detroit Red Wings: After struggling at home and in shootouts and suffering so many injuries that, at one point, eight regulars were out in the 2013 portion of the season, the Red Wings get healthy and get back on track. Goal scoring was also an issue early in the season, but Detroit finds a way to score enough to comfortably reach the playoffs and make a surprising run to the East final.

Florida Panthers: At the trading deadline, the Panthers dump whatever veterans they can find value for, including goaltender Tim Thomas and defensemen Brian Campbell and Mike Weaver. The Panthers again fail to make the playoffs but continue trying to stockpile young and skilled forwards such as the ones they already have -- Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad. Also part of the young nucleus are defensemen Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov and goalie Jacob Markstrom. The Panthers are headed in the right direction, it's just that they are taking the city bus instead of a race car.

Montreal Canadiens: Winger Max Pacioretty totals a career-high 38 goals with an impressive second-half scoring surge. The Canadiens finish third in the Atlantic Division with a 46-27-9 record and 101 points for their second 100-point campaign since 1992-93, when they won their 24th Stanley Cup. Montreal wins its first playoff series since 2010, but a second-round exit extends the worst Cup drought in team history to 20 years.

Ottawa Senators: Despite a strong second half that lifted them into the playoffs, the Senators' opening round elimination has the team looking to improve its leadership core in the offseason. Armed with a new one-year contract that is expected to be his last before retirement, 71-year old general manager Bryan Murray is determined to add an experienced forward or two, either through the free agent market or by trade. Goaltender Craig Anderson is his primary bargaining chip, as it's clear Robin Lehner is ready to take over the No. 1 duties.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Able to do far better than just treading water after losing two-time scoring champion Steven Stamkos to a broken right leg Nov. 11, the Lightning earn an Atlantic Division playoff spot and are a complete menace in the postseason. Tampa Bay lacks offensive consistency even with Stamkos healthy, but its speed and potential for goal-scoring binges makes it an unwelcome draw in a series once he returns healthy and eager in February.

Toronto Maple Leafs: The return from injury of centers Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland, an improved defense through second-half trades and the goaltending tandem of James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier put the Maple Leafs into the playoffs for the second consecutive year. This time they make it to the second round before being eliminated in overtime in the seventh game.

METROPOLITAN DIVISION

Carolina Hurricanes: With a season defined by fluctuating lineups, the Hurricanes might be ready to settle on a goaltender and use the leftovers as trade bait as they seek that ever-elusive puck-moving defenseman to help jump-start their offense. The Hurricanes will teeter on the playoff bubble for most of the season because that's their normal mode of operation, but they are likely to miss out on the postseason again and that could signal changes for a franchise that needs playoff funds in order to piece together a solid lineup.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Let's be honest, the Blue Jackets are trying to rebuild on the fly, it is just that the 19-5-5 finish to last season caught everybody -- even the suits in Nationwide Arena -- by surprise. This team has talent, but it's young and burgeoning -- ready to follow, but not yet ready to lead. Hence, no captain. And there won't be one this season. This team has no idea what to do with winger Marian Gaborik, who's spending the final year of his contract (and his final year in Columbus) on the shelf with major injuries, first his knee and now his broken collarbone. This team goofed around and nearly made the playoffs last season. The Metropolitan Division is so bad, they might just goof around and make it this season if goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky can regain form when he returns from a groin injury in January.

New Jersey Devils: After months of inconsistency, the Devils get healthy and make a late push to grab the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They upset the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round on the strength of goaltender Cory Schneider's outstanding play. That momentum does not carry over into the next round, however, as they will be eliminated by the Montreal Canadiens. The series, and the career of Martin Brodeur, will come to an end at the Bell Centre.

New York Islanders: Another rebuilding project begins for the Islanders, who miss the postseason for the seventh time in the last eight years and end up with a top-five pick for the fifth time in six years. Coach Jack Capuano loses his job but general manager Garth Snow keeps his and makes everyone except captain John Tavares available as he hunts for the franchise goaltender and top four defensemen the Islanders so desperately need.

New York Rangers: Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist rebounds from his poor first half after signing a seven-year, $59.5 million contract extension in December to lead the Rangers deep into the playoffs. Lundqvist backstops Sweden into the medal round at the Winter Olympics in February en route to his ninth straight season of at least 20 wins -- the most of any active NHL goalie.

Philadelphia Flyers: Inspired by his spectacular game-winning goal to cap a late comeback that finally put the team over .500 in late December, Claude Giroux plays like the "best player in the world" former coach Peter Laviolette once labeled him and carries the Flyers into the playoffs as the Eastern Conference's sixth seed. They ride the hot goaltending of Steve Mason to advance to the Stanley Cup final only to lose again to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games as backup Ray Emery, filling in for the injured Mason, allows a soft overtime goal in the clinching game.

Pittsburgh Penguins: As they gradually get healthier, the Penguins will lap the field in the Metropolitan Division while center Sidney Crosby wins his second career scoring title and first since 2006-07. The Penguins will make a strong run at the Stanley Cup but come up short in the Eastern Conference finals, losing in six games to the Boston Bruins, the same team that eliminated the Pens in the semifinals last season.

Washington Capitals: After narrowly missing his quest to score 50 goals in 50 games, Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin leads Russia to a gold medal in the Winter Olympics in his home country and goes on a late-season tear to becomes the ninth player in NHL history to score 70 goals. The feat is overshadowed when the Capitals are eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the playoffs.

WESTERN CONFERENCE:

CENTRAL DIVISION

Chicago Blackhawks: Even with their top two goaltenders -- Corey Crawford and backup Nikolai Khabibulin -- missing a substantial part of the first half of the season with injuries, the Blackhawks just keep rolling toward a second consecutive Stanley Cup championship and third in the last five seasons. Rookie Antti Raanta has been exceptional filling in for Crawford, giving the Hawks and their fans piece of mind that the net is in good hands. Plus, leading the league in wins and points for much of the first-half bodes well toward continuing that way toward the championship.

Colorado Avalanche: The Avalanche have a logjam at center, so look for them to move one of their top-line players before the trading deadline with an eye on ending a four-year playoff drought. The most likely candidate would be Paul Stastny, who has high trade value and is the elder statesman among a young group of centers. Colorado would want depth at wing or defense in return, especially with lingering injuries to left winger Alex Tanguay and defenseman Ryan Wilson.

Dallas Stars: In Year One with Jim Nill as general manager and Lindy Ruff as coach, the Stars narrowly missed snapping their five-year playoff drought. Dallas' top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and rookie Valeri Nichushkin, a Calder Trophy finalist, carried them for much of the year. But if any area of the roster needs attention this offseason, it's the defense, a unit that rocked by a rash of injuries.

Minnesota Wild: With the playoffs looming and the Wild's chances of playing in May at risk due to their inability to win on the road in the stacked Western Conference, Minnesota general manager Chuck Fletcher pulls the big trigger at the trade deadline, sending center Mikko Koivu and a package of draft picks to the Islanders, bringing former University of Minnesota star winger Thomas Vanek "home" to the State of Hockey.

Nashville Predators: With injuries and a lack of firepower turning Nashville into a sub-.500 outfit, fans are growing more impatient with the general manager-coach combo of David Poile and Barry Trotz. One of the two won't be around for a 16th season and the guess here is that it will be Trotz, who is highly regarded around the league and should have little trouble getting another gig, ala Lindy Ruff.

St. Louis Blues: The Blues ride a career-year from forward Alexander Steen and break the franchise record of 51 wins in a season, set in the 1999-2000 season, when they won the President's Cup. The Blues advance to the Western Conference finals for the first time since the 2000-01 season but fall short in reaching the Stanley Cup final for the first time since 1970.

Winnipeg Jets: The Jets linger along the .500 line for most of the season, but that won't cut it in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. Destined to miss the postseason for the third straight year since flying north to Winnipeg, the club will trade some of its bit parts at the deadline but won't deal a core guy, like an Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien or Tobyb Enstrom -- all remnants of the Atlanta Thrashers -- until the summer. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff might contemplate replacing coach and media darling Claude Noel after three mediocre seasons.

PACIFIC DIVISION

Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks lead the powerhouse Pacific Division for the majority of the season, but tail off late. Their physical style of play takes its toll as the season drags on and injuries mount. After being overtaken by the Los Angeles Kings for the division title, the Ducks are upset by the San Jose Sharks in the first round of the playoffs.

Calgary Flames: The teardown isn't done yet. As he searches for a new general manager, Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke will be taking calls on all of his veteran players. Soon-to-be unrestricted free agents such as left winger Michael Cammalleri, center Matt Stajan and right winger Lee Stempniak will definitely be available as the trade deadline approaches, but don't be surprised to see other guys on the move, too. Rookie center Sean Monahan headlines a very short list of Flames that Burke would balk at trading.

Edmonton Oilers: Tired of being perennial doormats and worried about waning attendance and the organization's battered reputation, general manager Craig MacTavish will make some of the "bold moves" he promised when he took over the team last year, trading 2013 first overall draft pick Nail Yakupov as well as Edmonton's first pick in this year's draft (which will likely be a lottery pick). The Oilers are desperate for a big forward and good defenseman and will finally move some of their precious assets in an attempt to acquire the pieces they need.

Los Angeles Kings: With the league's stingiest defense led by Norris Trophy contender Drew Doughty, the Kings are primed to avenge their elimination in the Western Conference Final by Chicago last spring. Los Angeles is near the top of the standings by grinding out victories and getting balanced scoring despite losing former Conn Smythe winner goaltender Jonathan Quick in late November. If general manager Dean Lombardi can find a way to bring in a top six forward by the trade deadline, the Kings will celebrate their second Stanley Cup in three years.

Phoenix Coyotes: Center Shane Doan, the captain and soul of the clubhouse, was leading the team in scoring when he was diagnosed with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and his loss has been felt in the rugged Western Conference. It is a different Coyotes team this season; they score in bunches but give up goals at the same rate. If goaltender Mike Smith regains his form, however, a reprise of the run to the 2012 Western finals is certainly within reach.

San Jose Sharks: After qualifying for the postseason for an 11th straight season and selling out every home game in 2013-14, general manager Doug Wilson will reward the faithful and the loyal local following by finding a way to re-sign potential unrestricted free agents center Joe Thornton (three years), left winger Patrick Marleau (three years) and defenseman Dan Boyle (two years) to keep the older core intact with the younger talent on the roster already signed to multi-year deals (center Logan Couture, center Joe Pavelski, right winger Brent Burns and defenseman Marc-Eduoard Vlasic).

Vancouver Canucks: After first-round exits the previous two seasons, the Canucks fired coach Alain Vigneault and replaced him with fiery John Tortorella. Meanwhile, goaltender Cory Schneider's draft-day trade to New Jersey restored Roberto Luongo's No. 1 status between the pipes. Trying to display his best behavior, Tortorella produced mixed results before Christmas, as the Canucks battled through a nine-game losing streak and then confounded their critics by going on a seven-game victory run and getting points in eight straight. But there has been little doubting Luongo's re-emergence as an elite NHL netminder. Due to divisional realignment, though, the Canucks will not cruise to home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs as they have in recent seasons. Instead, they'll spend most of their time battling to ensure they stay in the top eight in the Western Conference.
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