Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Magnificent 5 Say Goodbye

While I do love writing, especially here, my first love in the sports media world has always been broadcasting. And for broadcasters like me, this has been a fairly incredible year in terms of big names retiring. From Vin Scully announcing his retirement from the Dodgers booth after basically being there forever earlier last spring, to Dick Enberg, Verne Lundquist, Chris Berman and yesterday Brent Musberger, it has been an incredible time to celebrate the careers of five men who essentially created the industry as it's known today.

Even non-sports fans can tell you who Vin Scully and Chris Berman are, and probably the rest too because they have transcended sports in ways that other great broadcasters just haven't. That alone makes the loss of these giants from the broadcast booth particularly difficult, and made a bit tougher by losing so many of them at once. And while Berman, Lundquist and Musberger aren't leaving the sports world entirely, their presence is greatly reduced and they won't be doing what they used to do on a weekly basis.

It's somewhat pointless to go into all of their resume's because they are so well known, but instead I can talk about what they've meant to me. First Vin, who is absolutely eternal. The man can tell stories like no other, and weaved them into the general story of the games he called without much effort. That takes skill. In sports broadcasting, telling stories during downtime is hard to weave in when there is other action going on that needs to be described, and Vin did it perfectly. And he still knew how to call a moment really well and let the pictures tell the story when he had to. That's the tip of the iceberg for him, but in the times I've gotten to listen to him call Dodger games (which sadly wasn't enough), it was an experience you didn't get from almost anywhere else.

I'll always remember Dick Enberg for this: at the 2009 NCAA Tournament in Philadelphia, UCLA was playing VCU in the nightcap of a four game day. Enberg was calling these games for CBS, and during a TV timeout, a cheerleader was walking across the floor on her hands. Enberg rose up over the broadcaster's table and cheered her on. While that's apropos of little in terms of his broadcasting skills, that's a story I'll always remember when it comes to him. His career with NBC was nothing short of brilliant, and he continued it at CBS where he did just about everything from tennis to football and college basketball and beyond. And to wind down his career, he called San Diego Padres games for seven years, and did it as well as anyone has. While he won't be known for that, it shows you his versatility and ability to do it all, and be really good at most everything.

Chris Berman? No one could read highlights like he could. NFL Primetime is eternal, and while his shtick may have gotten old fast when the Primetime we all know and love went away, no one can take away his impact on broadcasting and the NFL itself. It stands to reason that Howard Cosell's halftime highlights started the boll rolling, and Boomer put them over the top, and maybe even the league over the top. The NFL isn't where it is now without him.

Verne Lundquist will be forever linked with SEC football, but I'll always remember him for this:

 Couldn't help myself. But those NCAA Tournament pairings with Bill Raftery were also classic, as well as big moments calling the Masters. He too was as versatile as it gets, but he'll be forever known as the voice of the SEC when the conference took over college football, but he's more than that, as a small 62-7 Jaguars playoff win showed.

And what can you say about Brent Musberger that hasn't already been said. He basically created the live sports studio show with the NFL Today and hosted it as if the format was down pat for years. He called the NBA, college basketball among other items for CBS and was essentially the Bob Costas of his time. And after his very public split with the Tiffany Network, he moved to ABC and still was almost exactly the same tour de force he was at CBS. My memories of him will be forever linked to College Football, especially those Saturday's on ABC where he called the biggest games of the weekend and five straight national title games from 2010-2014 with ESPN, but like everyone else here, he's more than that. And no one could slip in a subtle gambling reference like he could.

All five of them have left their posts that they have been in for what seems like the whole of time, and it's a shame to see them go. But their impact not just on future broadcasters but the entire world of sports can't be understated. Losing one of their voices is tough, but all five practically at once is a tough blow. But with their legacies well established and forming a bedrock of the present an future of the sports industry on TV, all of us are going to continue to live their legacies onward and upward.

These were just my memories and impressions of these five amazing men, and no doubt you'll all have more to share than just these. But to these five: enjoy retirement or your new roles, and know that the world you've left behind is better than when you found it and its in plenty capable hands (outside of me, perhaps).

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Day the World Cup Died?

Hyperbole is often unnecessary garnish to get people to turn their heads, I get that. Even with this situation, the hyperbole is probably not needed. But some situations call for a little extra garnish, and when the inevitable yet still head-scratching news that FIFA is expanding the World Cup from 32 teams to 48 in 2026, maybe the garnish became necessary.

The World Cup has constantly expanded, and despite what many will think, the tournament has only been at 32 teams since 1998. Only seven World Cups will be played with that amount of teams, even though 32 seems like the perfect number. But when the almighty dollar speaks, and politics scratches a certain itch, change is certainly inevitable. Many fans around the globe are wondering this: is the World Cup that we've all come to know and love now dead?

More teams, especially those that have never been able to reach the World Cup, have now a better chance than ever to reach the final tournament, even if their stay there will be pretty short. Largely, those teams are going to come from Africa and Asia, which is a political base that helped Gianni Infantino win election as FIFA President. It's not bad that new teams finally make the tournament, since from those two federations specifically, nine of the 10 qualifying teams were the same in 2010 and 2014. Smaller nations in the Caribbean too could finally return to the tournament since their path in CONCACAF has been blocked by the US, Mexico and Costa Rica in recent cycles.

What about the format? There will be 16 three team groups, and the top two in each will advance to a 32 team knockout stage. That means the amount of games each team can play doesn't change, although in theory, some of them now mean more and mean more earlier, even though the format is really wonky. And since far more than half of the teams that qualify for the tournament make the knockout stage, teams playing mediocre, heading for 0-0 soccer do get rewarded for that. FIFA's own research says the quality of play at the tournament will be diluted, and that's fairly obvious considering worse teams are now entering the fray. And with this process, qualifying for the tournament around the world becomes even more diluted than it is now, especially for teams like the US and Mexico, who barely play enough high stakes games to begin with.

Hopefully, the extra money FIFA is going to make off this expansion actually goes to expand and grow the game around the world, particularly the women's game. And when this money does get distributed to each of the many federations around the world, the average person can know where the cash is going instead of watching greedy executives use it for their own gain instead of the sport's gain. There are other issues too, such as asking even more of the nations who are hosting the tournament (sans the US, China, etc.) and the like, but what the average fan cares about is the quality of play, and the immediate knee-jerk thought is that expansion = dilution.

If FIFA can pull this off, and there's every reason to believe that they can't, then this will be a success. With every expansion of the World Cup (and the Euros), the same concerns come up, and eventually the watching world comes around and becomes settled with the new number. There's no reason to think that won't happen here if FIFA can allocate the extra 16 qualifying slots right and settle on the other details.

There are plenty of reasons to hate this new World Cup expansion, and they're all legitimate. But until we see it in action, and we have nine years of speculation and hand-wringing before we do, every argument is theoretical.

So the World Cup isn't dead as a spectacle... yet, at least. Trusting FIFA to get something right is hard to do, but with so much at stake beyond just money, the world has to hope that they do get this latest expansion right.

Monday, January 2, 2017

My 2016 NFL Season Predictions in Review (with Playoff Predictions)

With every sport I predict in full, I always like to look back on the predictions I made preseason to see how wrong (or right) I was. Normally it's far more wrong than right, but usually one or two decent predictions I make turn out to make me look good for a moment or two. With the 2016 NFL Predictions, I highly doubt I'm going to look that smart. But I have to eat crow publicly for my bad predictions, so that's what I'm going to do.

In the preseason, I said that the NFC East would be "mediocrity personified". Nope. The Giants still ended up making the playoffs, but Dallas surprised everyone courtesy Dak and Zeke. I said Washington would be 7-9, they were 8-7-1. I said Philadelphia would be 5-11, they finished 7-9. In the NFC North, Green Bay did end up winning the division with a slightly less flashy record than 12-4, and Minnesota didn't make the playoffs, though their record was only one game off from where I thought they'd be. Very few thought Carolina and Arizona would fall off the way they did, which is why most of everyone's predictions for those two teams looks really bad. Atlanta stepped up with a ton of great offense, and the Lions ability to pull close games out earlier in the season gave them enough to make the dance.

Over in the AFC, I nailed all of the division winners to a tee, which doesn't make me look all that smart because the AFC was pretty predictable. The Bengals fell off with their injuries and coaching changes, and in stepped the Miami Dolphins, who even without Ryan Tannehill, still found a way to win enough to get into the playoffs, and that's a great accomplishment for Adam Gase and company. The biggest teams I over-estimated were, not surprisingly, the Jaguars and Jets, and we did underrate the Titans to a degree. You read it here first: Tennessee will be the runaway AFC South favorites for years to come.

Before the season, I predicted that Super Bowl 51 would be the Packers and Steelers. While that can still happen, I don't expect it to. Buried in this post, here are my playoff predictions:


Wild Card Round: Houston over Oakland
                              Pittsburgh over Miami

Divisional Round: New England over Houston
                              Pittsburgh over Kansas City

AFC Championship Game: New England over Pittsburgh


Wild Card Round: Seahawks over Lions
                              Giants over Packers

Divisional Round: Falcons over Seahawks
                              Giants over Cowboys

NFC Championship Game: Giants over Falcons

Super Bowl 51: Patriots over Giants


Before we finish, let's take a look at some of my preseason award predictions and see how right or wrong they'll be. My preseason predictions are in italics.

MVP: There will be quite the debate for this award this year. Derek Carr, Ezekiel Elliot, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers are all candidates, and any one of them could win. I personally think it's Ryan's to lose, but I'm probably wrong. My preseason prediction of Ben Roethlisberger (PIT) is wrong, though.

OPOY: I said it would be Odell Beckham (NYG) before the season. He's obviously a candidate, but with Matt Ryan, Tom Brady, the Dallas Duo, David Johnson and others, he's probably not going to win, even though he could.

DPOY: Khalil Mack (OAK) could of course win this award, but he has competition from Von Miller, Eric Berry and others. Because of Oakland's season, he'll probably win it.

OROY: Either Zeke, who I thought would win it before the season, or Dak. Take your pick, neither are wrong, but it probably will be Zeke.

DROY: Jalen Ramsey (JAX) was the best player for the Jaguars on defense this season, and while it doesn't show up in the stats, he was a lockdown corner even as he was misused by the now departing coaching staff. Though that doesn't ensure he'll win the award, because Joey Bosa had better stats and played fewer games. He may even have competition from Yannick Ngakoue on his own team.

Coach: Bill Belichick could win it because his team despite controversy and injury ran through the NFL again with little trouble, but Jack Del Rio should win it because the Raiders were moribund and now aren't, which usually is the automatic qualifier for the award. I said it would be Del Rio before the season, and he can win this award, though he has competition.

Comeback: It won't be Kelvin Benjamin, who I thought would be amazing for a very good Panthers team. It could be Jordy Nelson, who was amazing off his blown out knee last season, or Le'Veon Bell, or a host of others. Upshot: it won't be my guy.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed the 2016 NFL Regular Season (I didn't), and the playoffs to come.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Bowls? Where I'm Going I don't need Bowls

There are too many college football bowl games. This isn't really news to many, since the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl doesn't exactly your blood pumping and adrenaline flowing. They are exhibition games that make a little money for a few executives, give out some somewhat cool schwag to the players and give fans one last chance to see their school play before a nine month absence. But not all players are eager to take the field in New Mexico, or Idaho, or Boca Raton for one last hurrah.

LSU's Leonard Fournette and Stanford's Christian McCaffrey made waves by announcing they'll skip their team's respective bowl games in order to better prepare for the upcoming NFL Draft. Is this a growing trend that will soon be "out-of-control"? Do these players now suddenly have character concerns according to anonymous NFL scouts that will affect their draft stock? Are they actually benefiting from skipping their last chance to get on film before April's Draft? Is this just another chance for people to shout their opinions loudly into the ether?

Fournette and McCaffrey have honed into something that the powers-that-be in college football have known for years: the sport is a cold, hard, business. Conferences, coaches, TV networks, etc. have all treated a supposedly "amateur" sport like a business for decades but the wider world scoffs when a player realizes he can make a business decision too. If schools can jump from conference to conference for money, and coaches can jump from school to school for money, then why can't the players who represent these schools and play for these coaches make the same decisions?

Bowl games obviously don't mean what they used to, simply because there are now so many of them. Playing in the Sun Bowl meant a lot more when it was one of say 17 bowl games instead of 40, and in 2016 the only notable aspect of the Sun Bowl is that its on CBS opposed to ESPN. Sure they might not be happy that McCaffrey decided to skip out on the Sun Bowl, as ABC execs will be displeased that Fournette is skipping out on the Citrus Bowl, but the games will go on without both players and those who are most interested in the games (i.e. the fans and gamblers) will watch anyway.

The cavalcade of former players saying they wouldn't skip bowl games are fine in saying that, but they know as well as everyone else that times have changed as the business of both college and pro football have changed. Bowl games mean less (except in the Playoff), NFL players get paid dramatically more, and so if any player feels his business interests are best served by protecting themselves as an investment in their futures, they are making the same decisions as the bowl game executives who picked the team to come to these exotic locales to play a glorified scrimmage in the first place.

As with many "controversial" aspects of college football, some players aren't suiting their best interests by skipping a bowl game, though they're well within their rights to do so. Fournette and McCaffrey are both likely first round picks, with Fournette possibly a top five selection, so it's less likely that NFL teams will need the game film on these players as opposed to lesser known and lesser touted prospects. Baylor's Shock Linwood is skipping the Cactus Bowl to focus on his NFL Draft propsects, but he is not at a McCaffrey/Fournette level and has also been suspended for "attitude issues". Is he serving his own best interests by skipping the game against Boise State? Doesn't seem likely. That does not mean he isn't within his rights to skip the game, but not every player who makes that decision is making the right one.

Other qualms with these decisions, such as the idea that these athletes are denying other students scholarships therefore they should honor them by playing, don't hold water either. Most of the criticism levied towards players who will skip bowl games come from selfish interests, just like what these players are basing their decisions on. If the NCAA found this to be a serious issue (which it's not, especially since many players who leave early come back and finish their education anyway), then they could remedy the problem offering different scholarships, requiring the players to pay back their tuition (because all of them will clearly make enough to pay back the out of control tuition costs...), etc., but none of those solutions seem even remotely viable. Players leaving school early to declare for the Draft in either the NFL or NBA has become a problem the leagues have taken more of an initiative on, not the NCAA.

Will there soon be an epidemic of players with decent NFL draft prospects skipping lower down bowl games to protect themselves from catastrophic injuries and to better prepare for the months ahead? Probably not. Will there be future players who make this decision? Absolutely. And there will be plenty of internet fights and shouting when those decisions are made just like those that are happening now.

Where Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey are going, they don't need Bowls. But that isn't true for everyone.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Crunching the Numbers

Unless you're a big hockey fan, this news probably slipper under the radar during a big NFL Sunday. The Florida Panthers fired head coach Gerard Gallant after a 3-2 loss in Carolina, which dropped the team to 11-10-1 on the season. You're probably wondering, if you're not intimately familiar with the Florida Panthers, how good was he as a coach? He was very solid in his two+ seasons. 96-65-23 (.583) was his record, and he won only the second division title in franchise history last season and set the single season franchise record for points with 103.

Also this season, Gallant's team has had to deal with a litany of big injuries, such as to Jonathan Huberdeau, who hasn't played all year, Nick Bjugstad, who has only played three games, and slow stars for players like Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov, Keith Yandle, etc. The team hasn't set the world alight, but it's certainly not Islanders or Coyotes bad. So why then has there been such a divisive and stark reaction to this firing of all head coaching changes in the NHL?

The story in Florida goes far deeper than the head coach. Ownership instituted a massive front office re-shuffle after the playoff exit against the Islanders, which "bumped" Dale Tallon to President of Hockey Operations, Tom Rowe to GM (and he's now the head coach, but we'll get to that), Steve Werier and Eric Joyce to AGM's, and fired longtime team employees such as Scott Luce, Mike Dixon, Dave Zenobi, etc. It's no secret in the hockey world that the Panthers have taken more of an analytical approach to building a hockey team, owing to new owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu's background in the Wall Street financial world. Analytics in the hockey world, especially in player personnel decision making is still a sore subject for some in the sport, and with what's been going on in Florida, the "wounds" are cutting even deeper.

Gerard Gallant's unceremonious turfing, and the pictures of him and assistant coach Mike Kelly needing to call a cab in Raleigh after getting the news, set the hockey world on fire. "Mainstream media" is not happy that Gallant, who was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award last year, was fired at all, especially when those in the world of analytics weren't quite as high on Gallant as many in hockey circles are. Combine this with the front office exodus of other "good hockey guys" from May, and the lingering resentment that still exists among some in the sport has now been re-opened.

Are these "hockey people" wrong to be angry at how these front office changes in Florida have gone down? Not necessarily, especially since many saw good friends fired after what was a historic season for the team. But its evident the firing came down in large part because of a fundamental disconnect between how Gallant wanted the team constructed and how the front office wanted it constructed. And while there's an analytic focus in the team's front office, a disconnect between the bench and management is nothing new in the world of hockey, and what this change comes down to is that disconnect became a bridge too far. But that's still not the end of this story.

Whenever there's a personnel move predicated on analytics, a divide emerges between those in the "mainstream media" and bloggers/analysts who are analytics driven in the analysis of the move. This happened with the Toronto Maple Leafs collapse in 2013-14, the Shea Weber trade to Montreal, and a number of other major flashpoints recently. But the divide seems even more stark with this move. Why?

Media members have plenty of friends in the world of hockey who are none too pleased with what the Panthers have been doing. These "hockey people" are not getting the jobs that Eric Joyce, Steve Werier, Matt Caldwell, etc. have been getting. These "army guys" are not well embraced by the "hockey world" because they're not from the "hockey world". The reaction from inside the sport, translated by the "mainstream media" is an extension of a fight or flight reaction to an internal battle in the sport as to whether to accept these "outsiders" in their tight-knit circle or not, and having one team buck custom and trends to such an extreme is a shock to a well established system. This does not mean the reaction is correct, or whether firing Gallant is the right move to get the Panthers on the track towards the team they ultimately want to be, but this is why the reaction has been so strong from one side of the ledger.

Hockey is still in the midst of an analytics revolution that took hold in baseball and basketball well before it, and those in the sport are still struggling to figure out how much of these numbers to use in decision making processes. Some teams don't use the numbers at all, others, like Florida, Toronto and Arizona have gone all-in, and others use them more subtly, like Carolina, Los Angeles and Chicago. Time will tell what path is the "right" one, but in a sport as insular as hockey has been, the introduction of another way is not a welcome introduction.

That's why the divide in reaction to the firing has been so stark. Combined with what else has gone down in Florida this year, the reaction to the move is not surprising. However, the current structure of the team from the front office down is now as ownership wants it, and whether it works remains to be seen.

If it fails, will some in the hockey world be happy? You bet. Whether that's right or not is up for you to decide. Whether it's right for the Panthers to be seen as the guinea pig for whether analytics work as a part of personnel decision making is also up for debate, but it's already beginning to happen.

Such is the situation with the Florida Panthers, and the divide in the hockey world it has widened, from the "hockey people" inside the sport to the media that often pushes their message.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Boy Who Cried Jurgen Klinsmann Should be Fired

This piece is not about Jurgen Klinsmann being fired and getting replaced by Bruce Arena. It's not about his tactics, or his ego and aura of haughty supremacy and holier-than-thou attitude towards his own mistakes. This is about how we as US Soccer fans and media have turned Klinsmann into something he's not: a pantomime villain.

Maybe that characterization is a bit harsh, because Klinsmann did take the US forward in many respects, especially the player pool. But since the 2014 World Cup, performances have been sliding downward, however that doesn't tell the entire story. In Klinsmann's early days, his teams were on the precipice of disaster multiple times, including a qualifying loss at Jamaica in 2012, and that infamous February day in 2013; one that Timmy Chandler wishes everyone forgot. And there still is that Brian Straus piece lying around on the internet that shows not everything was great even at the beginning. But like Rasputin, nothing could kill Klinsmann off because he got the major results when he needed to and kept his job and the team in order.

But after that, every time Klinsmann was put under the microscope, he failed his tests. From the abject horror of the 2015 Gold Cup, to the embarrassment against Brazil not even a month later, and then the CONCACAF Cup disappointment against Mexico, he wasn't able to keep the sugar out. And when he failed, often spectacularly, no one could hide their disdain or willingness to send Klinsmann out. And that is what we're going to talk about here: the legitimate claims of something being wrong yet shrouded by the instant calls for Klinsmann to be sacked.

Of course sacking managers in soccer is nothing novel or new, especially in the international game. Managers are interchanged as often as toothpicks. But there was something about the calls for Klinsmann to be fired after every little mistake in every single game, especially in the big games, that seemed different and excessive. This again is not meant to defend Klinsmann from the criticism he absolutely deserved, but the immediate calls to sack him certainly didn't make the atmosphere around his team any better, especially when the bad results started to stack up.

And what's strange about this phenomenon is it only started after the World Cup. Perhaps, weirdly enough, he doesn't get enough criticism for his team's set-up against Belgium, which required Tim Howard to be Superman in order to just keep the US in the game. And yet they were not too far away from heading to penalties with that Golden Generation. But the honeymoon ended quickly after that game and during the Gold Cup of 2015, every mistake tactically or otherwise was foist upon Klinsmann's head.

He was certainly given more slack privately than Bob Bradley did for similar sins, largely because of the new contract Sunil Gulati handed him, but in the court of public opinion he was fired at least five times for his many tactical failings before he was actually fired. So by the time when he committed the sins that actually caused his downfall, the mob had already figuratively drawn and quartered the man, even though there were legitimate complaints well before the Mexico and Costa Rica games.

Did Klinsmann deserve the criticism he had been given for his many failings? Yes, unquestionably. But since every one of those sins was a fatal offense in the eyes of many, whether they actually were or not (and some certainly were), the analysis of him as a manager and even technical director suddenly became about the fact he should have already been fired even before a ball had been kicked in his next test.

Now that he has been sacked, the question will be whether Bruce Arena is held to a similar standard. He has far less margin for error, but in many ways is more respected than Klinsmann, so how his early results will be judged is a fascinating test to see whether the standards shift for different managers. In theory they shouldn't. But if the US fails to qualify for Russia, will we see opinions such as "Arena couldn't do much with what Klinsmann left him" in full bloom?

This piece is essentially about the opinions of opinions, which is plenty meta, but important to understand how US soccer fans and media view themselves, their national team and how the sport has grown in this country. In many ways we've caught up to the rest of the world now, with the almost daily insistence that Jurgen Klinsmann be fired the final step in our evolution.

But the next question is whether future managers are held to that standard, tactics and otherwise aside. Standards shift and change based on the times, but should they? When the goal is beyond just making the World Cup, maybe not.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

2016-17 NHL Season Predictions

With my MLB postseason predictions already down the toilet, it's nice to have another set of predictions to make almost immediately in order to wash that bad taste out of my mouth. And what a set of predictions it is... the 2016-17 NHL season is finally here. There are so many great young players, new faces, exciting teams and more to be primed for. It seems like the standard of play is rising as more teams try to emulate the Penguins model for winning the Stanley Cup, and that can only make the hockey better. There is a lot of predicting to do, so let's get to the predicting, shall we?

Metropolitan Division:
1. Washington
2. Pittsburgh
3. Philadelphia
4. New York Islanders
5. New York Rangers
6. Carolina
7. New Jersey
8. Columbus

Blurb: The Penguins are the defending Stanley Cup Champs, and on paper they're almost exactly the same team from last year. Sidney Crosby's concussion is obviously a major concern for the start of this season, and could dig them a hole in a battle for eventual home-ice in the playoffs against Washington. But even with that said, all signs point to the Pens and Caps battling again for supremacy in this division. This season could be the last with these Capitals as currently constructed, and with some good tweaks to their bottom six, is this the year they finally break through? It feels honestly like they're due. Below them, Philadelphia's move to get younger and faster will pay dividends as they move up the standings, and become one of the league's more interesting teams to follow all season. Both the Islanders and Rangers were playoff teams last season, but there seem to be increasing odds that one of them will miss the dance this year. Replacing Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen with Jason Chimera and Andrew Ladd isn't exactly making things better, though some of the young talent they have is very exciting. They also have a much better defense corps than the Rangers do, which is critical. The Rangers could sneak into the dance because their forward group is younger and more exciting than ever, which could distract from the fact that they do have one of the worst D groups in the league.

Carolina's slow build is getting closer to bearing fruit, and while they're not making the postseason this year, they will continue steady improvement towards getting there soon. Bill Peters is one of my favorite NHL coaches for his emphasis on puck possession and now that he has a better roster, things could be fun out in Raleigh. New Jersey with Taylor Hall is a slightly better version of what they were a year ago, and Corey Schneider's presence keeps them just out of the Nolan Patrick sweepstakes. Columbus on the other hand...

1. Tampa Bay
2. Florida
3. Montreal
4. Boston
5. Detroit
6. Buffalo
7. Ottawa
8. Toronto

Blurb: Steve Yzerman is a wizard, by the way. Tampa would have won this division if not for Steven Stamkos' injury last year, and with a (hopefully) full cast, they should likely waltz this year. Florida's surprising division win last year was a surprising twist to some (though not me, because I thought they'd make the postseason), but this year they have expectations after an unexpected front office shakeup and a radically remade D group. Injuries to Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad are going to hurt them from the start, but they still have enough talent, good coaching and Roberto Luongo to hold off Montreal and Boston for second. The Habs are going downhill, though the effects of that might not be felt for a few years yet. In the meantime, if Carey Price plays a majority of the Habs games, they will make the postseason with ease, though dealing with the Bolts and Cats will be a tough ask. Boston is in a very similar position to the Rangers, but playing in a worse division from top to bottom gives them a chance to sneak into the postseason after narrowly missing out the last two.

Detroit's amazing postseason streak comes to an end this year because their roster is nowhere near what it once was. Signing aging veterans and not giving the keys to the Mantha's, Larkin's and Athanasiou's yet is a mistake. They're heading for mediocrity fast. Buffalo could make some serious improvements again, but the injury to Jack Eichel is a major concern. They could challenge for a playoff spot for a bit before fading. Ottawa is a major wild card because of Guy Boucher, and I wouldn't be surprised if they're a playoff team this year despite roster issues that are well documented. And Toronto's youth movement continues, and they will be better than they have been, though probably still not very good.

1. Nashville
2. Dallas
3. St. Louis
4. Chicago
5. Minnesota
6. Colorado
7. Winnipeg

Blurb: After making the PK Subban trade, the Preds are not only one of the most likable teams in the league (if not the most), they're also probably the best. Their D corps is absolutely amazing and at the top of their powers, and while that's never been an issue, now they have the forwards to match such as Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, Kevin Fiala, James Neal, etc. They aren't a trendy pick anymore; they are favorites. Behind them, Dallas will still have their run-and-gun offense with the same goaltending and defense issues behind Benn/Seguin/Spezza et al. That'll be good enough for the playoffs, but much beyond that who knows. St. Louis is in a transition year away from Ken Hitchcock, but they still are a playoff team at the very least. Adding Nail Yakupov in a trade from Edmonton is certainly going to help, especially if he and Vladimir Tarasenko can establish chemistry.

How about those Blackhawks? After last year's Game 7 loss to the Blues, they are in one of their biggest transition seasons since their run began eight years ago, and the bottom six certainly feels like it. Unless some of those youngsters and journeymen play above their heads, they have a mountain to climb in the NHL's deepest division, though they'll still make the playoffs since the Pacific is a trash heap. And while Bruce Boudreau always wins divisions, he won't this year with this Minnesota but the playoffs still seem likely. They aren't all that different from last year, but with a better coach they'll succeed, at least relatively. Colorado will make a marked improvement in their play now that Patrick Roy is out, and they could easily make the playoffs though they have so many teams to jump. And finally, while Winnipeg's youth is exciting and plentiful, they don't quite have enough to get through everyone else in the division, thanks in large part to Jacob Trouba's holdout.

1. San Jose
2. Los Angeles
3. Calgary
4. Anaheim
5. Edmonton
6. Arizona
7. Vancouver

Blurb: Now that the Sharks playoff hoodoo is officially gone, how do they follow up their trip to the Stanley Cup Final? It helps that their division is a trash heap, meaning they don't have to do much to win it, though they never seem to. The last ride for Marleau and Thornton will at least continue for one more season. LA's Cup runs seem more and more distant as the roster continues to decay and get older, though they clearly have enough in this division to make the dance. And finding that third team to round it all off was a tough decision. Calgary underachieved dramatically last year, and finally has decent goaltending, while Anaheim has the roster and pedigree, yet hired Randy Carlyle and could be an epic disaster, and Edmonton has a hopefully healthy Connor but still a rancid D corps and questions between the pipes... I ended up going with Calgary third because my memories of the 2015 playoffs are still vivid and I want the Ducks to be punished for making incredibly stupid decisions and essentially firing Bruce Boudreau for not winning Game 7's. Edmonton will have their flashes, but they aren't ready yet.

Though Arizona won't be very good just yet, they have the best assemblage of young talent in the league, and you'll get to see it most every night. Duclair, Domi, Dvorak, Crouse, Chychrun and more is coming too. And Vancouver... Nolan Patrick is really good and you should watch the Brandon Wheat Kings this season.

Playoff Predictions:


(A1) Tampa Bay over (WC2) NY Rangers in 5
(A2) Florida over (A3) Montreal in 7

(M1) Washington over (WC1) NY Islanders in 6
(M2) Pittsburgh over (M3) Philadelphia in 6

(A1) Tampa Bay over (A2) Florida in 6
(M1) Washington over (M2) Pittsburgh in 7 (just to slay all the demons)

(M1) Washington over (A1) Tampa Bay in 7


(C1) Nashville over (WC2) Minnesota in 5
(C3) St. Louis over (C2) Dallas in 6

(P1) San Jose over (WC1) Chicago in 6
(P2) LA over (P3) Calgary in 5

(C1) Nashville over (C3) St. Louis in 6
(P1) San Jose over (P2) LA in 5

(C1) Nashville over (P1) San Jose in 6

2017 Stanley Cup Final:

(M1) Washington over (C1) Nashville in 5

Yep, the Caps finally do it, and they do it by beating Barry Trotz's former team.

Award Predictions:

Hart: Alex Ovechkin
Norris: Erik Karlsson
Calder: Patrik Laine
Vezina: Carey Price
Jack Adams: Bill Peters
Rocket Richard: Alex Ovechkin
Art Ross: Connor McDavid

So here they are. Please feel free as always to tell me how wrong I am.