Monday, 22 August 2011

Leafs and the Prediction Game


TORONTO (Aug. 22) - Let us begin, today, by offering prayers and condolences to the family and friends of Jack Layton - leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada - who succumbed to cancer early this morning at 61 years of age. I never met the man, nor have I ever gotten deeply immersed in the Canadian political environment. That said, it was impossible - living in this country - not to know who Jack Layton was; not to admire his boundless energy, and not to marvel at the manner in which he braved his illness.

For decades, I was convinced that no federal politician in this land would approach our late prime minister - Pierre Elliott Trudeau - in vitality and charisma. Then Layton came around and changed my mind. May he rest in peace.

Upon returning, Saturday night, from six weeks in Los Angeles, I received a copy of The Hockey News 2011-12 yearbook and quickly turned to its prediction page. I sense that many sports fans take predictions far too seriously: especially those that are offered months prior to the start of a season. Given publication deadlines, any-such magazine as The Hockey News has to quickly formulate its ideas in the wake of early-July roster movement. I've always enjoyed reading what others believe might unfold in the NHL - taking their predictions, as I do my own, lightly and with an enormous grain of salt. How else can one approach a pre-season forecast?

It is easy to assume, for example, that Washington and Pittsburgh will be the top two teams in the Eastern Conference this season... just look at the talent base. My pal, Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, wrote the Penguins preview for The Hockey News yearbook assuming that Sidney Crosby would be fully recovered from his concussion and ready to play on opening night. What else could Rob possibly have assumed writing his preview in early-July? More recently, of course, have come loud implications that Crosby will not be fully healed by early-October and that his career, in fact, may still be jeopardized by the head shots he absorbed last season from Victor Hedman and David Stekel - the latter, on New Year's Day at Heinz Field, sidelining No. 87 for the final 41 games.

Are the Penguins - without Crosby - among the top two teams in the East? And, what happens if another injury should befall Evgeni Malkin (who also missed half of last season with a torn knee-ligament), or goalie Marc-Andre Fleury? Pittsburgh looked awfully vulnerable blowing that 3-1 series lead to Tampa Bay in the playoffs.

The Capitals are loaded with speed and scoring but let's be honest: Alex Ovechkin is going to catapult the wrong opponent one night and tear his knee to shreds: such is the reckless (and exhilarating) manner in which he plays. What happens to Washington if such a calamity occurs in October or November? Four months would be a long time for the Capitals to hang in without their top scorer and most dynamic player.

These questions, of course, can be asked about the key performers on any team - in any sport - prior to a season. That's why we have to receive predictions in the spirit of fun and amusement in which they are usually made.

Undoubtedly, a number of rabid Leaf supporters are annoyed at The Hockey News for picking their favorite team to miss the playoffs for a seventh consecutive year. Apart from a notion becoming habitual, this particular Leaf forecast (10th in the East, ahead of New Jersey, the Islanders, Winnipeg, Florida and Ottawa) seems to be based on the annual conundrum of choosing any team to supplant a playoff qualifier from the previous year. To wit: which among Washington, Pittsburgh, Boston, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Tampa Bay, the Rangers and Montreal could the Leafs possibly replace in the Stanley Cup tournament?

Fair enough question... but absolutely impossible to answer in late-August.


Given an edge in the injury department, the Leafs - performing with poise and confidence in front of James Reimer, as they mostly did from Feb. 15th onward last season - could easily make up enough ground to end their playoff drought (a prediction I am making). Which team(s) would they supplant? Who knows? Clearly others will perform beneath expectation in 2011-12 and/or be severely hampered by the absence of key personnel. Conversely, a second-year falloff by Reimer - hardly an unexpected circumstance - could quickly diminish any chance the Leafs have of challenging for the post-season.

Making the playoffs in the current NHL is a feat, not nearly the slam-dunk it was when the Leafs qualified with 52 points in 1987-88 (an era in which only five of 21 teams were excluded). Though ground is awarded more liberally in the three-point-game era, just more than half of the NHL's 30 clubs currently advance to the post-season - an achievement that requires performing roughly 11 games over .500 during the 82-game schedule. Given the general proximity of teams throughout the six-month qualifying period (only four points separated fourth-place Anaheim from ninth-place Dallas in the West last season), one bad injury, or an "off" year from a key player, can make an enormous difference in the final standings.

So, the Leafs finishing 10th in the East seems a fair prediction by The Hockey News... if every player on every team plays to his potential, and does so in all 82 games. Considering the odds for a slight deviation to that pattern, there really is no telling where Toronto - or any of its opponents - will be standing when the playoffs begin next April.

Oh, before we go... a couple of predictions:

Leafs will finish seventh in the East.

Philadelphia and Los Angeles will play for the 2012 Stanley Cup (don't laugh... I had three of the past four Cup finalists - Philadelphia and Chicago in 2010; Boston and Detroit last spring - and I picked the Bruins to win it all last October).

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