The 2012 All-Star Game is now over, which means teams will enter the final stretch of the season. Although there are more noteworthy dates left, like the trade deadline, without another long break in the schedule, the sprint towards playoff qualification has begun in earnest. Meanwhile, players on teams that are out of the post-season hunt will be forced to motivate themselves in the pursuit of personal goals. Some players will thrive during this stretch--as Corey Perry
did last season--while others won’t. Remember Steve Stamkos
scoring seven goals in his last 31 games in 2010-11.
Below, are five predictions for the final two-plus months of the season.
1) Ilya Bryzgalov
will start in significantly more games than Sergei Bobrovsky
, but that doesn't mean Bryzgalov will be good.
I’m leading with this statement because it relates to a question that is continually posed to me, most notably in recent the Rotoworld hockey chats I’ve hosted. Fantasy owners who want to grab Bobrovsky and ride him for the rest of the season are using sound logic: Bobrovsky has simply outplayed Bryzgalov this season. In fact, you could argue that Bobrovsky is more responsible for the Flyers’ impressive 29-14-5 record, despite having played in fewer games. All the same, I can’t see the Flyers abandoning Bryzgalov, even if he continues to leave plenty to be desired.
Bryzgalov is in Philadelphia in the first place because the Flyers’ braintrust didn’t trust Bobrovsky to lead the team to a Stanley Cup, despite a solid 28-13-8 record, 2.59 GAA, and .915 save percentage in 54 games as a rookie last season. Keep in mind Philly didn’t just bring in Bryzgalov to provide veteran leadership or to give Bobrovsky a chance to develop in the backup role before eventually taking the reins. Philadelphia signed Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million contract and traded away two former faces of the franchise – Mike Richards
and Jeff Carter
– at the same time. Philadelphia bet a lot on the concept that Bryzgalov – and not Bobrovsky – would be their starter for years to come and I don’t see them abandoning that plan in year one of nine. Bobrovsky might get patches of starts, but even that will grow rarer as the playoffs approach and the Flyers focus more and more on making sure Bryzgalov is ready for them.
2) Alex Ovechkin
will flirt with the 40-goal mark.
Just two years ago, that would have been a no-brainer, but after Ovechkin scored 32 goals last season and 20 goals in his first 47 contests in 2011-12, it feels like more of a bold prediction. Ovechkin has certainly fallen from grace and he’s taken some heat recently because of his refusal to play in the All-Star Game, but that’s actually part of the reason I think he’ll bounce back. Ovechkin hasn’t played since January 22nd because of a suspension and after skipping the All-Star Game, he won’t play until February 4th. That’s a roughly two week breather in the middle of the season, which could be particularly helpful, given how many minutes he tends to play and the physical nature of his game.
3) Nikolai Khabibulin
will bounce back after a horrid December/January, although not to his October/November level.
When Edmonton was regarded as this season’s success story, Khabibulin was the surprising centerpiece of it with his 1.88 GAA and .935 save percentage through 17 starts. He didn’t even allow three goals in a single game until November 11th and while he and the Oilers were already fading by mid-November, Khabibulin didn’t truly fall apart until December. He has a 2-10-1 record, 3.25 GAA and .894 save percentage in his last 13 starts and he hasn’t even won a game since December 22nd.
Given his performance in 2010-11, you might be inclined to believe Khabibulin is simply falling back to Earth and while that’s probably part of it, I think injuries to his teammates and just the general ups and downs of a season are factors. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
’ imminent return in particular could provide the Oilers with a shot in the arm, which would benefit the team in general. I don’t expect Khabibulin to be great moving forward, merely acceptable. In other words, I’m looking for him to have a GAA of about 2.60 for his starts after the All-Star break.
4) Jonathan Toews
will be the league leader in points after the All-Star break (not to be confused with the Art Ross Trophy winner).
What, I’m saying is if you look at only the games that take place after the All-Star break, Toews will have the most points. Toews took his game a level higher during February and March last season while his team was fighting just to make the playoffs. He had 14 goals and 35 points in 26 games to propel him to setting a new career-high with 76 points in 80 contests. He’s already on track to best that mark in 2011-12 with 50 points In 49 matches, but I think he’ll find a way to elevate his game even further during a key stretch of the season for Chicago.
Although Chicago has been much better this season and the threat of missing the playoffs altogether isn’t as real, I’d be willing to bet Toews believes in the importance of getting a good seed. In the ultra- competitive Central Division, that means they’ll probably have to win a significant majority of their remaining games just to remain competitive against Nashville, St. Louis, and Detroit. The Blackhawks captain will be a vital part of those efforts and, as he has in the past, will likely find a way to do more when the Blackhawks need him the most. The only difference this time is that he’s already doing so well. Taking his game to another level would be the difference between being a star and being a league leader.
5) Erik Karlsson
won’t slow down.
I realize that saying a player will maintain the status quo might not sound like a bold prediction, but I’m essentially saying Karlsson will maintain his pace and finish the season with about 75 points. In terms of offensive output, that puts him in the same league as guys like Mike Green
and Nicklas Lidstrom
when they were at their best. Karlsson is also on pace to get 64 assists, or 14 more than any other blueliner last season. Karlsson’s assist pace would not only shatter the Senators’ current single season record for a blueliner, but on the franchise list it would rank him second behind only Jason Spezza
in 2005-06, when Spezza had a 50-goal scoring Dany Heatley
and a 43-goal scoring Daniel Alfredsson
to feed the puck to.
Still, Karlsson’s production hasn’t exactly come out of nowhere. He had an impressive 45 points in 75 games last season on a team that finished second last in goals scored. This season, Ottawa ranks sixth in that department, which, along with the normal progression we’d expect to see from a rising star, makes his current numbers look plausible. On top of that, Karlsson has been remarkably consistent. With close to four months in the books, Karlsson has only once been held off the scoresheet for three consecutive contests and he immediately followed that with a five-game point streak. When you look at him month by month, Karlsson has only failed to average a point per game once. It’s that kind of stability that makes it easy for any fantasy owner to feel confident going forward.