Here are two anecdotes to indicate the reliability of prognostication.
In last spring's final episode of The Instigators, Mike Milbury picked Jose Theodore to be the Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP in a final between the Washington Capitals and the San Jose Sharks. I picked Jonathan Toews and the Chicago Blackhawks. It was blind luck.
Last week, quoting from my NESN.com blog discussion of the preseason games in Belfast and Liberec: "What are Bruins followers expecting? 5-0? 7-1?" The final scores were 5-1 and 7-1. It was blind luck.
So, during prediction season, everyone around here might as well pick the Bruins to win the Stanley Cup, just so you can tell your buddies that you told them so.
One of the absolute delights of the National Hockey League is its chaos factor. At the micro level, it's the way the puck bounces or skips. Or, remembering Patrice Bergeron's length-of-the-rink sprint to save face for drop-passing teammate Blake Wheeler, how much snow slows down the puck as it skids toward an empty net. On the macro level, chaos is all the twists and turns of fate that eject players from their comfort zones and put them in the athletic abstract of having to do their best in situations few could have imagined.
For instance, Dustin Byfuglien becoming the clutch scorer he became during the Blackhawks' playoff run … and now becoming a defenseman project for Craig Ramsey in Atlanta. If anyone foresaw those events, Nostradamus is out of business. Come to think of it, he's dead.
Most October picks come from one of two places: the chalk or the vacuum of outer space. Outer space? We know about that. It's just mental debris that orbits in someone's brain and somehow survives the heat of reentry to land in a publication. There's rarely rational explanation to support it, and after reading through two or three of these kinds of picks, most of us just type in another web address and move on.
"The chalk" is an ancient betting term. If you've been to the United Kingdom, you know that the British are absolutely wacky about wagering. They'll bet you on which one of two raindrops stuck on a pane of glass will make it to the windowsill first. British bookies, some of whom still do it this way, used to post their racetrack odds on chalkboards. As more and more people bet on the favorite at a horse race, the bookie would reduce the payout on that horse to protect his profit margin. As the betting became fast and furious, the bookie would be changing odds every couple of minutes, perhaps erasing with his sleeve in order to work fast. The chalk dust would be smeared all over the place, sometimes even obscuring the favorite's name. So late-arriving bettors, unable to make out "Old Glue Pot" in the list of horses, would just say, "I'll bet the chalk," and take their chances with the favorite.
Milbury took the chalk, picking the Washington Caps and San Jose Sharks at the tail end of outstanding regular seasons, completely ignoring (respectively) weak playoff goaltending and an uncanny ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of a series victory. Andy Brickley picked Philadelphia as his surprise team of the playoffs (hmm, how'd that one turn out?). I hurtled one in from outer space and landed safely at Edwards Air Force Base. But don't miss the opening episode of the newly retitled The Instigators with Mike Milbury (predictions loser gets his name in the show title?!! What is that about?!) so you can see Brick and me rub it in his face (Oct. 28 on NESN, check your local listings).
I don't know where the Bruins are going to end up this season, but they have a lot of factors working in their favor. Their blend of high-end talent, grinders, and scrappers; their mixture of wizened veterans and youth; their incredible depth in goal with two different, consecutive league leaders in save percentage and goals-against average; their overall energy level; their buy-in factor with Claude Julien's system; and the complacency-killing cap situation that will mandate a major move within three months – all add up to a very healthy outlook.
Let's look at the rest of the Northeast Division.
Montreal got to the Conference finals by playing "negative" hockey: allowing its opponents to dominate the puck and lay siege to the Canadiens. The Habs counted on their outstanding skilled forwards to capitalize on a very high percentage of counterattacks while assuming they would get stand-on-your-head goaltending. It all fell into place, and they deserve credit. Then they traded their goalie! Hello?! Did someone in the Montreal front office miss something?
It's hard to see a similar run in the spring of '11.
Postscript: The answer to the trivia question, "For whom did the Canadiens trade Jaroslav Halak?" is, "Lars Eller and Ian Schultz."
Ottawa picked up Sergei Gonchar, who should make the Sens' power play more effective. But the Senators also let puck-eater Anton Volchenkov get away as an unrestricted free agent to Moscow-on-Hudson, New Jersey. And they must think they squeezed every bit of juice out of Andy Sutton, because he's gone, too — to Anaheim via the UFA route. Sutton was barely effective with Minnesota, Atlanta and the Islanders, but coach Cory Clouston got Sutton's very best work out of him. From here, it seemed that Sutton would only get better with Ottawa. The Sens don't look better this year than last.
Buffalo has had stability on its blue line in the persons of Toni Lydman (since the lockout) and Henrik Tallinder (regularly since 2003). Lydman is a Duck and Tallinder is a Devil (hey, Stockholm is only 335 miles due west of the Russian border, comrade). Shaone Morrisonn (drafted No. 19 overall in 2001 by the Bruins) is a good replacement and Jordan Leopold may flourish in Lindy Ruff's speedy, look-up-the-rink system. Ryan Miller will give them a chance to win virtually every night, although Patrick Lalime as a backup can't match whoever the Bruins have as their eventual No. 2. The Sabres, as usual, will be widely overlooked. Boston fans know better.
And that brings us to Toronto. The chalk says, "Diss the Leafs! Pile on! Kick 'em while they're down!" OK, and I realize that I am venturing part of the way into orbit and relying on a bit of blind luck to pull this prediction through, but I think the Maple Leafs are going to make the playoffs this season. You can cut and paste the following into the comments section if you please:
"ROFLMAO! Jack, you have lost your mind!"
Here's the attempt at rationalization. Eighty-two games is a very, very long season. Toronto got better during last season and looks to be continuing its upward trend. The Leafs improved in goal last winter simply by acquiring let-the-puck-hit-you poster boy Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Now look at the corps of defensemen: Dion Phaneuf, Tomas Kaberle, Luke Schenn, Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek as your No. 5 in terms of responsibility, Brett Lebda coming off IR in a week or two, and Carl Gunnarsson, Garnet Exelby, and the too-expensive Jeff Finger fighting not to be the bag-skate guys. That's a pretty good bunch on D.
The Leafs — as hockey's richest franchise — certainly can afford to absorb Finger's $3.5 million dollar salary hit if they need to waive him through to the AHL. Why can't we get players in this town like Kris Versteeg? Oh, this hurts. The Bruins traded him to the Blackhawks for Brandon Bochenski. Two 20-goal seasons and a 14-point playoff performance later, he brings a ring with him from Chicago's Thelma-and-Louise-cap-drive-off-the-cliff to Toronto.
You know about Phil Kessel: he'll drive you nutty but when he's hot, he's hot … and he's going to score a ton of goals. Tyler Bozak isn't an elite center but plays with a lot of heart, and the Leafs look as if they are sick of losing and being labeled as losers.
OK, call me Milbury. I've been called worse. Haven't I?
But you've read this far and I'll give you some cannon fodder you can blast at me until next October: Toronto makes the playoffs and the Bruins win the Cup.
Between now and June, chaos will reign. It's beyond predicting, it's too wacky to be acceptable fiction, and it keeps us riveted through the dark days of winter until we lather our kids with sunscreen again every morning.
The game is on. Almost.
Enough silliness. Let's start the season.
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