9 bold NHL predictions for 2019

Auston Matthews thinks 'it's pretty special' to be named an NHL All-star captain and sees the Toronto fan base as being a major reason for the honour.

You won’t find any safe bets here.

Yes, Peter Chiarelli will be dismissed if the Oilers fail to make the playoffs, Brayden Point will get paid, and Joel Quenneville will stuff the shotski back in the closet and get back to work. Those are givens.

For our nine NHL predictions of 2019, we get more specific. We’re not guaranteeing all of these events will come to pass in the next 365 days, but if you want to become a very rich fan, you might want to place a prop bet or six based on my supreme clairvoyance.

1. Auston Matthews will make more money than Connor McDavid (and oh so much of it will be in upfront signing bonuses).

The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t owned the rights to a young franchise centre since Mats Sundin and aren’t about to let this one get away. Matthews is business savvy and uber confident. While contemporaries McDavid and Jack Eichel never played a shift of their platform year without taking care of their max-term financial stability first, Matthews decided to wait and let the money pile up — a decision all the more gutsy considering he was coming off a season in which he suffered three separate injuries.

By the time Matthews does sign, he’ll know the cap has been bumped twice since McDavid inked. The projected ceiling for the summer of 2019 ($83 million) is up $8 million from when McDavid signed in 2017.

It’s worth remembering a couple other things, too: first, McDavid essentially gave some of his dough to Leon Draisaitl. And second, there was no threat of an offer sheet when Chiarelli locked up his generational talent. There will be one if Kyle Dubas doesn’t crunch the math and make Matty a $100-million-plus man come June.


2. Erik Karlsson leaves San Jose… for New York… and signs for less than Drew Doughty.

The assumption that deploying the twin right-shot, minute-munching threats of Brent Burns and Karlsson would forever keep the puck in the opponents’ zone and elevate a perennial playoff team to the most frightening team in the Pacific has fallen flat. Despite Doug Wilson’s all-in mentality over the summer, the Sharks are still a work-in-progress. There’s not enough puck to go around; the sum feels slightly less than the parts.

While we’d be floored to see Wilson give up on Karlsson before the 2019 trade deadline, we’d be even more shocked if he offered the impending UFA a contract rich enough to prevent EK65 from testing the open market.

Kevin Shattenkirk never did amount to the bona fide blue-line stud New York banked on in 2017. Here’s betting Karlsson becomes the cap-clearing Rangers’ No. 1 defenceman of the future, but after a just-OK-by-his-standards platform campaign, Karl will have to settle for a lighter deal than the one agency pal Doughty ($88 million) took to remain in L.A.

As Karlsson joins forces with Henrik Lundqvist and reunites with Mika Zibanejad, the Blueshirts become the de facto home team of Swedes everywhere.

3. Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin stick around for the playoffs — and then bounce.

Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen is in a pickle. Neither of the two most gifted players on his roster are eager to sign a contract extension, and both appear headed for intriguing bidding wars come July 1. (New York, Chicago, Carolina, Florida and New Jersey would all be interested in Panarin; Philadelphia, Calgary, St. Louis and the Islanders should consider Goalie Bob.)

As painful as it’ll be to watch superstars walk for nothing, here’s betting Kekalainen sees the value in rolling the dice and making a legitimate last-gasp run with his group. The Jackets need to win to be buzzy in a college-sports town, and with the Metropolitan softer than usual, it would be a shame to pass up the franchise’s best shot at a playoff-series victory. Renting these guys out would gut the dressing room and tarnish fan loyalty. (The John Tortorella comments would make for must-see TV, however.)

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4. A familiar name will storm out of semi-retirement and into the playoffs.

Call it the Mike Fisher Special.

There are a few recent NHL veterans who have been staying in shape and have held off on filing their retirement press releases. These guys understand the toils of the 82-game marathon and may be perfectly satisfied with a 35-game sprint.

With GMs more reluctant to part with early-round draft picks for rental players, we wonder if a playoff-tested, well-rested player like Kevin Bieksa (Spengler Cup!), Rick Nash, Antoine Vermette or Dominic Moore might be pried off the couch to add affordable depth and leadership to a contender by the deadline.

5. P.K. Subban will get traded (again).

At a highly unsanctioned gathering of hockey writers this July, everyone at the dinner table was pressed to announce their very early prediction for the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. Mine was Tampa over Calgary, and I’m sticking with it. The Calgary half of my guess yielded some snickers because Nashville and Winnipeg were wiser (safer?) bets. But when the Preds and Jets wear each other down to pulp in a Central final rematch, the Flames will be the beneficiary.

Another stumble to represent the West in mid-June will propel a gunslinger like David Poile to shake things up before he starts paying Roman Josi (skating with a near-criminal $4-million cap hit ’til 2020) the salary he deserves.

Tell me I’m not the only one who finds it difficult to envision Subban, with his AAV of $9 million and recent injury woes, retiring in Nashville.

6. Florida will be awarded an outdoor game.

The NHL has already hinted at plans to increase the number of its outdoor events — a fun, reliable gimmick that took a step back in 2018–19 after a hectic centennial season — and colleague Elliotte Friedman has been all over the designs for a show in Saskatchewan.

Because Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is one of the most respected in the biz, because the Panthers’ sagging attendance will only embolden commissioner Gary Bettman’s resolve to sell hockey in Sunrise, and because Florida is one of the few markets still waiting for an outdoor game, I predict we’ll learn of plans for a Lightning-Panthers stadium showdown in ’19. Who knows? Maybe Roberto Luongo even gets to start in this one.

7. Gritty will get arrested. His googly mug shots will go viral.

You can’t convince me he’s not up to something shady, and Tommy Hawk has already broken down barriers in terms of public behaviour for mascots.

8. First-timers will dominate NHL Awards night.

Mikko Rantanen will hang on to raise the Art Ross Trophy, John Gibson will capture his first Vezina, and David Pastrnak — buoyed by the healthy return of Patrice Bergeron — will come from behind to steal Alex Ovechkin’s Rocket Richard Trophy.

Washington’s John Carlson will edge out Mark Giordano and Morgan Rielly for the Norris Trophy, making Don Cherry and a lot of Canadians furious. Aleksander Barkov will win the first of several Selke trophies. Jared Bednar will put his name on the Jack Adams he almost deserved in 2018. And Jason Botterill will rake GM of the Year.

Oh, and give Jack Eichel the Hart — unless the Oilers make the playoffs, in which case it goes to the only guy drafted ahead of him.

9. Patrick Marleau will be traded back to San Jose.

The respected veteran’s work in Toronto will be done after a thrilling 2019 playoff run. Yes, Marleau’s contract is virtually buyout-proof and those 39-year-old legs are made of iron, but $6.25 million is simply too steep of a cap hit for a club that will be paying forwards Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner real money in 2019-20. (Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, Par Lindholm and Jake Gardiner would like raises too, please.)

It goes like this: The Leafs pay Marleau his $3-million signing bonus on July 1, then move Marleau to San Jose, which only has to pay the living legend $1.25 million in base salary.

So, at little real-money cost to the Sharks, they welcome back Marleau and eat the bulk of his cap. Marleau can retire in teal, Hall of Famer Joe Thornton can finally rest what’s left of his knees, and Wilson can obtain a useful bottom-six forward for the price of a late-round pick or long-shot prospect.

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