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The Last Word: Harts are wild in 2019-20

These bold – yes, bold, not wacky – predictions look at two Hart Trophy candidates in McDavid and MacKinnon, plus another Hart who is poised to win the Vezina Trophy.

Bold predictions present a paradox. If you really believe something will happen, is the prediction really bold? If you don’t believe it will happen, is the prediction a lie? A proper bold prediction must tightrope the line between realistic and farcical.

I’ll attempt that daring feat for 2019-20 with a collection of out-there prognostications. Please, don’t pin these to a bulletin board and wave them at me in June. They’re bold predictions. I’ll be lucky if I get one right. That’s why they’re bold!

1. Connor McDavid gets 140 points
Nikita Kucherov’s 128 points last season were the most since the salary-cap era began in 2005-06. And yet, for our 2019-20 staff awards predictions (pg. 9), we unanimously selected McDavid to win the Art Ross Trophy. We’re so confident in No. 97’s once-in-a-generation talent that we didn’t hesitate to pick him to outdo the top single-year scorer of the past 14 seasons.

So why not peg McDavid, 22, to surpass what Kucherov did at 25? If we look at production from other recent generational superstars, they all peaked offensively around the same start-of-season age: Wayne Gretzky was 22, Mario Lemieux 23, Alex Ovechkin 22, Sidney Crosby 23. McDavid turns 23 in January. Someday we’ll look back on 2019-20 as his greatest scoring season.

2. Tom Wilson earns the longest suspension in modern NHL history
Raffi Torres was suspended 41 games for a headshot in October 2015. The half-season ban was part of the department of player safety’s escalation system in which a repeat offender earns compounding punishments if he can’t curb a dangerous behavior. Torres’ previous high ban was 25 games (appealed to 21), so the next step was to make an example by handing him the longest suspension in modern NHL history, topped only by the lifetime ban given to Billy Coutu in 1927.

The escalation principle tagged Washington winger Wilson with a 20-game ban (appealed to 14) to start last season. Within the past 18-month repeat-offense window, Wilson also has a three-game ban, and he’s been suspended four times since 2017. The past two were for illegal checks to the head, so if he delivers another illegal check to the head during the repeat-offense window, we’re looking at a jump to Torres territory at minimum. Player-safety sheriff George Parros has a lower tolerance for non-hockey plays than his predecessors did.

3. Carter Hart wins the Vezina Trophy
At 5-on-5, 56 goalies played 1,000-plus minutes last season and, among that group, Hart was a ho-hum 36th in save percentage and goals saved above average per 60 minutes. Hart, however, faced the third-most shots per 60 minutes and had the 17th-highest expected goals against per 60 based on the difficulty of his workload, so he didn’t have much help on a struggling Philly team. He still posted a winning record and did it at 20. He joined Carey Price and Steve Mason as the only goalies of the cap era to start more than 20 games for a team at 20 or younger. Hart has already established himself as a legitimate NHLer – far younger than he was supposed to. The kid has the makings of a phenom. With a better defense corps and new coach assisting him, he’s positioned to bust out in a big way this season.

4. The Vancouver Canucks make the playoffs
The Canucks have languished in rebuilding mode for half a decade, and they’ve used draft picks to construct a critical mass of high-end youngsters: Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat up the middle, Brock Boeser on the wing, Quinn Hughes on defense and Thatcher Demko arriving to push Jacob Markstrom between the pipes. Whether GM Jim Benning overspent or not, there’s no denying he improved the insulation around the kids this summer by adding J.T. Miller and Micheal Ferland up front and Tyler Myers on defense.

The Pacific Division looks like the NHL’s softest, ripe for a new team to sneak into the top three, and the Canucks have the right mix of veteran additions and young star power. Hughes could give them their third Calder finalist in a row. Pettersson won it last season and might make the leap to superstardom this season. He’s that good.

5. The Stanley Cup final is a 1996 rematch
Break out the rats! The Florida Panthers and Colorado Avalanche will meet in the 2020 final. The Avs own the best line in the West, led by MVP candidate Nathan MacKinnon, a Calder Trophy frontrunner on defense in Cale Makar and a revamped second line featuring Nazem Kadri. The Panthers will underachieve no more, adding goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and coach Joel Quenneville to a deep, talented core that already featured Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad as pillars. There’s almost no such thing as a Stanley Cup surprise anymore after St. Louis went from dead last to champs in five months. So why not a Colorado-Florida final?

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