A lot of reporters will be coming out with predictions of the final NHL standings. They will often write things with such confidence. This team will succeed. This one will fail. None of them will be exactly right.
There are always surprise teams for good (Calgary and Ottawa last season) and bad (San Jose and Boston) reasons. A division winner from the season before may struggle to make the playoffs (Pittsburgh). A lottery team may rise to the occasion (Winnipeg). A team that won the Stanley Cup can miss the dance altogether (LA). Teams are so evenly matched nowadays that predicting who will rise and fall is increasingly difficult. Injuries, momentum, team issues and simple bad luck can make or break a season. Even advanced stats are no harbinger of success (Calgary made the playoffs last season with terrible possession numbers while LA with the best did not).
So they are all educated guesses. And they should be. What fun would an NHL season be if there weren’t a few surprises along the way (as long as the good luck goes with your favorite team). So here are my predictions per division for the upcoming season:
- Tampa Bay Lightning*
- The defending Eastern Conference champions should be well motivated to return to the Stanley Cup final. Depending on the contract status of Steven Stamkos, the team is stocked at all areas. With Stamkos, Valterri Filppula, Alex Killorn, the Triplets line of Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, and Jonathan Drouin, goals shouldn’t be a problem. The defense is anchored by stud Victor Hedman and goaltender Ben Bishop is one of the best. You can pencil them in, barring a major meltdown, for the playoffs right now.
- Detroit Red Wings*
- Mike Babcock has left for big bucks in Toronto. That may actually be a good thing when all is said and done. After ten years, it may have been time for a new voice behind the bench, and Jeff Blashill has an impressive resume. With Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall still leading the way and youngsters Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan and Teemu Pulkinnen upcoming, the dropoff for the Wings will still be a long time away.
- Florida Panthers*
- This is my surprise pick. The team has struggled for years now and for that, they have built up a formidable prospect system. Perhaps this is the season it all comes together. With young stars like Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad and Erik Gudbranson complemented by veterans Brian Campbell, Roberto Luongo and Jaromir Jagr, this has all the makings of a dangerous team, one that nearly made the playoffs last season. Or they can be their usual non-intimidating self again.
- Montreal Canadiens*
- A team that struggles to score can’t always rely on an all-world goaltender to bail them out again and again. For the Canadiens, it worked last season, but Carey Price may be bound to regress. He can still carry this team to the playoffs, but he will not be as dominant as last season.
- Boston Bruins
- The Bruins suffered from cap mismanagement and spent the summer getting worse which, for a non-playoff team, is not good. Gone are Milan Lucic, Dougie Hamilton and Reilly Smith, in are Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes. They still have supreme forward Patrice Bergeron, pest Brad Marchand, Vezina winner Tuuka Rask, Norris winner Zdeno Chara and center David Krejci, so the team has the tools to make the playoffs, but an injury to any of them or another down year productively sends the entire team in a tailspin.
- Ottawa Senators
- One of the NHL’s darling teams as they went on a torrid run down the stretch to make the playoffs under goaltender Andrew ‘Hamburglar’ Hammond, the team is bound to take a step back this season. They still have Norris trophy winner Erik Karlsson and a forward core that includes Bobby Ryan, Mark Stone, Kyle Turris and Mike Hoffman plus Hammond and Craig Andersson in goal, so they could be competitive, but my money is on other teams in their division.
- Buffalo Sabres
- Are they better? Yes. Are they that much better? No. New faces Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane, Cody Franson, Jack Eichel, Robin Lehner and coach Dan Bylsma will certainly help the franchise achieve some form of respectability, but it will still be years before the Sabres are able to contend.
- Toronto Maple Leafs
- New coach Mike Babcock promised there’d be pain. Boy, will there ever be. After trading away sniper Phil Kessel, the team is sorely lacking in all areas of the ice. The Leafs are starting from the ground up, and right now, they’re below sea level.
- Washington Capitals*
- A team that already had Alex Ovechkin, Nik Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson and Brayden Holtby adds T. J. Oshie and Justin Williams. With another year behind Barry Trotz, the Caps are primed to make a run if they can.
- Pittsburgh Penguins*
- The addition of Phil Kessel makes the Penguin’s offense one of the best in the league. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang driving the bus and another strong season from Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins could make some noise if their defense holds up and they have luck with injuries.
- New York Rangers*
- There’s a lot of wear and tear on the Rangers after consecutive deep playoff runs. This group still has Henrik Lundqvist, Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh, Rick Nash and Marc Staal, but fatigue and expectations will hamper them during the regular season. If they make it to the big dance, they can always do damage.
- Columbus Blue Jackets*
- The Blue Jackets were decimated by injuries last season and barring that, look to be a playoff team. With Jack Johnson, Ryan Johansen, Ryan Murray, Brandon Dubinsky and Scott Hartnell joined by newcomer Brandon Saad and Sergei Bobrovsky between the pipes, the team is formidable.
- Philadelphia Flyers
- Claude Giroux, Jakub Vorachek, Steve Mason and Wayne Simmonds are all still good hockey players, but until the Flyers muster up a stronger defense, making the playoffs will prove difficult. Maybe they bounce back and string a run together, but I’m not sure.
- New York Islanders
- I just got a feeling about the Islanders. You can’t really explain gut feelings and most are considering them a shoo-in for a playoff spot and a team with John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Johnny Boychuk, Jaroslav Halak and Travis Hamonic should make the playofss. But some good teams have to be on the outside, and I’m picking the Islanders to fall back.
- New Jersey Devils
- Another team that needs to start at the bottom in order to build relevance again, the Devils are sorely devoid of high-talent prospects. Patrick Elias, Adam Henrique, Adam Larsson and goaltender Cory Schneider can only handle so much of the load and depth and youth need to be built over the next few years.
- Carolina Hurricanes
- The team situation is muddled with owner Peter Karmanos trying to sell off a portion of ownership while still maintaining control. Eric Staal, Cam Ward and Jeff Skinner continue to be the source of trade rumors and the rest of the roster is not much to write home about. Perhaps Jordan Staal, Eddie Lack, Elias Lindholm and Justin Faulk have career years, but Carolina seems to be a team in search of the draft lottery.
- St. Louis Blues*
- The Blues dominate the regular season, but come up empty in the playoffs. That’s what they’ve always done, that’s what they’ll do again. With a lineup that still includes David Backes, Vladimir Tarasenko, Brian Elliot, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jay Bouwmeester and Paul Stastny, the Blues are deep, dangerous and dominant when on their game. Then the postseason comes around.
- Nashville Predators*
- The Predators are one of the best defensive teams in the league with Pekka Rinne in goal and Shea Weber, Seth Jones and Roman Josi on defense. But can they score? Mike Ribeiro had a career year last year and will need to do so again. Filip Forsberg and James Neal are also dangerous, but the Predators will only go as far as Rinne and Weber and their defensive acumen take them.
- Minnesota Wild*
- The Wild survived after a horrendous start to their season on the back of castoff goaltender Devan Dubnyk. Expectations will be sky high for him this season, and it will be a tough test to determine if he is more than just a flash in the pan. With a forward corps of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville and a defense anchored by Ryan Suter, the time for a championship is now in Minnesota.
- Dallas Stars*
- The additions of Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya to a lineup that already includes Art Ross Trophy winner Jamie Benn, star center Tyler Seguin and playmaker Jason Spezza makes the club an early favorite. Whether the defense and goaltending holds up is the question. GM Jim Nill has radically altered the roster he inherited and now it stands a chance of finally flexing its muscles.
- Chicago Blackhawks*
- The mighty will fall. With the gutting of the roster (Patrick Sharp, Brad Richards, Johnny Oduya and Brandon Saad all gone) and the distraction of the Patrick Kane rape case, the Blackhawks will struggle to string together wins. They may still be one of the best put together teams in the league with Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews, Corey Crawford and Marian Hossa, but the amount of hockey they’ve played over the past three years and Kane’s situation will leave them scrambling to make the playoffs. I think they’ll make it, but it won’t be pretty.
- Winnipeg Jets
- A surprise playoff berth last season may not be a harbinger of things to come. Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec had an outstanding year, but that is more than likely an anomaly rather than the new norm. Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Blake Wheeler and Tyler Myers give the Jets good players, but they play in the league’s toughest division and someone is doomed to fall back.
- Colorado Avalanche
- Once the cream of the crop two years ago, the Avalanche fell behind the ball early last season and never recovered. They’ve done little to address their deficiencies on defense (the Francois Beauchemin signing is terrible) and are just hoping on continued improvement from young stars Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon and another career year from goaltender Semyon Varlamov. That isn’t likely to happen and head coach Patrick Roy will be left blowing his gasket.
- Anaheim Ducks*
- The team came within one win of a trip to the Stanley Cup finals and will be one of the favorites to get there this season. With Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler and Carl Hagelin up front, Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm on defense and the one-two punch of Frederik Anderson and Anton Khudobin in goal, the Ducks window to win is now.
- Los Angeles Kings*
- After facing the indignity of missing the playoffs one year after winning the Stanley Cup, expect the Kings to be well-rested and prepared to make amends. A lineup that still includes Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick won’t be so easy to quell again.
- San Jose Sharks*
- Another team that missed the playoffs last season and will be looking for retribution, the Sharks added veterans Joel Ward, Paul Martin and Martin Jones to a roster that still includes Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Brent Burns. After the internal turmoil of last season and in a weaker division, the Sharks are primed to make it back into the playoffs.
- Calgary Flames
- The Flames surprised many with their determination and strength against advanced analytics. They won’t creep up on anybody this season, but a roster that still boasts Jiri Hudler, Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Mark Giordano and T. J. Brodie, plus newly acquired potential star defenseman Dougie Hamilton has the potential to do some damage. The playoffs may not happen this year, but the Flames are heading in the right direction.
- Vancouver Canucks
- The Canucks went sideways over the summer, losing some okay players and adding some okay players. With the Sedin twins getting older, the window for the Canucks to make any sort of noise may have already closed. Still, the lineup has been through the rigors of the NHL playoffs before so there’s always the chance they surprise some people.
- Edmonton Oilers
- The Oilers made great strides during the off-season, adding new GM Peter Chiarelli, new coach Todd McClellan and next phenom Connor McDavid. They have all the parts necessary to rebuild the organization after years of futility. I just think it’s going to take another year or two before everything comes together for them.
- Phoenix Coyotes
- The Coyotes are in complete rebuild mode. They have some intriguing prospects in Dylan Strome, Max Domi and Anthony Duclair and a goaltender in Mike Smith who, if he regains his form, can carry a team for several wins. But the teams lacks stars, depth and experience. The pieces are there for a turnaround, but there will be pain first.
Who do I see coming out on top? After completing my own bracket based on the above predictions, I predict a Final Four of Tampa Bay, Washington, Anaheim and St. Louis with the Capitals and Ducks making it to the Final. I have the Capitals winning in 7.
Will that come to pass? Maybe. Probably not. It’s all up in the air right now. That’s the joy of wondering about a season that hasn’t happened yet.