Finally – and I mean, finally – it’s time for NHL pre-season predictions. Normally, I do not look forward to dealing with fans incensed by my picks, but after the nonsensical lockout, I’m welcoming it this year.
That said, kindly bear in mind my usual prediction speech: this isn’t a guarantee of the order in which teams will finish, but rather, a general sense of the expectations for each franchise before the games begin. The point of playing the games is to meet, exceed or fall below those expectations – but for example, to imagine the Oilers are going to win their division and make a deep playoff run is to stretch the boundaries of expectation in a way you wouldn’t if you picked Chicago to win the Stanley Cup. That’s not to say Edmonton couldn’t pull off a shocking run – but that’s exactly the point. If they did, it would be shocking based on their more recent efforts and the current makeup of their roster.
One significant factor this season is the unbalanced 48-game schedule that sees all teams play 18 games within their division and 30 games against the rest of their respective conference. Given the razor-thin difference in the standings (thanks to the loser point), the difference between making and missing the playoffs could come down to which teams benefitted from the schedule-maker’s choices. For example, the Maple Leafs will play five games against Montreal and Ottawa this year and just four against Boston and Buffalo; those two games against relatively lesser opponents could easily determine their fate. Likewise, strong teams that play in weaker divisions could rise higher in the playoff seedings based on that reason alone.
In any case, based on conversations with NHL players, coaches, executives and veteran observers, here is the way I see the season playing out.
1. Boston. The Bruins play in what is now thought by many to be the weakest division in the East and could be a more cohesive unit without prickly goalie Tim Thomas. Tuukka Rask doesn’t have as much of a safety net, but he’s shown himself capable of being “The Man” before. Not a lot not to like here.
2. New York Rangers. The Blueshirts might have the best-balanced and most dangerous roster in the conference, if not the league, but operating in the ultra-competitive Atlantic should take a bite out of them standings-wise. Still, they’ve got all the tools to make big noise in the regular-and-post-season.
3. Washington. The Caps have a new coach in Adam Oates, a revamped lineup (deleting Alexander Semin and adding Mike Ribeiro) and a ton of pressure on superstar Alex Ovechkin to prove he’s not a coach-killer. They still had the most wins (42) of any Southeast team last season and if they can improve their abysmal road record (16-21-4), they’ll be right back at the top of the division.
4. Pittsburgh. Sure, the Pens aren’t as deep at center or defense with the departure of Jordan Staal and Zbynek Michalek, but who’s kidding who – they’ve got more than enough talent to challenge the Rangers for top spot in the Atlantic as well as the conference.
5. Carolina. Slotting the Hurricanes this high is a hunch, but Carolina had a banner off-season (bringing in Jordan Staal and Semin and losing very little) and are in position to feast on some of the Southeast’s lesser lights. Should their defense hold it together in front of Cam Ward, the Canes could surprise a lot of people.
6. Philadelphia. The Flyers were just 11-11-2 against Atlantic division teams last season and have suffered a number of roster losses (including defensemen Matt Carle and the concussed-and-soon-to-retire Chris Pronger, as well as James van Riemsdyk). Right now, their defense (now featuring Luke Schenn, Braydon Coburn, Kimmo Timonen and Andrej Meszaros) isn’t particularly inspiring, especially given the franchise’s now-traditional uncertainty in net. They’ve got enough talent up front to get them into the playoffs, but they’ll have to push hard to get there.
7. Buffalo. Sabres GM Darcy Regier changed the complexion of his team this summer, exchanging talent (Derek Roy) for grit (former Stars agitator Steve Ott). However, for the Sabres to make the playoffs, their returning key components (goalie Ryan Miller, blueliner Tyler Myers, and center Cody Hodgson) will need to be firing on all cylinders. I think they will.
8. Tampa Bay. Defense was a huge issue for the Bolts last season, which is why GM Steve Yzerman’s off-season acquisitions were led by former Flyers D-man Matt Carle (returning for his second stint with the team), former Canucks blueliner Sami Salo and ex-Preds goalie Anders Lindback. They’ll be among a group of teams in a dogfight for a low playoff berth and have enough top-end talent to squeak in.
9. Florida. No NHL team benefitted more from the loser point last season than the Panthers (18 overtime losses), who surprised many by winning the division. However, given that their only significant additions were Filip Kuba and Peter Mueller, the Panthers – a team still in a long-term transition – are a prime candidate to take a step back.
10. Ottawa. The Sens were another team that overachieved in the eyes of many – and unfortunately for them, injuries to defensemen Jared Cowen and Mike Lundin have thinned out the back end in a big way, at least to start the season. They’ll still be competitive, but it may not be enough to keep pace in the increasingly tough East.
11. Toronto. Like the two teams above them on this list and the two teams below, the Maple Leafs could make the playoffs if everything goes right for them (or if they acquire Roberto Luongo to tend net). Sadly, this is Toronto, where everything appears contractually obliged to not go right, so never bet on it.
12. Montreal. The Canadiens have many players other teams would kill to get their hands on. What they don’t have is enough size and organizational depth to bang with the big boys in the East. They could make a significant jump in the standings soon, but I doubt it will happen this season.
13. New Jersey. Listen, I don’t feel great about picking the defending Eastern Conference champs to take such a precipitous fall. I also never feel good betting against Lou Lamoriello. However, with Zach Parise gone and with Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg comprising the league’s oldest goalie tandem, they are going to have an uphill battle making it back to the post-season.
14. Winnipeg. The Jets actually had the most intra-divisional wins (14-6-4) of any Southeast team last season. But the optimism that goes along with such a fact is tempered by the largely intact team that finished with the league’s fifth-worst goals-against totals and added only Olli Jokinen, Alexei Ponikarovsky and backup goalie Al Montoya to address that issue. Because of that reality, it’s likely the Jets will continue on an often-painful learning curve this year.
15. New York Islanders. Isles fans can believe it or not, but there’s little I’d like more than to take a chance on this team. But it would take a leap of faith that would blow out my groins to imagine they’ll be able to unseat the dominant teams in their division. There are more than a few dynamic young talents here, but they’ll have to prove themselves playoff-worthy before anyone expects them to be.
1. Vancouver. The Canucks had the NHL’s best record in 2011-12 and even after the Roberto Luongo trade goes down, they’ll be challenging to repeat in that regard. Former Panthers defenseman Jason Garrison makes an already-powerful defense corps even more of a threat and although their forward group has taken hits with injuries to Ryan Kesler and David Booth, they had the fourth-best offense in the league last season. They’re as dangerous as any team.
2. St. Louis. Ken Hitchcock’s effect on the Blues’ fortunes after taking over from Davis Payne cannot be understated. That said, it isn’t as if he was making lemonade from lemons. GM Doug Armstrong has assembled one of the best young talent cores and deepest defense units in the game. He also has the option of trading one of goalies Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott if lineup problems arise. But don’t count on it. The only reason I don’t have them ranked ahead of Vancouver is because they play in a considerably tougher division.
3. Los Angeles. It took a coaching change and most of the 2011-12 campaign to do it, but the Kings finally realized their potential when it counted and now are the defending champs. Back-to-back Cup wins is a long shot for any NHL team, but L.A. is the class of their division and they’ve got enough depth and salary cap space (some $7.7 million at last count) to deal with in-season problems. You can’t expect another incredible run from them, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility, either.
4. Chicago. In Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, the Blackhawks have four of hockey’s top talents. They’ve also got enough depth at forward and on ‘D’ to keep themselves at or near the top of the Central Division. What they don’t have is a clear picture in net (Corey Crawford and Ray Emery return, but neither has claimed the starter’s job as their own), which is why they’ve been rumored as a potential destination for Luongo. Either way, the Hawks will be expected to make the post-season and go on a lengthy run once there. Anything less and serious changes could follow.
5. San Jose. The Sharks finished second in their division despite having one more win than first-place Phoenix and their defense corps (which added veteran Brad Stuart to an already-impressive group last summer) is among the NHL’s elite. San Jose won’t be the sexy pick to win anything of consequence, but to ignore them is to ignore all the talent GM Doug Wilson has put in place.
6. Minnesota. The Wild were the big winners in the off-season thanks to their signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Consequently, expectations are sky-high for the franchise – and that might be setting the bar too high for them this year. That’s not to imply they shouldn’t be a playoff team – with their combination of youth and experience, they absolutely should – but anything beyond that is far from assured.
7. Detroit. Losing all-time great defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom to retirement is a massive blow to a team many believe is finally starting to fray at the edges. Any team that still employs Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg isn’t going to be at the bottom of the standings, but a drop in depth means the Wings can’t be considered a favorite for home ice advantage in the post-season any longer.
8. Dallas. The Stars overachieved in the eyes of some people last season, but GM Joe Nieuwendyk clearly isn’t content to sit back as a young talent such as Jamie Benn blossoms into a full-blown superstar. Bringing in Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney addresses their moribund power play and middling offense, but Dallas will need all hands on deck – and continued strong play from goalie Kari Lehtonen – in order to scratch and claw their way into the post-season.
9. Phoenix. Let’s face it – all Dave Tippett and Don Maloney have done in Phoenix is perform well beyond expectations, so it’s a dangerous game to believe they’ll drop from first in their division to the outside of the playoff race. Still, the loss of leading scorer Ray Whitney will hurt and their ability to replace any injured players will once again be tested by their ownership challenges. They’re not going to be pushovers, but sooner or later, it’s fair to figure reality will deal them obstacles they can’t overcome.
10. Nashville. The Predators are similar to the Yotes in some aspects – non-traditional market, payroll constraints, continued bang for their buck thanks to a brilliant coach – which is why I’ve got them in a spot similar to Phoenix. Keeping Shea Weber was crucial for them, but his monstrous contract also hinders the franchise’s ability to build a Cup contender around him. Although I’d never dismiss them outright as long as Barry Trotz is behind their bench, it’s a stretch to imagine they can do more with less each and every season.
11. Edmonton. Oilers fans, players and management are desperate to get back into the playoffs for the first time since 2006 – and with so many young stars now part of the fold, they’re on the verge of turning the corner and getting back to respectability. But with all due respect to rookies Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz, they’ll still need the veterans on the team (i.e. Shawn Horcoff, Devan Dubnyk, Ryan Whitney and Ales Hemsky) to do some of the heavy lifting to get them there. The West is so competitive, Edmonton might be back in the draft lottery once again, but I think this is the year they slowly start creeping up their division standings. Small consolation? Sure. But at least it’s a consolation.
12. Colorado. I’ve said it for a few years now – I’m not a big fan of the blueprint for success in Denver. That’s no slight against young Avs stars Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny or off-season acquisitions P-A Parenteau or Greg Zanon. However, their defense and goaltending simply isn’t of the same caliber as most other teams in the West right now. To me, that’s enough to question their chances.
13. Anaheim. The Ducks’ abysmal start to last season quickly buried their playoff chances and got coach Randy Carlyle fired. His replacement, Bruce Boudreau, somewhat righted the ship after that, but the fact remains Anaheim was led in scoring by a fortysomething (Teemu Selanne) and has question marks across the board. Absent some incredible play from star forwards Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, they could be in for another long slog.
14. Calgary. Some Flames fans will see this ranking and shriek out in anger. But despite the additions of veterans Jiri Hudler and Dennis Wideman, I see Calgary as being a prime candidate to plummet down the standings. One or two injuries to key players will underscore the troubling lack of depth in the organization. That’s the bad news. The good news is a full-on collapse should leave no doubt this team needs a complete rebuild. Then again, you would have thought team brass would have arrived at that conclusion long ago.
15. Columbus. Yes, I thought Columbus was a potential playoff team last season. Stop laughing. They got done in by injuries, James Wisniewski’s suspension and poor goaltending – and to his credit, GM Scott Howson acquired former Flyers netminder Sergei Bobrovsky to improve between the pipes. Unfortunately, even if the Jackets improve by 20 standings points this year, they still wouldn’t have enough to make the post-season. They’ll be better, but not better enough.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.
Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.
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