NHL Standings Predictions: 2018 Midseason Edition

Like everybody else, I was wrong about the Vegas Golden Knights.

Nobody, that I know of, had the expansion team making the playoffs in their preseason predictions, let alone leading the Pacific Division as well as the Western Conference and possibly winning the Presidents’ Trophy or even the Stanley Cup.

I was among the majority in assuming Vegas would be a lottery team — like most first-year teams in the expansion era — and projecting the Golden Knights to struggle in their inaugural season, bringing up the rear in the overall standings.

I was, admittedly, wrong more often than I was right in my preseason predictions — at least to the midpoint of the NHL regular season.

Wrong about Edmonton, Los Angeles, Buffalo and New Jersey . . . and that list goes on and on.

Right about Tampa Bay, Toronto, Ottawa and Winnipeg, as a playoff team, but that’s about it.

Looking back can be humbling, even humiliating, but it’s time to look ahead. It’s time for my annual midseason predictions, a chance at redemption in prophesying how the second half will play out in terms of the division standings, along with the playoff picture.

It’s not going to get any easier with so many teams still in the post-season mix in both conferences — the West had 10 teams within seven points and the East had nine teams within seven points as of Jan. 14, with the Central and Metropolitan divisions way too close to call.

Some of the surprising teams are occupying playoff spots, while some of the perennial contenders are on the outside looking in, albeit within striking distance.

The Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks finally played their 41st game of the season on Saturday, Jan. 13, bringing all 31 teams to the midway mark of the 82-game schedule.

As of Sunday morning (Jan. 14), these were the divisional standings, playoff matchups and draft lottery order (with the variation from my preseason and offseason predictions in parenthesis):

Pacific Division

1) Vegas Golden Knights (+7) (+7)

2) Los Angeles Kings (+4) (+3)

3) Calgary Flames (-1) (=)

4) San Jose Sharks (=) (=)

5) Anaheim Ducks (-2) (-3)

6) Edmonton Oilers (-5) (-5)

7) Vancouver Canucks (-2) (=)

8) Arizona Coyotes (-1) (-2)

Marc-Andre Fleury Golden Knights
(Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)
The Vegas Golden Knights kept on winning without Marc-Andre Fleury while their star goaltender was sidelined by a concussion. The expansion team went through four netminders in Fleury’s absence, but he’s back now and shouldering the workload again.

Central Division

1) Winnipeg Jets (+3) (+3)

2) Nashville Predators (+3) (=)

3) St. Louis Blues (+3) (+3)

4) Minnesota Wild (-1) (+1)

5) Dallas Stars (-4) (-4)

6) Chicago Blackhawks (-4) (-3)

7) Colorado Avalanche (=) (=)

(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
It didn’t take long for Connor Hellebuyck to supplant Steve Mason as the Winnipeg Jets’ starting goaltender and the 24-year-old has been shining ever since in his third NHL season.

Western Conference Playoff Picture

P1) Vegas Golden Knights vs. WC2) Dallas Stars

P2) Los Angeles Kings vs. P3) Calgary Flames

C1) Winnipeg Jets vs. WC1) Minnesota Wild

C2) Nashville Predators vs. C3) St. Louis Blues

Atlantic Division

1) Tampa Bay Lightning (=) (=)

2) Boston Bruins (+3) (+3)

3) Toronto Maple Leafs (-1) (-1)

4) Florida Panthers (+2) (+3)

5) Detroit Red Wings (+3) (+3)

6) Montreal Canadiens (-3) (-3)

7) Ottawa Senators (=) (-1)

8) Buffalo Sabres (-4) (-4)

Nikita Kucherov Steve Stamkos Anton Stralman Lightning
(Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)
Steven Stamkos, right, and Nikita Kucherov, centre, have become one of the NHL’s dynamic duos in leading the Tampa Bay Lightning to the top of the overall standings this season.

Metropolitan Division

1) Washington Capitals (+1) (+1)

2) Columbus Blue Jackets (+1) (+1)

3) New Jersey Devils (+5) (+5)

4) New York Rangers (+2) (=)

5) Pittsburgh Penguins (-4) (-4)

6) Philadelphia Flyers (-2) (=)

7) New York Islanders (-2) (=)

8) Carolina Hurricanes (-1) (-3)

Alex Ovechkin celebrates with Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom
(Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)
Speaking of dynamic duos, the Washington Capitals reunited Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom with great results this season.

Eastern Conference Playoff Picture

A1) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. WC2) Pittsburgh Penguins

A2) Boston Bruins vs. A3) Toronto Maple Leafs

M1) Washington Capitals vs. WC1) New York Rangers

M2) Columbus Blue Jackets vs. M3) New Jersey Devils

Draft Lottery Order (PT = Playoff Team)

1) Arizona Coyotes (+5) (+6)

2) Buffalo Sabres (PT) (PT)

3) Ottawa Senators (+1) (+5)

4) Vancouver Canucks (+6) (+2)

5) Montreal Canadiens (PT) (PT)

6) Detroit Red Wings (-4) (-4)

7) Florida Panthers (=) (-3)

8) Edmonton Oilers (PT) (PT)

9) Carolina Hurricanes (+2) (+5)

10) New York Islanders (+5) (-1)

11) Philadelphia Flyers (PT) (-1)

12) Anaheim Ducks (PT) (PT)

13) Colorado Avalanche (-10) (-12)

14) Chicago Blackhawks (PT) (PT)

15) San Jose Sharks (-2) (PT)

There you have it, as of Jan. 14, I was wrong about six playoff teams in both my preseason and offseason predictions — getting 10 of 16 right in both. That’s a 63 per cent success rate, a little less than two-thirds, but ultimately not very good. Probably my worst showing since I started this practice of predicting the NHL standings back in 2015.

In my defence, it has been a strange season — certainly surprising on a number of fronts, with unprecedented parity.

The standings are obviously subject to change in the second half and are somewhat skewed right now because of all the games in hand. Prior to the bye weeks, when most teams had played close to 40 games, give or take a few, one of the Western Conference playoff matchups would have been Vegas versus Colorado. Strange times, indeed.

Tampa Bay might be the only true “lock” for the playoffs as of today, though the odds are heavily in favour of Vegas now too.

I’m no mathematician, so when it comes to calculating those percentages, I often defer to MoneyPuck.com. Here’s what they were predicting as of Jan. 14:

My predictions have always been based more on gut feelings than any math, but I do take into account some advanced stats and historical data.

With that said, here’s how I foresee the second half playing out in terms of the division standings, the playoff picture and the draft lottery order (with the variation from the official NHL standings as of Jan. 14, followed by my preseason and offseason predictions in parenthesis):

Pacific Division

1) Vegas Golden Knights (=) (+7) (+7)

2) Anaheim Ducks (+3) (+1) (=)

3) Calgary Flames (=) (-1) (=)

4) San Jose Sharks (=) (=) (=)

5) Los Angeles Kings (-3) (+1) (=)

6) Edmonton Oilers (=) (-5) (-5)

7) Vancouver Canucks (=) (-2) (=)

8) Arizona Coyotes (=) (-1) (-2)

Ryan Getzlaf Ducks
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
Here come the Ducks, with captain Ryan Getzlaf leading Anaheim towards a playoff spot and garnering some Hart Trophy consideration as the league MVP for his efforts.

Central Division

1) Nashville Predators (+1) (+4) (+1)

2) Winnipeg Jets (-1) (+2) (+2)

3) Dallas Stars (+2) (-2) (-2)

4) Minnesota Wild (=) (-1) (+1)

5) Colorado Avalanche (+2) (+2) (+2)

6) St. Louis Blues (-3) (=) (=)

7) Chicago Blackhawks (-1) (-5) (-4)

Kyle Turris Predators
(Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)
Kyle Turris hit the ground running with the Nashville Predators following a November trade and his addition has last season’s runner-up on the rise again.

Western Conference Playoff Picture

First Round

P1) Vegas Golden Knights vs. WC2) San Jose Sharks

P2) Anaheim Ducks vs. P3) Calgary Flames

C1) Nashville Predators vs. WC1) Minnesota Wild

C2) Winnipeg Jets vs. C3) Dallas Stars

Second Round

P1) Vegas Golden Knights vs. P2) Anaheim Ducks

C1) Nashville Predators vs. C2) Winnipeg Jets

Third Round

C1) Nashville Predators vs. P2) Anaheim Ducks

Western Conference Champion — Nashville Predators

Atlantic Division

1) Tampa Bay Lightning (=) (=) (=)

2) Boston Bruins (=) (+3) (+3)

3) Toronto Maple Leafs (=) (-1) (-1)

4) Montreal Canadiens (+2) (-1) (-1)

5) Ottawa Senators (+2) (+2) (+1)

6) Florida Panthers (-2) (=) (+1)

7) Detroit Red Wings (-2) (+1) (+1)

8) Buffalo Sabres (=) (-4) (-4)

Brad Marchand David Pastrnak Patrice Bergeron Bruins
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
The Boston Bruins’ top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak has been unstoppable on most nights.

Metropolitan Division

1) Washington Capitals (=) (+1) (+1)

2) Pittsburgh Penguins (+3) (-1) (-1)

3) New Jersey Devils (=) (+5) (+5)

4) Columbus Blue Jackets (-2) (-1) (-1)

5) New York Islanders (+2) (=) (+2)

6) New York Rangers (-2) (=) (-2)

7) Philadelphia Flyers (-1) (-3) (-1)

8) Carolina Hurricanes (=) (-1) (-3)

Sidney Crosby Penguins
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
Sidney Crosby has endured cold stretches this season before heating up again, with the Pittsburgh Penguins emulating their captain in terms of the team’s results to date.

Eastern Conference Playoff Picture

First Round

A1) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. WC2) New York Islanders

A2) Boston Bruins vs. A3) Toronto Maple Leafs

M1) Washington Capitals vs. WC1) Columbus Blue Jackets

M2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. M3) New Jersey Devils

Second Round

A1) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. A3) Toronto Maple Leafs

M2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. WC1) Columbus Blue Jackets

Third Round

A1) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. M2) Pittsburgh Penguins

Eastern Conference Champion — Tampa Bay Lightning

Draft Lottery Order

1) Arizona Coyotes (=) (+5) (+6)

2) Buffalo Sabres (=) (PT) (PT)

3) Detroit Red Wings (+3) (-1) (-1)

4) Vancouver Canucks (=) (+6) (+2)

5) Florida Panthers (+2) (+2) (-1)

6) Carolina Hurricanes (+3) (+5) (+8)

7) Ottawa Senators (-4) (-3) (+1)

8) Montreal Canadiens (-3) (PT) (PT)

9) Philadelphia Flyers (+2) (PT) (+1)

10) Edmonton Oilers (-2) (PT) (PT)

11) New York Rangers (PT) (+3) (PT)

12) Chicago Blackhawks (+2) (PT) (PT)

13) St. Louis Blues (PT) (-5) (-1)

14) Los Angeles Kings (PT) (-5) (-3)

15) Colorado Avalanche (-2) (-12) (-14)

Now, for my reasoning and rationale. Here are some quick thoughts on how I came to these conclusions for each team, followed by my updated Stanley Cup prediction and Power Rankings:

Pacific Division

1) Vegas Golden Knights

No more doubting this team. Granted, they weren’t built to win-now, but the Golden Knights are destined to make the playoffs and I believe they can win a round. Yes, they have won me over and I no longer see George McPhee as a seller at the trade deadline. Plus, we know this team won’t be derailed by injuries. Depth is important down the stretch and Vegas has that in spades.

2) Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks were always going to be a second-half team and now that they are finally healthy — aside from Patrick Eaves — Anaheim is primed to go on a run and will be difficult to stop come playoffs. Experience is one of those intangibles with merit and that bodes well for the Ducks. They aren’t getting any younger and may be approaching this postseason as their last kick at the can, which could make Anaheim an even tougher out.

3) Calgary Flames

Glen Gulutzan’s practice tirade struck a chord and the Flames have since heated up. Brad Treliving is a buyer, having already traded his 2018 first-round pick, so Calgary will be going for it this year. Unfortunately for the Flames, they could be on another collision course with the Ducks, who have had their number seemingly forever. Calgary’s chances of knocking off Anaheim are better this year, but I still can’t see it — especially not if the Ducks end up with home-ice advantage again.

4) San Jose Sharks

One more California team could sneak in — either that or five teams from the Central — and I went with San Jose over Los Angeles in a coin flip of sorts. The Sharks have been coming on strong and the Kings have been cooling off, but Los Angeles should get a boost once Jeff Carter gets back. If he gets up to speed sooner than later, the Kings could finish ahead of the Sharks, but for now I’m giving the edge to the bearded bunch.

5) Los Angeles Kings

They are missing Carter more and more lately, but the Kings still have the makings of a playoff team and are arguably better than the Sharks on paper. San Jose is deeper up front, but Los Angeles is superior in goal with Jonathan Quick. They don’t have any more head-to-head meetings in the regular season — San Jose won the last one, 4-1 on Monday — and those two points could be the difference in the end.

6) Edmonton Oilers

This season has been a resounding flop for the Oilers, who were widely considered Stanley Cup contenders from the outset. I’m anticipating a much better second half from Edmonton, but there is just too much ground to make up and too many teams to overtake in the playoff race. I do think the Oilers can get back to the fringes of that race, perhaps within five points of a wild-card spot, but that’s as close as Edmonton will come no matter what Connor McDavid does down the stretch in his pursuit of a second straight scoring title. Cam Talbot, Leon Draisaitl and the rest of the supporting cast just haven’t been good enough or consistent enough for Edmonton this time around and, therefore, the Oilers will come up short.

7) Vancouver Canucks

Injuries took the wind out of Vancouver’s sail, be it Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi or Derek Dorsett and Brandon Sutter or any number of defencemen. It’s too bad because, when healthy, Travis Green had this team trending up. The playoff talk has since died down, but Brock Boeser is still in the running for the Calder Trophy and the future looks reasonably bright for the Canucks. This season has been a step in the right direction for Vancouver, even if the standings don’t reflect that.

8) Arizona Coyotes

A dreadful start buried the Coyotes, who made several off-season moves in hopes of becoming more competitive this season. That hasn’t happened and Arizona is bringing up the rear in the overall standings, already looking ahead to the draft lottery and the prospect of picking Rasmus Dahlin to replace Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who sure seems to be on the trade block. Things couldn’t have gone much worse for Rick Tocchet’s first season in the desert and John Chayka may be on the verge of pressing the reset button again — not on his coach, but on his roster.

Central Division

1) Nashville Predators

Getting Kyle Turris and then getting Ryan Ellis back could put this team over the top, providing everybody else stays healthy. The Preds know what it takes come playoff time and should be a force to be reckoned with again. They won’t sneak up on anyone this year, but Nashville is a bad matchup for pretty much everyone. The Predators are the favourites, in my opinion, to come out of that Central bracket.

2) Winnipeg Jets

Assuming the wheels don’t fall off, the Jets are going to be fascinating to watch in the playoffs. There is enough talent on Winnipeg’s roster to go all the way this year. The Jets have emerged as a legit threat to win the West, but experience isn’t on their side like it is for Anaheim or even Nashville. Connor Hellebuyck and Patrik Laine have never played in an NHL playoff game, so some of Winnipeg’s key players will have plenty to prove, but I like their chances.

3) Dallas Stars

The Stars still have another level to get to, and Ken Hitchcock could have them peaking for the playoffs. This is another dangerous team, capable of making a lot of noise. Dallas is still searching for the right depth combinations up front, behind the big line, but once that clicks, look out for the Stars. Jim Nill has put the pieces in place to be a Cup contender.

4) Minnesota Wild

Bruce Boudreau’s teams always excel in the regular season — and not so much in the playoffs — so expect a strong finishing kick from the Wild now that they are healthy too. Minnesota’s roster doesn’t instil as much fear as the top three teams in the Central, lacking in high-end talent, but the Wild have the depth to do well in a seven-game series. They won’t be getting swept, but I just can’t see Minnesota beating any of Nashville, Winnipeg or Dallas, though I’ve been wrong before and could be wrong again.

5) Colorado Avalanche

The Avs are enjoying an awesome turnaround and Nathan MacKinnon is becoming the beast that I’ve been anticipating for years. He’s right up there with fellow first overall picks Steven Stamkos and John Tavares in terms of impact on their teams. All three could lead their teams to the playoffs this spring, with Colorado still a dark-horse in the West but a very live underdog with nothing to lose in the second half. The Avs can play loose and have fun with their success, but the games only get tougher from here on out. I’m not sure MacKinnon and his teammates are fully prepared for that, but it’ll be a positive learning experience however it plays out.

6) St. Louis Blues

I was down on the Blues before the season and I’m still not sold on them as a playoff team. St. Louis will be getting Jaden Schwartz back soon and can stack its top line again, but the Blues really need to get Jake Allen back to form. He’s a huge key to their success, but goaltending has been more of a hindrance lately. If Allen rebounds, St. Louis will stay in the race. One of the tougher teams to slot right now.

7) Chicago Blackhawks

No Corey Crawford, no playoffs. It’s as simple as that for Chicago. The Blackhawks need their star goalie back sooner than later, but that sounds unlikely with Crawford apparently suffering from vertigo at the moment and no timeline for his return. Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp have continued to decline and Anthony Duclair isn’t going to save the day. Neither is Jeff Glass or Jordan Oesterle. Finishing last in the Central isn’t as bad as it seems — Chicago would presumably still be within five points of a playoff spot — but it could cost Joel Quenneville his job as the league’s longest-tenured coach.

Atlantic Division

1) Tampa Bay Lightning

Stamkos and Jon Cooper have this team firing on all cylinders, and the Lightning have been for much of this season. Losing Victor Hedman hurts in the short-term, but he should be back in fine form well before the playoffs. Tampa Bay is the class of the Atlantic and should cruise through the first two rounds of the playoffs before running into the Metro winner. If my predictions come to fruition, that first-round matchup between Stamkos and Tavares should be a treat to watch, but the Lightning are deeper with much better goaltending than the Islanders. The Leafs could put up a little better fight in the second round, but Tampa Bay would likely overwhelm Toronto as well.

2) Boston Bruins

Bruce Cassidy has a surprisingly good team on his hands, but the Bruins do seem to be overachieving in the regular season. They have looked unbeatable at times, especially lately, but does Boston really stand a chance in a seven-game series against Toronto or Tampa Bay? My feeling is no — no chance — but I didn’t expect the Bruins to be anywhere near this good and they have been growing on me. Definitely a team I’ll be watching closer in the second half, and perhaps Boston will prove me wrong again in the playoffs.

3) Toronto Maple Leafs

Mike Babcock’s team has been in a bit of a rut, a midseason funk, but Toronto has too much talent to not gain traction again soon. Babcock will press the right buttons and Patrick Marleau’s veteran presence will pay dividends down the stretch. The Leafs do have a comfortable cushion in the third seed, maybe too comfortable, but they will get it in gear and start chasing Boston with two more head-to-head meetings to come. Auston Matthews and company will be capable of ramping it up for the playoffs too.

4) Montreal Canadiens

Like Edmonton in the West, Montreal and Ottawa are probably too far behind to catch up in the East. Anything is possible, but the Canadiens would need a lengthy winning streak to get back in the playoff conversation. Even more so for the Senators. Disappointing for both franchises, especially with Carey Price now healthy for the Habs. Max Pacioretty is finally scoring again amid trade rumours out of Montreal, but Jonathan Drouin and Alex Galchenyuk haven’t been able to carry the Canadiens offensively either. Getting Shea Weber back would help, but there is plenty of hurt in Montreal and the healing may not happen until next season. More changes might be coming in the offseason.

5) Ottawa Senators

Same here, with the Sens fighting an uphill battle for the rest of this season and their franchise player, Erik Karlsson, also in the rumour mill. Ottawa came within a goal of reaching the Stanley Cup Final last season and hoped Matt Duchene would increase its championship potential, but that hasn’t panned out and it’s clear the Senators overachieved last season. Duchene is gradually getting better, developing chemistry with Mike Hoffman, but Guy Boucher’s systems aren’t working the same wonders this season and the goaltending hasn’t been nearly as good either. As a result, Ottawa will probably be a seller at the deadline — a cost-cutting measure mandated by Eugene Melnyk.

6) Florida Panthers

Bob Boughner got off to a rough start in Florida, similar to Tocchet in Arizona, but the Panthers have been making strides. Aaron Ekblad hasn’t broken out under Boughner like I thought he would, but Florida plays a pretty effective team game and James Reimer has filled in admirably for Roberto Luongo. It’s hard to say what the future holds for Florida — from next month to next season — but the Panthers don’t have enough scoring depth in the present to push for a playoff berth. Dale Tallon may try to address that need ahead of the deadline, but he’ll likely be looking for more of a long-term fix than a short-term rental considering Florida’s place in the standings.

7) Detroit Red Wings

Another sure seller, with Mike Green certain to be on the move, the Wings could be in for a full makeover this offseason, especially if Ken Holland doesn’t return as their general manager. Detroit has question marks at every position going forward and needs to make more of an effort to get younger, especially on defence. We’re talking rebuild, not reload here. If Holland goes, Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall could finish their careers elsewhere too.

8) Buffalo Sabres

Decimated by injuries on defence, Phil Housley didn’t get a fair shake in his first season with the Sabres. The future should still be bright for Buffalo given another top-five pick in this year’s stacked draft, combined with whatever Jason Botterill gets in return for Evander Kane as a rental at the deadline. If Sabres’ fans are sad about losing Kane, just envision Jack Eichel on a line with Casey Mittelstadt and any one of Andrei Svechnikov, Filip Zadina or Brady Tkachuk as early as next season. That’s what dreams are made of, the light at the end of another dark tunnel for Buffalo.

Metropolitan Division

1) Washington Capitals

Alex Ovechkin, Braden Holtby and the Capitals were supposed to fall off a cliff this season — or at least fall out of first place in the Metro. Instead, Barry Trotz has been getting the most out of a lesser lineup that includes a couple rookies on defence. The goaltending has been great again for Washington, including Philipp Grubauer, and Ovechkin is on pace for yet another 50-goal campaign. The more things change, the more they stay the same, but the Capitals will be hoping to change their playoff fate this spring.

2) Pittsburgh Penguins

The two-time reigning champions have been so hit and miss this season, but everybody assumes the Penguins will be buyers and then turn it on after the Feb. 26 deadline. That’s a safe assumption and we all know what the core group is capable of come playoffs. It’ll be interesting to see how much of a shakeup is in store for Pittsburgh, but Jim Rutherford will definitely be active between now and then. The Penguins are still the team to beat and it’s hard to bet against them as long as they have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel leading the charge.

3) New Jersey Devils

Cory Schneider hasn’t been great as of late and he’ll need to rebound in short order, but the Devils have been another pleasant surprise this season. New Jersey is scoring way more than anticipated, led by Taylor Hall, who is driven to experience the playoffs for the first time in his career. The Devils do have some veterans who have been there — the likes of Travis Zajac and Andy Greene, plus key signing Brian Boyle and trade acquisition Sami Vatanen — but they will need everybody to elevate their game in the second half, starting with Schneider. It’s no myth that the games get tougher with every passing month and that will be the challenge for a trio of rookies in Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt and Will Butcher. John Hynes will have his work cut out for him in trying to keep the Devils in a playoff position, but it is possible.

4) Columbus Blue Jackets

John Tortorella’s team is still trying to hit its stride this season, but Sergei Bobrovsky has managed to keep Columbus above the cut line. On paper, the Blue Jackets should be potent, but their top forwards from last season haven’t been nearly as productive — namely, Cam Atkinson, Alex Wennberg and captain Nick Foligno, plus Brandon Dubinsky and Boone Jenner. Injuries have been a factor, but those five could really push this team forward in the second half. The new-look top line of Artemi Panarin, Josh Anderson and Pierre-Luc Dubois has been doing its best to pick up the slack and Seth Jones has been garnering consideration for the Norris Trophy on defence. But Jack Johnson has reportedly requested a trade and Ryan Murray is hurt once again. Jarmo Kekalainen has some decisions to make ahead of the deadline, but the Blue Jackets should have more bite to their game by playoffs.

5) New York Islanders

Garth Snow would love to get Tavares locked up, but they won’t let those ongoing contract negotiations become a distraction in the Islanders’ pursuit of a playoff berth. Snow may divert his attention to finding a replacement for Calvin de Haan, who has been lost for the season and is another pending free agent. With a new arena now in the works and Tavares lighting it up alongside Josh Bailey, yet another UFA-to-be, making the playoffs would be massive for the Islanders. Snow knows that, as does Doug Weight and Jon Ledecky. Expect the Islanders to be buyers, with two first-round picks in 2018 as potential trade chips, along with past first-rounders Josh Ho-Sang and Michael Dal Colle. Goaltending has been a concern for the Islanders, but Jaroslav Halak has a reputation as a big-game guy, so the hope is he’ll step up when it matters most. Time will tell.

6) New York Rangers

Henrik Lundqvist is having a Vezina-calibre season, but it may not be enough to backstop the Rangers into the playoffs. Lundqvist’s strong play has been masking some of the Rangers’ deficiencies and there is speculation that Jeff Gorton isn’t content to stay the course, that the GM may want to shake things up with the bigger picture in mind. Beyond selling on pending free agents like Rick Nash and Michael Grabner, the Rangers are fielding offers for their captain and top defenceman Ryan McDonagh as well as skilled winger Mats Zuccarello. If Gorton decides to blow it up at the deadline, the Rangers would likely drop out of the playoffs. If they trend towards a rebuild, would Lundqvist be the next to go, perhaps prior to next season?

7) Philadelphia Flyers

Ron Hextall has been staying the course, but his core isn’t getting any younger, so the Flyers could be another team to watch between now and the deadline. One of these days (or years) Hextall is going to make a move to really put his stamp on Philadelphia’s roster. The status quo will continue to compete for a playoff spot, but the Flyers probably need a boost to make the cut — preferably a veteran defenceman. There are several available and Dion Phaneuf seems like a prototypical Flyer. Get him or somebody similar and the Flyers might get in ahead of both New York teams.

8) Carolina Hurricanes

As was the case with Chicago in the Central, there is no real shame in finishing last in the Metro, but Carolina and its fans are probably tired of hearing that year after year. This is a tough division to make any headway, but the Hurricanes were supposed to take a step forward this season and still might. Consistent goaltending will be a must the rest of the way, with Cam Ward and Scott Darling needing to give Carolina a chance to win every night. Hopefully for the Hurricanes’ sake, Sebastian Aho won’t be sidelined long-term and Jeff Skinner will heat up in his absence. The stars would have to align for Carolina to crack the playoffs, but Ron Francis won’t be throwing in the towel any time soon. The Metro race is just getting started and Bill Peters does have a horse in that race. Tom Dundon, the Hurricanes’ new owner, wants that horse to be a thoroughbred, so we shouldn’t count out Carolina down the stretch.

Stanley Cup Prediction

I had Edmonton over Pittsburgh in seven games as my preseason prediction, but now I’m going with a Tampa Bay-Nashville final. That would be fitting — an all-expansion final, featuring two expansion teams from the ’90s — in a season where expansion Vegas has been blowing everybody away. It has the makings of an entertaining championship series and I could see those two teams going the distance as well. I like the Lightning over the Predators in seven games.

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
Kevin Fiala was lost to a broken leg during Nashville’s run to last year’s Stanley Cup Final, but he’s been a source of secondary scoring since returning this season. The Predators would need Fiala firing on all cylinders to compete with Tampa Bay’s forward depth.

For the record, I did get my midseason Stanley Cup prediction right last year — correctly calling Pittsburgh to repeat as champs. Here’s hoping for more successes and better overall results from this year’s midseason predictions.

Power Rankings Through 41-50 Games

1) Tampa Bay Lightning

2) Nashville Predators

3) Winnipeg Jets

4) Washington Capitals

5) Vegas Golden Knights

6) Boston Bruins

7) Calgary Flames

8) Dallas Stars

9) San Jose Sharks

10) St. Louis Blues

11) Toronto Maple Leafs

12) Pittsburgh Penguins

13) Anaheim Ducks

14) Columbus Blue Jackets

15) Minnesota Wild

16) New Jersey Devils

17) Los Angeles Kings

18) New York Islanders

19) New York Rangers

20) Colorado Avalanche

21) Chicago Blackhawks

22) Edmonton Oilers

23) Philadelphia Flyers

24) Carolina Hurricanes

25) Montreal Canadiens

26) Ottawa Senators

27) Florida Panthers

28) Vancouver Canucks

29) Detroit Red Wings

30) Buffalo Sabres

31) Arizona Coyotes