With the puck about to drop on the NHL season, I’m putting out my official preseason standings predictions.
As was the case last year, I’m updating my offseason standings predictions from Aug. 11. There have been several roster moves over the last two months that have changed my opinions on some teams, and other things — such as injuries and World Cup or preseason performances — have impacted my outlook as well.
— The Hockey Writers (@TheHockeyWriter) August 11, 2016
In saying that, I’m sticking with my Stanley Cup prediction. I have the Washington Capitals defeating the San Jose Sharks in seven games. Yes, I have Alex Ovechkin’s name getting engraved into hockey’s holy grail in 2016-17, which will solidify him as a first ballot Hall-of-Famer when that time comes.
I and four other THW contributors — Dan Mount, Félix Sicard, Andrew Forbes and Sebastian Hedley-Noble — collaborated on a predictions piece earlier in the week and I’ll be sure to elaborate on some of those thoughts. However, these predictions are mine and only mine — by no means a consensus opinion shared by the 100-plus writers on the THW team. With parity what it is nowadays, nobody will see the standings in the same light.
— The Hockey Writers (@TheHockeyWriter) October 10, 2016
Nevertheless, here are my official preseason standings predictions — by division, then by conference, including the playoff matchups. The variation, if any, from my offseason predictions, is noted in parenthesis, and I’ll provide reasoning for those adjustments below. Feedback is welcome and I fully expect to get flamed by most of the fan bases below the playoff cutline.
1) San Jose Sharks (=)
2) Edmonton Oilers (+1)
3) Los Angeles Kings (-1)
4) Calgary Flames (=)
5) Arizona Coyotes (+1)
6) Anaheim Ducks (-1)
7) Vancouver Canucks (=)
1) Chicago Blackhawks (=)
2) Nashville Predators (=)
3) Winnipeg Jets (+3)
4) Dallas Stars (-1)
5) St. Louis Blues (-1)
6) Colorado Avalanche (+1)
7) Minnesota Wild (-2)
1) San Jose Sharks (=)
2) Chicago Blackhawks (=)
3) Nashville Predators (=)
4) Winnipeg Jets (+7)
5) Edmonton Oilers (+2)
6) Dallas Stars (-2)
7) St. Louis Blues (-1)
8) Los Angeles Kings (-3)
9) Colorado Avalanche (+4)
10) Calgary Flames (-1)
11) Arizona Coyotes (+1)
12) Minnesota Wild (-4)
13) Anaheim Ducks (-3)
14) Vancouver Canucks (=)
West Playoff Picture
1) San Jose vs. WC2) St. Louis
2) Chicago vs. WC1) Dallas
CD2) Nashville vs. CD3) Winnipeg
PD2) Edmonton vs. PD3) Los Angeles
PD1) San Jose vs. PD3) Los Angeles
CD1) Chicago vs. CD2) Nashville
PD1) San Jose vs. CD1) Chicago
1) Washington Capitals (=)
2) Pittsburgh Penguins (=)
3) Philadelphia Flyers (+4)
4) New York Islanders (=)
5) New York Rangers (+1)
6) Carolina Hurricanes (-1)
7) Columbus Blue Jackets (-4)
8) New Jersey Devils (=)
1) Tampa Bay Lightning (=)
2) Montreal Canadiens (=)
3) Ottawa Senators (+1)
4) Buffalo Sabres (+1)
5) Toronto Maple Leafs (+1)
6) Detroit Red Wings (+1)
7) Florida Panthers (-4)
8) Boston Bruins (=)
1) Washington Capitals (=)
2) Tampa Bay Lightning (=)
3) Pittsburgh Penguins (=)
4) Montreal Canadiens (=)
5) Ottawa Senators (+1)
6) Philadelphia Flyers (+5)
7) New York Islanders (+1)
8) New York Rangers (+2)
9) Buffalo Sabres (+3)
10) Toronto Maple Leafs (+3)
11) Detroit Red Wings (+3)
12) Carolina Hurricanes (-3)
13) Florida Panthers (-8)
14) Boston Bruins (+1)
15) Columbus Blue Jackets (-8)
16) New Jersey Devils (=)
East Playoff Picture
1) Washington vs. WC2) N.Y. Rangers
2) Tampa Bay vs. WC1) N.Y. Islanders
MD2) Pittsburgh vs. MD3) Philadelphia
AD2) Montreal vs. AD3) Ottawa
MD1) Washington vs. MD2) Pittsburgh
AD1) Tampa Bay vs. AD2) Montreal
MD1) Washington vs. AD1) Tampa Bay
Stanley Cup Final
MD1) Washington vs. PD1) San Jose — Washington wins in 7
Reasoning and Rationale
Now, it is time to make sense of it all. Obviously, I’m making some bold predictions here.
For starters, I have four Canadian teams making the playoffs — Winnipeg and Edmonton in the West, Montreal and Ottawa in the East.
No Canadian teams made the playoffs last season — for only the second time ever, and the first time since 1970 when there were still only two teams from Canada.
I fully expect all of the Canadian teams — with the exception of Vancouver — to improve significantly this season, but let’s start by justifying those four playoff teams.
The easiest one to comprehend is Montreal. Carey Price returned to form at the World Cup of Hockey and the Canadiens play in arguably the weakest division so, providing Price stays healthy, they shouldn’t have a problem returning to the playoffs.
I wouldn’t trade P.K. Subban straight up for Shea Weber on my fantasy team but, in real life, Weber brings some of the intangibles that Montreal was missing. So does Andrew Shaw. Alex Radulov has been looking like a potential game breaker in the preseason, but so was Alex Semin at this time last year. The jury is out on Radulov, but I think he’ll be more help than a hindrance.
The Habs have a ton of young talent pushing for roster spots as well, and whether it’s Mikhail Sergachev or Artturi Lehkonen, I think they could make a meaningful impact too.
My only concern with the Canadiens, aside from a possible Price injury, is the coaching tactics of Michel Therrien. I’m not a fan of his, but I do think Kirk Muller’s addition as an associate coach will be beneficial for the Habs. They will balance each other out and it’ll be more than enough to get Montreal into the postseason.
Unlike Therrien, I have always been a fan of Guy Boucher and, to a lesser degree, Marc Crawford. Ottawa really bolstered its coaching staff and I think the Senators will reap the benefits of that. In fact, I think everyone from Erik Karlsson to Curtis Lazar and Kyle Turris to Chris Wideman will benefit from the coaching change.
The Senators also made a big move in acquiring Derrick Brassard for Mika Zibanejad — a fair swap, in my opinion, but I feel Brassard could be an even better fit for his hometown team.
Ottawa should be a dynamic team offensively, but its goaltending will need to hold up for my prediction to come to fruition. I feel Craig Anderson is fully capable of backstopping this roster to the playoffs.
My biggest riser in the entire league, I feel shame for ranking the Jets as low as I did back in August. Winnipeg’s youth movement is extremely exciting and the sky could be the limit for this team as early as this season. I’m over-the-moon high on the Jets right now — admittedly, probably too high.
The Jets are going to have so many offensive weapons, with Mark Scheifele primed for a breakout season and Patrik Laine poised to take the league by storm. Nik Ehlers and Kyle Connor are going to be wicked fun to watch too. I even have high hopes for the likes of Joel Aria and Adam Lowry.
Offence shouldn’t be a problem for this group, and I’d really like to see Paul Maurice roll four scoring lines. I think the Jets could do a ton of damage with that type of deployment.
The defence is going to be solid with or without Jacob Trouba. Josh Morrissey is looking polished enough to fill that void, at least temporarily, with the trio of Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers and Toby Enstrom topping the depth chart. If Trouba is traded, as per his request, then the Jets will likely be getting back a similar-but-left-handed blueliner to round out their top four.
The goaltending will be solid, but Connor Hellebuyck has star potential and should take that torch from Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson sooner than later. If Hellebuyck is declared the starter from Day 1, that will bode even better for Winnipeg in my opinion.
I can already hear the “homer” accusations and there is plenty of recent history to cast doubt over Edmonton’s playoff chances. It’s been a decade — that’s a long time of being awful — but I truly believe the pieces are in place for the Oilers to take a massive leap.
Connor McDavid’s leadership — as the youngest captain in NHL history — will play a crucial factor, and he needs to stay both healthy and consistently productive. I don’t see that being an issue this season. The kid is the real deal and he’s going to singlehandedly silence some of Edmonton’s harshest critics.
Cam Talbot seems to have solidified the goaltending and the Oilers’ defence should be much improved too. Even if you’re not a big fan of Adam Larsson and Kris Russell — neither are analytical darlings — you have to admit they are significant upgrades on what Edmonton was working with last season. Larsson cost a pretty penny — by the name of Taylor Hall — and Nail Yakupov was traded as a salary dump to sign Russell, but Peter Chiarelli has been doing his best to address Edmonton’s needs.
This roster remains a work in progress and is still without a power-play quarterback possessing a booming point shot but, even as is, I honestly like Edmonton’s playoff potential, with two of the California teams — Los Angeles and especially Anaheim — appearing weaker than usual on paper. If they are trending down, the Oilers could most definitely trend up this season. That’s what I see happening.
Rest of the West
That Central battle is going to be as competitive as ever — from top to bottom — but I’m still higher on Chicago than most. The Blackhawks have the strongest core and the best goaltender in the division as far as I’m concerned. I see some young blood plugging the necessary holes and helping the Hawks go on another long playoff run.
I do think Subban is going to give Nashville a boost. The Predators arguably have the best defence in the entire league and that should help Pekka Rinne bounce back in goal too. The offence will once again need to be by committee, but a full season of Ryan Johansen and the continued development of Filip Forsberg should help Nashville to new regular-season heights.
Dallas and St. Louis have question marks in goal, thus the reason I ranked them both behind Winnipeg in what is sure to have a “shock” factor. The Stars already have several forwards hurting and are inexperienced on defence, while the Blues have Jake Allen banged-up and Carter Hutton to fall back on between the pipes, plus a potential coaching controversy if they struggle early on. The Blues are better on the back end, by far, but the Stars have more elite firepower up front. That was a toss-up for me — who finishes higher, Stars or Blues — and those two teams could easily be flip-flopped in my standings. Both will still be playoff bound, but I don’t see either of them with home-ice advantage in the first round. Shocking, I know.
Colorado could be a team on the rise thanks to its coaching change, while Minnesota is going down despite Bruce Boudreau’s impressive track record in the regular season.
Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene were standouts at the World Cup and got me thinking that the Avs could potentially even surpass the Blues and/or Stars in the standings and sneak into the playoffs, along with Winnipeg and Edmonton. However, I resisted that temptation.
The Wild strike me as a mediocre team and mediocre won’t be good enough in the West this season. There are some ageing vets on that roster and some of the young talents haven’t progressed as hoped. I could also see Devan Dubnyk falling back to earth, even more so this season.
I feel as though any and every Central club would probably make the playoff cut in the Pacific. That is the weaker of the two West divisions, but three teams will still get berths.
The Sharks are the team to beat there and should be able to carry over their playoff momentum in running away with the regular-season banner. San Jose improved in the offseason, so I don’t see anybody challenging the Sharks for top spot in the Pacific — or the conference, for that matter.
The Kings lost Milan Lucic to Edmonton and seem to be lacking in forward depth compared to their Cup years. Jonathan Quick will steal Los Angeles enough wins to get into the playoffs and, according to my predictions, steal their first-round series against the Oilers. I think the Kings will be a better playoff team than a regular-season team if that makes sense.
Alberta’s other team, the Flames, will challenge for a wild-card spot, but I have Calgary falling short — with the Central again sending five teams to the postseason. Calgary’s defence is a strength and its goaltending should be substantially better, but the forward depth is lacking from the second line to the fourth. The Flames would need a big breakout season from Sam Bennett and for Matthew Tkachuk to be an impactful rookie in order to produce enough offence to make the playoffs. It’s possible but not probable.
Arizona overachieved last season — the Coyotes were supposed to finish last and land Auston Matthews, the local product — but this team is going to be even younger this season. I’m sure the Coyotes will be more fun to watch and produce their share of highlights, but that won’t necessarily translate to more wins. This will be a growing season, but the future is going to be very bright in the desert. Props to John Chayka for ensuring that with his draft-weekend deals and decisions.
On the flip side, Bob Murray has dropped the ball this offseason. It started with re-hiring Randy Carlyle as their coach and continued with missed opportunities and suspect signings. As a result, the Ducks are doomed. Anaheim is going to go down — way down — before it can go up again. That may or may not cost Murray his job as GM, but he’s dug himself — and his team — into quite the hole and it’ll be difficult to get out of in the coming years. Making matters worse, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler aren’t getting any younger. Sure, Getzlaf and Perry looked a bit rejuvenated at the World Cup, but that won’t last over 82 games. And speaking of 82 games, how will John Gibson hold up in his first full season as a starting goaltender? Too many questions and Carlyle wasn’t the answer.
The Canucks are almost certainly going to bring up the rear in the West this season. Just don’t tell that to their owners, management or coaching staff. They still believe Vancouver’s roster is capable of making the playoffs, but I just can’t see that happening. The offence is even thinner than Calgary’s beyond the first line — with the Sedin twins flanked by Loui Eriksson — while the defence and goaltending are average at best. The lack of forward depth will be Vancouver’s biggest downfall, which should lead to the Canucks drafting Nolan Patrick first overall in 2017.
Rest of the East
The top three are clearly the class of this conference and I’d be shocked if Washington, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh didn’t finish 1-2-3 in some order. I mean, we’re talking about the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins, who are returning their entire roster, and the reigning Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals, who could be even better after adding Lars Eller and Brett Connolly while only really subtracting Jason Chimera, plus a Lightning team that underachieved last season due to injuries and the Jonathan Drouin distraction before putting it all together in the playoffs to go on another deep run.
The Penguins might be mediocre out of the gate — depending on how long they are without Sidney Crosby (concussion) and Matt Murray (broken hand) — but expect them to come on strong once they have all their horses again. Pittsburgh has a realistic shot at repeating.
After that, it’s pretty wide open in the East. There will be plenty of parity from fourth place on down. I expect all but two or three teams to be battling for the wild-card spots down the stretch.
However, I do see Columbus and New Jersey as the cellar dwellers. Other pundits — including TSN’s Bob McKenzie — are labelling the Devils as a playoff dark-horse, but I just can’t see it. I feel New Jersey overachieved last season — almost as much as Arizona — so I’m thinking the Devils take a step back, not forward, despite the addition of Hall. Cory Schneider could keep New Jersey in the playoff mix, but even he might struggle to play behind that defence.
Columbus and Florida were the biggest fallers from my offseason predictions — both plummeting eight spots in the conference standings, four in their respective divisions.
The Blue Jackets can blame John Tortorella for that. Columbus is going nowhere with his coaching, which became more and more evident in watching Team USA bomb out of the World Cup without winning a single game. The Blue Jackets replaced Todd Richards — with Tortorella — after a 0-7 start last season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if history repeated itself.
I still believe there is enough talent on that roster, both youth and veteran, to be a playoff team — Sergei Bobrovsky was a stud at the World Cup and the defence is more than adequate — but Columbus is going to struggle to score, especially with Torts calling the shots. Hand the reins to Ralph Krueger — or any competent coach, Jared Bednar would have been an upgrade from within — and I think Columbus could surprise a lot of people. I got burned by the Blue Jackets in last season’s predictions — I had them making the playoffs then too — but this year I’m backpedalling just in time. Now watch them prove me wrong, err right.
The Panthers lost me over the last two months and, believe it or not, I had them pegged to miss the postseason even before Jonathan Huberdeau’s injury. Even in August, I felt Florida was a “bubble” team that could go bust. Roberto Luongo is 37 years old and coming off hip surgery, the defence has been completely overhauled — perhaps for the better, but it’ll take time for all the new faces to develop chemistry — and I was going to say the Panthers could be in trouble if any of their top-six forwards get hurt. Losing Huberdeau is a huge blow and a crippling one in my mind. Florida was basically a two-line team with him — the bottom six was already in shambles with Nick Bjugstad sidelined again, and now fourth-liner Derek MacKenzie is wearing the ‘C’ instead of Aaron Ekblad. Figure that one out. Don’t forget the Panthers benefitted from a perfect storm to win the Atlantic last season. That won’t happen again. Not even close.
Philadelphia, on the other hand, is my biggest riser in the East. The Flyers seem to be embracing their youth movement — keeping around Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny — and that could result in them soaring up the standings. This is a deep team at every position, with a good mix of forwards, a more mobile defence than years past and solid goaltending. The latter could turn into a controversy — I prefer Michal Neuvirth over Steve Mason — but sophomore coach Dave Hakstol and GM Ron Hextall should be able to sort that out as the season progresses. Two good goalies are better than none. The Flyers came on strong to end last season and I expect Hakstol will continue to press the right buttons.
I’m torn on the New York teams. Back in August, I contemplated a playoff picture with both the Islanders and Rangers on the outside looking in. The Islanders ended up getting my final wild-card spot, but the Rangers missed the cut. Now I have them both making it again, albeit just barely. I still wouldn’t be shocked if either or both were overtaken by some of the upstart teams like Buffalo and, who knows, maybe even Toronto.
The Islanders are strong on defence and in goal, but their forward group is going to be a work in progress. I didn’t like Garth Snow’s decisions to replace Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen with Andrew Ladd and P-A Parenteau. I still feel that is a significant downgrade, but some younger forwards should be able to step up to offset those losses. If Jaroslav Halak picks up where he left off at the World Cup, the Islanders will likely get off to a good start and parlay that into a playoff berth.
The Rangers arguably improved their roster more than any other team since my offseason predictions, signing Jimmy Vesey and Brandon Pirri — both of whom impressed in the preseason, as did fellow newcomer Zibanejad. The more I look at the Rangers’ current roster, the more I seem to like it. There isn’t a lot of star power, with the exception of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, but the Rangers are really deep up front and will be attacking in waves. Their fate might be decided by the defence and whether Dan Girardi and Marc Staal can rebound from their struggles last season.
The next five teams will all be nipping at the heels of the New York clubs. I’m becoming bullish on Buffalo pushing for a wild-card berth, while Toronto could surprise and Detroit shouldn’t be counted out by any means. I don’t really see Boston in the running, with the Bruins finishing closer to the Blue Jackets and Devils than the Panthers and Hurricanes in my mind.
The Sabres could make some serious noise as a young, exciting squad. That will depend largely on Robin Lehner, both in terms of staying healthy and staying consistent. Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart should take another step forward in their development, along with Rasmus Ristolainen and others. There are too many question marks throughout this roster to declare Buffalo a playoff team, but the Sabres are on the cusp of breaking through and it could happen as early as this season with a little luck and limited injuries.
Toronto won’t be playoff-bound yet, but I don’t expect the Maple Leafs to be bottom-feeders again. Mike Babcock won’t allow that, and he seems committed to icing the best possible lineup even if that means accelerating the development of the team’s top prospects and speeding up the rebuild. Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander are going to make the Leafs much more dangerous offensively, and Frederik Andersen should be a big improvement as the last line of defence. If the actual defencemen can hold their own, look out for the Leafs. No, really, look out for the Leafs — I’m starting to think Toronto could be sneaky good this season.
Detroit is going to be an interesting team to follow. The Red Wings always find a way — with 25 straight playoff appearances — but the competition continues to get better and better, while Detroit’s core is nearing the end. Pavel Datsyuk is gone, Johan Franzen is probably done, and both Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall are on their last legs too. The next wave, which grew up with Jeff Blashill in Grand Rapids, really needs to take the torch and run with it. Tomas Tatar stepped up for Team Europe at the World Cup and will need to do the same for Detroit, along with Gustav Nyquist, Petr Mrazek and others, including sophomore Dylan Larkin and prospects like Anthony Mantha. Never say never when it comes to the Red Wings, but I see their streak coming to an end at a quarter-century.
The Hurricanes are being called sleepers by many, including McKenzie, but I’m bailing on that bandwagon too. As far as I’m concerned, Carolina overachieved in placing 10th in the East last season and could be in for a humbling campaign. I’m not saying the Hurricanes will fall back into the draft lottery, but if I were a betting man, I’d put money on them going down instead of up this season. I’m fully aware that Carolina’s offence got a boost in trade-acquisition Teuvo Teravainen, Finnish prospect Sebastian Aho and veteran-signing Lee Stempniak, but its defence might be the youngest and most inexperienced in the league, with Ron Hainsey the only true veteran. Justin Faulk is the best blueliner — and probably should have been on Team USA at the World Cup — but Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Ryan Murphy will likely endure growing pains and be exposed at times. Jakub Nakladal won’t make much difference either. The Hurricanes decided to keep Cam Ward and stick with the same goaltending tandem, which could further hold them back. Eventually, Carolina will be a playoff team, but I don’t think it will be in 2016-17. Truth be told, I had the Hurricanes placing below the Panthers as well — until Huberdeau went down — and I could still see that happening.
That leaves the Bruins, another intriguing team in the midst of a transition. Boston is trying to get younger and has some decent talent in the system, but the current roster — especially the defence — is no longer playoff-calibre. Claude Julien got the most out of that group last season, finishing ninth, but I can’t see the Bruins being in the wild-card conversation this time around. They don’t have the horses on the back end, and both Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask are past their prime it would appear. Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand were key players in Canada’s World Cup win, but I doubt that success follows them back to Boston. The Bruins will be rebuilding in the years to come. If only they hadn’t botched that trio of first-round picks in the 2015 draft, things would already be looking up.
Well, what do you think — agree or disagree? I’m always up for some debate, so make your voice heard in the comments section below.
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.