As the 2015-16 season gets closer and closer, almost every team and their fan base thinks they have a shot at the playoffs, if not the Stanley Cup. It’s what makes the beginning of the season fun. Hope springs eternal, and for at least a few days, everyone thinks they’re in it.
Last year, if not for an improbable run over the final month of the season, the Ottawa Senators wouldn’t have been in it. The likelihood of a scenario like that happening again this year are incredibly slim. It will take a more consistent effort if the Senators want to make the postseason and build off their fairytale campaign.
Eastern Conference Locks
Obviously there are no sure things in sports; that’s why the games are played in the rink and not on paper. Injuries are a big part of the picture (ask the Columbus Blue Jackets), and players just don’t produce like we expect. With that being said, we can make reasonable projections based on team rosters and past performance. In the Atlantic division, Tampa Bay looks just as strong as last year, if not better. With no major losses and a young team gaining more experience, the Lightning can be considered a lock. Montreal won the division last year, and barring a long term injury to Carey Price, should be in the postseason again. Despite Detroit’s record of being in the playoffs every year since expansion in ’67 (give or take), those are the only two locks in the division.
In the Metropolitan division, the Rangers won the President’s Trophy without having superstar goaltender Henrik Lundqvist for much of the season. The Rangers didn’t get much worse (if at all) in the offseason, and with Hank back leading the charge, the Rangers will be in the playoffs when all is said and done.
Assuming these three locks, that leaves five spots for the rest of the teams, with two possible methods of reaching the playoffs. There would still be one divisional spot that is up for grabs. The top three teams in each division make the playoffs, and with Montreal and Tampa taking two, it could open the door for the Senators to sneak in. The other way would be to land one of the wild card spots (top two remaining teams from either division), which is the route the Senators took last year.
The main competition for the third division slot will come from the Detroit Red Wings. Will the absence of star coach Mike Babcock spell the end of the Red Wing dominance? As always, the Red Wings have a plethora of young players that have been well marinated in the American Hockey League by the new head coach for the big club. None have emerged as superstars as of yet, and the guard is changing from Datsyuk and Zetterberg to Nyquist and Tatar. Are they up to the task? Datsyuk and Zetterberg are still great players, but both are showing signs of age and wear and tear. The Red Wings probably still have the upper hand on the Sens and Panthers, so they can be penciled into the final Atlantic division spot.
The Boston Bruins took a step back last year, and that may be a sign of things to come. Rask is elite between the pipes, but the team missed the playoffs with Zdeno Chara actually aging and looking like the 37 year old he is. The Bruins then proceeded to trade Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton. Boston will be on the outside looking in when the playoffs begin.
While Florida has a bright future, they aren’t quite there yet. They’ll be in the dogfight for a wild card, but their year is next year. Toronto and Buffalo are both closer to the lottery than the playoffs.
The division is probably the best chance the Senators will have for the playoffs, as the Metropolitan division is quite strong. The Capitals are a cut above. They aren’t locks, but they are pretty close, and they belong in the next tier, above the teams that will be battling for the wild card. Washington is deep all over the roster and they also have an emerging superstar goalie in Braden Holtby. They have a better chance of winning the division than missing the playoffs.
Though they just barely snuck into the playoffs last year, the Penguins will get the third Metropolitan division spot. Any team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin that adds Phil Kessel in the offseason without sacrificing any core pieces from their roster deserves to be penciled in for a division spot, especially when the team has Marc-Andre Fleury in goal and Kris Letang on the point. The top six for the Penguins is the best in the entire league, and they won’t need to wait until the last day of the season to clinch.
A few other teams from the Metropolitan division will be in the mix. With the two hypothetical spots left, there will be a battle between Ottawa, Florida, New York Islanders, Philadelphia, and Columbus.
Based on last season, the Islanders are the cream of this crop. With John Tavares and a deep young forward core, the Islanders are also solid on defense and have the solid but unspectacular Jaroslav Halak in net. The Islanders are another team that will improve just based on their young guns being another year developed. They have a leg up on the other teams in this group.
Columbus was decimated by injuries last year. They are a popular sleeper pick for the upcoming season, as their injuries are unlikely to repeat, and they added Brandon Saad to a strong group of forwards. Ryan Johansen is the number one centre they’ve been craving for years back to the days of Rick Nash, and Sergei Bobrovsky can steal games when healthy.
The Flyers seem to be the Eastern Conference’s version of the LA Kings: up one year and down the next. Philadelphia’s defense is in rough shape, and since Chris Pronger retired due to concussion problems, it’s been a weak spot. Giroux and Voracek are both elite, but they need more help.
Young teams are always hard to peg. It’s tough to know when the prospects will blossom into stars at the NHL level. Florida could see that happen this year, or it could be another high pick while more seasoning occurs. They do have a veteran goalie in Roberto Luongo, which is a huge plus. Aaron Ekblad stepped in as a first pairing defenseman in his rookie year which is very rare, and Jonathan Huberdeau looks to be in line for his big breakout year. The Panthers also have Alexander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, and Jaromir Jagr hoping to make a mark. (One of these things is not like the others…)
The Senators certainly belong in this conversation. Erik Karlsson is an elite defenseman, and the tandem of Craig Anderson and Andrew Hammond are more than capable. The forwards for Ottawa aren’t spectacular, but they’re good enough. Kyle Turris and Mark Stone start a good first line, and if Bobby Ryan can get back to his Anaheim Ducks form, he will be another weapon offensively. The Senators will be counting on a progression from Mika Zibanejad and Jean-Gabriel Pageau as well.
If I had to guess, I’d give the two wild cards to the New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets, which would mean the Senators would miss the postseason after last year’s historic run. Of course, I could be wrong.
That’s why they play the games.