Sklar’s Eastern Conference Playoff Predictions

The 2015-2016 hockey season has a lot of storylines as usual. In a crowded Eastern Conference that has 16 teams, making the playoffs is a season long grind. We have seen some great runs in recent seasons, and most recently the Ottawa Senators who appeared out of the ashes and qualified for the 2014-2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Not many at the start of last season had the Tampa Bay Lightning as the team that would represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Eastern Conference is a proud hockey conference with a lot of star players. However, since 2010 the East only has one Stanley Cup Championship. That was in 2011 when the Boston Bruins defeated the Vancouver Canucks in a classic seven-game-series. Is this the year that the Stanley Cup Champion is represented by the Eastern Conference? It is very possible with some elite young talent and veteran teams that have been so close in recent years.

Atlantic Division

1) Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning return their potent offense from last year and should be a top team in the league in goal scoring this season. Offensively the team is led by Steven Stamkos (43G, 29A), The Triplets Line, Ryan Callahan (24G, 30A), Alex Killorn (15G, 23A), and Valterri Filppula (12G, 36A).

The Lightning will boast third and fourth lines that can put the puck in the net as well. Sophomores Cedric Pacquette, Vladislav Namestnikov, and Jonathan Drouin are going to improve and the team has grinders such as JT Brown, Brian Boyle, and recently acquired Erik Condra to balance the attack. The offense is a very dominant one and should be tough to stop for any defense.

Nikita Kucherov (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
Nikita Kucherov had a dominant sophomore season with 29 goals and 36 assists. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Bolts led the NHL in goals last year with 259 and were mediocre in goals against. If the team commits to defense like it did in the playoffs, that category will improve drastically. The Lightning defense boasts its “Super Swede” top pairing in Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman. The pair was one of the best in the league last year and elevated even more in the playoffs.

Andrej Sustr showed promise as a rookie and veterans Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn, and Jason Garrison look to round out the defense. The Lightning have another top prospect on defense in Anthony deAngelo who put up dominant offensive numbers in the OHL last year and was awarded the Max Kaminsky Trophy given to the OHL’s most outstanding defensemen. The 19-year-old from Sewell, NJ was also awarded the CHL defenseman of the year award. Playing for the Sarnia Sting and Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, he totaled 25 goals, 64 assists and 89 points in just 54 regular season games. He is definitely a player to watch in training camp for the Bolts.
This Tampa team has little weakness and the goalie position is another area where they are stacked. Ben Bishop helped lead the Bolts to the finals in his first taste of playoff hockey and Andrei Vasilevsky is only 21-years-old and arguably the best backup goalie in the game. The Lightning were a top five possession team in the NHL last year and are also a top five team in speed. They play fast, they play within their system and they play with a purpose. Look for the Lightning to be back with vengeance after coming so close to the franchises second Stanley Cup.

2) Montreal Canadiens

It is quite possible for one to make the argument that the Habs are overrated because of the brilliance of Carey Price. However, I am not buying it. The team won the Atlantic Division last season and finished with 110 points. Sure, their success can be a result of the dominance of Price, but the Canadiens are a good hockey team.

PK Subban (15G, 45A) is a Norris Trophy Candidate every year now and the offense is led by star sniper Max Pacioretty (37G, 30A). It will be up to the supporting cast this year to help these three superstars out and I believe they will deliver. Offseason acquisition Alexander Semin should help the offense and revive his goal-scoring ways.

Brendan Gallagher (24G, 23A) is a player that is tough to play against and will go to the tough areas to help his team in whatever way he can. Zack Kassian, now playing for his 3rd franchise at the age of 24, will add grit and toughness to a team that may have been lacking in that department the last few years.

On offense, the team needs its centers to step up big time this season. Montreal lacks a true number one center down the middle in my opinion. If 21-year-old center Alex Galchenyuk (20G, 26A) elevates his game to another level this year it will help in a huge way. David Desharnais (14G, 34A) and Tomas Plekanec (26G, 34A) will be relied upon again to take big faceoffs for the team and lead offensively.

Players on the blueline to watch include Subban, Markov, Emelin, Beaulieu, and Jeff Petry. Signing Petry was huge for the team to lock up a right handed depth defenseman that also has a booming shot. If guys underachieve, then at least there is always Carey Price back there. Not many teams have that luxury, and that is why I see Montreal finishing second in the Atlantic Division.

3) Detroit Red Wings

With the departure of head coach Mike Babcock, a lot of people are probably assuming the streak will end this year. I believe if Datsyuk and Zetterberg can stay healthy for 75% of the teams games this season, the two stars will have other plans. Datsyuk will miss the start of the season as a result of ankle surgery, and the Red Wings are hoping he does not miss a lot of action.

Despite the fact that the Red Wings top stars are in their late 30’s, I believe they have enough talent surrounding them to make another run for the playoffs. The offseason veteran additions of Brad Richards at center and Mike Green on the blueline will help and improve a power play that already ranked 2nd in the NHL last year at 23.8%. Offensively the team boasts rising young talent such as Tomas Tatar (29G, 27A), Gus Nyqvist (27G, 27A), Riley Sheahan (13G, 23A) and Tomas Jurco ( 3G, 15A).Furthermore, former Michigan State Spartan Justin Abdelkader had his best season as a pro last year and scored a career high 23 goals and 44 points.

(Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)
The 24-year-old Tatar has become a very good forward for the Red Wings. (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

The Red Wings were one of the best puck possession teams in the NHL last season with a Corsi-For percentage of 53.5, which was 3rd in the NHL. I like their  depth on defense as well. Swedish veteran defenseman Niklas Kronwall put up 44 points from the blueline and second year pro Danny DeKeyser had his best season playing on the Red Wings second defense pair with Kyle Quincey. DeKeyser had 31 points in 80 games and was a plus 11. This season the Red Wings are likely to play DeKeyser with the offensive-minded Mike Green.

Jonathan Ericsson is a nice veteran presence and 26-year-old Brendan Smith will see a lot of action as well. In goal it appears it will be 23-year-old Petr Mrazek’s job to lose with 31-year-old and longtime Red Wings Starter Jimmy Howard as the backup. The Red Wings will quickly be able to learn new coach Jeff Blashill’s system as a result of players such a Tatar and Jurco playing for Blashill in the American Hockey League.

Metropolitan Division

1) Washington Capitals

Tough to play against and highly skilled. This is what comes to mind when I think of the Washington Capitals. Not to mention a power play that is dominant and led the league last season at 25.3%. Barry Trotz has changed the culture and the mentality of this club and last season the team was painfully close to advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in the Alexander Ovechkin era.

The Capitals added skill and experience to the wing position this offseason by trading for TJ Oshie and signing Justin Williams to the already potent group of forwards. I believe adding Oshie and Williams is a huge upgrade, despite losing Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer, who both had nice seasons last year with Washington. Oshie is an excellent passer that will complement the team greatly and help add extra points with the multiple shootout dekes in his arsenal.

Offensively the Capitals are led by two superstars in Ovechkin (53G) and Backstrom (60 A) who are both in the prime of their careers. The Capitals have struggled in Game sevens in the past and adding a player like Williams, who has had a ton of success in those games (including three Stanley Cup Championships),will be huge for the team on the ice and in the room. Young players such as Evgeny Kuznetsov (11G, 26A) and Andrei Burakovsky (9G, 13A) showed very good promise towards the end of last season as well as in the playoffs and will be big contributors.

Washington has grit, toughness and size on their 3rd and 4th lines with young guys Tom Wilson, Michael Latta and veteran Brooks Laich. The Caps are a very big team up front and on the wing. Long time Capitals Jason Chimera and Brooks Laich are guys that want to see this team through to a deep playoff run.

(Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)
John Carlson has emerged as a top pairing two-way defenseman for the Washington Capitals. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

Despite losing Mike Green, the Caps defense is deep. John Carlson and Brooks Orpik were a very good shut down top pairing last year. Carlson in particular had his best season as a pro with 12 goals, 43 assists, and 55 points in the regular season. Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner was another very good pairing for the Capitals. The signings of Orpik and Niskanen in the summer of 2014 really changed the culture of the Capitals defense and left a big hole in the rival Penguins blueline.

In goal Braden Holtby was dominant and had the best year of his career. The workhorse appeared in 73 games (1st in the NHL) and posted 41 wins (2nd in the NHL) with nine shutouts (2nd in the NHL). Overall he was 41-20-10 with a .923 save % and 2.22 goals against average. After working with goalie coach Mitch Korn for a year, Holtby has become an elite goalie and will give the Caps confidence playing in front of him every night. The Caps/Rangers playoff series was a goaltending matchup for the ages. With the Caps adding TJ Oshie and Troy Brouwer and the Rangers returning essentially the same team, I give the new advantage slightly to Washington.

2) New York Rangers

The Rangers biggest move of the offseason was re-signing center Derek Stepan. Stepan (55 points in 68 games) is one of the most underrated defensive centers in the NHL right now and he can put up points. Entering his prime and age 25 season, Stepan will be expected to produce at close to a point per game pace this year for the Rangers. Stepan will center his linemate Chris Kreider (21G, 25A) to start the season on the Rangers second line with whoever is added to the top 6 out of training camp and preseason.

The duo skated with Jesper Fast in the playoffs and was a very effective line. The top line will feature Derrick Brassard (19G, 41A) centering Rick Nash (42G, 27A) and Mats Zuccarello (15G, 34A). Zuccarello is recovering from a concussion, and the Rangers are hoping he is ready to go opening night. To clear cap space for Stepan, the Rangers traded Carl Hagelin to the Anaheim Ducks for Emerson Etem. Etem, 23, is a former first round pick of the Ducks and will look to be an impact player for the Blueshirts this season.

Kevin Hayes will look to build on his dominant rookie year and JT Miller will try to build on a solid campaign as well. The Rangers strength is team speed, defense, and goaltending. The Rangers depth centers are not yet solidified as of now. The candidates to center the third and fourth lines are Oscar Lindberg, Dominic Moore, and newly acquired Jarrett Stoll from the Los Angeles Kings. The team needs a better performance in the faceoff circles from the centers as they finished 28th in the league last year as a team in faceoff winning percentage at 46.7%.

The defense is quite impressive with captain Ryan McDonagh playing with long-time Ranger Dan Girardi on the top pairing. Marc Staal and Kevin Klein will likely play on the 2nd pairing with Keith Yandle and Dan Boyle on the third. The Rangers are a hockey team that thrives off shutting down opposing teams star players and are very successful at that aspect of the game. Henrik Lundqvist will be refreshed and ready to go this year, with his new backup Antti Raanta. The Rangers will be legitimate contenders again this season in the Eastern Conference.

3) New York Islanders

The New York Islanders will be playoff bound in their first year at the Barclay’s Center, and if this spot holds true in the Metropolitan for both New York clubs, hockey fans will be in for quite the first round matchup. The Islanders are led up front by captain John Tavares (38G, 48A), Kyle Okposo (18G, 33A), Ryan Strome (17G, 33A), and Brock Nelson (20G, 22A).

Leddy and Boychuk Islanders
Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy were huge additions for the Islanders in the Summer of 2014.(Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

The Isles also got a lot of secondary scoring last season and 40 plus point years from Frans Nielsen, Josh Bailey, and Anders Lee. Nick Leddy (10G, 27A) and Johnny Boychuk (9G, 26A) formed a dominant defensive pair last season for the Islanders and both have won a Stanley Cup Championship. The team can take another step this season by improving both the power play and penalty kill. The Isles ranked 16th in the NHL with the man advantage and 26th when shorthanded.

Other defensemen that will log valuable minutes for the Isles next year include Travis Hamonic, Thomas Hickey, and Calvin de Haan. Jaroslav Halak will return as the starting goaltender and lead the Islanders back to the playoffs where they will hope for a deeper run this time around.

Wild Cards

1) Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins made the most well known acquisition of the offseason by adding Phil Kessel and his 35 plus goals each year to an already good offense. The question will be which line (Crosby or Malkin) Kessel will play on. The Penguins will be able to score goals next season in bunches as Kessel has never played with an elite center like Crosby (28G, 56A) or Malkin (28G, 42A).

Secondary scoring will come from players such as Chris Kunitz, David Perron, Patrik Hornqvist and newly acquired Nick Bonino. The real question mark for the club will be on defense. The Penguins can only hope that Kris Letang and Olli Maatta will be good to go and quickly get back to their capabilities this fall. When Kris Letang is healthy he adds a completely different dimension to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Letang is one of the best offensive defenseman in the league and was having an outstanding season last year with 54 points from the blueline in only 69 games.

Ian Cole, Derrick Pouliot, Ben Lovejoy will make up the Pens top five on defense with the sixth spot potentially up for grabs. I don’t see this defense from top to bottom being nearly as effective as the Caps, Rangers, and Islanders and I believe it is a main reason the Pens will finish below those teams in the standings.

Pittsburgh also needs to get their power play back to elite status after finishing 10th in the league last year at 19.3%. The penalty killing was excellent and the team was 3rd in that category. Marc-Andre Fluery will be reliable in the regular season as always between the pipes. Fluery was actually very good against for the most part against the New York Rangers in round one of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He did almost everything in his power to give his team a chance to win, but the depleted defense caught up with the Pens.  I expect the Penguins to grab the first wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.

2) Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets, despite having the worst injury-bug in the NHL last year, finished the season a very respectable 42-35-5 thanks to a 12-0-1 surge to end the regular season. Columbus loves to play a gritty game and will hit and skate all night.

On special teams last season, the Jackets finished with the 5th best power play in the league at 21.7%, but were 23rd on the penalty kill. That department must be improved this season. Offensively the team will be led by rising star Ryan Johansen (26g, 45a, 71p) and new captain Nick Foligno (31g, 42a, 73p). Scott Hartnell (28 goals) fit in very well with Columbus last year and I have a feeling as tough of a time as he had in Toronto, David Clarkson will fit in nicely in the Blue Jackets system.

(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
Ryan Johansen is poised for a huge year playing with Brandon Saad potentiall on the top line for the Blue Jackets. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Speedster Cam Atkinson is another player to watch that is capable of putting in 25 goals a year. One of the leaders on this club is Brandon Dubinsky, the two-way-center acquired from the New York Rangers in the summer of 2012 in the Rick Nash deal. Dubinsky, if healthy, can be a player that is very difficult to play against for opposing teams top players. Just take a look at the job he did against Sidney Crosby in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

What puts this offense over the top is the acquisition of Brandon Saad from Chicago. This will be an opportunity for Saad to shine and be a go-to-player night in and night out for the Blue Jackets. Expect to see Saad on the top line with Ryan Johansen.

The defense will need to improve and reinforcement is on the way in Ryan Murray. The 2nd overall selection in 2012 was out last season and will look to be a big-time contributor on the Jackets blueline with players such as Jack Johnson and Fedor Tyutin. If the Blue Jackets are going to return to the playoffs next year they need another big season from the 2013 Vezina Trophy Winner. Sergei Bobrovsky will be up to the task and lead the Blue Jackets back to the playoffs for a first round showdown with the Tampa Bay Lightning or Washington Capitals.