It’s that time again where I try to take some pride in making my Eastern Conference predictions and finding out in 6 months whether I know what I’m writing about. Again, it is my opinion and not of the entire staff here at Isles Talk. I have my usual criteria where I place each team into four different categories: 6 Core teams, 4 bubble teams, 3 sophomore teams and 3 lottery teams. I’ll give a description of each one and since this is a New York Islanders web page, I’ll save my analysis for them at the end. Now I have to admit, I’ve had a really difficult time putting certain teams in different categories. Some of the teams are obvious, but I’m going to be honest this looks like a 12 team race for the playoffs. Many of the bottom teams have improved over the last year or two and some just don’t deserve to be where I put them. As far as last year’s record for accuracy, Montreal was the only big loss last year, but everyone else got that wrong as well. Many, including myself also had Columbus in the playoffs and that idea was thrown out the window by game 15. So I scored a 6 out of 8, which is usually par for the course, but I had the Panthers as my dark-horse team and they ended up playing the Isles in the first round so I get one back. How will it look this year? Let’s find out:
The Core: These are the teams that should make the playoffs even with injuries to key players because of the talent/depth of the organization. Montreal was the only exception to this last year. Not in any particular order:
1. Tampa Bay: I wrote about this a few weeks ago, this is the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. They’re loaded, they have great goaltending and anything less than a trip t the Stanley Cup Finals will be deemed a disappointment.
2. Washington Capitals: Last years Presidents Trophy winners will have what may be one last shot at Lord Stanley’s cup with the current squad that has been formed. Look out for Andre Burakowsky.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins: Despite concussion issues with Sydney Crosby, the Pens have made the playoffs in the past without him and the defending Stanley Cup champs should make it. If they want to repeat, they’ll need to make some moves during the season like they did last year.
4. Florida Panthers: My dark-horse team from last year, the Panthers look poised to take another step forward. Jonathan Huberdeau being sidelined for a few months will not help, but even with him in the lineup they’re not getting past the Lightning in the standings.
5. Montreal Canadiens: Major overhaul in the offseason and yet it still comes down to Carey Price. If he’s healthy, Montreal makes it. There’s enough depth/talent that should take the Canadiens to the playoffs.
6. New York Islanders: Scroll down
The Bubble Teams: These teams can still make the playoffs but they have more question marks to start the season.
1. New York Rangers: This is the first time I have ever put the Rangers as a bubble team. I’m not saying they’re not going to make the playoffs, but I’d like to see how they play without Yandle, Brassard and can the Rangers defense stay healthy. Lundquist is another year older. Look out for Pirri.
2. Detroit Red Wings: I had them as a bubble team last year and I’m keeping them here again. No Datsyuk and the veterans are a year older. Will the goaltending be better and can Grand Rapids develop a few more kids to save the day. The streak is in serious jeopardy this year.
3. Boston Bruins: Can they finish a season without tanking it? it just looks like they didn’t have enough in them for a 82 game season. Look for this team to be major players come the trade dead line. Either they’ll make a move to get in the playoffs, or start making plans for the lottery.
4. Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers made the playoffs last year, but like Ottawa a few years back it took a major winning streak to get there. Goaltending is good, but Jakub Voracek needs to have a statement year.
The Sophomore Class: This is a group of teams that are like sophomores in high school, they’re just in school and not really going anywhere. Remember, the Flyers were in this category and they made it to the playoffs, but any team in this category needs a lot of help and you’ll see a similar trend with these teams. Make no mistake though, they will give the bubble teams a run for their money.
1. Buffalo Sabres: This is my dark-horse team this year folks. Sometimes my dark horses make the playoffs (Florida), and sometimes they don’t (Columbus). Goaltending is a must for this squad as I think that with enough improvement in skill, goaltending improves and a fallout from either Detroit or Boston and the Sabres could make some noise.
2. Ottawa Senators: The Senators are in a win-now mode. They got a little more experience with Derek Brassard and they’ll have a full season with Dion Phaneuf, but the goaltending is my biggest concern. Like the Sabres, everything needs to come together and the stars align for them to make it in. If the goaltending falters, look for moves to be made to improve sooner than later.
3. Columbus Blue Jackets: Major changes throughout last season and the Jackets were on pace for 82 points under head coach John Tortorella. They’re going to need around 95 points to get in. There AHL squad won the Calder Cup last year, so who comes up to help out the big club. I just don’t think it will be enough to beat out the Rangers. Again, help is needed.
The Lottery Teams: These teams aren’t necessarily in spots for the lottery at this time, but they have the least likeliest of chances making the playoffs.
1. New Jersey Devils: Goodbye Adam Larsson, hello Tyler Hall. Goaltending is very strong and the Devils have a legit first line that will compete with anyone. After that? I don’t know. That’s why they’re this low, but the Devils have promise and if things go terribly wrong in Columbus or Philly, the Devils could battle the Rangers for fourth.
2. Carolina Hurricanes: Tons of fresh faces and that’s why I can’t put them anywhere but here for now. Carolina finished with 86 points and I think they’ll do the same again, but they don’t have enough now to leap-frog over 4 other teams. I’m liking the way they’re building their future and it’s only a matter of time for them.
3. Toronto Maple Leafs: Biggest summer move was drafting Austin Mathews. Not enough to make it to the playoffs. The Leafs could use a top 5 draft pick in 2017 before making a bigger push. Mathews and the Leafs will be fun to watch. Ask any Devils fan, and they’ll tell you “In Lou We Trust”
The Isles theme to start this season is this: “We Are The Youth Gone Wild!” If you remember the song when it first came out, you’re old. The Isles might have both Anthony Beauvillier and Mathew Barzal on the ice beginning on Thursday against the Rangers and that might be a good thing. Why do I still have the Isles in as a core team? For one, I like the goaltending and the defense improves with the additions of Dennis Seidenberg over Brian Strait. I think you’ll see improvements from Nick Leddy, Thomas Hickey and possibly Calvin de Haan. As far as the offense goes, Andrew Ladd will compliment John Tavares, I believe Jason Chimera can duplicate and even exceed Matt Martins numbers, and I believe everyone will see the Ryan Strome of two years ago. Let’s not forget a full season of Shane Prince and Alan Quine should pay off for the Islanders, especially after their playoff experience they had last year. They’re more experienced, youthful, faster and have players who all have something to prove. If the Penguins or Caps slip because of injuries, don’t be surprised if the Isles take a shot at the Divisional title this year.