So we’re just about two weeks away from the start of the regular season and it’s time for my predictions segment. Now unlike many, I love doing predictions. It gives me a chance to really look into researching other teams (It’s also part of my regular job) and I pride/curse at myself on how that research comes to fruition/destruction. As always I will break down each conference into four categories: The Core; Bubble, Sophomores, and Lottery. When it comes to predicting where I put each team, I had to decide how many points will be needed to make it to the middle of April. As far as the East goes, I believe that 97 points will be the minimum requirement. From there I’ll determine if each team has a shot at reaching that point total. Where each team will land in the standings will be anyone’s guess, but if a team mentioned in the Core or Bubble sustain enough injuries, the points total could slightly drop and of course, the standings would change. I’m also adding another element to the prediction piece, each teams projected end of year total which will roughly have a span of five points. So without further hesitation, let’s start with the Core.
The Core: These are teams that, despite injuries, have enough depth and talent to make the playoffs whether they come in first in the Conference or a wild card spot.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins 105-110 points
They’re the champs until they’re beaten. To be honest if the Pens finish in the top two in the division, then they’re a great threat to three-peat as Stanley Cup Champions. When I think of the Pens only one word comes to mind, pace. They’ll pace themselves to the post season and if they’re healthy, all bets are off. Like I’ve written before about “out with old and in with the new,” you’ll see some fresh new faces than from last season. My biggest concern will be their goaltending. Can Matt Murray stay healthy? Can Antti Niemi produce as the backup with former Penguin Marc-Andre Fleury now in Vegas? Will we see promising goaltender Tristian Jarry from the baby pens show up?
2. Tampa Bay Lightning 110-115 points
Tampa was one of two teams that were in my Core category last year and they fell one point from a playoff berth. They should have made it, however after the offseason the Lightning had a great offseason and looking at the rest of the Atlantic, I can see the Lightning finishing with the best record in the Conference. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the best team, but they’ll be playing in a division that should only have three teams make it to the playoffs. A healthy Steven Stamkos and the Lightning may give the Penguins the biggest challenge if they’re to play for the Conference Championships.
3. Washington Capitals 100-105 Points
This is a top heavy team and I’ll refer to the above Pittsburgh quote for the Caps as this also applies to them. As of this writing, the defense may have close to three rookies on defense, and they’ll have to replace Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson’s scoring from within. It’s also time for Kuznetsov to take over the scoring for the Caps and not have to solely rely on Alex Ovechkin or TJ Oshie. He could be a star in the making and adding Andre Burakowsky to the mix of players who need to step up, the Capitals should be alright. The Caps will live and die by their goaltending when it’s all said and done. It’s solid and should keep the Caps in almost every game.
4. Montreal Canadiens 100-105 Points
The offense has enough depth to carry them through the season, and the defense will be under the microscope and dissected almost every game. Will Jonathan Drouin thrive in the Montreal limelight and make his line-mates better players while having a career year? Like I right every year, it always comes down to Cary Price. If he’s healthy, Montreal should make it in and a full season of head coach Claude Julien isn’t a bad move either. And no, John Tavares will not be joining them at any time during the season.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets 100-105 Points
There are many who are picking the Blue Jackets to win this division and rightfully so. If there’s enough injuries to Pittsburgh, you may just see it. However, these numbers above are lower than the 108 points Columbus racked up last year. Why? That sixteen game winning streak from last season. I do it every year when I’ll take a team to score fewer points (Hello Ottawa two years ago) because of a long winning streak. Plus I can’t see Sergei Bobrovsky having another Vezina trophy season again. The Blue Jackets have a special player in Artemi Panarin, I’m not denying that. However, this is not Chicago and he’s not on a line with Anisimov and Kane. There’s nothing secret about the Blue Jackets this year, the rest of the league will be ready. The big question is this: Are the Jackets ready for that next step? There’s enough depth on this team to get to the playoffs, but the overall goaltending must be solid if Columbus wants the division.
6. New York Islanders 100-105 Points
No, this is not kissing up, nor is it drinking the Kool-aide like most will assume. The Islanders were the other core team from last year that should have made it to the playoffs. I know many will point to Capuano and the three-headed goalie monster, but if you read my articles, you’ll know that Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome were key factors for the Isles getting in. Had Strome racked up 45-50 points like he was expected to, the Isles were in. The Isles also traded Strome for Jordan Eberle, someone who may in fact double Strome’s point total and adding players like Josh Ho-Sang and Mathew Barzal on offense not only makes the Isles faster, but you’ll see more point production because both players can make their line-mates better. Nothing would shock me if the Isles racked up close to 250 goals this season and I’ll take the addition of Ryan Pulock’s overall game against Travis Hamonic’s bad season on defense. In short, I think the Isles could be last years Columbus Blue Jackets and “surprise” everyone. Last note on the Isles: The Isles finished with a 24-12-7 record good for a 107 point pace. After 40 games, the biggest question will be if last years second half was a fluke. I’m going no. Over the last four seasons, the Isles finished with 55 points in 2013 (96 point pace over a full season) 79 points in 2014, 101 in 2015, 100 (4 points blown in the last 2 games) in 2016, and 94 last year. Most are predicting the Isles to finish in 7th or 6th place in this Metro division. HUH??? This is NOT an 85-90 point team by ANY stretch unless a plague breaks out and that’s why they’ll surprise most fans, even some Isles fans too.
The Bubble Teams: Teams that have question marks and scare me enough to rank them lower, but should still make a push for the two available wild card positions.
Toronto Maple Leafs 97-102 Points
Like Columbus, the book is now out on Toronto and teams will be better ready to play against them. There’s no doubt that they were the most exciting team to watch, but the reality is this: If Tampa doesn’t lose Steven Stamkos or the Lightning got things together earlier in the season, the Leafs don’t make it in. Will Toronto fall for the sophomore slump? Bringing in Patrick Marleau and Ron Hainsey may help in the locker room to address that, and when you have a coach like Mike Babcock, I will say no. However, the Leafs did exceed expectations, including their own. Also like Columbus, are the Leafs ready to handle the lofty expectations of a city desperately wanting more and longer playoff runs with an eventual championship? I think when it comes down to it, this will be an even better, yet harder learning experience for the young, up-and-coming team.
New York Rangers 97-102 Points
This is the first time I’m putting the Rangers this low. I’m having second thoughts as I’m writing this, but I just can’t put them as a core team when I’m not sure about their number one center in Mika Zibanejad and for the first time, I’m really nervous about the goaltending. Henrik Lundquist will get more than 50 games and that scares me and if you ask any Rangers fans, they’d rather have Antti Raanta over Andrej Pavelec and they’re right. The Rangers defense is younger, faster and would certainly help the goalies, but they’re both a year older and I’m nervous they’re both entering their twilight years. If they hold the team together, they’re in.
Ottawa Senators 92-97 Points
If the Rangers do falter and Erik Karlsson returns, will the Ottawa Senators be in a strong position in the standings to keep the season going? There’s enough depth on the team to survive and if Mike Condon can continue being a capable backup, the Sens have a chance to get into the playoffs. As long as other bubble teams falters or there are injuries to the other top teams, it’s the only way I can see Ottawa sneaking in. It’s strictly an injury thing with me when it comes to the Sens and the veterans cannot afford a slow start.
Boston Bruins 90-95 Points
Goaltending is a big deal, especially for Tuuka Rask. He cannot play sixty games this year and expect the Bruins to make the playoffs. Very similar goalie situation as the Rangers and I also like the defense of the Bruins. There’s enough depth to keep them going the whole season and they’ll be in the thick of things until the end, I just believe the Bruins will be able to collect 97 points with Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Tampa ahead of them. They’ll need help during the season.
The Sophomore Teams: These are teams I really don’t know where to place. They’re like sophomores in high school, they’re making an identity for themselves running around and you just never know where they’ll end up. Sometimes they may surprise you and make it to the postseason.
Carolina Hurricanes 90-95 Points
Many have the Hurricanes in the playoffs this year and like predictions about Columbus, this is a decent team to have move into a playoff spot for the first time in years. Here’s my issue: Scott Darling, the newly designated number one goalie has never played more than 33 games in a season. Second, like Panarin from Columbus, this is not Chicago. Keeping Cam Ward as the Hurricanes backup will only work out if he can play like he’s a starter every game he plays. I love how this team has been built through the draft and how they have acquired a few players. To add to that, nothing would shock me if the Canes made a move or two to continue improving the team during the season and compete for a spot. However, as of this writing I can’t put them in a playoff spot without them actually playing first. Definitely a team to watch and beware as they could shoot up in the standings.
Detroit Red Wings 82-87 Points
New arena, same team for the most part. Simply put, I just think they’re not good enough right to win a top four spot in their division, but they’re the Hurricanes of the Atlantic. There looks to be enough offense and the goalies need to be sharp to help out the defense. Last years free agents should be better prepared to what to expect this time around and the Wings must come out flying. I could see the Wings making moves during the season if they’re still in it and a top team stumbles. Who is going to be the number one goalie on this team?
Philadelphia Flyers 87-92 Points
To my knowledge, the Flyers are the only team to win ten in a row and not make the playoffs. So the questions are what team will we see: The dominant team at the beginning of last year, or the one that imploded during the second half? Is the goalie situation finally resolved this year? How will the young defense handle a full NHL season? Will Claude Giroux score more than 65 points? There’s a potential to really like the Flyers and they’ll battle Carolina, but I just can’t put them as a 97 point team, I just don’t think they have it yet.
Florida Panthers 87-92 Points
My main concern with this group are the injuries sustained to some of the core players on this team. Can they stay healthy? Is Roberto Luongo now in his twilight years as Lundquist of the Rangers is now approaching? Is Bernier more suited to be the starter? If this team can stay healthy, they’re going to give Ottawa and Boston a real scare. I don’t think this is a 97 point team, but with a move or a surprise call-up player, the Panthers will make life Hell in the Atlantic. On the other hand, if injuries creep up, you could see them last in the division.
The Lottery Teams: These teams are not necessarily going to finish last in the conference, but have the least likeliest chance of making the playoffs.
Buffalo Sabres 82-87
This may just not be their year yet. I think anything over 85-87 points and Sabres fans should be ecstatic and excited for next year. If there is a team that gets hit with a plague, the Sabres won’t finish last in the Conference. I think Sabres fans should focus on whom will join Jack Eichel as part of their core. If that’s established by the end of the season, it’s a good year.
New Jersey Devils 80-85 points
Travis Zajac is already out, the Devils need every player available to step up right from the get-go when the season starts. Even though the moves have been slow, I love how this team is rebuilding after every off season. Winning the draft was the best thing that could happen for the Devils. Unfortunately, they’re playing in the Metro so 80-85 points could be like 85-90 points in the Western Conference. Will Corey Schneider have a rebound year? If he does, the Devils could still be in the playoff hunt past the trade deadline.