To be honest, I’m just bored waiting for hockey season to finally start again. What better way to pass the time than making longshot projections. There should be a few changes to who makes the playoffs this upcoming season, let’s see how close I can get to what really happens this season.
Let’s start with how I see the Eastern Conference playing out. Here’s who I have making it, in no particular order, and a quick hit on why:
Pittsburgh Penguins – The defending Champs are a lock to be near the top of the standings again. There are some people predicting a three-peat, which I think is a bit of a stretch, but they should be in contention at the very least.
Montreal Canadiens – Carey Price will have his work cut-out for him again this year, as the blueline takes a big hit in my opinion. They added some much needed scoring with Drouin, but still didn’t fix for me to consider them a contender for the Cup at this point. They should still make the postseason, but likely another early exit.
Washington Capitals – The Caps are poised to take a step-back this year, but not far enough to drop them out of the playoffs. Ovechkin is still a goal scoring force, but has slowed in recent years. Can Kuznetsov take that next step? Is Oshie really as good as he was last year? They also lost both Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt this offseason on the backend, but with Braden Holtby arguably the best goalie in the past two seasons, they should be fine.
Toronto Maple Leafs – The Leafs took a major step forward, with big seasons from their rookies, and great seasons from their veterans. They upgraded on forward this year adding Patrick Marleau, and you can definitely put Ron Hainsey as an upgrade over both Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak. They added some size to the backend in Hainsey, something they lacked big time this past season. They should compete for a top spot in the East this year.
Columbus Blue Jackets – The Jackets had a better year than most expected, and they’ll likely take a step-back this year. They traded Brandon Saad and brought in Artemi Panarin, which is an upgrade in scoring for them. They’re still a young team, but should find a way to make the playoffs.
Boston Bruins – The Bruins, in my opinion, are a bubble team. Their defense corps is weaker than it’s been in years, and while they still have Rask to man the crease, and the likes of Marchand and Bergeron up front, they’ll be in a battle all year to make the playoffs.
Teams Jumping In:
Tampa Bay Lightning – No one would have predicted Tampa to miss the playoffs last year, but with the amount of injuries they suffered, it wasn’t a surprise. The two question marks going into this season for Tampa are the health of Stamkos, and is Vasilevksiy truly a number 1 netminder. They’re built deeper than almost any other team in the East, and should find their way back into the playoffs this year.
Carolina Hurricanes – The Hurricanes are built deeper on the blueline than maybe every other team, save maybe Nashville. They have a good group of young forwards, and should continue to improve next year. The biggest question for Carolina is goaltending, and while the acquisition of Scott Darling helps, is it enough? Time will tell.
Ottawa Senators – For Sens fans, they’ll argue “We were one game away from the Cup finals last year!”, but that was a big over-achievement for the Sens. They lost Methot on the backend, and while rookie Thomas Chabot should see a lot of ice time, they don’t have a deep enough group on the backend to push their way back into the playoffs. Up front, they lack goal scoring more than most teams going into next season. They’ll be on the bubble, but likely on the outside looking in.
New York Rangers – I picked the Rangers to fall out of the playoffs last year, and they ended up winning their first round matchup against Montreal. Signing Shattenkirk will help, but losing Stepan down the middle will also hurt. I think it’s about time King Hank starts to show decline, and if that does happen, the Rangers are screwed.
Not as much movement in the West, a lot of teams remain strong, while some didn’t do enough to change their fortunes. Here’s who I have making it, in no particular order:
Chicago Blackhawks – The Hawks are a perennial powerhouse, and should continue to make the playoffs. Losing Hjalmarsson will hurt them defensively, and they’re likely to drop down the standings a bit. They added good depth scoring in Patrick Sharp, while shipping out Kane’s bestfriend and linemate Panarin to bring Brandon Saad back in. Losing Hossa for the season will hurt them as well, but not enough to make them fall out of the playoffs.
Nashville Predators – Last year’s runner-ups are almost as sure of a pick as any team at this point, stacked with the best blueline in the NHL. Adding Scott Hartnell and Nick Bonino up front helps improve their depth scoring as well. Nashville will continue to be one of the better rounded teams in the NHL today.
Minnesota Wild – The Wild had a big season from Eric Staal and Mikael Grandlund, as well as another good season from Devan Dubnyk. They added Marcus Foligno, which improves their bottom 6 forward group, and should have a full season from Eriksson-Ek, which is a big bonus. The Wild should be a lock to make it again next year.
San Jose Sharks – The Sharks were a toss-up for me this year. They lost Marleau and his 27 goals, which I think impacts them more than they think it will. How much does Jumbo have left in the tank? Can he still be the number 1 centre they need? We shall see, but they’re a team I’d keep an eye on early in the season.
St. Louis Blues – The Blues made some good additions this offseason, adding Brayden Schenn into their top six, as well as Beau Bennett as a good depth addition. Jake Allen proved he can be the goalie they need, and their blueline didn’t look any less formidable after removing Shattenkirk at the deadline. The Blues have a good shot at coming out of the West.
Edmonton Oilers – McDavid will continue to carry this team forward, backed-up by the likes of Leon Draisaitl and Cam Talbot. This team still is not deep enough to make a serious run, and their blueline isn’t built like a champion by any means. If McDavid happens to get injured for a long period of time, I can’t see this team making the playoffs.
Anaheim Ducks – The Ducks have a great blueline, and still have a decent forward corps. The question mark for them resides in goal, as Gibson has never been able to stay healthy. They brought in Ryan Miller, but he’s nothing more than a backup at this point in his career. They should still be able to push their way in, but it will be a battle.
Teams Jumping In:
Dallas Stars – Losing Patrick Sharp doesn’t help Dallas, but adding in Martin Hanzal, Marc Methot, Alexander Radulov and most of all Ben Bishop pushed them further up the standings than anyone else going into next season. Their top-9 forward group is great, and adding in Methot gives them more stability on the backend as well. Look for the Stars to be one of the better teams this year in the West.
Calgary Flames – Mike Smith is hardly an upgrade in goal, which was a big issue for the Flames for most of last year. They’re still not good enough up front to be considered a lock for the playoffs, but they did upgrade their backend with Travis Hamonic. Adding someone like Jaromir Jagr would help their biggest need, so if they can add some additional scoring, they could make the push.
There are a few bubble teams in each Conference that could push their way into the playoff picture and should be in the fight to the bitter end. In the East I could see Buffalo, both New York teams, and even Philadelphia making a push. In the West, there are less teams I can see genuinely making an impact. Winnipeg could improve enough to stay in the hunt all year, but past them, other than Calgary I don’t see any other team with a legitimate shot at making a big enough impact.