We are on the eve of the NHL season and I think most hockey fans just want the puck to drop. The inanity of training camps and preseason can be a bit much to handle for weeks on end. It is time for the regular season to take over.
The eve of the regular season also means prediction time. Without wasting more space, a brief look at each division, award winners, and the Cup champion.
2014-2015 Division Winner: New York Rangers
2014-2015 Playoff Teams: Washington Capitals, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins (WC)
It is pretty easy to look at the eight teams in this division and see a clear divide. Carolina and New Jersey should be doormats, Philadelphia will go through another “not quite awful but not quite good” season, and then there’s the top five.
Columbus looks to rebound from a disappointing – and injury-riddled – 2014-2015 season. With the addition of Brandon Saad, hopefully a healthy roster, and one of the best goalies in the game in Sergei Bobrovsky in net, they are definite playoff contenders if their blue line holds up.
The Rangers, Capitals, and Islanders should all be strong again, but each team has their weakness, too. The Rangers have no defensive depth past the top pair, the Capitals may be top-heavy again, and the Islanders have to make big strides in team defence to really contend.
Pittsburgh looks like a division winner to me. I know the big splash is the addition of Phil Kessel, but I think the real difference will come in a revamped bottom-six forward mix. Nick Bonino and (a healthy) Eric Fehr will go a long way in giving the Penguins depth beyond their top six forwards that they haven’t had in many years.
Division Winner: Pittsburgh Penguins
Playoff teams: Washington, NY Rangers, NY Islanders (WC), Columbus (WC)
2014-2015 Division Winner: Montreal Canadiens
2014-2015 Playoff Teams: Tampa Bay Lightning, Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators (WC)
In my estimation, this is the weaker of the two Eastern Conference divisions. I wouldn’t be surprised to see (and am in fact banking on) no wild card teams come out of this division this year.
Toronto will go through another lean year. They still have some talent, particularly on the blue line, but they are still at least a year away from really turning things around on the ice. Same goes for Buffalo. Their top-six forward mix is strong, but the bottom-six is weak, and the depth on the blue line isn’t there yet. Buffalo will be better than last year – how can they be worse – but it’s still another year away.
Boston looks to be a mess. I was holding out hope that they would improve from a disappointing year, but with Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg injured, there is absolutely no blue line to speak of in Beantown. That had been a strength of theirs during their best years, and is now undoubtedly their weakness (trading Dougie Hamilton didn’t help).
I see the same three teams who finished 1-2-3 in the division doing so again this year, with Tampa Bay winning the title. I will say that I think Florida is improving, and has been for a couple years. With the injuries that Detroit is enduring, and will continue to endure through the season, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see the Panthers take the third playoff spot from the Atlantic.
Division Winner: Tampa Bay
Playoff Teams: Montreal, Detroit
2014-2015 Division Winner: St. Louis
2014-2015 Playoff Teams: Nashville, Chicago, Minnesota (WC), Winnipeg (WC)
The Central Division is an absolute buzz saw this year. I look at the seven teams, and outside of Colorado, it wouldn’t shock me to see any one of them in the Cup Final. I may be a bit surprised if Ondrej Pavelec held up all season in net for Winnipeg, or how Minnesota performed without a miracle goaltending performance, but not shocked.
The Blues traded T.J. Oshie to Washington for Troy Brouwer. That is a bit mystifying to me, but all the same, there is a lot of forward depth on this team. Assuming rookie Robby Fabbri turns in a decent performance, they can run three lines deep with no issue. The goaltending, on the other hand, remains a giant, floating question mark.
I worry about Minnesota. This team looked like they were completely out of it before a miraculous run in goal by Devan Dubnyk. The roster this year is almost identical to last year, which makes me think they’ll need another elite performance in net from Dubnyk to be back in the playoffs. I don’t see it.
Nashville slowed in the second half last year and lost Shea Weber in the playoffs to injury. With a proper allocation of minutes – i.e. not running Weber into the ground – I think this team can put together two solid halves. Chicago should be fine as well. Sure they had to trade Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp, and let Johnny Oduay walk, but they are still loaded with talent, and I don’t think they take a huge step back this year. The young guns like Marko Dano and Teuvo Teravainen can help make up the difference.
Dallas is a team I really like this year. The addition of Sharp continues to load the top-six, and signing Oduya gives the team a bit more defensive depth. As long as their goaltending isn’t among the worst in the NHL like it was last year, they’re a playoff team.
Sorry, Colorado fans. At least it’s only one more year until next year.
Division Winner: Nashville
Playoff Teams: St. Louis, Chicago, Dallas (WC), Winnipeg (WC)
2014-2015 Division Winner: Anaheim
2014-2015 Playoff Teams: Vancouver, Calgary
It wasn’t long ago that this division was the buzz saw in the West. Now, it’s definitely the weaker of the two. That doesn’t mean there aren’t good teams coming out of the Pacific, though.
Vancouver got worse in the offseason. Nick Bonino had been a pleasant surprise for them, and trading him for Brandon Sutter was a mistake. With the injury to Chris Higgins, as of right now, there is no reliable forward depth (maybe Bo Horvat?) beyond the top line. With a declining goalie and so-so defence, I see Vancouver out of the playoffs. Calgary will be hard-pressed to get in again as well. Their goaltending situation is a carousel, and they relied heavily on their top line this year. The issue of scoring depth wasn’t addressed, so I don’t know if adding Dougie Hamilton and Michael Frolik is enough. They’ll be close.
Los Angeles will rebound from last year. The addition of Christian Ehrhoff is enough to replace the void from the departed (deported?) Slava Voynov (and good riddance). Milan Lucic will rebound, and the second line of Pearson-Carter-Toffoli will be a legitimate scoring threat all year.
San Jose should be better this year as well. They still have a wealth of talent, good offensive depth, and adding Paul Martin will help give them more options on the blue line. Edmonton will be better as well, but like Buffalo, I still think they need another year to really make a big push.
I think this is a two-horse race for the division title this year between Anaheim and Los Angeles.
2015-2016 Division Winner: Anaheim
Playoff Teams: Los Angeles, San Jose
Eastern Conference Champions: Pittsburgh Penguins
Western Conference Champions: Los Angeles Kings
Stanley Cup Champions: Los Angeles Kings
Hart Trophy (MVP) – Sidney Crosby
Art Ross Trophy (Points Leader) – Sidney Crosby
Norris Trophy (Top Defenceman) – P.K. Subban
Vezina Trophy (Top Goaltender) – Braden Holtby
Rocket Richard Trophy (Goals Leader) – Alex Ovechkin
Calder Trophy (Top Rookie) – Connor McDavid
I know many will disagree with some of the playoff teams – it’s okay, I can take it Flames and Wild fans – but it’s always best to bet against outliers from the previous years. We’ve seen this a few times in recent memory past with teams like Colorado and Toronto.
Keep in mind, that insanely good stretches by unproven goalies (Hammond, Dubnyk) are hard to repeat. The same goes for insanely good stretches by a whole line (Calgary). Even 82 games aren’t enough to have all this even out sometimes. Maybe Colorado’s top line goes ballistic, Varlamov is a wall again, and they finish second in the division. Maybe. More likely, though, it won’t happen.
Whatever happens, let’s just all collectively nod to each other in agreement that the season is thankfully here. Here is to another great season!