2014-2015 NHL Regular Season Predictions

NHL

Eastern Conference:

 

Atlantic Division:

 

1. Boston Bruins.

 

Salary cap issues left the Bruins unable to re-sign 30-goal scorer Jarome Iginla, and also ultimately led to the recent trade of Johnny Boychuk — a solid part of their blue line for the last several years — to the New York Islanders for draft picks. The cap problems also didn’t allow the Bruins to go outside of the organization to replace those players, neither of whom are insignificant losses. Also of concern is Zdeno Chara, who will turn 38 in March and looked like he was wearing down late last season, particularly in the playoffs. Can he still handle the grind of a full regular season and postseason? Still, the B’s have been one of the best teams in the league for a few years now, they had 16 more points than anyone else in the division last year, won the Presidents’ Trophy and still have a very deep lineup as well as arguably the best goalie in the league. It’s also possible they get a healthy, more productive Loui Eriksson. They’re not a lock for the division by any means this year, but heading into the season, I still consider them the favourite.

 

2. Montreal Canadiens:

 

After a 100-point season and deep playoff run, the Habs underwent a bit of a youth movement in the off-season. Josh Gorges, long-time blueliner and assistant captain for the team, was traded, and captain Brian Gionta left as a free agent to reunite with Gorges in Buffalo. Also gone are the disappointing Daniel Briere and Thomas Vanek. Briere spent much of the season on the fourth line, and after being one of the biggest acquisitions at the trade deadline, Vanek spent time there, too, during an uninspiring postseason performance. To replace those guys, they signed intriguing 22-year-old winger Jiri Sekac from the KHL, were someone how able to turn Briere into a legitimate top-six forward in PA Parenteau, signed an underrated play-driving defenseman in Tom Gilbert, and added Manny Malhotra to centre the fourth line. The promising Nathan Beaulieu should have a bigger role this year, and Alex Galchenyuk could be primed for a breakout season. But with the changes that were made, Montreal must find a way to spend more time with the puck. Last season, the Canadiens averaged 28.4 shots on goal per game (ranked 24th in the league) while allowing an average of 31 (ranked 22nd). It’s certainly possible, as the year before they took an average of 30.6 while allowing just 26.9. If the Habs can improve their possession game while continuing to get Vezina caliber goaltending from Carey Price, they have a lot of potential this season.

 

3. Tampa Bay Lightning.

 

After a breakout season last year and an intriguing offseason, the Bolts are lots of people’s sexy sleeper pick this year. Teddy Purcell was their only loss of significance, while they added Brian Boyle and Brenden Morrow for depth up front and Anton Stralman and Jason Garrison to shore up their defense. But what’s most intriguing about the Lightning is its collection of young players. In addition to last year’s Calder finalists Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, Tampa Bay has this year’s Calder favourite in the uber talented Jonathan Drouin on the way, and could also potentially get impacts from other recent first-round picks in Brett Connolly and Vladislav Namestnikov. But the key to Tampa’s season will be Ben Bishop proving he’s the real deal. If he’s the same goalie that was a Vezina candidate last year – or even close to it – then this team has a legitimate chance to contend. Oh, and a full season of that Steven Stamkos guy also shouldn’t hurt.

 

4. Detroit Red Wings.

 

The Red Wings are returning essentially the same roster minus Daniel Alfredsson. They were able to make the playoffs last year despite some awful luck with injuries – atop the list being Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk missing 37 games each, and Stephen Weiss missing 56. The last two years have been a nightmare for Weiss, but he’s a big candidate for a bounceback season if he can stay healthy. Of course, for a guy who’s played a total of 43 games in the last two years, that’s a big if. All the injuries did provide a positive, in the emergence of young players such as Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco, Riley Sheahan and, most of all, Gustav Nyquist. It’s not a great sign that they’re already going to be without Datsyuk for the first couple weeks of the season, but assuming they do end up having some better luck with injuries (and Jimmy Howard has a better year), the Wings should have a decent shot at extending their playoff streak to a 24th consecutive year.

 

5. Ottawa Senators.

 

In my mind, there’s a big gap between the top four teams in this division and the bottom four. The Senators are weird. They alternate between good and bad years, and they’re bad when you expect them to be good and good when you expect them to be bad. Their goaltender, Craig Anderson, has also been alternating between good and bad years. If Anderson and the Sens continue to follow that trend, they could actually have a pretty good year. Ottawa is returning a pretty similar roster to last year, just with David Legwand and Alex Chiasson instead of Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky (who only spent the last part of the season there), which is a definitely a downgrade. I think the Sens will be a bit better this season, as they should get better goaltending from both Anderson and Robin Lehner, but they need more help from their teammates. Ottawa gave up an average of 34.7 shots on goal per game last season, a mark that only the Toronto Maple Leafs had worse at 35.9. It’s hard for any goalie to have success under that kind of workload. Speaking of the Leafs…

 

6. Toronto Maple Leafs.

 

After a late-season collapse, most of the changes in Toronto’s offseason were on the coaching staff and front office. As far as the roster goes, there was mainly just tweaking among the depth players – Mason Raymond, Nikolai Kulemin, Jay McClement and Carl Gunnarsson are gone, while guys David Booth, Matt Frattin, Mike Santorelli, Daniel Winnik, Stephane Robidas and Roman Polak were added. But at the end of the day, despite all the talk about the Maple Leafs management shifting to be more analytic, the general manager is still there (sort of), the head coach is still there, and most of the roster, at least the key parts, are still intact, so it’s hard to see this team significantly improving on the 27.9 shots on goal and 35.9 shots against per game they put up last year, which ranked 25th and 30th in the league, respectively. The Leafs do have a terrific young goaltender in Jonathan Bernier and some very talented players leading their offense, which should at least keep them in the race.

 

7. Florida Panthers.

 

There’s optimism for improvement in Florida this year. With Roberto Luongo back, the Panthers finally have a legitimate starting goalie for the first time since, well, Roberto Luongo (ok, maybe that’s not fair to Tomas Vokoun). Jussi Jokinen was a nice addition, Dave Bolland could be able to help in some capacity in a bottom-six role (even if he’s getting paid $5.5 million per year to do that), and steady veteran Willie Mitchell and first-overall pick Aaron Ekblad should help shore up the blue line. The Panthers will be better, but they had a lot of ground to make up to be a legitimate playoff team. Did they make up enough? I don’t think so. This is a team that scored just 2.29 goals per game last year, the second worst mark in the league, and no one scored more than Nick Bjugstad’s 38 points, though in addition to the additions of Jokinen and Bolland, Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau should have better years, but they lost Gilbert, who’s better than Mitchell and, right now, perhaps even better than the 18-year-old Ekblad. I can see Florida contending for a playoff spot if enough things go right, but it’s hard to see them actually making it.

 

8. Buffalo Sabres.

 

Buffalo was the worst team in the NHL last year. It wasn’t close. The Sabres’ 52 points were 14 points behind the next worst team (Florida), and that was despite having Ryan Miller and his .923 save percentage for most of the season. This year, the Sabres are going with Michal Neuvirth and Jhonas Enroth in goal, neither of whom has proven they can be quality NHL starting goalies. Last year, this is a team that averaged 26.3 shots on goal per game (worst in the league), scored 1.83 goals per game (worst in the league), and gave up an average of 34.3 shots on goal per game (third worst in the league). If their goaltending is even just average, which is far from a guarantee that it’ll even be that good, this team is going to be really bad again. In the offseason, the Sabres actually made some decent additions with guys like Gionta, Gorges and Andrej Meszaros, and they brought Matt Moulson back and should get a full season out of Chris Stewart, but they also got rid of arguably their best player in Christian Ehrhoff.

 

Metropolitan Division:

 

1. New York Rangers.

 

The Rangers are hoping to build off their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 20 years. Glen Sather’s offseasons in New York are becoming surprisingly quiet. This summer saw the Rangers bring Dan Boyle and Lee Stempniak in, while seeing Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle leave. They also used a compliance buyout on Brad Richards, who’s still a fine player, he just made way too much money. But, the Rangers are getting a full year out of Martin St. Louis, who got things on track in the playoffs after a rough start in New York following the trade, and look for Chris Kreider to break out with a big season. And, of course, they still have one of the best goalies in the league in Henrik Lundqvist. I’m not sure the Rangers are a much better team than last year, but I’m also not sure there’s a better team in the division this year.

 

2. Pittsburgh Penguins.

 

After another disappointing postseason, Pittsburgh decided to shake things up, replacing Head Coach Dan Bylsma with Mike Johnston and General Manager Ray Shero with Jim Rutherford. The latter move is one I really didn’t understand. In the last eight years, Rutherford put together one playoff team with the Carolina Hurricanes. This is the guy you want running your team? Since taking the helm, Rutherford watched Jussi Jokinen leave to sign a very reasonable four-year, $16 million contract in Florida, and traded James Neal to the Nashville Predators for a pair of lesser players in Patric Hornqvist, who could maybe score 20 goals mucking it up in front of the net, and a bottom-six forward in Nick Spaling. Neal scored 61 points in just 59 games last year. Quantity over quality, I guess. Granted, Pittsburgh’s problem has been depth behind the stars, but I don’t think losing its best forwards besides Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz was the way to address that. On defense, Christian Ehrhoff can be a solid replacement for Matt Niskanen for a lot less money, and a healthy Kris Letang would be a big help. In goal, there is of course the question of what the Penguins are going to get from the enigmatic Marc-Andre Fleury. I was not crazy about the Pens’ offseason, and I see them taking a bit of a step back this year.

 

3. New York Islanders.

 

Count me on the Islanders hype train. The Isles actually weren’t awful last year – they averaged 30.9 shots on goal per game while allowing 30, and their 2.63 goals per game ranked 17th in the league. Yes, Thomas Vanek is gone, but John Tavares is back, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin were brought in, Ryan Strome could be ready to make a big impact, and on defense, Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy were brought in, and Griffin Reinhart might be ready for the NHL, too. Also, Jaroslav Halak is a big-time upgrade in goal from Evgeni Nabokov.

 

4. Washington Capitals.

 

The Capitals lost Martin Erat, Mikhail Grabovski and Jaroslav Halak. No surprise about Erat, who never really found a fit in Washington, but it was a bit surprising that they seemingly made no effort to keep Grabovski or Halak, though they should be fine in goal with Braden Holtby. The Caps’ big additions were on defense, with Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. Orpik is massively overpaid, but can perhaps be a good third pairing defenseman. Niskanen, should he produce the way he did last year, will be a nice addition. I think they will be better, but I don’t see them doing much more than contending for a Wild Card.

 

5. Philadelphia Flyers.

 

Like in New York, it was an oddly quiet offseason in Philadelphia. The Flyers pretty much just swapped out Scott Hartnell for R.J. Umberger. That was a strange move, and a downgrade. I don’t see how the Flyers are any better than last year, and if the enigmatic Steve Mason takes a step back, things could get ugly.

 

6. New Jersey Devils.

 

Ryan Carter, Mark Fayne and Anton Volchenkov are gone, while Mike Cammalleri and Martin Havlat were added. Havlat could do well with a change of scenery, while Cammalleri is still a legitimate top-six forward. On defense, the Devils will look to young players like Eric Gelinas, Jon Merrill and Adam Larsson to fill the holes. A full season where the net belongs to Cory Schneider, and the Devils don’t feel obligated to give Martin Brodeur half the starts, will help, but I’m still not sure New Jersey is going to score enough goals. This is still a team relying on a 42-year-old Jaromir Jagr and 38-year-old Patrik Elias to carry the offense. While they’re still good players, it’s reasonable to expect them to slow down a bit.

 

7. Columbus Blue Jackets.

 

Other than getting the better of the Flyers in the Hartnell-Umberger trade, it was a pretty quiet offseason for the Blue Jackets, too, who saw Nikita Nikitin and Derek MacKenzie leave. Columbus will pretty much be banking on the same kind of internal improvement it got last year, and more great goaltending from Sergei Bobrovksy. While the Jackets were a nice story last year, I see them taking a bit of a step back. However, just because I have them seventh in the division doesn’t mean I think they’re going to be terrible – this division is so wide open, there could be 10 points between first and seventh.

 

8. Carolina Hurricanes.

 

This is an easy one. Honestly, one through seven in this division could finish in almost any order and it wouldn’t surprise me. But it’ll surprise me if Carolina doesn’t finish last. Not much change in the offseason for a bad, uninspiring team (not on the ice, at least), and they’ve already lost Jordan Staal to a broken leg and Jeff Skinner to a concussion.

 

As for the NHL Wild Cards in the Eastern Conference, I’ll give the first one to Detroit and the second one to Washington.

 

Western Conference:

 

Central Division:

 

1. Chicago Blackhawks.

 

Salary cap issues forced the Blackhawks to trade Nick Leddy in training camp, but they also took advantage of another team’s cap issues, and added the bought out Brad Richards on a bargain deal from the New York Rangers. Chicago has struggled to find a strong second-line centre behind Jonathan Toews, even trying guys like Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp there at times, but Richards can do that job legitimately on this team while allowing those guys to focus on their regular positions. Oh, and this team was already really good, in case you didn’t know.

 

2. St. Louis Blues.

 

On defense, Roman Polak was traded for Carl Gunnarsson (good deal), while up front, Derek Roy and Brenden Morrow left. St. Louis also gave up on the Ryan Miller experiment and is moving forward with Jake Allen and Brian Elliott. The big addition was Paul Stastny, who will help make a very good team even better. The question for the Blues is whether this is finally the year they’ll do something in the playoffs.

 

3. Dallas Stars.

 

You can count me on the Dallas hype train, too. This is a good young team that improved a lot last year, and then added Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky, who showed great chemistry together in Ottawa last year. Also, look for Valeri Nichushkin to have a breakout year.

 

4. Colorado Avalanche.

 

The Avalanche is the team everyone has their eyes on this year. Last year, Colorado improved from the second worst record in the league to the third best, putting up 112 points. The Avs did that despite some pretty bad possession numbers, which a lot of people believe is unsustainable. In the offseason, they made the strange PA Parenteau for Daniel Briere swap, and while they lost Paul Stastny, they brought in Jarome Iginla. I really like a lot of this team, between Iginla, Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O’Reilly, Tyson Barrie, and Semyon Varlamov, who emerged as one of the league’s top goalies last year. You don’t necessarily need great possession numbers with great goaltending. I think the Avs will be a better team this season, even if their point total doesn’t reflect it.

 

5. Minnesota Wild.

 

After giving the Blackhawks a run for their money in the second round, the Wild watched trade deadline acquisition Matt Moulson and the washed up Dany Heatley leave in the offseason, while bringing in Thomas Vanek. Honestly, there’s not much of a difference between Vanek and Moulson. I see Minnesota being about the same as last year, and contending for a Wild Card spot. The big question is what will happen in the crease between Darcy Kuemper, Nicklas Backstrom and Josh Harding.

 

6. Nashville Predators.

 

A pretty nice offseason in Nashville. The Predators dealt Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling to the Penguins for James Neal, and also added Olli Jokinen and Derek Roy, while bringing in Anton Volchenkov for defense depth. With a better, healthier year from Pekka Rinne and the continued development of guys like Filip Forsberg and Seth Jones, the Preds could compete for a playoff spot, even in the tough Central Division.

 

7. Winnipeg Jets.

 

Easy. The Jets stink. They refuse to move on from Onrej Pavelec in goal, and they might no upgrades to a bad team. Olli Jokinen out, Mathieu Perrault in is pretty much a wash. Keep this short and sweet – Winnipeg plays in the toughest division in the league, and isn’t close to any of the other six teams.

 

Pacific Division:

 

1. Los Angeles Kings.

 

Status quo for the defending champs in the offseason, and why not? The Kings have kept the core of the team that won two Stanley Cups in the last three years intact. And you have to think this is finally the year the Kings are going to excel in the regular season, too. With the chemistry Marian Gaborik and Anze Kopitar showed together, the Kings have finally solidified their first line, and they should be able to score enough goals this time around.

 

2. Anaheim Ducks.

 

A few losses in Anaheim, from the retired Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu to Daniel Winnik and Nick Bonino. However, at this stage of their careers, the only top-six forward was arguably Bonino, who was traded for Ryan Kesler to solidify the Ducks’ strength up the middle behind Ryan Getzlaf. If the promising young goaltending duo of John Gibson and Frederik Andersen can perform, it should be another good year for the Ducks. I’m interested to see if Dany Heatley can revitalize his career with the likes of Getzlaf and Perry. He’s not going to score #50in15, but is 20 out of the question?

 

3. San Jose Sharks.

 

After spending the whole summer talking about changes after their latest, most epic playoff failure, San Jose didn’t actually do much aside from changing the captaincy. That’s probably a good thing. The Sharks are a good team. If they can manage to keep the past postseason failures out of their head and manage to get some luck, this is still a team that could win the Cup.

 

4. Vancouver Canucks.

 

Ryan Kesler seemed to get the impression from Jim Benning that the Canucks were entering a rebuild and weren’t planning on winning for a few years. Not sure that’s the impression the rest of us got, though. After all, signing a 34-year-old goalie with the credentials of Ryan Miller to a three-year contract with a $6 million cap hit doesn’t seem like a very rebuilding-teamy thing to do. Miller had an uneven finish to the season in St. Louis, but for most of the season was very good on a very bad Buffalo team. He’s probably not going to win any more Vezinas, but he can still be a quality goalie. That’s certainly the expectation in Vancouver, anyways, based on that contract. The Canucks also brought in Radim Vrbata, and Nick Bonino wasn’t a bad little player to get for Kesler. Much like the Capitals, this is a team that had a lot go wrong for them last year, and I can see them returning to the playoffs this year. But also like the Caps, they’re no longer a Cup contender.

 

5. Edmonton Oilers.

 

Sam Gagner was traded, Ryan Smyth retired, and Ales Hemsky was moved at the trade deadline last season. Edmonton added Mark Fayne and Nikita Nikitin on defense, while bringing in Teddy Purcell and Benoit Pouliot. So, nothing too significant, and once again, it’s going to be up for the talented young players to mature and finally fulfill the promise that people have felt this Oilers team has had for so many years now. There will be improvement, but not enough to make the playoffs in the West. With Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth, they finally have a competent goaltending tandem.

 

6. Arizona Coyotes.

 

Radim Vrbata and Mike Ribeiro are gone, while Sam Gagner and Martin Erat are in. Seems like a downgrade to me. Not enough improvement here for a mediocre team in a very tough division and conference.

 

7. Calgary Flames.

 

Mike Cammalleri left, but the Flames made some decent additions. Jonas Hiller should provide solid goaltending, while Mason Raymond and Devin Setoguchi were decent additions up front. However, this year is undoubtedly about seeing what the young guys like Johnny Gaudreau and Sam Bennett (when he gets healthy) can do. If they can lose a bunch of games in the process so they can add another great young player, so be it.

 

And as for the NHL Wild Cards in the Western Conference, I’ll give the first one to Colorado and the second one to Minnesota.

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