NHL Preseason Predictions Check-in

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The NHL season hits the midway point this week, with most teams crossing the 41-game mark. The season’s first half has provided the usual mix of predictable outcomes, mild surprises, and outright shockers.

I wrote a series of season previews in September, and because of my editors’ unfortunate refusal to delete everything the day after the season started like I asked them to, all my predictions are still there. If you’re in a hurry, feel free to trust me when I tell you that I got everything right. You can go ahead and stop reading now.

If you’re not in a hurry, or you’re not in an especially trusting mood, then a more thorough review might be in order. So let’s take a look back at those preseason predictions and see if we can figure out, halfway into the season, how well I did.

The Bottom-Feeder Division

We led off with this group with seven teams that had virtually no chance of winning anything beyond the first overall pick. Sure, a few would probably get lucky and overachieve, but it’s not like one of them would suddenly become one of the best teams in the league, right?

Teams I was mostly right about: Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes, Arizona Coyotes

I thought the Sabres and Hurricanes would be terrible, and they have been. Here’s the list of other experts who got that call right: everyone. Literally everyone knew Buffalo and Carolina would be awful. I award myself zero points.

The Coyotes pick was a little more controversial. They were coming off an 89-point season in which they’d missed the playoffs by just two points, and more than a few fans had them pegged for a wild-card spot. The two big concerns were (1) whether they could score, having lost Mike Ribeiro and Radim Vrbata off a team that was already below-average offensively, and (2) whether goaltender Mike Smith could steal enough games to keep them in the race.

So far, it’s been a resounding “no” to both questions. The Coyotes have scored fewer goals than any Western team besides Edmonton, and Smith has been absolutely awful. That’s added up to the Coyotes sporting one of the worst goal differentials in the league, dropping them completely out of the playoff hunt by midseason.

Teams I was maybe wrong about: Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets, Florida Panthers

All three teams are hovering around the wild-card race, so each has overachieved based on expectations. It’s unlikely they’ll all stay there, though. The Flames were a great feel-good story in the first quarter, but their underlying numbers are terrible and they’ve already started dropping down the standings after competing for the division lead early on. They’ve banked enough points to stay out of the race for last place, but they should finish the year closer to the bottom five than to a playoff spot.

On the other hand, the Jets and Panthers could be for real. Winnipeg has weathered a series of injuries that should have torpedoed its season, and the emergence of Michael Hutchinson has bought it insurance against the inevitable Ondrej Pavelec slide. And then there are the Panthers, who can’t score but are riding a strong season from Roberto Luongo and sneaky good possession numbers to stay in the Eastern Conference race.

Team I was super-wrong about: Nashville Predators

All the signs were there. The Predators hadn’t exactly been awful in 2013-14, putting up a respectable 88 points. They’d spent the offseason adding offense, like former 40-goal man James Neal. They still had Shea Weber. And they were getting back a healthy Pekka Rinne after missing him for most of the season. As long as Rinne could get back to his old ways, a playoff spot seemed like a possibility.

I wasn’t sold on Rinne’s hip holding up, but he’s been fantastic. And while Neal has been just OK, rookie Filip Forsberg’s emergence has helped boost the offense. It’s all been enough for the Predators to challenge for the Central title, and while we’ve all been waiting for some sort of regression — they lead the league in PDO  it just hasn’t happened yet.

Quote that makes me look smart: “The Panthers are better than most expect, hanging tough in the playoff race right up until the 75-game mark, at which point they’re considerate enough to step aside and let the good teams duke it out.” The second half of the prediction hasn’t happened yet, but at least I kind of saw Florida’s strong first half coming.

Quote I would like to have back: “Once again, the Flames battle a fellow Canadian team for last place in the West. But this time it’s not the Oilers. It’s these next guys.” (That would be the Jets. Ouch. And yes, we’ll get to my thoughts on the Oilers further down.)

Three predictions for the rest of the way: The Predators slip to third in the Central, but still challenge the 100-point mark. The Flames and Jets miss the playoffs. The Panthers sneak into the East’s final wild-card spot.

The Middle-of-the-Pack Division

Next up were the teams that figured to end up stuck in the middle — not quite good enough to contend, but not quite bad enough to bottom out for a high pick.

Teams I was mostly right about: Detroit Red Wings, Washington Capitals, Vancouver Canucks, New York Islanders

“Middle of the pack” can mean a lot of things, but if we’re looking at teams that fall into the 4 to 6 range in their conference, these teams all qualify. The Canucks looked like a legitimate contender earlier in the year before falling back, and the Wings could still make a push for the top of the Atlantic. I’m not sold on the Capitals hanging on to their playoff spot, but they’ve been better than last year and should at least stay in the mix.

And then there are the Islanders. I liked them a lot, figuring they had fixed their goaltending and had the offensive talent to make up for a weak blue line.1 I thought I was in danger of pushing the optimism angle too far, but in hindsight I may actually have sold the Isles short. They’ve been neck-and-neck with the Penguins for the top spot in the Metro, and the underlying numbers say it’s no fluke. This is a good team that’s absolutely capable of a deep playoff run.

Teams I was maybe wrong about: Montreal Canadiens, Minnesota Wild

The Habs were one of the few teams I made a specific prediction about: 100 points and third place in the Atlantic. They’re on pace for 110 and have spent most of the season flipping between first and second with the Lightning. As readers of the weekly power rankings know, I’m still not sold, but they’ve certainly been better than I gave them credit for.

As for the Wild, they were a good team in 2013-14 that suffered from some bad luck in terms of their goaltenders’ health. This year, they’re a (maybe) good team that’s suffered from flat-out bad goaltending. A playoff push isn’t out of the question, but they’ve got a ton of ground to make up.

Teams I was super-wrong about: Columbus Blue Jackets, New Jersey Devils

I’m not sure any of my calls in this section were a disaster, but I need to have a pick or two in this category, so let’s go with a pair of struggling Metro teams that I had pegged as playoff contenders.

I thought the Blue Jackets would be right in the Metro mix; instead, they got off to a terrible start and spent much of the first half seeming like a Connor McDavid candidate. That was largely due to injuries, and since they got healthier they’ve been about the team we expected, if not a little better. They probably lost too much ground over the first two months to make any sort of serious playoff run now, but they’re no longer in the “worst team in the league” discussion.

The Devils were a trendy sleeper pick based on some rotten luck in 2013-14 and the expected upgrade that would come from making Cory Schneider the full-time starter. In theory, that should have been enough to make up for a roster that was very old and not all that impressive on paper. Instead, Schneider has struggled, they somehow went out and got even older, and coach Peter DeBoer has already been fired.

Quote that makes me look smart: “That 2010 season established [Ryan] Miller’s reputation as one of the league’s elite goaltenders, but the numbers suggest that’s just not the case anymore.” (Half a season into his three-year, $18 million deal, Miller is being outplayed by backup Eddie Lack.)

Bonus quote that makes me look even smarter: “This has regret written all over it, but I’m onboard with the Islanders this year, so here goes: They don’t just make the playoffs, they win a round for the first time since 1993.” (Yes, I’m riding this Islanders thing into the ground. You would too.)

Quote I would like to have back: “Despite all the attention that the big-money guys get, 22-year-old Mikael Granlund emerges as the breakout star and leads the team in scoring.” [Checks Wild team scoring list. Scrolls. Scrolls more. Keeps scrolling …]

Three predictions for the rest of the way: The Capitals and Canucks both finish ninth. The Wild make a late run but fall short. The Islanders get swept in the first round while every one of their die-hard fans pats me on the back and tells me I’ll get used to disappointment.

The Legitimate Contender Division

These are the league’s best teams and, in theory at least, the easiest group to call, since the NHL doesn’t see a ton of year-to-year turnover among the top contenders.

Teams I was mostly right about: Anaheim Ducks, Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks

Picking the top contenders shouldn’t be all that hard, so it’s no big surprise that my success ratio is pretty good here. All four teams above are sitting comfortably in playoff spots and on pace for 100-plus-point seasons, and each will be expected to go deep into the postseason (unless the Predators win the Central and force the Blues and Blackhawks to face each other in the first round).

Teams I was maybe wrong about: Los Angeles Kings, New York Rangers

The two 2014 Stanley Cup finalists are both scraping along, hanging around the wild-card race while not looking especially scary. That’s pretty much becoming a franchise trademark for the Kings, who’ve mastered the art of limping into the playoffs before going on a deep run. At this point, there’s no reason to think they won’t do the same this year.

The Rangers don’t have quite that same history, but they’ve quietly put together a decent season despite sitting well back of the Penguins and Islanders in the Metro. They’ve got the conference’s third-best goal differential and sit fifth in points percentage, and they’re hot right now, winning 11 of their last 12. Are they legitimate Cup contenders? That may be pushing it, but they don’t look all that much different from the team that caught fire in last year’s playoffs.

Team I was super-wrong about: Boston Bruins

At the time, I picked the Bruins to win the conference easily and struggled to come up with a realistic scenario in which they wouldn’t be one of the East’s best teams. Half a season later, they’re sitting outside the playoffs and upper management is sounding downright cranky.

So what went wrong? Somewhat surprisingly, there isn’t one major factor you can point to. There have been injuries, most notably to Zdeno Chara and David Krejci, but not an outrageous amount. Some key players have struggled, while the team’s tight cap situation has squeezed its depth. And Tuukka Rask has been merely good, instead of unbeatable.

Still, even all of that doesn’t seem like enough to turn a Cup contender into an also-ran overnight. Which either means the Bruins should be able to turn this mess around, or we had them badly overrated heading into the season.

Quote that makes me look smart: “We finally get an Islanders/Rangers playoff matchup for the first time in 20 years.” (Based on points percentage, that’s exactly what we’d get if the playoffs started today.)

Quote I would like to have back: “It’s honestly tough to come up with a scenario where the Bruins struggle that doesn’t involve a crush of injuries. In theory, they could have some sort of lingering hangover after the Montreal meltdown, Chara is old enough that his game could drop off significantly at some point, and maybe Rask is finally due for an off year. If all that happens and some other team surges, maybe the Bruins plummet down the Atlantic standings all the way to … second?” (Second … seventh. Close enough, right?)

Three predictions for the rest of the way: The Bruins get it together in time to make the playoffs. The Ducks come back to the pack (but still finish on top of the Pacific). The Kings send a scout to follow the Blue Jackets, but representatives from every other franchise tackle him whenever he tries to get in the building.

The No-Clue Division

This is the fun one: The eight teams that I admitted I couldn’t figure out.

Teams I was mostly right about: San Jose Sharks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Philadelphia Flyers, Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche

OK, technically you can’t really be right or wrong about a team you admit to having no clue about, but I think I had these teams pegged just about right. The Senators would be worse, but survive based on improved goaltending? Pretty much. The Leafs would need a bunch of things to go right just to be a playoff team? So far, so good. The Flyers would miss the playoffs? Yep. The Stars would be all sorts of fun but maybe not as good as we all hoped? Just about right. The Sharks are … well, we’re 41 games in and I still have absolutely no idea what the Sharks are, so I’ll count that as a win too.

And then there are the Avalanche. I wrote a lot of words about why they could be setting themselves up for disaster, and just about all of it has come true. But I also lost my nerve at the end, hedging by predicting a wild-card spot. Most smart people saw the Colorado collapse coming, and a lot of them were willing to stick their necks out further than I was. So only partial credit here.

Team I was maybe wrong about: Edmonton Oilers

My streak of getting suckered in by the Oilers is now at something like five years straight. In this case, “suckered in” still meant predicting they’d miss the playoffs, but I thought they’d finally start to show some progress. Instead they’ve been a disaster, again, they’ve fired their coach, again, their goaltending is terrible, again, and they’re headed toward last place overall, again.

I still think they’re better than their record makes them look, but at this point I’m probably the last person you should listen to about the Oilers.

Team I was super-wrong about: Tampa Bay Lightning

Everyone thought they’d be good. The numbers said they’d be good. The roster looked fantastic. But I wasn’t sold, pointing out that a young lineup could take a step back and that an off year from Ben Bishop could see them drop all the way out of the playoffs.

Three months later: Yeah, it turns out they’re good. Don’t overthink things, kids.

Quote that makes me look smart: “Steve Spott or Peter Horachek is the Leafs’ interim coach by Christmas; somebody currently behind the bench for another NHL team is the Leafs’ coach by next season.” (I was off by less than two weeks on the first part, and I feel pretty good about the second part.)

Quote I would like to have back: “The Oilers are the fourth-best team in Canada.” (Oh weird, just noticed that my editor must have deleted the word “Western.” Fourth-best team in Western Canada is what I meant. Sorry I somehow didn’t catch that before.)

Three predictions for the rest of the way: The Lightning win the Atlantic. The Stars climb back into a playoff spot while the Leafs drop out of one. And the Oilers have a strong enough second half that they absolutely, positively will not finish dead last.

(Apologies to Oilers fans for just guaranteeing they finish dead last.)

Filed Under: NHL, Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Calgary Flames, Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Edmonton Oilers, Florida Panthers, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, Montreal Canadiens, Nashville Predators, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Ottawa Senators, San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks, Washington Capitals, Winnipeg Jets

Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at Down Goes Brown. When he's not writing, he makes hockey jokes on Twitter at @downgoesbrown.

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