Predictions and hockey are like pizza and beer. They are good on their own, but when you put them together, to quote Jason Strudwick, “It’s like a bouquet of flavours coming in your mouth.”
That was Strudwick’s response when he tried the first ever Nation beer. True story. He said it live on the air. I burst out laughing and every time I play that clip on the show we still chuckle.
I can only imagine how he’d describe a beer/pizza combo, but predictions and hockey are a staple for any hockey fan.
Let’s be honest, even if you loathe predictions, you still read more than you like, while many of you will spend hours perusing every pre-season prognostication. I know I do.
The Oilers are proof things can change quickly. Last season, I was in the minority of people expecting them to make the playoffs. I didn’t think they’d reach 103 points, but I felt their drought would finally end. I didn’t see the Toronto Maple Leafs making the postseason, or a Predators/Penguins final. It is difficult to outline exactly what will unfold, but it is fun trying.
Unless you have a very unique crystal ball, it is impossible to predict which team will be hit hardest by the injury bug, or which team will surprise you.
Last season, we had seven teams return to the playoffs after missing the dance in 2016. That tied an NHL record for most “new” teams from the previous year. I don’t see that happening in 2017/2018. Four of those seven teams, Columbus (108), Minnesota (106) and Edmonton and Montreal (103) surpassed 100 points, while Toronto, Calgary and Ottawa were back in the chase for the Stanley Cup. It was Canada’s year of redemption.
The Oilers had a 33 point improvement, the Blue Jackets added 32 points, the Leafs had a 26 point increase, while Minnesota and Montreal jumped up 19 points, the Flames improved by 17 and Ottawa went from 85 in 2016 to 98 in 2017.
Only ten teams in NHL history have had a 35+ point improvement from one season to the next, so the Oilers and Blue Jackets’ massive increases in one year was unexpected.
Dallas had the largest collapse, dropping from 109 points to 79. This off-season they added Ken Hitchcock behind the bench, Ben Bishop in goal, Marc Methot on the blueline and Alex Radulov, Martin Hanzal and Tyler Pitlick up front. They will be better, but can they improve by 15 points in the ultra-competitive central and get back to the postseason?
We’ll start in the Atlantic.
I don’t see any clear favourite, but I’ll take Tampa Bay to win the division. They missed the playoffs by one point last year and rarely had a healthy lineup. Nikita Kucherov is a world-class talent, and with a healthy Steven Stamkos they are an extremely dangerous duo. For poolies, look to draft Brayden Point as a sleeper. He is playing with Kucherov and Stamkos, and he’s a very smart player. He had 40 points in 68 games as a rookie last year, and I see him surpassing 55 this season.
Tampa Bay 103 points.
You have to have one surprise team so mine will be Buffalo. Jack Eichel has a solid season and the Sabres surprise. Ottawa was the only playoff team with a negative goal differential last season. Erik Karlsson is a marvel, and it will suck not watching him in the playoffs, but I don’t see them making it. Montreal and Boston could be swapped out. The Habs scoring, or lack thereof, concerns me, but with Carey Price in net they might have a chance. Their problem was hiring Claude Julien. He can’t coach offence and the game is going that way. The Leafs lost 15 games in OT/SO last year. They were 1-7 in the SO. They will be better in the “skills competition.”
The division of death the past few seasons. Teams in the Metro averaged 97.2 points last year and 95.8 points in 2016. They averaged seven more points per team than the Atlantic division in each of the past two seasons. Carolina looks like they are poised to make a splash, but at whose expense?
NY Islanders 98
NY Rangers 93
New Jersey 88
The Rangers will be forced to use Ondrej Pavelec more than they like, and you can ask Jets fans how that plays out. The Islanders missed the postseason by one point last year, and a full season with Doug Weight behind the bench puts them back in the dance. The Blue Jackets win the division and one playoff round. Artemi Panarin gives them a much-needed legitimate offensive threat. Carolina misses out due one less regulation win. Part of me wonders if the Penguins will be fatigued, but until they show signs of slowing down I can’t go against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Devils will surprise people and be better than many think. They will be very competitive.
Last season, this was the weakest division, on a points-per-team basis at 88.8, but that was mainly due to the Avalanche being one of the worst teams in NHL history at 22-56-4. The Avalanche barely made any off-season moves, and while they will surpass 50 points they won’t be close to a playoff team. The division will be much better this season.
The Jets finally get some consistent goaltending and are back in the playoffs. This was the toughest division to predict. I think Chicago could dip even more with the loss of Marian Hossa, Nick Hjalmarsson and Panarin. But until they falter it is hard for me to count them out. Minnesota is a deep team, but they lack a true elite offensive player and the lack of an elite offensive star hurts them in the playoffs. The Blues are starting the season with injuries, and they will be this year’s 2017 Tampa Bay. A good team who misses the dance.
The Ducks start the season without Hampus Lindholm, Ryan Kesler and Sami Vatanen. That ends their five-year run of winning their division. The Sharks could make it and catch the fifth team in the central, but they were 19th in goals scored last year and they lost Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton is coming off knee surgery. They have an excellent D corps, but their lack of scoring is their weakness.
Los Angeles 95
San Jose 91
The Oilers win their first regular season division title since 1987. Arizona doesn’t have enough offence or experience to make the playoffs. I won’t be surprised if Calgary dips into the AHL and recalls a goalie. I sense Mike Smith spends some time on the injury reserve, but the Flames scoring depth is their Achilles heel. The Kings are much more exciting with John Stevens running the bench.
It would be unreal if the Oilers and Flames find a way to meet up in the postseason. The provincial rivals haven’t met since Esa Tikkanen scored the game winner in overtime of game seven of the Smythe division semi-final in 1991. It would be glorious for both cities to meet up again.
Who do you have making the playoffs?
Who is your surprise team? Which regular drops out?
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