A year ago at this time. I picked the Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh Penguins to meet in the Stanley Cup final, Todd McLellan to win the Jack Adams Award as top coach and the Vegas Golden Knights to be dead-last in the Western Conference. Other than that, I was pretty much bang-on. Actually, no.
Making predictions is fun, or should be unless you’ve got your livelihood riding on it in one of those sports books in Las Vegas, but it’s a guess – educated and otherwise. Even when you vote with your head instead of your heart, which I try to do each year, a lot can change over the course of an 82-game season, even if you had a pretty good read on teams coming out of training camp.
Injuries, trades and unexpected big swings in performance by players, up or down, all play into things. It’s pretty much the same every year, only the names change. We saw that with the Oilers last season. Just about everything that could go wrong did, marking a turnaround of epic proportions from the previous season, when almost everything that could go right did.
So here we are, with the Oilers over in Europe to open a tough start to the schedule against the New Jersey Devils Saturday. Let’s take another swing at it. Here are my best guesses.
ORDER OF CHOICE
Here’s how I see the divisions lining up:
ABOUT THE ATLANTIC: Tampa Bay didn’t land Erik Karlsson but they still have Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman on the back end and Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov up front . . . I really like the talent Toronto has up front with the addition of John Tavares but their blueline group is a weak spot . . . the Panthers were woefully bad in the first half last season and then hotter than a $3 pistol in the second half, so split the difference and they have the talent to finish third, just ahead of Boston and Buffalo.
New York Rangers
New York Islanders
ABOUT THE METRO: Perennial powerhouse Penguins can count on Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin but they’re going to need more from stopper Matt Murray to hold off the Stanley Cup champion Capitals . . . the Caps return pretty much their whole roster but they begin this season with Todd Reirden instead of Barry Trotz behind the bench . . . I’d have put Columbus ahead of Philadelphia by a hair, but the Blue Jackets will start the season without Seth Jones (knee injury).
ABOUT THE CENTRAL: Free of that hideous neck beard he sported last season, Patrik Laine and the rest of the talented Jets’ forwards will fly in front of a top-drawer defence and Vezina runner-up Connor Hellebuyck . . . Nashville pretty much stood pat and is right with the Jets, but Pekke Rinne is closing in on 36 and I wonder if we’ll see a drop-off . . . Dallas, St. Louis and Colorado were tightly grouped last season and I don’t see that changing, although the order might . . . playoff window closing for the Wild.
ABOUT THE PACIFIC: The addition of Erik Karlsson on the blueline is another coup for GM Doug Wilson and with Brent Burns still in the fold, the Sharks are dynamite on the back end . . . I don’t see Vegas falling off as drastically as some and I think the additions of Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny fill the hole left by James Neal . . . Corey Perry isn’t what he once was, but without him early and with Ryan Getzlaf now 33, the Ducks slide . . . if the Oilers or Flames struggle, the Kings vault past them. It’s that close.
STANLEY CUP FINAL
Tampa Bay vs. San Jose
Art Ross Trophy – Connor McDavid, Edm.
Hart Memorial Trophy – Connor McDavid, Edm.
Calder Trophy – Elias Pettersson, Vancouver
Norris Trophy – Erik Karlsson, San Jose
Vezina Trophy – Connor Hellebuyck, Wpg.
Jack Adams – Mike Babcock, Toronto
A lot of people, me included, are of the mind the Oilers weren’t as good as they appeared two seasons ago and they weren’t as bad as they looked last season. While I think there’s some truth in that, you can’t just split the difference between the 103 points they had in 2016-17 and the 78 they struggled to last season and call it good unless several things happen.
- Special teams have to be significantly better.
- The Oilers need the Cam Talbot we saw in the second half of last season. If Talbot struggles the way he did to start the year, the Oilers will be sunk before they get started.
- The blueline group has to somehow get along without Andrej Sekera long-term – not to mention Kris Russell and Adam Larsson in the short-term — without leaning too heavily on Ethan Bear or rookie Evan Bouchard to pick up the slack. Jason Garrison can be an adequate short-term addition.
- The promise shown by Ty Rattie, Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto in pre-season has to carry over to the regular season or the right side is going to be an offensive black hole that puts too much pressure on the rest of the forward group to produce five-on-five.
- Milan Lucic has to bounce back. Not just in terms of production, but by being engaged. If Leon Draisaitl has to drag him around the ice game after game, it’s trouble.
With the changes in Todd McLellan’s coaching staff, I believe the power play will be better under Manny Viveiros. The defence, as a group, will improve under Trent Yawney, even with the questions about depth. I like the idea of playing a more up-tempo game with a more aggressive forecheck. I also think Connor McDavid is going to tear the cover off the ball. Can he score 50 goals? Yes, he can. Can he put up 120 points? Yes, he can.
I’m not sure if we’ll see a 4-4 or a 5-3 split between the divisions for conference playoff spots because it looks too close to call for me, but I see the Oilers as a team capable of finishing in the low-90s for points. What number makes it – 91, 93, 94? For what it’s worth, questions and all, I have the Oilers in the playoffs by the thinnest of margins. There, you have it.