First half surprises in the NHL

Columbus Blue Jackets  v Florida PanthersBelieve it or not, we are already over halfway through the NHL season. The standings are starting to take shape, but there is still way too much hockey left to come to any solid conclusions as to how they will for sure look in April. There have definitely been some surprises thus far, both good and bad, as well as some not so surprising occurrences. Today we will take a look around the league at some of those surprises, as well as offer up some predictions as to how the rest of the season will unfold.

Let’s get to it.

SURPRISES

The Good

  • How about the Florida Panthers? They just had a 12-game winning streak snapped in Vancouver, and through 43 games Florida sits atop the Atlantic division with 57 points (tied for fourth league-wide). This is due in large part to their defense and starting goaltender, Roberto Luongo. Only one team in the NHL has allowed fewer goals than the Panthers, which is a key statistic. Over the last six seasons, each team to have won the Stanley Cup ranked in the top five in the NHL in fewest goals against. So despite Jaromir Jagr continuing to defy his age, the biggest story coming out of Sunrise, Florida should be the Panthers’ ability to keep the puck out of their own net.
  • This may or may not be a surprise to some people, but the Washington Capitals are a NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Washington Capitalsvery good team. They currently rank second in the league in goals-scored per game, and are tied for first in fewest goals-against per game. Oh, and they lead the NHL in points with 67. Needless to say, the Caps seem to have everything clicking at the moment. Throw in the fact that Alex Ovechkin just notched goals number 500 and 501, and yeah, it’s been a pretty good half-season in the nation’s capital.
  • The Dallas Stars. Most people had them pegged as a playoff team, but not everyone thought they would be this good this fast. They own the league’s top offense and arguably the NHL’s best line. As of this moment, they lead the Central division with 62 points. They have hit a bit of a rough patch over the last week or so, but every team is entitled to one or two of those over the course of a long season. The biggest question with Dallas is whether or not their defense and goaltending will be strong enough come playoff time.
  • Again, some might not see this as surprising, others may. The Chicago Blackhawks are rolling right now and are winners of seven straight games. Despite another offseason that saw a major roster overhaul, this team has picked up right where they left off a year ago and own the third highest point total in the NHL. Rookie sensation Artemi Panarin, who leads all rookies in goals, assists, and points, has become a huge part of the team and is a huge reason why Patrick Kane is having a career year. The trio of Panarin, Anisimov, and Kane is as good as any league-wide and has carried the Hawks at times this season. Also, Corey Crawford is having his best season in the NHL and leads the league with 6 shutouts. While the Hawks may still be an addition or two away from being a Cup-favorite, they’re still a scary team to play against.

The Bad

  • The Columbus Blue Jackets are an absolute mess. This was a team that many people had making the playoffs, but that looks to be impossible at this point. To recap their season so far, they have fired their head coach, hired John Tortorella out of desperation, and recently traded their top player, Ryan Johansen, to the Nashville Predators. The Jackets sit dead last in hockey with 34 points and are showing no signs of turning things around. Yes, they did acquire Seth Jones in exchange for Johansen, but that move won’t help them this year. Even with a history of losing in Columbus, this year’s losing ways were not anticipated.
  • Who predicted the Penguins would be having this much trouble, especially after the addition of Phil Kessel? We have come to know the Penguins as a perennial playoff team over the last eight years or so, but this year does not look as promising. Pittsburgh struggled out of the gate, following their captain’s lead, but have somewhat turned things around in recent weeks, as has Sidney Crosby. Still, they cannot seem to put any consistent, successful play together and are stuck winning a game then losing a game, and so on. Could this be the year they miss the postseason?
  • A lot like Pittsburgh, the Tampa Bay Lightning got off to a slow start to the season 130107_gq_trout_aand have since found it difficult to find any consistency in their play. This was last season’s best offensive team, but now they rank 17th in goals per game. Their captain, Steven Stamkos, has been surrounded by trade rumors all season. Whether or not his contract situation is affecting his play, there is no denying that he is having an “off year” by his standards. Yes, the Lightning have dealt with some injuries, but now is the time for them to start turning their season around if they want to make another deep playoff push.
  • Ready for another underperforming team? You got it. The Ducks might just be the most surprising team in the league so far, and not in a good way. Their 41 points are good for fifth in the Pacific division, and their 78 goals scored are dead last in the league by quite a bit. Much like the two previous teams we discussed, Anaheim has been unable to consistently play “their” game. However, they do have some things going for them. They are the league’s ninth best team in fewest goals-against per game. If they can keep that up, the law of averages suggests that they’ll find their offense and start to pile up the W’s.

Alright, so there are this year’s biggest surprises to this point as seen through these eyes. Now, here are some quick predictions.

PREDICTIONS

  1. The Ducks will make the playoffs as one of the top three teams in the Pacific division. If they miss the playoffs, Bruce Boudreau will get fired at season’s end.
  2. The Penguins will also make the playoffs, but as a wild card team. There’s too much talent in that locker room for them to not make it.
  3. Steven Stamkos will not get traded this year, but he also will not sign an extension with the Lightning.
  4. Going off those lines, a big name in Winnipeg will get dealt. Whether that’s Byfuglien, Ladd, or Trouba is tough to say. One will go though, that’s for sure.
  5. And lastly, we’ll see the Panthers drop in the standings. They’re a good team, and probably a playoff team, but they won’t win that division.

Thanks for reading.

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NHL Central Division preview

Today we’ll take a look at what many consider to be the toughest division in the NHL. Every team in the Central finished with at least 90 points last season, which is something no other division can say. And really, you could make a strong case for each team in this division as to why they should make the playoffs this season. It’s incredible. Here we go.

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Blackhawks’ 2014-15 record: 48-28-6 (102 points)

Chicago comes into the ’15-’16 season after winning their third Stanley Cup in the last six seasons, which has many people calling them a modern day dynasty. Much like the summer following their 2010 Cup title, their roster took a major beating this offseason. Just look at who they lost: Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya, Brad Richards, Antoine Vermette, and Kris Versteeg just to name a few. To replace those guys, the Hawks acquired players such as Artem Anisimov, Marko Dano, Trevor Daley, Ryan Garbutt, Artemi Panarin (he signed last spring), and Viktor Tikhonov. They also have a handful of prospects trying to crack the team’s opening night roster. Needless to say, it’ll be a new-look team this season, but still a good one. There are some question marks though, such as how impactful can young guys like Dano and Panarin be right off the bat? Will Teuvo Teravainen see the majority of his time at center or wing, and how big of a leap will he take in his game? Will their defensive corps be deep enough? And that’s not even to mention the whole Patrick Kane debacle. Who knows where that whole situation may end up, and depending on the outcome, that could significantly affect this team’s makeup. While I’d still expect the Hawks to be a good team and a playoff team, there are simply too many questions right now that prevent us from knowing just how good they can be.

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Avalanche’s 2014-15 record: 39-31-12 (90 points)

After a major shocker of a 2013-14 season, the Avs predictably took a step back last season and finished last in the Central despite earning 90 points. This offseason, they signed Francois Beauchemin, most notably, to help on the defensive side of things. They also traded Ryan O’Reilly to Buffalo. Other than that, we’re looking at relatively the same team from last season, but with another year of experience under their belts. They are still going to be a very fast team with players like Duchene, Mackinnon, and Landeskog, but that won’t mean much unless they see more offensive production from them than they did last season, along with their depth forwards. Much like the Avanlanche as a whole team, Nathan Mackinnon also took a step back last season while only registering 38 points in 64 games played. So while Colorado needs their bottom six forwards to produce, they also need guys like Mackinnon to perform up to their potential. Defensively, the Avalanche are weak, and this should put Semyon Varlamov under a lot of pressure on a nightly basis yet again.

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Stars’ 2014-15 record: 41-31-10 (92 points)

Dallas was quite active this summer in upgrading their roster. They traded for Patrick Sharp, traded for the rights to Antti Niemi (who they then gave a contract extension), and signed Johnny Oduya (all three players won at least one Cup with Chicago). In acquiring Sharp, the Stars did lose Trevor Daley and Ryan Garbutt, but they more than made up for that by getting Sharp and signing Oduya. Right now, it’s looking like a top line of Benn, Seguin, and Sharp could be a real possibility to begin the season, making that one of the best lines in hockey. Their offensive depth is well above average, and now their defense should be at least somewhat better than it has been in the past. That combination should lead to more victories. Arguably their biggest problem last year was keeping the puck out of their own net, where Kari Lehtonen had a pretty bad year. Now, they have not only Lehtonen, who can be one of the game’s better goalies, but also Antti Niemi. Essentially two number one goalies. If one gets hot, they’ll ride him until he burns out and then switch to the other. Dallas is a team that I thought would have made the playoffs last year, and they didn’t, but now I’m not sure how they miss them again.

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Wild’s 2014-15 record: 46-28-8 (100 points)

Minnesota looked like a team destined to miss the postseason heading into January of last season. Then they acquired Devon Dubnyk and stuck him between the pipes and everything changed. They finished the second half of the season with the best record in the NHL and wound up with 100 points on the season and a spot in the playoffs as the top wild card team. They even went on to eliminate the Blues in the first round, only to be ousted by Chicago for the third consecutive season. This summer, they didn’t really do much of anything to make themselves better. They extended the contract of Devan Dubnyk, but that’s about it. They lost Chris Stewart via free agency and didn’t sign anyone notable other than Mike Reilly, the free agent defenseman coming out of college. Essentially, this is the same Wild team we saw last April. And to be honest with you, when I look at their roster and compare it to those of their divisional foes, I don’t see Minnesota finishing close to the top three in the division and they may very will miss the playoffs. Teams like Dallas, Calgary, Edmonton, and even Nashville all got better while Minnesota did nothing. It’ll be an uphill battle right from the beginning.

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Predators’ 2014-15 record: 47-25-10 (104 points)

Nashville kind of shocked us all with how well they played last season. I’d be willing to bet that no one had them pegged to finish as a 100-point team. They ended the season right in the middle of the pack in terms of goals per game, which is nothing spectacular, but finished in the top ten in fewest goals against per game. It would be accurate to say that their defensive corps had their “coming out party” last year. Couple that with the fact that Pekka Rinne had a real nice comeback season, and that’s how they finished so well in the goals against per game category. This year, their offense is nothing great again. They were able to re-sign Mike Ribeiro, but that was their biggest news at any forward position. Defensively, they may have the NHL’s best group of d-men. Shea Weber is consistently one of the league’s best, and now he has Roman Josi alongside him to help shoulder the load of holding down the opponent’s top lines. After them you have Seth Jones, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, and newcomer Barret Jackman. Top to bottom, an extremely solid group of defensemen. It is because of that reason and the fact that they still have Rinne in goal that I don’t think it would be surprising to see this group in the postseason once again.

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Blues’ 2014-15 record: 51-24-7 (109 points)

The Blues were yet again one of the best teams in the league through the 2014-15 regular season, but again fizzled out in the opening round of the playoffs. This trend of making early exits from the playoffs nearly cost Ken Hitchcock his job this past summer, and you’d have to believe he will lose his job if it’s more of the same next spring. In terms of player personnel, the Blues dealt T.J. Oshie to the Capitals in exchange for Troy Brouwer most notably. Brouwer should fit perfectly into the Blues’ system as he’s a big, physical power forward capable of being pretty effective as a top six forward. After him, no big names were added to the roster. They’ll have Vladimir Tarasenko entering his third full season in the NHL, and one that will undoubtedly turn into must-see TV once he starts scoring impossible goals again. He is St. Louis’ biggest goal scoring threat, and losing him to any lengthy injury could be costly. The Blues also have Jaden Schwartz coming into the beginning of his prime years, as well as Jori Lehtera. Those two, specifically Schwartz, were legit surprises to a lot of people last year in terms of their production. If they can continue to let their games evolve, the Blues will have a real nice top two lines or so. On the blue line, St. Louis still has a great top three in Pietrangelo, Bouwmeester, and Shattenkirk, but after that there are some concerns. In net, Brian Elliott and Jake Allen will both be back. As is the case each year it seems, goaltending could be this teams’ biggest question mark.

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Jets’ 2014-15 record: 43-26-13 (99 points)

For the first time since moving back to the ‘Peg, the Jets made the playoffs last season as the West’s number two Wild Card team. This year, it may be a challenge to repeat that feat. They traded away Evander Kane near the end of last season, who was arguably their best offensive talent despite not putting up the numbers, and now lack a true scorer. Blake Wheeler can definitely light the lamp, as can Ladd and Little, but that’s just not enough offense. They also lost Michael Frolik via free agency and will need to find some bottom line depth from within the organization. One positive that the Jets’ group forwards has going for them is their ability to combine speed and physicality. They are a big team, both vertically and in poundage, but also a very fast team. Being able to combine those two assets is always an advantage. Look no further than the Canucks of 3-6 years ago, the 2010 Blackhawks, and the two Kings teams that won the Cup. In return for Evander Kane, the Jets acquired former “future” star Tyler Myers from the Sabres. He will be a nice addition to the team now that they’ll have him for a full season. Winnipeg has built themselves a nice group of defensemen that could be considered one of the better units in the West. If this team is serious about making the playoffs again, they’ll need another stellar campaign from Ondrej Pavolec and Michael Hutchinson in goal.

So there you have it for the Central Division. As was the case last season, I wouldn’t be shocked if this division saw five teams make the postseason, although I’d lean more towards that number being four this year.

Predicted Standings:

  1. Blues 2. Blackhawks 3. Stars 4. Predators 5. Wild 6. Jets 7. Avalanche

Predicted Western Conference playoff teams:

  1. Ducks 2. Blues 3. Blackhawks 4. Stars 5. Flames 6. Kings 7. Oilers 8. Predators

Pacific Division preview

NHL Pacific Division preview

As is the case before each season, I’ll go through and give a real quick preview of each team and division in the NHL, followed by my prediction as to how I think the standings will look at season’s end. This seemingly gets tougher each and every year to predict…

First up, the guys out west.

Pacific Division

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Ducks’ 2014-15 record: 51-24-7 (109 points)

The Ducks come into this season fresh off another Game 7 defeat in the playoffs after having finished the season as the top team in the Western Conference during the regular season. They have been one of the best regular season teams in recent years, but just haven’t been able to get it done in the postseason. This summer, they added Carl Hagelin, Chris Stewart, and Kevin Bieksa, among a couple others, to try and get themselves over that playoff hurdle. In the meantime, they traded away Emerson Etem and lost Matt Belesky to free agency. I have no doubt they’ll be near the league lead in points again this year, but the playoffs are what really matter. How they perform in April, May, and possibly June is what this team will be judged on.

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Coyotes’ 2014-15 record: 24-50-8 (56 points)

Only one team finished last season with fewer points than Arizona. Needless to say, it was a long season in the desert. But, that kind of finish did yield them the number three overall pick in the draft this summer, where they drafted Connor McDavid’s teammate from Erie, Dylan Strome. Arizona has not yet decided what they’ll do with Strome for this season, and he may end up being sent back to the OHL for another year. That’s probably not the worst idea; that or placing him in the AHL. You don’t want to rush a potential future star into the NHL. Another youngster to keep an eye on is Max Domi, who should be on the Coyotes’ opening night roster. Other than that though, there’s not much going on with this team other than the fact they re-signed Antoine Vermette after his short vacation to Chicago. All in all, they’re most likely still a last place finisher in this division, but should see a rise in their point total.

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Flames’ 2014-15 record: 45-30-7 (97 points)

I find it hard to not love what this team is doing. They completely exceeded all expectations last season and found themselves in the postseason where they incredibly advanced to the second round. This offseason, they added Dougie Hamilton and Michael Frolik to bolster their depth at on the blue line and at forward. Players like Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, and Markus Granlund undoubtedly gained extremely valuable experience at a young age from last year’s playoff run, which will only help them as they progress into this season. The Flames will also have their captain Mark Giordano back after he was forced to miss the end of last season and the playoffs due to injury. Assuming Bob Hartley will get his guys to play with as much heart and effort as they did last season, I have a hard time seeing this team missing the playoffs this year.

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Oilers’ 2014-15 record: 24-44-14 (62 points)

Like the Flames, it’s tough to not be excited about the Oilers. After multiple years in a row of seeing their young talent not do much of anything, it finally appears as though Edmonton may have their act together now under the guidance of Peter Chiarelli as the new GM, and new head coach Todd McLellan. They won the draft lottery this past spring and subsequently chose the second coming of Wayne Gretzky in Connor McDavid, who should no doubt make an immediate impact on the team on and off the ice. They should also have 2014 first round pick (third overall) Leon Draisaitl making his NHL debut on opening night alongside McDavid. That pairing has shown some good chemistry throughout training camp and the preseason, and could be a real “thing” this season. The Oilers knew they had to improve their blue line this summer, and so they went out and signed Andrej Sekera to go along with what is a very young, but talented, group of defensemen. Heck, their captain Andrew Ference may not even make the top six d-men! (We all know he will, but should he?) Edmonton also traded for Cam Talbot from the New York Rangers. For the first time in his career, he should be getting the majority of the starts in net. When looking at this team, it seemingly has all the makings of a surprise playoff team.

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Kings’ 2014-15 record: 40-27-15 (95 points)

A year after winning the 2014 Stanley Cup, the Kings were watching the playoffs at home from their couches. They even admitted that they were “coasting” through the regular season and saving their energy for the playoffs. The only problem was that they didn’t flip their switch in time and missed the postseason all together. Had they made the playoffs, they would have been the favorite in just about any matchup they ended up with. But that’s history and now we’re talking about this season. They acquired Milan Lucic this summer from Boston, and also signed d-man Christian Ehrhoff to add to what is already a strong blue line. They lost the likes of Mike Richards, Jarret Stoll, and Slava Voynov due to off-ice issues. When you sit back and really examine L.A.’s roster, it’s not that eye-popping. They aren’t the team they were two years ago, but they’re still a good team that should contend for a playoff spot. One way in which they for sure miss the postseason again is if they continue to lose so many overtime/shootout games. That killed them last year.

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Sharks’ 2014-15 record: 40-33-9 (89 points)

The Sharks missed the playoffs for the first time last year since the 2002-2003 season, and don’t appear to be headed back to the postseason this year either. They traded away their number one netminder, Antti Niemi, and acquired Martin Jones to replace him. Jones has never been a starter in the NHL, so the Sharks are really taking a gamble on that one. At forward, San Jose still owns some of the biggest names in hockey (Thornton, Pavelski, Marleau, Couture), but after them they take a hit. For the Sharks to see success this year, they’ll need guys like Tomas Hertl, Matt Nieto, and Tommy Wingels to take a big next step in their games. They are going to need to score lots of goals because their defense runs rather thin on the blue line, plus they have a goalie in net who has never been a number one in the NHL.

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Canucks’ 2014-15 record: 48-29-5 (101 points)

Much like Calgary, but not to the same extent, Vancouver exceeded most expectations last season and ended the year as a playoff team with over 100 points. However, they lost Kevin Bieksa and Eddie Lack this summer, along with some others, and really don’t appear to be a playoff team. At least not on paper. Ryan Miller will have to play out of his mind this year to give his team a chance at the postseason, and they’ll also need some youngsters to put up some big point totals right away. The Sedin twins are beginning to creep up there in age, and one has to wonder how much longer they’ll be able to carry the team. As it is right now, I think this is one team who made the playoffs last year that for sure won’t this year.

The Pacific Division as a whole appears to be stronger this year than in recent years with the sudden improvement both up in Calgary and Edmonton. While I see the Ducks remaining the division champs, it will likely be up for grabs after that.

Predicted standings:

  1. Ducks 2. Flames 3. Kings 4. Oilers 5. Sharks 6. Canucks 7. Coyotes

Central Division preview and West playoff teams

Metropolitan Division preview

Last season, this division was the only division in the NHL that did not see three teams earn over 100 points. Pittsburgh was the only Metro team to accomplish that feat as they ended the year with 109. It may be more of the same again this season.

METROPOLITAN DIVISION

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Carolina: The Hurricanes were another team that somewhat under-performed in my eyes last season (along with the Oilers). I thought they had the talent to finish with over 90 points, but they only managed to salvage 83 and took second to last in this division. This year, not much will be different in terms of their roster. They have some highly skilled forwards in Eric Staal (who will be looking for a bounce-back season), Alex Semin, Jordan Staal, Jeff Skinner, and maybe even Jiri Tlusty. After that, they have a bunch of bottom six forwards who will be interchanging on the lines throughout the season. On defense, the Canes are led by Justin Falk, Andrej Sekera, Ron Hainsey, and Tim Gleason. That’s not a bad foursome, but it’s not one of the league’s best either. Possibly the biggest strength of this team is their goalie tandem. Cam Ward couldn’t seem to stay healthy last season, but when he is healthy, he’s always a top 15 goalie in the NHL (if not higher). Backup goaltender, Anton Khudobin, put together a fairly impressive season last year in Ward’s absence. That combo could be one of the better combos in the league this year if they stay healthy. All in all I’m not seeing the playoffs this year for Carolina, but you never know with the Eastern Conference.

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Columbus: It’s hard not to like what’s been going on in Columbus. Just a couple years removed from being the laughing stock of the NHL, the Blue Jackets are now primed for what should be a second straight playoff appearance this season. Their roster is not full of high profile names, but it is full of good, reliable players. Guys such as Ryan Johansen, Brandon Dubinsky, and Nick Foligno are all very good players that could be effective on just about any team in the league, especially Johansen. Then they have players like Nathan Horton, who when healthy, can be a top six forward in the NHL. They also added Scott Hartnell via a trade with the Flyers this summer. Hartnell should fit in nicely with that group in Columbus and give their offense a boost. Defensively, Columbus could use some upgrades. Jack Johnson is their best d-man and would be a top four on any team in the league. He is followed by James Wisniewski and Fedor Tyutin as far as the top three go. If the Blue Jackets could have landed one of the top defensemen available on July 1st, I’d like this team a lot. However, they didn’t and they are left with a good/mediocre group of defensemen. Their goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky, is coming off of back-to-back good seasons after being traded to Columbus from Philadelphia three years ago. I’d expect nothing different from him this year. As long as he’s good again, the Jackets should finish no worse than fourth in this division.

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New Jersey: This team is a real wild card in my eyes, meaning they could finish as a top three team in this division, or they could miss the playoffs all together. It’s a tough call. Their roster is full of recognizable names, however many of whom are past their prime. Their two newest members, Mike Cammalleri and Martin Havlat, should provide the Devils with some added scoring and play-making ability to go along with Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique, and Jaromir Jagr among a handful of others. I see their real problem lying within their defense. Bryce Salvador, Andy Greene, and Marek Zidlicky are all good defensemen, but after that there’s nothing. The Devils are going to have to rely on Cory Schneider to bail them out on a lot of nights, as well as their forwards who will need to play good defense in their own end. Like I said before, the Devils could go either way this year. If they do make the playoffs, they won’t be going to the Stanley Cup Final again. That much I’m sure of.

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New York Islanders: A year after surprising most hockey people by making the playoffs, the Islanders were back in last place in their division to finish the 2013-14 season. Granted, they did lose their captain and best player John Tavares for the season due to an injury suffered in the Olympics. This offseason, I feel they did about all they could do to get better given the fact that they’re the Islanders and not many players want to play for that franchise at the moment. The signed Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, both highly skilled forwards, which should really make their offense better. Add in the fact that Tavares should be back and healthy from the start, along with Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner, and Frans Nielson, and there’s reason to be optimistic about the Islanders’ forward corps this year. Once again, it’s the team’s defensive unit that will hurt them most. They are full of mediocre/unproven defensemen, which in today’s day in age will not get the job done. In goal, they now have Jaroslav Halak as their number one netminder. We’ve seen how good he can be in the past, but he hasn’t played up to that level the last couple years. I see the Islanders finishing no higher than fifth in this division.

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New York Rangers: I think I’m safe in saying that almost no one had the Ranges advancing to the Stanley Cup Final at the beginning of last season. The Rangers’ playoff-run late this past spring was a good story and good for the sport in the Big Apple. Unfortunately for them, they came up short against the Kings and suffered some heartbreaking overtime losses in the SCF. This summer, their biggest move was probably their acquisition of veteran d-man Dan Boyle. Boyle will add some offense and puck-moving ability to the Rangers’ blue line to go along with Ryan McDonagh. Speaking of McDonagh, anyone familiar with today’s NHL would have to believe this guy will be winning a Norris Trophy sometime in the near future. He’s that good. As for the rest of their defense, the Rangers lost Anton Stralman to the Lightning this offseason, but held onto the other prominent defensemen that led them to the Cup Final in June. Offensively, this team has multiple good players, but not a whole lot of “firepower.” Martin St. Louis is probably destined for the Hall of Fame when his career is over, but the problem for the Rangers is that his career is almost over. Rick Nash is going to have to step up and play like we’ve seen him in the past for this team to be a real threat in the East. Their most obvious strength comes in the form of Henrik Lundqvist, who is probably the league’s best goalie. Assuming he doesn’t have a meltdown this season, the Rangers can’t ever be truly counted out.

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Philadelphia: I thought the fact that the Flyers earned 94 points last season was impressive. I didn’t think they would do that, and don’t think they’ll do it again this year. When you look at their roster, Claude Giroux obviously stands out, but other than him they really don’t have one of the league’s better offensive teams. Assuming Vincent Lecavalier is a Flyer this season, can he get anywhere close to the level he once played at in Tampa Bay? I don’t think so. And after him the skill level of this team takes a bit of a hit. On defense, the Flyers have become somewhat of a joke in recent years because of their continued trend of overpaying for “big name” defensemen. This offseason they didn’t exactly continue that tradition, but they are still full of once high profiled defensemen who are now making more than they’re worth. Their best defensemen, Kimmo Timonen, may not even be available until sometime after the season starts as he was just diagnosed with blood clots in his leg and both lungs. In goal, they’ll be bringing back the same tandem that they had last year. Steve Mason will be looking to repeat the success he had last year, as Ray Emery will try to regain the form he had just two years ago in Chicago. As far as where this team will end up, I’ll say they miss the postseason.

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Pittsburgh: After finishing with the second highest point total in the East last season, I feel like the Penguins didn’t improve at all this offseason. If anything, they got worse. They made a somewhat surprising move by trading James Neal to Nashville in exchange for Patric Hornqvist, and they signed Steve Downie to apparently add some grit to the lineup. As for the rest of the forwards, not much is different than it was a year ago. The Penguins are hoping to get a healthy Pascal Dupuis back into the lineup sometime this season after he suffered a torn ACL last December. While the forwards on this team aren’t as notable as they usually are, you can’t deny the fact that Pittsburgh still has two of the worlds greatest players in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. On defense, the Penguins lost two of their top d-men to the Capitals this summer. Both Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen elected to leave Pittsburgh for Washington, which has to sting a bit for the Penguins and their fans. In response, the Penguins went ahead and signed Christian Ehrhoff to go along with a still rather solid defensive group. The biggest question yet again is Marc-Andre Fleury. We know he can be good in the regular season, but what about the postseason? Ever since he and the Penguins hoisted the Cup in 2009, Fleury has not been the same playoff performer. I don’t think this team has what it takes to win the Cup, or even the East.

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Washington: The Capitals are coming off yet another disappointing season in which they missed the playoffs. If there’s one team that seems to always under-perform, it’s these guys. Everyone wants to label Alex Ovechkin as such an incredible hockey player, which he is, but I don’t think he should be an NHL captain. He does not lead by example in the least bit. As for the rest of the forwards, there’s Nicklas Backstrom, Troy Brouwer, Jason Chimera, and Brooks Laich, but not too much else. Despite having the league’s best powerplay last year, the Capitals aren’t anywhere close to as good when it comes to five on five play. This year is a rare instance in which the Capitals defense is their strong-suit. As was mentioned in the Penguins’ preview, the Capitals stole both Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen away from Pittsburgh to go along with Mike Green, John Carlson, and Karl Alzner. You can’t complain too much about those five. Along with the offense, goaltending will be a big question mark for this team. I’m not seeing them as a playoff team come April.

PREDICTED STANDINGS:

1. Pittsburgh 2. New York Rangers 3. Columbus 4. New Jersey 5. Philadelphia 6. Washington 7. New York Islanders 8. Carolina

(Much like the Central Division, this thing could really end up in any number of ways.)

Central Division preview

Now that we’ve finished with the Pacific Division, I’ll take a look at the Central Division here. There’s a solid chance that this could once again be the NHL’s top division.

CENTRAL DIVISION 

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Chicago: The Blackhawks are coming into the 2014-15 season with high expectations yet again. This team was one goal away from advancing to their second straight Stanley Cup Final this past season, where they probably would have won their second straight Cup in no more than six games. For the first time in a long time, they will actually have a real number two center in the form of Brad Richards, which should only make Patrick Kane that much more dangerous. They traded away Brandon Bollig this offseason to make room for guys such as Jeremy Morin, Peter Regin, and maybe even Teuvo Teravainen. The lack of depth on last year’s team was a big reason for them not knocking out the Kings in the Conference Final, and it is an area that I believe they have improved on this summer just by making the room for the players mentioned above. Corey Crawford, who had a decent but not great 2013-14 season, will need to be better this year, as will Antti Raanta. I’d expect the Hawks to finish no worse than second in this division.

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Colorado: The Avalanche were without a doubt last season’s biggest surprise. After finishing the 2012-13 season with the second fewest points in the NHL, the Avs came almost out of nowhere last year and ended with 112 points. Granted, they couldn’t get out of the first round, but it was still an impressive season. This offseason, they traded away P.A. Parenteau in exchange for Daniel Briere, and signed Jarome Iginla, Brad Stuart, and Zach Redmond. They also lost Paul Stastny to the Blues. All of this sets the Avalanche up for what should be a very interesting season in Denver. If you look at Colorado’s team stats from last season, they are pretty great. If you also look at the players that performed best for them (I’m looking at you Varlamov), you might be a bit surprised. Semyon Varlamov put together a fantastic season for Colorado; one that he probably won’t duplicate this year. Their defensive corps are not great at all, to say the least, and this was proven in the Avs’ first round loss to the Wild last year. While Colorado definitely has a potentially lethal offense again, I just don’t see their defense being good enough to be anywhere close to as good as they were last season.

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Dallas: In my season preview last year, I noted that the Stars were being underrated by almost every NHL analyst at the time. I also said that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this team ended up as a playoff contender. Well, sure enough the Stars made the playoffs last season as the West’s second wild card team. This summer, they’ve only gotten better. Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky are the two biggest names to join the Stars since the end of last season, and Dallas fans have reason to be excited about that. The Stars now have two extremely good centers in Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza to go along with wingers such as Tyler Seguin (who can also play center) and Ales Hemsky. After that the names aren’t as recognizable, but the Stars are full of good role and depth forwards. On defense, Dallas really should have aggressively pursued one of the available top defensemen this offseason. As it stands now, Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley are arguably their two best d-men. In goal they still have Kari Lehtonen, who I firmly believe is one of the game’s most underrated players. Lehtonen was good last year, and he’ll need to be again this year seeing as how he will have a mediocre defense in front of him.

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Minnesota: The wild finished last season with 98 points, which I think a lot of people were surprised by. They went on to knock out the Avalanche in the first round (maybe the biggest “upset” of last year’s playoffs), and then lost to the Blackhawks in six games in the second round. Nonetheless, a successful season for the Wild. Like the Stars, I believe Minnesota has only improved since their season ended in May. They lost Matt Moulson to the Sabres via free agency, but they nicely replaced him with Thomas Vanek. On defense, they added some depth by signing Stu Bickel. Other than that, no new names on the Wild this year. So why are they better than last year? They now know what it takes to win a playoff series and their young guys gained valuable experience during last year’s playoff run. Guys like Coyle, Granlund, Haula, Neiderreiter, Brodin, and Spurgeon, all of whom are very young, should only be better this season. That’s not to mention they still have Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, and Mikko Koivu who are all elite players. I guess the only real question mark with this team is who will be their number one goalie to begin the season. Look out for the Wild this year.

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Nashville: Again, here’s another case of a team really improving this offseason. In exchange for Patric Hornqvist, the Predators acquired James Neal from Pittsburgh, and they also signed Olli Jokinen, Mike Ribeiro, and Derek Roy (all three are centers). There’s no doubt that Nashville’s offense should be better this season than it was last year, as they ranked in the bottom half of the league in G/G. Defensively, they are still led by their captain Shea Weber who is also one of the NHL’s top d-men. Along with Weber, they’ll have Seth Jones entering his second professional season, as well as newcomer Anton Volchenkov, among a few others. Pekka Rinne will obviously be the team’s number one goalie again as he looks to have a bounce-back season after injuries plagued him all of last year. All in all, when you look at what the Predators have on their roster this upcoming season, there’s no reason to believe they won’t be a tough team to play against. However, because of the division they’re in, we won’t see them in the playoffs.

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St. Louis: The Blues were a popular pick to win their first ever Stanley Cup last season. Unfortunately for them, their first round opponent was none other than the defending champion Blackhawks, and we all know what happened there. Since then, the Blues lost their top goalie, Ryan Miller, but they did sign the top center on the market in Paul Stastny. They also signed defenseman Carl Gunnarsson. Other than that, we’re pretty much looking at the same team this year as the one that exited the first round of the playoffs last year. My concern with St. Louis over the past few seasons has been their lack of firepower on offense. There’s no doubt that they have a great group of defensemen and defensive forwards, but they just haven’t had that player that can take over at any given time. Paul Stastny is a step in the right direction in that department, but I’m still not convinced that this team has the offensive weapons to go deep into the playoffs. Plus, they lost Ryan Miller to the Canucks and are left with Brian Elliott and Jake Allen as their two goalies. Elliott is not going to win you a Cup, and Jake Allen really has zero NHL experience. So while I’m sure a good handful of people will pick this team to win the Cup this year, I’m still not sold on their offense and definitely not their goaltending.

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Winnipeg: The Jets are still looking to make the playoffs for the first time since coming back to Winnipeg. They finished last year as the bottom team in the Central Division with 84 points, which was the highest point total of any team to finish last in their respective division. This season, the Jets are pretty much the same team as they were a year ago at this time. Evander Kane has been the victim of many trade rumors over the last few months, so it will be interesting to see if he is still a Jet by the time the trade deadline rolls around in the spring. Their offense is not great by any means, and their defense is sub-par. Goaltending may be the Jets’ biggest weakness as Ondrej Pavelec finished last year with a .901 save percentage and a 3.01 goals against average. All of that said, the Jets do have a handful of young forwards who could take the next step in their game this year. Unfortunately for Jets fans, however, this team won’t be a contender for a few years to come most likely.

PREDICTED STANDINGS:

1. Blackhawks 2. Blues 3. Wild 4. Stars 5. Avalanche 6. Predators 7. Jets

(One through six are all legitimate playoff contenders, and they could really finish in any order. Chicago is the only clear-cut number one team in the Central.)

PREDICTED WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF TEAMS:

1. Ducks 2. Blackhawks 3. Kings 4. Blues 5. Sharks 6. Wild 7. Stars 8. Avalanche

(That’s five Central Division teams again, with the Stars and Avs grabbing the two Wild Card spots.)

Pacific Division preview

Over the next week or so, I’ll be going over my previews/predictions for each division in the NHL. We’ll start now with the Pacific Division, and then hit the Central, Metropolitan, and Atlantic.

PACIFIC DIVISION

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Anaheim: The Ducks finished last season with 116 points, which was good for first place in the brutal Western Conference and second in the entire league. This offseason, they’ve only seemingly gotten better. The additions of Ryan Kesler, Nate Thompson, and Dany Heatley give Anaheim one of the NHL’s most potent group of centers and forwards. The loss of Teemu Selanne will not be as big as some people may expect. He’ll be more missed in the locker room than on the ice. While the Ducks are primed for another dominant season offensively, their defense and goaltending remain a bit suspect. Can Cam Fowler take his game to the next level? Will Andersen and Gibson get the job done between the pipes? Those are the two question marks surrounding this team.

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Arizona: It’s weird calling them the “Arizona” Coyotes now, but it is what it is. They ended the 2013-14 season with 89 points and did not make the playoffs. If they did anything this summer, it was that they got worse. They let go of Mike Ribeiro and did not make any notable free agent signings. They play in a tough division with some elite offenses all around them, which is an area that they are now lacking in. Defensively, the Coyotes have some good players in Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, but after them they fall off a cliff. Mike Smith always has the ability to win his team a game on any given night, so they do have that going for them.

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Calgary: I think a lot of people were somewhat surprised by the Flames last season. Earning 77 points is not going to impress many people, but I do believe most had the Flames finishing with a lower total. This team is still in the rebuilding process and will not be a playoff contender (especially in the West) for at least a couple more years, but that doesn’t mean we should all ignore what goes on in Calgary. Young guns like Sean Monahan and goalie Karri Ramo will be looking to make the step to the next level in their respective games. Newcomers Mason Raymond and Jonas Hiller should make a good impact on the Flames this year. The signing of Hiller was one of the most interesting transactions this summer.

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Edmonton: I was really disappointed with how things unfolded in Edmonton last season. In last year’s season preview, I predicted the Oilers to take one of the two wild card spots in the West. Obviously that didn’t happen as Edmonton finished last in the Conference with 67 points. This year, I’ll make the wiser decision and predict that they miss the playoffs again. Their offense has some very young and potentially elite talent in the forms of Taylor Hall, Nail Yakupov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Jordan Eberle. It’s their defense that will kill them again. They signed Nikita Nikitin this summer, but that won’t be nearly enough. Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth should have their hands full in goal all season.

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Los Angeles: The Kings are coming into the 2014-15 season fresh off their second Stanley Cup title in the last three seasons. They have basically the same roster back this year as the one they had last year, except now they’ll have Marian Gaborik for the entire year. What’s interesting about the Kings is that they never seem to put together a great regular season. They always finish with a point total somewhere in the mid-90’s, or in last year’s case exactly 100. Once the playoffs begin, then they take their game to the next level. I’ll say that we see more of the same this year. They might finish with more than 100 points this time around, but I don’t see them being one of the top two or even three seeds in the West. The playoffs are a different story…

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San Jose: The Sharks will return this season with most of the same roster that we saw last year, minus Dan Boyle. People are calling the situation in San Jose a “rebuilding process,” but I don’t quite see it that way. The Sharks have not unloaded their top players, and they have a few young guys that should only be getting better this season, like Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto. Goaltending ended up costing the Sharks in the playoffs last year when they went up 3-0 on the Kings in the first round, only to drop the next four games. Antti Niemi has proven that he can be a top-end goalie in the NHL, but he needs to play like one this season. Brent Burns will make the move back to defense this season where he started his career in an attempt to fill the void left by Dan Boyle. I like this change by the Sharks, and I think they’ll without a doubt be a playoff team yet again.

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Vancouver: The Canucks have made it clear that they are now in the process of rebuilding their roster. They traded Roberto Luongo away at last year’s trade deadline, and they dealt Ryan Kesler to the Ducks earlier this summer. They also signed Ryan Miller to be their number one netminder, which surprised me and many other people. Why sign a big name goalie like Miller for a good amount of money if you don’t really plan on contending for a few years to come? It’s an answer I won’t soon find out, but I won’t stay up at night worrying about it either. I’d expect Vancouver to finish with a point total somewhere in the mid to low 80’s this season.

PREDICTED STANDINGS:

1. Ducks 2. Kings 3. Sharks 4. Vancouver 5. Phoenix 6. Edmonton 7. Flames

Keep checking back for my previews on the rest of the NHL.

NHL Eastern Conference predictions

Here’s how I think the Eastern Conference will play out this season:

Metropolitan 

1. 2518158277_cf0b185de3

The Penguins are consistently one of the best teams in hockey during the regular season with all of that talent. I see no reason as to why that will change this year. The playoffs, however, are a different story with this team.

2. llrs2zxi127vkqgcsvfb

After a couple of down years, I expect Washington to be back near the top of the league this season. Ovechkin found his form over the course of last season, and I think he’ll stay hot heading into this season. However, this team seems to always have the potential to disappoint.

3. 144

This will be their first season under new head coach Alain Vigneault, and I think it could go one of two ways; good, or really bad. I don’t see an in-between with the Rangers. Henrik Lundqvist is always a key factor in this team’s success, and while I expect him to be an elite goalie again this year, I am not as sure about the rest of the team. For now, I’m saying they take third in this division.

4. 161

Last year was a season to forget for the Flyers. They greatly under-performed. Now that Bryzgalov is gone and Ray Emery has taken his place, there should be less off-ice distractions, which will help, but I don’t think last year was a fluke. Teams don’t just go from the top of the conference to the bottom in one year without there being more than a few problems. Having said that, I think Philadelphia has the potential to finish in the top 3 in this division.

5. Carolina-Hurricanes-Logo

The Hurricanes somewhat remind me of the Oilers in terms of their potential. Edmonton has more talent, but both teams are better than what they showed us last season. Like the Oilers, I think Carolina has the potential to make the postseason as a wild card team, but I won’t be surprised if they don’t.

6. 138

Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I should have the Islanders ahead of the Hurricanes or not. They could go either way. Last year was a major surprise for the Islanders as they made the playoffs for the first time in a number of years. John Tavares is becoming one of the best centers in the game, and he’ll probably be named team captain sometime this month. Still, I don’t think this team will replicate what they accomplished last year.

7. bluejackets07-rgbjpg-8678ad1b3fbe2735

For the first time in a long time, the Blue Jackets are not projected to be the worst team in the league. If they were still in the Central Division, I might have them placed higher in the standings. Unfortunately for the Jackets, this division may be the toughest in hockey. While they will be a solid, possibly above .500 team, I don’t see them making the playoffs in this conference.

8. 127

There isn’t a whole lot to look forward to with the Devils. Kovalchuk is gone, Clarkson is gone, and Brodeur is slowly on his way out. They did acquire Corey Schneider, Jaromir Jagr, Ryan Clowe, and Michael Ryder, among others, but there are still a ton of question marks with this team, especially on defense.

Atlantic

1. Detroit-Red-Wings-Logo

This is my big prediction for this upcoming season. While I’m sure others have the Wings finishing first in this division, I don’t think I’m in the majority. Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss were big acquisitions for the Wings that will greatly help. I feel that a line with Datsyuk/Zetterberg and Daniel Alfredsson could be a major threat to opposing teams. Aside from their big name players, the Wings also have a lot of young talent that really looked good in last year’s playoffs. The big question mark here is their defense. I’d expect the Wings to upgrade on the blue line via trade at some point this season.

2. Boston_Bruins_logo

They lost Horton, Seguin, Peverley, and Jagr, but acquired Loui Eriksson and Jarome Iginla. Their offense should be pretty comparable to what it was last year, and their defense remains arguably the best in the NHL. The Bruins will contend for the top spot in the East again this season, but for now I have them finishing second in their own division.

3. Toronto-Maple-Leafs-Logo

This is where the Atlantic Division kind of falls to a lower level. The Wings and Bruins, in my opinion, will be elite teams in the NHL. After them, however, I don’t see another solid lock for the postseason in this division. The Maple Leafs have the best shot of the remaining teams, and rightfully so. They made some big moves this off season by signing David Clarkson and trading for Jonathan Bernier and Dave Bolland. If James Reimer begins to show some weaknesses, expect Bernier to be named their new starting goalie. My fear with Toronto is that they are expecting too much out of Dave Bolland. They have really hyped him up since they traded for him, but he’s not the offensive player that they’re making him out to be. The Leafs will be good, but not great.

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They made a big move by acquiring Bobby Ryan from the Ducks, but they also lost their captain via free agency. Last year the Senators surprised a lot of people by not only making the playoffs, but by advancing to the second round. In all honesty, I think Ottawa is going to be pretty similar to what they were last season. I think we’re probably looking at a wild card spot for the Sens, but they have the ability to miss the postseason as well.

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This is kind of a “wild card” pick for me. The Lightning were not good last season, but I think they have the talent and potential to be better. Stamkos will continue to be one of the best players in hockey, St. Louis will stay productive, and the signing of Valtteri Filppula will prove to be bigger than people think. They have a decent offensive team, but their defense is still suspect. Matt Carle needs to bounce back after a couple of down seasons since signing in Tampa, and Viktor Hedman needs to play up to his potential for this team to be decent again. Along with their defense, goaltending is another foggy area with the Lightning. I’m not totally sold on Ben Bishop, but only time will tell with him.

6.  canadiens

I felt all of last season that this team was overachieving. I thought for sure that they would choke near the end of the year and either fall to a bottom seed in the East playoffs, or miss the postseason all together. They did neither. This year, I think their record will be a bit more indicative as to how good the Canadiens really are. I don’t think they’ll make the playoffs, and I think they could end up even lower in the standings than I have them here.

7. 230

While they’re not as bad as the Flames, this team is in a rebuilding phase just like Calgary. They’ve had some good talent over the past few years, but nothing ever panned out the way that they wanted it to. Tyler Myers has regressed a bit since his rookie campaign, and guys like Drew Stafford haven’t really improved much over the past couple seasons. Ryan Miller is coming off of one of his worst seasons in the NHL, but I think he’ll be better this year.

8. 94

The Panthers shocked everyone two years ago when they made the playoffs, and there’s a reason for that. They weren’t/aren’t that good. They have a ton of young guys who could turn out to be good hockey players, and they have Jonathan Huberdeau who seems to have a promising future. Still, there are way too many unknowns with this team. Defensively, they have a bit more veteran depth, but they’re not great in that area. Expect another last place finish for Florida.

Playoffs

Metropolitan Division:

1. Penguins 2. Capitals 3. Rangers

Atlantic Division:

1. Red Wings 2. Bruins 3. Maple Leafs

Wild Card teams:

1. Flyers 2. Senators