I was wrong last year when I predicted the Columbus Blue Jackets would contend for first in their division (ending up third) and that the Pittsburgh Penguins would thus fail to make the playoffs (they won the Stanley Cup, against another team I predicted would fail to make the postseason, the San Jose Sharks).
This year, I'm fucking doubling down.
The Atlantic Division:
1. Montréal Canadiens
Shea Weber is good for a couple more seasons, Carey Price can stop 91% of pucks for a year or two as well, and the leaders are still there: Andrei Markov, Tomas Plekanec and 30-goal scorers Max Pacioretty and newly-minted first-line center Alex Galchenyuk.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
For every red, there is blue. The Bolts have a nice one-two punch of Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskyi in nets, and an attack made up of Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Drouin, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Nikita Kucherov, Ryan Callahan and Tyler Johnson. On defense, it helps to have Victor Hedman, but Anton Stralman is no slouch, and neither is Slater Koekkoek.
3. Ottawa Senators
If the Sens make it to the playoffs and against the Habs, they'll win. Craig Anderson has had the best over Carey Price on two of the last three postseasons, and history will repeat itself. With Derick Brassard to follow Kyle Turris, the Sens now have a nice pair of 1A centers to rotate their wingers around, which should keep the likes of Bobby Ryan, Clarke MacArthur, Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone, and Matt Puempel sharp, and having the best-skating defenseman in the game in Erik Karlsson helps as well. Guy Boucher is also probably the best coach for this team.
4. Florida Panthers
They won the division last year but were exhausted come playoff time. They'll pace themselves this season, which will help. They're a terrific team to watch play, although I'm uncertain of the revamped defense. I liked the variety on last year's squad better.
5. Detroit Red Wings
NEVER count Detroit out. But the competition is extremely steep this year. I doubt the Wings are deep enough to make it through, what with having to sign such free agents as Frans Nielsen and Thomas Vanek this summer, but they may be in contention for the final playoff spot until the last few days of the season.
6. Boston Bruins
File this under "Claude Julien's Final Season", although the team's failings - the defense, and lack of a good enough backup goalie - solely lies on the shoulders of GM Don Sweeney. That defense is what NHL goalies have nightmares about.
7. Toronto Maple Leafs
Austin Matthews, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly and the rrest of this talented young squad will be reminded that they play for the Leafs and falter. Time and time again. Sharks North.
8. Buffalo Sabres
I'll say like I did two years ago: "I hate to be like everyone else and put the Sabres behind the Leafs,
because I like their young crop of kids, and the veterans they brought
in to keep the ship afloat until the youngsters are ready are
trustworthy and reliable." But I will never believe in Dan Bylsma as a head coach.
The Metropolitan Division:
1. Washington Capitals
They will dominate this year again. The team was built for a two-year window and it's still wide open. Alex Ovechkin and Niklas Backstrom are still tremendous offensive weapons, now surrounded by Justin Williams, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson, Braden Holtby is the best goaltender in the world, and the defense is perfectly balanced with John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Brooks Orpik, Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen. Barry Trotz has this covered... in the regular season
2. Columbus Blue Jackets
He may have failed to deliver for Team USA at the World Cup, but head coach John Tortorella has the type of team he likes to coach on hand in Columbus: quiet leaders, young players willing to learn, and a Vezina-caliber goalie. There'll be growing pains, but they'll work around
their differences and make it work. The Torts Redemption is on, and he'll get Jack Adams trophy votes. Seth Jones' stock will also rise. Cam Atkinson may score 40 goals.
3. New York Rangers
Henrik Lundqvist still has a year orm two left of being an elite goalie, Ryan McDonagh is All-Star material, and they may have the best and most balanced offense in the league with Rick Nash and Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello, Mika Zibanejad, Michael Grabner, prized free agent prospect Jimmy Vesey, Kevin Hayes, and young Russian star Pavel Buchnevich. I'm not worried about them this year, but that defense will not hold up two years from now.
4. Philadelphia Flyers
They made the cut last year and will be hard to forget this year, led by Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier, and Travis Konecky, but the young defense still isn't ready to dominate, save perhaps for Calder runner-up Shane Gostisbehere and rookie Ivan Provorov. Former Isles captain Mark Streit might be trade bait, while Radko Gudas will still deliver borderline-dirty hits. Steve Mason needs to continue making up for ultimately failing in Columbus.
5. New York Islanders
GM Garth Snow was criticized for not retaining the services of Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen, but Andrew Ladd is the type of leader the team needed to move forward. If he could chip in for 30 goals, it'd be nice, but I'll expect 20-25 in his first season with the team, as he likely will not be paired with John Tavares right away. I see the star center playing with a couple of rookies, perhaps Anthony Beauvillier, Michael Dal Colle, or a young player needing a boost like Ryan Strome. As he has shown at the World Cup, Jaroslav Halak is still unparalleled under pressure. The defense is thinner here than elsewhere in the conference, so Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk may need someone else to step in at some point during the season. Thomas Hickey and Ryan Pulock, that means you.
6. Pittsburgh Penguins
Great idea to have a goaltending battle in the midst of a defense title, particularly when everyone knows Matt Murray has won it already. Marc-André Fleury could end up in a number of places: Las Vegas, Dallas, Calgary, Vancouver, Carolina... Sidney Crosby is also due to miss half a season with a concussion. You don't hit lightning in a bottle twice in a row.
7. New Jersey Devils
Nice move acquiring perennial loser Taylor Hall from the Oilers, although it did cost a steady defenseman. If Michael Cammalleri can miss less than 20 games to injury, the Devils will ice an offense they have never seen save once in their entire history (that time they had both Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk). Corey Schneider is fine in net, though he still strikes me as just below elite, and the defense has too many holes in it for the team to even dream about the playoffs.
8. Carolina Hurricanes
When Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner are your go-to guys, you're in trouble. When you re-sign Cam Ward as your starter in nets ten years past his prime, you're dead. Attendance will again suffer, and the team will have to move to Québec eventually.
The playoff picture:
Montréal (1A) - Florida (8)
Tampa Bay (2) - Ottawa (3)
Washington (1B) - Philadelphia (7)
Columbus (2) - NY Rangers (3)