It’s that time of year again – pre-season prediction time, when hockey writers subject themselves to torrents of reader abuse in the name of establishing some expectations for the NHL’s 30 teams. I’m not as averse to predictions as some of my colleagues are, because I take them for what they’re worth – guesses educated by conversations with people around the league. As always, there’s a chance teams will exceed or fall short of these expectations, but that’s the fun of it. But before we get to my rankings, permit me to make a couple things clear:
1. I don’t hate your team. It may bring you comfort to believe I hold a deep and lasting grudge against your beloved franchise, but I do not. When you’re making a list, someone has to finish at the top and someone has to finish at the bottom. Get over yourself.
2. See No. 1.
Now, my personal picks:
1. Chicago. Bold first choice, huh? People sarcastically jabbed at me in the spring for going out on a limb and picking the Blackhawks to win the 2013 playoffs, too. But the truth is you’d be nuts to think Chicago is going to fall out of the upper echelons of the West. They’ve got arguably the NHL’s best, most balanced group of blueliners, serious star power up front and my favorite player as their captain. If any team can continue to dominate, it’s the Hawks.
2. Los Angeles. The Kings have made some peripheral changes, but the core remains intact and is much better than most cores. The new Pacific division in which they play isn't the worst in the NHL, but the Kings have the talent and experience to expect to be challenging for first place in it, if not the conference. L.A. has played more playoff games in the past two seasons than any franchise, but like a lot of teams, this squad is experienced and focused enough to know their real measuring stick won't be broken out until mid-April.
3. San Jose. When THN staff was asked to pick a team as our projected Stanley Cup winner in the summer, I chose the Sharks – not because of any off-season moves they’ve made, but because I watched them come this close to eliminating the Kings before coming up short last spring. That’s familiar territory for this franchise, but I think the combination of Logan Couture’s continued blossoming as an upper-tier star and the unmistakable air of desperation that’s starting to set in among the team’s 30-something-year-old veterans will give them a special kind of edge this year.
4. St. Louis. The Blues were our magazine’s collective pick to win the Cup, but I wasn’t one of the ones banging that drum. That’s not to say I think St. Louis won’t be formidable, but their goaltending picture is muddier than ever and their off-season acquisitions don’t inspire confidence. But their defense corps is impressive, David Backes remains one of the most underrated stars in the game and Ken Hitchcock is an excellent coach. There’s much to like, but not enough to like them more than every other team.
5. Minnesota. Although they’re perceived by many as being on an upward trajectory, the Wild are gambling their season on a number of youngsters (including Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter) who will have to make notable contributions – especially on offense, where Minnesota ranked just tied for 22nd last year – in order to keep pace with other Western Conference squads. In addition, they need sophomore blueliner Jonas Brodin to maintain the incredible standard he set last season, and if their goaltending doesn’t hold up, none of the above will matter a lick.
6. Vancouver. Like the Wild, I can see the Canucks making the playoffs, but I can also see it going horribly awry for them. The worrisome vibes start with new head coach and Human Wet Blanket John Tortorella – not a people person at the best of times – and continue with the ongoing soap opera that is Roberto Luongo’s career in Vancouver. I’m not saying Luongo will make himself a problem, but if an early skid strikes either him or the team, GM Mike Gillis’ mismanagement of his netminding situation will be a major story. The Canucks have enough talent to make the playoffs, but it’s everything else that should give people pause before putting too much stock in their fortunes.
7. Dallas. I’ve been on record for a few months now regarding my belief in what new Stars GM Jim Nill has done since taking over from Joe Nieuwendyk in late April. With a few trades and signings, Nill has made Dallas a more experienced, expectant team along the lines of the franchise he left in Detroit – and in former Bruins center Tyler Seguin, he has another long-term elite player to skate alongside Jamie Benn. Yes, the Stars’ defense is far from the class of the league and goalie Kari Lehtonen needs to be better, but they’ve got great depth at center and hit a home run in the 2013 draft when speedy Russian winger Valeri Nichushkin fell to them with the 10th overall pick. And I haven’t mentioned new bench boss Lindy Ruff, who will be right at home with this veteran group.
8. Edmonton. Is this the year the Oilers make the jump from promise and potential to actual playoff threat? I think so, in part because of the influence of new coach Dallas Eakins; in part because of smart summer acquisitions David Perron, Andrew Ference and Boyd Gordon; and in part because their key youngsters are on the verge of greatness. Their special teams were above average last season and if they can boost their offense – which shouldn’t be a problem with this crew, even with the loss of Sam Gagner (broken jaw) – I think they’ll give most teams a run for their money and will be in a dogfight for one of the bottom playoff berths in the West.
9. Anaheim. Can a team go from second in the conference one year to out of the playoffs the following year? I think it’s a distinct possibility with the Ducks. Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu are greybeards who could be taxed by the short off-season and their Olympic commitments and Sheldon Souray will miss 4-6 months after wrist surgery in late July. As well, even with the additions of Dustin Penner and Jakob Silfverberg, Anaheim does not have a ton of depth up front. And let’s not forget, this team finished the regular season 8-9-2. They won’t be at the very bottom of the West, but I’m not convinced they’ll be atop it either.
10. Nashville. I should know better than to bet against Predators GM David Poile and coach Barry Trotz, who almost always squeeze every last drop of quality out of every player they bring to Nashville. But the bottom finally fell out of their playoff plans last season when they finished second-last in the West. Of course, that landed them prized blueliner Seth Jones at the draft, but I still look at the Preds and wonder where their offense (which ranked tied for last in the league in 2012-13) is going to come from. And I don’t see it, so I’m expecting similar struggles in the standings for them this season.
11. Winnipeg. Let’s start with the positives: the Jets aren’t throwing piles of cash at every free agent who hits the market and just missed the playoffs last season. They have players (Evander Kane, Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd) who are solid contributors, if not out-and-out superstars. But their special teams were cruddy last season and their defense was sub-par. Nobody they added (including Devin Setoguchi, Michael Frolik and Adam Pardy) is likely to change that – and they’re now in a Central Division chock-full of talented teams. A slow and steady build may eventually win the Jets the race, but I doubt that race will come within sight of the finish line this season.
12. Colorado. There’s no question the Avalanche have put together an incredible group of young forwards, including 2013 No. 1 draft pick Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly. In fact, their combination of skill and character up front is my favorite among young, talented NHL teams. But it’s what can happen in Colorado’s own zone that gives me nightmares, morningmares and afternoonmares. The Avs’ defense was not a strength last season (their 3.12 GAA was fourth-worst in the league) and, with due respect to blueline additions Cory Sarich and Andre Benoit, I can envision a scenario in which history repeats.
13. Phoenix. The Coyotes have solid ownership for the next five seasons, but this is still not a franchise that will spend to the cap ceiling – and as we saw last season, even a skilled management duo such as Don Maloney and Dave Tippett can’t always steer a depth-challenged roster to the playoffs. Bringing in Mike Ribeiro to center the first line will give Phoenix’s substandard offense a jolt and Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a dynamic, improving force on the blueline, but by and large, this is the same team that couldn’t get it done last season. Not sure why we should imagine that will change.
14. Calgary. Here’s what I say to Flames fans: on the one hand, at least management has acknowledged it needed to press the reset button and start from scratch. On the other hand…well, you should probably take that other hand and cover your eyes with it, because this season could be Calgary’s grisliest in recent memory. New director of hockey operations Brian Burke should be patient at first, but could wield the axe as soon as the new year. So long as they hold onto their first round pick (which could be the No. 1 selection in 2014), there’s finally hope again for this team. But this season is the penance that must be paid for the Flames’ over-estimating and under-developing.
1. Pittsburgh. The temptation with the Penguins is to only remember the way they went out last spring: swept at the hands of the Bruins after being a Disney World ride in their own zone. But Pittsburgh ran roughshod through the regular season and have the horses to make the same type of run this year. Their offense is impeccable and their lone weakness (penalty killing) was addressed with the repatriation of stay-at-home blueliner Rob Scuderi. The injury to backup goalie Tomas Vokoun puts more pressure on Marc-Andre Fleury to rebound from a disastrous playoff – disastrous because he didn’t handle pressure well – and if Vokoun can’t return, I’m predicting Pens GM Ray Shero makes a big, late-season move for a veteran replacement on a short-term basis (hello, Ryan Miller!). If that happens, look out.
2. Boston. They say teams at the NHL level can’t just flip a switch and go from wholly uninspired to world-beater mode, but the Bruins sure did last season, most notably in the last 10 minutes of regulation time during Game 7 of their first round series against Toronto. The trading of Tyler Seguin underscores the fact Boston’s window to win is shorter than some may project, but with Loui Eriksson and Jarome Iginla around to help the gruesome power play, the Bruins have very few deficiencies.
3. Ottawa. The trauma of losing captain Daniel Alfredsson will gnaw at the hearts of Senators fans for some time, yet replacing him with former Ducks winger Bobby Ryan is a better move for the present day and long term. And now that they have Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson healthy again, reigning Jack Adams Award winner Paul MacLean won’t have to depend so deeply on Ottawa’s defensive talents. With that additional balance, the Sens will be an elite Eastern Conference team. And how sweet would it be to finish ahead of Alfredsson’s Wings?
4. Detroit. For me, there’s not much difference between the Senators, Red Wings and Rangers in that they all have some strengths necessary for a deep playoff run – as well as the potential to finish second or third in their division thanks to at least one question mark. The Wings have an imposing top-six forward group, but they’re awfully old and their defense as currently constructed hasn’t proven they’re completely over Nicklas Lidstrom. Remember, Detroit finished seventh in the West last season and could’ve missed the playoffs in an 82-game season; they’re in an easier conference now, but that doesn’t mean they’re assured a spot at the top.
5. Rangers. The Blueshirts usually make major changes each summer, but GM Glen Sather’s hands were tied by the falling cap ceiling. So their big move came behind the bench, firing John Tortorella and installing former Canucks coach Alain Vigneault in his place. The relaxed, more permissive atmosphere Vigneault brings should result in a few more wins and goals – that is, if Sather signs restricted free agent center Derek Stepan sometime soon and if they get bounce-back seasons from Brad Richards and Brian Boyle. However, for as much talent as they have, the Rangers also strike me as being a two-or-three-week losing skid away from fighting it out just to make the post-season.
6. Toronto. Maple Leafs brass took the ample cap space they had this off-season and used virtually all of it to get tougher and deeper in goal. As hockey’s burgeoning advanced statistics community frequently points out, there’s a fair chance last season could have been an anomaly and a regression to the mean is imminent for the Buds this year. But they do deserve credit for Toronto’s fifth-place finish in the Eastern Conference in 2012-13; and I feel like the arrival of Jonathan Bernier is good for both he and James Reimer. Their blueline will be better with Paul Ranger around, but the guy I like to really wow people is James van Riemsdyk. Toronto has more than enough options on offense, but it’s how their defense holds up that will determine if the Leafs make the playoffs two years in a row for the first time in a decade.
7. Montreal. Canadiens fans didn’t have anything to complain about in the regular season last year, as the Habs surprised many by finishing second in the East on the strength of a potent offense. That said, the injury bug that bit them so hard in 2011-12 was nearly completely absent in ’12-13 – and if it returns to chow down again this year, I remain unconvinced they’ve got the organizational depth to keep them in the upper loges of the conference. And that’s to say nothing of the case of Carey Price’s missing mojo; if that predicament isn’t quickly resolved in a positive fashion, Montreal could be looking at a more difficult battle to qualify for the playoffs.
8. Philadelphia. New Flyers Vinny Lecavalier and Mark Streit bring with them a ton of skill and veteran knowhow, but neither player does what Chris Pronger once did for Philly’s defense – and that’s still the biggest issue I have with Ed Snider’s franchise. Streit and Kimmo Timonen are in their mid-to-late 30s, Luke Schenn won’t be a Norris contender anytime soon and the rest of the returning defense corps members are coming off of injuries. I could give them the benefit of the doubt if they had a clear-cut No. 1 goalie, but between Ray Emery’s rebuilt hip and Steve Mason’s un-rebuilt rookie reputation, something tells me the Flyers will struggle the entire season to firm up a playoff spot.
9. Washington. I spoke to an NHLer last season who said Brooks Laich was more important to the Capitals than people realize. He’s right, particularly since the departure of Ribeiro will weaken Washington’s offensive output and power play. Mikhail Grabovksi’s game isn’t identical to Ribeiro’s, but the Caps need Laich to get back to his days as a 20-goal scorer and, more importantly, to resuscitate their penalty kill. Adam Oates showed he knew how to motivate Alex Ovechkin in his first year as head coach; if they’re to make the post-season this year, Oates must show the same magic with his defense.
10. Islanders. The Isles proved last year there was some method to GM Garth Snow’s madness, making the playoffs and putting a solid scare into Sidney Crosby’s Penguins before losing in the sixth game of their first round series. New captain John Tavares did a lot of the heavy lifting in 2012-13 and with Streit off to Philly, he may have to be even better this season. Streit’s loss also means more work for 38-year-old Evgeni Nabokov, who already has been carrying quite the load. As always, the Islanders have to have some of their homegrown youngsters propelling them into the playoffs. And while it’s no longer a shock they can get there with Tavares leading the way, there’s no guarantee they can do it for two consecutive years.
11. Columbus. The Blue Jackets began last season with a 5-11-2 mark, but finished the year on a 19-6-5 tear and missed the playoffs only because they had three fewer non-shootout wins than the Minnesota Wild. That’s a testimonial to the work put in by coach Todd Richards and Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky. But there are still significant structural concerns in Columbus – mainly with an offense that won’t get Nathan Horton until January and gets its full season of the consistently inconsistent Marian Gaborik. Essentially, it’s the same group returning this year, but even with a move to the East, the Jackets could find themselves in familiar environs: not horrible enough to be at the very bottom of the NHL standings, but not accomplished enough to make it to the playoffs. Lest we forget, Columbus’ ninth-place finish in 2012-13 was the second-best in franchise history. I like many players and people in the organization, but there’s still a long way to go here.
12. Tampa Bay. The Lightning didn’t clean house in the wake of firing coach Guy Boucher in March and Martin St-Louis didn’t go anywhere, but management’s decision to amnesty the contract of franchise cornerstone Vincent Lecavalier as well as the drafting of QMHL phenom Jonathan Drouin makes the 2013-14 campaign the start of a new era. Certainly, there is room for growth in every part of the roster: on defense, Victor Hedman is only 22; in net, Anders Lindback and Ben Bishop will duke it out for the starting goaltender job; and Drouin and Steven Stamkos could form the NHL’s deadliest duo in short order. But defense is at the root of Tampa Bay’s evils and GM Steve Yzerman has left the same blueline group intact. Until I see the Bolts have figured out their own zone, I’m skeptical.
13. Carolina. The Hurricanes’ dearth of defense was recognized as such well before the team lost Joni Pitkanen for the entire 2013-14 season. Consequently, Carolina is going to rely all the more on goalie Cam Ward, who played just 17 games last year thanks to a knee injury. If this makes it sound as if the Canes will win games with their offense or they won’t win games at all, that’s because it’s accurate. Coach Kirk Muller can’t be faulted for all Carolina’s woes, but needs to improve their atrocious special teams – a 27th-ranked power play and a 28th-ranked penalty kill – and Jordan Staal has to be better than he was in his first season with the organization if the Hurricanes have a hope of grabbing a playoff spot.
14. Buffalo. When the Sabres said goodbye to captain Jason Pominville at the trade deadline last year, most thought that would begin a full rebuilding process that cleared out many longtime veterans. But the summer is gone and both Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek are still in town despite being unrestricted free agents after this season. So there’s no clear idea of a direction Buffalo is taking, even if GM Darcy Regier has done a nice job accumulating young assets to build with. And unless Tyler Myers reverses his career downward trajectory, the season could be a lost cause early on. All in all, the Sabres likely won’t give anyone at the top of their division anything to worry about this year. And the sooner they move fully into a new era – at least, when it comes to Miller, who could use a change of scenery and a chance to win a Cup – the sooner that will change.
15. New Jersey. No stick-swinging incident or suspension could’ve hurt the Devils more than Ilya Kovalchuk did in July when he retired from the NHL and went home to play in Russia. The free agent market already had cleared by then, leaving New Jersey no choice but to try and plug the holes Kovalchuk left with mid-tier veterans (Ryane Clowe, Michael Ryder) and an almost-done star (Jaromir Jagr). The Devils’ summer wasn’t all bad news, as new team ownership was confirmed and GM Lou Lamoriello made more of his typically savvy bargain acquisitions, robbing Vancouver of goalie Cory Schneider and signing former Red Wings winger Damien Brunner. Unfortunately, there’s not enough depth (outside of goaltending, of course) and top-end talent here to keep pace with the beasts of the Metropolitan division.
16. Florida. The Panthers were the NHL’s worst team last season because a number of their best players (including Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg and Scottie Upshall) were waylaid by injury and they were embarking on a youth movement. So while it’s not altogether shocking Florida GM Dale Tallon is going in the same direction – not adding any veteran forwards, selecting Aleksander Barkov in the first round, and bringing in only former Wild blueliner Tom Gilbert and ex-Bruins goalie Tim Thomas on tryout contracts – it’s also not a strategy that has people predicting the Panthers will leap back into the post-season picture this year. Like most teams, they have key puzzle pieces, but aren’t close to completing it.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.