The dog days of hockey's off-season are nearly over. Soon, the weather will cool, the leaves will start to change color, and training camps will open up around the league.
And that means it's officially prediction season.
Making predictions is tough. In today's parity-stricken NHL, the gap between the best and worst has never been smaller, and nothing ever feels like a sure thing. Simply coming up with an accurate forecast of which teams will be good and which ones will be bad is hard enough.
But of course, that's not really what making predictions is all about. When you sit down to list your picks for the playoffs, the draft lottery and the Stanley Cup, you're not just trying to guess the future. You're also trying to stand out from the crowd by hitting on a few long shots and underdogs along the way. Anyone can predict that the Pittsburgh Penguins will be good or that the Vegas Golden Knights will struggle. You want to aim a little higher.
It all adds up to some interesting psychology. So today, instead of making our own picks – those will come later – let's try something else. Let's predict the predictions, using some basic rules to help us figure out what the coming wave of forecasts might have in common.
Rule 1: Find a team that looks like an underdog but really isn't.
Picking a few playoff teams that missed out last year is just common sense – we typically see a turnover of about a half-dozen teams each season, so just picking the same 16 teams from last year would doom you to failure.
But just picking a handful of non-playoff teams to sneak into the postseason isn’t enough – you have to have at least one of those teams as a real threat to make some noise once they get there. And if you really want to raise some eyebrows, you'll pick a non-playoff team to make it all the way to the final.
Most years, that's a tough pick to make. But not this year. Which is why we can start with a reasonably safe prediction: everyone is going to love the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It's not hard to see why. On paper, the Lightning look like one of the league's better teams, and have for the past few seasons. Nobody saw last year's playoff miss coming, and plenty of us picked them as Cup champs. Then everything fell apart, and the team ended up being the most stunning postseason miss in recent history.
Normally, that might give us all pause, wondering if the Lightning are a team that missed its window and is on the way down. But the laws of hockey predictions say you need to get solidly behind at least one non-playoff team each season, and the Lightning are this year's easiest choice. The Dallas Stars are certainly in play here, too, and will get most of the Western Conference love, and don't sleep on the Los Angeles Kings or Florida Panthers. But the Lightning will be just about everyone's sweetheart comeback story.
Rule 2: You need to pick some of last year's playoff teams to beat up on.
This is basically the inverse of Rule 1. And again, it's not enough to pick teams to put up a good fight and barely miss out. You need a team or two to dump all over. And it's even better if that team finished high in the standings, or went deep in the playoffs – or both.
Every Ottawa Senators fan has already figured out where this is headed.
Yes, despite last year's magical playoff run that saw them come within a Game 7 double-overtime goal of playing for the Stanley Cup, the Senators seem to have emerged as this year's sure-thing case study in the power of regression. The 2016-17 season had barely ended before we were predicting Ottawa's downfall, and the tide hasn't let up since.
Is it fair? Maybe not – the Senators earned home ice through the first two rounds of the 2017 NHL playoffs by finishing second in a tough Atlantic Division, and they're bringing back basically the same roster. But somebody has to take the fall when prediction time arrives, and with apologies to vulnerable-looking teams like the Boston Bruins and Columbus Blue Jackets, the Senators seem set to emerge as the consensus pick.
Rule 3: You need to pick at least one rebuilding team to emerge as a legitimate playoff threat.
Or, as we all could have called it for years, "The Edmonton Oilers rule."
Rebuilding is supposed to be a slow and steady process. But when it's time to make predictions, you need to pick at least one reclamation project to rocket up the standings. For years, most of us just went with the Oilers, who always seemed to be on the verge of regaining respectability. Last year, it finally happened. And with the last-place Toronto Maple Leafs also making a big jump, the pressure is on to nail down this year's rebuild success story.
So who will it be? The Buffalo Sabres appear poised to inherit the Oilers' mantle as the team that always seems ready to hit the gas but never quite does. The Winnipeg Jets are there, too. And the New Jersey Devils are having themselves a nice little off-season, including the signing of NCAA Hobey Baker Award winner Will Butcher.
But the pick here is probably the Carolina Hurricanes, who've been a sneaky-good team for years except for their goaltending, which they hope to have addressed with the arrival of Scott Darling. As an added bonus, they haven't made the playoffs since 2009, so nobody will accuse you of making the easy pick. Expect to see them penciled in for a wild-card spot in plenty of forecasts.
Rule 4: Breaking up is hard to do.
In theory, the past is the past and we should largely ignore it. In a league where the margins between success and failure are so thin, what happened three or five or seven years ago hardly matters at all.
But when it comes to certain teams, it's awfully tough to cut the cord. And that's especially true when it comes to a team that has a large and loyal fan base that you know will let you hear it if you offer up last rites prematurely.
All of which brings us to the Chicago Blackhawks. The three-time cap-era Cup champs didn't win a playoff game last year, and on paper they're probably worse heading into this season. But still…they're the Blackhawks, right? They always find a way. Grit, character, heart, etc. So plenty of us will chalk up last year as an aberration, figuring Chicago will storm back stronger than ever this year.
But on the other hand, there's a case to be made that the Hawks are basically where the Kings were a few years ago, having already done a Wile E. Coyote run off the edge of the cliff and now just waiting for gravity to kick in. And if you were the sort of predictor who wanted to really make some waves – especially if you were analytically inclined, and didn't put much stock in intangibles and narratives – you might figure this is the year to shove the Blackhawks way down your rankings. Maybe even out of the playoffs altogether.
In other words, expect to see a very wide spread in opinions on Chicago, much of it divided along the old school/new school spectrum. I'm sure Hawks fans will be chill about it.
Rule 5: Certain teams are just more fun when you go to extremes.
Sometimes, the right spot for a team ends up feeling kind of boring. Take the Maple Leafs. After a playoff appearance last year, the continued growth of the team's young core should mean further improvement. They were unlucky in the shootout but lucky in the injury department, so that's close to a wash. Add it all up and you'd figure that slotting them somewhere around 12th overall would make sense.
But where's the drama in that? The Toronto fan base, as you may have noticed, is somewhat vocal, so why not rile them up by picking the Leafs to win the Atlantic? Or miss the playoffs? Or hell, win the Cup altogether? If you're going to be wrong about something, be wrong about the team that will have you trending on Twitter for an afternoon, right?
The same logic applies to other teams. The Montreal Canadiens are always good for some fun. So are the New York Rangers. With everyone beating up the Washington Capitals, it's a good year to have them either winning it all or missing the playoffs altogether. Same with the Nashville Predators, especially if you can find a way to assign all the blame and/or credit to P.K. Subban.
You may as well have some fun with this stuff. After all, we're all going to end up being wrong, and hopefully nobody will remember our terrible picks a year from now.
And if the season comes and goes and you get everything wrong, take comfort. At least you followed the rules.