Last year, I wrote a predictions post at the start of the season. It was somewhat right, and often incredibly wrong – to the point where I wrote about the mistakes I made and the lessons I learned at the end of the regular season (I didn’t come back to it at the end of the playoffs and after the wards, which I regret).
This year, I’m doing the same thing again.
|1||Y – Toronto||Y – Columbus||Y – San Jose||Y – Winnipeg|
|2||X – Tampa Bay||X – Pittsburgh||X – Anaheim||X – Nashville|
|3||X – Boston||X – Washington||X – Calgary||X – St Louis|
|4||W- Florida||W – Carolina||W – Vegas||W – Dallas|
|7||Detroit||NY Rangers||Los Angeles||Chicago|
This gets tougher by the year – parity has done itself well on a season-by-season basis. We have a pretty good idea who the Thunderdome on top of the league will be, and who the teams in the basement will be, but the order of both of those is up in the air, the middle is massive, and anyone in that middle bubble can break through to the top with just enough luck. Honestly, the only division winner I feel super confident in is Columbus, and there are about eight teams I have out of the playoffs who I wouldn’t blink if they found a way to squeak in.
The Prediction List
Last year, I used Sportsnet’s insider roundtable to procure my list of questions, since that’s the list that the average person was most likely to read. This year, I’ve also included The Athletic’s roundtable, which has a lot of overlap and a few of its own questions.
Team most likely to exceed expectations: Sportsnet’s panel doesn’t have a ton of consensus, with no team getting more than 20% of the vote. There’s a little more in The Athletic’s panel: They like Arizona, and they like Florida.
I guess my thing here is that Arizona was everyone’s West team for this question last year too, and that most of us know that the Panthers are good but stuck behind three extremely good teams. If everyone is expecting them to be dark horses, then accomplishing the hope isn’t really exceeding expectations, right?
I think my answer here is the Montreal Canadiens. No one is talking about them as being in the conversation to do much of anything this year, and it’s hard to fault them. But the forward core isn’t that bad, Shea Weber will be healthy eventually, and if this is a good Carey Price year, he alone can pull them out of the basement. I don’t see them being a playoff team, but they would be the team that I imagine could make the biggest push what would be both shocking and explainable.
Team most likely to disappoint: Similar idea here. The consensus on both sides is that this will be the Anaheim Ducks, who won the Pacific division last season on the back of great goaltending and mediocre to iffy underlying numbers. I can’t see them falling completely out of it, due to the Pacific being on the weaker side and the top-end talent still being there, so I’m not as inclined to agree. Vegas is also a popular answer, but I don’t think many are expecting a repeat of their Cinderella run; most seem to be approaching them with a completely open mind.
My pick would probably be the Colorado Avalanche, for similar reasons to why the Edmonton Oilers disappointed us all last year. Nathan MacKinnon was incredible for them last season and really dragged the team to surprising territory, but percentage luck followed him a fair bit throughout the year and the Avalanche were outright dismal with him off the ice. I’d be surprised to see them back in the playoffs, despite some feelings that this is the start of another era of consistent success for them.
Breakout Player: About a thousand different answers were given in The Athletic’s survey, but one of the co-leaders is my pick. That answer is Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres. He seems to have more of a jump in his step, the age curves are in his favour, and adding Jeff Skinner and Rasmus Dahlin to that team will give him some tools to work with. The depth additions in the other parts of the lineup will also ease things up for him from a matchup perspective. I have a good feeling that this is the year that he jumps from being a star on a bad team to being recognized as one of the true best players in the world.
Disappointing Player: William Karlsson wins this by a landslide in The Athletic’s poll, but again, we’re all expecting William Karlsson to taper off. Marc-Andre Fleury might be a better pick here; he’s coming off of a career year where his save percentage was 10 points higher than it has been in the previous five years, and 15 points better than his career. He’s also about to turn 34, so age isn’t likely to be friendly to him. I think he’ll still be fine, but I doubt we see him chasing the Vezina again.
Canadian team with the highest point total: Flip a coin – the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Winnipeg Jets. I think I’m more inclined to go with the Jets here, if only because I think Nashville, St. Louis, and Dallas are just a little bit below the Tampa Bay, Boston, and Florida trio, and games take up a big chunk of the schedule. Sportsnet agrees with this; 73% of their votes went to Winnipeg, 27% to Toronto.
Number of Canadian teams in the Playoffs: I’ve got three: Toronto, Winnipeg, and Calgary. If the Price and McDavid effects dragged Montreal and Edmonton in, I wouldn’t be completely floored, but I’m not betting on either. A little over half of Sportsnet’s panel also went with three.
Art Ross Trophy Winner: Last year, I said that if you’re not picking Connor McDavid every year for the foreseeable future, you’re taking an unwise risk. This year, I still feel the same. The Oilers were awful and had terrible special teams last year and he still scored 108 points. How do you not pick him? Thankfully, the panels agree: 94% of the Athletic went with 97, and it was unanimous with the broadcast overlords.
Rocket Richard Winner: The Athletic really likes Patrik Laine here, giving him 66% of the vote. I like Auston Matthews here; he’s been the best even strength scorer in the NHL since joining the league, and he outscored Laine at evens by five goals in sixteen fewer games last year. Laine beat him 20-5 on the powerplay last year, but I’d imagine that Matthews’ move to the Toronto super-unit will help close that gap off. McDavid also has a decent shot if Edmonton can fix their powerplay up.
Hart Trophy Winner: This one’s hard. It really shouldn’t be, but the media votes are so broken that it is. Before last season started, McDavid was the consensus favourite to go back-to-back (87% on Sportsnet’s panel), he followed that up with arguably the best season of hockey anyone has had in 20+ years, but finished 4th because the Oilers were bad. The voting process favours the middle right now, so unless Edmonton bounces all the way back into the playoffs, I wouldn’t be shocked if McDavid gets stiffed again. The voting process also doesn’t like players from teams who were expected to be extremely good, so I am pleased to guess that Connor McDavid will be the most valuable player in the NHL this year, but the winner of the Hart Trophy will be…
*checks own standings list*
Aleksander Barkov, I guess?
Calder Trophy Winner: This is another award where I think team success will somewhat matter, both because it’ll help carry the player’s numbers, and also because it’ll help carry their perception. To me, this race is 2.5 horsed; Andrei Svechnikov has a shot, but we’re likely talking about it being either Rasmus Dahlin or Elias Pettersson. I could see a scenario where Pettersson has the better season, but Dahlin wins because of the impact that his presence has on the Sabres, who are dramatically more likely to improve than the Canucks are.
Norris Trophy Winner: My general rule of thumb here is that Erik Karlsson will always be the best person to pick here, because he will usually be the best defenceman in the world in any given year. Last year, while recovering from an injury, Karlsson was first in points-per-game among defenceman, had his second-best Corsi rel year, and was really the only saving grace on a Senators team that was beginning their decent into on and off-ice disaster.
I don’t know where the narrative will lie with him this year. He’ll probably be the best again, but will he win on the merit of being on a brand new team and getting a new lease on life? Or will the “got to play with Burns and Vlasic” effect happen? Karlsson was the favourite on both the Sportsnet and Athletic polls, and these two platforms are the #2 and #1 sources of PHWA voters (The Athletic leads the way by a significant margin; they’ve got enough PHWA members now that they could likely vote anyone they want into the Top 3 of any media-voted award). Given all this, I’m going to guess this is a “good Karlsson” year in terms of perception, and that he’ll win.
Vezina Trophy Winner: Sportsnet likes Andrei Vasilevskiy, Connor Hellebuyck, and no one else. The Athletic likes Vasilevskiy, Hellebuyck, and kinda likes Sergei Bobrovsky. The fact that Vasilevskiy and Hellebucyk are getting as many votes as they are is interesting; Vasilevskiy was a below-league-average goaltender from February on last year and Hellebuyck only has one strong season under his belt.
I feel like there is much safer money in Bobrovsky and John Gibson to be the two best goalies in the league; those guys have consistently put up elite numbers and seem to be showing no signs of stopping. As Kent Wilson of The Athletic pointed out on Twitter, though, the Vezina is a GM-voted award, and historically, GM’s like different numbers. Save percentages, quality starts, underlying goalie metrics and the like might not matter here; it could just come down to wins and GAA, which the two favourites will give you.
I think Bobrovsky is most likely to have a Vezina-quality season. I wouldn’t be shocked if the mainstream voters are right, though, so long as those two goaltenders don’t have completely lacklustre years.
Jack Adams Trophy Winner: With some exception, the Jack Adams typically goes to coaches who coach teams we expect to be bad, but end up exceeding expectations to become, in fact, good. So intuitively, this should be just about impossible to guess. The Athletic’s panel gave Bob Boughner (Florida) a lot of love with this in mind and I don’t think it’s a bad idea. Rick Tocchet and Phil Housley are also good picks, with Housley being my early front-runner. The Sabres were so bad last year that it’s possible that the playoffs aren’t even a necessary barrier for them to clear for him to get the win, so long as the improvement is steep and they’re somewhat in the running.
Coach on the Hottest Seat: The Sportsnet panel figures Todd McLellan and I am inclined to agree. The Oilers are going to start getting fed up with wasting the McDavid window soon, and McLellan is probably seen as more expendable up to than Peter Chiarelli is. McLellan, who my line matching project identified as the worst coach in the league at using the last line change, has had a few years to get things settled in Edmonton now and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of people convinced that he’s done that, especially with their special teams being as bad as they were last year.
GM on the Hottest Seat: Sportsnet’s poll leans Chiarelli followed by Marc Bergevin, while The Athletics leans Bergevin followed by Pierre Dorion and Chiarelli. I don’t see Dorion being the one who falls first (replacing him would cost Ottawa more money than they’d like to spend right now), and as I said above, I imagine McLellan’s firing would come first in Edmonton before Chiarelli’s.
Bergevin is your process-of-elimination favourite here of that group, though I wouldn’t entirely rule out Jim Benning in Vancouver. The Canucks are somehow worse than we all imagined, and some of the July 1st contracts already look to be as bad if not worse than skeptics thought. Should the team find themselves their long-term Trevor Linden replacement soon, I wouldn’t be shocked if they pulled Benning out right away.
Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin will finish the season as members of the: Sportsnet leans towards staying in Columbus on both, and I’m inclined to agree. Bobrovsky is someone I expect to extend with the Blue Jackets, and while Panarin’s eyes appear to be on the Big Apple (presumably for reasons beyond hockey, given where the Rangers and Islanders stand right now), I imagine he’s an own rental unless someone blows them away with an offer.
Connor McDavid will finish the season with ___ points: 125 points is the most popular Sportsnet answer, with an average of 119. The powerplay is going to be the X-factor here; McDavid’s 84 even-strength points were the most by any player since 1996, but Edmonton’s 14.8% powerplay efficiency led him to get just 20 points with a man-advantage, 22 behind Phil Kessel for the league lead. A meeting in the middle would bring him to that 119 average. He seems to be focused more on scoring his own goals this year too, which I could see helping him out (rather than passing the puck to guys who can’t finish for him).
I’m going to go with 122, though percentages could obviously tilt this.
The Maple Leafs’ top point-getter will be…: At an 82 game pace, I still think it’ll be Auston Matthews. A lot of people are talking about Mitch Marner being a 90-100 point guy this year, but a 20-30 point leap for someone who was already racking points on the league’s best powerplay unit seems steep, even with the supposed John Tavares effect. This is especially true when you consider deployment balance across the team; Tavares and Marner will likely get the most minutes on the team due to the fact they are slated to play both forms of special teams, but I’m still not expecting any forward to get to 20 minutes a night consistently.
I’m picking Matthews here because he is a Top-5 threat in the league in terms of primary point scoring rate at even strength, a Top-1 threat in terms of goal scoring rate, and he has a lot more to gain from this new powerplay unit than the guys who have already been on it. I wouldn’t be shocked if no one on the Leafs gets to 90 (rather, a lot of 50-60 guys), but Matthews will likely be the closest.
Best Guess for Seattle’s GM & Head Coach: This isn’t my wheelhouse. Sportsnet likes Ken Holland (who has been gossipped for a while) and Dave Tippett by enough that I’m going to nod politely.
The Vegas Golden Knights Will… Be interesting, I guess? I imagine that they’ll be a playoff bubble team this year; I don’t know if their improvements outweigh some of the expected regressions and teams will be a bit more prepared for them. I could see them just missing, just making it, or some wild pecentage swing bringing them steep into a certain direction again. I don’t think it’s fair to assume that they’ll repeat, or they’ll become what we thought they were; they’re firmly a pretty good NHL club right now and since they seem to be going for it, who knows what late-season acquisitions might come.
Last Place Team: Coin toss. The Senators are a shell of a hockey team with a couple of good players to keep games somewhat watchable. The Canucks are a shell of a hockey team with a couple of good players to keep games somewhat watchable. The Senators seem more prepared for rock bottom, while the Canucks are holding onto faith that they may have duct-taped their isues.
I think the Sens are more likely to finish last but these two take up the vast majority of my odds. Maybe the Islanders, but who knows.
Eastern Conference Champion: I spend a lot of time poking at the fact that traditional media picks the Tampa Bay Lightning to win the East every single year. To be honest, they’re always a very safe pick and in a vacuum, it’s a smart call; the team is stacked, they’re not scared to make tweaks, and there’s always some 4’8 kid from Southwest Italy who shows up and scores 50 points. But picking Tampa or one of their players to succeed is a non-controversial pick that you can make without anyone accusing you of bias, and I think that drives how lopsided their votes get; in the last four years, 57% of Sportsnet Insiders have picked the Lightning to pick the East. Not at least once, overall; that balloons to 67% over the past three years, and 80% this year. The Athletic also likes them at a 73% margin.
For what it’s worth, I like both Blue and White teams from the Atlantic. They’ve both got great offensive depth (Toronto’s being more star-heavy), modern looking defences (Tampa’s being more star-heavy), and starting goaltenders who can eat a ton of games and give you above average results, which I think is what you need to go on a deep run. Local bias thinks Toronto deserves more votes than they got, but I can’t truly fault a Tampa pick. It’s just funny watching people go to the same well every year.
Western Conference Champion: Similarly, Winnipeg has become West Tampa. A stacked team, no real reason to not pick them, but are pushed to dominance in these votes because a vote for Winnipeg shows both that you acknowledge Canada, but that you aren’t someone worth hating (the Jets don’t have the biggest fanbase, but as far as Canadian teams go, they likely have by far the least amount of disdain, and would probably be the most popular “second team” if you polled people). Sportsnet leaned in on the Jets, while the Athletic had them just ahead of the Sharks and Predators. All three of these choices are fine, but I think I like San Jose, if only because I don’t know how teams will keep up with Karlsson or Burns being on the ice for 85% of the game once the playoffs kick in.
Stanley Cup Champion: With all of this said, making playoff predictions at this stage, or almost any stage, is kind of stupid. There’s so much luck involved – we know you have a decent shot if you make the playoffs and have a few hot shooters and a great goaltender, but so much can tilt one way or another in the span of two weeks in this league.
Sportsnet likes the Jets, but are intrigued by the Sharks and Lightning. The Athletic likes the Lightning, but are intrigued by the Jets and the Sharks. I’m not going to firmly pick a winner here; I think if you told me that one of Tampa, Toronto, Boston, Columbus, San Jose, Winnipeg, or Nashville were going to win this year, I wouldn’t blink, and that there are about 10-12 teams after that where I’d like to hear your reasons why but I wouldn’t rule you out. I’d tiebreak on storylines, but so many of these teams have angles that make you think they’re pre-destined.
I’m going to leave this one entirely to chance. I’m taking those 7 teams, reaching into a random number generator, and whichever number it comes up with, will be my pick. The winner of the Stanley Cup this year will be the…
San Jose Sharks.
Sure, why not.