It’s that time of year again. All around the NHL, experts are predicting how the 2015-16 season will shake out. It goes without saying that injuries, trades and other circumstances go a long way in determining the final standings each year. After all, games are played on the ice, not on paper.
But who needs logic? Here are my predictions — on paper — for the final standings of the new NHL season (* indicates playoff team):
New York Islanders*
Columbus Blue Jackets*
New York Rangers*
New Jersey Devils
QUICK HIT: The Islanders have all the markings of a Stanley Cup contender and they even have new digs in Brooklyn in order to put the failures of the past behind them. Also, the Penguins have certainly upgraded at forward with Phil Kessel thanks to a summertime trade with Toronto but it makes you wonder if they even need to make that deal had they not dealt James Neal to the Predators the summer prior. In addition, if Braden Holtby can take that next Mitch Korn-led step into one of the league’s elite, the Capitals could be a serious contender as well. Finally, watch for the Blue Jackets to do some amazing things this year… unless, of course, they have 508 man games lost again.
Tampa Bay Lightning*
Toronto Maple Leafs
Detroit Red Wings
QUICK HIT: The Canadiens and Lightning will duke it out for divisional supremecy while the underrated Florida Panthers will finally come into maturity. And all that is great but the real story is going to be the ridiculously-improved Sabres. New in blue (and yellow) this year will be Evander Kane, Ryan O’Reilly and #2 overall pick Jack Eichel. That’s 50-60 more goals than last season when they were the worst offense in the league (161). The only thing I don’t like about Buffalo is the one position they didn’t upgrade. And it just so happens to be the most important position in hockey: goaltending. Yes, they acquired Robin Lehner from the Senators but that’s not an improvement over Michal Neuvirth who played well for them in 2014-15 yet they traded away at the amidst their apparent tanking efforts. If they can score enough goals between Kane, O’Reilly, Tyler Ennis, Matt Moulson and the rookie Eichel, they may be able to overcome Lehner’s average status between the pipes and sneak into the playoffs.
Los Angeles Kings*
San Jose Sharks
QUICK HIT: A lot of experts are picking the Ducks to win it all in 2016. And with a roster that boasts forwards Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler, the newly acquired Carl Haglin, defensemen Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, Cam Fowler and Kevin Bieksa as well as goaltenders John Gibson and Frederik Andersen, what’s not to like? They certainly are the favorite in the Pacific. Of course, the Pacific isn’t what it used to be. What was once the toughest division in hockey a few years ago is now the weakest with an aging Canucks corps, an over-hyped Flames squad, an annually disappointing Sharks team that has changed goalies yet again and, of course, the embarrassing Coyotes. The Oilers are really the only team (other than Anaheim) that excites out of this group. Can Connor McDavid come in and truly be a superstar from the get-go just as Sidney Crosby and Mario Lemieux were before him? Their goaltending is still weak and their defense corps is still worse than that. They have fire power a ’plenty though.
St. Louis Blues*
QUICK HIT: Here it is. The toughest division in all of hockey. The Blackhawks offense takes a hit thanks to the need to unload the contract of Patrick Sharp and the defense gets dinged because Johnny Oduya is no longer there but, let’s face it, they’re still stacked. Patrick Kane, despite the serious allegations against him, will produce at a point-per-game pace, Jonathan Toews will lead his troop once again and Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will anchor one of the best blueline’s in the NHL. The Predators will improve upon last season with Filip Forsberg now having a full year under his belt and Seth Jones being one year older and ready to take the next step. Both Shea Weber and Roman Josi will vie for the Norris Trophy and Pekka Rinne should be in the Vezina Trophy conversation as well. The Blues have been a huge regular season success and, simultaneously, a huge playoff failure. They’ll still make the post season but pressure will start to creep in in the latter half of the campaign and they won’t have a guy like T.J. Oshie to rely on anymore. Dallas can be scary on any given night but their goaltending situation is a mess and Winnipeg and Colorado will fight it out for the basement spot which, humorously, could still see them net 90 points in the standings. That’s how good the Central is.