SI.com's 2015-16 NHL season crystal ball predictions
With a new season upon us it is once again time for the high hockey foreheads here at SI.com to gaze into the future and antagonize the public with their crystal visions. Here’s what they foretell for the NHL's teams, players and coaches.
|Playoff teams (In no particular order)|
STANLEY CUP PICKS
Why my pick will win: The Hawks and Kings can’t keep up this Cup rotation forever, right? Look, I love the way Stan Bowman and Dean Lombardi have built their teams and I would not be surprised in the least to see either of them win another title. But the Ducks are a team whose time has come.
After winning three consecutive Pacific Division titles, and then falling short three consecutive years in the playoffs, this group is ready to take the final step. It has terrific depth down the middle, with two elite centers in Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler who can go toe-to-toe with anyone. It’s deeper on the wings with the additions of speedy Carl Hagelin, big bodied Chris Stewart and savvy vet Shawn Horcoff. It’s loaded with young and improving talent on the blueline, with Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, Cam Fowler providing smart, two-way play, while Kevin Bieksa brings some old-fashioned truculence.
The one question mark is in net where Freddy Andersen has to prove he can win 16 games in the spring. He might not seem to be the ideal option, but neither was Corey Crawford and he now has a pair of rings as a starter.
There’s also a sense of urgency behind the bench. Bruce Boudreau won’t survive another failure. Look for him to deliver his best effort yet.
Why my pick will win: O.K., so their goaltending is a soft spot. I see that. But with another full year of confidence-building starts for Frederik Andersen, I think he should be ready for postseason pressure by April. Anyway, he will only need to be “good enough” because the Ducks should be able to cover for him. For the last three years, they’ve gotten closer and closer—losing in seven-game series to eventual Cup winners in 2014 and ’15. The forward corps is big and strong; the Ducks added speed with Carl Hagelin. And their blue line is maturing exactly as planned. All the other big powers in the West took hits this off-season. Anaheim got stronger.
Why my pick will win: You knew the Blackhawks’ various Cup-winning teams were deep when, every off-season following their win, they’d trade some role player and he’d instantly become a star on his new team—i.e. Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Nick Leddy, and Brian Campbell. The Islanders are graduating so many top forward prospects, they’ll soon be that team. One day, the Lee–Dal Colle–Barzal line will dominate for the Las Vegas Outlaws. In the meantime, they’ll help John Tavares be great.
Why my pick will win: The good old free-wheeling, fun-time-having Alex Ovechkin is back, and he’s got some company: Off-season acquisitions T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, along with the scarily still maturing Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky give the Capitals some pretty good depth up front that will only get deeper when Nicklas Backstrom is at full health. Todd Reirden rebuilt Washington’s defense into one of the NHL's best. Oh, and Braden Holtby? He elevates his game and turns into an unsolvable Rubix cube between the pipes. Expect a lot more toothless smiles.
Not a particularly bold call, this one. The Jackets led the league in man-games lost to injury in 2014-15, scuttling their hopes for the playoffs, but won 15 of their last 17 games when they finally iced something approaching a full roster. If they can stay healthy (knock on wood), this is a team that can challenge for a division title. Adding Brandon Saad gives an already potent forward corps a huge boost but the real bump will be provided by Ryan Murray. The young blueliner has skated in just 78 games since being selected with the second pick of the 2012 draft. If he’s on the ice, he shores up Columbus’s one possible trouble spot.
I’m still amazed by their 15-1-1 run to close the season and think that is the team that will take the ice for 2015-16. So long as the Jackets avoid the injury plague that hit them last year (and what are the chances that kind of bad luck could happen again?), I expect them to comfortably make the playoffs and maybe even make a dark horse run through the East.
I’m not sure the Oilers can even “take the next step.” They’ve got to take the first step. But you can only have all the best young talent in the league and still be bad for so long. Who knew it would take an even younger kid to get all of Edmonton’s disappointing prospects going, but such is the transformative talent of Connor McDavid. In McDavid, GM Peter Chiarelli, and coach Todd McLellan, this franchise has a bunch of new employees who are not used to losing.
There’s speed, there’s depth, there’s dangle, and there’s even a little bit of swagger on this new-look Sabres team. The top six will be fun to watch, the patchwork defense has a chip on its shoulder and Robin Lehner gets the net all to himself. Oh, and then there’s that Jack Eichel kid. Don’t expect a playoff run, but maybe a little more competitive spirit out of a team that definitely wasn't tanking last season.
Jonathan Drouin, LW, Lightning: He was a spare part on last year's Eastern Conference championship side, a healthy scratch for 20 of 26 games. So what’s going to be different this season for Drouin? Confidence, for one. The 20-year-old has shown considerably more poise with the puck during the preseason and is finding the time and space to make use of his incredible physical gifts. Opportunity is another. He’s expected to skate with Steven Stamkos on Tampa Bay’s second line, which means he]ll be paired with a player who is capable of finishing the chances he’ll create. And third is discipline. He’s committed to the two-way game that coach Jon Cooper requires of his forwards. There are sure to be some growing pains, but Drouin is ready and able to contribute at both ends of the ice. Look for 60-plus points from him this season.
David Pastrnak, RW, Bruins: Connor McDavid is the easy answer here, but I’m going to go with Bruins winger Pastrnak. He showed last season, as a rookie, that he could keep up in the NHL, and now he’s expected to start on the wing of smooth playmaking center David Krejci. If the duo can develop some chemistry, this could be a breakout year for Pastrnak, who managed 27 points in 46 games last season.
Jonathan Drouin, LW, Lightning: When Drouin got buried on a deep roster last year, the talent that made him the third pick in the 2013 draft didn’t evaporate. His puck skills rival those of any player in the league. He’s also been playing on Steven Stamkos’s wing during the preseason. If that pairing sticks, Drouin’s point totals will be closer to 100 than last season’s 32.
Kevin Hayes, RW Rangers: Thanks to Aaron Ekblad, Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Stone and Filip Forsberg, Hayes’s contributions to the Rangers got lost in the shuffle. They won’t this season: He’s got the size, consistency, skill and, with Martin St. Louis’s retirement, a top-six role on a Eastern Conference contender. It should all add up to a highlight-filled sophomore campaign.
|HART||Ryan Getzlaf||Sidney Crosby||Sidney Crosby||John Tavares|
|ROSS||Tyler Seguin||Sidney Crosby||Sidney Crosby||Sidney Crosby|
|NORRIS||Roman Josi||P.K. Subban||Shea Weber||Kevin Shattenkirk|
|VEZINA||Braden Holtby||Pekka Rinne||Devan Dubnyk||Braden Holtby|
|CALDER||Connor McDavid||Connor McDavid||Connor McDavid||Connor McDavid|
|SELKE||Patrice Bergeron||Patrice Bergeron||Patrice Bergeron||Patrice Bergeron|
|ADAMS||Todd Richards||Jon Cooper||Todd Richards||Bruce Boudreau|
FIRST COACH OR GM FIRED
Mike Yeo, Wild: If not for the Hail Mary trade that landed goaltender Devan Dubnyk, Yeo likely would have been collecting severance by the end of last January. The Wild were a team in total disarray leading up to that deal, having dropped six straight and 12 of their past 14 before the former Coyotes backup arrived and showed off his Ken Dryden impression.
But while he salvaged the team’s season, Dubnyk’s arrival masked several problems. The Wild still struggled with their defensive structure, and they rarely were a hard team to play against. Those are the sort of failings that will get a coach fired, so do the math. If Dubnyk is less than resolute, Yeo won’t make it past next January.
Mike Yeo, Wild: The Wild’s season wasn’t the only thing Dubnyk saved last year. Yeo looked like he might be shown the door before the upstart goalie joined Minnesota in a trade and promptly helped the team turn its season around. If the Wild’s 2015-16 campaign starts down in the dumps, the coach may finally see the door.
Doug Wilson, Sharks: All the obvious candidates to go on the coaching side—Yeo, Claude Julien, Ken Hitchcock—I have making the playoffs, so I have to pick a GM. One season after his best player said Wilson “needed to shut his mouth” to the press, San Jose’s GM has to feel the heat. If the Sharks aren’t in playoff position around mid-season, ownership could want someone else to oversee a fire sale.
Doug Wilson, Sharks: Does anyone really know what’s going on in San Jose? Wilson claims the team is rebuilding, but also ... isn't? He’s got a new coach, an unproven starting goalie and a couple of veterans he can’t make happy or trade away. This team is as far away from the Stanley Cup as the Sharks have been during their GM’s tenure, and he likely won’t be around to bring them any closer.
BIGGEST NAME TRADED
Eric Staal: There’s a rumor making the rounds that Staal is looking for something in the neighborhood of $9 million per year on a long-term contract extension. That may or may not be his actual ask—my guess is he’s closer to $7.5 million over four or five years in free agency—but I’m sure of this much: The rebuilding Hurricanes would be crazy to make that kind of commitment to a 30-year-old whose numbers appear to be trending down. No, it makes much more sense to take advantage of a seller’s market and acquire some premium assets that will put Carolina in a position to compete down the road. And the sooner the Canes do it, the sooner they hobble themselves for this season ... which would put them in a better position to grab Auston Matthews in the draft next June.
Steven Stamkos: He is their unequivocal franchise player, and yet the Lightning have let him enter a contract year without an extension. It’s hard not to see a potential trade coming. He’ll try to tune out the rumors, but realistically, he can’t, and so if Tampa Bay hits some bumps along the road and finds itself in need of some fortifying at the deadline, Steve Yzerman will take calls.
A Staal: The biggest name traded will be Staal. Sorry—my clairvoyance only covers last names.
Dustin Byfuglien: Maybe the Buff-to-Boston talk has been a bit manufactured, but the reality is he’s an uber-talented player on a borderline playoff team that could find itself out of the running sooner rather than later. Gamebreaking defensemen are few and far between, and compared to the value of a Stanley Cup victory in a win-now NHL, his $5.2 million cap hit isn’t all that expensive.
I MAY BE CRAZY BUT ...
There wasn’t a single defenseman that ranked among the league’s top-20 scorers last season. This time I predict there will be three: Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns and John Klingberg.
I don’t think this 3-on-3 overtime will be the end of shootouts. I think it’ll be mighty effective to start, but in the end, teams will figure out how to make it boring again. And we’ll be back to debating/loving/hating the shootout.
The Maple Leafs will be in the race for the last wild card spot. So much of their recent problems could be pinned on bad coaching and they obviously hired a great one in Mike Babcock. Accounting for the coaching-180, the young talent on the roster, and the low bar for a postseason berth in the East, I think they’ll surprise pretty much everyone but hopelessly-optimistic Leafs fans.
The newly-instituted Coach’s Challenge will have a corporate sponsor before the All-Star break, and yes ... it will be Draft Kings.