SI.com's 2014-15 NHL season crystal ball predictions
With the new season upon us, SI.com's hockey mavens have gazed into the future and this is what they see for the NHL's teams, players, coaches, GMs and fans:
THE PLAYOFF FIELD
East: Bruins, Penguins, Lightning, Canadiens, Blue Jackets, Devils, Capitals, Islanders
West: Blackhawks, Ducks, Blues, Stars, Sharks, Kings, Avalanche, Wild
Conference finalists: Bruins vs. Penguins (East); Blackhawks vs. Kings (West)
East: Bruins, Penguins, Lightning, Canadiens, Red Wings, Rangers, Flyers, Capitals
West: Blackhawks, Kings, Ducks, Blues, Avalanche, Stars, Wild, Sharks
Conference finalists: Bruins vs. Penguins (East); Blackhawks vs. Ducks (West)
East: Lightning, Bruins, Penguins, Red Wings, Islanders, Canadiens, Devils, Blue Jackets
West: Blackhawks, Kings, Stars, Blues, Ducks, Sharks, Predators, Canucks
Conference finalists: Lightning vs. Bruins (East); Blackhawks vs. Stars (West)
East: Bruins, Lightning, Canadiens, Penguins, Blue Jackets, Islanders, Rangers, Maple Leafs
West: Sharks, Ducks, Kings, Blackhawks, Avalanche, Stars, Wild, Blues
Conference finalists: Bruins vs. Lightning (East); Blackhawks vs. Sharks (West)
East: Bruins, Penguins, Lightning, Canadiens, Red Wings, Rangers, Capitals, Blue Jackets
West: Blackhawks, Sharks, Blues, Ducks, Kings, Avalanche, Stars, Canucks
Conference finalists: Bruins vs. Lightning (East); Blackhawks vs. Sharks (West)
East: Bruins, Penguins, Rangers, Blue Jackets, Canadiens, Lightning, Red Wings, Maple Leafs
West: Blackhawks, Ducks, Sharks, Kings, Blues, Stars, Wild, Canucks
Conference finalists: Bruins vs. Canadiens (East); Kings vs. Blackhawks (West)
East: Bruins, Penguins, Canadiens, Blue Jackets, Rangers, Flyers, Red Wings, Maple Leafs
West: Kings, Blackhawks, Ducks, Blues, Stars, Sharks, Avalanche, Predators
Conference finalists: Bruins vs. Penguins (East); Kings vs. Blues (West)
Allan MuirChicago BlackhawksLast spring, the Blackhawks were an OT goal away from a berth in the Cup final and a romp over the Rangers and that was before they added a decent second line center. Brad Richards may be on the back nine of his career but he knows how to distribute the puck. The Kings are still deeper down the middle, but Chicago is stronger on the wings where Brandon Saad and Patrick Kane are keyed up for breakthrough seasons. Add in the hunger that comes from their near-miss and the Hawks should have just enough to squeeze by L.A., setting them up for a rematch against a game but overmatched Bruins squad.
Sarah KwakBoston BruinsThe Bruins were easily the class of the East last season, their seven-game, second round upset at the hands of the Canadiens notwithstanding. And while the Bs may not produce the numbers they once had up front, this team is built to win on defense. With Zdeno Chara still a huge force on the blueline and Tuukka Rask playing at his top form in goal, Boston can cruise through a weak conference in the regular season and then crank it up and shut opponents down in the postseason. But they will need breakout campaigns from a couple of key pieces (i.e. Reilly Smith, Loui Eriksson) in order to deliver the silverware.
Sam PageTampa Bay LightningThe Lightning won't face too much opposition in the East. Tampa Bay's forwards will skate circles around a slower Zdeno Chara and his Bruins, finally giving the Bolts revenge for the 2011 Eastern Conference Final. After that, they'll face a tall task with whoever comes out the West, but their youth and offense set them apart enough from the previous three Eastern champs. The secret behind the Rangers' surprise Cup run last spring was defenseman Anton Strålman. His puck-moving specialty will be even more valuable to a team that is so stacked up-front
MiCHAEL BlinnChicago BlackhawksChicago’s biggest issue last season was its lack of a second line center—and the Blackhawks still took the Kings to overtime of Game 7 in the conference finals, They’ve now upgraded the position by adding Brad Richards, who’s hungry to prove that he’s still got it, to a top six that includes Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad. Few teams can match that depth up front, let alone on the blueline where the Hawks boast a crew headlined by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook that can do everything well, if not a little under the radar. Netminder Corey Crawford has proved that he can step up his game when the time calls for it. The biggest thing he’s learned during the last few seasons? How to bounce back from a rough outing and step up his play. The elements are all here; it’s time for a third Cup in six years, the closest to a dynasty we might see nowadays.
Brian CazeneuveChicago BlackhawksThe Blackhawks were essentially one bounce away from winning the Cup last season. Get them an overtime goal against Los Angeles and you have to figure they’d have beaten the Rangers in the final. The Hawks lost less this summer than they did in the previous years when they retooled quickly after winning titles. Bargain addition Brad Richards won’t be needed as a big scorer, but he’ll add to the team’s depth. Even when you don’t have to deal with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, just imagine Andrew Shaw centering for Bryan Bickell and Kris Versteeg on the third line.
Gabriel BaumgaertnerLos Angeles KingsQuotes from The Wire have become oversaturated and trite, so count me guilty for adapting Omar’s most famous one for the upcoming NHL season: “You come at the King(s), you best not miss.” The Kings will likely endure a midseason slog of low scoring and may not finish higher than fifth in the Western Conference, but their past three seasons have demonstrated a simple reality: It doesn’t matter. They still don’t have the firepower of the Blackhawks, but they are the most balanced and effective team in the NHL. Their farm system is stocked to offset any injuries (see the contributions of Dwight King and Jordan Nolan in 2012; Jake Muzzin in 2013; Tanner Pearson in 2014) and they possess the big-game goalie (Jonathan Quick) that’s needed to survive the grind of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As long as they make the playoffs, they are the most dangerous squad in the NHL along with the Blackhawks
Eli BernsteinLos Angeles KingsZero. That’s how many impact players the Kings lost from their squad that took home the Stanley Cup last season. This team remains incredibly deep down the middle —Mike Richards isn’t even a top-two center—and has big-bodied wings up and down the lineup to put physical pressure on opposing defensemen. With the two-way play of stars like Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar, the blueline should be able to handle the offensive talents of the Blackhawks, Ducks and Blues during the usual brutal Western Conference playoff slate. After that, it’s just up to Jonathan Quick and Drew Doughty to work their postseason magic against a talented but physically inferior Bruins squad, and the Kings will be the first NHL team to repeat since the ‘98 Red Wings. Sounds easy, right?
Allan MuirDallas StarsAll eyes will be on the Dallas Stars, but don't sleep on the New Jersey Devils. They’re a group that's deeper up front (Mike Cammalleri was a nice add), underrated on the back end, and solid between the pipes where Cory Schneider will get his first chance to be a No. 1 without the looming specter of a legendary keeper dogging him. And you can bet yer grandma’s bridgework that the Devs won't repeat that 0-13 shootout mark.
Sarah KwakDallas StarsDallas made the playoffs for the first time in six years last spring. A tough team to play against, the Stars flamed out against the Ducks as they relied too heavily on one line for offense. This season, GM Jim Nill has added firepower while maintaining that same grit up and down the lineup. Expect Dallas to last more than a round this spring.
Sam PageNew York IslandersFor GM Garth Snow, this team has been a leaky dam: every time he tries to plug one hole, a font of mediocrity pops up somewhere else on the roster. The Thomas Vanek gamble looks terrible in hindsight—especially when the Isles more desperately needed another veteran (Ryan Miller) off that Sabres roster—but their willingness to take risks in turning the franchise around is admirable. During the off-season, they assumed the unexpected role of statistical darlings, picking up three players—Jaroslav Halak, Mikhail Grabovski, and Nikolai Kulemin—who are terminally underrated by traditional metrics. The recent additions of defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy bolstered a suspect defense corps and greatly increased the team's chances of making the postseason.
MiCHAEL BlinnDallas StarsConsider the rebuild in Dallas mostly done. GM Jim Nill added Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky to a speedy young core that features Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. Spezza and Hemsky showed plenty of late-season compatibility in Ottawa. The Stars, one season after making the postseason for the first time since 2008, will again be a legitimate playoff contender, barring any significant injury, and a team that no one wants to face in the first round.
Brian CazeneuveColumbus Blue JacketsRyan Johansen doesn’t need to be signed, sealed and delivered in October; he just needs to build his head of steam by midseason. The Blue Jackets have many other players whose games can get better this season: forwards Brandon Dubinsky, Cam Atkinson, Boone Jenner (who will miss about five weeks with a broken hand) and defenseman James Wisniewski. The acquisition of Scott Hartnell during the off-season will add some depth and character to a club that should keep getting better.
Gabriel BaumgaertnerVancouver CanucksBy nabbing the most desired free agent coach (Willie “Whiteboard” Desjardins) and shipping out two controversial locker room figures (coach John Tortorella, Ryan Kesler), the Canucks can now comfortably admit to rebuilding in a town that doesn’t really tolerate losing. But look at their roster and maybe they are more dangerous than many people think. The Canucks received an outstanding haul (center Nick Bonino, defenseman Luca Sbisa) from the Ducks in return for Kesler, signed Ryan Miller to hold down the net while they work with the struggling Jacob Markstrom (and last year’s surprise contributor Eddie Lack), and still have the cyborg Sedins to scare every defense in the league. It’s hard to envision them going far next spring, but they put together a strong off-season to curtail the regression that angered their fan base last season.
Eli BernsteinColumbus Blue JacketsIt's all about confidence in Columbus. Fresh off a rollicking first-round loss to the Penguins in last season's playoffs, the Blue Jackets head into 2014-15 with the expectation that they'll be a force in the Metropolitan, not just a bubble team. New pickup Scott Hartnell expects to win every puck in the corner and every game on the schedule, a mentality that will be absorbed by his already hard-nosed teammates, and Ryan Johansen should put any ill will with the front office behind him and continue his ascent up the NHL ladder. Plus, with Sergei Bobrovsky in net, Columbus has the chance to hang with any other team on any given night.
Allan MuirPaul MacLeanPaul MacLean was the toast of the NHL in 2013, a Jack Adams Award winner responsible for a remarkable turnaround in Ottawa. Now he's being asked to make chicken soup minus two top forwards—Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza—while the big gun that's left, Bobby Ryan, must now shoulder the pressure that comes with a big new long-term contract. Add in a defense that's lost its bearings (2.08 GAA in 2013 to 3.15 last season) and an unstable goaltending situation, and MacLean is an early losing streak away from the unemployment line.
Sarah KwakRandy CarlyleThe Maple Leafs made some front-office changes (analytics department, Brendan Shanahan as president of hockey ops) that suggest they'll usher in a new-school approach. So what to do with an old-school coach? If some basic philosophical differences come to a boiling point, especially during a slow start, the coach will likely be on the losing end of the battle.
Sam PageRandy CarlyleThe pressure on him to deliver after last year's collapse is enormous in a town where fans already expect the moon every year. As team president, Brendan Shanahan has proved that he's not afraid to bring in his guys, and he has everything to gain by firing a coach that he didn't hire and that half the fan base thinks should already be gone.
MiCHAEL BlinnDale TallonThe Florida heat makes Dale Tallon’s seat a little bit hotter down in Sunrise. The Panthers’ GM has seen the postseason once while heading into his fifth season with the team, but he’s still waiting for several top-end prospects to turn into everyday NHLers. Tallon has shown that he’s not afraid to pull the trigger on a big deal, but a slow start out of the gate might mean Roberto Luongo plays out his career in Florida under new management.
Brian CazeneuveTodd McLellanHere’s the problem for the Sharks’ coach. After his team blew a 3-0 series lead against the Kings in the opening round of the playoffs last spring, he can’t prove that he’s actually turned things around until the team faces more challenging games next spring. San Jose has already proved that it can win in November, so there is nothing to gain for the next six-and-a-half-months. That is enough time for the heat and scrutiny of one bad losing streak to overcome him. The burden may belong on the shoulders of GM Doug Wilson, but the axe could fall on McLellan first.
Gabriel BaumgaertnerBob HartleyThe Flames have few trustworthy scorers, a shaky defense, and a capable but inconsistent goaltender in Jonas Hiller. Instead of trying to sign firepower to aid their top lines, they inked enforcers to unnecessarily shore up the checking units. They’re buried in a Pacific Division that will match them up too frequently against substantially better teams. And apparently they’ve been staging fighting drills in camp. Firing Hartley may not ultimately be fair—he has virtually nothing to work with on this team—so perhaps GM Brad Treliving’s job will be on the line A well. No matter, the notorious agitator Hartley may be headed the way of John Tortorella before we even reach the All-Star break.
Eli BernsteinMike BabcockMike Babcock has an obvious pedigree in Detroit, but his current failure to reach an extension with the team hints at something dark bubbling beneath the surface. The mix of injury-prone veterans like Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen and a competitive Eastern Conference will put the Wings in a hole early, and with an eye to the future Babcock will be shown the door.
Allan MuirWinnipeg JetsThe Jets are the worst type of team to root for: not good enough to make the playoffs, not bad enough to secure a high pick in one of the most promising draft classes in years. The goaltending tandem of Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson promises to be the worst in the league, and you can bet that Evander Kane will be in the middle of some “get me out of Winnipeg” kerfuffle at some point this season. If anything can ease the pain of a season lost in limbo, it'll be the development of defenseman Jacob Trouba and center Mark Scheifele, two of the top young talents in the game.
Sarah KwakNew York IslandersJohn Tavares is back and healthy and could put up big numbers, but their last season at Nassau Coliseum will be a disappointment. Despite some helpful off-season additions (forwards Mikhail Grabovsky and Nikolay Kulemin; defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy), the Islanders almost annually succumb to a devastating wave of injuries and/or a catastrophic losing streak. I'm not sold on coach Jack Capuano's ability to get them any farther than a one-and-done playoff appearance, and simply reaching the postseason in the competitive Metro/Eastern Conference sets up as a close-but-no-cigar proposition even if things go reasonably well for a team that is still a year or two away from blossoming into a consistent contender.
Sam PageWinnipeg JetsThere will be worse teams, but their fans won't suffer as much, because at least their clubs will obviously be tanking for a chance to draft Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. What will the Jets be doing? They've barely touched their roster in recent years, despite being the seventh-best team in their division. And their most exciting young player, Evander Kane, can't wait to get out of Winnipeg.
MiCHAEL BlinnWinnipeg JetsDon’t we all remember how loud it was up in Winnipeg when they finally got their Jets back? There was so much promise, so much potential … where did it all go? The team has done nothing to plug the obvious holes on its roster while waiting for prospects to turn into saviors. Their only possible All-Star candidate, Evander Kane wants out of town, but at this point, who can blame him? Get ready for another long, cold winter up in the ‘Peg.
Brian CazeneuveToronto Maple LeafsI’m sorry, Toronto, but it’s all part of the Sisyphean master plan to bring you a Cup when you least expect it about six or seven years from now. In the meantime, the light at the end of the tunnel could turn into an overtime goal against you in Game 7 of a playoff series or two wins in 14 games at the end of the season or perhaps something you really don't anticipate, but until it changes, the hex is on.
Gabriel BaumgaertnerFlorida PanthersIt’s not like the Panthers have a sizable fan base anyway, but there is almost nothing to like on the entire roster outside of Roberto Luongo in goal. Their most notable off-season acquisitions were an effective but aging defenseman (Willie Mitchell) and a scrappy, but oft-injured center (Dave Bolland). With few (if any) options that can provide 25-plus goals, coach Dale Tallon may look to Jonathan Huberdeau—the third overall selection in the 2011 draft—to lead the offense. It’s hard to imagine it working.
Eli BernsteinEdmonton OilersSorry, Oilers fans, but it looks like all those high draft picks will be for naught during yet another losing season. Maybe Edmonton should consider shipping Taylor Hall/Ryan Nugent-Hopkins/Nail Yakupov/Jordan Eberle somewhere else and shake up this team, upon which the cloud of a losing culture has descended. Even worse: The Oilers no longer have Ryan Smyth’s dad-cool factor in play every time they take the ice.
We may be crazy but ...
ALLAN MUIR says: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will score 80 points for the Oilers. The 21-year-old pivot has had his moments during the first three seasons of his NHL career, but this will be the one in which he puts it all together and lives up to the first-overall pick hype. Experience and a stronger supporting cast will help, but the key will be the good health that RNH enjoyed during the off-season. It was the first time he was able to train all-out and that has him better prepared than ever to handle the physical rigors of being a front-line center.
SARAH KWAK says: I think Toronto will make the playoffs. The Leafs may fire Randy Carlyle, but perhaps a new voice in the room early enough in the season could turn this borderline team into a postseason contender.
SAM PAGE says: I think several teams that looked like they were on-the-rise last season will drop out of the race, particularly the that lost key players to free agency or injury—i.e. the Avalanche (Paul Stastny), Rangers (Anton Stralman), Flyers (Kimmo Timonen), and Wild (Josh Harding). They will suffer in a season with more parity.
MICHAEL BLINN says: We’re going to see an all-time high in goalie points this season. The new rules that increase the size of the trapezoid behind each net means that goalies will get the chance to play the puck a little more often, meaning there’ll be opportunities for netminders to create a little more offense. Who knows, maybe a few of the more capable goalies will be more inclined to take a shot or two at an empty net …
BRIAN CAZENEUVE says: Joe Thornton will save his best hockey for the playoffs. So often during the regular season we see Happy Joe without a care in the world and enough assists to overload a shark tank. The expectations and tough questions don't usually start until April. This year it’s different. This time without a C on his chest, the longtime Shark will get ornery in October and he’ll have nothing to lose in April when he may well have a new coach and a new outlook.
GABRIEL BAUMGAERTNER says: The Columbus Blue Jackets will barely miss the Eastern Conference Finals. They surprised people last season by scaring the Penguins in their first-round series, but some underwhelming play by usually trusty goalie Sergei Bobrovsky derailed their otherwise successful season. Success isn’t the norm in Columbus, but the Jackets maintain an exciting blend of youthful talent and physical defense that thrives in April and May. Dynamic center Ryan Johansen remains in a contract standoff and top-liners Nathan Horton and Boone Jenner are sidelined by injuries, but the Jackets have an exciting bunch that could shake up the East. They’ll probably need to find one more scoring option, and while those attempts have gone south in the past (Jeff Carter, Marian Gaborik), this team looks and buzzes like a playoff contender.
ELI BERNSTEIN says: You can take your Crosbys, your Kanes, your Getzlafs. I’m tabbing Jamie Benn to step into the spotlight and grab the Hart Trophy next spring. Another year with the quicksilver Tyler Seguin will mean more chemistry and more points than the 79 that Benn posted in 2013-14, and his leadership and intensity will power the Stars to a top-five finish in the West. Benn isn’t a superstar now, but he might well become one as the season goes along.
|WRITER:||ALLAN MUIR||SARAH KWAK||SAM PAGE||MICHAEL BLINN|
|HART||Sidney Crosby||Sidney Crosby||Sidney Crosby||Steven Stamkos|
|ROSS||Sidney Crosby||Sidney Crosby||Sidney Crosby||Sidney Crosby|
|NORRIS||Shea Weber||Shea Weber||Victor Hedman||Duncan Keith|
|VEZINA||Tuukka Rask||Tuukka Rask||Cory Schneider||Tuukka Rask|
|CALDER||Jonathan Drouin||Sam Bennett||Jonathan Drouin||Calle Jarnkok|
|SELKE||Anze Kopitar||Patrice Bergeron||Patrice Bergeron||Patrice Bergeron|
|ADAMS||Lindy Ruff||Lindy Ruff||Lindy Ruff||Lindy Ruff|
|WRITER:||Brian Cazeneuve||Gabriel Baumgaertner||Eli Bernstein|
|HART||Patrick Kane||Steven Stamkos||Jamie Benn|
|ROSS||Sidney Crosby||Sidney Crosby||Sidney Crosby|
|NORRIS||Shea Weber||P.K. Subban||Ryan McDonagh|
|VEZINA||Tuukka Rask||Henrik Lundqvist||Ben Bishop|
|CALDER||Jonathan Gibson||Jonathan Drouin||Jonathan Drouin|
|SELKE||Jonathan Toews||Anze Kopitar||Jonathan Toews|
|ADAMS||Barry Trotz||Todd Richards||Todd Richards|