The NHL regular season is still over a month away, but rosters are all but solidified. Sure there’ll be the usual competition between 20-somethings and NHL vets for a few spots at the end of the lineup, but each team’s key players are in place (ironically, excepting Drew Doughty). That means the business of predictions can begin. But first, here are some important notes on injuries.
The single biggest reason that hockey isn’t played on paper is the potential for injuries. Last year I thought the St. Louis Blues would be the new Chicago Blackhawks. They had a young core of talented forwards like T.J Oshie, David Perron, Patrik Berglund, and David Backes, supplemented by veterans like Andy McDonald and Brad Boyes. They had just added Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak – fresh off a dominant playoff performance where he took the underdog Habs to the Conference Finals. Throw in a solid defence anchored by vets like Eric Brewer and Barrett Jackman, and the Blues looked poised to finish near the top-third of the Western Conference. They came busting out of the gates, cruising to a 9-1-2 record, but then it all came crashing down. The blues fell victim to a series of costly injuries, starting in game 10 when Joe Thornton’s shoulder became too well acquainted with David Perron’s jaw. Perron went to the dressing room, but in a surprise move, returned to the game and even scored the game winning goal. In retrospect, his return was probably a mistake, as he missed the next 72 games of the year with post-concussion syndrome. (He still hasn’t even worked out to this day, and is nowhere near a return). T.J Oshie went down in game 13 with an ankle injury, and Andy McDonald was hurt in game 25 (yet another concussion). With half their top-6 out, and Brad Boyes having another inconsistent year, the Blues never recovered. A once promising year ended in disappointment, as St. Louis finished 11th in the West.
Maybe the lesson is don’t trust teams with small forwards? Perron and McDonald are both slight of build, and Oshie is a mid-size player who plays a rambunctious style, which may lead to more injuries down the line. Similarly, Edmonton has featured an extremely small lineup over the last few years, and has been leading the league in man-games lost to injury. Conversely, San Jose has had a big lineup with forwards like Thornton, Marleau, Clowe, and formerly Heatley, and has suffered very few injuries in the past few years. It certainly isn’t a simple formula, but having smaller players may contribute to injury woes.
A few other variables that influence injuries include a player’s age and individual injury history. All else equal, older players get hurt a lot more than younger players. The Detroit Red Wings have borne this out, as their aging roster has experienced more injuries in the past few years then it had previously. And each year, Marian Gaborik’s employer prays that the gods be merciful and allow him to suit up for 82 games – a wish they seldom grant. Other players who have developed a reputation for their fragile health include Tim Connolly, Jason Spezza, Justin Williams, and Ales Hemsky. Any team that counts heavily on these players needs to have strong depth in order to be successful, as they’ve all experienced long-term injuries on multiple occasions.
Some people even suspect that a player’s contract status can have an impact on their likelihood of being ‘injured’. The best example is Martin Havlat, who missed 73 games in the first two years of his 3-year, $18M deal with Chicago (along with rumblings of ‘phantom’ injuries). However, he played in 81 games in the final year of his deal, just in time to get another big pay day from Minnesota in 2009. Of course, these type of allegations are difficult to prove without first-hand knowledge.
Despite these patterns, injuries have become so rampant in the NHL today that they tend to strike randomly. That’s why the most successful teams will tend to be those with the most depth, rather than simply those who possess high-end talent. Of course, some mixture of both will produce the very best teams. With that, here’s my list – tiered according to where they fit in the playoff picture:
San Jose, Los Angeles, Chicago, Vancouver, Detroit
I think all of these teams are locks to make the playoffs. San Jose and Los Angeles both had strong teams prior to the off-season, and each addressed their weaknesses perfectly. SJ bolstering their defence by adding Brent Burns, and LA added experienced top-6 forwards with Mike Richards and Simon Gagne. They’ll battle for the Pacific Division, and whichever team loses will probably finish 4th in the Western Conference. Chicago’s 1st round playoff loss gave them a long off-season, and their excellent young core should start the season healthy and hungry. Detroit – nearly as good as ever- will compete with Chicago for the Central Division crown, with the loser probably finishing around 5th. Vancouver doesn’t have much competition in the North-West and should lock up a spot between 1st and 3rd.
St. Louis, Minnesota, Anaheim, Nashville, Calgary, Columbus, Dallas
Of these seven teams, only Anaheim and Nashville made the playoffs last year, finishing 4th and 5th respectively. However, I don’t believe either of them are assured of a spot this year. Anaheim has the most uncertainty, with all-star goaltender Jonas Hiller’s long bout of vertigo casting doubt on the goaltending situation, not to mention the potential retirement of ageless star Teemu Selanne. It’s status quo in Nashville, where they remain well-coached, defensive minded, and under-talented. Overall, they’re no better or worse than they were last year, but with divisional rivals like Columbus, Chicago, and St. Louis improving over the summer, and Detroit still a strong contender, they’ll be in tough to make the playoffs.
Update: Apparently Jonas Hiller is vertigo free according to this story.
The two teams I’m most excited about in this group are St. Louis and Minnesota. St. Louis is a young team loaded with talent which added a veteran presence with the signings of Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner. Ultimately their success will be driven by the young core of Stewart, Backes, Berglund, Oshie, Pietrangelo, Shattenkirk, and Halak, but it’s nice to have some older players around who can still contribute when needed. Meanwhile, Minnesota pulled off some great off-season moves, adding a pair of snipers in Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley who should mesh well with playmakers like Mikko Koivu and Pierre-Marc Bouchard. While Minnesota is not an elite team, their forward depth is actually quite impressive, with each player bringing a useful and distinct element to the mix. Their defence is a bit thin with the loss of Brent Burns, but Nicklas Backstrom is a top-10 goalie in the league and should be able to hold down the fort.
As for the rest, Calgary is a solid team in all respects which doesn’t wow you in any particular area. Jarome Iginla was still one of the league’s best RW’s last year, but at 34, his play is likely to decline fairly soon. Alex Tanguay and Rene Bourque are good players, but they probably aren’t the second and third best forwards on a playoff team. Miikaa Kiprusoff is solid, but hasn’t been able to lead them to a playoff spot in recent years. Losing a good shut-down defenceman like Robyn Regehr probably won’t help him keep pucks out either. Columbus made some huge off-season moves, acquiring Jeff Carter from Philadelphia and James Wisniewski via *free agency. These moves will certainly make them more competitive, but persistent weaknesses remain. Aside from Wisniewski and youngster Kris Russell, the Blue Jackets lack skill and puck-moving ability from their D. They also have a weak goaltending tandem, as 23-year-old Steve Mason has struggled through most of the last two years, and Mark Dekanich – an NHL rookie – will be his back-up. If the duo of Nash and Carter catch fire, and Mason can play as well as he did in his rookie season (where he won the Calder Trophy and finished second in Vezina voting), then Columbus could make the playoffs, but it’s asking a lot. Lastly, Dallas – a team highlighted by a few really good forwards. They’re led by the NHL’s most underrated player (as chosen by the players), Loui Eriksson, captain Brendan Morrow, Mike Ribeiro, and (one of my personal favourites), rising star Jamie Benn. However, that’s about as far as they go. Stephane Robidas has become a very solid veteran defenceman, and Alex Goligoski is a very good offensive defenceman, but there isn’t much more talent on this team. They’ll be competitive, but I don’t think they have enough.
*Columbus acquired Wisniewski’s negotiating rights from Montreal and signed him before he hit free agency
Edmonton, Colorado, Phoenix
Edmonton has been acquiring young talent for years now. Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Magnus Paajarvi, and several others. They’re nowhere near their peak, but if they can keep them together and add some solid veterans (especially on D), this team will be dangerous in 3-5 years. Colorado has some fine pieces with former 1st overall pick Erik Johnson, elite youngster Matt Duchene, and last year’s second overall pick Gabriel Landeskog. But aside from Paul Stastny, none of the key pieces of this team are in their prime. Another high pick is on the way. As for Phoenix, their awkward mix of past-prime veterans and overly green rookies, coupled with the loss of starting goalie Ilyz Bryzgalov, should put them fully into rebuild mode. Who knows how long they’ll be there, as the unstable ownership situation has produced a series of one-year contracts and no roster stability for the future.
Washington, Buffalo, Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia
Washington came away from free agency with the biggest haul of any team. They got a solid veteran goaltender for only $1.5M in Tomas Vokoun, a solid veteran defender in Roman Hamrlik, and several other fine additions. They’re positioned to be the top team in the South-East division, if not the Eastern Conference, for several years. That doesn’t mean they’ll win the Stanley Cup this year or next, but they’re certainly worthy of significant consideration. At the end of last season, Buffalo was a good team. Great goalie, good forwards, thin on defence. Then came the off-season where they managed to acquire two talented defenceman in Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff, while also adding Ville Leino to the forward ranks. Barring major injury, this team has no holes in their lineup, and looks poised to win the North-East division. Boston will challenge Buffalo for the North-East division title, but after a long post-season run and a short summer, they may run into a few injuries. Also, while the core of their team remains intact, they did lose some important complimentary pieces in Michael Ryder, Mark Recchi, and Tomas Kaberle. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh is awaiting the status of Sidney Crosby. They’ll make the playoffs with or without him, but they can’t be considered a Stanley Cup contender without Sid the Kid. Philadelphia actually has a great looking team on paper, but after the extreme roster makeover they underwent, it may take a while before they start playing up to their vast potential. Along with Pittsburgh, they’re among the biggest wild cards in the East.
New York R, Tampa Bay, New Jersey, Montreal, Toronto
The New York Rangers are one of the most improved team in the league. In fact, they’re only a few defencemen away from being an elite squad. Adding Brad Richards – the biggest free agent of the summer – will not only help Marian Gaborik immensely, but will also take pressure off future star centre Derek Stepan, allowing him to develop at a more reasonable pace. Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky are both excellent young forwards, and the Rangers have more forward depth till fill a variety of roles. Henrik Lundqvist is one of the game’s elite goaltenders, and Marc Staal and Daniel Girardi are young, capable defencemen. However, the rest of the Rangers D is inexperienced. If they can address this problem, they’ll be a contender soon. As it is, they are certainly playoff bound. Tampa Bay is still a good team, but they’ve lost a few important pieces from last year. With Simon Gagne and Sean Bergenheim gone via free agency, and Ryan Malone recovering from off-season shoulder surgery, they’ve lost their top three left wingers. Of course, with Stamkos, St. Louis, and Lecavalier around, their offence will be still be potent, but don’t expect them to make it back to the Eastern Conference final this year. New Jersey is an interesting team to watch. Zach Parise has been their star and leader for more than a few years now, but he missed the last 69 games of the season after tearing the meniscus in his right knee. If he can return to form, and if Patrik Elias and Ilya Kovalchuk can play as well as they did in last year’s second half, the Devils could return to the post-season. It will be no easy feat though, as their divisional rivals include some of the top teams in the East – Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York. And to make matters worse, word is that #1 centre Travis Zajac tore his achilles tendon and will miss several months of action. Montreal is kind of like the Nashville of the East. They have a defensive minded coach in Jacques Martin, a great goalie in Carey Price, and a solid group of defenceman with Markov, Gill, Gorges, Spacek, and the always entertaining P.K Subban. However, they don’t have too much offence beyond Cammalleri, Plekanec, and Gionta. Scot Gomez is clearly on the downswing, and the newly acquired Erik Cole isn’t nearly as explosive as he was five years ago. They have enough talent to make the playoffs, but they’ll have to fight tooth and nail to get there. Last but not least is Toronto. As I wrote about at length, Toronto is a solid team – somewhat comparable to Calgary in the West. They don’t have a glaring weakness, but they also don’t have very many difference makers at any position. If James Reimer can play as well this coming season as he did down the stretch last year, Toronto could leapfrog Montreal and New Jersey for a playoff spot. However, it’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a 23-year-old goalie with only a half season of NHL experience.
WINNIPEG, Carolina, Ottawa, New York I, Florida
Let’s start with the Winnipeg Jets. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? The Jets aren’t a bad team. They have lots of talent on defence with Tobias Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien leading the way, along with veterans in Hainsey and Oduya and a young stud in Zach Bogosian. Ondrej Pavelec and Chris Mason are a solid tandem in goal, with Pavelec looking like a potential star both now and in the future. The problem is at forward, where there isn’t quite enough established offensive talent, and not very much defensive prowess either. Some of their most talented players are several years from their prime, including Evander Kane, Alex Burmistrov, and Bryan Little. Overall, good pieces are in place everywhere, but the playoffs will have to wait. Carolina has a few building blocks firmly in place, with their franchise centre in Eric Staal and their franchise goaltender in Cam Ward. They also have an exceptional young forward in Jeff Skinner, last year’s Calder Trophy winner at the tender age of 18. However, the rest of the team is made up mostly of complimentary pieces, and they don’t have a particularly strong defence. They do have a number of good young prospects at most positions, so it’s clear that for the ime being, GM Jim Rutherford is taking a patient approach. After finishing last season on a high note, the Ottawa Senators are looking to make quick work of the rebuild. They played very well after acquiring Craig Anderson from Colorado at the trade deadline, and their AHL team in Binghamton won the AHL’s Calder Cup, providing several young players with useful playoff experience. Jason Spezza leads a young cast of forwards with a lot to prove, and Swedish sensation Erik Karlsson is a future star on the blueline. They also have another great potential star on defence with another Swede, David Rundblad. The playoffs probably aren’t in the cards, but they aren’t too far off either. The New York Islanders are the polar opposite of the Winnipeg Jets. They have a potentially great group of forwards in place, and virtually no goaltending or defence to speak of. Forwards like Tavares, Okposo, and Grabner, are all near-stars right now, and Strome and Niederreiter may be along fairly soon. However, the availability of former all-star defenceman Mark Streit remains in question nearly a year after tearing his labrum and rotator cuff in his left shoulder. And even with him, they’re a pretty underwhelming group. Then there’s the potentially career threatening knee injuries which plague former franchise goaltender Rick Dipietro. After several surgeries on both knees, he must be having thoughts of retirement. And then there was Florida. With tens of millions to spend on July 1, GM Dale Tallon went out and paid a premium for just about every second-tier free agent available, including defenceman Ed Jovonovski, forwards Scottie Upshall, Marcel Goc, and Sean Bergeheim, and Jose Theodore, who will be the team’s de facto starting goalie. He also acquired Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky, and Brian Campbell via trade. While Florida won’t necessarily be the league’s worst team, they do seem the most hopeless since they lack anyone worthy of being a top-line forward, a top-pairing defenceman, or a legitimate starting goalie. It will be a long year in Florida.
You might notice that I spent a lot of time discussing the playoff contenders and rebuilding teams, and very little time discussing the cream of the crop. That’s because I’ll be taking an in-depth look at the Stanley Cup contenders in a separate article. For now, here are my standings predictions by division, with playoff teams in bold.
2011-2012 Standings Forecast:
1Los Angeles 2San Jose 3Anaheim 4Dallas 5Phoenix
1Chicago 2Detroit 3St. Louis 4Nashville 5Columbus
1Vancouver 2Minnesota 3Calgary 4Edmonton 5Colorado
1Washingotn 2Tampa Bay3Winnipeg 4Carolina 5Florida
1Philadelphia 2Pittsburgh 3New York Rangers 4New Jersey 5New York Islanders
1Buffalo 2Boston 3Montreal 4Toronto 5Ottawa