Predicting the 2019-20 NHL Season: Eastern Conference Edition
After a long summer of complaining about RFAs and struggling through three frustrating months of Phillies baseball, a new hockey season is once again right around the corner. Training camps across the league have begun. Preseason is nearly underway. In two and a half weeks, the games will count again.
Last year proved just how unpredictable the National Hockey League can be. Surprising turnarounds for the Islanders, Hurricanes, and Blues and the sudden struggles of the Flyers, Kings, and Devils dominated headlines during the regular season. But those kind of things always happen. What doesn't is all four division winners being eliminated in round 1, the President's Trophy winner being swept, and a first Stanley Cup for a 52-year old franchise that was in last place in January.
Unfortunately for me, I'm either too foolish or too ignorant not to look at the state of the league's 31 teams and think that predicting where they'll be in April (and in special cases, May and June) will actually be fun. And not impossible. After taking a look at the projected lines of each NHL team on Dailyfaceoff.com and comparing this year's rosters with last's, I think I've got a decent pulse of the league. With all that being said, here's Back of the Net's Official Guaranteed to Not Be Not Wrong Predictions for the 2019-20 NHL campaign. Let's start out East.
1. Washington Capitals (2018-19: 1st in Metro, Lost in Round 1)
Next summer will be a pivotal one in D.C, with franchise faces Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby set to become UFAs. Both are on the wrong side of 30, but have been Capitals for life and will at least try to stick around if the cap permits. For now, the Capitals still boast one of the deepest rosters in the East. For all their playoff struggles, Washington has rarely failed to dominate the regular season. This year should be no different, as I see them in line to raise their 5th straight Metropolitan Division Champions banner.
2. Carolina Hurricanes (2018-19: 4th in Metro, Lost in Round 3)
Yes, Carolina's goaltending is due for some regression. But Petr Mrazek and James Reimer have both been starters in their careers, so it's not like there's no talent here. But it's the core in front of them that makes the Canes so dangerous. Their defensive core was already one of the best in the NHL even before adding Jake Gardiner on an absolute steal of a contract. Their forward depth remains as solid as ever, with Ryan Dzingel and Eric Haula set to provide a nice boost there. Even if they lack an elite scorer behind Sebastian Aho (though Andrei Svechnikov could be just that), the Bunch of Jerks are in great shape to keep the fans coming back for more.
3. Philadelphia Flyers (2018-19: 6th in Metro, Missed Playoffs)
The Flyers biggest weaknesses a year ago were goaltending, defense, center depth, and coaching. They've addressed all of them. A full year of Carter Hart, blue line complements Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, an overpaid but still productive Kevin Hayes and a proven winner behind the bench in Alain Vigneault have the Flyers looking up. All of these factors added to a strong core of Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, and Jakub Voracek plus likely (and needed) bounce backs from Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov fill the Flyers depth chart with 20 effective players. A hot start is key, though - if last year's early struggles remain, they could draw aggressive changes to the on-ice product.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins (2018-19: 3rd in Metro, Lost in Round 1)
Much like they were four years ago, the Penguins dynasty appears to be fading. Jim Rutherford's polarizing moves to the backend and the wings have left the Penguins with a slow, physical team in a league now driven by speed and skill. Much like their city's football counterparts, there is probably still enough high-end talent to bail them out, at least for now. But after being run off the rink by the Islanders in the playoffs, I'll be bold and say that this is the year the Penguins slip up. Their active league-leading 13-year playoff streak comes to an end.
5. New Jersey Devils (2018-19: 8th in Metro, Missed Playoffs)
Both of the next two teams in the Metro have both made major strides in the offseason. For the Devils, they were blessed with another first overall pick and used their cap space to steal P.K. Subban from Nashville and take a low-risk, high-reward flier on Wayne Simmonds. However, goaltending is still a concern and there are a lot of young players being counted on. This isn't a make or break year for the Devils, but they need to do enough to convince Taylor Hall that Jersey is on the cusp of becoming a long-term contender.
6. New York Rangers (2018-19: 7th in Metro, Missed Playoffs)
Two steps forward, one step back. That's how I see this year's New York Rangers compared to last. Sure, they added a game-changing forward in Artemi Panarin, #2 pick Kappa Kakko, and solid right-handed defenseman Jacob Trouba to the mix. But they won't be getting 60 games of Kevin Hayes or Mats Zuccarello this year, Henrik Lundqvist is getting older and their defense still has plenty of question marks. Their rebuild may be finished ahead of schedule, but the new-look Rangers probably aren't ready for the spotlight just yet.
7. New York Islanders (2018-19: 2nd in Metro, Lost in Round 2)
Though nearly all of players from last year's resurgence remain on the roster, last year really felt like lightning in a bottle. Barry Trotz is a great coach, but I can't see the Islanders leading the league in goals against once again, especially with Robin Lehner now in the Windy City. Scoring goals was problem number one in the Isle a year ago, and with John Tavares long gone their top-six remains good but not great. While the rest of the division added, the Islanders merely stayed the course. That's probably not going to be enough to get them back to the playoffs in the über-competitive Metro.
8. Columbus Blue Jackets (2018-19: 5th in Metro, Lost in Round 2)
I absolutely understand Jarmo Kekalainen's decision to go all in last year. Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky are special players, and the Jackets looked dangerous last year with them and Matt Duchene. The problem is all three of them, and a large chunk of picks and prospects, are now in the hands of other teams. Don't get me wrong, Columbus still boasts one of the best top pairs in the league and their depth is solid across the ice. But their goaltending is way too inexperienced, and there's just not enough in front of them to compensate for the players they lost.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning (2018-19: 1st in Atlantic, Lost in Round 1)
To say the Tampa Bay Lightning merely lost in the playoffs last year would be the understatement of the century. The team that tied the all-time single seasons win record was also the first President's Trophy winner to be swept out of the first round. They already lost J.T. Miller and Anton Stralman (plus Brayden Point still needs a new deal), and the cap crunch will only get harder next season. Their roster is still stacked, but that didn't stop them from crashing last year. The clock is ticking for Tampa, but they should be in great position to impress come April.
2. Toronto Maple Leafs (2018-19: 3rd in Atlantic, Lost in Round 1)
No team has ever won the Stanley Cup with a player making over $10 million. The Leafs now have three players in that range. Granted, Toronto succeeded this summer in improving their backend by adding Tyson Barrie, and Travis Dermott, Timothy Liljegren, and Rasmus Sandin are close to being impact defenseman. Their forward core is still special. There's plenty of talent here and they're only to get better, but Leafs fans won't be satisfied until the team earns the right to play into May.
3. Boston Bruins (2018-19: 2nd in Atlantic, Lost in Stanley Cup Finals)
It's hard to climb the mountain of the Stanley Cup Playoffs back-to-back years, especially for a Boston team that's beginning to show their age. Though there is plenty of young talent still in the fold, the transition from the Bergeron, Krejci, and Chara to Pastrnak, McAvoy, and company must be seamless for Boston's domination to continue into the next decade. They should still be fine for the short-term, but we're nearing sink or swim time for the B's (remember, they do play in Boston, so you should probably bet on the latter).
4. Florida Panthers (2018-19: 5th in Atlantic, Missed Playoffs)
After a massive spending spree in the offseason to improve goaltending and defense, it's playoffs or bust for the Panthers. The good news is that new additions Sergei Bobrovsky, Anton Stralman, and Brett Connolly will being joining an already strong core, led by the talented Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, and Jonathan Huberdeau and the tantalizing Aaron Ekblad. For all of our sakes, the Panthers need to be good this year, and there's just too much talent (and a great coach to lead them) for them to fall short once again. The Panthers get a wild card spot.
5. Montreal Canadiens (2018-19: 4th in Atlantic, Missed Playoffs)
Last year, Montreal finished with more points than three playoff teams (Colorado, Dallas, and Vegas), yet failed to make the playoffs because the East was just a blood bath. Carey Price remains as one of the best goaltenders in the world, and that alone should make the Habs at least decent this year. Though they failed to upgrade their center depth (despite a half-hearted offer sheet on Sebastian Aho), there's enough young talent up front and experience on the backend that I think Montreal gets over the hump this year and squeaks into the playoffs, keeping them as the odd-year version of the San Francisco Giants (minus the rings, of course).
6. Buffalo Sabres (2018-19: 6th in Atlantic, Missed Playoffs)
Despite how most outsiders remember them, the 2018-19 Sabres were still more bad than good. A 10-game PDO bender around Thanksgiving and a breakout campaign from (the now overpaid) Jeff Skinner were about the only things that went right. But the future remains bright thanks to a deep pipeline of young players that could push the Sabres over the edge as soon as this year. But until Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is ready to go in goal, the Sabres are probably in close, but not quite territory.
7. Ottawa Senators (2018-19: 8th in Atlantic, Missed Playoffs)
This is actually a crazy optimistic take for the Senators, and I'm only putting them here because I feel the other team left in their division is just as bad. The Senators still have aways to go before they're ready for that whole "unparalleled success" thing, but the group that will take them there is beginning to take shape. They're still too raw and lacking support to make any short term noise. But if Melnyk is patient and will to spend, there's no reason the Senators can't be solid in two or three years from now.
8. Detroit Red Wings (2018-19: 7th in Atlantic, Missed Playoffs)
The streak is now well in the rearview mirror and the Red Wings will be paying for the sins of Ken Holland for years to come. There's hope in Hockeytown now that Steve Yzerman is back, but had Holland made his decisions (going off the board with the #6 pick, signing Valtteri Filppula to a 2-year contract), the fanbase would be apoplectic. Dylan Larkin is a star, and Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou are solid complements, but there's little else to get excited for this year in Motown.