Tuesday, October 1, 2019

2019-20 NHL Season Predictions

October is the best month of the year if you're one of the few people who still clicks on this blog, because you get prediction columns and reviews of prediction columns. There's no better content than that, right? When you check back in April, be sure to take it easy on me, because I might be less wrong than someone else, I hope.

Metropolitan Division:
1. Washington
2. Carolina
3. Pittsburgh
4. New York Rangers 
5. New Jersey
6. Philadelphia
7. Columbus
8. New York Islanders

There is no more egalitarian division in hockey than the Metro. Every team thinks they have a good chance at the playoffs, and they're all right. There are plenty of reasons for fatalists to satiate their own fears about each of these teams though. 

Washington probably has the fewest flaws of any in this division. While their playoff voodoo returned even after winning the Cup, they're still a dominant regular season team. Some of the depth pieces have shuffled, but the core remains the same, though one year older. Since there's no one that can truly contend on that level with them, they're favorites. Carolina has made plenty of moves, and while it's unlikely they're replicating last year's playoff run, they're still incredibly deep, especially on the back end. It's hard to see a team this deep missing the postseason. Pittsburgh is on the decline, and whether it's gradual or sudden is still an open question. With Crosby and Malkin, they're still a playoff team, though their supporting cast continues to decline.

Everyone else is fighting for a wild card that will be hotly contested. The Rangers have made some significant upgrades with Kaapo Kakko, Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox, but they're still not great defensively and many of their young prospects haven't developed in the smoothest of ways. New Jersey certainly went for flash in acquiring PK Subban and Nikita Gusev along with drafting Jack Hughes, but are they deep enough to succeed during the long grind of 82 games, and do they have any hope in net? Philadelphia made plenty of moves on the ice and behind the bench, but it all doesn't add up to very much being different. Columbus is down Panarin, Duchene and Bobrovsky, and while they believe in their kids, can anyone believe in their goaltending? And the Islanders added no one except a goalie to replace one that nearly won the Vezina last season and probably should still be there. Is the system truly king?

Atlantic Division:

1. Tampa Bay
2. Toronto
3. Boston
4. Florida (WC)
5. Montreal (WC)
6. Buffalo
7. Detroit
8. Ottawa

Unlike the Metro, the Atlantic is relatively straightforward. Last year's top three will be the top three again, there will be two teams fighting for a playoff spot, and everyone else is rebuilding to some degree. The order in which the Atlantic's top three will be slotted is a matter of debate. Tampa is still the class of the league, but will what happened in the series against Columbus hang over their heads? We may not find out until April, but the roster is still fairly loaded in spite of the cap crunch they had this summer, so a big drop off isn't expected. Toronto will score a ton of goals, but they may also give up a ton. Have their moves made them considerably better than the team of the last three years? That is also a matter of debate. They will have enough this year to nudge the Bruins out of home ice in their inevitable playoff series. The Bruins are still the Bruins, which means they'll be a tough out every night.

Florida spent big bucks to end their losing drought, and with the rest of the East taking a slight step back, and the Panthers adding one of the league's best goalies and coaches, that should be enough to plug a leaky ship and guide it back to the postseason, though the Panthers always find a way to underwhelm. Montreal got career years out of multiple forwards last year and it wasn't enough to make the postseason, and many of their hopes will ride on young centers Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki if they are to get back to the postseason. It will not be easy. Buffalo has a new coach with a great pedigree, but they don't have a great blueline or goaltending tandem yet. They're closer than they've been to the postseason, but they're both not there yet. Detroit and Ottawa are both in the nascent stages of long rebuilds, and while the long term is bright, the present is concerned with lottery balls.

Central Division:

1. Nashville
2. Colorado
3. Dallas
4. St. Louis (WC) 
5. Winnipeg
6. Chicago
7. Minnesota

The NHL's toughest division holds its title for another season, because it holds the defending champs and some of the league's toughest regular season outs. Nashville has regressed since it's 2017 trip to the Stanley Cup Final, but adding Matt Duchene should stem the tide a little, and the loss of PK Subban is offset by the arrival of Dante Fabbro. The Avs are a team everyone loves, and for good reason. They have an incredible future with great players for the present and future. They will be one of the fastest and exciting teams this year, but they had fewer wins last year than Arizona, who only had 86 points. To go from that to Cup favorite is not easy. Dallas added a couple of Pacific division veterans to help a defensively sound team go over the top in the postseason after last year's Game 7 heartbreak, and they'll be good enough to certainly test the best.

The defending champs made their first big move by trading for Justin Faulk, giving up a solid defenseman in Joel Edmunson, and a prospect in Dominic Bokk. Faulk is not much better if at all than what they gave up. But they are still the same aggressive forechecking team they were a season ago, and if Jordan Binnington is still the same goaltender from his run last season, they will be more consistent. They're not quite as talented as their rivals, hence why they're a Wild Card team, though they're still a playoff lock. 

Winnipeg's offseason from hell has taken a bite out of what was a team set up to be a juggernaut. If Dustin Byfuglien doesn't return, then their blueline is relying an awful lot on this year's first round pick, Ville Heinola. It looks to be a fatal flaw. While they have plenty of scoring punch, their depth is also incredibly sketchy. They will not make the playoffs without some substantial additions. Chicago scored a boatload of goals last year, and also gave up a boatload. Adding Robin Lehner, Calvin De Haan and Olli Maata might not do enough to counteract all those goals against, though. Minnesota did get rid of their problem GM, but this is still an old team with an old core that is only getting older, with a prospect pipeline that is far from encouraging.

Pacific Division:
1. Vegas
2. Calgary
3. San Jose
4. Arizona (WC)
5. Vancouver
6. Edmonton
7. Anaheim
8. Los Angeles

Watching the Vegas Golden Knights has been an experience in the last two seasons, from their Cup run to how they went out last year. They are, in a weak division, the strongest team, even if their blueline is shallow and Marc-Andre Fleury is being asked to do too much. Calgary, though they traded for Milan Lucic, still have plenty of speed and skill up front with a very good blueline to boot. But can they keep the puck out of the net? It doesn't seem like there's optimism on that front. Speaking of bad goaltending, San Jose had the worst in the league last year and still made it to the Conference Final! They also played with a very broken Erik Karlsson too. But they don't have Joe Pavelski anymore, and their depth from years past is gone. They're still a playoff team, but do they have enough to challenge like they've been able to?

Perhaps this pick is aspirational, but I really want the Coyotes to make the playoffs. I like the moves that they have made, and Rick Tocchet got a broken, injured group to within earshot of the postseason. He is also a Phil Kessel whisperer, and getting him to score is what the Coyotes desperately need. If some of their young talent like Clayton Keller, Barrett Hayton and others finally come good, they can get in. Vancouver will challenge them because of Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and Quinn Hughes, but the veterans are what will let them down, because they just don't have enough good ones. Edmonton has McDavid and Draisaitl, but little else, and there's very little reason to believe that Ken Holland and Dave Tippett can make lemonade without any lemons to use. Anaheim is finally rebuilding, and some of their young forwards have promise. They also have John Gibson, who could win the Vezina on a better team. But their great defense pipeline is now barren. The Kings went sour gradually, and then suddenly, and now they're in a full rebuild mode again. Alexis Lafrieniere would look good in black and silver.

Playoffs:
Eastern Conference:

Washington (M1) over Florida (WC1) in 7
Carolina (M2) over Pittsburgh (M2) in 5
Tampa (A1) over Montreal (WC2) in 6
Toronto (A2) over Boston (A3) in 7

Carolina (M2) over Washington (M1) in 7
Tampa (A1) over Toronto (A2) in 7

Tampa (A1) over Carolina (M2) in 5

Western Conference:

St. Louis (WC1) over Nashville (C1) in 6
Colorado (C2) over Dallas (C3) in 6
Vegas (P1) over Arizona (WC2) in 5
Calgary (P2) over San Jose (P3) in 6

Colorado (C2) over St. Louis (WC1) in 6
Vegas (P1) over Calgary (P2) in 6

Vegas (P1) over Colorado (C2) in 6

Stanley Cup Final:

Tampa over Vegas in 6

Awards:
Hart: Nathan MacKinnon (COL)
Art Ross: Connor McDavid (EDM)
Rocket Richard: Alex Ovechkin (WSH)
Norris: Victor Hedman (TB)
Vezina: Frederik Andersen (TOR)
Calder: Kaapo Kakko (NYR)
Jack Adams: Rick Tocchet (ARZ)
First Coach Fired: Paul Maurice (WPG)

Happy Hockey Season! I hope I didn't pick one of your favorite teams and favorite players to do well.