With training camps opening this week and the preseason just a week away, I suppose now is a good time to knock off the cobwebs and write about hockey again. Yippee!
I’ll start off by talking about parity. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, Oxford Dictionary defines parity as “the state or condition of being equal, especially regarding status or pay.” In the wake of the 2004-05 lockout which killed an entire NHL season, the League’s owners were hoping to find a way rescue themselves from themselves. Many teams struggled to maintain financial solvency in the decade prior to the lockout, including the Pittsburgh Penguins (how could we forget?), as teams found themselves throwing tons of money at players who did not return the favor with the kind of productivity commensurate with their salaries. In turn, bad teams had a hard time filling the seats in their arenas, many of which needed updating or replacing. It was a bad situation for the League all around, so bad that the ownership was willing to blow an entire year fighting the player’s union for a salary cap. Subsequently, a cap was instituted, as was a salary floor, so the teams that could not afford to match guns with the big spenders in the League had to at least put together a roster meeting a certain salary. That salary cap and floor have both risen every year with two exceptions: from 2011 to 2014, when another lockout shortened the 2012-13 season, and from 2019 to now, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic throwing everyone’s economies into a tailspin.
The spirit of the salary cap and floor is to prevent the big spenders from running rampant on the free agent market and give lower-market teams a chance to acquire big names to encourage fans to support the team, and in this fashion (along with the better draft capital that comes from being at the bottom of the standings) those poorer-performing teams will eventually rise up out of the basement and find some success. It is interesting then to look at the list of Stanley Cup Finalists since the 2005-06 season and note that while ten teams have won the Stanley Cup in those sixteen seasons, just seven teams have won the last thirteen Cups. Interesting too is that only one team has been a Cup runner-up more than once in the past sixteen seasons (Boston). In the context of the NHL, parity is the idea that in a certain timeframe every team will compete for the Stanley Cup. Since 2005-06, all but six teams have made the Conference Finals at least once, and the average number of Conference Finals appearances per team is two. So, it could certainly be argued that much of the NHL has had a serious opportunity to win the Cup in the past sixteen years.
There have been some issues in achieving parity from a championship-winning perspective, particularly of late. Cherry-picking a little bit here, but since 2012 only six teams have won the Cup: Los Angeles, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Tampa Bay have all won twice, with Washington and St. Louis being the only other two winners (and St. Louis was, no pun intended, a bit out of the blue if you ask me). A team that has made the Conference Finals has had a very good chance to do so again within the next season or so; in fact, in all but two seasons since the lockout has the final four featured a team that is in the midst of a consecutive Conference Finals appearance, and eleven times it was two teams or more. Worst yet, the last two Conference Finals have seen just five teams when the two prior saw the maximum of eight. The other side of that coin is that only three teams in the salary cap era have made three consecutive Conference Finals appearances: Detroit, from 2006-2008; Los Angeles, from 2011-2014; and Chicago, from 2012-2015. I can’t think of a time pre-2005 that there were three consecutive seasons of the same three teams making the final four, and it certainly hasn’t happened since 2006.
All this being said, if you were to attempt to deduce exactly which four teams would make the Conference Finals this year, odds are good that at least one and probably two of Tampa Bay, Vegas, and the Islanders will not make the Conference Finals again this year. You may do well to look at the prior two postseasons to find possible replacements, particularly Carolina, Boston, and Winnipeg. Of course, other teams could pull a St. Louis and surge into the Conference Finals and further; certainly Colorado, possibly Toronto, maybe even Florida or Edmonton might make themselves known and make a serious push for a Cup this season.
The League’s 32nd franchise, the Seattle Kraken, may be hoping that their first season in the NHL goes as well as it did for the Vegas Golden Knights, and the positive spin for the newly-minted team from the Pacific Northwest is that the Pacific Division is not a tough division…for the time being. Vegas being the clubhouse leader as they have been since their inception four seasons ago, the only other team that is almost certain to make the playoffs are the Edmonton Oilers. On there other end of the spectrum are the three California teams, each of which is in some state of rebuild. That leaves three teams to fight for at least one, possibly two, playoff spots in the division: Seattle, obvious rival Vancouver, and the Calgary Flames, three seasons removed from having the best record in the Western Conference but otherwise mired in mediocrity since the lockout. (I’m not sure if Calgary is in any better a position to pull themselves out of their doldrums, and I don’t expect them to be anything more than an also-ran by the time April rolls around.) That leaves Seattle and Vancouver to battle for the right to lose to Vegas and Edmonton in the first round of the playoffs.
The big question then is: has Edmonton done enough this offseason to push themselves past the Golden Knights? The answer is, most likely: no. They did acquire Zach Hyman, Dmitry Kulikov, and Alex Stalock in free agency, but they also acquired aging fart Duncan Keith and gave Cody Ceci a ton of money and likely too much term. Vegas, meanwhile, acquired Nolan Patrick in the hope that a change of scenery would help, as well as Evgenii Dadonov, but also diminished their goaltending and sent Marc-Andre Fleury to Chicago for salary relief. Vegas spent the offseason making themselves deeper, while the Oilers…did more Oiler-ing. They still have one of the top three players in the League in Connor McDavid, and Leon Draisatl is no slouch, but I don’t see anything about the offseason that says Edmonton is ready to make the next step forward.
My Pacific Division predictions: Vegas wins the division handily, followed by Edmonton. Seattle makes the playoffs, but I think Vancouver misses narrowly against a Central Division team. Vegas will very likely make the Conference Finals again, unless Edmonton finds a way to score goals against what will very likely be a very stingy Golden Knights defense.
You might have noticed that the Colorado Avalanche have yet to make the Conference Finals since the 2006 playoffs. After moving from Quebec in 1995, Colorado was one of the best teams in the League, winning two Cups and making the Conference Finals four other times. Their fortunes changed after the lockout, missing the playoffs seven of the eleven seasons prior to current head coach Jared Bednar’s hiring prior to the 2016-17 season. Since then it’s been a slow, steady climb up the ladder for the Avalanche, and last year they won the Presidents’ Trophy, narrowly edging out the Vegas Golden Knights for the best record in the League last season. But Vegas won the war in the end and eliminated Colorado in six games in the second round. The offseason losses included Brandon Saad and Phillip Grubauer, two key pieces to lose, and now in particular there are questions about the goaltending tandem of Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz. The good news for Colorado is that they still have some good prospects coming up in their system. Their best players are still fairly young, either still maturing or already in their primes. Even if they don’t win the Cup this year, their window is still very much open.
Behind Colorado is a quartet of teams that are good, but probably not good enough to make it past the second round, but will all still likely make the playoffs despite their flaws. Winnipeg has a great goaltender in Connor Hellebuyck, and they shored up their defense by acquiring Nate Schmidt, but the forward depth is suspect. Minnesota looked to be coming together,
but have left their main RFA, Kirill Kaprisov, unsigned into training camp (not anymore) and bought out both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter this past offseason, which is going to take a massive bite out of their salary for the following three years. St. Louis, now three years removed from their surprise Cup, will be hoping Jordan Binnington can reclaim some of the magic that he and the Blues rode to that Cup. Finally, Dallas, who appear to be hoping that one of Ben Bishop, Anton Khudobin, and Braden Holtby will be able to carry a Stars team that had a hard time scoring goals last season. Chicago, Arizona, and Nashville round out the rest of the division, and they will only sniff the playoffs if everything goes their way.
My Central Division predictions: Colorado should have no trouble winning the division. Winnipeg and Minnesota will be a close call for the second and third seeds, but I think Winnipeg’s goaltending will outperform Minnesota’s offense. Can either of them derail the Avalanche in the playoffs? The better question is if Colorado can get out of their own way and break through to the second round.
What can I say about the Atlantic Division that isn’t already well known? Tampa Bay didn’t even need Nikita Kucherov all of last season and they still very comfortably ended up in third place in last year’s Central Division. The Lightning don’t need to win the division to be a major threat in the playoffs, so there’s that.
With the Atlantic Division getting back to normal this season, the only real question is this: will the Toronto Maple Leafs win a playoff series? Despite winning the North Division last season, they fell in seven games to the Montreal Canadiens, making it five years in a row that the Leafs have been unable to escape the first round. Besides the departure of Hymen (snicker), they also bid adieu to Frederick Andersen and replaced him with Petr Mrazek. Overall Toronto got a little deeper this offseason, but is it enough to move the needle against their interdivisional foes? Boston is continuing to show not only its age and the lack of depth in their prospect pool. The Canadiens surprised many by making the Cup Finals, but surprised no one in folding to the Lightning in just five games. The only other serious competition in the division is the Florida Panthers, but it’s hard to take them seriously.
Detroit, Ottawa and Buffalo sit in the bottom of the division, all of which are also rebuilding. Between Detroit and Ottawa I’m not sure who is closer to being playoff competitive sooner, but within the next few years they will begin their ascent. Buffalo is a continual disaster and I have no faith that they will turn a corner any time soon. It’s going to take some very fortunate drafting to help bring them to relevancy again, and even then they had the #2 pick in 2015, Jack Eichel, who is very dissatisfied with how his neck injury has been treated by the team, and they also picked first in 2018, Rasmus Dahlin, and this first again this past offseason with Owen Power. Maybe in five-plus years all of this talent will mature and be productive, but, again, I have little faith in that actually happening.
(As if on cue, just as I finish authoring this post, the Sabres put Eichel on injured reserve as the two sides cannot get on the same page over Eichel’s health. As I said, Buffalo is a disaster and there’s no way this will work out for anyone in the long run.)
My Atlantic Division predictions: Tampa Bay should have no problem in winning the division. Toronto will fight to prove their worth and land in second place, but if their first round foe is Boston or Montreal they are screwed. Fortunately I think Florida may surprise and land in third, leaving either the Bruins or Canadiens to settle for fourth. My guess is that if the Atlantic Division does have a wild card team, it is Montreal that ekes their way in, and Boston will be left to prepare for a rebuild. More likely though is that the Metro has two wild card teams, and neither team makes it.
Finally, the Metropolitan Division. Overall the division will be a little tougher than it was last year, with Buffalo being replaced by Columbus and Carolina taking Boston’s place, but that’s just the beginning. New Jersey will be looking to assert itself with its big offseason acquisition Dougie Hamilton coming on-board, giving the Devils a serious Norris candidate for the first time since probably Scott Stevens in the mid-1990s. Otherwise New Jersey is a young but maturing and talented squad, and if they’re not a serious threat to make the playoffs this season, they will be very soon. The Rangers also are young and continuing to mature, maybe not as close as the Devils to being a playoff team talent-wise but getting there as well.
So, out of the eight teams in the division, the only one that you could very easily rule out for making the playoffs is Columbus. (Good. Fuck them.) If you want to add the Flyers to that list as well, I would not blame you, which is funny because they’re not really in a position to miss the playoffs with their key players getting older and I’m not very convinced by their young guys. Carter Hart had such a bad year last year that they acquired Martin Jones in the offseason, and his numbers have been falling off each of the last three years. If Hart cannot pull himself together and have at least an average season for the Flyers, they’re screwed. Just don’t be fooled when they’re in first place come January 1.
With this being the most competitive division in the League, it’s hard to say for sure how the seedings will shake out. Let’s not forget that the Pittsburgh Penguins actually, narrowly won the division last season, only to be once again dismissed very easily by the New York Islanders in the first round. Two seasons ago the Washington Capitals won the division but they too were beaten by the Islanders in the first round. But the Islanders are like the Lightning in that they seem not to give a shit how they do in the regular season so long as they make the playoffs. So let’s dismiss the idea that the Islanders will win the division, even though they are arguably the best team in the division. That leaves the Penguins, Capitals, and Hurricanes as the most likely options. I’m inclined to give it to Carolina, which won the East Division and had the third-best record in the League last season, but it’s mostly a crapshoot with the division being as close as it is.
My Metropolitan Division predictions: Carolina edges out its competition for the division lead, but it could very easily go to any of four teams. The tougher prediction is how the rest of the division will shake out. I think the Islanders can’t resist the urge to battle for the division lead but end up a close second. I suspect injury troubles but improved goaltending will be a wash for Pittsburgh and they’ll end up in third. This leaves Washington to take one of the wild card spots and New Jersey will beat out its competition in the Atlantic Division for the other wild card seed.
The last big thing I’m curious about for the League this season is the officiating. Much was made last season of the League’s inconsistent refereeing, particularly in the wake of Tim Peel’s incident in March when, on a hot mic, he explicitly told a Nashville Predators player that he was calling a penalty on them to even things up. Peel’s “firing” was largely symbolic, not just in the context of his imminent retirement at the end of the last season regardless of his dismissal but also in that there appeared to be no adjustment by the League or the referees to call penalties correctly instead of with the bias that Peel made so public in that incident. Seemingly in spite of the enhanced spotlight, the referees continued on blithely throughout the rest of the season, and commissioner Gary Bettman even defended the referees and blew off any allegations that the quality of the officiating was poor. Unfortunately we all know that there’s a big difference between early-season officiating and late-season officiating, so if the season begins with referees calling all of the penalties, let’s remember to keep an eye out for the other shoe dropping as the playoff push approaches.
That’s pretty much it for now! The Penguins’ first preseason game is this coming Monday the 27th against the Blue Jackets at 7:00pm Eastern. Hockey time!