The NHL regular season officially gets underway on Wednesday night. After a crazy offseason where a lot of players found new homes and many RFAs just recently signed, the NHL could look a little bit different. It’s time to take a look at my annual predictions for the NHL season. I’ll take a look at the projected lineup for each team and give my thoughts on what kind of year I expect them to have.
*Note: All lineups come courtesy of Cap Friendly (https://www.capfriendly.com/depth-charts/).
In this article, we will take a look at the Eastern Conference. Stay tuned until the end to see my projected standings.
- Tampa Bay Lightning 128
- Boston Bruins 107
- Toronto Maple Leafs 100
- Montreal Canadiens 96
- Florida Panthers 86
- Buffalo Sabres 76
- Detroit Red Wings 74
- Ottawa Senators
Tampa Bay Lightning
Scratches: Point (week to week), Paquette (expected to miss first couple of games), Rutta
The Lightning were the best regular season team in the NHL last season by far. However, the Lightning put up no fight against Columbus in the first round of the playoffs and were booted. This year, I like Tampa Bay’s chances on being the best team in the East yet again. Once Brayden Point is healthy and up to speed, the offense is going to be one of the most dangerous units in the entire league. The defense looks really strong after the addition of Shattenkirk, and goaltending is strong as the Lightning have a Vezina-caliber starter in Vasilevskiy and a solid and reliable backup in McElhinney. I expect big things yet again from Tampa bay.
Prediction: 1st in Atlantic Division
Scratches: Lindholm, Nortstrom (injured – day to day), Kampfer, Miller (injured – week to week), Moore (injured – week to week)
The Bruins made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final before they fell to the St. Louis Blues. Overall, like the Lightning, the Bruins are in a good position to repeat their success from a year ago. The top line of Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak is arguably the best line in hockey. I do wonder how the Bruins would fare if one of their top guys went down to injury. The defense looks strong as well, and that depth will only improve once Miller and Moore are able to return. The Bruins also have one of the top goaltending duos in the NHL in Rask and Halak. Rask was able to have a strong postseason largely due to Halak being able to take some of the load during the regular season, and Halak performed exceptionally well. The Bruins are likely set for a top two finish in the Atlantic.
Prediction: 2nd in Atlantic Division
Toronto Maple Leafs
Scratches: Shore, Hyman (IR; out around 2 months), Liljegren, Holl
There is no doubt about the fact that the Toronto owns the best top six forward group in the NHL, and it’s really not that close to me. Matthews, Tavares and Marner are all capable of being top scoring options, and Nylander is likely as well if he can improve from last year. Kapanen and Johnsson are also very solid young players. The bottom six forward group is a little bit weaker, although I really like the addition of Kerfoot. I think that the defense is better this year, although there is a lot of room for improvement. Morgan Rielly is a great offensive defenseman, and Muzzin and Barrie make a good second pairing. The Leafs do have depth on the blueline, as Liljegren and Holl are both capable and Dermott would be as well if he wasn’t expected to miss the majority of the season with an injury. I question why Toronto didn’t jump on many of the waiver options for a backup goaltender, as Hutchinson is far from a great NHL goalie. Andersen is capable of carrying the load, but I can’t trust Hutchinson to be an effective backup for him or to be able to step in for an extended period should Andersen get hurt or need extended rest. I really like Toronto’s roster, but it’s not quite as good as Tampa Bay or Boston.
Prediction: 3rd in Atlantic Division
Scratches: Hawryluk, Pysyk
Florida had a big offseason as they added the top goaltending option in free agency in Bobrovsky and added Joel Quenneville as their new head coach. The Panthers’ top line is also very impressive, and Barkov is one of the best two-way centers in the NHL. I really like the addition of Connolly to the top nine, and I think that he could be in store for a big season. The Panthers’ bottom six is young for the most part, but I like the depth overall. The defense is okay, although I really struggle to see the Panthers having any success should they lose someone like Ekblad. They could use an upgrade on defense, but if they can stay healthy it could be solid. Bobrovsky is obviously a great goaltender, but I don’t trust Montembeault behind him. Bobrovsky is getting older and probably shouldn’t be relied on to play 70 games, so having an effective backup that can truly give Bobrovsky some rest is important. I think the Panthers take a big step forward this year, but the top three in the division are too strong for them to catch.
Prediction: 4th in Atlantic Division. 1st Eastern Conference Wildcard team
Scratches: Cousins, McCarron (IR – out a couple of months), Reilly, Olofsson (IR – week to week), Folin
No, Montreal, you can’t have Sebastian Aho. The Canadiens made a statement this offseason when they sent an offer sheet to Restricted Free Agent Aho. Unfortunately for Montreal, Carolina made the easy decision to match the offer and bring him back to Raleigh. I will say that I like the group of forwards for the Canadiens. I wonder how effective that Suzuki will be in their top nine as a rookie, but their top nine has the potential to be a very dangerous group. The defense is solid as well. Cale Fleury is pretty good, but I’m not sold on him being an effective every day NHLer quite yet. My biggest question mark is goaltending. Carey Price is being paid over $10 million, but I have questions about his durability and ability to carry the load over the course of an entire season. Montreal could finish top four in the Atlantic, but at the same time I could see them finishing anywhere from 4th to last in the division.
Prediction: 5th in Atlantic Division (missing playoffs)
Scratches: Rodrigues, Dea, Gilmour, Montour (IR – week to week), Bogosian (IR – out a couple months)
Buffalo is close. They really are. Right now, I am not a huge fan of their roster. The offense has talent throughout the top nine and some depth, but I still question Mittelstadt’s ability to be an effective center at the NHL level at this point in his career. I love the addition of Johansson to this roster, but he is more of a winger than a second line center in my eyes. Buffalo’s defense is close to being good as well, but it’s not quite there. I am not a huge fan of Ristolainen’s game. Dahlin is obviously going to be very good, and I like Scandella, but I just don’t think that the group is quite good enough to compete with the rest of the division. Hutton and Ullmark are both solid options, although neither is great. Overall, Buffalo is getting closer to competing, but the roster just isn’t good enough.
Prediction: 6th in Atlantic Division (missing playoffs)
Detroit Red Wings
Helm-De La Rose-Abdelkader
Scratches: Ehn, Cholowski, Bowey
Overall, I really don’t like the Detroit roster. Nielsen and Filppula should not be playing second line minutes, and overall, I just don’t think that there is a lot of talent outside of the top forwards for Detroit. They need at least two top six forwards if they truly want to compete. One injury to a guy like Larkin and it starts to get really ugly for the Red Wings. On the bright side, the offense is in better shape than the defense. I do really like Hronek’s game, but the team needs to add a top four defenseman or two to the mix. Howard and Bernier can still be good goalies, and I like that position for the Wings. Detroit will be better once youngsters like Zadina and Veleno start coming through, but for now I can’t see a path to any success.
Prediction: 7th in Atlantic Division (missing playoffs)
Scratches: Sabourin, Balcers (IR – out for a month), Goloubef
It was a rough season to say the least last year in Ottawa. Unfortunately for Senators fans, that doesn’t look to be changing this season. The Senators do have some nice pieces. Tkachuk, White and Tierney are solid forwards. Chabot and Brannstrom are young defensemen that could become great players (Chabot already is). But the forward group is not great. It could definitely be worse, but there just isn’t a lot of high-level talent there. The defense is a mess outside of Chabot and Brannstrom. Zaitsev is not a top pairing defenseman. Borowiecki is not an NHL defenseman. Anderson’s better days are behind him in the crease. Nilsson isn’t great either, although he had a nice run after joining the Senators last season. On the bright side, Ottawa has three first round picks and six second round picks over the next two drafts!
Prediction: 8th in Atlantic Division (missing playoffs)
- Washington Capitals 104
- New York Islanders 103
- Pittsburgh Penguins 100
- Carolina Hurricanes 99
- Columbus Blue Jackets 98
- Philadelphia Flyers 82
- New York Rangers 78
- New Jersey Devils 72
Scratches: Dowd, Boyd, Kempny (IR)
The Capitals came into last season as the defending Stanley Cup Champions, and they ended up winning the Metro Division again before losing to the Hurricanes in the first round of the playoffs. Overall, the Caps look to be in a good position to finish atop the division yet again. The forward group is very impressive, and the depth there is pretty impressive. Kuznetzov will miss the first three games of the season while serving a suspension, but he should be back after that and immediately contribute. I absolutely love the center trio of Backstrom, Kuznetzov and Eller. The defense could use an upgrade, although the depth isn’t terrible. Carlson is great, and Orlov and Jensen are good as well. Siegenthaler, Gudas, and Fehervary are all closer to depth options, and having one of them on the top pairing scares me a little bit. Ilya Samsonov is going to be a great goaltender, and having him as Holtby’s backup gives the Caps the best goalie tandem in the division. The Caps look good yet again, and they have a clear path to finishing atop the division.
Prediction: 1st in Metropolitan Division
Scratches: van Riemsdyk (IR – should return within the next month)
These Bunch of Jerks made a surprise run to the Eastern Conference Final last year after making the playoffs for the first time since 2009. This offseason, the Hurricanes made some big changes. The forward group looks very solid. While McGinn should not be playing next to Aho in any scenario, I expect the line combinations to “normalize” over the first couple of weeks of the season. As Necas gets more comfortable in the NHL, he will become a dangerous offensive weapon and should contribute to a powerplay that has struggled in the past. Adding Dzingel and Haula to the offense were two good moves, and the Hurricanes now have arguably the most skilled group of forwards that they’ve had in a long time. The defense looks to be the best group in the division. Justin Faulk and Calvin de Haan are gone, but Jake Gardiner and Joel Edmundson are two very good defensemen in the right role. Goaltending seems to always be the question. Mrazek had a great season, and he can be trusted as the starter. Reimer needs to be good as the backup, as I expect it to be more of a 50-32 split between Mrazek and his backup. I like the Hurricanes roster, but the Metro is very good. I can see them finishing anywhere from 2nd to 6th.
Prediction: 2nd in Metropolitan Division
Scratches: Kahun, Riikola, Ruhwedel, Trotman (month to month)
I came very close to picking the Penguins as a surprise team to miss the playoffs this year. But having your top two lines centered by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is too strong to overlook. Rust has an injury and it is unclear whether or not he will be healthy to start the year. The Penguins would be very well served to add a top six scorer to their lineup to get Tanev off of the first line. I really like adding Galchenyuk to the mix, and he could have a big breakout season playing next to Malkin. The defense needs work. Jack Johnson is not a capable NHL defender, although it appears that the Penguins are trying to move him. If Letang and Schultz can stay healthy, which is a big if, the group could be good, but I can’t trust that to happen. Murray is a solid starting goalie, but he also has a history of injuries. Luckily the Penguins did not lose Casey DeSmith to waivers, so if they need to roll with a tandem of Jarry and DeSmith, that’s not terrible. Overall, the Penguins have a good roster but they are aging and the history of injuries scares me a lot.
Prediction: 3rd in Metropolitan Division
Scratches: Patrick (IR – week to week), Pitlick (IR – week to week), Stewart, Myers, Morin
Unlike the Penguins, I picked the Flyers as a team to exceed expectations this year. Losing former 2nd overall pick Nolan Patrick to his migraine condition hurts the team, but he should hopefully return. I really like the Flyers’ top nine once Patrick returns. Having youngsters like Farabee on the 4th line could work out nicely as they develop. The defense is okay, but if the Flyers lose someone like Provorov or Gostisbehere, they are in a huge hole. Carter Hart got off to a red-hot start to his NHL career, but to be completely honest, I wonder if he will take a step back in his first full NHL season. Overall, the Flyers are in a good spot to compete for a wildcard spot or even top three in the Metro.
Prediction: 4th in Metropolitan Division. 2nd Eastern Conference Wildcard team.
New York Rangers
Scratches: Haley, Smith
The Rangers lucked out in winning the lottery for the second overall pick and drafting Kakko. Not only did they add Kakko, but they went out and signed the top free agent available in Panarin. I would say that those are top very, very good additions to the offense. Overall, the top six looks to be very good. The bottom six has the potential to be very skilled as well. The defense is where I have questions. Trouba and Skjei are solid defenders, but they are the only two options I am fully confident in. Staal isn’t a second pairing defenseman. Hajek and Fox are young and have a lot to prove, and I just see a lot of growing pains on this defense. Lundqvist is nearing the end of his career, but he is still a solid starting goaltender and Georgiev is a pretty good option backing him up. Like the Flyers, I could see the Rangers exceeding all expectations. But for me, that is banking on huge seasons from Hajek and Fox and some of the younger forwards, and I just can’t bank on that at this point.
Prediction: 5th in Metropolitan Division (missing playoffs)
New Jersey Devils
Scratches: Boqvist, Hayden, Carrick
What an offseason for New Jersey. They won the draft lottery and the right to draft young center Jack Hughes. Hughes is going to be really good one day, but I don’t see him being a superstar just yet in his first NHL season. The Devils also added Gusev and Simmonds up front, which are two solid options to their top nine. I think that Taylor Hall is going to have another MVP-caliber season, but I do question if the rest of the offense is ready to take that next step. The Devils also added PK Subban to their defense, which is a huge addition. Subban instantly becomes their best defenseman, and he really rounds out the top four. The Devils have depth in their top six, which is more than some teams within the division can say. The only thing that held me back from picking the Devils as a playoff team was their goaltending. I do not trust Schneider at all, and Blackwood is no different as the backup. I have no confidence whatsoever in the Devils getting NHL quality goaltending, and unfortunately that will be what holds them back from taking a huge step forward.
Prediction: 6th in Metropolitan Division (missing playoffs)
New York Islanders
Scratches: Kuhnhackl, Johnston, Dobson
Barry Trotz led the Islanders to a miracle run to second in the division before being swept by the Hurricanes in the second round of the playoffs. Unfortunately, I think that was all that it was, a miracle. The top six is fine, but the bottom six holds a lot of uncertainty. I’m sorry, but a team icing Martin, Cizikas, AND Clutterbuck just isn’t a team that I hold a lot of confidence in. The defense is a huge mess. They have no true top pairing defenseman, and overall the group needs a major addition or three to truly improve. Letting Lehner walk in free agency and replacing him with Varlamov made no sense to me. I’m not a fan of Varlamov, and I question if he can hold up over the course of another year. Greiss had a good year last season as the backup, but he’s been so inconsistent in the past I don’t know if I trust that to happen again. Overall there is just way too much uncertainty on the Islanders roster.
Prediction: 7th in Metropolitan Divison (missing playoffs)
Columbus Blue Jackets
Scratches: Milano, Foudy (out 5 weeks), Dubinsky (out indefinitely), Harrington, Kukan
Last year I picked the Islanders as the worst team in the division and we see how that worked out. It was even tougher picking the Blue Jackets in this spot this year. The defense stands out, and I really like everyone in their top four. The offense is where I have questions. I like Dubois and Atkinson on the top line, but the Jackets could really use a better top six scoring option or two. They have solid players in their forward group, but they need more skill. A lot more skill. Losing Bobrovsky, Duchene and Panarin in the same offseason is catastrophic. I do not trust Korpisalo as a starter in the NHL at this point at all. I also have no trust in Merzlikins to step in when needed. Goaltending is the main reason that Columbus is ranked so low. I could be wrong and could see them finishing top five in the division, so we’ll see. The Metro is really good throughout.
Prediction: 8th in Metropolitan Division (missing playoffs)
Here is a recap of my Eastern Conference Predictions:
- Tampa Bay Lightning
- Boston Bruins
- Toronto Maple Leafs
- Florida Panthers (wildcard)
- Montreal Canadiens
- Buffalo Sabres
- Detroit Red Wings
- Ottawa Senators
- Washington Capitals
- Carolina Hurricanes
- Pittsburgh Penguins
- Philadelphia Flyers (wildcard)
- New York Rangers
- New Jersey Devils
- New York Islanders
- Columbus Blue Jackets