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With the Calgary Flames yet to kick their off-season into high-gear – they haven't re-signed any players, and they still can't acquire talent from other NHL teams – I figured it'd be fun to look back at my Western Conference standings predictions for the season that was.
Let's start with the Pacific Division.
1. San Jose – The Sharks took a step closer to becoming a powerhouse when they acquired the best defenseman in the league without giving up one (1) above average player. I still don't put them in a class with Tampa Bay, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Nashville but I think they've distanced themselves in a fairly weak Pacific Division.
Well, the Sharks won a ton of games despite the league's worst goaltending and they're in the final four so it's fair to say they did turn into a powerhouse. I'm still not sure I'd put them in the same class as Tampa Bay (I realize how badly things went in R1), but I was off in saying they were a step below Toronto and, in particular, Winnipeg/Nashville. The latter two really disappointed.
2. Vegas Golden Knights – The additions of Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny should more than offset what the team lost when David Perron and James Neal walked away in free agency. Though some key players are due for regression – William Karlsson and Marc-Andre Fleury come to mind – I think they have enough speed and scoring talent to win a decent chunk of games.
Pacioretty and Stastny combined for 82 points in 116 regular season contests, an average of .70 per. Perron and Neal combined for 65 points in 120 games, an average of .54 per. The former two definitely offset the losses – and more – while Karlsson (a decline of 22 points) and Fleury (.927SV% to .913SV%) predictably regressed. Though I was off by one standings spot, I'd call this a win.
3. Calgary Flames – I'm a little hesitant to do this because their goaltending situation really concerns me. I just *really* like their new-look forward group. They've shed basically all the dead weight up front and added a lot of skill in James Neal, Elias Lindholm, Austin Czarnik and, to a lesser extent, Derek Ryan while also promoting one of their top prospects in Dillon Dube. They can roll four lines now, which gives them an advantage over plenty of teams.
Led by Mark Giordano, I think there is enough talent on defense to be a respectable group – especially with Juuso Valimaki now in the mix and Rasmus Andersson (hopefully) soon to join.
If the goaltending holds up, which is a decent sized if, I think they'll get back into the playoffs.
Neal was horrendous from start to finish but the additions of Lindholm, Czarnik, and Ryan vastly improved the team's forward core, which was one of the reasons the team took such a step forward. Giordano put together a Norris caliber season on the back end, Valimaki showed promise, and Andersson forced his way onto the roster with the quality play.
The goaltending was a little shaky – the Flames finished 21st in team save percentage – but it wasn't as bad as I expected. I think that's part of the reason the Flames won the division, although it seems I was still a little too low on them.
4. Anaheim Ducks – Ripping on the Ducks is in style right now. Corey Perry is out long-term, Ryan Kesler is banged up, Ryan Getzlaf is another year older, and a lot of things seem to be working against them. I just can't shake the feeling they're going to surprise some people this year.
Getzlaf is still a high-end playmaker, Rickard Rakell has developed into one of the better scorers in the league, Hampus Lindholm is very much elite and, for my money, John Gibson is the best at his position.
They still have some great players and they're surrounded by an underrated supporting cast featuring the likes of Jakob Silfverberg, Ondrej Kase, and Josh Manson.
I don't know that they'll make the playoffs but I think they'll be in the mix.
The Ducks had as many injuries as you could possibly imagine and only finished six points below the 4-seed in the division. Still, I have to take this one on the chin. Anaheim's record was probably a little kind to them considering how badly they were outplayed on a nightly basis for the vast majority of the season.
5. Edmonton Oilers – I have a hard time believing the Oilers will be as bad as they were last season. Connor McDavid somehow looks like an improved player, which is absolutely horrifying. I think Oscar Klefbom is better than he showed last season, as is Cam Talbot. There's also no way they'll be as unlucky (at 5v5 they scored 20 fewer goals than expected based on the shots/chances they generated). If some bounces go their way and youngsters like Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto can help create goals while McDavid is catching his breath, this team will be decent.
McDavid was a beast and Klefbom put up more points in fewer games than a year ago. Talbot was not good, though, nor were many Oilers besides the big names. Jesse Puljujarvi did not take a step forward, and Yamamoto wasn't as ready as I thought. The Oilers only finished a win out of the 5-spot and weren't technically as bad as in 2017-18 (they had one more point!), but I'll admit they weren't as good as I thought they'd be. That is Very Oilers considering my expectations weren't high.
6. Los Angeles Kings – It feels wrong to rank a team with Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Ilya Kovalchuk, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick so low but I just can't bring myself to slot them higher. The Kings are extremely top heavy, old, and there just isn't much team speed. In a league focused on getting younger and faster, the Kings are heading in the opposite direction.
I was not wrong to rank the Kings so low. I didn't slot them low enough, in fact. My concerns about their top-heaviness, age, and lack of team speed all proved to be legitimate. I thought their stars might be able to mitigate those issues a tad but that just didn't happen.
7. Arizona Coyotes – I think everyone's favorite sleeper team is likely to disappoint. Vinnie Hinostroza was a sneaky good addition up front but the Coyotes don't have much in the way of impact forwards. The defense is also probably not as good as people make it out to be. If Antti Raanta plays at a level that gets him into the Vezina conversation, which is not as crazy as it sounds, this team *could* be in the mix for a wild card spot but I don't think they have enough talent to get there. They're still a year or two away.
Though the Coyotes did finish higher in the standings than I predicted, I'm pretty happy with this writeup. They did need elite goaltending to hang around, and they didn't have enough talent on their roster to claim a playoff spot. There is still work to be done.
8. Vancouver Canucks – This roster is just plain bad. They're shallow up front, the defense is brutal, and they *might* have the worst goaltending tandem in the NHL. Canucks fans should simply enjoy Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson, and hope for better next year.
Yep, yep, nope. The lack of talent up front and on defense was evident – there's a reason they finished 7th in the Pacific in Corsi For% and Expected Goals For% – but they did not have the worst goaltending in the league. Far from it – the Canucks actually finished 16th in team save percentage. Besides Jacob Markstrom playing better than anticipated, things played out for the Canucks about as well as I thought.
To the Central we go.
1. Winnipeg Jets – Led by Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, and Nik Ehlers, the Jets are absolutely loaded with star power up front. What makes the team so good, though, is they have a strong supporting cast around those guys. Mathieu Perreault and Bryan Little are very underrated and have been for some time. Jack Roslovic looks like the real deal, as does Kristian Vesalainen. The Jets have a wonderful mix of speed, skill, power and depth that very few teams can match.
Their defense is a little top heavy but I really like Sami Niku and think he could help change that. In goal, they're set up nicely with Vezina finalist Connor Hellebuyck. There is a lot of star power on this team and very few holes, which makes them legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
On one hand, the Jets came up one point shy of winning the division so it was hardly an outrageous prediction. On the other, the Jets really disappointed me. Roslovic, nor Niku, took the steps forward I envisioned, Vesalainen didn't play his way onto the team, and the Jets looked a lot worse than their record suggested for much of the year. The prediction was fairly accurate, but the path was not smooth.
2. Nashville Predators – I don't think the Predators have the forward depth to match a team like Winnipeg, however, they already had the best defense core in the league and managed to improve it by bringing in Dan Hamhuis to replace Alexei Emelin on the 3rd pairing. Few teams, if any, have a goaltending tandem as good as Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros. If scoring depth becomes an issue, they have Eeli Tolvanen waiting in the wings as somewhat of a wild card. The Preds should be in a dog fight with the Jets for top spot in the division.
The Preds finished one point ahead of the Jets but I'm chalking this up as a win. The goaltending was great, the defense was great, and their forward depth wasn't up to par with Winnipeg. Even though the latter still disappointed, they scored 32 more goals than Nashville.
3. St. Louis Blues – Combine the acquisitions of Ryan O'Reilly, Patrick Maroon, David Perron, Tyler Bozak with the promotions of top prospects Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas, and suddenly the Blues have one of the best, and deepest, forward cores in the league.
With Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko and Vince Dunn anchoring the defense, they're set up nicely there as well.
The one question mark with the Blues – and it's a big one – is goaltending. Jake Allen has been pretty mediocre for years and Chad Johnson is not exactly an ace backup. If they don't perform better, they'll put an underwhelming ceiling on an otherwise really strong team.
The seeding was accurate, and I think the logic behind it was as well. Their deep group of forwards, and strong defense core, has helped them make it through the division and into the conference finals. The goaltending was really shaky early in the year and looked likely to hold them back. Luckily, the emergence of Jordan Binnington has allowed the Blues to reach their potential.
4. Dallas Stars – The Stars didn't do a whole lot this off-season in terms of notable personnel changes but I think they're going to be better.
They're going to play a more up-tempo, attacking brand of hockey under new head coach Jim Montgomery and I think that much better suits their team. The star power they have will be unleashed.
With John Klingberg, Miro Heiskanen, Esa Lindell, Julius Honka and Connor Carrick on the blue line, the Stars have a very mobile group capable of quickly getting the puck up to their forwards. That's really important in the modern game.
If Ben Bishop holds up, I think the Stars have enough to get back into the playoffs.
I was right with the seeding. The reasoning behind it? Not so much. I thought Montgomery was going to have the team play a fast-paced, high-event style to suit the star players (no pun intended). Their lack of scoring beyond the big guns didn't allow them to do that. Montgomery had to shape his system to one more defensive minded and, well, Bishop more than held up.
5. Minnesota Wild – Despite changes made in the front office, the Wild are returning a team vastly similar to the one we have seen for years.
It just so happens said team *always* finds a way to get into the playoffs, as does its head coach Bruce Boudreau.
They don't have many sexy, name-brand stars but there are plenty of underrated two-way players on the roster and Devan Dubnyk has proven he is one of the better goaltenders in the NHL.
I think this team will be in the mix for a wild card spot.
They hung around until the final week or two of the season. Had they not made the trades they did, I think they could have squeezed in. I understand the Charlie Coyle deal, and I understand the Mikael Granlund deal. In both cases, though, the Wild made themselves worse in the present. The Nino Niederreiter for Viktor Rask trade was a straight up catastrophe now and moving forward. They might have missed the playoffs anyway, but I think they'd have come closer – at the very least – had they sat on their hands.
6. Colorado Avalanche – I love the top line, I love how the pace the team plays at, and I love the goaltending (Philipp Grubauer is *really* good). Unfortunately, I don't think they have enough reliable scorers on the roster to get back into the playoffs in what looks to be a very strong division.
Besides the Avs finishing 5th rather than 6th, I think this was spot on. The top line was great, their team speed caused fits, Grubauer proved to be really good, and they didn't have enough reliable scorers. The things they did have, though, were enough to carry them into the playoffs.
7. Chicago Blackhawks – Even with a healthy Corey Crawford, I don't think the Blackhawks will be making much noise this season.
They are top heavy up front and their defense core is really bad. Duncan Keith is not what he once was, Brent Seabrook's perceived value is not in the same stratosphere as his actual value (in a bad way), and Brandon Manning, Connor Murphy, and Jan Rutta just don't do it for me. I think Henri Jokiharju will be good but I don't think it's fair to expect him to move the needle all that much as a rookie.
Something tells me this roster, and coaching staff, will look much different a year from now.
Considering the nature of predictions – they often look bad because a lot of things change, and fast – I think this played out as well as possible (they finished one point above last in the division). Keith was fine. Seabrook was awful, as were essentially all of the Blackhawks blueliners. Jokiharju showed flashes, especially early, but it looked to be too much, too soon for him. The Blackhawks also made a coaching change, and plenty of personnel moves will be following.
All and all, I think my predictions held up pretty well. There were some mistakes along the way (Minnesota and Anaheim, most notably) but, for the most part, my seeding placements and the reasoning behind them proved to be accurate.
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