It’s always too early to predict the playoff bracket. Yet here I find myself in late July doing exactly that as the hockey world swirls with predictions and premonitions about what will unfold in a season that is still months away from even starting. This is my first stab at it with changes likely coming once the season starts and again at Thanksgiving, and once more after the All-Star Break.
While it’s impossible to predict injuries, trades, or even additional signings, all of these projections are based on what I believe the rosters will look like on opening night. For example, although Marner has yet to sign with Toronto, I still have a hard time believing that he’s going to be playing anywhere else this coming year, so I’m including him on Toronto’s roster. There’s rumors swirling that Buffalo is shopping Rasmus Ristolainen, but until a trade takes place I will value his contributions as a Sabre.
Also worth noting, I will only be doing predictions for the Eastern Conference. I have too many schedule conflicts to watch the Western Conference as consistently, so I don’t really have an accurate base of knowledge to make projections out west.
There was a lot of movement already in the East through the draft, free agency, and trades. Most of that movement came through the Metropolitan Division, strengthening the division that had a lot of parity last year. While the Metropolitan Division did provide 5 of the 8 playoff teams for last season’s Cup chase, it lacked the power house status that Tampa Bay and Boston brought to the table. There was also a lot more parity in the Metropolitan Division mostly due to Tampa Bay’s record tying season. Washington, who won the Metropolitan Division, was only six points ahead of Columbus who took the bottom wild card spot heading into the playoffs. Meanwhile, in the Atlantic, Tampa Bay finished thirty-two points ahead of Montreal, who finished fourth in the Atlantic.
There’s a few easy teams to name outside of the race quickly. The Ottawa Senators aren’t going anywhere, and will likely spend the season competing for another high end draft pick. The Senators made a few offseason moves, including acquiring Zaitsev from Toronto in a 6 player deal. That said, for them to elevate from just 64 points last year to being a playoff team this year would take astronomical changes in their lineup, which I just don’t see. While I anticipate they could finish better than dead last, I don’t believe they’ll be remotely close to making a playoff berth.
Similar, but not quite as bad, is the Detroit Red Wings. While Detroit did make a few noteworthy free agent signings including Valtteri Filppula and Patrick Nemeth, their roster still isn’t there. They’re in the middle of a rebuild so this should come as absolutely no surprise to Detroit fans (myself included) that I’m ruling Detroit out of the playoffs “with ease” in July. Detroit missed the playoffs last year by twenty-four points (assuming they could’ve won a tie-breaker with Columbus), and that was with two thirty-goalscorers and a strong season from starting goaltender Jimmy Howard. Although prospects are starting to make the roster, I don’t see them being able to win that many more games in 2019–20 with mostly the same personnel and just emerging prospects.
That’s where things start to get tricky. Of sixteen teams in the Eastern Conference, I could only rule two of them out of the playoffs without giving it much thought. That leaves fourteen possible playoff contenders for just eight spots.
First things first, so aside from Detroit and Ottawa’s easy subtraction, who’s out from last year?
Columbus Blue Jackets
This may not come as much of a surprise, but I don’t believe that CBJ has what it takes to make the playoffs for a third straight year. They have some promising prospects currently in the system, but they had to sell some pieces to make the run that they made, and the replacements just aren’t quite there yet. Columbus has a decent prospect pool, including some young players already in the NHL like Bjorkstrand and Andersen, but you can’t expect a team to lose their starting goaltender, top winger, and temporary top center to make the playoffs the following year. I’d still consider Columbus to be a “bubble team”, but considering what they just lost and what the Metropolitan Division around them just gained, I don’t think they’ll be playing more than eighty-two games this season.
Go ahead Pittsburgh, do your worst, I’m ready for your hate-mail.
Going the way of Chicago, the Penguins were the victims of a surprising first round sweep from a team that many had not considered to be a playoff contender, the New York Islanders. Making things a whole lot worse is the fact that the same Islanders team who swept the Penguins then got swept by an even bigger surprise, the Carolina Hurricanes.
The thing that is going to do Pittsburgh in is the Phil Kessel trade. While Pittsburgh did get a decent return for Kessel, including a promising defensive prospect and former Canadien Galchenyuk, Kessel leaves a massive void in Pittsburgh’s system. Not only did Kessel put up eighty-two points last year, he had 10 game-winning-goals. He also had 12 power play goals and a total of 36 power play points amongst Pittsburgh’s total 56 power play goals, meaning he had a part in about 64% of Pittsburgh’s power play tallies. While Galchenyuk, a center, has had respectable production throughout his career including 41 points last season with Arizona, he is not a replacement for Phil Kessel and Pittsburgh’s return for the Phil Kessel trade may help them in the future, but not likely now.
Add the loss of Phil Kessel to another year of aging for Crosby, Malkin, Letang, and others, Pittsburgh’s back-to-back cup championships will likely be their last for some time. The loss of Kessel’s point production, only slightly mitigated by the acquisition of Galchenyuk, is going to be too much to overcome, and the Penguins’ will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
Still Out, but Closer
Montreal has been a team in flux for quite some time. Most of the names that became associated with the Canadiens have since moved on, including Galchenyuk (Pittsburgh) and Pacioretty (Vegas). But still, the Canadiens have managed to make headway under players like Drouin, Tatar, and Price. They finished just on the outside last season, missing the playoffs by only two points after an aspired late season push.
It’s going to be much the same this year. While Montreal has a solid team, and Bergevin has pursued a few restricted free agents this off-season via offer sheet, the improvements in the East around them are going to be too much to overcome. It’ll be another close race, but Montreal likely finishes on the outside looking in. So close, yet so far.
New York Rangers
New York has made a lot of noise this off-season by seemingly expediting their rebuild by a substantial amount. Slow and steady doesn’t always win the race, but in this case, the speed doesn’t pay off for the Rangers just yet.
The Rangers are still dealing with Jacob Trouba and attempting to get him signed as arbitration approaches. Knowledgeable Rangers fans are likely holding their breath, hoping that Trouba did truly want to play in the Big Apple and they get more than one year out of the deal.
Kakko is going to come into the league by storm similar to countryman Laine, but his scoring and the improvements around the roster won’t be quite enough to overcome the decline of Henrik Lundqvist and the flux status of their entire roster. The addition of Artemi Panarin will certainly make things interesting, but I believe the Rangers will need a year or two to put everything together for a successful run. The play of backup goaltender Georgiev won’t be much better either, and goaltending issues will cost the Rangers a few more games than they could afford to lose, leaving them outside looking in.
If there’s one team on the “just missed” category that I could definitely see making the playoffs, it’s the Flyers. They’ve had a busy off-season under new general manager Chuck Fletcher. A very strong prospect pool is on the verge of making the show, while the current incarnation of the Flyers is not necessarily bad either. Newcomers Braun and Niskanen add to the veteran defensive presence, and goalie prospect Carter Hart is expected to be the full time starter this year. I could definitely see the Flyers making the playoffs.
That said, I’m going with a 60/40 split that they just don’t. There’s too many variables. While Braun and Niskanen are certainly upgrades, Niskanen is likely declining and may not be as much of an upgrade as Flyers fans hope. Braun is a solid minute muncher but he’s not going to produce much offense. Gostisbehere and Provorov both had down years last year and will need to bounce back this season for the Flyers to be effective. Goalies have a tendency to have a bad sophomore year, even Carey Price, so relying on Hart to be consistently stellar throughout the year is a stretch as well.
You could argue Kevin Hayes was the second or third best center available this summer and Fletcher did a phenomenal job grabbing him, but the $7M+ costing centerman has only passed 50 points once in his career. It’s not too much of a stretch to think he’ll have a productive season, but it’s still a gamble to think it’ll be productive enough to deliver the Flyers to the post-season.
The prospect who makes the roster, likely assigned to the third line’s right wing, is going to have to have a solid season, as well as other Flyers U25 players continuing to have effective campaigns again after strong years last season.
Finally, the coaching staff will have to build chemistry with each other and the players in order to be effective. While Alain Vigneault has a strong background, Michel Therrien and Mike Yeo both have poor track records through their careers. Having three head coaches with different systems and philosophies behind one bench could also lead to tension and other related issues. That could lead to a poor locker room environment that will translate to the team’s on ice performance.
All in all, there’s simply too many variables for me to be confident that the Flyers will make the playoffs, especially given the strength around them. If all goes according to plan, they could make the playoffs, but then what? Maybe win a round? Unless Hart can play lights out, this is still not a team that can make it deep into the playoffs against legitimate contenders. One more lottery year for Philadelphia. I believe they can briefly translate themselves into a legitimate contender with a healthy squad in 2020–21 with key performances from prospects like Frost, Ratcliffe, and Farabee.
Tampa Bay Lightning
While there’s still no contract for Brayden Point, Tampa dominated the regular season last year so well that I truly believe they could do it again, even without Point. The core that had Tampa tying Detroit’s record for most wins in a season is still in tact, including Stamkos, Kucherov, and Hedman. Unless there are severe injuries to several of Tampa’s leading players, it’s hard to imagine the playoffs without them in the near future, so this should be no surprise.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Remember the excitement when the Aho offer sheet was announced, until we all realized how easy it was for Carolina to match? That excitement is gone, and the Marner saga is becoming more of a nuisance than anything else. Marner is going to be a Leaf this season one way or another, and that’s going to keep the roster strong enough for another postseason berth.
The loss of Kadri is going to hurt Toronto, but the acquisition of both Kerfoot and Barrie will more than offset. With the remote possibility of not being able to keep Marner long term, or keep Barrie for longer than a year, Toronto needs to make as much progress as possible, and under that duress I don’t really foresee them missing.
With mostly the same roster going into 2019–20 that took them as close as you can get without winning it all, I can’t really see the Bruins completely falling off and missing the playoffs after making it so far. They’ll need Rask to perform once again and will hope to avoid playing Toronto in the first round again.
While they are aging, there’s enough skill left in their core to make another run this season, and would take a monumental collapse for them to fall short of another playoff appearance.
Similar to the Bruins, the Capitals are returning with mostly the same roster after their heartbreaking loss to the up-and-coming Carolina Hurricanes. Ovechkin doesn’t seem to be slowing down, and if they can stay healthy I don’t see them falling too far short of their 2018–19 season. They lost Niskanen but gained Gudas to help supplement their bottom six. They lost Burakovsky but are likely to fill that role with a prospect.
I don’t think the Capitals have what it takes to win it all again without making some moves. Their defense isn’t what it was when they won the Cup, outside of Carlson, but another strong season from Holtby could help make up for that. They’ll make the playoffs, but I don’t imagine them getting very far.
New York Islanders
Similar to my prediction about the Flyers, just in reverse, the Islanders are a swing team for me. They get the 60/40 split in favor of actually making it as opposed to the Flyers. Their losses aren’t flooring, losing Valtteri Filppula to Detroit and Robin Lehner to the Blackhawks. Lehner versus Varlamov is the biggest question for me, and just how many of their players can repeat impressive campaigns to take the Islanders back to the playoffs. With one of the better head coaches currently in the NHL, the Islanders will likely pull together another playoff run. To me, the Islanders repeating their surprising success from last season will be the key to Philadelphia making it or not.
The Carolina Hurricanes rode an impressive streak of play by Petr Mrazek to the playoffs for the first time in a decade and followed it up by defeating the defending cup champions, and then sweeping their second round competition in the Islanders. Although they then got swept by the Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals, the experience for their young core is monumentally important for their franchise moving forward.
After a brief bit of offer sheet drama with Sebastian Aho, the Hurricanes will return to the ice with much of the same roster. Only now the roster is bigger and more experienced. Their forward group of Aho, Teravainen, and Svechnikov, combined with their impressive defensive core of Pesce, Slavin, Faulk, and Hamilton, will be difficult for opposition to contend with. Carolina is only going to get better, and last year was just the first step.
Something that has always confused me about the Carolina Hurricanes is just how under-rated they are. Whether or not you want to call their victories in last year’s playoffs over the Capitals and Islanders a “fluke”, they have one of the best defense cores in the league behind a group of emerging offensive stars. Their goaltending could be a question mark going into the season. Mrazek is notoriously streaky but when he’s on his game he is a lights out goaltender.
Florida has baffled a lot of experts for a few years now with sub-par performances from what has been an impressive roster for some time. Ekblad, Trochek, and Barkov, amongst others, have continually come up short in Florida. Now comes the answers that will lead Florida to the playoffs.
Coach Q, one of the best active coaches in the NHL, is going to be able to pull this team together for consistency and success. Two-time Vezina winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky will answer the issues in the crease. So long as injuries don’t become an issue, the Panthers are in this year, which in turn will keep out teams like Philadelphia and the New York Rangers.
New Jersey Devils
Despite a basement performance in 2018–19 (#LoseForHughes), the Devils made the playoffs and played relatively well against Tampa Bay in the first round just a year prior. An unfortunate injury for Taylor Hall caused the New Jersey collapse last year, and his health will be critical for New Jersey’s return to the playoffs.
With the addition of first overall draft pick Jack Hughes and P.K. Subban via trade, Jersey just needs to stay healthy to be successful in 2019–20. Their biggest issue will be goaltending, but the addition of Subban on the back end should help control that. If Schneider can return to the form he once had, the Devils will make their playoff return, and could become a legitimate contender.
I won’t attempt to predict exact point totals, but I imagine the final placements to be something like this:
Atlantic Seeds: Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers
Metropolitan Seeds: New Jersey Devils, Carolina Hurricanes, Washington Capitals
Wild Cards: Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Islanders
Like I said previously, I have the Islanders beating out the Flyers by the slimmest of margins, and one variable going the Flyers’ way instead of the Islanders could mean a switch there.
Expect more parity like the Metro showed last season. Carolina, despite being considered major underdogs in the first round, only trailed division winning Washington by 5 points at the end. The Atlantic was more spread out, but they’ll likely be closer this year. Tampa will likely win the Atlantic again, but with far less of a gap than last year.
One single injury could change the entire outlook of this prediction. Any individual team could fail to meet expectations and shift the dynamic in their division. Kevin Hayes could prove me wrong and lead the Flyers to a playoff berth over the Islanders.
Perhaps my boldest prediction is that the Devils will go from the bottom of the division to the top, but a strong rookie season from Hughes and a healthy Taylor Hall could easily translate into a complete reversal in the Metro.
All in all, an exciting off-season is building up to be an exciting 2019–20 campaign.
Written by: Jesse Leister
Feature Photo Credit: NHL PR
Standings Photo: NHL App