The Psychic Is In: The NHL Second-Half, Part 1—The Eastern Conference

Putting some predictions on ice.

Editor’s Note: We’re saving the next NFL Playoffs edition of the Psychic Is In for a few days before the Big Game, but I didn’t want to leave the internet without my brilliant predictions for a whole seek. So, I called up Mr. Hot Takes himself, Tim Culverhouse, to try our hand at the back half of the NHL season. First up? The Eastern Conference. Check back for the Western Conference this weekend. (All standings/stats are as of the morning of 1/25)

So we’re officially past the halfway point of the NHL season, for every team in the league. That can only mean one thing: a rash of midseason NHL predictions! We here at ChinMusicPod.com didn’t want to feel left out, so we figured a little late was better than never.

Hopefully, our takes this time around can be a bit more informed than the ones at the start of the season, what with all the wisdom the past 45 games or so have taught us. And there’s been plenty to learn —the Columbus Blue Jackets have shown that they are better than we all assumed, and with a healthy Bobrovsky can skate with the best of the league. The Montreal Canadiens are back from the dead thanks to the return of their star netminder, Carey Price, and the Metro’s elite are once again dominating the competition during the regular season.

It hasn’t all been roses in the Eastern Conference, however. Two teams, the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers, have dismissed their coaches during disappointing followups to a season that saw the two square off in what was an entertaining (and for the Islanders, historic) playoff series with disastrous starts to the 2016-2017 campaign, and the Boston Bruins have flirted with dismissing Claude Julien since they finished outside of the playoff hunt last year.

Through all this, over the course almost four months of the NHL season, things are starting to solidify, but especially in the Eastern Conference, there’s plenty left to be determined. As we turn our eyes towards the home stretch, we’ll start by taking a look at how we got here—namely, by looking at the standings for each division (courtesy of NHL.com), along with some of the stories those standings tell.

Then we’ll take a look at what comes next, starting by taking a look at the playoff odds (courtesy of hockey-reference.com) to see what the numbers say about the NHL season will finish. Finally, we’ll finish off with my and Tim’s  bold predictions for the final standings this season.

Time to put some hot takes on ice….

How We Got Here

atlantic-by-points

If you want to know how the real-life version of the 2016-2017 Atlantic Division (perhaps the worst division name in all of sports) differs from the version many in the hockey world predicted in the fall of last year, look at the #1 and #8 spots in that graphic.

Atop, to the surprise of some, is the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens were closer to the AHL Playoffs than the NHL Playoffs last year, as the team staggered through the season after losing Hart and Vezina trophy winner Carey Price. After last year’s desperate finish, the heat was firmly planted in the “on” position of the seat of coach Michel Therrien, and there were whispers of big change coming—then it came. The team played a little roulette over the summer, first in signing Russian Alexander Radulov, who’s redeemed himself this season with 37 points through 47 games, and trading away their most popular player, PK Subban, for an older and more expensive replacement in Shea Weber.

While the hockey world laughed, the Canadiens waited for a chance to prove themselves right, and they’ve done just that. More than halfway through the year, they find themselves with the most points in the Atlantic, largely thanks to the play of Price, Radulov, and Weber.

Meanwhile, the team that many thought would be atop the Atlantic is sitting at the bottom. After the Tampa Bay Lightning were just a few wins away from the Stanley Cup Final last year, the team will likely miss the playoffs, shocking many who saw a young, talented team resign many of their best players to team-friendly contracts.

Coach John Cooper doesn’t seem to be on the hot seat, and that’s probably fair, despite the results. Steven Stamkos is out for most of another season, and the injury bug has bitten plenty of Tampa contributors. They’ll almost surely be back atop the Atlantic next year, but hockey is a fickle beast—and even if the team can find it’s way again, they’ll have wasted a year in the window.

atlantic-by-percentage

On the flip side, if you want to know how this year matches the expert predictions, take a look at the Boston Bruins. The team is right on the bubble of the playoff spot in terms of points already earned, which is where most expected them to be. The team has an interesting makeup, featuring big names in Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask, but plenty of sub-standard roster players as well.

The bad news for the Bruins? Those regular season standings are deceiving, especially this year. If you account for the differences in games played (which points percentage helpfully does) the Bruins are the outside looking in when it comes to the playoffs, and by a fairly significant margin.

Now, that doesn’t mean the Bruins are necessarily done for. The team has one of the best goalies in hockey, which means a hot streak is always just a day away, and they have the star power to match almost any team in the league.

More good news for Boston — with Tampa in the division basement, the Atlantic looks weaker than ever. The two teams above them in the points percentage race are either similarly mediocre (the Ottawa Senators) or young a thin on the blue line (the Toronto Maple Leafs), and I would expect much out of the Buffalo Sabres this year.

This year is going to be a turning point for the spoked-B, and the next few weeks should be a turning point within a turning point. If the Bruins think they can make a run, they may want to load up, and if they think it’s too late, it’s time to start figuring out what the future looks like and who it includes.

The worst thing the Bruins could do over the next few weeks would be nothing. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what I think will happen, and they’ll find themselves on the outside looking in come playoff time.

What comes next

Playoff odds:

Atlantic playoff odds.png

Brendan’s projected standings (** indicates wild card berth):

  1. Montreal Canadiens
  2. Toronto Maple Leafs
  3. Ottawa Senators
  4. Boston Bruins
  5. Detroit Red Wings
  6. Buffalo Sabres
  7. Florida Panthers
  8. Tampa Bay Lightning

Oh, what a difference a year makes. Last year, we were ruminating on the lack of Canadian teams in the playoffs, and how it would affect the NHL’s bottom line and its salary cap. There will be no need for such hand-wringing this year. The division with the most teams representing the game’s birthplace will send all three Canadian collections to the postseason this year.  

The Habs are all but guaranteed a spot in the tournament. Like the elite of the Metro, they’ve bankrolled enough points where even a collapse shouldn’t keep them out—and few collapses come with a goalie as talented as Price minding the pipes. The Senators, while pretty unappealing from a narrative standpoint, are a solid team that’s flown under the radar most of the year, and I think they’ll be able to hold off the Bruins, who find themselves in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons and will likely suffer, as a result, at the end of the season.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have been arguably the most fun and exciting team of the past half-decade, and maybe this is just wishful thinking—but I think they’ll get better by the year’s end. It wouldn’t shock me if the Leafs’ powerful brass finds a way to upgrade the blue line in order to sure up the back end.

No matter how they get there, it’s crucial for Toronto to get at least four playoff games this year. The team, like most that will fight for their conference’s final playoff berths, just isn’t good enough yet to stand with the league’s best.

But that’s about to change. The Maple Leafs already score more than most teams in the NHL, have some of the top players in the league as rookies on rookie contracts, meaning they can add some more pricey items to their cap, and have a highly intelligent front office. They will be in the playoffs and should be playing for Stanely Cups, many times in the years to come.

For now, they need to get those rookies as many minutes as possible during the high-pressure playoffs. That way, when the time for their cup runs does come, Matthews, Marner and the rest will be ready.
Tim’s projected standings (** indicates wild card berth):

  1. Montreal Canadiens
  2. Toronto Maple Leafs
  3. Boston Bruins
  4. Ottawa Senators
  5. Detroit Red Wings
  6. Buffalo Sabres
  7. Tampa Bay Lightning
  8. Florida Panthers

Ah yes, here’s that bias that we all try to avoid as much as possible in our writing. Unlike my compatriot here, I do think the Bruins somehow manage, by the skin of their teeth, to make it into the playoffs as the third seed in the Atlantic Division.

(Side Note: Let’s rename the divisions. I completely agree with Brendan on this one. The Norris & Adams Divisions were badass names. How about we honor some of the top 100 NHL players that the NHL is ripping through in their centennial celebration. You could have divisions honoring Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Mario Lemeiux, etc. You try to find some geographic tie and when the divisions are finally evened out in a couple of years because of expansion/relocation, you have four 8-team divisions named after four of the best hockey players of all time. Seems like a plausible idea.)

Why do I have confidence in the Bruins? I have no fucking clue. There’s just something that tells me that there’s something brewing (sorry for the awful pun) in Boston. Whether that means Claude gets fired, or the team makes a deal to acquire someone of value, I think it’s coming. The expansion draft is going to put the onus on some teams to make at the deadline they most likely wouldn’t in other years. Boston pulls something off, and they manage to squeak into the playoffs and draw a favorable matchup with Toronto.

Nobody is sniffing the Canadiens. That team is a wagon. As long as Carey Price stays healthy, they’re a favorite to win the East and probably the Stanley Cup (God help us and save us). Toronto takes the number two seed because Mike Babcock is a wizard, and there’s too much offensive talent to slow down the Leafs. I also think that they get a major boost from the Bruins, Senators and Red Wings beating up on each other and being so blah and mediocre, that the Leafs squeak into that two slot and earn home-ice advantage in the opening round.

As for the bottom portion of the Atlantic, I agree with Brendan that a wild card team isn’t coming out of here. The Metropolitan is stacked, so we’ll see five teams from there end up competing for the Cup. Ottawa and the Bruins are so damn consistently inconsistent that I feel like they’re due to miss out on the playoffs this year after going insane two years ago and making it in. No fancy “Stat Tardiff” numbers to back it up, just a gut feeling. Detroit and Buffalo are a couple pieces away from seriously contending for a spot. Tampa is too hurt to stay afloat, and I have no clue what’s going on in South Florida. The Panthers are a super dumpster fire, and they end up at the bottom of a pretty bad division because of it.

How We Got Here

metro-by-points-won

The biggest story here, without question, is the Columbus Blue Jackets. To put it kindly, expectations were not high surrounding the team as the season started. They were woeful last year, and not much had changed. The roster was littered with the same mediocre names, including Nick Foligno, Brandon Dubinsky, and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, along with plenty of doubt that any of those names could replicate their career highs gone by.

Perhaps more importantly, the same coach was behind the bench: John Tortorella. Torts is decidedly unpopular among the hockey media (with good reason) and had been dismissed after failing to capture a cup by multiple talented squads, including the Rangers at the height of their cup window and eventually, the Vancouver Canucks. Coming off a beatdown while coaching Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey, no one thought that Tortorella would be the one to lift that roster back to their career highs.

Shows how much we know.

The Blue Jackets reeled off 16 straight wins, nearly setting the record for the longest winning streak in the game’s history in the process, and now find themselves with the most points in the whole damn league. While their play is starting to regress towards the mean, or even worse, regress towards expectations, the team is almost guaranteed a playoff spot, even in the marvelous Metro Division, despite the fact that this team may not be as good as their record says.

metro-by-points-percentage

Here’s where things get a little less rosy for the Columbus Blue Jackets. While their win streak, combined with a few more games played, as them sitting atop the NHL, their points percentage isn’t quite as strong.

This evaluation hurt the Bruins badly when we looked at the Atlantic, and it doesn’t bode well for their fellow B’s here. But, like we said above, the points lead that Columbus has built up probably ensures that they won’t fall entirely from a playoff position.

The same can’t be said about the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers are the definition of a bubble team, either just in or just out depending on how you look at the metrics. But with a few extra games played over many of their divisional foes, a slim three-point lead over the Islanders doesn’t seem so strong.

And then we get to the Islanders—it’s been a strange season for the Blue and Orange faithful. After winning their first playoff series since the cast of ChinMusicPod contributors were still in diapers, the team changed their roster in the offseason, saying goodbye to a trio of homegrown favorites in Matt Martin, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo and adding Jason Chimera, Andrew Ladd and some young players like Anthony Beauvilier. The change did not take, especially to start the season, as the Islanders quickly fell to the bottom of the Eastern Conference and eventually fired their coach.

But now, with the Flyers set to take on the Rangers, the Islanders stand just three points behind the Flyers with four less potential points earned. Their points percentages are off by less than 10 points—call it homerism, but the Islanders are surging, and the Flyers should probably be a bit frightened.

What comes next

Playoff odds:

metro-playoff-odds

Brendan’s projected standings (** indicates wild card berth):

  1. Washington Capitals
  2. Columbus Blue Jackets
  3. Pittsburgh Penguins
  4. New York Rangers**
  5. New York Islanders**
  6. Philadelphia Flyers
  7. New Jersey Devils
  8. Carolina Hurricanes

Despite all the chaos we described above, the top of the Metro is pretty boring, at least if you just consider who will make the playoffs. The top four teams in the division, the Blue Jackets, the Capitals, the Penguins and the Rangers, are almost assured of playoff berths (and don’t just take my word for it—hockey-reference gives them each more than a 99 percent chance of playing in the Spring.

The question is just how they will finish. I gave a slight edge to the Capitals, who seem to love finishing high in the division at the end of the regular season. The Blue Jackets’ points streak should still give them home-ice in the first round, and the talent on the Penguins is just too much to finish outside of the automatic bids, so we’ll relegate the Rangers to that first wild card slot.

Even as the Metro as dipped from the height of its dominance earlier this year, I am still of the opinion that when it’s all said and done, both of the wild cards will once again come from the Metro Division. But who gets that eighth spot?

Thanks to a mix of favoritism and recency bias, I’m going with the Isles. The new coach seems to have given them life in the early goings, they have more games left to play than most of their opponents, and I think, a stronger starting goaltender. Separating the two teams that rock orange in the Metro, the Islanders, and Flyers, is quite difficult, as their contest earlier this week showcased. But if John Tavares can keep playing with even some of the productivity he’s shown over the past few weeks, he’s capable of carrying even a deeply flawed Islanders squad over the Flyers. (I hope.)

Tim’s projected standings  (** indicates wild card berth):

  1. Washington Capitals
  2. Pittsburgh Penguins
  3. Columbus Blue Jackets
  4. New York Rangers**
  5. New York Islanders**
  6. Philadelphia Flyers
  7. Carolina Hurricanes
  8. New Jersey Devils

It sucks when we agree on just about everything. There’s no fun in that. But alas, Brendan and I have the same five teams making it into the playoffs from the Metro Division at the midway point of the season. The only difference in our standings is me flip-flopping Pittsburgh and Columbus. I just think that there’s so much Goddamn talent on the Penguins that they eventually overtake Columbus and earn the home-ice advantage in the opening round. Plus, nobody wants to play the way John Tortorella wants to play for an entire season. The Blue Jackets are good, but they’ll eventually hit a wall because of Torts demanding style.

The Rangers and Islanders wind up in the postseason as the two wildcards simply because the Atlantic Division blows. Both these teams are good, don’t get me wrong, but both of these teams have some major flaws. For a stretch, King Henrik and the Broadway Blueshirts couldn’t get out of their own way. They’ve righted the ship, but there’s still plenty of questions lurking about the Rangers on defense and scoring after their top six.

And as for Mr. Murray’s Islanders, I view them as the knockoff version of the Penguins last year. There’s a fair amount of talent on that team, and changing coaches seems to have reinvigorated the locker room. Pittsburgh rode that momentum all the way to a Stanley Cup last year. New York will ride that wave all the way to the Stanley Cup first round before being taken out pretty easily. But still, getting into the dance after the hellacious start to the season is an accomplishment in itself.

But, the Islanders will be pushed to the end by Philly and Carolina. The Flyers can’t put together a solid streak after their lengthy winning streak earlier this year, largely because they continue trotting out shitty goalies. The Hurricanes have come out of nowhere, but I think they fade down the stretch. Same goes with the Devils. Does anybody play a more boring brand of hockey than New Jersey? I doubt it, so they’re out.

Just how wrong will Brendan and Tim be? Follow them at @MurraySportTalk and @culvey13 and check back and the end of the season.

 

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