By: Isaac Jahns
As we hit the month of November, most teams in the NHL have played about 1/8 of their schedule. The first 10 games have shown us which teams will fly above the rest, which teams have no shot at the playoffs, and that the majority of the league still has something to prove. Here’s some case studies for the league, plus my “way too early” playoff predictions.
Best team: Montreal Canadiens
The Habs started the season with nine straight regulation wins, and while they’ve cooled off ever so slightly, they still top the NHL with 22 points, four points clear of anyone and six points clear of any team in the East. Many experts were worried for Montreal when reigning league MVP G Carey Price went down with a lower body injury, but backup goaltender Mike Condon has filled in like an All-Star, going an unblemished 4-0-0 in Price’s absence. His .944 save percentage and 1.51 GAA has him pegged as the best goaltender in the NHL right now. With two stud goaltenders and playmaking skaters like Max Pacioretty and PK Subban, Montreal is primed to put up insane point numbers and maybe bring the Stanley Cup north of the border for the first time this millennium.
Others considered: Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues, New York Rangers, Minnesota Wild
Most Improved Team: Washington Capitals
The Caps already had a solid core for a team, revolving around playmaking winger Alex Ovechkin. However, they couldn’t seem to break through the Eastern Conference playoffs and challenge for the Stanley Cup. GM Brian MacLellan decided to try to end their dry spell by acquiring T.J. Oshie from St. Louis and Justin Williams from LA, among others. The new signings seem to like it in the nation’s capital, as Washington has put up a division-best 16 points (tied with NY Rangers) in a league-low 10 games. If goaltender Braden Holtby can put up decent numbers, Washington is a playoff lock and a serious threat to Montreal in the East.
Others considered: Vancouver Canucks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Florida Panthers, Winnipeg Jets
Most Disappointing Team: Chicago Blackhawks
When you’re 13th in points in the entire NHL and in the top 8 in your conference, it’s not normally the recipe for a disappointing start to your season. However, when you’ve won three Stanley Cups in six seasons, nothing short of greatness can be expected. A step back was expected from the reigning champs, having lost Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya, Brandon Saad, Kris Versteeg, Brad Richards, and Antoine Vermette to meet salary cap requirements. The Blackhawks will most likely be fine eventually. The core of the championship teams from recent years will eventually mesh with newcomers like Teuvo Teravainen, Trevor van Riemsdyk, and Artemi Panarin. However, in such a competitive division as the Central, I think the Blackhawks will run out of time. They’ll finish 7th in the conference, but 6th in the Central – and out of the playoffs.
Others considered: Anaheim Ducks, Colorado Avalanche, Columbus Blue Jackets, Calgary Flames
Serious Playoff Sleeper: Arizona Coyotes
Arizona, on the brink of moving out of Phoenix and into a different market, has suddenly developed into a dark horse threat for the 3 seed in the Pacific. Shane Doan is the heart and soul of the team. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is turning into one of the best defenders in the NHL. Chicago expatriate Antoine Vermette can still score with the best of them. When Mike Smith is on his game, he’s a top 10 goalie in the NHL. 6’6” backup G Anders Lindback has lots of potential. Right now, the Coyotes are one point behind San Jose for the 3 seed in the Pacific, and if all things click in the desert, it could mean the playoffs for a market that desperately needs it. The 3 seed in the Pacific will be the beneficiary to Chicago’s woes: not in the top 8 in the conference, but top 3 in the division – and in the playoffs. It’s either going to be San Jose, Anaheim, or Arizona, and the Yotes are too good to be counted out.
Others considered: Edmonton Oilers, Carolina Hurricanes, Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils
Way-Too-Early Playoff Predictions
Central: St. Louis, Dallas, Minnesota
Pacific: Los Angeles, Vancouver, San Jose
Wild Card: Winnipeg, Nashville
Metropolitan: NY Rangers, Washington, Pittsburgh
Atlantic: Montreal, Tampa Bay, Ottawa
Wild Card: NY Islanders, New Jersey
St. Louis over Nashville in 7 First Round Montreal over New Jersey in 4
LA over Winnipeg in 6 NY Rangers over NY Islanders in 7
Dallas over Minnesota in 6 Washington over Pittsburgh in 6
Vancouver over San Jose in 5 Tampa Bay over Ottawa in 5
Dallas over St. Louis in 6 Conference Semifinals Montreal over Tampa Bay in 6
LA over Vancouver in 6 Washington over NY Rangers in 7
Dallas over LA in 7 Conference Finals Montreal over Washington in 7
Stanley Cup Final: Montreal Canadiens over Dallas Stars in 6 games