Thursday, January 8, 2015

A midway mark look back at my preseason predictions

The NHL season hits the midway point this week, with most teams crossing the 41-game mark. The season’s first half has provided the usual mix of predictable outcomes, mild surprises, and outright shockers.

I wrote a series of season previews in September, and because of my editors’ unfortunate refusal to delete everything the day after the season started like I asked them to, all my predictions are still there. If you’re in a hurry, feel free to trust me when I tell you that I got everything right. You can go ahead and stop reading now.

If you’re not in a hurry, or you’re not in an especially trusting mood, then a more thorough review might be in order. So let’s take a look back at those preseason predictions and see if we can figure out, halfway into the season, how well I did.

The Bottom-Feeder Division

We led off with this group with seven teams that had virtually no chance of winning anything beyond the first overall pick. Sure, a few would probably get lucky and overachieve, but it’s not like one of them would suddenly become one of the best teams in the league, right?

Teams I was mostly right about: Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes, Arizona Coyotes

I thought the Sabres and Hurricanes would be terrible, and they have been. Here’s the list of other experts who got that call right: everyone. Literally everyone knew Buffalo and Carolina would be awful. I award myself zero points.

The Coyotes pick was a little more controversial. They were coming off an 89-point season in which they’d missed the playoffs by just two points, and more than a few fans had them pegged for a wild-card spot. The two big concerns were (1) whether they could score, having lost Mike Ribeiro and Radim Vrbata off a team that was already below-average offensively, and (2) whether goaltender Mike Smith could steal enough games to keep them in the race.

So far, it’s been a resounding “no” to both questions. The Coyotes have scored fewer goals than any Western team besides Edmonton, and Smith has been absolutely awful. That’s added up to the Coyotes sporting one of the worst goal differentials in the league, dropping them completely out of the playoff hunt by midseason.

Teams I was maybe wrong about: Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets, Florida Panthers

All three teams are hovering around the wild-card race, so each has overachieved based on expectations. It’s unlikely they’ll all stay there, though. The Flames were a great feel-good story in the first quarter, but their underlying numbers are terrible and they’ve already started dropping down the standings after competing for the division lead early on. They’ve banked enough points to stay out of the race for last place, but they should finish the year closer to the bottom five than to a playoff spot.

On the other hand, the Jets and Panthers could be for real. Winnipeg has weathered a series of injuries that should have torpedoed its season, and the emergence of Michael Hutchinson has bought it insurance against the inevitable Ondrej Pavelec slide. And then there are the Panthers, who can’t score but are riding a strong season from Roberto Luongo and sneaky good possession numbers to stay in the Eastern Conference race.

Team I was super-wrong about: Nashville Predators

All the signs were there. The Predators hadn’t exactly been awful in 2013-14, putting up a respectable 88 points. They’d spent the offseason adding offense, like former 40-goal man James Neal. They still had Shea Weber. And they were getting back a healthy Pekka Rinne after missing him for most of the season. As long as Rinne could get back to his old ways, a playoff spot seemed like a possibility.

I wasn’t sold on Rinne’s hip holding up, but he’s been fantastic. And while Neal has been just OK, rookie Filip Forsberg’s emergence has helped boost the offense. It’s all been enough for the Predators to challenge for the Central title, and while we’ve all been waiting for some sort of regression — they lead the league in PDO it just hasn’t happened yet.

Quote that makes me look smart: “The Panthers are better than most expect, hanging tough in the playoff race right up until the 75-game mark, at which point they’re considerate enough to step aside and let the good teams duke it out.” The second half of the prediction hasn’t happened yet, but at least I kind of saw Florida’s strong first half coming.

Quote I would like to have back: “Once again, the Flames battle a fellow Canadian team for last place in the West. But this time it’s not the Oilers. It’s these next guys.” (That would be the Jets. Ouch. And yes, we’ll get to my thoughts on the Oilers further down.)

Three predictions for the rest of the way: The Predators slip to third in the Central, but still challenge the 100-point mark. The Flames and Jets miss the playoffs. The Panthers sneak into the East’s final wild-card spot.

The Middle-of-the-Pack Division

Next up were the teams that figured to end up stuck in the middle — not quite good enough to contend, but not quite bad enough to bottom out for a high pick.

Teams I was mostly right about: Detroit Red Wings, Washington Capitals, Vancouver Canucks, New York Islanders

“Middle of the pack” can mean a lot of things, but if we’re looking at teams that fall into the 4 to 6 range in their conference, these teams all qualify. The Canucks looked like a legitimate contender earlier in the year before falling back, and the Wings could still make a push for the top of the Atlantic. I’m not sold on the Capitals hanging on to their playoff spot, but they’ve been better than last year and should at least stay in the mix.

And then there are the Islanders. I liked them a lot, figuring they had fixed their goaltending and had the offensive talent to make up for a weak blue line. I thought I was in danger of pushing the optimism angle too far, but in hindsight I may actually have sold the Isles short. They’ve been neck-and-neck with the Penguins for the top spot in the Metro, and the underlying numbers say it’s no fluke. This is a good team that’s absolutely capable of a deep playoff run.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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