Prediction #1: The Pittsburgh Penguins will miss the playoffs.
A lot has been made of the Penguins acquisition of Phil Kessel and what it means for the team. We can certainly expect the Penguins will score more goals in the coming season. The bigger question is why did Pittsburgh almost miss the playoffs last season and make a quick exit? One obvious reason was injuries. The Penguins ended the season with the fifth most man games lost in the NHL at 343. By comparison, the Capitals came in 11th with 278. That’s a significant difference.
The first thing we need to consider is the likelihood that Pittsburgh will repeat these numbers. Given the recent string of health problems experienced by Kris Letang (13, 45 and 47 games missed the last three years), Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s injury histories and new Penguin Eric Fehr starting the season on injured reserve (IR), it looks very possible. Letang’s 13 games missed last season were his fewest missed since he played all 82 games in 2010-2011. Crosby, likewise, played 77 games, his most since the 2009-2010 season. Malkin played 69 games last season but has played 60 or fewer in three of the last six seasons. The loss of any one of the three is a big blow and all three were the healthiest they’ve been in years last season.
Meanwhile, Marc-Andre Fleury matched the best goals against average (GAA) of his career with a 2.32 and just missed his all-time high .921 save percentage (SV%) finishing at .920. The 2014-2015 season was easily the second best in his 11-season career. The last time he had numbers like this he followed the next season with a .912 SV% and a 2.67 GAA. A better perspective is simply looking at his career averages of .911 SV% and 2.59 GAA. In that light, he simply returned to his averages the following season.
The problem Pittsburgh has is that contrary to the popular narrative, many things actually went really well in Pittsburgh last season. While the injuries were highly publicized, the key players were as healthy as they’ve been in a while. Fleury had one of his best seasons. Yet they almost missed the playoffs and lost in the round; a clear indicator that Pittsburgh was a flawed team. Fleury’s skill made an injured and poor defense look better than it was. That defense for the coming season is even younger and less experienced, so it’s hard to predict a step forward from that group. Fleury’s history makes it doubtful his play will achieve the heights that he hit in the 2014-2015 season. Given the injury history of Crosby, Malkin and Letang, and their relative health last season, it
There is no doubt that Pittsburgh will score more goals this coming season and that will absolutely help win some games. Where the theories of a resurgence in Pittsburgh fall apart is when you recognize all that went right last season, and that needs to go right again for the Kessel acquisition to really pay off. If Fleury returns to his career averages, the Penguins are fighting for a playoff spot. If injuries pile up or hit the key players as they have in the past, Pittsburgh can be in trouble very fast. There are simply too many challenges that Pittsburgh must overcome to be as good as the team that struggled to make the playoffs last season. It’s hard to see the Capitals, Rangers and Islanders not returning to the playoffs. Columbus (see below) is going to make a big push. Its unlikely five teams from the division will make the playoffs and Pittsburgh is the favorite to be the odd team out.
Prediction #2: The Columbus Blue Jackets will finish 3rd in the division.
The Blue Jackets will be a much better team than many are expecting. Much like Pittsburgh, the Blue Jackets were wracked by injuries during the 2014-15 season. Also much like the Penguins, the Blue Jackets need many things to go right in order to surprise. The difference is found in the swing of the pendulum. One of the keys for Columbus will be in goal where Sergei Bobrovsky will be looking to bounce back from one of his worst seasons as a pro. Based on both his goals against average (second worst in his career) and save percentage (third worst in his career). If we look at just his previous three years in Columbus, it was by far his worst season. A simple return to average would see his SV% jump from .918 to the mid .920’s. His career GAA is 2.51 while last year he put up a 2.68. Better yet, in his time in Columbus, he previously posted a 2.00 and a 2.38 GAA. He doesn’t need to have a Vezina caliber season though he’s certainly capable of it. An average season will be a big boost to the Blue Jackets hopes and at just 26 years, there is no reason to think he won’t continue to improve.
Last season the Blue Jackets led the league in injuries. While it’s fair to point out that the physical style Columbus plays makes it unlikely they’ll be a team suddenly in the bottom half of the league for injuries, it’s also highly unlikely they’ll see as many man games lost as they did last season. Just dropping down to the Pittsburgh Penguins level would see that reduced from 508 to 343. That would be a dramatic drop, and a big boost to the team.
If we add in the expected boost from Brandon Saad coming over from the Chicago Blackhawks, things are really looking up for Columbus. The variables that the Blue Jackets need to go right, seem highly likely to occur. Columbus is not an old team or a team filled with players with long injury histories. They have a goalie with a history of playing a lot better than he did last season. All you need to look at is the last month of the season when Columbus was finally healthy. The last month of last season they achieved a 14-1-1 record. This team could be scary good. A third place finish in the division seems well within reach and climbing even higher wouldn’t be a complete shock. Columbus is for real.
By Ernie Mudd