Regular Season Prediction - The Middle Third

I began my regular season predictions with the teams that I think will finish first through tenth in the league and - shockingly! - the Oilers didn't make an appearance. If you're the optimistic sort of Oiler fan, you might think that they'll show up in this second installment, which will profile the teams finishing eleventh through twentieth. If that's you, prepare to be disappointed.

#11 St. Louis Blues (3rd in the Central, 6th in the Western Conference) - I thought that they would make the playoffs last season, and I'm pretty much standing by that assessment now. I think the big difference will be goaltending. The club got terrible goaltending last year, especially from Ty Conklin who posted an .891 even strength save percentage on over 400 shots. I'm no fan of Brian Elliott, but he can improve on that. Jaroslav Halak also had his worst season in the NHL, and I expect him to be substantially better. The veteran additions of Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner also give the team more depth up front than they had a year ago, and should help to mitigate against any injury problems. Goal differential prediction: +15 (Change from 2010-11: +9)

#12 Montreal Canadiens (2nd in the Northeast, 6th in the Eastern Conference) - In terms of possession numbers, Montreal is in some ways the mirror image of Boston. The Bruins had an elite season by those measures in 2009-10, but ended up being just above average in 2010-11. The Canadiens, meanwhile, were very good in 2010-11 (their Fenwick percentage with the score tied at even strength was 52.7%), but they were awful in both 2009-10 (46.8%) and 2008-09 (47.8%). I chose to more or less split the difference and rate them as slightly above average for 2011-12. Now, that said, they also had one of the worst shooting percentage five-on-five last season (7.0%), which is something that should move toward league average for 2011-12, and they have a very good young goalie in Carey Price. I have them improving a bit on last year's goal differential, but if it turns out that last season's possession metrics were a mirage, this club could really bomb. Goal differential prediction: +15 (Change from 2010-11: +8) 

#13 Buffalo Sabres (3rd in the Northeast, 7th in the Eastern Conference) - The team has made some significant changes, and has spent a lot more money, but I'm not convinced that they'll be better. Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff are upgrades on defense (though I'm not sure that Ehrhoff is that much better than Steve Montador). Up front the addition of Ville Leino is off-set by the subtraction of Tim Connolly, and the club is counting mostly on youth to make up for the losses of veterans like Mike Grier and Rob Niedermayer who handled a lot of the Sabres' defensive zone starts at even strength. Grier also led the team's forwards in ice time on the PK, so while these guys aren't exactly the most impactful performers, they were useful players. I'm not convinced that the Sabres have the internal depth to adequately make up for those (admittedly low-impact) losses. The big question is special teams. If Rehehr can make the PK hum and Ehroff sets fire to the PP, then they'll probably improve on last year's performance. I have my doubts. Goal differential prediction: +15 (Change from 2010-11: -2)

#14 New York Rangers (4th in the Atlantic, 8th in the Eastern Conference) - The Rangers are a wacky team. Their goal differential last season was +35, and the percentages all seem sustainable, so you'd think that they must have been a good possession team. And yet their Fenwick percentage with the score tied at even strength was 48.9%, which really isn't very good at all. So what's happening? Well, the Rangers were very good when the score wasn't tied. Their goal differential in games decided by three goals or more was +42 (with a record of 16-8) compared to -7 in games decided by two or less (with a record of 28-30). That's quite the split! The question is, do you bet on that going forward? I decided not to, and have consequently dropped their goal differential significantly. I think the Rangers will actually be a bit better at puck possession this year - the addition of Brad Richards should really help - but that will be largely off-set by a small regression from their goaltending, which combined with a reduced number of blow-out wins will result in a substantially worse goal differential, but very similar record to 2010-11. Goal differential prediction: +10 (Change from 2010-11: -25)

#15 Nashville Predators (4th in the Central, 7th in the Western Conference) - I didn't think that Nashville would make the playoffs last season, and they went on to prove me wrong. Or more accurately, Pekka Rinne and Anders Lindback proved me wrong. I had those two pegged to be slightly below average last season, and couldn't have been more wrong. They actually combined to form one of the best tandems in the league and pushed the Predators into the playoffs. This season, the Predators will return mostly the same club, with a couple of veterans shipped out (Steve Sullivan and J-P Dumont), and a new bargain contract moved in (Niklas Bergfors). As such, I think this is another year of bargain basement playoff hockey for the Predators, with the not-insignificant decline in goal differential coming because of a step back toward average from the two 'tenders (call me stubborn). Goal differential prediction: +10 (Change from 2010-11: -15)

#16 Tampa Bay Lightning (2nd in the Southeast, 9th in the Eastern Conference) - This team was really good last season, but sabotaged by poor goaltending. They traded for Dwayne Roloson halfway through the year who righted that ship and then marched to the Eastern Conference finals and to within one goal of the Stanley Cup Finals. The key parts of their lineup are all returning, and they play in the Eastern Conference's weakest division. I have them missing the playoffs. I have them missing the playoffs for two main reasons. The first reason is that I'm not sure that the goaltending problem is really solved. Roloson played well last season, but his numbers over the last four years suggest a pretty average goaltender. And at forty-two, there's some chance that his level of ability will take a precipitous fall. Back-up Mathieu Garon isn't an adequate solution if there are problems. The second reason is that I'm not totally convinced that the team is as good as they showed last year. Last season's club had a Fenwick percentage of 52.2% with the score tied at even strength, which is truly outstanding, but the year before that, with a very similar roster, they sat at 45.8%. I understand that young players like Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos are bound to improve and that the coaching is probably significantly better, but that's a massive improvement. There were seven teams who showed significant improvement (a move of 2.0% or more, e.g. from 46% to 48%) from 2008-09 to 2009-10, and five of those seven regressed in 2010-11 with the biggest gainer in 2010-11 moving up just 0.6%. I'd need to do a larger study to really make anything of that, but it makes intuitive sense to me that a big jump would usually be followed by a correction, and as such, I have the Lightning taking a step back. Goal differential prediction: Even (Change from 2010-11: -7)

#17 Calgary Flames (2nd in the Northwest, 8th in the Western Conference) - I get the feeling that I'm wildly optimistic about the Calgary Flames. In the SBN survey, the consensus put them at 13th, and no one rated them any higher than 9th. I can't figure it out. The Flames aren't a great team, but they've been consistently above average in terms of possession for a long time now, and last season, had a very good 52.0% Fenwick percentage with the score tied at evens, which was good enough for tenth in the NHL. Granted, the core of this team is getting older, and they have very little in the way of cap flexibility because of term, dollars, and no-movement clauses given out to existing players, but those aren't issues that hurt them on the ice right now. And a look at their roster reveals a pretty solid group of defenders - the late summer signing of Scott Hannan helped a bunch - and more depth at forward than they've had in the recent past with mostly the same proven group of performers. I don't have much faith in their goaltenders or special teams, so I've got them declining from last year's showing, but I have a really hard time seeing this team as an out-and-out bottom-feeder. Goal differential prediction: Even (Change from 2010-11: -13) 

#18 Anaheim Ducks (3rd in the Pacific, 9th in the Western Conference) - One of the truly frustrating teams in the entire league. Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan, Lubomir Visnovsky, Toni Lydman, Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu, Jonas Hiller, and then absolute dreck. The most frustrating part is that the elite core isn't even all that expensive! The total price tag (in terms of cap space) is $35.35M, which would leave them $1.93M per support player to fill out the 23-man roster if they were spending to the cap. Problem is, (a) they don't spend to the cap, and (b) they waste a tonne of money on underperformers like Jason Blake, Luca Sbisa, and Francois Beauchemin, and the result is a team that tends to get widely outshot at even strength. But the elite guys will give the Ducks a great power play, and Jonas Hiller will stand tall in goal, and the team will have a chance at the playoffs. A competent manager would have this club in much better position than that. Goal differential prediction: Even (Change from 2010-11: -4)

#19 Ottawa Senators (4th in the Northeast, 10th in the Eastern Conference) - With this one, I know that I'm more optimistic than most, but I can't help it. With Craig Anderson, the Senators have improved their biggest area of need a great deal. Last season, the club had a .906 save percentage five-on-five, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see that improve .015 to .020 points this season, which is good enough for a +30 to +40 swing in goal differential all by itself. And really, other than goaltending, this team wasn't terrible. Their special teams poor, and their Fenwick percentage with the score tied at evens was 48.2%, which certainly isn't any great shakes, but it's a lot better than your traditional basket-case. The Senators look like they'll be adding some youth to the lineup this year, but those players will also need to do it on merit. David Rundblad won't make the team unless he can beat out Brian Lee, and Lee played 50 games last year, so you'd have to think that Rundblad making the team would actually help to make them better. I obviously don't think this team is going to be great. In fact, I think they'll be pretty poor. But that looks fantastic compared to most folks who seem to think that they're going to be atrocious. Goal differential prediction: -15 (Change from 2010-11: +43) 

#20 Columbus Blue Jackets (5th in the Central, 10th in the Western Conference) - Bonus prediciton: Scott Howson loses his job. These poor buggers are in the wrong damn division, and the team is getting awfully stubborn on a young goalie. Scott Howson spent the whole summer tooling up: he added Jeff Carter; he added James Wisniewski; he bought expensive extensions for R.J. Umberger and Fedor Tyutin; and when Kristian Huselius was injured, he added Vaclav Prospal. Scott Howson spent a lot of money. What he didn't do, however, was address the goaltending. The Blue Jackets enter the season with Steve Mason and Mark Dekanich. Mason has been a raging disappointment since a hot start, and Dekanich has played in exactly one NHL game. So yeah... the Blue Jackets will be better, but goaltending is a huge question mark, and I have a hard time picking the Blue Jackets to make the post-season if they can't be league average in goal. Goal differential prediction: -15 (Change from 2010-11: +28)

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