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Regular Season Prediction - The Top Third

Will they be back on top?
Will they be back on top?

Predictions about the upcoming season are always a lot of fun. The traditional method is to predict teams finishing first through fifteenth in each Conference. Sensible enough, but kind of hard to evaluate at the end of the year because a team with an even goal differential can be good for anything from fifth to tenth, so you might be right about team quality but way off in the standings. That kind of variance can make a good prediction look foolish, but it can also make a bad one look great (like when a +4 Anaheim team finishes fourth in the West). So last year I decided to offer an estimate of each club's goal differential in addition to their placement in the standings, and used the goal differential to evaluate my success at the end of the year.

As it turned out, my predictions were quite a bit better than assuming that every team would end up with a goal differential of zero, and a little bit better than assuming that every team would end up with the same goal differential as they had the year before. Encouraged by these results (kind of), I'll be doing the same again this year, breaking things down into three sections (1-10; 11-20; 21-30). And while normally it would be more dramatic to start at the bottom and count up, the drama for Oiler fans comes near the end, so I'll be starting at the top and counting down.

#1 San Jose Sharks (1st in the Pacific, 1st in the Western Conference) - The Sharks may have the best group of defensemen in the entire league. Brent Burns solidifies their top four, and Colin White and Jim Vandermeer give them two veterans who can competently play on the third pairing. Youngsters Justin Braun and Jason Demers make eight guys that I'm confident can play at least bottom pairing minutes. Up front, the Sharks swapped Dany Heatley for Martin Havlat, which probably means that Joe Pavelski will move over to play wing on the top line. The second line will probably be Havlat with Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe to start the year, which is going to cause problems. The power play was one of the best in the league last year, and I expect that to be the same again this season. With the additions on defense along with Michal Handzus at center, the PK should also improve. I don't think too much of Antti Niemi, but he, Antero Niittymaki, and Thomas Greiss should be able to combine for something close to average netminding if not a little bit better. Goal differential prediction: +55 (Change from 2010-11: +20)

#2 Vancouver Canucks (1st in the Northwest, 2nd in the Western Conference) - The Canucks haven't made many changes to last year's club, but I still have them taking a small step back because they'll start the year with a couple of key players on the mend in Mason Raymond and Ryan Kesler, and because their depth took a small hit with the departure of Christian Ehrhoff. Last season was also the first in the last few seasons where they were an elite team in terms of possession (their Fenwick percentage with the score tied was slightly under 50% in both 2009-10 and 2008-09 compared to 53.9% last season). The roster did change significantly before last season (the major additions were Dan Hamhuis and Manny Malhotra), but I'd still like to see at least one more year of stellar results before I buy in to this club as an elite EV team. Where they're unquestionably elite is in goal. Roberto Luongo took a lot of flack for his performance in the Stanley Cup Finals, but he's still one of the three or four best goaltenders in the entire league. Goal differential prediction: +55 (Change from 2010-11: -22)

#3 Washington Capitals (1st in the Southeast, 1st in the Eastern Conference) - The addition of Tomas Vokoun at a bargain-basement price is huge. He's one of the top goaltenders in the NHL, and should provide a significant bump for the team's chances. The club has retained or replaced all of the key players from last year's roster, and the young defense pairing of Karl Alzner and John Carlson should be even better this year than they were last season. Combine that with a weak division and playing in the weaker Conference, and the Capitals are my favorite to win both the Eastern Conference, and the Stanley Cup. Goal differential prediction: +40 (Change from 2010-11: +13)

#4 Boston Bruins (1st in the Northeast, 2nd in the Eastern Conference) - The defending Stanley Cup champions remain one of the best teams in the league, and may actually be a better club this season than they were last season. With Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask the club has the best goaltending in the NHL. Up front, the club will have three very strong lines anchored by Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Tyler Seguin. Bergeron should have won the Selke trophy last year in my opinion and will no doubt be taking all of the tough assignments again this season, which will provide significant cover for Krejci and Seguin to rack up some impressive offense at even strength. The blueline is thin after the top four, but I expect them to make some additions there before the playoffs. So why the big decline in goal differential from last year? The Bruins had a very high shooting percentage last season, which I expect to regress, and the club hasn't added anything of significance to make up for that decline. Plus, as good as Thomas is, I don't expect him to have another record-setting season between the pipes. Goal differential prediction: +35 (Change from 2010-11: -16) 

#5 Chicago Blackhawks (1st in the Central, 3rd in the Western Conference) - I think they win the division this year. I'd call it "bouncing back" except that this was a very good team last year too. Their Fenwick percentage with the score tied (54.0%) led the Western Conference and their +33 goal differential was already good enough for seventh in last year's standings. Their depth up front isn't what it was in 2009-10, but it is better than last year, mostly because the club reallocated some of the resources from dealing away Brian Campbell to the forwards. And while losing Campbell will surely hurt, the Blackhawks replaced him with the much cheaper Steve Montador, and have added a couple of low cost options (Sami Lepisto, Sean O'Donnell) to bolster their depth at the position. I haven't seen enough from Corey Crawford to believe he'll be consistently above average - and his AHL career gives some reason to doubt him - but Ray Emery is a good back-up plan if things go south. I think I may actually be underrating this team, but concern about the goaltending and penalty killing keep me from moving them up. Goal differential prediction: +35 (Change from 2010-11: +2)

#6 Pittsburgh Penguins (1st in the Atlantic, 3rd in the Eastern Conference) - Sidney Crosby is out indefinitely, which means that the Penguins have $8.7M in dead cap space. Normally, that would have me pushing them down this list (and I have pulled them down a bit), but the Penguins performed very well without Crosby and without Evgeni Malkin during the last half of last season. Now, they have Malkin back, and it looks like Crosby is probably going to be back in the lineup before the end of the year. They also have as good of a supporting cast as ever with the addition of Steve Sullivan and James Neal on the roster for a full season, in addition to a very strong top four. It's understandable that the club is committed to Marc-Andre Fleury (that contract isn't going away), but he's been just slightly above average over the last four years, which holds this club back. Swap him and Vokoun, and I'd probably have the Penguins as favorites to win it all. Goal differential prediction: +30 (Change from 2010-11: -9)

#7 Los Angeles Kings (2nd in the Pacific, 4th in the Western Conference) - I'm the kind of person who needs to see some results before I'll go to town betting on a team, but my oh my, does this team every look good on paper. Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll down the middle. Simon Gagne, Dustin Brown, Dustin Penner and Justin Williams on the wings. Drew Doughty anchoring the defense. A solid starter in goal and a blue-chip prospect behind him ready to take over if he falters. They've even got a little bit of cap space to make an addition (or two) at the deadline (and they could use one more top four defender at evens to push Jack Johnson down the depth chart). I don't know what the internal expectations are, but I'd have to think that another first round exit would be a massive disappointment. Goal differential prediction: +25 (Change from 2010-11: +4) 

#8 Detroit Red Wings (2nd in the Central, 5th in the Western Conference) - The retirement of Brian Rafalski definitely hurts. Ian White is a solid defender, but he doesn't come close to adequately replacing Rafalski. In goal, the team is relying on Jimmy Howard and Ty Conklin who both have some question marks - neither was above average last season, and Conklin was awful. There is still tremendous quality up front, and Nicklas Lidstrom is back on the blueline for a 20th season coming off yet another Norris Trophy, but this is not a flawless team. And with Lidstrom, Brad Stuart, Niklas Kronwall, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen Tomas Holmstrom, Todd Bertuzzi, and Danny Cleary all on the wrong side of thirty, the core of the team is getting old. I don't think there's a huge fall coming this year, but for the first time in about two decades, I wouldn't be totally shocked if the Red Wings miss the playoffs. Goal differential prediction: +20 (Change from 2010-11: No Change)

#9 New Jersey Devils (2nd in the Atlantic, 4th in the Eastern Conference) - I got burnt predicting a strong finish for the Devils last season, and I'm leaving myself open to getting burnt again, but I think that there are good reasons to believe in this club. They had one of the better Fenwick percentages with the score tied at evens in the NHL a year ago (53.3%), but were done in by the league's worst on-ice shooting percentage (6.7%). The story was similar on the power play: the team was generating shots, but just couldn't score (their shooting percentage 5-on-4 was 8.4%, which was only better than the Florida Panthers). Further, Zach Parise returns after spending most of last year on injured reserve. They've gone from cap-strapped to having cap flexibility over the summer, which both opened up roster spots for young players like Adam Larsson and Jacob Josefson and should also give them room to sign Parise to a contract extension. The best part about this youth movement? They're not overdoing it - there are suitable veterans at each position of responsibility so that the younger players can be brought up slowly. It's possible that a slow start leads them to tear the team down, but I think a return to the top half of the league is much more likely. Goal differential prediction: +20 (Change from 2010-11: +55)

#10 Philadelphia Flyers (3rd in the Atlantic, 5th in the Eastern Conference) - The club had a very controversial summer, and look worse on paper today than they were at the start of last season. But that doesn't mean that (all) of Paul Holmgren's decisions were poor. Swapping Jeff Carter and Mike Richards for a bevy of young talent holds a certain logic. The cluster of forwards under twenty-five is impressive: Claude Giroux; Wayne Simmonds; Brayden Schenn; Jakub Voracek; Sean Couturier; James van Riemsdyk. The developmental situation is also excellent with a veteran group of defensemen who will be able to cover up more mistakes than most, and an excellent if not elite goaltender... who's getting paid like an elite goaltender... for the next five thousand years. That Ilya Bryzgalov contract really is bewildering. Anyroad, I think they'll fall a bit, but not all the way out of the playoffs. Goal differential prediction: +20 (Change from 2010-11: -16)