Bold Predictions for the Rest of the 2016-17 NHL Season
The stretch run for the 2016-17 NHL season is underway in earnest.
All teams are now into the final 15 games of their regular season. The playoff picture is starting to come into focus, although teams are still jockeying vigorously for the best possible position. On the individual side, players are also busy making their cases to earn votes in end-of-season awards.
One reason why the NHL is so compelling is because circumstances can change in a flash. The catalyst can be something tangible, such as an injury to a key player. At other times, turning points show up out of nowhere—like the Calgary Flames' current 10-game winning streak.
Knowing that the only predictable thing in the NHL is its unpredictability, here's a look at some surprises to watch for over the rest of the season. Keep an eye on emerging candidates for individual awards, winners and losers in the battle for playoff positioning and, yes, even a projected Stanley Cup champion.
Brad Marchand Will Win the Rocket Richard Trophy
Over the last two seasons, Brad Marchand has done a remarkable job of elevating himself from a superpest with a nose for the net up to one of the best two-way players in the league.
The 28-year-old, chosen 71st overall by the Boston Bruins back in 2006, broke out in 2015-16 to finish sixth in NHL scoring with 37 goals.
Since the Bruins missed the playoffs that year, he headed to Russia in May to win a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2016 World Championship. Four months later, he added another gold to his trophy case and scored the tournament-winning goal for Team Canada at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
Now, Marchand has his sights set on the NHL scoring title. A hat trick against the Vancouver Canucks on March 13 moved Marchand into a tie with Sidney Crosby for the league's goal-scoring lead, with 35.
Marchand is the player with the positive momentum on his side—since January 1, he leads the league with 25 goals in 30 games—five ahead of second-place Filip Forsberg (28 goals total) and Patrick Kane (20 goals total). Marchand's pace is 16 goals ahead of Crosby, who has scored just nine times so far in 2017.
Alex Ovechkin has made a habit of making a late surge to take the goal-scoring crown, but it looks like he has left it too late this year. With 13 games left on the schedule, the Washington Capitals man is in a tie for 14th place in the league standings. He finally snapped an uncharacteristic 10-game goalless drought by notching his 28th on March 14 against the Minnesota Wild.
Marchand has a propensity for dirty play and has been fined and suspended multiple times during his career, a trait that will make it difficult for him to collect enough votes to become a serious Hart Trophy candidate.
But with the Bruins playing well under new coach Bruce Cassidy and looking to get back into the playoffs for the first time in three years, Marchand will have every incentive to keep giving maximum effort. That could make him the first player in five years who's not named Ovechkin to collect the Rocket Richard Trophy at the NHL Awards in June.
Patrik Laine Will Win the Calder Trophy
The debate has raged for a year, dating back to the leadup to the 2016 draft: Who's the better player, Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets or Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs?
Matthews did end up being chosen first overall and announced his arrival in the NHL with four goals in his very first game. He has continued on as the Toronto Maple Leafs' leading scorer with 31 goals and 55 points in 68 games—leading a cadre of rookie talent to within sniffing distance of the Leafs' first playoff berth in four years.
Laine's Winnipeg Jets will almost certainly miss the postseason—with just 12 games left to play, they've fallen 10 points behind the St. Louis Blues, who sit in the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference. But the Finn leads all rookies in goals (33) and points (60)—and he doesn't even turn 19 until April 19.
According to Elias Sports Bureau (via ESPN), Laine has already become the first player in NHL history to record three hat tricks before his 19th birthday.
Matthews is an outstanding talent who has a fine career ahead of him, but his Calder campaign will be challenged by Laine's record-setting razzle-dazzle. The Toronto man also has to share the spotlight on his own team with a handful of other impressive rookies, most notably Mitch Marner and William Nylander.
In a different year, Columbus Blue Jackets' defenseman Zach Werenski and Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray—already a Stanley Cup winner—would also be getting plenty of Calder consideration.
This time around, though, the race will come down to Laine vs. Matthews with the flashy Finn claiming the spoils.
Erik Karlsson Will Make a Push for His 3rd Norris Trophy
Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators won the Norris Trophy twice as the NHL's best defenseman by the time he turned 25.
Last season, Karlsson was bested by the Los Angeles Kings' Drew Doughty in the 2015-16 Norris voting, even though the Swede led the NHL with 66 assists and tallied a career-high 82 points in 82 games to tie for fourth overall in NHL scoring. Doughty tied for ninth among defensemen, with three other players, with 51 points.
This season, the presumptive favorite for the Norris is last year's third-place finisher, the prolific Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks. It's the Canadian who's putting up the stunning offensive numbers this year—leading his team and seventh overall in the NHL with 70 points in 69 games, including 27 goals.
Karlsson's not far behind with 62 points, but his case is enhanced this year by his defensive play. He has been criticized in the past for sacrificing defense for the sake of creating offense, but his plus-nine this year is his best number since his first Norris season back in 2011-12.
Karlsson is also leading the entire NHL with 185 blocked shots. It's an extraordinary number for a player who generates as much offense as he does, as Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet pointed out in his 30 Thoughts column:
Tracking that stat goes back to 2003-04 on the NHL website, and the most points by any player who finished first in any one season was 34. Kris Russell did it in 2014-15; Francois Beauchemin equalled it last season.
With his big beard, his toothless grin and his penchant for snakes and other animals, Burns' larger-than-life persona will help his case in the Vezina voting, but once again Karlsson is proving he can stand in with any competition.
His two prior awards might work against him, but he'll be Burns' closest rival when this year's Norris nominees are announced.
Dean Lombardi, Darryl Sutter Will Be Axed as the Los Angeles Kings Miss Playoffs
According to SportsClubStats, the Los Angeles Kings' odds of making the playoffs dropped to a meagre 23.1 percent after their 3-1 loss to the team they were chasing, the St. Louis Blues, on March 13. They followed that up with a 3-2 shootout loss to the Arizona Coyotes the following night.
After winning the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014 and reaching the Western Conference Final the year in between, the Kings are on the verge of missing the postseason for the second time in three years. They won just one playoff game before being eliminated by the San Jose Sharks in 2016.
In many ways, the Kings are victims of their success—stuck in salary-cap hell thanks to the big deals that have been awarded to players who stepped up in previous playoffs: Dustin Brown, Marian Gaborik and even Anze Kopitar, who has just nine goals in his first year of an eight-year contract with an average annual value of $10 million per season.
Cap constraints have prevented general manager Lombardi from being able to make certain moves—such as retaining unrestricted free agent Milan Lucic after a successful run in 2015-16.
Fans' expectations in Los Angeles have increased significantly since Lombardi took over as general manager in April of 2006, midway through a six-year period where the Kings made no playoff appearances. By drafting well, he brought in stars like Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Tyler Toffoli, inching the team back toward respectability.
Once the team got back into the playoff picture, Lombardi also made bold trades that paid immediate dividends—acquiring Jeff Carter just before the 2012 playoff run and doing the same with Gaborik in 2014.
Lombardi was also part of the management team that brought in Darryl Sutter to replace floundering coach Terry Murray midway through the 2011-12 season, setting up a late push to grab the eighth seed in the Western Conference and eventually parlay that opportunity into a Stanley Cup.
It's tough to stay on top. While the Kings spent most of this season coping with an injury to starting netminder Jonathan Quick, the team struggled to score goals—and is still ranked 25th in the NHL in scoring, averaging 2.45 goals a game.
As the Calgary Flames and St. Louis Blues have surged in the Western Conference playoff race, the Kings haven't been able to keep pace—they're a pedestrian 3-2-3 since acquiring Ben Bishop as goaltending insurance on February 26 and now sit four points behind the Blues in the race for the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
If the Kings don't make up that ground in their last 13 games and somehow squeeze into the postseason, expect to see a full regime change this summer in Southern California.
The Toronto Maple Leafs Will Miss the Playoffs
In just one season, the Toronto Maple Leafs have gone from last place in the NHL with just a .421 points percentage all the way up into playoff contention in the Eastern Conference.
With 14 games left to play, the Leafs already have seven points more than they did last year and have raised that points percentage to .559. They're on pace for 92 points this year, which would be an improvement of 23 points from their 69-point finish last season.
The Leafs' rebuild raced well ahead of schedule this season—a fact that should bring comfort to long-suffering fans when their team falls just short of a playoff berth in April.
The Boston Bruins, New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning have all sustained their late-season surges—three teams fighting it out, along with Toronto, for two playoff berths.
We've seen the Maple Leafs' emotional fragility late in games—Toronto's record of 11-4-4 when leading after one period is the lowest success rate in the NHL in that situation, and their 17-1-4 record when leading after two periods is fourth-worst.
The same youthful inexperience that causes Toronto to blow leads will also hamper the team down the stretch, when the pressure amps up and every game becomes so crucial.
The Leafs' strong surge this year has been led by rookies—not just Matthews, Marner and Nylander but also players like defenseman Nikita Zaitsev and two-way forwards Zach Hyman and Connor Brown.
Jelling as a group and coming into next season with a year of NHL experience, expect to see the young Leafs punch their playoff ticket in 2017-18.
The Tampa Bay Lightning Will Reach the Conference Final for 3rd Straight Year
When the Tampa Bay Lightning traded starting goaltender Ben Bishop to the Los Angeles Kings on February 26, the move was generally seen as a sign of surrendering all hope for a fourth straight trip to the playoffs.
At the time of the trade, the Lightning were 27-25-8, and their odds of making the playoffs were just 9.9 percent, according to SportsClubStats—seven points out of the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, per Hockey Reference, and just four points out of last place in the Atlantic Division.
Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman doubled down as a seller before the trade deadline passed, moving Brian Boyle to the Toronto Maple Leafs and shipping out Valtteri Filppula and his big contract to the Philadelphia Flyers.
But a funny thing has happened since Yzerman made his moves—the Lightning have gone 7-1-1 since the Bishop trade and have climbed right back into wild-card contention in the East.
Andrei Vasilevskiy has seized the moment as the Lightning's new starter, giving up just 10 goals in seven starts. Nikita Kucherov has led the way in offense, and Tampa Bay has been further boosted by young talent such as the electric Jonathan Drouin and undersized rookie Brayden Point.
Last season, we saw the Pittsburgh Penguins ride a hot second half all the way to a Stanley Cup championship. If the Lightning can keep it rolling and sneak into the playoffs, they'll be a force to be reckoned with—deep in playoff experience and brimming with confidence after turning around a disappointing first half of their season.
They'll be as tough to beat as any of the other Eastern Conference powerhouses and will be well positioned to make another trip to the final four.
The Columbus Blue Jackets Will Win Their 1st-Ever Playoff Series
The Columbus Blue Jackets made headlines earlier this year when they came within one game of tying an NHL record by putting together an impressive 16-game winning streak.
Since that sequence ended on January 5, the Blue Jackets have gone 17-12-2 and have stepped it up lately, with a 7-2-1 record in their last 10 games. Columbus remains in the battle for top spot in the NHL—third overall and just three points behind the league-leading Washington Capitals.
But no matter how well the Blue Jackets do down their stretch, a tough road awaits—especially for a team that has never won a playoff round. Since joining the NHL in 2000, Columbus has reached the postseason just twice. The Blue Jackets were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in the first round in 2009, then pushed the Pittsburgh Penguins to six games in a hard-fought series in 2014.
Though they're third in the league, Columbus is also third in the Metropolitan Division. That means if the 2017 playoffs started today, the Blue Jackets would start their first round on the road in Pittsburgh, against the Stanley Cup champions. No small challenge, that.
For the first time in the history of their franchise, the Blue Jackets organization has assembled all the necessary pieces—a hard-working team, with a good mix of talent and a stellar netminder holding down the fort. The future looks bright, but talk of a long playoff run this season is premature. Next up, this group needs to learn what it takes to be successful in the postseason.
Consider this season a win for the Blue Jackets if they can advance out of the first round for the first time in their franchise history.
The San Jose Sharks Will Win the Stanley Cup
Brent Burns makes all the headlines, but the San Jose Sharks are a well-constructed team from front to back. They also gained some crucial playoff experience in their run to the Stanley Cup Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins last season.
As well as Burns, San Jose's blue line also boasts defensive stalwarts Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun. Wily veteran Paul Martin is as effective as ever at the age of 36, though he's being used more judiciously—his average ice time has dropped below 20 minutes a game this year for the first time in his 13-year career.
Up front, equally ageless Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau continue to be threats. They're backed up by the next wave of Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture, then another wave that's younger still and includes Melker Karlsson, Kevin Labanc and Joonas Donskoi to name a few.
The Sharks couldn't keep pace with the Penguins' team speed in last year's Stanley Cup Final, which is one reason why general manager Doug Wilson acquired the versatile Jannik Hansen from the Vancouver Canucks at the trade deadline. The 31-year-old boasts a solid two-way game and a decent nose for the net to go along with his great wheels.
Hansen has impressed coach Peter DeBoer as he started his tour of duty in San Jose on the team's top line with Thornton and Pavelski.
"I loved him," DeBoer said, per Kevin Kurz of CSN Bay Area, after Hansen's first game as a Shark, a 4-2 win over the Washington Capitals on March 9. "I like that he came as advertised—energy, speed, he's going to really help our penalty kill. I thought he fit in real good with Joe and Joe. He plays a man's game out there. He's really going to help."
The Eastern Conference has gotten the lion's share of attention this year when it comes to playoff contenders, but with so many horses in the race, there's a good chance that the conference champion will have nothing left in the tank by the time Round Four rolls around. At this point, the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild look like the only teams in the West that can challenge San Jose.
Depending on how the playoff draw shakes out, the Sharks could have a reasonably easy run to the Final, where they'll look to finish what they started last season.