We’re about a third of the way into the 2015-16 NHL season, and we’re starting to get a decent picture of each team. There are some clear division leaders at the moment, but it’s still anybody’s season as we move ever closer to the halfway point. We’ve also gotten some great chances to see the new 3-on-3 overtime rule in action, which has been incredibly rewarding. And as we had suspected back when the rule was announced, some teams seem to be doing a much better job of adapting to this season’s new rules than others.
While we’re going to keep our predictions somewhat light for now, we would still like to spend some time running through each of our teams this year and taking a look at their respective standings. We’re interested in which teams have the best chance of staying on top, which teams are likely to claw their way up from the bottom, and which teams aren’t likely to make much of a splash on the ice this year. We’ll be checking in with the Eastern Conference this time around, with the Western Conference standings to follow later in the week.
Remember, we’re still early in the 2015-16 NHL season. We’ll check back in closer to the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs to discuss what’s changed.
The Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t doing too hot right now, with an 8-12-5 record that puts them at the bottom of the Atlantic Division. Even so, they’ve shown some pluck in this 2015-16 NHL season, with 6 of their 8 wins accumulated in overtime while only 5 of their 12 losses have occurred outside of the regulation game. Their one saving grace right now is new goalie Garret Sparks, who made 24 saves in his debut to score a 3-0 shutout for the Leafs. We don’t predict great things for Toronto this season, but we do predict some more strong defensive showings from Sparks.
The Buffalo Sabres aren’t doing significantly better than the Leafs, with a current 10-12-3 record. That said, their overtime record is far better than Toronto’s, currently standing at 9-3. Left wing Evander Kane is starting to look like one of their stronger players in overtime, but centerman David Legwand has been one of the more consistent scorers in general over the past week or so. It doesn’t mean much, since they’re still losing more than they win. But if players like Kane can make a necessary return to form, they might make a major turnaround this season. We aren’t banking on that, but it’s a definite possibility.
Getting away from teams with losing records, we have the Tampa Bay Lightning at 12-11-3 and 10-3 in overtime. Note that, much like Toronto and Buffalo, the Lightning are essentially relying on overtime at this point in order to net a win at all. Considering they were runners-up for the Stanley Cup last year, some might have expected a better showing this season. Some thought that one of their key issues was the three-game loss of center Tyler Johnson, a leader in the playoffs last year, was out for a few games. But Tampa Bay actually did better without him than they had before his injury. After their last couple of losses, the Lightning are probably happy to hear that Johnson’s almost ready to hit the ice again. We just don’t know how much good it will actually do them.
Doing just slightly better than Tampa Bay, the Florida Panthers have got a record of 11-9-4, with 9 overtime wins and 4 overtime losses. They’ve won each of their last three games, but that’s also coming off of a three-loss streak. Their most recent win was particularly impressive, as they did it without center Nick Bjugstad, who has been acting as one of the team’s best forwards this season. Center Derek MacKenzie stepped up in his absence, becoming the team’s top offensive weapon. If MacKenzie keeps it up, then Florida should be twice as effective once Bjugstad returns. We don’t see the Panthers as division leaders, but they might at least be able to increase their standings before the end of the 2015-16 NHL season.
The Boston Bruins have a 13-8-2 record, giving them the fewest OTLs in the Atlantic Division. Like most teams in the conference, the majority of their wins have been made in overtime, as they currently have 12 overtime wins and two overtime losses. Even more impressive, however, is the fact that they only just broke a five-win streak. They may be eighth in the conference with only 28 total points this season, but they’ve got potential to keep raising their standings. Some attribute this to their third line, which includes the talented center Ryan Spooner alongside a fairly new teammate, centerman Landon Ferraro (one of the fastest skaters on the ice). But given their inconsistent play, our faith in the Bruins comes down to their attitude toward their current win streak. They aren’t letting it get to their heads; Boston is a team that knows how quickly a streak can turn around. As long as they keep their egos in check through the rest of the 2015-16 NHL season, we see this as a team with some real solid potential.
The Ottawa Senators are third in the division, but we could easily see them being overtaken by the Boston Bruins by the end of the 2015-16 NHL season. With a 12-7-5 record, they only have 29 points (two more than Boston) for the season thus far. A large number of their games have been decided in overtime, with 9 wins and 5 losses decided after regulation periods. We didn’t have much faith that Ottawa would lead the division to begin with, but the Senators are worse off than ever after their most recent loss resulted in the injuries of two key forwards, center Mika Zibanejad and left wing Milan Michálek. We do not yet know how long Zibanejad will be out, but winger Michálek has suffered a broken finger and will not be returning too quickly.
Second in the Atlantic Division are the Detroit Red Wings, who currently boast a 13-8-4 record with 12 overtime wins and 4 overtime losses. They may be looking pretty good right now, but bear in mind that their points total is only at 30. This only puts them one point ahead of the Ottawa Senators and 3 points ahead of the Boston Bruins. Center Dylan Larkin won Rookie of the Month for November, and he might be on his way to winning Rookie of the Year for the 2015-16 NHL season. But while Larkin is one of Detroit’s better scorers in the clutch, the fact that they need so much help in crunch time isn’t making things look too good for the Red Wings. They’re a strong team, but they’ve got some kinks to work out if they’re going to stand a chance at commanding the division.
The Montreal Canadiens are leading both the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference as a whole, with a 19-4-3 record and a grand total of 41 points across all games so far. They’ve got 18 wins and only 3 losses in overtime, and a difference of 33 in goals for versus goals against. In short, they’ve established themselves as one of the best teams in the NHL when looking at both their offensive and defensive games. But they have some defensive issues to address as the 2015-16 NHL season moves forward, especially if they want to keep their commanding lead. Defensemen Alexei Emelin and Nathan Beaulieu were called for major penalties in the Red Wings’ most recent win, and it put them at something of a risk. If they don’t want to risk playing with a diminished defense in some of their late-season games, the Red Wings need to tighten up their discipline a bit.
The Columbus Blue Jackets are currently last in the Metropolitan Division, as well as the Eastern Conference as a whole. They have zero OTLs, with a clean 10-16 record. It’s worth noting, however, that all 10 of their wins have occurred in overtime. Combining those numbers with the fact that they’ve only managed to get a total of 20 points across 26 games, it’s safe to say that their offensive skills are currently lacking. We also have to say, they appear to have some discipline issues. We already talked about the fight between left wing and team captain Nick Foligno and Montreal’s Nathan Beaulieu, but there was another penalty on left winger Scott Hartnell that made things even worse for Columbus in their recent loss. We’re sure the Blue Jackets are frustrated, but they’re hardly handling it with grace. We don’t think they have the right attitude or the right skills to turn things around by the end of the 2015-16 NHL season.
The Carolina Hurricanes are only doing just slightly better than the Blue Jackets in both the division and the conference. They have the same total of 20 points, with an 8-12-4 record including 4 losses in overtime. It’s also worth noting that, much like Columbus, all of Carolina’s wins so far have been in overtime. We’re not sure why neither Carolina nor Columbus can get it together during regulation, but they’re the only two teams in either the Metropolitan Division with records quite this bad. It’s worth pointing out that two of the better Hurricanes on the roster are right winger Kris Versteeg (who has been average at best compared to other forwards in the NHL) and defenseman James Wisniewski (who’s barely been given a chance to play due to injury). The other big name added to the roster this year was goaltender Eddie Läck, who hasn’t been great at performing the one task he’s required to do. The Hurricanes just don’t have much going for them, and we aren’t sure they’re going to make any significant changes before the 2015-16 NHL season ends.
Sixth in the division are the Philadelphia Flyers, with a 10-10-5 record, 9 overtime wins, and 5 overtime losses. They have a total of 25 points over 25 games, which is pretty middle-of-the-road. The biggest news to come out of Philadelphia lately is the three-game suspension of defenseman Radko Gudas, which doesn’t really help or hurt the Flyers in any major way. It helps the teams who won’t have to worry about receiving an illegal head check, but that’s about it. Gudas managed to injure three players before this punishment was even doled out, so we can’t say we feel too sorry for the team that failed to issue any sort of internal discipline. Not only do we doubt they’ll do much better this season, but we almost hope they do worse.
Currently boasting a 12-10-2 record, the New Jersey Devils have 2 overtime losses and 10 overtime wins. But while they may have a winning record, they’ve actually got 57 goals for versus 59 goals against for a goal difference of -2. This indicates that they could stand a little improvement from their goaltender and defensemen, but blueliner John Moore actually did pretty well in New Jersey’s most recent overtime win. If they stand any chance at improving their standing, it’ll likely be due to the efforts of centerman Adam Henrique, the Devils’ best forward in the 2015-16 NHL season (who might end up on the ballot for the 2016 NHL All-Star Game). But even with Rico at the helm, the Devils will have to fight a lot harder if they wish to raise their standing.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are fourth in the Metropolitan Division with a 14-8-2 record. With only 2 overtime losses and 13 overtime wins, it would appear as if the new 3-on-3 overtime rule has worked in their favor. It’s also worth noting that, only mere hours before the publication of this article, they were third place in the division. Pittsburgh is far from a weak team this season, and the Penguins can most certainly rise through the ranks again with enough hard work. They recently made some changes to their first line with the inclusions of centerman Sydney Crosby, right winger Pascal Dupuis, and left wing Chris Kunitz. But since only the latter of the three produced much in their first game as top liners, we aren’t too sure the new formation will work out in the long run. If Pittsburgh holds to changes that aren’t proving beneficial, they may actually fall in the rankings as the 2015-16 NHL season continues.
Following their most recent win, the New York Islanders are now third in the division with a 14-8-4 record. All of their wins have been won in overtime, but this says less about a lack of offense during regulation time than it says about the difficulty of their schedule so far. Things are about to ease up for a while, and we have a feeling they’ll start netting a lot more wins without running past the third period. The Isles are an interesting beast right now, as they are one of the few teams of the 2015-16 NHL season who can attribute a lot of their glory to their fourth line more than anything else. Consisting of center Casey Cizikas, right wing Cal Clutterbuck, and left winger Matt Martin, the Islanders’ fourth line has been quite successful at working in tandem with a generally strong team to net goals and slowly move up in the 2015-16 NHL season standings. This team hasn’t really been on top of the league in a good thirty years, but this might be the year they make a comeback.
The Washington Capitals are having a superb 2015-16 NHL season, with a 17-5-1 record punctuated with a five-win streak that has yet to be broken. They do face the Canadiens next, so there’s a chance that their streak may be at an end. But for now, Washington is looking nearly as unstoppable as Montreal. And interestingly enough, one of their greatest offensive weapons right now is also their oldest player. Left winger Jason Chimera is one of their most consistent scorers at the age of 36, but the Capitals are proving that age doesn’t necessarily keep a player from performing with as much gusto as his younger teammates. Especially since one of the other greats on the team right now is the 34-year-old right winger Justin Williams, nicknamed “Mr. Game 7” due to his 14 postseason points across seven Game 7 victories. Not only is he one heck of a marketable name, but Williams is also having one of his best seasons in a while, recording his best point-per-game average in the past five years. The Capitals may not be leading the division, but they have the wings they need to reach great heights this season.
Leading the Metropolitan Division are the New York Rangers, with a 17-6-3 record and 37 team points (just four less than Eastern Conference leaders Montreal). Their goal difference is actually slightly less than that of Washington, and we could easily see the Capitals overtaking the Rangers with enough time and effort. This is especially true when considering that New York has lost 4 of their last 5 games, although their nine-win streak from the end of October to mid-November still has us thinking that they may be able to turn things around in a big way. But even their one recent win didn’t look too good. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist had 33 saves in that game, but he still gave up a couple of goals that nearly hurt the Blueshirts quite a bit. They’re also short blueliner Kevin Klein and center Derek Stepan for the next few weeks, which could hurt them a bit. The saving grace in their rivalry game against the Isles was supposed to be the incredibly physical left wing Tanner Glass, but he wasn’t enough to save them. Things might improve for the Rangers when Klein and Stepan return, but they’ll have taken quite a hit at that point. There’s a chance they might not recover too easily.
Eastern Conference Predictions
Only eight teams will make it to the Eastern Conference playoffs this year. Six of these teams will be based upon the top three standings in each division, while two wild cards will be selected based upon total team points at the end of the 2015-16 NHL season. If our current assessment of these teams holds true, the same eight teams currently in line for the playoffs will still make it there, albeit in slightly different positions.
The current standings would pit the Montreal Canadiens against the Boston Bruins, the Detroit Red Wings against the Ottawa Senators, the New York Rangers against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Washington Capitals against the New York Islanders.
Our projections would pit the Montreal Canadiens against the Ottawa Senators, the Detroit Red Wings against the Boston Bruins, the Washington Capitals against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the New York Islanders against the New York Rangers.
Since both of the above projections maintain a split between the Atlantic Division and the Metropolitan Division, we’ll take them one at a time, beginning with the Atlantic. And this isn’t too hard, because we aren’t too sure that we see Detroit or Ottawa going all the way. Ottawa may even be cut in favor of the Florida Panthers if their current injuries take too great a toll on them. The Panthers are a fair dark horse candidate, but we’ve already got one of those in the form of the Boston Bruins. Even so, consistency is something that we have to look at. And of all these teams, Montreal is the most consistent. In fact, they might actually be one of the most consistent teams in the NHL right now. To be frank, we wouldn’t be shocked if they take home the Stanley Cup this year. A part of us hopes that the Panthers or the Bruins take home the Cup (just because we could see some wacky things happening to the Cup in either Florida or Boston), but we have to be realistic on this one.
As for the Metropolitan Division, it’s probably a good thing that we’re currently putting no faith in the New York Rangers since they have one of the most damaging histories with the Stanley Cup. In fact, much like Ottawa, we wouldn’t be surprised if the Rangers fell far enough to give the New Jersey Devils a shot. Not that it matters, because they aren’t winning this conference either. And while Pittsburgh may put up a fight, our top two candidates in this conference are currently the New York Islanders or the Washington Capitals. We have to say that Washington is the likelier of the two, but New York has a bit of underdog charm given how long it’s been since they’ve experienced the whirlwind success they had in the 1980s.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the Isles or the Caps make it to the end of the Eastern Conference playoffs. The forerunners of this conference are the Montreal Canadiens. And while a part of us does question their Stanley Cup potential, there’s very little reason at this point to question their chances of winning the conference. They aren’t without their faults, and injuries or mere missteps late in the 2015-16 NHL season may be enough to change our tune. For now, however, we’re predicting them as the 2015-16 NHL season Eastern Conference champions.
Once again, we’ll be checking back in with these teams later in the season to see what’s changed. So keep an eye out, and don’t forget to utilize our handicapping consulting services or consult our guide to sports betting if you want to make a few extra bucks as the season progresses.