THN’s pre-season prediction debates underscores how parity has made the NHL unpredictable

Adam Proteau
Roberto Luongo (Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
Roberto Luongo (Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

Every year around this time, THN’s editorial staff convenes in a boardroom to hash out our pre-season NHL predictions. The predictions meeting is a raucous couple of hours in which, after consulting with coaches, scouts, and our larger network of contacts, we debate the merits and flaws of every team before we slot them into divisional finishes. And by its conclusion, we’ve established some semblance of probability for each franchise’s fortunes.

But this year’s meeting had some particularly interesting aspects. For one thing, a majority of staffers liked one team in particular to win the Stanley Cup – yes, you’ll have to wait until our annual Yearbook is released in mid-August to find out which team that is – but the more intriguing development was the astonishing range of opinion on the grand majority of teams.

Now, there wasn’t much differentiation in what we thought of the league’s very best and worst franchises (nobody was willing to argue the Ducks would miss the playoffs, nor that the Sabres would win the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season squad), but once we stopped talking about a handful of teams destined for the penthouse or outhouse, our expectations varied drastically.

Take the New Jersey Devils, for instance. A few THNers see them as a great possession team – one that’s solved its famous shootout woes of last season by bringing in free agents Mike Cammalleri and Martin Havlat – that could finish as high as second in their division. But others look at the Devils and see a franchise: whose top two point-getters last year are a combined 80 years old; whose defense lost veterans Mark Fayne and Anton Volchenkov; and who could finish well out of the post-season in 2014-15.

Similarly, there were incredibly mixed feelings when it came to the Florida Panthers. Some staffers bought into GM Dale Tallon’s summertime maneuvering and drew a parallel between it and Florida’s 2011 off-season, which was followed up by the franchise’s first playoff appearance in a decade-and-a-half. Other staffers weren’t nearly so confident in their changes and don’t believe they’ll get close to qualifying for a post-season berth.

Thanks to parity and the salary cap, you can make similar pros-and-cons arguments for at least 20 NHL teams. And it’s not only fans and media who are acknowledging the utter unpredictability of the league from year-to-year.

“I think you and I would probably agree there are four or five teams that are better than everybody else, and the same number of teams that are worse than everyone else,” Red Wings GM Ken Holland told THN recently. “With all the other teams, there’s not a lot of separation anymore. And we’re one of those teams.”

This has been the NHL’s new normal since the cap era began in 2005, but it’s more heavily underscored with every year that passes. And that’s why fans who will eventually see THN’s predictions (or any predictions, for that matter) in August and work themselves into an indignant lather are wasting their fury.

You may believe with all your heart your team is a lock to make the playoffs in 2014-15, but presuming there’s only one correct appraisal of their fortunes reveals a naïvete that doesn’t flatter you.