Every year around this time, we pundits put pencil to paper (or in the modern age, slap a keyboard a few thousand times) and try to make predictions. The best of us get more right than wrong, but without fail, there are always a number of surprises that none of us could see coming. I'm not sure many of us could see Mark Giordano having the type of season he had, or the ascension of the Calgary Flames as a playoff team.
Fewer still could predict the downfall of the Colorado Avalanche after their upstart previous season. Almost nobody could have predicted another Toronto catastrophe - although everybody in Toronto probably could have.
Nonetheless, part of the magic of this time of year is the endless possibilities that abound. Listed below are some players that I think are going to have surprising years - good or bad:
1. Mac vs. Jack
I'm fairly certain that years from now, we'll look back on this debate with a similar irreverence that we had with other debates over top two draft picks in their rookie years. History shows that in the last 10 years of top two picks, the first overall has won the Calder four times, while the second overall has only won twice. For all the hype -- and well-deserved hype at that -- I think Jack Eichel will run away with this year's rookie race.
Physically, Eichel appears to be more ready to play the adult-sized game than the slightly more diminutive Connor McDavid. According to the NHL combine, Eichel only has an inch and a few pounds on "Mac," but he plays a bigger game, and knows how to use his body. Scouts have routinely said that he appears to be more ready to handle the grind of the NHL than the first overall pick.
Eichel also has more experience playing among men, with his experience in the World Championships on Team USA. In that tournament, he put up seven points in 10 games and looked very much the part of a mature player -- reminiscent of Eric Lindros' performance in the Canada Cup in 1991.
In his relatively short preseason to date (at the time of writing), Eichel also has five points in three games, compared to four points in the same time for McDavid. Now, even if you take those two numbers to be within statistical margins of error, there's little doubt that Edmonton has a much steeper climb in the difficult Pacific Division with heavyweights Anaheim, Vancouver, Calgary, Los Angeles and San Jose above them in the standings. Aside from Montreal and Tampa Bay, Buffalo's division has teams like Detroit, Ottawa, Boston, Florida and Toronto - all likely to underperform against the norm this year.
All that being said, if I were a betting man (and I am), I'm going to put my money on Jack winning the Calder this year.
2. The Blue Jackets Are Coming
If I had to name one team under everybody's radar for a surprising success this year, I think my money would rest on the Columbus Blue Jackets. I really admire the job that John Davidson and Jarmo Kakalainen have done with their assembly of this lineup, and I think they're poised for a breakout. Much like the construction of the championship Boston Bruins, they have a great mixture of tenacity and skill. Each player in their top nine are similar players: scrappy, rough, soft-hands and fast. With the exception of crown jewel Ryan Johansen, it's like they put Scott Hartnell into a photocopier and pulled out a whack of near-duplicates. Cam Atkinson, Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, Boone Jenner, newcomer Brandon Saad and to a lesser extent David Clarkson -- all are going to have great years this year (especially from a fanastasy perspective), and I would look to get as many as you can in the deep rounds of your drafts to fill deep pools. Each will run the gamut of categories in your pool, and most are undervalued in initial rankings. I know I've picked Brandon Dubinsky every year for at least the last five years for that reason.
Given the weakness that will arise out of the Atlantic this year, Columbus should be able to secure a wild card as fourth or fifth in the Metropolitan, should everybody stay healthy.
3. The Sedin Twins
Entering their 15th season in the NHL, I'm bearish on their ability to both stay healthy and find continued productivity, all things considered.
Statistically, both have seen their production wane in the last few years. There was a surge last year, which directly correlated to the success Vancouver enjoyed, but neither was on par with the hundred-plus point seasons of five years ago. At 35, both are on the back-nine of their careers in the league, and statistically, the drop off typically happens quickly at that point.
Combine that with a number of additional factors -- the losses of Kevin Bieksa and Nick Bonino, the injury to Chris Higgins to start the year, and poor seasons that both divisional rivals Los Angeles and San Jose had last year (and the unlikelihood for those two teams to miss the playoffs again) -- and you're met with the fact that neither is likely to have a year as good as the previous one.
While predictions have their point production about 74 points each, I think those are hopelessly optimistic. If both stay healthy, I think they get up around the 65-point mark at best, and the team as a whole struggles to find offensive production.
At this point, these are all just guesses given some analysis and gut feeling -- all of which have served me well in the past. I'm looking forward to the joy of discovering who steps up to the plate and outperforms all expectations -- and similarly, who has a difficult year that we all should have seen coming.
This really is the best time of year.