One of these teams was predicted to make the playoffs, the other to finish last in the Eastern Conference. Funny how things work out, eh? (Francois Lacasse, Getty Images)

On Saturday, in my weekly Bottoms Up feature on the NHL basement, I looked back at some of the expert predictions prior to the start of the season for who would finish at the bottom of the standings and how they compare to the actual results. While very few of the predictions were completely accurate, they weren’t as far off-base as I expected. While everyone was wrong about the Ottawa Senators, for the most part the teams that were predicted to finish at the bottom of the standings will indeed be missing the playoffs.

But what about the top of the standings? With the division and conference winners all but decided, now is a good time to look back at who the experts expected to lead the way.

Keeping in mind that each website does season previews differently – some do a full breakdown of the standings, while others just pick the winners – I’ll be judging each of them on their own merits. Some defy judgement, however, such as NHL.com, which only did predictions of which teams will make the Stanley Cup Final. I will point out, however, that 3 of their 9 experts have the San Jose Sharks making the Final from the West and one had the Montreal Canadiens making it out of the East. Just saying.

I also readily admit that it is highly unlikely that I could do any better if I made my own predictions, which is why I’m very glad that I didn’t do so. In fact, it’s almost certain that my predictions would have been worse.

The Hockey News - C-

The writers at The Hockey News played things incredibly safe: their predictions for the 2011-12 standings bear a remarkable similarity to the 2010-11 final standings, particularly in the Eastern Conference. They predicted that 15 out of 16 playoff teams would repeat, with the only new addition being, to their credit, the St. Louis Blues. Of course, in order to make room for them, they predicted that the Phoenix Coyotes would finish 14th in the West.

This means that they had Tampa Bay, Montreal and Buffalo all making the playoffs in the East and had Washington winning the Conference. Instead, the Capitals are battling the Sabres for the final playoff spot. The Southeast Division leading Florida Panthers were predicted to finish 14th.

In the West, they had Anaheim making the playoffs, with Dallas and Phoenix in the basement instead of battling with San Jose and Los Angeles for playoff position in the Pacific Division. Speaking of the Sharks, The Hockey News had them at second in the Conference instead of struggling to eke their way in.

That said, their predictions aren’t entirely off-base, but they lose marks for coming just short of copying and pasting the previous season’s standings.

ESPN - C

ESPN’s format is a little different: they have a panel of 8 experts who make separate predictions for each division winner. This means that some of the individual predictions will be significantly better or worse than the others. For instance, Barry Melrose predicted that the Canadiens would win the Northeast Division, rather than finish last in the Eastern Conference, but he was the only one.

For the Atlantic Division, John Buccigross was the only one to pick the Rangers to win, but the other picks were for the Penguins and Flyers, both of which already have over 100 points, with the Penguins having an outside shot of catching the Rangers. Things go off the rails with their Northeast Division predictions, however, as the majority pick the Sabres to win, when they not make the playoffs at all. Scott Burnside is the only one to pick the Bruins.

All 8 picked the Capitals to win the Southeast, which is still a possibility. Also a possibility, however, is that they miss the playoffs entirely, which I sincerely doubt they saw coming. None of them saw the Blues coming either, as there was near-consensus on the Blackhawks winning the Central Division, but they got the Canucks winning the Northwest correct. Finally, votes were split between the Sharks and Kings to win the Pacific and, since any one of four teams, including the Sharks and Kings, could win that division, I’ll be charitable and give it to them.

Sports Illustrated – C+

Instead of predicting the standings, Sports Illustrated has their 4 experts simply predict which teams they thought would make the playoffs. This saves them from the embarrassment of predicting a division win for an eventual bubble team. All of them had the Sabres, Capitals, and Sharks making the playoffs, for example, but without knowing whether they predicted a division win for those teams, those predictions don’t seem too off-base.

Michael Farber, Adrian Dater, and Brian Cazaneuve all had the Lightning and Canadiens making it out of the East, with Dater suggesting the two teams would meet in the Eastern Conference Final. Whoops. Only Darren Elliot had the Canadiens outside the playoffs, but he also picked the Lightning. Their Western Conference predictions are better as three of the four called the Blues making the postseason, with the Ducks being the only outright wrong prediction from all four.

I appreciate Darren Elliot owning some of his poorer predictions recently. Too often, people will crow about their accurate predictions and conveniently fail to mention their misses. Avoiding specifics in the standings may have covered up some of their mistakes, but their predictions were better than average.

Puck Daddy – East/West – C

Yahoo! Sports’ team of 6 bloggers got nice and specific before the season, predicting not just the Conference standings, but each Division’s standings as well. It’s a gutsy move with the potential for embarrassment, but also for glory. Since they are so specific, I’ll get into each blogger’s predictions one-by-one.

Greg Wyshynski: While he correctly predicted that four teams from the Atlantic Division would make the playoffs, he had the Capitals winning the East and had the Lightning in the playoffs and the Sabres winning the Northeast. His Western Conference predictions are a little better, though he had the Sharks finishing second in Conference and, of all the teams, the Minnesota Wild in the playoffs. To his credit, he’s one of the few to predict the Ducks would miss the postseason. Grade: B-

Sean Leahy: With the Capitals winning the Conference and both the Lightning and the Canadiens making it in the East, Leahy gets off to a shaky start. He’s better in the West, with the Ducks being his only outright incorrect choice. Still, he had the Sharks in second and the Blues barely getting into the playoffs in 8th. Grade: C+

Harrison Mooney: My blogmate over at Pass it to Bulis had the Capitals, Sabres, Blackhawks, and Sharks winning their divisions, as well as the Lightning, Canadiens, and Ducks making the playoffs. Other than that, his predictions aren’t bad. Grade: C

Dmitry Chesnokov: While you have to admire his moxy, when you’re the only person saying the Leafs are going to make the playoffs, you might want to reevaluate. Chesnokov also had the Canadiens, Lightning, Ducks, and Wild all making the postseason, with the Sharks winning the West. Oh dear. Grade: D

Ryan Lambert: With the Lightning, Sabres, Canadiens, and Ducks all predicted to make the playoffs and the Capitals predicted to take first in the East, Lambert’s predictions are really about par for the course. Wait a second…he predicted that the Blue Jackets would make the playoffs? Oh. Oh no. Grade: D

Dobber: His predictions are not too bad at first glance. He had the Lightning, Sabres, and Ducks all making the playoffs, but had the Devils and Blues in, though he didn’t have the Blues winning the Central Division. His biggest miss was putting the Rangers outside the playoffs, however, and that’s a major misstep. Grade: C-

Backhand Shelf – East/West – C

Justin Bourne immediately gains some points for being the only guy to predict that the Panthers would make the playoffs. He immediately loses those points for also being the only guy to predict that the Jets would too. He included the Canadiens and Sabres as well and dropped the potential Presidents Trophy-winning Rangers down to 12th in the East. Ouch.

In the West, Justin had the Blues in the playoffs, though not at the top of the Central, but also had the Ducks in, dropping the Stars and Coyotes all the way down to 12th and 13th. He shows a little too much love for the Kings, placing them at second in the West and suggesting that if it wasn’t for the Canucks he would have them at first.

Justin does get credit for owning up to misreading the Senators, who he, like a lot of other people, had finishing last. That, and the fact that he’s the boss here, bumps his score up slightly. But only slightly.

***********************

As you can see, pretty much everyone was average. There was a common thread of overestimating the Canadiens, Lightning, and Ducks, as well as the completely understandable expectation that the Capitals and Sabres would be much better than they turned out to be. But overall, everyone was about average, which is why everyone’s grades hovered around C. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure that these expert previews are any more predictive than a weighted random number generator would be.

And hey, now you can make fun of Ryan Lambert for predicting that the Blue Jackets would make the playoffs or, at the very least, feel better when he makes fun of your favourite team.