When 2,100 NHL fans try to predict the future, what can we learn?

Every year, right before the season starts, I run a prediction contest. There’s a list of simple questions, and you give me your easy answers, and at the end we realize that we’re all dumb. It’s fun, and this year there were 2,109 entries.

This post isn’t about the actual contest. It’s too soon to know much about how that will play out, and we’ll have plenty of time to check in on how everyone is doing down the road. But it occurred to me that I’ve got something interesting here: A detailed survey of hockey fans with a pretty decent sample size, all pointing to what we actually think is going to happen this year.

That’s the thing about the way the contest works — because the penalty for being wrong is so severe, it doesn’t have the same incentives that most predictions do. There are no bonus points for going off the board, or for being the only one to make a certain pick. You just want to be right.

In other words, you have to be honest, instead of doing what we normally all do at this time of year, which is troll for longshots and underdogs in hope of lucking into something impressive. If you think a team like the Red Wings or Senators has a slim chance to make the playoffs, you might include them in your preseason picks because you know you’ll look smarter than everyone else if they come through. But in the contest, there’s no way you’re putting your entry on the line for a team like that.

Or would you? Let’s find out, by digging into this year’s entries and seeing just how confident everyone was on questions like who would or wouldn’t make the playoffs, which coaches and GMs are safe, and which star players will live up to high expectations.

The playoff teams

The first two questions in the contest asked you to name up to five teams that would make the playoffs, and up to five more that wouldn’t. As a reminder, you get more points for each right answer, but even one wrong answer means you get a zero for the entire question, so the emphasis is on finding the easy points.

So who would that be? The most common answer among the playoff teams was Colorado, who appeared on almost every valid entry — 2,071 times in all. No big shocker there, as the reigning Cup champs and preseason favorites feel like a lock in the Central.

The next three teams weren’t a big surprise either — Carolina, Toronto and Tampa — but the gap between them and the Avalanche isn’t small with all three being in the 1,500 to 1,600 range. That’s still a solid show of support, but it seems to indicate that when it comes to absolute locks, you guys have the Avs as the only clear no-brainer.

Calgary and Edmonton finished in a dead heat, with the Flames appearing 973 times and the Oilers 971, meaning both teams made it onto just under 50 percent of entries. Somewhat surprisingly, last year’s Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers were only named about 500 times, suggesting that a busy offseason wasn’t enough to counter a tough division. The Rangers (370) and Wild (310) were the only other teams over 100.

At the bottom of the playoff list, Blues fans will no doubt be chill about only being mentioned 75 times. Among other 2022 playoff teams, the Kings got only seven mentions, while the Predators had 14 and the Stars brought up the rear with just five, all of which trailed the Golden Knights at 25. As for those Red Wings and Senators, they were each mentioned just three times. And five teams weren’t named at all: the Coyotes, Kraken, Blackhawks, Canadiens and Jets all went 0-for-everyone. Yes, the Jets.

On the other side of the coin, you were nearly unanimous on the Coyotes not making the playoffs, naming them 2,059 times. With apologies to Kyle Davidson, the Blackhawks fell short of Arizona for the honor of most hopeless team, although they still topped 1,900 mentions. Next were Montreal (1,642), Philadelphia (1,514) and San Jose (1,123). Seattle and Buffalo also scored well into the hundreds, while Detroit (135), New Jersey (46) and Ottawa (25) were relatively unscathed. Florida and Carolina were the only two teams that were never mentioned as playoff misses, meaning one entrant was brave enough to say that Colorado wouldn’t make it. Or they screwed up their entry, but let’s go with the drama.

By the way, Dallas only showed up three times on the non-playoff question. Combined with their five mentions on question one, that means a contest-low eight entrants — or 0.38 percent of you — have especially strong feelings about how the Stars will do this year.

The hot seats

The third and fourth questions ask you to name up to five coaches and five GMs who won’t be fired or otherwise leave their job this year. That “otherwise” sometimes does a lot of work here, as it cost you if you had guys like Joel Quenneville or Joe Sakic last year. You’re not allowed to take coaches who were hired in the last year or GMs who were hired in the last two, although that didn’t stop lots of you from trying to take ineligible names like Bruce Cassidy, Martin St. Louis, Chris Drury or Chris MacFarland.

Among valid entries, the safest coaches by far were last year’s Cup finalists, with Jared Bednar (1,889) just edging Jon Cooper (1,803). Rod Brind’Amour was the other consensus choice, appearing on over 1,500 entries, but after that there’s a big drop down to Darryl Sutter, Mike Sullivan and Gerard Gallant, who were all well under 1,000. (Sutter’s recent contract extension wasn’t announced until a few days after the contest began, which probably kept him from scoring better.) Three of last year’s playoff coaches appeared on fewer than 100 entries, so you guys are pessimistic on Sheldon Keefe (76), John Hynes (61) and Peter Laviolette (42).

There was no overwhelming consensus pick among safe GMs, although Steve Yzerman (1,727) and Julien BriseBois (1,421) were reasonably close. They were way ahead of the rest of the field, although five other GMs showed up on between 500 and 700 entries: Rob Blake, Don Waddell, Brad Treliving, Bill Guerin and Ron Francis. At the other end of the scale, Kyle Dubas only has the confidence of 60 of you, but that still ranked him ahead of Brian MacLellan, Jim Nill, Kelly McCrimmon, Kevin Cheveldayoff and Lou Lamoriello.

Oh, and kudos for outside-the-box thinking to the 91 of you who took Joe Sakic as a pick for a safe GM, which feels like a longshot considering he already left that job over the summer.

The players

We won’t dive too deeply into the player-based questions, since there’s still some data cleaning to do there. Look, I’m just going to say it: You guys are terrible spellers. It’s possible my editors might suggest that I don’t have much room to throw shade here, but come on. How hard can it be to spell “Johnny”? What’s a “thacuk”? How many different ways can there possibly be to butcher “Jakob Chychrun“? At least 13, if you’re wondering.

But we can still find a few insights. The goalie question (where we’re looking for guys who’ll make at least 50 starts) yielded no major surprises, with Andrei Vasilevskiy leading the way with over 1,700 appearances, followed by Igor Shesterkin (almost 1,500), Juuse Saros (1,400), Connor Hellebuyck (1,200) and Jacob Markstrom (1,100). If you didn’t go with those five, you probably swapped in Thatcher Demko, or you went off the board. Condolences to the five of you who picked Matt Murray, and a special glove tap to the single entrant who picked Robin Lehner. Uh, you might not want to read this.

The Calder question had a wider range of answers but two clear leaders, with Owen Power (1,804 entrants) just edging out Matty Beniers (1,787). Mason McTavish at 1,380 was the only other player to appear on half the ballots, which means we have even more chip-on-the-shoulder fuel for Shane Wright, who was well back at 185. Also, one of you picked Connor Bedard, which feels like a mistake but I’m going to choose to believe was an example of some Panthers/Ovechkin 4D chess.

The Norris question featured the expected strong consensus around the big four of Cale Makar, Adam Fox, Victor Hedman and Roman Josi. Even among that stellar group, you guys had Makar a cut above. He showed up on a remarkable 2,084 ballots, a near-unanimous pick, while the others were all around 1,700. From there, we saw an absolute plunge down to the 300 range for guys like Aaron Ekblad, Charlie McAvoy, Miro Heiskanen and Moritz Seider. Quinn Hughes and Jaccob Slavin were the only others to even crack 100 mentions, giving us a tidy total of exactly 10 key guys on a question that asks you to predict the top-10 finishers in year-end Norris voting. By the way, it was a rough ride for some of the highest-paid defensemen in the league: Drew Doughty (just seven entrants), Zach Werenski (five), Darnell Nurse (four), Seth Jones (two), Alex Pietrangelo (one) and Erik Karlsson (zero).

The Hart Trophy question saw just about everyone start their entry with the same two guys. Reigning MVP Auston Matthews appeared an impressive 2,021 times. But that wasn’t enough to catch Connor McDavid, who showed up on 2,095 out of 2,109 ballots, just about as close to being a unanimous pick as is probably possible.

Honestly, that almost feels too high for both guys — you’d think some game theory would kick in and a few entrants would hedge against injuries – but it goes to show how those two have separated from the pack. There’s a big drop to the next tier of names, where we find Cale Makar (1,350 entrants), Leon Draisaitl (1,100), Nathan MacKinnon (900) and Kirill Kaprizov (860). Those were pretty much the only five guys you had any significant confidence in, as names like Aleksander Barkov, Igor Shesterkin and Nikita Kucherov didn’t even show up on 200 entrants and nobody else even cracked 100, including big names like Sidney Crosby (89), Jonathan Huberdeau (95), Artemi Panarin (33), Mitch Marner (22) and Alexander Ovechkin (18).

We won’t worry too much about the new question that asked you to name players who wouldn’t draw a single major, match or misconduct all year long, except to say that entrants were all over the place, Kyle Connor led the pack with just over 800 appearances, and a total of seven of you have already clinched a zero here thanks to Matt Duchene and Andreas Athanasiou. Good work getting that one out of the way early.

Finally, let’s skip ahead to the final question. The contest ends with an optional bonus question, one that awards extra points for a right answer but wipes out the entire entry if you get it wrong: Name a single player who’ll get 100 points this year, without using McDavid or Draisaitl.

About 1,400 of you took the bait and offered an answer, with Matthews accounting for half of those and Kaprizov, MacKinnon, Marner and Kucherov dividing up almost all of the rest. Despite topping the century mark last year, there wasn’t much confidence in a repeat from Huberdeau (35 entrants), Matthew Tkachuk (16), Johnny Gaudreau (five) or Steven Stamkos (just two). Meanwhile, Artemi Panarin’s blistering start is only good news for 20 of you.

Also, a special shout out to the one entrant that replied to the bonus question with a middle-finger emoji.

Auston Matthews. (Nick Turchiaro / USA Today)

The hot stove

We’ll end with question 10, which asked you to name up to five players who’ll switch teams by the end of the first day of free agency. This one always feels like the toughest of the bunch, and it’s a huge pain to track, but I just love the chance to find out who fans think might actually be on the move. It’s an insight you just can’t get anywhere else.

So let’s get to the big question of the 2022-23 trade market: Will Kyle Davidson and the Blackhawks manage to move Patrick Kane or Jonathan Toews? Yes they will, according to you, but you’re far more confident about one than the other. Over 1,000 of you named Kane, making him the leader for this question, while less than 200 mentioned Toews. The Blackhawks captain wasn’t even in the top two of his own team, as Max Domi appeared over 400 times.

Aside from Kane, the top name in this category was Anaheim’s John Klingberg at 900 mentions, and he seems like an obvious pick to either be a deadline rental or Day 1 UFA signing, if not both (although we could have said the same last year, and we’d have been wrong). Chychrun showed up nearly 700 times, depending on how forgiving we’re going to be with your spelling issues, while fellow Coyotes defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere had nearly 270 mentions. Other players topping triple digits include James van Riemsdyk (290), Evgenii Dadonov (210), Vladimir Tarasenko (130), Andreas Athanasiou (115) and Matt Dumba (105).

As for unexpected names, let’s end this piece by tipping our cap to the single entrants that predicted moves for Mitch Marner, Mathew Barzal, Mark Scheifele and Brock Boeser. You heard it here first, but try to act surprised. And finally, one brave soul cast a vote for Marc-Edouard Vlasic as being likely to move, so it’s cool to find out that Mike Grier is apparently a reader.

(Top photo: Jonathan Hui / USA Today)

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