The NHL season is upon us. What's going to happen? Here's what I think . . .
1. Tampa Bay Lightning – A ton of talent with guys like Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Ryan Callahan, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman, and a team that should have a chip on its shoulder after missing the playoffs last season. It wouldn’t surprise at all if the Bolts go from outhouse to the penthouse.
2. Toronto Maple Leafs – The second season of the Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner Era in Toronto, and they’ve already got the taste of the playoffs. It will be interesting to see if there’s any kind of sophomore slump, but this team should be ready for another jump this season.
3. Montreal Canadiens – Some are portending doom for the Canadiens based on their summer roster changes, and the departures of both Alex Radulov and Andrei Markov. Bit they'll always be competitive with the goaltending of Carey Price and the coaching of Claude Julien, and should have enough to push into the playoffs once again this season.
4. Boston Bruins – The Bruins are an interesting mix of youngsters like Brandon Carlo, Charlie McAvoy, Anders Bjork and Jake DeBrusk combined with established core veterans like Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask. This should be a playoff team again this season, but it will be a much more challenging road in the Atlantic Division.
5. Ottawa Senators – It would be foolish to overlook a Senators team that ventured deeper into the playoffs than any other Atlantic Division team last season, but there was a hint of one-hit wonder to Ottawa’s push through the Eastern Conference bracket. Much will hinge on the long-term health of Erik Karlsson, who underwent foot surgery in the offseason. He’s the ultimate game-changer and difference-maker for an Ottawa roster that’s pretty average outside of him. Similar to Montreal, Ottawa is always going to be competitive based on the defensive trap system employed by Guy Boucher. But the Sens will need more than that to get into the postseason.
6. Florida Panthers – The Panthers will have to be a “prove-it” team in the Atlantic Division coming off last season’s chaos and underachievement, but there is absolutely enough talent for them to be in the playoffs. Florida will look for healthier seasons from guys like Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad, and further development from Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck. As long as Roberto Luongo can stay healthy coming off the hip surgery, the Panthers will have as good a shot as anybody else out of coming out of the Atlantic Division.
7. Buffalo Sabres – There’s no doubt the Sabres will be improved this season and they’ve done a good job of taking care of the Jack Eichel contract situation, but how much better are they actually going to be than last season? Marco Scandella will certainly help the Sabres on their back end, but their defensemen corps is still just okay and they have a No. 1 goalie in Robin Lehner that I’ve never been sold on. They may be able to sneak up on some teams this season and threaten for the playoffs, but it feels like the Sabres are still a year away from making a real impact.
8. Detroit Red Wings – The Red Wings missed the playoffs last spring for the first time in 25 years, and they may miss again this season in their first year at the new Little Caesars Pizza Arena. Anthony Mantha and Dylan Larkin are a couple of pretty good, young building blocks and they still have Henrik Zetterberg and Jimmy Howard as holdovers from a better era of Hockeytown, but this is an older, mediocre roster that isn’t going to put fear into anybody. The days of other teams circling the Red Wings on their schedule are long since over.
1. Washington Capitals – Say this for them: The Washington Capitals always dominate the regular season. Maybe they’ll take their foot off the gas a bit during this regular season, or perhaps they’re just not even as good as they were a year ago, but one could easily see the Caps once again locking down the No. 1 seed in the East. The question is, what that’s done for them in the past? Everything Washington needs to accomplish is during the Stanley Cup playoffs, where Alex Ovechkin and Co. have become symbolic of choking dogs over the last 10 years. It’s up to them to change that perception, and nobody knows if they have what it takes to actually do it.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins – The Penguins are the opposite of the Capitals. They may glide through the regular season and may go through some stretches where they play some pretty rough hockey, but nobody doubts them in the postseason anymore. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Patrick Hornqvist, Kris Letang and Matt Murray are proven playoff warriors, and are surrounded by an extremely talented cast of characters. If you couple all of that with Mike Sullivan behind the bench, the Penguins should be the odds-on favorites to three-peat given the rest of the competition out there.
3. New York Rangers – The Rangers aren’t the most dangerous offensive team, and they certainly don’t have the youngest goalie in Henrik Lundqvist. But the Blueshirts attack with speed and aggressiveness, and they have just enough goal-scoring combined with some decent defensive pieces behind Ryan McDonagh. They should have another strong season in the Metro Division, and have enough to stand as the third team that’s a rung underneath Washington and Pittsburgh at the very top.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets – If there’s one team that could crash the party at the top of the Metro Division, it’s the Columbus Blue Jackets. Sergei Bobrovsky is in his prime between the pipes, they have young franchise D-men in Zach Weresnki and Seth Jones, and feature a deep, varied and hard-nosed group of forwards up front. They’ve also bought into what John Tortorella is selling, and that means they will be difficult to play against again this season. They certainly look like a playoff team, and could be much more than that after getting their feet wet in the playoffs again last spring.
5. Carolina Hurricanes – The Hurricanes are a trendy pick to come out of the Metro Division as a playoff team. Make no mistake, they're much improved going into this season. But it takes quite a bit to move the needle at this point. Justin Williams should be a great veteran piece and Scott Darling looks primed to become a No. 1 goaltender, but they’re going to need much more production and offense from their players up front. The defensemen corps is very young and very talented, but the 'Canes might be a year away from really making some noise.
6. New York Islanders – The Isles narrowly missed the playoffs last season after getting off to a horrendous start, so the hope is that they can play under Doug Weight as they did in the second half of last season. It remains to be seen just how well John Tavares and Jordan Eberle will work together, and just how equipped the Islanders are to handle a rugged Eastern Conference. As long as they’re playing in Brooklyn it’s going to be an uphill battle for them, but the talent is certainly there for them to compete. If Tavares begins to look like he’s going to bolt for free agency, however, things could fall apart pretty quickly here.
7. Philadelphia Flyers – The Flyers have all kinds of firepower up front with Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voraceck and Claude Giroux, and to that they’ll be adding Nolan Patrick. So scoring goals shouldn’t be a problem. But, as always, it will come down to goaltending and also just how much defensemen Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere have developed their games. The Flyers will be a competitive bunch, given some of the talent on their roster, but there’s a reason they ended up with the No. 1 overall pick last June. They’re building things back up again.
8. New Jersey Devils – There should be some excitement in New Jersey based on Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier paired together, and Cory Schneider continuing on with the goalie work that will ensure the Devils remain competitive in games. They’re also getting some great news that Brian Boyle will be able to rejoin them at some point during the season, and that will help them both on and off the ice when the courageous Boston College grad is again ready to play. The Devils still have a way to go, however, and they may be back in the draft lottery again next June as well.
1. Chicago Blackhawks – They may have been first-round victims in the playoffs last spring, but you don’t doubt the champs until they truly hit rock bottom. Certainly changes have been made with Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad coming back to Chicago, and they still have Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane along with Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford. There are a lot of winners and proud warriors among that group, and they still inspire fear in the rest of the West.
2. Nashville Predators – The reigning Western Conference champs should be primed for another strong season with a back end full of strong defenseman, a franchise goalie in Pekka Rinne and plenty of scoring talent up front as well. They’ll have to deal with higher expectations this season, and that is never easy for a team that’s broken through to a new level of success. But the Preds should be another tough out in the playoffs. Who knows? Perhaps this is the season they win it all.
3. Minnesota Wild – The Wild are certainly a playoff team and no pushover with a strong goalie in Devan Dubnyk and plenty of scoring depth up front. But it feels like they are destined to be pinned behind the Blackhawks and Predators in a Central Division pecking order. Unless a couple of rookies really bust out it may be another nice, competitive season in Minnesota with no real shot at journeying deep into the playoffs.
4. St. Louis Blues – The Blues aren’t quite the same heavy, strong contender that they might have been a couple of years ago, but they’re still a dangerous team with one of the best scorers in the NHL in his prime in Vladimir Tarasenko. It comes down to how well Jake Allen plays between the pipes, and how much secondary scoring they can get going around Tarasenko.
5. Dallas Stars – The Stars are most definitely better with Ben Bishop between the pipes and Alexander Radulov added to the mix of forwards up front. But they’re only going to improve by so much as long as Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn play when they feel like it, and shy away from the 200-foot game that’s needed for real success at the NHL level. Ken Hitchcock has been hired to whip the talented Stars roster into shape, but it’s not going to be easy based on what we’ve seen over the last couple of seasons.
6. Winnipeg Jets – There is plenty of pressure on coach Paul Maurice and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to get this talented group pointed toward the direction of winning. They have plenty of forward talent and their defense corps is also deep and filled with quality. Goaltending has been the issue in the past, and it remains to be seen if that’s been adequately addressed. But it’s somewhat mystifying that this group isn’t better right now when you consider the sum of the parts.
7. Colorado Avalanche – The Avalanche were a mess last season. Disgruntled players, trade rumors swirling around teams and completely disinterested play on the ice led to one of the worst NHL seasons in recent memory. That’s on Joe Sakic for standing still and watching while things fell apart around him, and that inactivity is still ongoing as Matt Duchene looks completely disinterested in Avs training camp again this season. They simply can’t go on like this and it’s amazing that it’s been allowed to go on for this long with a roster that actually has some talent on it.
1. Edmonton Oilers – After last season’s strong regular season and playoff run, the Oilers are the favorite in the Pacific Division. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are both locked up and set for the long term, so it should be an interesting run for the Oilers where they become legitimate Stanley Cup contenders over the next couple of seasons. They’ll have to do it now before the salary-cap issues catch up to them, however, which will inevitably happen based on the massive sums that they’re paying their two best forwards.
2. Anaheim Ducks – The Ducks are getting a little older, a little slower and their window to win a Cup certainly looks like it’s closing, but they should still be a handful for most teams this season. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry aren’t in their primes anymore, and neither is Ryan Kesler despite a very strong season with the Ducks as a new addition. The real strength of the team now is on the back end where they have depth and quality players, but even then injuries are hitting them to start the season with both Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm banged up to start the year.
3. Calgary Flames – The Flames are an exciting team on the rise, to be sure. But the talent up front and on the back end will only go as far as the goaltending can take them, and that will be up to newcomer Mike Smith. If he can be what he was during his best years with the Arizona Coyotes, then the Flames might really be a force out in the West along with the Edmonton Oilers. Certainly they have the young stud forwards in Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk and a back end littered with talent and excellent two-way performers.
4. San Jose Sharks – The Sharks are still dangerous and probably a playoff team at this point, but their window to win a Stanley Cup and seriously threaten has passed on by. Martin Jones will keep them in games, and players like Logan Couture, Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski are still all kinds of dynamic. But there simply isn’t enough depth or dangerous players to match firepower with teams like Edmonton or Chicago when it comes down to it.
5. Los Angeles Kings – The Kings still have Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty, Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar along with youngsters like Tyler Toffoli, and they still have the collective heart of a champion. But the salary cap and the sheer amount of games played over the last five years have taken their toll, and it becomes increasingly difficult for them to generate offense.
6. Arizona Coyotes – New GM John Chayka has brought talent and intelligence to the top of the organization, and he’s filling the roster with some very good, young hockey players. Unfortunately it feels like he’s also learned that turning things around in the desert is not going to be easy, and that it will be a multi-year endeavor before the Coyotes are again competing for anything substantial. The hope this season is that the young players take a step forward, and that veterans like Oliver Ekman-Larsson don’t get too discouraged waiting for the development to happen.
7. Vancouver Canucks – The Canucks really need to hit rock bottom before they can start building it back up again, and that might be what happens this season. Loui Eriksson was a dud as a free-agent signing, and putting him with the Sedins gave Vancouver one of the softest lines in the entire NHL. The hope is that new coach Travis Green brings some hard-nosed enthusiasm and begins to get the best of a roster that has really taken a big downturn since they were in the Stanley Cup Finals back in 2011.
8. Vegas Golden Knights – The Golden Knights have a good goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury who should keep them from being truly terrible, but this is a team that isn’t going to have any game-changing star players right off the bat. Sure Marc Methot is a solid defenseman and James Neal is a player who can score some goals when he’s healthy, but this is an expansion team by definition and by virtue of the players on their roster. Once the novelty and adrenaline wears off in Sin City, it could be an uphill climb for the Golden Knights in Year One of their existence.
- Pittsburgh Penguins over the Tampa Bay Lighting in the Eastern Conference Final – You can’t go wrong betting on Sidney Crosby and the Penguins in the playoffs based on the last couple of seasons, why go away from it?
- Edmonton Oilers over the Nashville Predators in the Western Conference Final – The Oilers complete their ascent back to hockey royalty by dashing and scoring their way through the Western Conference playoff field, and McDavid gets his first head-to-head playoff battle with Sidney Crosby. The pupil vs. the master in Star Wars Jedi terms.
- Penguins over the Oilers in Stanley Cup Final – Getting to the Stanley Cup Final is another step for McDavid and the Oilers, but they’re not quite ready to dethrone the champs looking to make some hockey history. Crosby caps off his resume as certain Hall of Fame and one of the all-time greats with another Cup on his resume.
INDIVIDUAL AWARD WINNERS
- Hart Trophy – Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
- Norris Trophy – Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators
- Calder Trophy – Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins
- Vezina Trophy – Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins
- Selke Trophy – Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins