NHL season preview, predictions and award winners
With the Bruins' season set to start in Columbus Thursday, Joe Haggerty makes his predictions on how he expects the NHL to shape up.
Eastern Conference: Atlantic Division
1. Tampa Bay Lightning -- A ton of talent with guys like Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Ryan Callahan and Victor Hedman, and a team that is still hungry because they haven’t made it to the mountaintop yet.
2. Florida Panthers -- On sheer talent enough this is where the Florida Panthers should be, and they are definitely one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference this season provided they stay healthy. But the significant roster changes over the summer might take a while to gel, and one has to wonder how the young Panthers will respond after just about all of them were taken care of with long term, big money contracts.
3. Montreal Canadiens -- Some think the Habs are going to be in for another tumultuous season, but a healthy Carey Price along with a little dirty, mean and nasty provided by Shea Weber and Andrew Shaw should be just what the doctor ordered.
4. Boston Bruins -- It’s going to take either A) some very good rookie seasons from their crop of young players or B) a big trade for a top-4 defenseman, but the Bruins should be back into the playoff picture this season. Some of their core group is starting to get long in the tooth, though, so you have to wonder how injuries will affect this team as well.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs -- Auston Matthews will bring the star power, and Mike Babcock is going to get them playing tough-minded, disciplined and competitive hockey every single night. This is a team that may fall short of the postseason, but is going to be a hockey club that opponents will have to work to get the two points from.
6. Buffalo Sabres -- The Sabres have some talent with Evander Kane, Jack Eichel, Rasmus Ristolainen and others, and they have a home fan base that’s just dying for a competitive team. That might not be enough this season, but this is a team on the rise as other Eastern Conference teams are sinking back toward the bottom.
7. Detroit Red Wings -- The Red Wings might wind up higher than this if they can remain competitive in a division that will be very good this season, but they’ve lost part of their heart and their winning aura with Pavel Datsyuk going back to Russia. They have some strong young players like Dylan Larkin, but something tells me the Winged Wheels are on the decline right now.
8. Ottawa Senators -- All you need to know about the Senators right now is that they went out and acquired Dion Phaneuf to shore up their defense. Perhaps Guy Boucher can find a way to trap and coaching system his way to a grinding group capable of sponging up points this season, but this feels like a wide open, offensive group that’s going to have a very difficult time stopping other teams.
Eastern Conference: Metropolitan Division
1. Washington Capitals -- Alexander Ovechkin is in his Russian sniping prime, the Capitals have an excellent coach in Barry Trotz, and they play a physical, punishing style with guys like Brooks Orpik and Tom Wilson. This team will be a handful all season, but needs to find a way to get it done in the playoffs.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins -- The Penguins tapped into something magical last season with a great mix of core, grizzled veteran players from previous Cup teams, and a new wave of speedy, dangerous rookies along with an upstart goaltender. Can they keep that going for this season and beyond? That will be the question after climbing the Cup Mountain last season, but clearly there is still major talent in Pittsburgh.
3. New York Islanders -- The Isles finally made it to the second round of the playoffs last season, and John Tavares is right in the middle of his hockey prime. But the Islanders have lost Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen from their ranks, and feel like they need a few missing ingredients if they want to get over the hump.
4. New Jersey Devils -- Taylor Hall brings the star power to New Jersey, and Cory Schneider gives the Devils a chance to win every single game. Clearly this is still a work in progress for Ray Shero, but I see the Devils getting into the playoffs this season after being out for a few years.
5. New York Rangers -- The Rangers may be a little better on paper than last season with the addition of Jimmy Vesey, but they are in a division where the other teams are getting better by bigger increments. The Blueshirts are an aging group on the downslide at this point after a good run with Henrik Lundqvist, and this could be the season where things really start to drop out for them.
6. Philadelphia Flyers -- Shayne Gostisbehere is a special player, and they have plenty of talent upfront with Wayne Simmonds, Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek among others. But Steve Mason is Steve Mason, and this is still a team that’s going to need to find a way to win with a roster that has some holes.
7. Carolina Hurricanes -- The Hurricanes have a fantastic young D-men corps highlighted by Noah Hanifin and Justin Faulk, and they still have Jeff Skinner among other young talents in their everyday lineup. But Cam Ward is at the tail end of his solid NHL career, and Carolina still doesn’t have the firepower up front to compete with the good teams. One also gets the feeling that the constant whispers about relocating the franchise make it tough to build up good vibes around the team.
8. Columbus Blue Jackets -- Most people think John Tortorella will be the first coach fired in the NHL this season, which lets you know how many pundits feel about the chances for the Blue Jackets. There is clearly some talent here and they could surprise many if Sergei Bobrovsky is healthy and effective, but it feels like there is something fundamentally broken about this team at this point.
Western Conference: Central Division
1. Chicago Blackhawks -- Patrick Kane is coming off a Hart Trophy season, and the Blackhawks should be a motivated, ornery bunch after an earlier exit during last spring’s playoffs. That should mean plenty of pain and punishment for the rest of the teams in the West, and another season of the Toews and Kane Show in the Windy City.
2. Dallas Stars -- The Stars have all the firepower they need in Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and John Klingberg among others, and they are in the perfect stage in their team development to make a leap in the playoffs this year. But they’re going to need improved defense and goaltending in order to make it happen, and you’d have to see that to believe it with a group that’s been high octane with little defense.
3. St. Louis Blues -- They are missing David Backes, Troy Brouwer and Brian Elliott, but they still have a ton of depth, talent and the Russian phenomenon named Vladimir Tarasenko. Still, it felt like last season’s playoff run was a bit of a last hurrah with that core group of Blues, and that Kevin Shattenkirk will be leaving St. Louis sooner rather than later as well.
4. Nashville Predators -- The P.K. Subban Era has begun in Music City, and it will be interesting to see how long it takes before he has a hit country song duet with Carrie Underwood. In all seriousness, the Predators have an interesting group backed by Pekka Rinne that should be more than enough to get their playoff ticket punched at the end of the season.
5. Minnesota Wild -- The Wild have pretty decent talent on the roster, and they’ve got a coach in Bruce Boudreau that has a very good track record during the regular season. But Zach Parise and Ryan Suter need much greater support from the rest of the roster if they’re going to make a significant step as a franchise.
6. Colorado Avalanche -- If there’s one team that could hop a couple of these Central Division clubs and make some noise this season, it’s the Avalanche with talent up and down their roster. Removing Patrick Roy from the coaching staff is addition by subtraction, and should allow young stars like Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene to take the step forward that should be possible given the talent on the roster.
7. Winnipeg Jets -- Blake Wheeler is a solid player, and is now the captain of the team. The Jets were able to get Patrik Laine in the NHL draft, and will be able to add him to their group. They have some pretty solid D-men as well. But one gets the sense this Jacob Trouba thing could hang over their heads if they can’t find a way to resolve it in a way that satisfies all parties. That might mean Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has to come down from his demands a bit.
Western Conference: Pacific Division
1. Anaheim Ducks -- It will be Randy Carlyle redux in Anaheim with the sometimes rough-edged coach trying to make it work with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, and get the Ducks to a level they haven’t been able to achieve in recent years. The Ducks are another team that has some salary cap reckoning to do before they can truly get on track for the season, and that means trading some talent from their NHL roster.
2. San Jose Sharks -- Nobody saw Martin Jones making that much of a difference in San Jose, or the Sharks finally breaking through a bit in the playoffs with Jumbo Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski. But consider this: nobody saw Burns and Thornton adopting their ZZ Top beards either, and now they don’t go anywhere without them. It will be interesting to see if this was a last gasp fluke, or if the Sharks tapped into something last year.
3. Los Angeles Kings -- The Kings still have Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar along with wunderkind Tyler Toffoli, and they still have the heart of a champion. But the salary cap and the sheer amount of games played over the last five years make it increasingly difficult for them to summon that old Stanley Cup magic.
4. Edmonton Oilers -- This is the year the Oilers at least start to make a push toward the playoffs, and reverse what’s been a toxic walk through losses and perpetual rebuilding. Peter Chiarelli and Todd MacLellan have brought a whole different culture to the organization, and Connor McDavid will be given every chance to turn this into his hockey club after being named team captain. Milan Lucic adds a healthy dose of attitude and swagger as well.
5. 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. If there’s one team that could really shoot up the standings in the Pacific Division, it would be the desert dogs with young stud players like Jakob Chychrun, Max Domi, Anthony Duclair and Lawson Crouse among others. Oliver Ekman-Larsson even has some veteran help now too with Alex Goligoski signing in Arizona as well.
6. Calgary Flames -- Signing Johnny Gaudreau to a reasonable second contract was a must, and now the Flames must recreate the magic around the team from a couple of years ago when the young cast found ways to win. The defensemen corps is still super-talented with depth and offensive skill, and guys like Gaudreau and Sean Monahan leading the way up front. But it will be a difficult challenge to rise up the ranks out West.
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 is coming off an outstanding season, but putting him with the Sedins could clearly be one of the top high-scoring top lines in the league, but one that also gets clobbered against the really big, strong and physical teams in the league.
Tampa Bay Lightning over Washington Capitals in Eastern Conference Final – The Penguins took advantage of both of these teams falling in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket last season, but one shouldn’t count on that being the case again this year. Alex Ovechkin will get close, but the Lightning are the best team top-to-bottom in the East.
Chicago Blackhawks over the Anaheim Ducks in Western Conference Final – The Blackhawks didn’t get back to the Final to defend their title last postseason, but they’ll be ready to get back on that Stanley Cup Final horse this spring.
Blackhawks over the Lightning in Stanley Cup Final – This would be a thrilling rematch of the Stanley Cup Final from two years ago, and it would end with exactly the same result as hockey history repeats itself at the Madhouse on Madison.
Hart Trophy – Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
Norris Trophy – Drew Doughty, LA Kings
Calder Trophy – Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
Vezina Trophy – Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals
Selke Trophy – Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins