A new NHL season begins on Wednesday. Now it's time to put our experts to the test.
Tarik El-Bashir and J.J. Regan will cover the Capitals all season long for NBC Sports Washington. What do they think the NHL season will hold? It's time to get their season predictions for the Eastern Conference and their picks to win the Stanley Cup.
1. Tampa Bay
The skinny: The Penguins and Caps remain the class of the Metro and should duke it out for the top spot. I do, however, have some reservations about both teams. Sidney Crosby and the back-to-back champs have played a record 49 playoff games the past two years. That’s some serious wear and tear, and it’s bound to catch up to them at some point. The Caps, meanwhile, have been gutted by Pittsburgh two years in a row and, well, they just didn’t look right while slogging through a 2-5 preseason. Even Coach Barry Trotz has acknowledged that some players seem “stuck” in last spring’s disappointment. The Jackets added 30-goal scorer Artemi Panarin and are backstopped by Vezina-winner Sergei Bobrovsky. But they’re not catching anyone by surprise this year. Kevin Shattenkirk and the Rangers round out my playoff teams in the Metro (assuming 35-year-old Henrik Lundqvist rebounds) but I also wouldn’t be surprised if the ‘Canes raise some hell and make a late run.
I don’t have Tampa Bay winning the whole thing like somebody I know, but I do think Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman plus some shrewd offseason additions will make them the team to beat in the Atlantic. Youngsters Auston Matthews, Michael Nylander, Mitch Marner have the speedy Leafs on the upswing and it wouldn’t surprise me if they challenge the Bolts. The Habs, to me, are just a notch below the Lightning and Leafs, but are always a threat to go deep in the playoffs because of Carey Price. With Brad Marchand, David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak anchoring the B’s top six, I like their chances of squeaking into the tournament. The Senators and Sabres could make things interesting, but I think they ultimately fall short.
Conference winner: For me, it’s the Penguins until someone knocks them off their perch.
Stanley Cup Final: Anaheim vs. Pittsburgh
Stanley Cup winner: Quack, quack. I’ve got the Ducks winning it all. Despite some early injury woes, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and the rest of the veteran-laden group checks all of the boxes for me.
3. N.Y. Rangers
1. Tampa Bay
The skinny: The best team in the Metropolitan Division is the Penguins, but they now have to deal with the grind of two consecutive Stanley Cup runs. At some point, Pittsburgh will hit the wall. Considering they did not win the division in either of the last two seasons, I also do not believe they will see much incentive in pushing themselves through it to win the division crown. In steps Columbus. The Blue Jackets had the fourth best record in the NHL last season and also added a significant piece in Artemi Panarin. The Rangers’ lack of center depth is a concern, but I have enough faith in Alain Vigneault and Henrik Lundqvist to at least see them into the postseason. Carolina is an up and coming team that will make a playoff push now that they finally have a netminder in Scott Darling who can provide consistent goaltending. As for Washington, the Caps will take a step back, but they will not collapse. What will hurt them is their health. Washington has unsustainably healthy the past two seasons. Injuries will come and the team will struggle because the roster is not as deep as it has been in recent years.
The Atlantic appears very top heavy with Tampa and Toronto. Toronto is certainly on the rise, but let’s pump the brakes on the contender talk considering their defense is still a question. I certainly would not favor them to beat out the Lightning. If Tampa ever plays up to their potential in the regular season and Steven Stamkos is healthy, they can be one of the most dominant teams in the NHL. If I believed Erik Karlsson was going to return healthy and stay healthy this season, I would have Ottawa in the top three over a Montreal team that is going nowhere fast. But I don’t. Instead, I will go with Carey Price to get the Canadiens in, but not very far.
Conference winner: Tampa Bay has all the pieces. If they stay healthy, there’s no reason why they can’t win.
Stanley Cup Final: Edmonton vs. Tampa Bay
Stanley Cup winner: Edmonton may have the best player, but Tampa has the better team. Stamkos wins out over Connor McDavid as Tampa wins its second Cup in franchise history.
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