The NHL season is just a few weeks away. Who will be this season’s Vegas Golden Knights, a group expected to be at the bottom of the league who very nearly won the Stanley Cup in their first year of existence? On the other hand, who will be this season’s St. Louis Blues, a team that should have challenged for a title and missed the playoffs entirely?
As with all sports, the unlikely may be reality.
- Winnipeg Jets
The Jets made it all the way to the Western Conference Final last season and boast a talented team with depth at all positions with forwards Mark Schiefele and Patrick Laine, defensmen Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba and goaltender Connor Hellebucyk. Making such a deep run last season must have the players salivating for another chance at glory. The time for them to win is now.
Big Question: Can the Jets put it all together and make it to the Cup final?
2. Nashville Predators
The Predators remain a dominant force with the best blueline in the league led by PK Subban, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis and a deep forward corp with star forwards Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johanssen. Goaltender Pekka Rinne slowed down later in the year and all eyes will be on him to pull the Preds deep.
Big Question: Can Pekka Rinne be as dominating in the playoffs as he is in the regular season?
3. St. Louis Blues
The Blues had one of the busier offseasons of any team in the league. Adding Ryan O’Reilly, Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon adds depth to the forward unit and the defense still features Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo. Can Jake Allen rise to the challenge and finally fulfill his promise as the goaltender of the future?
Big Question: Will the new faces mesh with old stalwarts like Vladimir Tarasenko to push the Blues back into the playoffs?
4. Dallas Stars
The Stars were riding high last year until a late season collapse. Rather than a major overhaul, the Stars return pretty much the same unit, but with their third coach in three years, hoping better luck can get them back into the playoffs. With Tyler Seguin staying put for the next 8 years and Jamie Benn already locked up, the Stars have great offensive power, especially with budding blueline force John Klingberg. Finding some sort of defensive consistency will determine their fate.
Big Question: Will the third coach in three years be the charm for the Stars?
5. Minnesota Wild
The Wild have been stuck in neutral for years, not quite good enough to make a deep playoff run, not quite bad enough to miss the playoffs and get some higher draft picks. It looks like it’ll be more of the same for the team as they keep getting older with veterans Zach Parise, Eric Staal and Ryan Suter.
Big Question: Can the Wild find that next gear and break through in a tough Central Division?
6. Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade last season, largely because of an injury to goaltender Corey Crawford. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith have powered the team for a decade, but an infusion of youth may be needed to keep up with the quicker teams of the league. Crawford’s health is paramount to the team’s success as they work through some internal changes.
Big Question: Is Corey Crawford healthy?
7. Colorado Avalanche
The Avalanche leaped from bottom of the league to the playoffs in just one year, thanks to an MVP performance from Nathan MacKinnon. With so much value in one player, he’d have to duplicate that performance for the Avalanche to succeed again.
Big Question: Can MacKinnon drag the Avalanche back into the playoffs?
- San Jose Sharks
After striking out on John Tavares, the Sharks had to settle for trading for the best blueliner in the league. The arrival of Erik Karlsson to a defense that already includes Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic signals that the Sharks are all in. With a forward corps that includes Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Evander Kane and Thomas Hertl and backed by goalie Martin Jones, the Sharks have all the pieces in place to make a Cup run. None of them are spring chickens so the sooner the better for the Sharks.
Big Question: How does Erik Karlsson fit onto the Sharks?
2. Los Angeles Kings
The Kings locked up franchise defenseman Drew Doughty over the summer to a new contract and added former NHL forward Ilya Kovalchuk to a lineup screaming for goals. Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown had their best seasons last year, but all it got them was a first round sweep to the Golden Knights. The Kings allowed the fewest goals in the league last year so defense isn’t an issue. It’ll be scoring goals, the same mantra that has been the team’s Achilles’ heel for years
Big Question: Can the Kings score enough goals to advance past the first round?
3. Calgary Flames
The Flames have carefully been building a contending team for years with no discernible results. Perhaps this is the year they break through. Johnny Gaudreau, Sam Bennet, Sean Monahan and Brady Tkachuk form a potent attack and Mark Giordano continues to lead the defense. Goaltender Mike Smith may be the key to determine if the team succeeds.
Big Question: Can Mike Smith lead the Flames to the playoffs?
4. Edmonton Oilers
After nearly making the Western Conference Finals two years ago, the Oilers bottomed out last season despite another Art Ross from Connor McDavid. No real changes were made over the summer so change will have to come from within. Who can lead this team out of the wilderness?
Big Question: Can the Oilers finally find some consistency?
5. Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks find themselves in much the same place as the Wild: full of strong veterans, but unable to break through and make a deep playoff run. Ryan Getzlaf is still a preeminent center and Rickard Rakell has morphed into a good scorer, but Corey Perry just posted his lowest goal scoring season and Ryan Kesler’s health remains a question mark. The defense is deep and mobile and John Gibson is beginning to establish himself as a real quality netminder, but as teams go younger and faster, can the Ducks keep pace?
Big Question: What happens with vets Kesler and Perry?
6. Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights had the most remarkable inaugural season in sports history. Now what to do for an encore? William Karlsson, Alex Tuch and Jonathan Marchessault exploded and Marc-Andre Fleury put on a performance for the ages. New faces Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny inject another element of talent and veteran savvy. A lot of last season’s surprise success though will need to be replicated for the Knights to perform well again.
Big Question: Can Karlsson and co. repeat last year’s performance?
7. Arizona Coyotes
The biggest move of the Coyotes offseason was resigning defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The Coyotes went on a bit of a run late in the last year, but putting it all together for a full season remains a hurdle for the team. With Anti Raanta in goal and a slew of prospects on the horizon, the places are there for the team to potentially put it all together.
Big Question: Can the prospect pool elevate themselves to the next level?
8. Vancouver Canucks
Henrik and Daniel Sedin have retired. The Canucks are entering a new phase with Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat leading the team. It may take some time for them plus prospects Elias Lindholm and Quinn Hughes to ripen and take the club to respectability.
Big Question: Who takes leadership in the void of the Sedins’ retirement?
- Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning still have Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevsky. They may be the deepest team in the league. They’ve made it to the final four in three of the past four years. Can they actually win the Stanley Cup?
Big Question: Can the Lightning get over the hump?
2. Toronto Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs landed the biggest fish in the history of UFAs in John Tavares. Adding him to a lineup that already includes Austin Matthew, Mitch Marner, Jake Gardnier and Frederik Andersson gives the Leafs the deepest team they’ve had in decades. They have to advance to at least the second round this year.
Big Question: How does Tavares fit into the Leafs lineup?
3. Florida Panthers
The Panthers were one of the hottest teams down the stretch last season, missing the playoffs by one point. If they get off to a better start, perhaps they don’t need such a mad dash. Alexander Barkov is the new captain in town and looks to break out and be a star in the league.
Big Question: Can Barkov drive the team?
4. Boston Bruins
The Bruins feature the top line of the league in Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak and have some young risers on the way. They lost Reilly Smith and trade deadline acquisition Rick Nash over the summer, and Toronto and Tampa have improved. In the Atlantic, it seems as though they’ve lost the arms race.
Big Question: How much does Zdeno Chara have left in the tank?
5. Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres added stud blueline prospect Rasmus Dahlin and signed Carter Hutton as their new starting goalie. If Casey Middlestadt, Risto Ristolainen and Jack Eichel continue developing, the Sabres may finally be able to breakthrough.
Big Question: How good is Rasmus Dahlin right now?
6. Detroit Red Wings
Henrik Zetterberg’s sudden retirement thrusts the Wings into a new era. This is Dylan Larkin’s team now. Several prospects are knocking on the door in Michael Rasmussen, Dennis Cholowski and Filip Zadina, and their development is paramount to Detroit’s success.
Big Question: How does Larkin adjust to Zetterberg’s absence?
7. Montreal Canadiens
The Canadiens are a franchise in distress. Defenseman Shea Weber is out until Christmas at the earliest. Captain Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk have been traded for underwhelming returns. Goaltender Carey Price may need to replicate his MVP season for this team to have a remote chance of success.
Big Question: How much longer can GM Marc Bergevin keep his job?
8. Ottawa Senators
Speaking of franchises in distress, the Ottawa Senators must surely be testing their fan’s commitment. Just one year removed from nearly making it to the Stanley Cup Final, the team is plagued by problems internal and external, culminating with the trade of star defenseman and captain Erik Karlsson just a few weeks ago to the San Jose Sharks. The Senators are a mess.
Big Question: How big will the train wreck be?
- Pittsburgh Penguins
After failing in their quest for a three-peat, the Penguins have finally had some extended time off. The longer summer may do them good. They still have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Matt Murray. They’re still a world-class organization with Stanley Cup aspirations. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t return to the top of the league.
Big Question: How does bold GM Jim Rutherford tinker with the lineup over the season?
2. Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets stand at a precarious point. They may have the most talented team in their history with Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. However, both Panarin and Bobrovsky have proven hesitant to sign new contracts in the last year of their deals. Losing both for nothing is not an option. It’s imperative for Columbus to convince them that the team is on the right path or trade them. If convinced, the team could be a surprise Cup contender.
Big Question: What happens with Bobrovsky and Panarin?
3. Washington Capitals
The Capitals finally got over the hump. The Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals. It’s still weird to write. Such a ginormous accomplishment in light of so many years of playoff disappointments is bound to produce quite the hangover effect (for Ovechkin, perhaps literally). The team returns largely the same except behind the bench, where coach Barry Trotz has departed to the Islanders, replaced by assistant Todd Reirden. Repeating is never easy.
Big Question: Will the hangover hang over the Caps all season?
4. Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers made the jump to the playoffs after an absence and boast some talented young defensemen, highlighted by Ivan Provorov. Claude Giroux had a marvelous season with 102 points and Sean Coutourier finished second in Selke voting. The problems remain in goal. A goaltending tandem of Brian Elliot and Michael Neuvirth does not exactly strike fear into opponents.
Big Question: Can the Flyers get good enough goaltending to compete (stop me if you’ve heard that one before)?
5. Carolina Hurricanes
The Hurricanes have seemingly been rebuilding for years. Unsuccessful draft picks on offense, coaching changes and ownership turmoil have withered the team, and the hope is that Andrei Svechnikov, the second overall pick in this year’s draft, new coach Rod Brind’amour and a resurgent Scott Darling may finally get the team back into the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Big Question: How does Brind’amour handle this roster?
6. New Jersey Devils
Reigning MVP winner Taylor Hall practically dragged this team into the playoffs last season. There was an over-40 point spread between him and the next highest scorer on the team. It may take a similarly Herculean effort to repeat that playoff performance.
Big Question: What does Taylor Hall accomplish this year?
7. New York Rangers
The Rangers went into rebuilding mode at the end of last season. Captain Ryan McDonagh was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning and the team began stockpiling draft picks. Henrik Lundqvist is still manning the net, but had an off-year last season. Could he soon be a trade chip if the team continues to build for the future?
Big Question: Which young guns step up?
8. New York Islanders
No team has gone through more heartbreak over the summer than the New York Islanders. After getting Stanley Cup winning coach Barry Trotz and legendary GM Lou Larmiorello, it seemed that might be enough to convince John Tavares to stay on the team, especially with Matthew Barzal winning rookie of the year. But Tavares dashed to the Maple Leafs, leaving the club and its fans heartbroken. Perhaps this puts a chip on the team’s current players and they excel, much in the same way the Golden Knights did after being declared castoffs. But that would be a big jump.
Big Question: Who leads the team after Tavares?
After completing my own bracket, I’m predicting a Stanley Cup Final of San Jose and Tampa Bay, with the Sharks winning their first championship.
Though if anyone correctly predicted a Cup Final last year at this time of Washington and Vegas, they ought to enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
The unlikely will happen. That’s what makes things exciting.