The 2016-17 NHL season is just a few short days away. All eyes will be on a few select teams considered contenders: the defending Cup champion Penguins, the Blackhawks, the Sharks, the Lightning, the Capitals, but the winner, for right now, could be any of the 30 teams (and next season it could be any of the 31). So who comes out on top?
- Washington Capitals*
The Capitals were the best team in the league last regular season and they return pretty much the same. Led by Alex Ovechkin, Niklas Backstrom, Brayden Holtby and Evgeny Kuznetsov, the team is still a contender. Their true test will come in the postseason where they must advance this year.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins*
The defending Cup champs also return pretty much the same team, but Cup hangovers are real and all the other teams in the league will be gunning for them. Repeating is near impossible to do.
3. New York Islanders*
The Islanders are led by star forward John Tavares and with new wing man Andrew Ladd and a collection of young, talented players, they will be looking to make some noise this season. If goaltender Jaroslav Halak can deliver the type of poise he showed in the World Cup, they could be a force.
4. New York Rangers
The Rangers return with practically the same team, and that is not necessarily a good thing. Henrik Lundqvist is still an all-world goaltender, but the Rangers appear to be a team treading between playoff also-ran and rebuild mode.
5. Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers surprised many by making the playoffs with a great second half and will look to build on that promise, but that will be easier said than done. They need a bounce back year from Jakub Vorachek and continued strong goaltending from Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth to succeed.
6. New Jersey Devils
GM Ray Shero may have struck the best deal of his life when he traded for winger Taylor Hall. The forward is a game changer for the team. They have a little ways to go before they make the playoffs, but with Hall and goaltender Cory Schneider, they might be able to sneak in.
7. Carolina Hurricanes
The Hurricanes blueline is going to be very good, very soon. If that happens this season, they could make some noise, but their forward corps lacks the depth to give their backend enough goals to flourish. Until that is addressed, the Hurricanes will stay on the outside.
8. Columbus Blue Jackets
As anyone who watched team USA plummet at the World Cup can attest, coach John Tortorella is not seasoned for this type of NHL. Stuck in an old-world mentality, the Blue Jackets lack depth at every position with the exception of all-world goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. Seth Jones on the blueline will help, but the Blue Jackets might be best to tear it all down and that starts at the top.
- Tampa Bay Lightning*
The Lightning are stacked throughout the lineup, with forwards Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov backed up by star defenseman Victor Hedman and Vezina-nominated goalie Ben Bishop. This might be the last year this group has to go for it before budget constraints splinter it apart, so look for them to be a force.
2. Florida Panthers*
I correctly picked the Panthers to make the playoffs last year. I had no idea they’d win the division. Expect a small step backwards for this group, but they are young (Jaromir Jagr and Roberto Luongo excluded), talented and only going to get better.
3. Boston Bruins*
Patrice Bergeron is one of the world’s best two-way pivots. Brad Marchand is a supremely skillful pest/sniper. Tuuka Rask is still in his prime. There is no reason for this team not to make the playoffs. They need a puck-moving blueliner and that is the only thing holding them back.
4. Montreal Canadiens*
Short term gain, long term pain. That’s what the Canadiens have going for them with the P.K. Subban-for-Shea Weber trade. Shea Weber will be great for them for the next couple of seasons, the kind of workhorse, booming shot defenseman he has been for years. But he will wilt far sooner than Subban will. The Canadiens have to hope that Carey Price is not injured again or their season will be a disaster.
5. Detroit Red Wings*
Pavel Datsyuk is gone. Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall are both getting older and had to pull out of the World Cup because of injuries. The Wings’ season will depend on how their up and comers lead the way. Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Danny DeKeyser and Petr Mrazek need to establish themselves for the Wings to have success. Newcomer Frans Nielsen will be a big help and bounce back seasons from Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist would lighten the load, but the youngsters will decide whether the team makes it 26 straight years in the playoffs.
6. Buffalo Sabres
The pieces should be moving in the right direction. Another year of rebuilding, another high draft pick, another big ticket free agent (Kyle Okposo) brought in. At some point, the returns have to start showing themselves, right? It might be this season if they can get the goaltending.
7. Ottawa Senators
The Senators have Norris Trophy-winning Erik Karlsson and a group of talented young forwards, but they lack the depth up front and on the back end to be a contender. They need Andrew Hammond and Craig Anderson to stonewall the opposition to have a chance.
8. Toronto Maple Leafs
Does anyone really need a reason for why the Maple Leafs are in the basement? This is just year 2 of the massive rebuild. Year 1 went splendidly. They were terrible. That got them the first overall draft pick and a potential number one franchise center in Austin Matthews. Now it’s time to draft that stud blueliner.
- Dallas Stars*
The Stars have the best forward corps in the league with Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Patrick Sharp and Jason Spezza lighting up the lamps for them. If they can all stay healthy and the blueline continues to grow, the Stars are a Cup contender. And then you look at the goalie crease and you wonder if they can win the tandem of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi. GM Jim Nill may have to pull on the trigger on a goalie trade at some point, but that’s the only thing holding this team back from glory.
2. Nashville Predators*
With Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis on defense, the Predators may have the best defensive core in the league. Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and James Neal can put the puck in the net and coach Peter Laviolette has his players playing to their strengths. This could be the best Predators team in their history.
3. Chicago Blackhawks*
These Blackhawks have been through wars over the past several years in deep playoff runs, World Cups and Olympics. Will it catch up to them? The purging of their roster every season (losing Andrew Shaw and Andrew Ladd this past season) may also hurt them, but any team that has Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford is still a threat. It all depends on their depth if they can make a run.
4. St. Louis Blues*
The Blues made it to the Western conference final last year, but lost captain David Backes, Troy Brouwer and goalie Bryan Elliot, three huge parts of their team from last year. With Vladimir Tarasenko scoring, Alex Pietrangelo manning the blueline and a top notch coaching staff manned by Ken Hitchcock in his final year, this group is still dangerous and could make a run, but their moves suggest they are looking towards the future, which may not be just yet.
5. Winnipeg Jets
The Jets got a potential star in the draft in Patrick Laine. With Dustin Byfuglien back in the fold and Mark Scheifele as a number one center, the Jets would be an automatic playoff team in any other division, but the Central is so tough. They might still make it in, but it’ll be close.
6. Colorado Avalanche
Losing coach Patrick Roy will probably help in the long run. The Avs still boast a talented core of forwards in Matt Duchesne, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon and stud goalie Semyon Varlamov, but their defense needs work and with a new coach, this appears to be a transition year.
7. Minnesota Wild
Bringing in new coach Bruce Boudreau will help, but this team is too old and too top heavy. Zach Parise is injury prone, Ryan Suter isn’t getting any younger and they are in the toughest division in the league.
- Los Angeles Kings*
The Kings have gone two straight years without making a deep run in the playoffs after winning two cups in three years. Perhaps the rest will allow them to regroup and put together a strong season. With Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick, the core of the team is still strong.
2. San Jose Sharks*
After making it to the Stanley Cup final for the first time in their history, the Sharks return with pretty much the same team, but a year older. The window is closing for aging stars Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau and after this season, with their contracts up, who knows what will happen, but with Joe Pavelski and Martin Jones still young and leading the team, the Sharks are dangerous for the time being.
3. Anaheim Ducks*
The Ducks have been regular season monsters and playoff disappointments for years now. With Randy Carlyle returning behind the bench, they are trying to change their fortunes, but Carlyle seems a coach best suited for ten years ago. Perhaps he’ll surprise when the playoffs begin, but I’m not sold.
4. Calgary Flames*
The Flames added goaltender Bryan Elliot and bruiser Troy Brouwer for some veteran presence to a roster that includes star forwards Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau as well as a deep blueline led by Dougie Hamilton, T.J. Brodie and Mark Giordano. The team looks like it’s on the rise.
5. Edmonton Oilers
Is this the year the Oilers finally break through? A healthy Connor McDavid would go a long way. Blueliner Adam Larsson will add some confidence for the defensive core, but the Oilers really need Cam Talbot to be a money goalie to have success.
6. Arizona Coyotes
The Coyotes are young and still a few years away from contention, but they have all the pieces in place. Another year of development is in their future.
7. Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks are a mess, caught between needing to blow it up and rebuilding on the fly. An injury to either Sedin twin would spell disaster for their season.
(*= playoff team)
After bracketing out the playoffs, I see a Cup final between the Dallas Stars and the Washington Capitals, with the Capitals finally winning their first championship. Will it happen? It’s never too early to start wondering.