Hockey News and Discussions
After a truly noteworthy 2018 NHL campaign, the offseason changes have been made, a whole new crop of NHL talent has been drafted, and preseason is over. Now begins a long and grueling 82 game marathon to determine the 16 teams that contend for hockey’s ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup.
I don’t believe in doing season previews until I know exactly who is on the roster and yesterday, at 5:00 pm EST, every team’s roster was finalized. Today, Tom Wilson’s suspension was handed down. With that, here are my predictions for the upcoming season.
*means that I believe they will make the playoffs
- Nashville Predators*
I have the Predators winning the Central Division due to their depth. The Jets are a great team, but even they have some question marks as to their repeatability. Meanwhile, in a tough Central, Nashville looks to continue the juggernaut status they’ve proven year after year.
Soon turning 35, Pekka Rinne looks to stay consistent in net, but even if he declines or regresses, Juuse Saros has shown a lot of potential and may be able to help Rinne in a larger role. If not, Rinne is still one of the game’s best when he’s on.
Defensively, the Preds have a great collection of blueliners, if not one of the best (three number one defensemen are tough to beat). 1A’s PK Subban an Roman Josi provide so much stability on the back end and provide an unheralded amount of value to Nashville. Meanwhile, Nashville also has a 1B in Ryan Ellis. Moreover, Dan Hamhuis and Mattias Ekholm round out the top 5, while Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin provide depth.
Offensively, this team is just so dangerous. Viktor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, Craig Smith, Kevin Fiala, and Kyle Turris are a fantastic top 6, while Nick Bonino and Calle Jarnkrok have been impressive depth pieces for their entire careers. Frederick Gaudreau and Colton Sissons will all have a chance to make an impact in a bottom 6 role.
Their fourth line could use an upgrade, especially since Watson is suspended for a large portion of the year and Hartman is injured, but that’s a need that can easily be filled either from within or from a quick trade.
I say barring major problems in net, the Preds win the division.
- Winnipeg Jets*
After a disappointing loss to the Golden Knights, the Jets are looking for redemption in what they hope will be the club’s first Stanley Cup. For this incarnation of the Jets (Atlanta/Winnipeg), this era is the most successful in the history of their franchise. Despite the loss of Paul Stastny, the Jets still boast an incredibly impressive forward core.
Mark Scheifele has evolved into a superstar center, Blake Wheeler is coming off a 91 point campaign, Patrik Laine is looking to continue his growth as one of the best young goal scorers in the league, Nikolai Ehlers is looking to continue to be an elite member of the top 6, and Kyle Connor has proven to be a valuable addition on the wing.
While the team lacks a true number 2 center, they do have a lot of depth. Bryan Little is always good for between 40-50 points, while Mathieu Perreault, Andrew Copp, Adam Lowry, and Brandon Tanev have shown tons of potential. The only real question mark at forward is rookie Jack Roslovic. He potentially could be that number 2 center that the team needs, but he may need a bit more seasoning, especially since a Cup is on the line this year.
Defensively, the Jets have one of the best assemblies in the league. Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers, and Jacob Trouba are consistently valuable players, Josh Morrissey is one of the better up and coming defenseman who is coming off a breakout campaign, Dmitry Kulikov is a solid bottom four defenseman, and Ben Chiarot is an incredibly valuable defenseman in a limited role. I have mixed feelings about pairing two rightys in Myers and Byfuglien and I think the left side could use some more depth.
In net, Connor Hellebuyck is a Vezina finalist and will be looking to replicate his success from last season. However, he will need to keep that form or else the Jets may be in trouble.
A few question marks, but probably still one of the top teams in the league. I’ll still give Nashville the edge, though.
- St Louis Blues*
The new look Blues should provide a lot of excitement for the city of St. Louis. We all knew Braydon Schenn, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Jaden Schwartz could score, but now the team just has so much depth.
Key additions Ryan O’Reilly, Patrick Maroon, and Tyler Bozak should play major roles with the team and help guide the younger players. One should also not discount O’Reilly’s ability to take defensive draws, which will allow the Blues to shelter rookies Robert Thomas (one of the better prospects in hockey), Samuel Blais, and Jordan Kyrou to maximize their potential. David Perron and Ivan Barbashev will also help provide offense to the team.
Defensively, the combination of Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, Vincent Dunn, Joel Edmundson, Jay Bouwmeester, Robert Bortuzzo, and Jordan Schmaltz is a solid core. They all have proven their respective statuses, meaning that the blueline will be a point in their favor.
The main question is goaltending. With Carter Hutton gone, can Jake Allen finally be the number one goalie that this franchise believes he is? How will Chad Johnson rebound after a down year in Buffalo? If Allen can be consistent, the Blues should be back in the playoffs, but losing Hutton hurts, especially after his valuable 2018 campaign.
The Blues are one of the most improved groups since 2018. This team definitely has the talent to make the postseason, but I need to see more before I call them one of the best in the Central.
- Colorado Avalanche*
After losing Jonathan Bernier, the Avalanche acquired Phillipp Grubauer from the Washington Capitals. So now the Avs will be platooning two former Caps goalies (Semyon Varlamov being the other). That is an above average combination in net. I’ve seen Grubauer play a lot over the last few years and he looks ready to be a starter, so it’ll be interesting to see how that works out with Varlamov. But as the Capitals proved last year, goaltending depth is a beautiful thing.
Tyson Barrie, Erik Johnson, Patrik Nemeth, Nikita Zadorov, Ian Cole, Mark Barberio and Samuel Girard will make up the blueline. That group played fairly well last season and I expect Girard to make a huge leap forward this season. Girard looks amazing and I’d like to see him turn into a stud.
Up front, Colorado boasts a top center in Nathan MacKinnon, as well as Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, Matt Nieto, Carl Soderberg, Colin Wilson, Tyson Jost, JT Compher, Alex Kerfoot, and Matt Calvert. Gabriel Bourque and Dominic Toninato will compete for depth spots.
This team made the postseason last year, largely because of the efforts of Nathan MacKinnon. While I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised if they regressed, the talent level of this team will probably keep them in the hunt well into April.
- Minnesota Wild
The Wild are largely keeping their team intact, hoping that a healthy roster will produce more success on the ice. But they are in a precarious position. Not only has the Central Division gotten stronger, but arguable three of the top five teams in the Western Conference are in their division.
In net, Minnesota goes back to Devan Dubnyk, who has been amazing since they acquired him from Arizona several seasons ago. They also chose to bring back Alex Stalock, who was an above replacement-level backup last season (to borrow a baseball term).
Defensively, the Wild look good as ever. Ryan Suter is returning after suffering a leg injury, and rounding out the top 4 will be Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, and Matt Dumba. Moreover, Gustav Olafsson, Greg Pateryn, Nate Prosser, and Nick Seeler will compete for bottom pairing spots.
On offense, the Wild’s core still is comprised of Eric Staal, Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Nino Neiderreiter, Zach Parise, Marcus Foligno, and Jason Zucker. Rookie Jordan Greenway will play in his first 82 game campaign after finishing out the year with the Wild, while Eric Fehr, JT Brown, and Matt Hendricks will serve as depth players. Lastly, Joel Eriksson-Ek will look to improve his numbers after his first professional season. A former first rounder, Eriksson-Ek will have to produce more than 16 points to help this team return to the post season.
A healthy Suter and Parise will go a long way. I like the steps the Wild are taking and they should be in the mix for a playoff spot along with the Ducks, Oilers, Kings, Blues, Avalanche, and Flames. I don’t have them in the postseason now, but they certainly belong in the playoff bubble that exists in the West right now.
- Dallas Stars
After a disappointing 2018, the Stars look poised to take the next step.
Their goaltending tandem is the best it has looked in years with Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin manning the pipes. Both have shown themselves to be consistent goaltenders who can steal wins for their club.
Defensively, Dallas is deep, but unproven. John Klingberg, Marc Methot, and Esa Lindell played major roles last season and look to replicate that success. While the Stars are going to miss injured Stephen Johns, youngsters Connor Carrick, Miro Heiskanen, Julius Honka hope to take the next step in their careers. Depth wise, journeyman Roman Polak should help them, especially in the Western Conference where size is most often a plus.
Offensively there is a lot to like about this team as well. Everyone knows their big three of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov can score goals, but this Stars team has a lot of depth. Devin Shore is looking to improve from a 20 goal season, Radek Faksa is looking to take continue maturing his game, and Valeri Nichuskin returns after two productive seasons in the KHL. In addition, Jason Spezza, Brett Richie and Blake Comeau are solid depth pieces, and Gemel Smith and Jason Dickerson have a chance to showcase their talents. The question marks will be Tyler Pitlick and Mattias Janmark who will be asked to play bigger roles after a decent season in 2018.
While there are definitely some offensive depth questions, the Stars have the pieces to make the postseason. They just need it to come together. Easier said than done in a tough Central.
- Chicago Blackhawks
My how the mighty have fallen. This was the team of the decade until 2017.
There’s a saying in sports that “father time is undefeated.” Apparently, the NHL salary cap is undefeated as well, since the Hawks (who were able to win after cap restructuring twice) weren’t able to come back from the contracts of Jonathan Toews, Artemi Panarin, and Patrick Kane.
Their group has largely stayed the same, though. Toews, Kane, Brandon Saad, Marcus Kruger, Nick Schmaltz, Artem Anisimov, John Hayden, David Kampf, and Alex DeBrincat are all returning, while the Hawks have added Chris Kunitz, Andreas Martinsen, Luke Johnson, and Dominik Kahun.
On defense, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Erik Gustafsson, and Jan Rutta are returning. They will be joined by Brandon Davidson, Brandon Manning, and prospect Henri Jokiharju.
With Connor Murphy and Corey Crawford injured, the Hawks are going to have to brace for the worst.
In net, Chicago will be relying on Cam Ward and Anton Forsberg.
Obviously there is talent on this team, but in a tough Central one year after the dynasty officially ended, the Hawks are a longshot to comeback. Ward is going to have to be superhuman to get them past 82 games.
- San Jose Sharks*
The Sharks have been in win-now mode for over a decade and never has it been more apparent than this season. The Sharks’ best players are all either in their prime or on the wrong side of 30. Plus, Karlsson only has one year left on his deal.
Defensively, there isn’t a better team in the league. Erik Karlsson joins Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun, and Brendan Dillon. Joakim Ryan, Tim Heed, and Radek Simek will all compete for the 6th spot. Can anyone beat 2 of the best defensemen in the league?
On offense, there are a lot of familiar faces: Evander Kane, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Melker Karlsson, Tomas Hertl, Joonas Donskoi, and Barclay Goodrow. They will be joined by newcomers Antti Suomela and Rourke Chartier. Meanwhile, Kevin Labanc, Marcus Sorenson, and Timo Meier will try to grow from last season.
Goaltending wise, the Sharks are continuing with Martin Jones and Aaron Dell. I mean if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.
With Karlsson, the Sharks should win the division. Depth is a necessity throughout all 82 games and it’s hard to ask for more than 2 of the top 4 defensemen in the league. Cup or bust. But in a division where the only certain competition is Vegas, I think they have the roster to be the Pacific champs.
- Vegas Golden Knights*
After appearing in the Stanley Cup Finals in their first ever season, the Knights will need to protect against a large regression. And they’ve done just that. I’ve seen a lot of people saying last year was luck or good coaching, but that isn’t the case.
Jonathan Marchessault was a 30 goal scorer before coming to Vegas, while Alex Tuch (currently injured), William Karlsson and Erik Haula showed potential while serving bottom 6 roles with their previous teams. Reilly Smith was always a good goal scorer, but was traded away from the Panthers by former GM Tom Rowe. Now Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty join the team to create a formidable second line. Cody Eakin, Ryan Reaves, Oscar Lindberg, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Tomas Nosek, William Carrier and Ryan Carpenter will round out the forward group and compete for bottom 6 minutes.
Defensively, the Knights struck out on Erik Karlsson, so they’ve chosen to keep their defense largely intact. Shea Theodore and Colin Miller will look to continue their growth, while Brayden McNabb, Nick Holden, Deryk Engelland, and Jon Merrill will add stability to their team. Losing Nate Schmidt to suspension is a big blow and his loss will probably heavily affect the team.
In net, they return with 3 time Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban.
I have questions about their defensive core, which I didn’t think looked all that great against the Capitals in the Finals. That group minus Schmidt is going to be hard to overcome. Will the magic stay? I don’t know, but 82 games are a marathon and the Sharks just look better.
- Calgary Flames*
The Flames completely revamped their roster this past offseason. As a result, Calgary comes in as one of the deeper Pacific Division teams. Goal scorer and veteran James Neal was the major acquisition at forward. Meanwhile, Derek Ryan, Elias Lindholm, Austin Czarnik and Dillon Dube all are making their Calgary debuts this week. They will join Calgary’s current core of Mikael Backlund, Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, Michael Frolik, Mark Jankowski, and Sam Bennett. I like the balance that their top-9 has.
On the blueline, the Flames traded star defenseman Dougie Hamilton in a highly polarizing deal. I think it makes them worse in the long term, but defense was always a strength for the Flames, so I’m not too worried about them for this season. Currently, Calgary’s defense is comprised of Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie, Travis Hamonic, Michael Stone, Noah Hannifin, and Dalton Prout. Former first round pick Juuso Valimaki will be joining them after his incredible preseason.
In net, Mike Smith will be the clear starter, as David Rittich has yet to show consistency at the NHL level. Goaltending is the real question mark.
As long as Smith stays healthy and does not regress, I predict the Flames will be returning to the postseason. They’ve done a lot to improve their club and it just might be enough.
- Anaheim Ducks*
The Pacific division is up for grabs and usually I’d have this team in one of the three playoff spots, but with injuries to Corey Perry, Ondrej Kase, Patrick Eaves, and Ryan Kesler, I’m not so sure. They were able to play with key players missing games last season, but can they do it again?
Fortunately, Anaheim has a wealth of prospect depth. After I attended their rookie camp, I noticed that Sam Steel looked beyond ready for the NHL and 1st round pick Isac Lundestrom (who I believe will be a great player in this league) looked pretty solid as well. 2017 second round pick Max Comtois lit up the preseason, while prospects Troy Terry and Kiefer Sherwood made their own respective impacts. The Ducks will need all of these players to continue to grow.
Much like last year, Anaheim will still rely on Rickard Rakell, Ryan Getzlaf, Andrew Cogliano, Adam Henrique, and Jakob Silfverberg, but they’ve added some depth pieces in Pontus Aberg, Brian Gibbons, Ben Street, and Carter Rowney.
Defensively, Anaheim still has the dominant top 4 of Josh Manson, Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, and Brandon Montour. Marcus Pettersson will hope to build on his performance last year and Luke Schenn and Andrej Sustr will vie for the last spot.
In net, John Gibson, when healthy, is a top goalie in the league and Ryan Miller provides a lot of stability as a back up.
If the Knights, Avalanche, Oilers, or Flames stumble, I could see Anaheim making the playoffs. As for now, they have the better roster, but health will always be a question mark. Fortunately, in Steel, Comtois, and Lundestrom they have the depth to handle it. But if they lose any more bodies, things wouldn’t be looking good.
- Edmonton Oilers
This is one of my controversial picks, but I really liked them all season.
The new Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Connor McDavid, Ty Rattie line looks really good. Kailer Yamamoto and Jesse Puljujarvi were really good in the preseason, Drake Caggiula, Kyle Brodziak, Tobias Rieder, Alex Chiasson, and Jujhar Khaira will all be effective in the bottom 6, while Milan Lucic will look to rebound. When you have a one-two of McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the pieces are there.
Defensively, this is the best the team has looked in the McDavid era (even with Andrej Sekera missing a large part of the season). Evan Bouchard looks like he will be a great NHL defenseman (but will they keep him past 9 games), and Oscar Klefbom will look to rebound after a disappointing 2018, Additionally, Matthew Benning and Darnell Nurse are going to be a great middle pairing, while Ethan Bear, Jason Garrison, and Adam Larsson give the Oilers options on the blue line.
It all comes down to goaltending. If Cam Talbot can return to form or Mikko Koskinen can replicate his KHL numbers, the Oilers are in good shape.
We all know about the Larsson for Hall deal, but there’s nothing Edmonton can do about it now. They need to recover and I think they’ve done well getting the right blueline pieces. The Wild Card will be a fight in the West and there isn’t much room for error, but for now, I think Edmonton could be there.
- Los Angeles Kings
With Dustin Brown and Johnny Brodzinski on the injured reserve, the Kings are forced to go young. Michael Amadio will look to improve from last year, while newcomers Jaret Anderson-Dolan and Austin Wagner will try to make their marks. The Kings are going to rely heavily on their core from last year, which included Anze Kopitar, Tanner Pearson, Tyler Toffoli, Alex Iafallo, Jeff Carter, Trevor Lewis, Nate Thompson, and Adrian Kempe. The only real addition is Ilya Kovalchuk who was a top player in the KHL over the last few seasons. Goal scoring has been an issue for Los Angeles over the last couple of seasons. Will Kovalchuk be the solution? When Brown returns, will he be able to replicate last season?
Defensively, not much has changed. I’m a big fan of their defensive system and think its fine. Drew Doughty is my favorite defenseman in the league and he’s one of the top 3 (see my article discussing the top defenseman in the NHL), while Alec Martinez, Jake Muzzin, Derek Forbort, and Dion Phaneuf round out an intimidating top 5. Oscar Fantenberg played well in the postseason and Paul LaDue (who I’ve seen since he was on the Ontario Reign) will be a nice depth asset. I think their defense is much better than people give them credit for.
Goaltending wise, Los Angeles has shown they could put almost anyone in net and have them look like a Vezina finalist, but they are going with Jonathan Quick and Jack Campbell. I’m sure it’ll work out since it always does.
LA has a solid team, but they are also lost in the sea of above average teams in the Pacific Division. In this day and age, a number one dman and top center aren’t enough. Right now, I don’t think they’ve done enough to prove they can score goals (especially with that disturbing preseason), but Anderson-Dolan and Wagner were bright spots so time will tell.
- Arizona Coyotes
Arizona will look to goalie Antti Raanta to continue his stellar career in the desert. In his first full season, he performed very well after a few early missteps. Backing him up will be Darcy Kuemper, who played underwhelmingly after coming over from Los Angeles in a midseason trade. Relying on Raanta makes goaltending a huge unknown.
Defensively, you could do much worse than a core of Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jakob Chychrun (when he comes back from injury), Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alex Goligoski, Kevin Connauton, Jordan Oesterle, Ilya Lyubushkin, and Jason Demers. That group certainly has talent, but consistency will likely trouble them.
Offensively is where the Coyotes have the most question marks. I’ve always been a huge Clayton Keller fan, but will he regress as sophomores often do? Meanwhile, Alex Galchenyuk’s injury opens up a lot of options at center. Obviously, Derek Stepan will be assigned heavy minutes and Brad Richardson will play a more defensive role, but Dylan Strome, Laurent Dauphin, Barrett Hayton, and Christian Dvorak (when he comes back from injury) will be eager to get the big minutes. There is a lot of talent and potential among those young players, but will it come together?
I don’t think there’s more an unknown by any team than Arizona. I really don’t know where to place them, to be honest. This is a team that could make the top three based on their talent or could remain one of the bottom 7 teams in the entire league.
- Vancouver Canucks
Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser are going to be an exciting duo in Vancouver. Pettersson is an all-world talent and Boeser is a phenomenal goal scorer. Additionally, Bo Horvat looks like a great 2c, Sven Baertschi looks solid, and Brandon Sutter should be a decent depth center. After that, their forward group has some question marks. Loui Eriksson had an extremely disappointing 2018 and Vancouver’s 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 7th most scorers from last year are no longer on the team. Youngsters Nikolay Goldobin, Markus Granlund, Tyler Motte, Brandon Leipsic, and Jake Virtanen will be baptized by fire and will need to give their best. Fortunately, the Canucks have a lot of leadership in Jay Beagle who will be able to shelter these younger forwards defensively.
Jacob Markstrom and Anders Nilsson will return in net, while the defensive core looks pretty good. Alexander Edler, Chris Tanev, Ben Hutton, Michael Del Zotto, Troy Stetcher, Erik Gudbranson, and Derrick Pouliot (assuming they are all healthy) can all help out the team. Again, assuming they stay healthy, they have an above average defense. That’s a plus.
The Canucks are incredibly similar to the Coyotes. On paper, I don’t think they are close to being the New Jersey Devils from last year, but they have enough talent to make the Pacific Division interesting. As I stated previously, this division is very up for grabs, since there doesn’t seem to be much separation (due to variables like injuries, regression, puck luck, depth) between teams like Arizona, Anaheim, and Los Angeles, but each just has strengths in different places. That leaves the Canucks on the outside looking in, but a wild card spot with this roster isn’t completely out of the question if everything clicks. Stranger things have happened.
I don’t think they are going to be awful and even if they are, they’ll be exciting thanks to Elias Petterson and Brock Boeser.
- Tampa Bay Lightning*
After being one win away from the Cup finals, the Lighting are returning much of the same team: Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat, JT Miller, Tyler Johnson, Nikita, Kucherov, Alex Killorn, Yanni Gourde, Cedric Paquette, and Brayden Point. In addition, Cory Conacher has been brought back for depth. However, the Lightning are going to use more young players, including Adam Erne, Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph, and Danick Martel.
But Tampa is also bringing back a top defense in Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonaugh, Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn, Dan Girardi, Mikhail Sergachev, and Slater Koekkoek.
In net, the Lightning have a Vezina winner in Andrei Vasilevskiy and their back up Louis Domingue.
When viewed as a whole, this Lightning team is deep enough to win the tough Atlantic. The Atlantic probably has the three spots set, barring something unforeseen. Boston, Tampa, or the Leafs could win and I wouldn’t be surprised. But for now, the Lightning have to be the favorite.
- Toronto Maple Leafs*
Nobody improved more than the Leafs this offseason, but with William Nylander still holding out, it makes the team’s position more precarious. There is zero wiggle room in this division, so if Nylander misses 5+ games, it could dramatically affect them later on.
In the meantime, Toronto boasts one of the best center duos in the NHL in John Tavares and Auston Matthews. They will be joined by Patrick Marleau, Connor Brown, Josh Leivo, Zach Hyman, Nazem Kadri, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, Frederik Gauthier, and Par Lindholm. Who could blame them? The Marlies won the AHL championship, so why not give the prospects a chance?
While the Leafs have a fantastic forward group, on defense, it’s less certain. Morgan Reilly looks like a top defenseman, while Jake Gardiner was an offensive machine in 2018 (despite his defensive problems). Toronto will also use Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, Travis Dermott, Justin Holl, Martin Marincin, and Igor Ozhiganov.
In goal, the Maple Leafs will continue to go with Frederik Andersen, who will be backed up by Garrett Sparks.
After losing two goalies on waivers yesterday, the Leafs are in a tough spot in goal. Moreover, with the questions on their blueline and Nylander’s absence, it’ll be tough for them to defeat the Atlantic Juggernauts in Tampa. I think this division comes down to 6 points or fewer, but the edge has to go to the Lightning as of right now, especially since Tampa is built to win right out of the gate.
- Boston Bruins*
The Bruins have a dominant top line in Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak. Now they’ve added a great third line with Sean Kuraly, David Backes, and Ryan Donato. Rounding out the forwards are David Krejci, Chris Wagner, Anders Bjork, Joakim Nordstrom, Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen, and Noel Acciari.
On defense, Boston has added John Moore to their usual Charlie McAvoy, Zdeno Chara, Matt Grzelcyk, Kevin Miller, and Brandon Carlo. Steven Kampfer (who I’ve always thought was a great depth player) and former first rounder Urho Vaakanainen will also vie for minutes in Boston.
In the absence of Anton Khudobin, Boston turns to one of the deeper goalie tandems in the league in Tuuka Rask and Jaroslav Halak.
Right now, the B’s have a great team, but they are overshadowed by being in a division with two title contenders. I think they likely make the number three and fight it out in the postseason.
- Florida Panthers*
After missing the playoffs, the Panthers look to undo the damage caused by their former general manager and build upon a great core.
Injuries to Bogdan Kiselevich and Keith Yandle have reduced the blueline a little, but the Panthers still have one of their better rosters in franchise history. Aaron Ekblad, Michael Matheson, Mark Pysyk, MacKenzie Weegar, and Alex Petrovic are all returning, while Jacob MacDonald (who put up 55 points in the AHL last year) rounds out the team.
At forward, the Panthers have one of the best young cores in hockey: Alexander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, Nick Bjugstad, and Evgeni Dadonov. Now Florida adds Mike Hoffman to the mix (say what you want about him, but he’s a terrific goal scorer). The Panthers can also demonstrate their depth, as Denis Malgin, Maxim Mamin, Michael Haley, Troy Brouwer, Frank Vatrano, Colton Sceviour, Derek MacKenzie, and Jared McCann will fill out the roster.
In goal, Roberto Luongo isn’t getting any younger, while James Reimer has been inconsistent during his tenure in South Florida.
Despite the question marks, this team is still really good. I can easily see them making one of the two available Wild Card spots, especially since they were so close last year and the uncertainties in the East.
- Buffalo Sabres
With Robin Lehner now gone, the Sabres turn to Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark in net. Hutton was stellar last year in a limited sample size and the Sabres will be hoping for more of the same.
Defense is the big story in Buffalo, as Rasmus Dahlin leads a group that desperately needed a number one defenseman. Joining him are Zach Bogosian, Matt Tennyson, Marco Scandella, Jake McCabe, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Nathan Beaulieu. If healthy, they could do some damage.
Up front, after parting with O’Reilly, the Sabres have added a lot of depth, including Vladimir Sobotka, Connor Sheary, and Patrick Berglund. Meanwhile, Casey Mittelstadt and Jack Eichel form a formidable 1-2 punch for years to come. The team is also rounded out by Jeff Skinner, Jason Pominville, Tage Thompson, Evan Rodrigues, Sam Reinhart, Kyle Okposo, Remi Elie, and Zemgus Girgensons.
I don’t think they’ll make the playoffs just yet, but this should be a huge step in the right direction. This will definitely be a year to build upon in Buffalo.
- Montreal Canadiens
Montreal is certainly building towards the future, and that future looks much brighter than it did last season.
Offensively, Tomas Plekanec is returning, and he and Paul Byron should be strong mentors for rookies Matthew Peca and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Both Kotkaniemi and Peca possess a lot of talent and potential, but it remains to be seen if they can make a meaningful impact over the long 82 game campaign. Fortunately, Montreal has a lot of young players under 27, which gives their core time to grow. Jonathan Drouin, Tomas Tatar, Brendan Gallagher, Max Domi, Phillip Danault, Joel Armia, Nikita Scherbak, Arturi Lehkonen, and Charles Hudon may all be integral parts of the club’s future. This year should be about building chemistry and developing a strong and dynamic offense. Every player, aside from Domi, is outside of head coach Claude Julien’s usual M.O. when it comes to choosing forwards. We will see if he can develop this team using speed.
Defensively, the Habs are going to rely on rookies early on. With veterans Shea Weber and David Schlemko out, prospects Mike Reilly, Victor Mete, and Noah Juulsen will have a chance to prove they belong in the big leagues. Rounding out the top 6 are reliable defensemen like Jordie Benn and Karl Alzner (skating aside, he’s a decent blueliner). However, Jeff Petry has always been an above average top 4 defenseman, but much like his days in Edmonton, he will be asked to shoulder a lot of minutes and offensive production.
Meanwhile, in net, Carey Price’s new contract kicks in, which provides the Habs without much flexibility as far as salary goes. He and Antti Niemi, who played well in a back-up role last season, will be tasked with preventing goals. When it comes to rebuilds, you want rookies to win the right way and having an anchor in net can do a lot for a young team’s confidence.
Definitely a step in the right direction, but I expect them to finish among the bottom 6 teams. At least the future of hockey looks brighter in Quebec.
- Detroit Red Wings
With Jimmy Howard’s pending UFA and Jonathan Bernier signed to a 3 year deal, it’s safe to assume that Bernier will be the new starting goalie or will become the new starting goalie in Detroit. He’s played well during the past two seasons, so the Wings will have to hope he continues to play to his best ability.
On defense, the Detroit will turn to Danny DeKeyser, Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson, Trevor Daley, and Nick Jensen to guide youngsters Dennis Cholowski and Libor Sulak.
Likewise, Dylan Larkin becomes the face of the franchise with Zetterberg’s career now over, while Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, Tyler Bertuzzi, Martin Frk, Michael Rasmussen, and Christoffer Ehn signal a new era in Hockeytown. Meanwhile, mainstays Frans Nielsen, Gustav Nyquist, Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, Thomas Vanek, and Luke Glendening will be guiding this team.
It’ll be interesting to see how this team does. Cholowski and Rasmussen have a lot of potential, while the young core of the Red Wings is shaping up well. This will likely continue to be a rebuilding year and if Wings fans are lucky, Filip Zadina might be recalled at some point.
- Ottawa Senators
After trading a majority of players that were on their Eastern Conference Finals appearing team in 2017, the Sens are going with a youth movement.
Their defense, in the absence of Karlsson, looks much different. Now, Cody Ceci, Thomas Chabot, Mark Borowiecki, and Dylan DeMelo will be asked to play bigger roles, while Ben Harpur and Maxime Lajoie compete for the last spot in the lineup.
In net, Craig Anderson and Mike Condon will return, though they were largely uninspiring last season. Hopefully clearing out all the locker room distractions will make them better.
At forward, with injuries to Marian Gaborik, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, and Clarke MacArthur, Ottawa is now led by Mark Stone, Bobby Ryan, Matt Duchene, Mikkel Boedker, Zack Smith, Chris Tierney, Ryan Dzingel, and Tom Pyatt. Additionally, a lot will be asked of rookies Brady Tkachuk, Colin White, and Alex Formenton, while Max McCormick and Magnus Paajarvi will fill depth roles.
There are bright spots on this team, but overall, expectations shouldn’t be high. That defense has major questions and the rookies will have to be outstanding to keep this team out of the bottom 5.
- Washington Capitals*
I mean come on, they are the defending Champs and they lost three players. Tom Wilson (recently suspended for 20 games) could be suspended the for the full season and they’d probably still win this division based off their track record. The Capitals are just juggernauts.
Braden Holtby is Holtby, while Pheonix Copley is replacing Grubauer, and he looked amazing at times during the preseason.
The defense is made up of Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, John Carlson, Michal Kempny (when he comes back from injury), Brooks Orpik, Christian Djoos, and Madison Bowey. Kempny played a big role last year, but the Caps were decent in the regular season without him.
Up front, the Capitals still have Wilson, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, TJ Oshie, Lars Eller, Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly, Devante Smith-Pelly, Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson, and Nathan Walker. Now they add Dmitrij Jaskin to replace Alex Chiasson, and Travis Boyd (injured) and Nic Dowd to replace Jay Beagle.
Repeat? I’m not sure of that yet, but this is definitely going to be a tough team to defeat.
- Pittsburgh Penguins*
Finishing in a close second are the Caps’ bitter rivals and former Cup champions, the Penguins. What a rough division, no wonder the last 3 champions have come from here.
The combination of Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Derick Brassard, Carl Hagelin, Bryan Rust, Riley Sheahan, and Jake Guentzel is still a threat at forward, while Matt Cullen, Daniel Sprong, Dominik Simon, and Derek Ryan will bolster the team’s depth.
On defense, Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maata and Jamie Oleksiak are returning, while Jack Johnson and Juuso Riikola (I’m predicting a big year from this electrifying defenseman) round out the top 6.
Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry will return to the net.
The Penguins will continue to their playoff streak and aren’t going away anytime soon.
- Philadelphia Flyers*
Their forwards include Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, Jakub Voracek, Michael Raffl, and Wayne Simmonds. That group also added James Van Riemsdyk and Jori Lehtera. Enough said. Also young players like Travis Konecny, Oskar Lindblom, Scott Laughton and Nolan Patrick will look to build upon their totals from last season. The interesting part of this team is their bottom 6. Dale Weise and Jordan Weal are question marks. Can Weal replicate his numbers from last season? Will Weise rebound from his dismal 2018 season?
Defensively, their group has a lot of talent, despite their youth. Shayne Gostisbehere, Robert Hagg, Ivan Provorov, and Travis Sanheim are a great collection of d-men to build around. Throw in Andrew MacDonald’s surprisingly solid 2018 and Radko Gudas for toughness and depth? That’s a solid team.
The major question mark is in net. Brian Elliott performed below-average last year, Will young goalies like Anthony Stolarz or newly claimed Calvin Pickard be able to carry this team?
Gritty aside, I’ll put the Flyers in the playoffs, especially since there are a lot of question marks in the East. They are a solid team and should fair well.
- Columbus Blue Jackets*
In goal, Columbus returns with Sergei Bobrovsky and Joonas Korpisalo. One is a former Vezina winner and one of the best goalies in the league, while Korpisalo has shown flashes of potential.
But the big question is the future of Columbus. With Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky being unrestricted free agents and virtually no guarantee that they return, will the Jackets retool? I’m not pondering those questions in this list, but it’s worth noting.
As of now, if they decide to stay the course, I’m predicting the Jackets make the playoffs, which isn’t an easy sell. However, Panarin is a complete superstar, while Pierre-Luc Dubois had a fantastic rookie year. The Columbus core is also comprised of Nick Foligno, Boone Jenner, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Alexander Wennberg, Cam Atkinson, Josh Anderson, and Brandon Dubinsky. Joining them are new comers Anthony DuClair and Riley Nash, as well as prospects Lukas Sedlak, Markus Hannikainen, and Sonny Milano.
On defense, losing Ryan Murray and Seth Jones is a huge blow. Their loss leaves David Savard, Markus Nutivaara, Zach Werenski, Gabriel Carlsson, Dean Kukan, Scott Harrington, and Adam Clendening the responsibility of carrying this blueline. That’s a question mark.
Overall, the Jackets aren’t as great on paper as they’ve been in the last two seasons (both first round playoff exits). Despite this, the roster still has a chance to make it. With a dominant Dubois and Panarin, the Jackets definitely have pieces. If they can stay the course until their defensemen return from injury, the season will not be lost.
- Carolina Hurricanes
Breathing down the Jackets’ necks are the Carolina Hurricanes. That line of Sebastian Aho, Warren Foegele, and Teuvo Teravainen is scary. Additionally, the ‘Canes are comprised of Jordan Staal, Justin Williams, Michael Ferland, Jordan Martinook, Andrei Svechnikov, Martin Necas, Brock McGinn, Phil DiGiuseppe, Lucas Wallmark, and Valentin Zykov. Necas and Svechnikov have proven they are legitimate top prospects and every other forward has shown enough to convince me that this team is for real. If they don’t make the playoffs this year, they are eyeing the postseason in 2020.
Defensively, the ‘Canes have one of the more underrated groups in Dougie Hamilton, Jaccob Slavin, Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce, Calvin De Haan, Haydn Fleury, and Trevor Van Riemsdyk.
Goaltending is the only place that shows weakness. Scott Darling will be looking to redeem his lackluster first year (hopefully he’s solved all the off-ice problems that led to this) and Petr Mrazek has been added for insurance.
This team doesn’t scream playoffs…yet, but the pieces are there. If Columbus moves one or both of Bobrovsky or Panarin without a return designed to help them now, put Carolina in their playoff spot.
- New Jersey Devils
After making the playoffs last season, will they be able to build upon their success?
They certainly have the pieces, but we will see if they can continue to thrive in their speed game. Cory Scheider will be missed as he is currently on the injured reserve, forcing the Devils to turn to Eddie Lack and Keith Kinkaid. Kinkaid did fairly well last season and showed he’s at least capable of being a platoon starter. Can he replicate it?
Offensively, MVP Taylor Hall will probably continue to lead the team in scoring while 2nd year player and former number 1 overall pick Nico Hischier will look to continue after a strong 2018 campaign. The Devils have a young forward group, but they do have a lot of talent: Miles Wood, Jesper Bratt, Stefan Noesen, John Quenneville, Blake Coleman, and Pavel Zacha. That group will have to take the next step for the Devils to build on their success last season. Meanwhile, veterans Kyle Palmieri and Brian Boyle will look to continue to play major roles on this team, while Marcus Johansson hopes to rebound after a down 2018 season.
Defensively, the Devils will continue to turn to Will Butcher (who had a monster rookie year on defense), Damon Severson, and Sami Vatanen. But after losing John Moore, will Steven Santini or Mirco Mueller step up and play a bigger role? Captain Andy Greene will provide defense and leadership, but will his production continue to decline? Eric Gryba and Ben Lovejoy round out the defense core. As a whole, that blueline has a lot of questions. It makes it hard to definitely say they will once again return to the postseason.
A lot of key pieces didn’t return, I’m not sure they reach the postseason again this year, but I’m not going to preclude that possibility.
- New York Islanders
The Islanders opted to go with experience over using their young prospects. In the aftermath of Tavares’ departure, the Islanders are left in a no-win situation. Fortunately, the team already has a young star to whom the team can and will pass the torch: Matthew Barzal. Time will tell if Barzal can replicate his success when he’s going against the best defenses in the world (rather than splitting that task with Tavares). Joining him are Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, and Jordan Eberle, who all thrived with Tavares. Therefore, it remains to be seen what a post-Tavares team looks like. Meanwhile, the Islanders will rely on Anthony Beauvillier, Tanner Fritz, and Valtteri Filppula for depth scoring, while their bottom 6 will be a gritty unit, comprised of Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas, Leo Komorov, Matt Martin, Ross Johnston, and Tom Kuhnhackl.
Defensively, Ryan Pulock and Nick Leddy are leading the team now, while Johnny Boychuk, Thomas Hickey, Adam Pelech, Scott Mayfield, and Luca Sbisa round out the club’s skaters. Maybe Noah Dobson will join them at the end of the year.
In net, Robin Lehner looks to rebound from his own off-ice issues, while Thomas Greiss returns for Brooklyn.
With Barzal becoming the main attraction, Jan Kovar, Josh Ho-Sang, and Kieffer Bellows in the minors, and Andrew Ladd injured, it’s going to be a long year for Islanders fans. Fortunately, the club should be back in no time, as Barzal has already shown he’s one of the game’s emerging best players.
- New York Rangers
In the midst of a full rebuild, the Rangers are relying much more on prospects and young players, in addition to their usual core. At forward, the team is comprised of Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello, Ryan Spooner, Vladislav Namestnikov, Jimmy Vesey, Jesper Fast, Vinni Lettieri, Pavel Buchnevich, Filip Chytil, Brett Howden, and Cody McLeod.
Defensively, Kevin Shattenkirk, Marc Staal, Brady Skjei, Brendan Smith, and Adam McQuaid will likely mentor Neal Pink, Anthony DeAngelo, and Frederik Claesson.
Henrik Lundqvist remains in net, along with Alexandar Georgiev.
While this Rangers squad is much different than the contending team NHL fans are used to, there are a few bright spots. Spooner, Howden, Namestnikov, and Chytil will be key players for years to come. It’s going to be a rough year for Manhattan hockey, but there will be excitement sooner rather than later.