Stanley Cup Winner: Tampa Bay Lightning
Runner Up: Anaheim Ducks
Pacific: Anaheim Ducks
Central: St. Louis Blues
Metro: Pittsburgh Penguins
Atlantic: Tampa Bay Lightning
1) Tampa Bay Lightning
Since appearing in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final this team has suffered horrendous injury plagues, of which superstar Steven Stamkos has unfortunately been front and center (playing in only about half of his team’s games since that time). When this team is healthy they are as deep and talented as anyone in the league. I’m still bullish on them. Look for them to regain their 2015 and even 2016 form (where they fell just short of another Cup Finals bearth). They’ve shed some bad contracts, depth is as strong as ever, and with the emergence of new kids who can contribute, this team returns to the Cup Finals where they win their first Stanley Cup since 2004 and will do so over the Anaheim Ducks.
2) Pittsburgh Penguins
Speaking of not having a Stanley Cup hangover, the Penguins are bucking the trend. This will be a re-tooling year of sorts for the Penguins as they adjust to some cap changes and expansion draft necessity losses. That being said, the Crosby-Malkin-Letang-Kessel-Murray core remains intact, the defense is still together and the kids will take on a more regular role this year. As dangerous as anyone, they’ll threaten to try a three-peat, which would be the first in 34 years.
3) Columbus Blue Jackets
This team is loaded. One of the best young defensive corps in the league compliments an offense that was already good and has now added the game breaker in Artemi Panarin they needed. They sacrificed a first round pick to Vegas to keep the core together. I think Columbus gets over the hump, gets over their inferiority complex against the Penguins and lands in at least Conference Finals this year.
4) Washington Capitals
Last year was “it.” It was all-in, all the chips in the center of the table. This offseason brings the salary cap implications of having gone “all in” for a Cup with little regard for the future. With the salary cap sucking the depth out of this team they will take a step back in the regular season standings in 2017-2018. That may not be a bad thing though. As always with this team, it’s not about the regular season. I don’t see much changing this year and I think they fall in the 2nd round yet again. The 2018-2019 campaign may truly be their last legitimate chance to win a cup with the assembled core group as it presently exists. I’m surprised GM McClellan re-signed as many guys as he did.
5) Toronto Maple Leafs
Barring an across-the-board sophomore slump of some of their key pieces, the Maple Leafs will take a big step forward in a rebuild which has unexpectedly become quite accelerated with last year’s surprise playoff appearance. In adding veterans via free agency, GM Lou Lamoriello has all but signaled the end of the rebuild. Although they’re still a year or two away from serious Stanley Cup contention, they’ll win their first playoff series since 2004 this year.
6) Montreal Canadiens
With arguably the best goaltender in the world locked up for 8 years, the Canadiens have bet everything that Carey Price is the guy to take this team to the promised land. With the additions of Karl Alzner and David Schlemko the team should be better defensively. Jonathan Drouin adds a dynamic offensive presence on a team that had the second lowest “goals-for” in the east among playoff teams. Although I doubt they take the regular season division crown again, they’ll comfortably make the playoffs. How far they go depends how far the offense can take them.
7) New York Rangers
How much longer can “the King” keep his team in it? The fortunes of this team once again fall in large part to goaltender Henrik Lundqvist who is beginning to show his age. The defense should be unquestionably better as the Rangers have executed a much needed overhaul on that side of the puck. The offense, however, has lost Derek Stepan via trade and Oscar Lindberg to Vegas with no immediate help coming back the other way. In gambling on winning a whole lot of 2-1 and 3-2 games this season, the Rangers will pin their hopes on an improved defense and Lundqvist coming up large. It won’t be enough come spring time with this team on its last gasps of serious title contention among this core of players.
Steady as she goes. The Bruins didn’t make any big moves this offseason but didn’t need to. They still boast one of the best top 6 forwards groups in the league with some kids getting their feet wet on both sides of the puck. Bottom six forwards will be a huge question mark heading into camp with rookies expected to fill the void. Goaltender Tuuka Rask can’t keep playing 60-65 games a year. If this “defensive rebuild on the fly” succeeds they’ll be just fine. If it doesn’t, the bottom could fall out in the “goals against” category. This team can realistically finish anywhere in the standings from #6-#12, as frankly most of these “middle tier” teams in the East can. They’re still a playoff team and I think they sneak in.
9) Carolina Hurricanes
Last season’s late-year surge was a signal of what’s coming. The rebuild has been slow, tangible and methodical. This team is finally ready to reap the benefits of all those stockpiled draft picks and an abundant amount of patience. Hopefully solving their goaltending conundrum with the acquisition of Scott Darling, he’s the only real major question heading into the season as it appears that the kids can play and are ready to take the banner and run with it. The ‘Canes will be pushing for a wildcard playoff berth, their first since 2009.
10) Philadelphia Flyers
Goaltending where art thou? The Flyers bring in the inconsistent Brian Elliott as their presumptive #1 goalie after he struggled mightily in his first full year as a starter in the NHL with the Flames last season. Second overall selection Nolan Patrick probably won’t be an immediate impact player for the Flyers this season but even without him the Flyers offense looks to be in great shape if some of their key guys can rebound from an average year. With Shayne Gostisbehere hopefully leaving his sophomore slump behind him, this team could contend for a wildcard spot come April. Elliott is the real wild card, though, and a big one. If he falters, this team is once again on the outside looking in. Another of those Eastern teams in that #6-#12 block.
11) Ottawa Senators
Although Ottawa came within a goal of the Stanley Cup Finals last year, I think that a tremendous amount of things went right that are highly unlikely to replicate in the same fashion this season. Bobby Ryan caught fire in the playoffs. Clarke MacArthur came back from injury looking like he discovered the fountain of youth. The team emotionally rallied behind goaltender Craig Anderson and his wife. Across the board secondary scoring emerged from nowhere. Coach Guy Boucher’s style wasn’t old yet. Too many dominos fell just perfectly for the Senators to make me believe this is a legitimate top 2 in the East team and instead just went on a miraculous run at the right time. This season I think they return back to earth. Wouldn’t shock me if I’m wrong.
12) New York Islanders
Perpetually muddled in mediocrity and stadium controversy, I don’t think much changes this season. Desperate to convince superstar John Tavares to re-up long term, GM Garth Snow dealt away a first round pick to Vegas to keep his extraordinarily average forwards group together for another go at it this year. Big ticket players Andrew Ladd and newly acquired Jordan Eberle must step up big time for this team to have any chance of sniffing a playoff berth. Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk need to come up large on defense. Thomas Greiss has to have another big year between the pipes. There’s just too many “ifs” with this team, and I think they miss the playoffs again and in worse fashion than last year with so many teams around them improving and the Isles seemingly standing still.
13) Buffalo Sabres
Defense defense defesnse. The Buffalo Sabres are proof that obsession on one side of the puck translates to some rough goings. Incredibly aggressive in signing big time forwards Kyle Okposo, Ryan O’Reilly, et al., the Sabres have sacrificed their back end with failed experiments and drafting forward after forward year after year. To be fair, the team acquired defensemen Nathan Beaulieu and Marco Scandella in two separate trades to address the defense but I’m dubious how much a difference they make. If they gel and have a big impact this team could very well be contending for a playoff berth. I just think there’s too many teams more clearly talented above them.
14) Florida Panthers
I have absolutely no idea what the Florida Panthers are doing. In the 2016 offseason they executed a total gutting of a defensive corps that wasn’t needed and it backfired. Now in 2017 they undergo a total gutting of their forwards group that also wasn’t needed and will backfire. With the sole exception of Jonathan Huberdeau the Panthers took the axe to all of their other top 5 wingers, having shipped off four and only bringing in two (36 year old Radim Vrbata and KHL wild-card transfer Evgeni Dadonov) as replacements. Unless Dadonov lights it up and Vrbata discovers the same fountain of youth Clarke MacArthur from Ottawa did, some as-of-yet-unnamed rookie offense wild cards will have to step up for this team to have any chance at a playoff berth. As of August 8 they only have 10 forwards signed. Their young studs (Ekblad, Barkov, Huberdeau, Trocheck) will keep this team afloat for some periods but the bottom is going to fall out from two inexplicable offseason overhauls in a row that have sucked the talented depth out of this team. I don’t know what the critics are seeing that I’m not but I think this team is a disaster and is wasting the best years of their aforementioned studs. The Panthers will falter this year, be out of the playoffs yet again, and hopefully fire their GM.
15) Detroit Red Wings
Unfortunately, the painful time has come. After decades of playoff appearances and Stanley Cup titles, the Red Wings embark on year two of their rebuild. Dylan Larkin continues his progression as the team’s future along with a few other pieces already developing. If they can stay healthy and get some key bounce back campaigns from their middle group of guys the Red Wings may actually raise some eyebrows and finish higher than many people might expect but it won’t be all the way to a playoff berth.
16) New Jersey Devils
Almost there. As with the Hurricanes, the New Jersey Devils rebuild has been patient, slow and methodical. With the addition of potential franchise #1 center and first overall draft pick Nico Hischier now in the fold, the Devils took a big step forward back to relevancy. This team will have to get its defense caught up to the progress of its forward corps for the team to have a chance at the playoffs. Schneider remains a rock in goal. They’re getting there, but still a year or two away from getting into the playoffs.
1) Anaheim Ducks
The margin between #1 and #2 is so thin you can’t cut it with a knife. I give the Ducks the edge here with their stout defense, solid goaltending and deep and talented forward group across the board. One game away from playing in the Cup Finals, I think this team rebounds in a big way. They’ll make it to the Cup Finals if they can once again get past the Oilers and whoever comes out of the competitive Central.
2) Edmonton Oilers
It’s hard to argue who other than the Ducks can possibly finish ahead of the Oil in the regular season. Connor McDavid has arrived in all his glory, taking home a boatload of hardware his second year in the league at the NHL Awards show. With the complimentary pieces around him all in place the Oilers are ready to contend again. The only question with this team is on defense where I think they are still a year or two away from being truly solid on the back end. Regardless, I expect the “all in” push from GM Peter Chiarelli before McDavid and Leon Draisaitl’s lucrative contract extensions kick in next summer, which will force the Oilers to move other contracts a la Chicago Blackhawks 2010. We will see the Oilers and Ducks meet again in the playoffs, probably earlier than is warranted considering the massive stockpiles of talent on each team.
3) St. Louis Blues
Homer bias aside I think the Blues win the Central this year. Jake Allen proved he’s a legitimate #1 NHL goaltender last season, both in the regular season and more importantly in the playoffs, the defense is as strong as ever, and the offense got a needed shot in the arm with the acquisition of new #2/#3 center Brayden Schenn without any immediate loss other than a salary dump contract the other way. With the UFA David Backes and Troy Brouwer gut-punch losses of the 2016 offseason now a distant memory, the transition has been completed and the Blues, provided they can stay healthy, are one of the deepest and talented teams in the western conference.
4) Nashville Predators
The rest of the Central gets very muddled very quickly. It’s hard to imagine this team doing anything other than taking a big step forward this season. The loss of James Neal to the Golden Knights and captain Mike Fisher to retirement hurts but they remain one of the most dynamic and deep teams in the league. Returning all of their stellar defensive pieces, the offense need only keep up, which I think they will, in returning the Preds to another deep playoff run even if they don’t win the Central division title.
5) Chicago Blackhawks
I think the dynasty is over. A combination of the salary cap not increasing at the rate many experts thought it would and the triple cap hits of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Brent Seabrook has ensured this team can’t assemble the depth which lead them to prior titles. GM Stan Bowman is doing the best he can but especially on the back end with Duncan Keith and Seabrook unable to play 25 minutes a night anymore, the Blackhawks will be exposed as a top heavy team again this season. The offseason shuffling, especially the return of Brandon Saad, will help, but this team was badly exposed last postseason and I don’t know that the offseason moves, while substantial, improved the team enough to make a difference in the spring. They’re different. Are they better? I don’t think they are.
6) Minnesota Wild
Last season hurt. Statistically the best team the Wild have ever put on the ice, they hit a funk at the wrong time at season’s end and were pushed around in their first round playoff loss to the Blues. The Wild return their core defense and offense intact. They swung a trade for Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno from the Sabres to get some more speed in the lineup. Devan Dubnyk continues to carry the goaltending banner though the team still needs a backup. I expect the Wild to take a bit of a points hit in the regular season but, as always, all that matters is what they can do come playoff time. Their depth and speed will once again be tested.
7) Dallas Stars
I don’t think this team will improve as drastically as many people are saying they will. True, they’ve been aggressive through the offseason bringing in presumptive #1 goaltender Ben Bishop fresh from a chip on his shoulder being traded from the Lightning, as well as defenseman Marc Methot and shuffling their forward deck. But the defense is still very young and a wild card. The team will unquestionably be more overall defensively sound with new bench boss Ken Hitchcock calling the shots, but will he stifle too much of the natural offensive abilities of the likes of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov in the process? They’ll be better, they’ll make the playoffs, but they’re not putting up a 100 point regular season. There’s still too much youth and development needed on that back end to hit that kind of level just yet. I think the Central provides both the wild card spots this year and Dallas will be in one of them.
In the Pacific Division, there’s the Oilers and the Ducks and then… everyone else. Goaltending. Everything else for the Flames is in place: their young studs up front lead by Sean Monahan and Johnny Gadreau are ready for bounce back seasons. Their defense is still among the deepest and most talented in the league. But the never ending carousel of starting goaltenders in Calgary has to come to an end for this team to have a realistic chance at making the playoffs and then contending once they’re in. Recent veteran goaltender acquisition Mike Smith will be the latest to get the #1 spot. Experienced and solid, he provides the best odds out of the recent faulty attempts of the Flames for solid goaltending and I think he succeeds at it. This team is too strong to not make the playoffs again, and with San Jose losing Marleau with no help coming back to them I think the Flames leap frog them for the 3rd automatic Pacific seed spot.
9) San Jose Sharks
The regular season points drop off will be considerable. Losing Patrick Marleau hurts. Lucky to get stalwart Joe Thornton back in the fold, he said it accurately and succinctly in stating that the whole team would have to step up to replace the offense and presence of the “greatest Shark of all time.” How well this team accomplishes that feat will determine their fate. Out of necessity the Sharks will have to play more of their younger players this year and in bigger situations. I think they’ll be able to handle it but replacing Patrick Marleau’s production right out of the gate may prove harder in practice than in theory. I think the teams around them in the standings all improved too much for the Sharks to just “play better” with the same personnel to keep pace and I think they miss the playoffs. They’ll be at Calgary’s heels all season.
10) Winnipeg Jets
Goaltending. Defensive improvement. This team gave up more goals than only three others in the entire league last year and still almost made the playoffs… because they also had one of the best offenses in the league, and still do. The Jets need to improve defensively in getting their dynamic offensively-minded D corps to be better in their own end and have new #1 goalie Steve Mason actually play like a #1. I’m skeptical. Mike Smith in Calgary was clearly an improvement from years past but Mason is more of a lateral move than an improvement over last year’s 1A, 1B arrangement between now-backup Connor Hellebuyck and shipped out Michael Hutchinson. They’ll be once again trying to win an awful lot of 6-5 games this season. If the defense and goaltending improve this team can easily get into the playoffs and even make some noise once there. Big if. If this team misses the playoffs yet again, heads will roll.
11) Los Angeles Kings
The dynasty is definitely over. Saddled with expensive contracts of underachieving and aging players, the Kings stalled last season, missing the playoffs entirely. The core is still intact and together but how drastically Anze Kopitar improves and how much offense they can squeeze from guys like Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik will determine if this team makes the playoffs or not. Jeff Carter needs to keep being Jeff Carter. The defense and goaltender Jonathan Quick will keep this team in it every night but the offense has to improve.
12) Arizona Coyotes
The wait feels eternal for the kids to arrive. Whereas places like Toronto and Edmonton have experienced dramatic turnarounds and drastic ends to the “rebuild,” Arizona’s wait lingers perpetually. Slowly but surely they’re getting there. The offense finally has some talented young guns in the likes of Max Domi and Clayton Keller. The defense remains anchored by ageless Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Having shipped grizzled veteran Mike Smith to Calgary it will be up to the largely unproven tandem of Louis Domingue and acquired Antti Rantaa to man the pipes. I think the Coyotes improve this year but they’re still a year or two away from the playoffs.
13) Vegas Golden Knights
I don’t think they’ll be that bad. Historically speaking they have one of the best “on paper” teams when compared to past expansion franchises and I think they’ll finish above the Canucks and Avs in the West. That may not be a “good” thing though as GM George McPhee has made no secret about his desire to build through the draft and finishing higher means less odds at #1 overall come next summer. Marc Andre Fleury will be this team’s leader and face of the franchise bringing his three Stanley Cup’s rings to a team that will have a ton of trouble scoring but should be better than expected on defense and in goal.
14) Vancouver Canucks
In denial for years, the brass has involuntarily started a desperately needed rebuild about one or two years late. Henrik and Daniel Sedin are past their primes and if they’re smart will allow their team to deal them at the trade deadline for major assets towards said rebuild. The second worse offense in the league won’t improve as there’s simply not enough talent on the team with the kids still learning and the Sedin’s declining. The defense actually did a respectable job of keeping the puck out of the net (their only job) last season and remains largely intact. It is unknown how Jacob Markstrom will respond to being handed the reigns as the team’s #1 goalie with the departure of Ryan Miller to Anaheim.
15) Colorado Avalanche
After one of the worst seasons by any non-expansion team in NHL history, the Avalanche have nowhere to go but up. Through July, however, GM Joe Sakic has yet to make anything other than cosmetic changes to a roster in desperate need of an overhaul. As of August 8 this team has only three defensemen signed. Guys like Matt Duchene need to be informed if they’re staying or being traded as has been rumored for months. Sakic, apparently frozen in limbo, may be quickly out of a job if this year starts off rocky as virtually everyone thinks it will.