The 2017-18 NHL season is upon us, and it’s already a weird one. Unless you’ve been in a coma since 1997.
Consider that we have the possibility of a Stanley Cup three-peat for the first time in 20 years. Consider that the Olympics are happening during the NHL season, and NHL players aren’t participating in them. Consider that Gary Bettman is still the commissioner, and Jaromir Jagr is still an active players. (Side note: Sign Jagr.) Really, the only jarring aspects for those in a 20-year slumber are teams in Las Vegas and Winnipeg, that a then-unborn child is now NHL MVP and that the Red Wings and Devils suddenly suck.
Here are my predictions for the Metro and Atlantic Divisions. I lack confidence in the wild card portion of these prognostications, as much as I believe the top three in both divisions are rather solid.
1 – Toronto Maple Leafs
No one is this division dazzles me. Once again, we’re looking at a division that probably has one 100-point team, and I’m wagering that team is the Leafs. Three really strong lines, bolstered by the last productive season of Patrick Marleau, and what I’m expecting to be two decent defense pairings in front of capable goaltending.
It’s a speed game and a depth game, and the Leafs have them both. They’re going to roll teams at even strength. And they’ll have the division, ahead of schedule.
I’m as confident about their backend as I am wary of their center position. Jonathan Drouin is a special player, and well worth the cost of your best defensive prospect for an offensive dynamo that young. I just don’t quite understand trying to Ville Leino him. (OK, looking at the center depth chart, I understand it’s out of necessity, but still.) Carey Price gets them second in the division, but not much else with this donut of a lineup.
What I wouldn’t give to see a full season of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov making magic. Or, at least enough magic to overcome some depth issues and the giant honking question mark that is Andrei Vasilevskiy in goal. Although the Peter Budaj insurance plan is a good one. The Lightning are basically an MLB slugger that’s going yard or whiffing this season.
4 – Ottawa Senators
I know everyone expects a precipitous drop for the Senators this season, and there’s no way I’d expect 98 points and a playoff spot again. But this is a collection of players in their primes, in front of what I expect to be stout goaltending again. This is also a team that smells of a Duchene-level trade at some point if their results are middling.
5 – Boston Bruins
Like the Flyers (spoiler), this is a transition year to much bigger and better things ahead. Play the kids, hope the top line carries of the offense and give Zdeno Chara his victory lap. This shouldn’t be viewed as a disappointment if the Bruins miss the postseason, but rather a step back before a leap forward.
6 – Buffalo Sabres
Coaching makes a difference. This is meant to be less an indictment of Dan Bylsma as it is an endorsement of Phil Housley. They were two wins away from exiting the basement last season in the Atlantic, and with some smart additions in the offseason (like that Marco Scandella deal) it’ll finally happen.
7 – Florida Panthers
The hockey gods should smite them for their treatment of coaches and Jaromir Jagr, but honestly: This team is like a container of spicy hummus. Brilliant, vibrant young players at its core surrounded by beige muck. (Goaltending excepted.)
8 – Detroit Red Wings
Little Caesars Arena is the dawn of a new era in Detroit hockey. Alas, that will also be reflected in the standings.
1 – Pittsburgh Penguins
This is under the assumption that Evgeni Malkin plays close to 70 games, that the Washington Capitals take a slight step back in the standings and that GM Jim Rutherford swiftly addresses any issues with the No. 3 center position should they arise. (Even as the Penguins are nudged up near the cap.) These are not safe bets, but ones I’m willing to make in picking the Penguins to win their first division title since 2014, despite these bottom six concerns.
2 – Washington Capitals
The splitting of Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin is the kind smart, bold move that probably gets thrown in the trash if Ovechkin starts slowly. But still, it’s an indication that Barry Trotz knows he needs better balance in the lineup. This isn’t the strongest Capitals team on paper, but still a divisional contender with another Braden Holtby Vezina campaign. Speaking of goalies …
3 – Columbus Blue Jackets
The last five times John Tortorella has coached a team to the playoffs, he’s had either Henrik Lundqvist or Sergei Bobrovsky as his goaltender. Which is to say that great goaltending can overcome many of the inherent foibles of a Tortorella team. (And, as is tradition, help win coaches Jack Adams Awards.)
What’s interesting about the Jackets is what they’ll look like without a torrid power play carrying them for the better part of a month, when they basically lost none games. It settled in at 19.9 percent, for No. 11 in the NHL, and that seems about right. They scored an impressive 168 goals at 5v5 last season. It’ll be interesting see where that number is after the Saad/Pararin swap. Overall, a playoff team.
4 – New York Islanders
Yup. The Islanders have been 94 points or better for the last three seasons, and the coaching change to Doug Weight last year showed the potential for this group. Yes, the arena is a distraction. Yes, John Tavares is an enormous distraction. But perhaps the Islanders take a nihilistic approach to both and push further, bolstered by better-than-ever expected goaltending and the spark of young talents like Matthew Barzal and Josh Ho-Sang.
5 – Carolina Hurricanes
Scott Darling is not a miracle worker. His addition stabilizes the Canes on the backend, behind a deep and young defense core. What will make or break the Hurricanes is an offense that generated only 145 goals at 5v5 last season, putting them No. 16 in the NHL. They have a speedy and talented forward group that’s capable of improving that number, so this season becomes a referendum on whether Bill Peters’ system can generate goals.
6 – New York Rangers
If the Canadiens are a donut, the Rangers are a bagel. Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes, David Desharnais, perhaps Filip Chytil … this is a capped out team is a serious need at center. Factor in a suddenly less reliant Henrik Lundqvist without a suitable backup safety net, and I’m putting the Rangers outside the playoff picture. Landing Kevin Shattenkirk and finishing outside the money would be very Rangers.
7 – Philadelphia Flyers
Patience, young Skywalker. The youth movement in Philly – Gostisbehere, Provorov, Patrick, Lindblom – is about a year away from meshing with the remaining vets to start something special. Also, I have no confidence in Lehtera and Filppula to bolster this lineup at even strength, after they scored 128 goals at 5v5 last season.
8 – New Jersey Devils
Every time I think about Cory Schneider rebounding or Nico Hischier winning the Calder, I look at that blue line and are reminded why the Devils are likely going to spend another year in the basement. Either that, or I don’t have the stones to admit that I think my favorite team is going to be much better than expected, and simply don’t want to duck the slings and arrows of homerism accusations that would come my way.
EASTERN CONFERENCE DIVISIONAL PLAYOFF TEAMS: Pittsburgh, Washington, Columbus, Toronto, Montreal, Tampa Bay.
EASTERN CONFERENCE WILD CARD TEAM: New York Islanders, Carolina.
EASTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Tampa Bay Lightning