Hockey is finally back! In 2016-17, we saw our first back-to-back Stanley Cup Champion in nearly two decades. Can the Pittsburgh Penguins make it three in a row? Will a Canadian team end the nation’s 25-year Stanley Cup drought? Which team will be this year’s version of the 2017 Nashville Predators and capture everyone’s excitement? Find out here!
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
Injury problems derailed Tampa Bay’s 2016-17 season. The Lightning began the year as one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup and ended up missing out on the playoffs entirely.
If the Bolts stay healthy this season, they are primed for a bounce-back year. There is impact talent all around the roster, from a young and exciting forward core to a defensive group led by superstar Victor Hedman. Even goaltending is a strength as Andrei Vasilevsky looks to make the leap into one of the NHL’s elite keepers.
2. Montreal Canadiens
Scoring will again be an issue for Montreal, but the addition of Jonathan Drouin up front should help even though the Habs had to say goodbye to Alexander Radulov this offseason.
Carey Price is always fantastic in net and should be able to back up his team even if the forwards can’t put too many pucks in the net.
To help will be a slightly more skilled group of defensemen as Karl Alzner and David Schlemko will fill in for departed veterans Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin. Mark Streit, although on the tail end of his career, is an offensive defenseman who can generate some spark from the blue line.
3. Toronto Maple Leafs
We will definitely see improvement from Toronto this year, but it may be a more gradual process than some expect.
As well as Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander did last season, expecting one of them (at least) to have a sophomore slump is only realistic.
At the same time, all three are still stars, the rest of the top nine may be as good as any forward group in hockey, Patrick Marleau brings in some experience and Frederik Andersen is a solid goaltender.
Behind Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly, however, Toronto’s defense certainly raises some red flags.
4. Boston Bruins
Sure, Boston had a ridiculously quiet offseason for a bubble team, but there is certainly reason to believe the Bruins can improve this year.
Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron have shown no signs of slowing down and the team came to life midway through last season when Bruce Cassidy was hired as head coach.
Also, the Bruins have decided to fill their gaps from within rather than spending on free agents. Anders Bjork, Frank Vatrano, Noel Acciari, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Jake DeBrusk and obviously David Pastrnak are all young homegrown talents with lots of potential that could make huge impacts for the Bruins this season.
5. Ottawa Senators
The Senators were an overtime goal away from going to the Stanley Cup Final last season, so why are they so disliked by prognosticators this season?
Well, first of all, they still barely made the playoffs last year. With Tampa Bay, Toronto, Boston and Buffalo all likely to do better this season, the Senators should regress by default.
Also, as unbelievable as Erik Karlsson is, he will sorely miss defense partner Marc Methot.
Mike Hoffman, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Bobby Ryan, Mark Stone, Derick Brassard and Kyle Turris are all respectable forwards, but the rest of the team lacks scoring depth.
On paper, the Senators overachieved last year. It will be interesting to see if the trend continues in 2017-18 or if there is a regression to the mean. The latter seems more likely.
6. Buffalo Sabres
We now enter the third tier of the Atlantic Division. Of the three potential bottom-feeders, Buffalo certainly has the most upside.
Jack Eichel will enter this season healthy, unlike last year, and the rest of the young forward group should help the Sabres improve on their division-worst 201 goals last season.
If Rasmus Ristolainen can take the next step up and Marco Scandella finds his niche in his new city, the Sabres could be a surprise playoff team. But they must stay extremely healthy in order to have a shot.
7. Detroit Red Wings
Detroit has depth at forward, but very little high-end talent. The defense has neither.
It looked like the Red Wings were primed to get some top-end scorers in Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan and Tomas Tatar, but all three have plateaued (or maybe even regressed) since Jeff Blashill took over as head coach in 2015. If players like Anthony Mantha or Andreas Athanasiou (if he re-signs) start to do the same, look for Detroit to begin searching for a new bench boss.
Jimmy Howard can be a productive goaltender, but he has had issues staying healthy. If he hits IR again for a lengthy time, the Red Wings could see another season like last year, where Petr Mrazek struggled mightily in Howard’s absence.
8. Florida Panthers
The Panthers didn’t score a whole lot last season, but lost an absolute boatload of goal-scorers this offseason with the departures of Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault, Jaromir Jagr and Jussi Jokinen.
Even though the defensive corps is respectable when healthy, the depth on the wings may be the worst in all of hockey. Combine that with some questions in goal with Roberto Luongo’s age and you’ve got a last-place team.
1. Columbus Blue Jackets
A 16-game win streak and a 108-point season last year showed us Columbus can hang in there with the big boys.
Expect the Blue Jackets to take it a step further this season.
While a No. 1 center is yet to emerge, the entire group of forwards is deep and ridiculously skilled, especially with the addition of Artemi Panarin and the insertion of Oliver Bjorkstrand, Sonny Milano and Pierre-Luc Dubois into the everyday lineup.
As good as the forwards are, Columbus’s defensemen may be even better, led by two more emerging youngsters in Zach Werenski and Seth Jones.
Still, though, the top strength for the Blue Jackets may be between the pipes. Sergei Bobrovsky is an elite NHL goaltender, and Joonas Korpisalo is a well above-average option for a backup.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
A Stanley Cup hangover after two short summers and the loss of a handful of important players will cause the Penguins to sputter a bit around November and December, but this is still an elite hockey team that will come to play when it needs to.
Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup last season without Kris Letang in the playoffs. It doesn’t matter which depth forwards up front are gone, Jim Rutherford and Mike Sullivan will find someone to fill in, like they have without issue for two straight seasons.
3. New York Rangers
Losing Derek Stepan leaves a bit of a hole at center, sure. But this is an opportunity for Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller to really step it up.
Also, first-round picks Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil have impressed in camp and both may make the team.
As tough as losing Stepan may be, however, the Rangers arguably improved this offseason because of changes made on the blue line. Out are Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein, in are Kevin Shattenkirk and high-ceiling Anthony DeAngelo. Talk about an upgrade.
4. Washington Capitals
Still a contender, but the Capitals are definitely a tier below the Penguins and Blue Jackets after a tumultuous offseason.
Gone are Marcus Johansson, Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk, Nate Schmidt, Justin Williams and Daniel Winnik. In to replace them? Question marks.
Braden Holtby is one of the top goalies in the NHL, but he will have to do much more work with a severely depleted blue line.
In the end, it’s still tough to imagine a team led by Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, TJ Oshie and John Carlson along with Holtby missing the playoffs.
5. Carolina Hurricanes
Everyone is drooling over the Hurricanes this season due to their ridiculous group of defensemen.
While the excitement over Carolina’s blueliners is certainly warranted, they may need to wait one more year to end the NHL’s longest standing playoff drought. There are a lot of questions about depth at the forward position, and it remains to be seen if Scott Darling can be a reliable starting goalie.
6. Philadelphia Flyers
The center depth is fantastic if Nolan Patrick makes an impact anything like he is capable of and the young group of defensemen is coming along nicely, but these are the Flyers and goaltending is a question.
Brian Elliott was less-than stellar last season in Calgary behind a pretty great set of rearguards. And goaltenders seem to always struggle a bit more in Philadelphia.
Also, as good as Philadelphia’s centers are, there is a lack of experience and talent on the wing behind Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek. Travis Konecny and Jordan Weal will have to make big strides if the Flyers want to make the playoffs.
7. New Jersey Devils
A plethora of new additions and young talent coming up through the pipeline should create a vastly improved offensive attack this season for New Jersey.
The reason the Devils won’t be in the playoff conversation, though is their defense. When Damon Severson and Andy Greene are your top two defensemen, don’t expect to get too far.
8. New York Islanders
Sure, it’s a possibility that this team plays the way it did in 2016 and makes the playoffs.
But pretty much every area of the roster just seems a cut below league average, especially with Travis Hamonic leaving the defense corps.
In order for the Islanders to make a splash this season, they will need to rely heavily on new blood like Joshua Ho-Sang, Mathew Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier.
1. Minnesota Wild
The Wild had easily the best goal differential in the Western Conference last season thanks to a balanced offensive attack, good defense and a great goaltender in Devan Dubnyk.
While expecting Eric Staal to repeat his success of last season, the Wild could still repeat theirs as a team.
Minnesota was dispatched in just five games in last year’s first round against St. Louis, but those who watched the series know that the Wild dominated the Blues but ran into a hot goaltender.
That will all even out in the regular season this year and Minnesota will easily qualify for the playoffs again. Plus, regular season guru Bruce Boudreau returns behind the bench.
2. St. Louis Blues
St. Louis flourished once Mike Yeo became its head coach last season. Jake Allen took his game to an elite level and led the Blues on a warpath that could only be stopped by a Nashville club that seemed destined to win the West.
If Allen stays true to form behind a terrific group of defensemen, the Blues could be serious contenders for the Stanley Cup.
The questions come up front, especially with Robby Fabbri out for the entire season. St. Louis’s top six is solid, but players like Ivan Barbashev, Magnus Paajarvi and Dmitrij Jaskin will need to contribute more.
3. Chicago Blackhawks
After getting embarrassed in the first round of last year’s playoffs, Chicago had an offseason to forget. Marian Hossa, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Artemi Panarin, Brian Campbell and Marcus Kruger are just a few of the many names that won’t be returning from last year’s division-winning squad.
But still, these are the Blackhawks. Bringing back Brandon Saad could help Jonathan Toews rebound after underperforming last season and Patrick Kane should still be a Hart Trophy candidate even without Panarin on his side.
Also, expect Nick Schmaltz and Ryan Hartman to not only become household names in Chicago, but around the league. And keep an eye on Alex DeBrincat and Tanner Kero.
4. Nashville Predators
Last year’s Cinderella sweetheart won’t be able to fly under the radar this season. And with Ryan Ellis out for several months, captain Mike Fisher enjoying retirement and top-line winger James Neal playing in Las Vegas, repeating last year’s success could be a difficult task for Nashville.
Still, it was clear all season that this team had not displayed its full potential all season long. That fact was proven true in the playoffs, as the Predators soared all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.
An exciting core and depth at all positions should make that level of success attainable again this season.
5. Dallas Stars
Dallas can use injuries as an excuse for the unexpected 30-point drop-off from 2016 to 2017, but there were plenty of other issues to blame as well.
Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin were healthy all year, but the Stars had serious trouble preventing goals.
GM Jim Nill addressed that weakness in a big way this offseason, adding defenseman Marc Methot to play next to John Klingberg and a true No. 1 goaltender in Ben Bishop.
Dallas will be in the playoff mix this season, but it may be tough for the Stars to win the division (like many expect) with so much competition.
6. Winnipeg Jets
Lots to be excited about as far as Winnipeg’s skilled forwards go, but the defense is still a major question mark.
Also, there will be goalie controversy all season long in Winnipeg, which is something that rarely yields success in an organization.
As much as Winnipeg may score, the Jets will give up quite a few goals as well.
7. Colorado Avalanche
Probably the safest bet you can make is picking Colorado to finish last in the Central. Maybe hockey’s worst team, the Avalanche play in a division with six teams who could all potentially make deep playoff runs.
Not an ideal situation.
1. Edmonton Oilers
Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are the clear stars of this team, but the rest of the squad is overlooked.
Edmonton isn’t too weak on the back end, as Oscar Klefbom is quietly becoming one of hockey’s better defensemen. Darnell Nurse and Adam Larsson are no pushovers, either. In net, Cam Talbot showed us just how good he could be after having a Vezina-caliber season in 2016-17.
Kailer Yamamoto and Jesse Puljujarvi, the team’s two most recent first-round picks, could both see significant time with the big club this season and cause fits for opposing defenses.
2. Anaheim Ducks
News that Ryan Kesler and Sami Vatanen could miss huge chunks of the season is a huge blow to Anaheim, and it could cause the Ducks to relinquish the Pacific Division crown for the first time since 2012.
When this club gets healthy, though, it can be scary good. Anaheim is loaded with role-playing forwards, a solid keeper in John Gibson and a lineup of defensemen that is on par with teams like Nashville and Carolina.
3. Calgary Flames
Everything about this team makes it look like a dark horse Stanley Cup contender.
A great mix of youth and experience up front that should have no problems scoring goals, one of the league’s best top-four defense units…
And then Mike Smith’s name pops up as starting goalie.
The goaltending situation alone docks Calgary’s odds down quite a few ticks. If someone emerges as a reliable starter, though, look out.
4. San Jose Sharks
San Jose is in a tier of its own in the Pacific Division. Edmonton, Anaheim and Calgary certainly seem more skilled while the remaining teams will likely be nowhere near the playoff mix.
The Sharks are right on the bubble. They still have some solid players from their 2016 run to the Stanley Cup Final, but how much will they miss Patrick Marleau’s leadership?
Also, San Jose did not make any flashy moves whatsoever this offseason after being a bubble team last year. With an aging core, the Sharks will lean heavily on young players like Timo Meier, Melker Karlsson and Joonas Donskoi.
5. Arizona Coyotes
If Carolina is such a sexy preseason pick, why isn’t Arizona getting any love from prognosticators?
The Coyotes boast a plethora of high-upside defensemen and a decent goalie in Antti Raanta who will finally get a well-deserved shot at being a starter. He should be an upgrade from Mike Smith.
Up front, the Coyotes are young but extremely skilled. Dylan Strome, Christian Dvorak, Brendan Perlini, Max Domi, Clayton Keller and several more high recent draft picks will all get plenty of chances to show off why they were so highly regarded as amateurs. Also, adding Derek Stepan gives Arizona a veteran No. 1 center with a scoring touch.
The potential is there, but it may take some more experience before the Coyotes take the next step. Still, this is an intriguing candidate for surprise team of the year.
6. Los Angeles Kings
Since Alec Martinez scored the Stanley Cup-clinching overtime goal in 2014, the Kings have won just a single playoff game.
They missed in 2015, were dominated by San Jose in 2016 and missed yet again last year.
With the Pacific improving, Los Angeles has not done much to keep up. The front office has been shuffled up and head coach Darryl Sutter was canned, but that won’t be enough to put the Kings back in the playoffs.
7. Vancouver Canucks
The rebuild is definitely on for Vancouver, who could potentially finish even worse than an expansion team.
Bo Horvat is making a name for himself despite not having much of a cast around him, and the Canucks have begun to build what could be a formidable blue line in the future, but this club is just too weak all around to compete for a playoff spot this season.
8. Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights have a lot of pieces to like (James Neal, Jason Garrison, Colin Miller, Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore, Cody Eakin, Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Marc-Andre Fleury among others), but the fact is that they’re an expansion team and will likely finish in the basement.
By putting an emphasis on youth in the expansion process and making some stellar draft choices this past spring, however, Vegas’s front office has set this team up for quite a future.
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
A1 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. W1 Washington Capitals
Weird seeing the Capitals as a wild card, but here we are. The Capitals embrace the underdog role by splitting the first four games, but Tampa Bay proves too deep and too strong.
Lightning in 6
A2 Montreal Canadiens vs. A3 Toronto Maple Leafs
Finally, we get a Toronto-Montreal series. As raucous as the home crowds may be, the Leafs win the first two games in Montreal…and the Canadiens return the favor in Games 3 and 4. With an advantage in net, on defense and in the physicality department, Montreal seems poised to take the series. Instead, Toronto’s young guns pull through and give the Leafs their first series win since 2004 as Frederik Andersen slams the door shut on the Habs.
Maple Leafs in 6
M1 Columbus Blue Jackets vs. W2 Boston Bruins
Lots of young talent on display in this series. Boston has much better veterans up front with Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Brad Marchand, but the Jackets have the superior keeper in Sergei Bobrovsky. In the end, Columbus just has too much firepower from all around for Boston to keep up.
Blue Jackets in 5
M2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. M3 New York Rangers
The Penguins begin their quest for a three-peat against a familiar foe. New York proves to be quite the worthy challenger, taking the champs to the brink in the very first round. As they have done so many times with their backs against the wall, however, the Penguins prevail.
Penguins in 7
Western Conference Quarterfinals
C1 Minnesota Wild vs. W1 Nashville Predators
Nashville once again finds itself in a wild card spot facing the winner of the Central. With playoff-challenged Bruce Boudreau coaching the Wild, this “upset” seems too good to be true for the Predators. It is. Pekka Rinne falters and Minnesota moves on.
Wild in 7
C2 St. Louis Blues vs. C3 Chicago Blackhawks
Chicago looks to redeem itself after last season’s first-round disappointment, but the Blackhawks will face a tough opponent in arch-rival St. Louis (no pun intended). The scoring woes return for the Hawks, mirroring last season’s series with Nashville.
Blues in 6
P1 Edmonton Oilers vs. W2 Dallas Stars
An old rivalry is rekindled as the Oilers and Stars meet in the playoffs for the first time since 2003. Both teams are remarkably similar, each boasting a dynamic scoring duo and a solid goaltender. This series will contain many close, high-scoring games, but the Oilers take it thanks to home-ice advantage.
Oilers in 7
P2 Anaheim Ducks vs. P3 Calgary Flames
This continues to boil into a brutal rivalry as these two meet for the third time in four years. But until the Flames find an answer in net, the Ducks will continue to have the edge.
Ducks in 5
Eastern Conference Semifinals
A1 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. A3 Toronto Maple Leafs
Mike Babcock meets Jon Cooper again after Babcock’s Red Wings dropped an emotional seven-game battle to the Lightning in 2015. This will be a high-powered round of hockey as both teams pride themselves on offense. Victor Hedman keeps Auston Matthews in check, but Toronto’s other weapons are too much for the Bolts to handle. Leafs for the upset!
Maple Leafs in 6
M1 Columbus Blue Jackets vs. M2 Pittsburgh Penguins
Is the third time the charm for Columbus against Pittsburgh? The Jackets earn the right to home-ice advantage against their bitter rivals from the next state over, but the Penguins will be considered favorites for all intents and purposes. Columbus puts up a better fight than last year’s five-game bludgeoning, but the more experienced Penguins come away with the victory one more time.
Penguins in 6
Western Conference Semifinals
C1 Minnesota Wild vs. C2 St. Louis Blues
A rematch from last year’s first round, which the Blues won in five games despite Minnesota averaging 40 shots per game. Thank Jake Allen for that. This year, neither the shot differentials nor the series result will be lopsided. This is going to be a good, old-fashioned, black-and-blue Norris Division-type series. A year later, though, the Blues are still better built for playoff success.
Blues in 6
P1 Edmonton Oilers vs. P2 Anaheim Ducks
Another rematch of last year’s second round series, which Edmonton seemingly let slip away time after time. This time, as the favorite, the Oilers face some added pressure. Some of Anaheim’s core is aging, but a new crew of young forwards are on the way up to go along with great defense and goaltending. The Ducks complete the Alberta sweep again.
Ducks in 6
Eastern Conference Final
M2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. A3 Toronto Maple Leafs
This is probably exactly what the NHL wants. Ratings will be through the roof, but the series won’t be as exciting as billed. Toronto is built quite a bit like the Penguins, but it’s going to take a lopsided loss to knock the Leafs back to earth before they can take a run at the Cup. While the Leafs are fun to watch, they are no match for a much more experienced Pittsburgh team.
Penguins in 5
Western Conference Final
P2 Anaheim Ducks vs. C2 St. Louis Blues
These teams are built fairly similarly as well, focused on defensive hockey and wearing down the opponent physically. The Blues may have an extremely slight goaltending edge, but they are weaker than the Ducks in every other department. Anaheim returns to the Final for the first time since 2007.
Ducks in 6
2018 Stanley Cup Final
Four wins separate the Pittsburgh Penguins from the NHL’s first Stanley Cup three-peat since the Islanders won four straight Cups from 1980-83. Standing in their way this time is an Anaheim Ducks team that is quite different from the Penguins’ previous two opponents.
As where San Jose in 2016 and Nashville in 2017 were Cinderella stories in one way or another, the Ducks have been an established contender for years, excelling in doing the little things right like killing penalties and winning faceoffs.
The Penguins, on the other hand, just know how to win. Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust have become two more names that repeatedly come through in big situations, and by the time we get to June 2018, you better believe a few more names will emerge.
These two avian clubs will fight tooth-and-nail through the first four games, and the Penguins will pull one game away from a third-straight Cup by taking Game 5 at home.
And then…they will run out of gas.
Matt Murray won’t have the luxury of getting extra rest via a goalie platoon with Marc-Andre Fleury this year, and after three straight years of playing hockey into mid-June, it finally catches up to the Penguins.
John Gibson turns in two spectacular performances in Games 6 and 7, much like Fleury did against Detroit in 2009, while Anaheim’s offense breaks Murray.
Ducks in 7
Awards Nominees and Winners
Jack Adams Award