When it comes to predictions, one thing is for sure: keep an open mind.
At this point one year ago today, the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks were viewed as teams that could very likely miss the playoffs in 2016. The Penguins were one of the last teams to make it in 2014-2015 and were crushed in the first round by the New York Rangers. The Sharks didn’t even make the playoffs in 2014-2015, and things didn’t look too promising heading into the 2015-16 season.
Fast-forward to June of 2016. Sure enough, the Penguins and Sharks were facing off for the Stanley Cup.
Which teams will surprise us in 2016-17? Time to throw everything from last year out the window. It’s a new season.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
If star goaltender Ben Bishop didn’t go down with a gruesome injury in Game One of the Conference Final last year, the Lightning may very well have won the Stanley Cup.
This team’s offensive and defensive depth is tough to match. They breezed through the first two rounds of the playoffs without arguably their best player Steven Stamkos, taking the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Penguins to seven games in the Conference Final.
Expect things to be even better this year on the Gulf Coast. Tampa Bay is that good.
2. Florida Panthers
Florida shocked everyone and won the Atlantic last season. Looking back, this is something we should have seen coming.
Not many teams have as many young stars as the Panthers, who boast an incredible amount of speed and skill up front as well as an above-average blue line.
3. Montreal Canadiens
The Canadiens set a record for the best start in NHL history last season. Then goaltender Carey Price went down for the rest of the year and Montreal finished sixth in its own division. Ouch.
Price will be back this year and although the Canadiens lost fan-favorite P.K. Subban, the additions of Shea Weber, Andrew Shaw and Alexander Radulov as well as the return of Price should certainly make things easier to stomach.
4. Detroit Red Wings
If it wasn’t for Boston losing its last game of the regular season, Detroit’s playoff streak would have ended at 24. Fortunately for Hockeytown, Detroit extended the streak. Unfortunately, the Red Wings were knocked out of the playoffs almost immediately by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
While losing Pavel Datsyuk leaves a hole in the hearts of Red Wings fans, his departure will not harm the team as much as one would think. Datsyuk did not contribute much last season, and the Red Wings will be able to work more young forwards into the lineup.
Still, the defensive corps is a mess and there is no real star power on the offense. Even though the Red Wings can roll four deep lines, their playoff streak may once again be in jeopardy.
5. Buffalo Sabres
One more year. That’s all it’s going to take for everything to come together in Buffalo.
The Sabres will take a long-awaited step forward in 2016-17 and make a run at the playoffs, but will not assert themselves as a serious playoff threat until 2017-18.
The talent is there in Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane, Kyle Okposo, Sam Reinhart, Tyler Ennis and Rasmus Ristolainen. One more year of growth and this team will be scary good.
6. Ottawa Senators
Definitely a dark horse candidate to make the playoffs, Ottawa rolls out some underrated young players in Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone. There is a lot of talent in the top six, but a lack of depth in the bottom six and on the blue line could leave the Senators just outside the playoff bubble.
7. Boston Bruins
Boston nearly made the playoffs last year, but its dismal defense did the Bruins in.
In order to fix the problem this summer, the Bruins…did absolutely nothing.
Adding David Backes brings a little more physicality up front, but he is no longer at a point in his career where he can be a solid top-six forward. He certainly will not be able to replace 30-goal scorer Loui Eriksson, who bolted for Vancouver in free agency.
8. Toronto Maple Leafs
Ask the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin or Patrick Kane-Jonathan Toews duos: it didn’t happen overnight.
For Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, the same will be true. Like the Penguins and Blackhawks about a decade ago, the Leafs will still have to work through some growing pains before they become a team to be feared.
1. Washington Capitals
Never mind what happens in the playoffs, this team knows how to succeed in the regular season.
Washington has undergone some gut-wrenching playoff losses in recent history, but with every new year comes another new opportunity for redemption. The Sharks and Blues exorcised some of their playoff demons last year, and this Caps team is still good enough to do the same this year.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
The race for the Metro will be very close between the Penguins and Capitals, but Washington’s goaltending gives it the edge.
Despite falling short in the race for the division, the Penguins have a legitimate shot at defending their crown. They may have the most depth at forward of all teams, and the team obviously seems to thrive in head coach Mike Sullivan’s system.
3. Philadelphia Flyers
Philadelphia put together a spirited run out of seemingly nowhere to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring.
The team seemed to gel under new head coach Dave Hakstol and the defense finally became the Flyers’ strength.
The Flyers have the right mixture of star power and young talent at forward to go along with their above-average defensive corps and get back into the playoff mix.
4. New York Islanders
Just when it looked like the Islanders were ready to take off, they lost some key pieces last offseason.
Still, the Isles have a bona-fide superstar in John Tavares as well as one of the league’s best defensive groups. They should be able to squeeze their way back into the playoffs.
5. New York Rangers
The Rangers’ aging defense was exposed last spring by the Pittsburgh Penguins, and not even superstar goaltender Henrik Lundqvist couldn’t do anything about it.
Lundqvist is aging, which presents a serious problem for a Rangers team that is prone to giving up lots of quality scoring chances. To make matters worse, the offense is nothing to be thrilled about, either.
New York will challenge for the last wild card spot, but may get swallowed up by the competition.
6. Columbus Blue Jackets
After making the playoffs in 2013-14, the Blue Jackets followed up with two extremely disappointing seasons in 2014-15 and 2015-16.
Now, with no expectations attached, the Jackets may climb their way out of the cellar.
There is quite a bit of talent on the roster with Seth Jones, Brandon Saad, Sergei Bobrovsky, Cam Atkinson and Pierre-Luc Dubois leading the way. Can head coach John Tortorella do a good enough job to avoid the same embarrassment he faced in the World Cup of Hockey with Team USA?
7. New Jersey Devils
The Devils may have made the steal of the offseason when they acquired Taylor Hall from the Edmonton Oilers for defenseman Adam Larsson straight up.
New Jersey could sneak into playoff contention this season. Scoring should be up with the addition of Hall as well as youngster Pavel Zacha, and Cory Schneider is one of the best goalies in the NHL.
The depth, or lack thereof, however, suggests that New Jersey may not be a plyoff team in 2016-17.
8. Carolina Hurricanes
Aside from Jordan Staal, Justin Faulk and the newly-acquired Teuvo Teravainen, there is not much to be excited about in Carolina this season.
The Hurricanes could be one of the favorites to win the draft lottery and land coveted prospect Nolan Patrick next June.
1. St. Louis Blues
Losing David Backes, Troy Brouwer and Brian Elliott is tough, but the Blues should still be considered one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
Vladimir Tarasenko hasn’t even reached his ceiling yet, and Robby Fabbri could become another electric forward on this team in 2016-17. The defense is still magnificent, led by two of the game’s best blue liners in Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk.
Elliott leaving may actually be a good thing for the Blues, as they finally have a concrete No. 1 goaltender in Jake Allen.
A trip to the Conference Final in 2015-16 will be good for this team’s confidence, and a taste of playoff success will only make them hungrier for more.
2. Nashville Predators
The Predators made some serious noise last spring, shocking the Anaheim Ducks in the first round of the playoffs and pushing the San Jose Sharks to the brink in Round Two.
Plenty of Nashville’s success was thanks to its incredible group of defensemen, which has now swapped out the physical Shea Weber for the offensive-minded P.K. Subban.
There aren’t many holes on this Predators team, which is young, fast and hungry. Expect Filip Forsberg to establish himself as one of the NHL’s elite forwards this season.
3. Dallas Stars
After missing the playoffs the previous year, Dallas shocked everyone by earning the best record in the Western Conference last season.
The dynamic duo of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn wreaked havoc on opposing defenses while other offensive standouts like Jason Spezza and Patrick Sharp made their presence known as well.
Another veteran joins Dallas’s offense this year in Jiri Hudler, and he should compliment young forwards Radek Faksa and Cody Eakin very well.
Dallas’s problem, however, was preventing goals – a problem which ended up haunting the Stars in their seven-game series against St. Louis last spring.
Dallas did not do anything to address its weaknesses this offseason, so even though the offense keeps the Stars a Stanley Cup contender, don’t expect them to win the division again.
4. Chicago Blackhawks
After years of dominance, the Blackhawks are a little shellshocked after being eliminated in the first round last year by arch rival St. Louis.
At the same time, this team is never one anyone should count out. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford still make up one of hockey’s best cores, and the Blackhawks can still win the Cup even if they finish this low in an ultra-competitive division.
In fact, other than their record-breaking 2013 campaign, Chicago normally doesn’t finish near the very top of its division, saving its best hockey for playoff time.
Expect the Blackhawks to fall just short of the three teams mentioned above, as their forward depth is not quite what it used to be.
5. Colorado Avalanche
With a new coach, the Avs return to the playoffs as Nathan MacKinnon establishes himself as one of the best players in the NHL.
MacKinnon becomes an MVP candidate and Matt Duchene shines as well while Tyson Barrie anchors a blue line that sees a drastic improvement under new head coach Jared Bednar.
Colorado becomes one of the most exciting teams to watch in the NHL and returns to the playoffs for the first time in three years.
6. Minnesota Wild
It comes down to the final week of the season, but Colorado just edges Minnesota for the final wild card spot.
In the end, Minnesota is talented but gets swallowed up in the best division in sports. Zach Parise is not the player he used to be, and the Wild have trouble scoring enough goals to keep up with the rest of their rivals.
7. Winnipeg Jets
The future looks great, but the Jets won’t be able to compete in the Central Division this season. We may have a clearer picture of the future once the Jacob Trouba situation is dealt with, but for now, Winnipeg remains easily the weakest team in the Central.
1. San Jose Sharks
Last year’s Western Conference Champs don’t miss a beat this season. Along with veterans Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, we got a glimpse of some of San Jose’s great young talent last postseason in Tomas Hertl and Joonas Donskoi, among others.
Joe Pavelski has become one of the NHL’s best players and Logan Couture is right behind him. Brent Burns and Marc-Eduoard Vlasic also create one of the league’s best defensive pairings and Martin Jones is a solid netminder.
Just as it appeared the window was about to close for San Jose, it may have been busted open wider than ever before.
2. Anaheim Ducks
Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler are aging, but the Ducks are still one of the better teams in the NHL thanks to their defense.
Anaheim will not be able to top the Sharks this season, but it will overcome adversity and find its way safely back into the playoffs.
3. Los Angeles Kings
After three years of absolute dominance in the playoffs, the Kings missed the playoffs entirely in 2014-15 and were bounced immediately in the first round last year.
The Kings are still a major threat, but they may not be able to play in the same dominating fashion as we saw several years ago. There isn’t as much depth on the team and goaltender Jonathan Quick has shown bouts of inconsistency.
4. Arizona Coyotes
A surefire dark horse to enter the Western Conference playoff bubble, the Coyotes are packed with young talent. It may take another year or two for Arizona to break through the glass ceiling, but the Coyotes should provide for some exciting hockey this season.
5. Edmonton Oilers
Losing Taylor Hall hurts, but Milan Lucic, Jesse Puljujarvi and a full year of Connor McDavid should help the Oilers overcome the loss of their best offensive player.
The defense should be improved as well with the addition of Adam Larsson and a full year of young phenom Darnell Nurse on the blue line.
6. Calgary Flames
There’s definitely some talent on Calgary’s roster, but the depth is yet to come. The offense is thin behind Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan while the defense is surrounded by question marks other than standouts Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie.
The Flames, however, have drafted incredibly well in recent year and should be expected to return to the playoffs sooner rather than later.
7. Vancouver Canucks
If General Manager Jim Benning makes it out of this year with his job, be surprised.
Vancouver has one of the worst teams in the NHL on paper and may indeed finish with the worst record in the NHL. Edmonton and Toronto were the only teams worse last year, and they have both improved over the offseason while the Canucks have regressed.
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
A1. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. W1 New York Islanders
A rematch of last year’s second round series goes the same way. Tampa Bay is just too deep for New York to compete with and the Lightning make quick work of the Islanders.
Lightning in 5
A2. Florida Panthers vs. A3. Montreal Canadiens
The Habs lean on goaltender Carey Price once again, and he steals a couple of games despite facing a barrage of shots from the young, speedy Panthers.
In the end, though, Florida’s offense is just too much and the Panthers finally win a playoff series for the first time since 1996.
Panthers in 6
M1. Washington Capitals vs. W2. New York Rangers
Yet another playoff meeting between these two rivals. Unfortunately for the Rangers, this one won’t be nearly as competitive as some of the series in years past.
Washington runs over New York, pumping puck after puck past Henrik Lundqvist en route to a dominant series win.
Capitals in 4
M2. Pittsburgh Penguins vs. M3. Philadelphia Flyers
In a rematch of 2012’s gruesome first-round battle, the Flyers will try to end Pittsburgh’s defense of their Stanley Cup title.
This series will require a seventh game in Pittsburgh, and the Flyers will be successful in taking down their arch enemies once again.
Flyers in 7
Western Conference Quarterfinals
C1. St. Louis Blues vs. W2. Colorado Avalanche
Colorado steals Game Two in St. Louis, but the Blues take Games Three and Four in Denver. Facing elimination, the Avalanche edge St. Louis in overtime in Game Five, but the Blues finish the job with their third road win of the series.
Blues in 6
C2. Nashville Predators vs. C3. Dallas Stars
This is not a good matchup for the Stars as Nashville’s defense is able to keep Dallas’s high-flying offense at bay.
Nashville is able to expose Dallas’s weak defense just as St. Louis did last season and the Predators move on to the second round for the second year in a row.
Predators in 5
P1. San Jose Sharks vs. W1. Chicago Blackhawks
This one should be a classic. The Blackhawks are hungry to avenge last season’s first-round loss to St. Louis, but face a formidable foe in the San Jose Sharks.
The two teams alternate wins throughout the first six games before heading back to the Shark Tank for a Game 7.
Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture are too much for Chicago to handle as San Jose advances to the second round.
Sharks in 7
P2. Anaheim Ducks vs. P3. Los Angeles Kings
Neither of these teams looked good in last year’s playoffs, but 2017 will be a shot at redemption.
In a bitter series, Anaheim will have the upper edge, as Corey Perry redeems himself after last season’s disastrous postseason and help his team outscore Los Angeles in a defense-centric series.
Ducks in 6
Eastern Conference Divisional Finals
A1. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. A2. Florida Panthers
This will be the first time ever that the two teams from the Sunshine State will face each other in a playoff series.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, Tampa Bay has way too much experience and will give their East Coast foes a dose of reality.
Lightning in 5
M1. Washington Capitals vs. M3. Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers had all sorts of trouble solving Braden Holtby when these two met up last spring. The same will happen again early in this series, as Holtby leads the Capitals to a 2-1 series lead.
Despite Washington being a top Stanley Cup contender for years, the Capitals have never been able to make it to the Eastern Conference Final with their current core.
Surely they can’t fall short of expectations again, can they?
Yes. Yes they can.
Flyers in 7
Western Conference Divisional Finals
C1. St. Louis Blues vs. C2. Nashville Predators
The Predators storm into St. Louis and shock everyone by taking the first two games of the series. The Blues, however find their stride when they travel to Nashville, winning Game Three by a wide margin.
Nashville wins Game Four, but the Blues take Game Five on home ice to stay alive.
Pekka Rinne shuts down Vladimir Tarasenko & Co. in Game Six, sending Nashville to the Western Conference Final for the first time ever.
P1. San Jose Sharks vs. P2. Anaheim Ducks
After battling all season long for the Pacific Division crown, the Sharks and Ducks meet head-to-head with a trip to the Conference Final on the line.
San Jose takes a quick stranglehold on the series, winning the first three games and looking for a sweep. The Ducks, however, have other plans, taking Game Four at home and going back to San Jose to win Game Five.
The Sharks take care of business back in Anaheim for Game Six, punching their ticket to a second-consecutive Western Conference Final.
Eastern Conference Final
A1. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. M3. Philadelphia Flyers
Philadelphia becomes everyone’s favorite Cinderella sweetheart after knocking off the defending champs and the President’s Trophy winners.
Unfortunately for the Broad Street Bullies, their run comes to an end as Tampa Bay has the edge in this physical series. The Lightning win the Prince of Wales Trophy for the second time in three years.
Lightning in 6
Western Conference Final
P1. San Jose Sharks vs. C2. Nashville Predators
These two engaged in an epic second-round battle last season that saw the home team win each game.
It doesn’t take long for the Sharks and Predators to get re-acquainted to each other as this series features plenty of big hits and fights.
Nashville is able to take one of the first two in San Jose this time around, but the Sharks bounce back by winning a game in Nashville.
The Predators push the Sharks to the brink with a win in Game Five, but the Sharks force a Game Seven with an overtime goal in Nashville by Tomas Hertl to knot up the series.
Nashville avenges last year’s embarrassing Game Seven loss in San Jose and the Predators head to their first Stanley Cup Final in history.
2017 Stanley Cup Final: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Nashville Predators
Unfortunately, this series will not get terrific TV ratings since it features two southern teams, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be great hockey.
A young, talented group of defensemen in Nashville will try to stop a young, talented group of Lightning forwards and two terrific goalies face off in Ben Bishop and Pekka Rinne.
Tampa Bay wins the first two games at home, but Nashville answers right back and ties the series with two home victories of its own.
The Lightning win Game Five in Tampa and head back to the Music City, where they will win their second Stanley Cup in franchise history. Victor Hedman wins the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Lightning in 6
Hart Trophy (MVP)
Nathan MacKinnon – Colorado Avalanche
Connor McDavid – Edmonton Oilers
Vladimir Tarasenko – St. Louis Blues
Winner: Vladimir Tarasenko
Vezina Trophy (Best Goalie)
Martin Jones – San Jose Sharks
Carey Price – Montreal Canadiens
Cory Schneider – New Jersey Devils
Winner: Carey Price
Jack Adams Award (Best Coach)
Gerard Gallant – Florida Panthers
Dave Hakstol – Philadelphia Flyers
Barry Trotz – Washington Capitals
Winner: Gerard Gallant