I never really followed hockey that closely until last season.
That being said, my “team” since 2007 has been the Chicago Blackhawks because of Patrick Kane. I cheered during those Stanley Cup victories in 2010, 2013 and 2015, but I never really had a close connection with the team for the simple reason that I never really connected with the sport of hockey.
Well, after spending a year on the campus of the University of Missouri-Columbia, I soon realized that in a town riddled with St. Louis Blues and fellow Blackhawks fans (Columbia, MO is about a six-hour drive to CHI), it would be wise to have some knowledge of my team as well as the rest of the league. So I started tracking the NHL last season, and through daily highlights, Twitter, and a bunch of written pieces, I can now say that I can talk about hockey with a lot more confidence.
So with that being said, I thought it would be a good idea to have a crack at predicting the upcoming 2017-2018 NHL season. I mean, why not? I’d like to think as a relatively new NHL “fan,” I offer a fresh perspective on some of these teams. Either that, or I’m just way off and should probably just stick to sports that are not hockey.
Anyway, let’s do it!
The Buffalo Sabres will be better than you think.
The Sabres intrigued me right away, though I’m willing to admit it was mostly because of the greatness of Rick Jeanneret.
It’s not like the Sabres lacked quality talent last season. In just 61 games, Jack Eichel led the team in points (57), Evander Kane upped his point total for a third straight season, Ryan O’Reilly and Kyle Okposo remained reliable, Rasmus Ristolainen took another step forward and was arguably the Sabres’ best player over the course of the entire season, and Robin Lehner was a top-five goaltender.
There were rumors and whispers that Eichel and former head Dan Bylsma did not see eye-to-eye on things. Eichel clarified the comments, but the Sabres still fired Bylsma and general manger Tim Murray. With former Nashville Predators assistant Phil Housley now behind the bench, I expect both Eichel and Ristolainen to take another step forward and possibly enter the upper level of players within their respective positions. Combine that with the addition of Nathan Beaulieu and the return of former captain Jason Pominville, and the Sabres should make a run at a Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference.
If Steven Stamkos stays healthy, the Tampa Bay Lightning will make the playoffs.
The last time Stamkos played 82 games in a season was the 2014-2015 season. The Lightning reached the Stanley Cup Finals. He played 77 games the following season. The Lightning returned to the Eastern Conference Finals.
So one can probably guess what happened when Stamkos played in just 17 games last season due to a torn meniscus in his right knee. The Lightning missed the playoffs.
By just one point, though.
The injury history of Stamkos is well-documented, so of course there’s cause for concern going forward. But it’s worth noting that in the 17 games he did play in last season, he put up 20 points. If Stamkos continued that pace for the rest of the season, he would have put up 96 points, which would have been one point off his career-high.
Stamkos still possesses the talent. It’s all a matter of whether he can stay healthy over the course of an entire season. If so, the Lightning are a lock for the playoffs.
The Pittsburgh Penguins will miss the playoffs…
If you haven’t done so already, now you’re certainly questioning my hockey knowledge, or lack thereof. As outrageous as that statement is to you, I ask you to please hear me out.
The Penguins are have won the Stanley Cup title the past two seasons. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Justin Schultz were fantastic last season. Ian Cole, Patric Hornqvist and Phil Kessel are great role players.
But beyond those six players, who else provides any sort of confidence? Jake Guentzel, Carl Hagelin, Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, Greg McKegg, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary all missed time last season due to injury. Not to mention, goaltender Matt Murray is still young and has never been a clear-cut number one goaltender in his career.
Combine that with the losses of Marc-Andre Fleury, Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Ron Hainsey, Matt Cullen and Mark Streit, and the Penguins lack quality depth should some of those injured players from last season go down again. The pickups of Matt Hunwick and Ryan Reaves were decent, but I don’t think it was enough.
I am willing to admit that if everyone stay healthy, the Penguins are probably the favorites to win the Eastern Conference. However, I cannot place any sort of confidence in a team that not only has injury history, but a lack of proven depth and goaltending. Even if that team does have Crosby and Malkin.
…and so will the Ottawa Senators.
Hopefully, this one isn’t too outrageous.
As opposed to their opponents in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals (the Penguins), the Senators do not lack depth up front. However, they do lack a Crosby/Malkin-like player in addition to a consistent goaltender. To make matters worse, the Senators could start the season without star defenseman Erik Karlsson after the captain underwent foot surgery in the offseason.
First off, should the Senators even miss Karlsson for an extended amount of time during the season, they can kiss their playoff chances goodbye. But even assuming he does stay healthy, it’s worth asking if they have another player, particularly on offense, who can step up to Karlsson’s level and put up 70-80 points. In other words, can Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone and Kyle Turris take another step forward, or have they peaked? Also, if Karlsson does miss time, can a defenseman such as Dion Phaneuf step up and replace Karlsson’s production?
Despite those question marks, the biggest question mark for the Senators is in net, specifically with 36-year-old goaltender Craig Anderson. Does he have another quality season left in the tank? Remember, he got yanked from net multiple times last season before big performances in Games 6 and 7 of the Conference Finals. If those struggles with “Father Time” carry over into this season, the Senators can (again) kiss their playoff hopes goodbye.
Overall, there’s just too many question marks in Ottawa and, as opposed to the Penguins, not enough top-of-the-line talent to shrug off those concerns. In other words, the Senators can’t say, “Despite our weaknesses in some areas, at least we have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin!”
The New York Islanders will make the playoffs…
Like the Lightning, the Islanders also missed the playoffs by just one point. What hampered this team last season was its slow start to the season, and in the Metropolitan division, that can prove very costly. They did go on a run in January and went undefeated in the month of April under interim head coach Doug Weight, but it was not enough.
The Islanders certainly have the offensive talent to compete for a playoff spot. Josh Bailey, new addition Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee and star captain John Tavares all eclipsed the 50-point mark last season.
Speaking of which, it will be interesting to see what the future holds for Tavares, as he enters the last year of his contract. One would think a team would have signed a player like Tavares to a long-term extension at this point, but to no avail. Again, we’ll see what happens.
Anyway, as for the defense, the Islanders will be fine with players like Johnny Boychuk, Calvin De Haan, Nick Leddy and Dennis Seidenberg manning the backline. As for the net, goaltenders Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak struggled at times last season, so that could be the one big weakness of this team.
But I just think this team is too good offensively to miss out for a second straight season. I think Tavares will get his contract extension done early in the season, and the Islanders will grab one of the two Wild Card Spots in the East.
…and so will the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Hurricanes now own the longest playoff drought in the NHL at eight seasons. However, they did finish with 87 points last season, which was within eight points of the last Wild Card spot. Watching this team last season, one could sense that they are close to ending that drought, so what they do in the offseason? Bring in a bunch of former champions.
I think the signing of three-time champion Justin Williams (Happy 36th Birthday TODAY!), a member of the 2006 Hurricanes team that won the Stanley Cup, was absolutely brilliant. He showed that he can still produce last season, putting up 48 points with the Washington Capitals. Williams will offer leadership for an attack that features young rising stars such as Sebastian Aho, Elias Lindholm, Jeff Skinner and Teuvo Teravainen.
Like the Islanders, Carolina’s biggest question mark will be in net, specifically with new goaltender Scott Darling. For the past three seasons, he was Corey Crawford’s backup with the Chicago Blackhawks, but after the Hurricanes traded for him in the offseason, they clearly think he has what it takes to become a starting goaltender. He certainly showed flashes of potential in Chicago, but we’ll see if he can become a consistent starter. If not, the Hurricanes have a more-than-serviceable backup in Cam Ward, who was the Hurricanes No. 1 netminder last season.
The Hurricanes will be fine on defense with Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin leading the way. With former champions and rising stars, the Hurricanes have everything in place to end their dreaded playoff drought.
The Toronto Maple Leafs will win the Eastern Conference.
The Maple Leafs are so stacked that Nazem Kadri, who put up 61 points last season, may start on the third line. Not only that, but he will likely be playing with new signing Patrick Marleau, a veteran who tallied 46 points at age 37 for the San Jose Sharks last season. That speaks volumes to the talent and youth on the first two lines. I mean, where do I even begin?
Tyler Bozak, Kadri and James Van Riemsdyk set career-highs in points last season, but the heart of the Maple Leafs is the trio of Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and William Nylander. All three surpassed the 60-point mark last season and will only get better with time. If “MNM” stick together, the Maple Leafs will have multiple Stanley Cups within the next five years. Book it.
Now, the one weakness of this team is on defense, specifically in front of Frederik Anderson, who was one of the best goaltenders in the league last season. Except for Jake Gardiner and new signing Ron Hainsey, a member of last season’s Pittsburgh Penguins championship squad, the defensemen do not inspire much confidence. Young players such as Connor Barrick, Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev will need to step up for the Maple Leafs to fulfill their sky-high expectations this season.
Those sky-high expectations are well-earned. That’s why Marleau’s presence will be so important to “MNM’s” development this season, especially come the playoffs. The Maple Leafs have what it takes to go all the way, and I believe they will.
The Colorado Avalanche are (still) the worst team in the NHL.
Gods, this team is awful.
On top of their lack of talent, there are still trade rumors surrounding Matt Duchene. A bunch of contending teams would love to add another player of that caliber, so we’ll see what happens.
Nathan MacKinnon may very well be a star in the making, but I don’t know if he can be the best player on an aspiring playoff team, let alone the Colorado Avalanche. Speaking of which…
The St. Louis Blues will throw away this season.
Being in Missouri for two years, I certainly have learned a lot about Blues hockey.
At full strength, the Blues are a Stanley Cup contender. The problem? They’re not at full strength.
Patrik Berglund is out until December after offseason shoulder surgery, Jay Bouwmeester is out for the first few weeks with a fractured ankle and Alexander Steen is out for the month of October due to a broken hand. Those three players are not just instrumental to the Blues’ success going forward, but they played huge roles in the Blues’ past playoff success. With those health questions up in the air combined with a lack of quality depth, #itsawrap for the Blues.
The Dallas Stars will rebound and make the playoffs.
The Stars had the best record in the Western Conference in 2015-2016, and were some experts’ pick to win the Stanley Cup before last season. Fast forward six months, and the Stars were sixth in the Central Division with just 79 points, a 30-point decrease from the previous season.
Sure, a lot of the players from that successful season took a step back, but I think most of the blame fell on the defense, specifically the disastrous goalie tandem of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi. The Stars let in the second-most goals in the NHL last season, so what they do to fix the defense?
Well, first they hired an experienced, defensive-minded head coach in Ken Hitchcock. Next, they went out and acquired a true No. 1 goaltender with Stanley Cup Finals experience in the 6-foot-7 Ben Bishop, as well as veteran defenseman Marc Methot from the Montreal Canadiens. Those three moves, along with John Klingberg, should improve a Stars backline that honestly can’t get any worse after last season.
Combine that with the front line of captain Jamie Benn, new addition Alexander Radulov and Tyler Seguin, and the Stars should return to their winning ways this season.
The Chicago Blackhawks could run into some trouble.
It pains me to say this as a fellow Blackhawks fan.
Chicago’s top line of Richard Panik, Brandon Saad, a former Stanley Cup champion who returns to Chicago after two seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets, and captain Jonathan Toews will be as good as ever.
The questions come with Patrick Kane’s second line, specifically someone who can fill the shoes left by Artemi Panarin, who was part of the deal that sent Saad back to Chicago. Patrick Sharp, another former champion who returns after two seasons in Dallas, is 36-years-old and coming off a hip injury that cut his season short. In addition, Nick Schmaltz and Alex DeBrincat are still young and relatively unproven as second-line players. I think the Blackhawks will have trouble replacing Panarin’s 74 points last season.
As for the defense, Duncan Keith is still an elite defenseman and Brent Seabrook is still capable of a key role. Once again, it’s the second-line that raises some concerns. The newly acquired Connor Murphy showed some flashes during his time with the Arizona Coyotes, but is still just 24-years-old and lacks big-game experience. Outside of those three players, it’s up in the air as to who will step up into the top four.
The Blackhawks will still make the playoffs. I mean, come on now… let’s not get too crazy. That being said, I would not be surprised if it comes in the form of a wild card spot.
The Pacific Division will not change much.
I won’t spend much time on this one.
The top four teams in the Pacific last season, in order, were the Anaheim Ducks, Edmonton Oilers, San Jose Sharks and Calgary Flames. I still believe those are the four teams that will make the playoffs from this division. The order will differ, however. I think it will go Edmonton, Calgary, Anaheim and then San Jose.
In other words, don’t expect those Vegas Golden Knights to pull off the miracle and make the playoffs in their first NHL season.
So now that I’ve gone through the entire league, what team have I yet to touch on that could hoist the Stanley Cup?
Washington? Columbus? Nashville?
The Minnesota Wild will win the Stanley Cup!
I actually feel pretty confident about this pick because I truly believe the Wild have the best roster, top to bottom, in the NHL. Let’s break it down:
Charlie Coyle is 25 and coming off a 50-point season.
24-year-old Mikael Granlund emerged as a rising star last season, tallying 69 points.
Captain Mikko Koivu is also coming off a 50-point season.
Nino Niederreiter, another 24-year-old, is coming of his most productive season (57 points).
Eric Stall put up the second-most points (65) on the team in his first season in Minnesota.
25-year-old Jason Zucker took a huge step forward and is entering his prime.
Goaltender Devan Dubnyk was arguably the best goaltender in hockey last season.
23-year-old Mathew Dumba took another step forward last season.
Jared Spurgeon is coming off the best season of his career and looking to enter the upper level of NHL defenseman.
Ryan Suter, the best player on the Wild last season, is already an elite defenseman.
Jonas Brodin and Kyle Quincey are more-than-serviceable defenseman and had decent seasons last year.
Not including Zach Parise, who will miss the start of the season due to a back injury, right there are 12 players who figure to play a key role for the Wild this season. I think the Wild’s Stanley Cup chances will ultimately come down to whether Dubnyk can repeat his elite season last year. If so, #itsawrap in the Western Conference.
Obviously, there are others that will have key roles, but the point is that barring multiple injuries to key players, this team has the depth and talent to win the 2017-2018 Stanley Cup.
2017-2018 STANLEY CUP FINALS PREDICTION: Wild over Maple Leafs in seven games