It’s that time of year again. Awkward between the glass analysts, long reviews for 1 inch offside plays, Mike Millbury driving us all insane (good thing he was “promoted” so we get to see him even more), and new this time around: 10 power plays a period by delay of game and slashing penalties. Sure, things can be frustrating and the league drives us crazy but hockey is BACK.
Coming off a season where we saw an emerging youth movement explode onto the scene via Auston Matthews, Patrick Laine, Mitch Marner, Sebastian Aho, and Zach Werenski (the list goes on), the NHL is ready to deliver more creative and speedy kids this year with Nolan Patrick, Nico Hischier, Charlie McAvoy, Dylan Strome and many others. Some big questions lie ahead (like will we get a three-peat? Spoiler Alert: We won’t) and the league will see expansion into Sin City with a maybe, kind of, somewhat competitive roster and the best Twitter account in hockey making the losses along the way pretty fun. Let’s drop the puck on 2017–2018 (just not for the Olympics apparently).
Who Makes a Push for the Cup?
This year feels a bit different as it could be the first time in almost a decade that Chicago doesn’t come into the season as a top contender for the cup. Vegas (as in “Vegas”, not VGS) have them pinned in that top group but it just doesn’t seem fair to expect a team that limped its way to an embarrassing playoff exit just a few months ago to return to dominating the Western Conference by trading out Marcus Kruger, Scott Darling, Artemi Panarin, TVR, and Niklas Hjalmarsson for Brandon Sadd, an aging Patrick Sharp, and a rookie or two. The real contenders are some usual (and one big new) contenders:
1. Edmonton Oilers
This seems to be the fashionable pick this year but there’s a reason why. Connor McDavid has assumed his reign as the best player in the world for the near and long term future, Leon Draisaitl has become a dominant forward in his own right, and Cam Talbot is fully cemented as a top 5 goalie in the Western Conference behind a pretty solid D-core. One year later, the Adam Larsson trade still makes 0 sense but surprisingly the defense was better last year. This team is going to contend for the President’s Trophy and score an outrageous amount of goals, spearheaded by a 90 point campaign for Draisaitl (my second round fantasy pick, so wishful thinking) and a 110 point campaign by McJesus himself.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
There’s really no reason not to expect this team to be at the top of the Eastern Conference yet again this year. If Crosby and Malkin stay healthy, they remain arguably the best 1–2 punch in the league even after about a decade together. Young guys on this team seem to step up in the limelight for their star centers and Jim Rutherford will inevitably end up adding another top 6 forward at some point this year (Matt Duchene?) to shore up the offense. The biggest question mark for this team remains the defense but that hasn’t seemed to stop them before.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning
Despite somehow missing the postseason last year, it would be foolish to predict this team to finish with less than at least 100 points this year. They remain absolutely loaded with talent from top to bottom and are one of the best coached teams in the league. Expect Nikita Kucherov to push 50 goals this year and possibly win the Rocket Richard as he fully cements himself as the most underappreciated player in the league (who still somehow gets mentioned behind Steven Stamkos in every conversation). The Drouin trade may also end up being the best example of a need for need move working out for both teams as Mikhail Sergachev figures to solidify an already pretty strong blue line. The team is deep, strong, experienced and hungry after the disappointment that was last season.
4. Washington Capitals
Count me in as the fool who for the 10th straight year thinks this team will challenge for the cup. We know they’ll finish with 110 points, dominate their way through the regular season, and roll through the first round against some young upstart team (see: Carolina Hurricanes, Philadelphia Flyers) or an aging team that doesn’t know what stage its in (see: Boston Bruins). But also count me in for betting that this is the year they get by Pittsburgh…probably only to lose to the third team on this list. Fool me once? Shame on Ovi. Fool me 5 years in a row? Well…let’s see what happens.
5. Nashville Predators
Skipping through some of the teams that “Vegas” likes here, we land at the reigning Western Conference Champion Predators. This one is fairly simple. Replacing James Neal won’t be easy but Viktor Arvidsson and Calle Jarnkrok can fill that scoring gap and, let’s face it, this team stays where it’s at because it continues to have the best top 4 D-core in the NHL by a mile. Roman Josi is doing things that a few years ago, we watched Duncan Keith do en route to establishing a modern day NHL dynasty and PK Subban’s personality found a perfect home in the country music capital. They’re playing in the toughest division in the NHL and may not finish as a top seed yet again, but expect them to dominate when it counts en route to a Conference Final spot at a minimum.
Honorable Mentions: Dallas, Minnesota, Toronto
And the Award goes to…
Hart: Give it to McDavid. Expect him to win many many more of these. Sometimes trendy analysts try to outthink themselves but this is going to be a very easy answer for years to come.
Mentions: Mark Scheifele, Nikita Kucherov, Auston Matthews, Sidney Crosby, Jack Eichel
Art Ross: See above. This kid is really good.
Mentions: No one is coming close to 97, he’ll have this wrapped up by February.
Vezina: This could be a great race to watch this year but going along with predictions that this is going to be the year of the Oilers, watch for Cam Talbot to take this one home largely behind a dominant offense that keeps the puck in the opposing teams’ zone.
Mentions: Bobrovsky, Murray, Holtby, Gibson
Rocket Richard: Nikita Kucherov seems ready to complete his break out and win this award but the league has more goal scorers now than it has in years. We could see a handful of 40 goal scorers for the first time in a while.
Mentions: Ovechkin, Matthews, Kane, Tarasenko, Crosby
Calder: With no seemingly generational star on the scene this year but a lot of A- guys, this one could be tight down the stretch. Look for a wide open race through the first half of the season with the guy who should’ve gone #1 winning this through a playoff push in March and April: Nolan Patrick
Mentions: McAvoy, Strome, Keller, Hischier
Who’s Dancing come Mid-April?
With a ton of question marks this year for some teams that have been perennial playoff participants, the bottom 2–3 spots in both Conferences could go a lot of ways. Predicting how the Central and Metropolitan play out is anyone’s guess as it wouldn’t be surprising to see a team like Chicago finish with 105 points or 85 points (it may seem like I’m biased here but Corey Crawford is my fantasy goalie so trust me, I am not).
In the spirit of some boldness, let’s give those teams on the cusp the benefit of the doubt in a tiebreaker against the perennial ones. (playoff teams in bold)
Atlantic: Tampa, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Florida, Buffalo, Boston, Detroit
Metropolitan: Washington, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Philadelphia, Carolina, NYR, NYI, NJ
Central: Dallas, Minnesota, Nashville, Winnipeg, St. Louis, Chicago, Colorado
Pacific: Edmonton, Anaheim, Calgary, Arizona, San Jose, LA, Vegas, Vancouver
The Atlantic shapes up as pretty status quo with Tampa returning to its foothold in the top spot but two upward trending Canadian teams continuing to improve. Likewise, there’s no reason Washington, Pittsburgh, and Columbus should drop off from last season and they could really be interchangeable in those top 3 spots. Philadelphia is a sleeper team that is going to have a lot more speed with as many as 5 rookies joining the starting lineup but advanced stats and shooting percentages also suggest that with even average luck, they should score about 40 more goals. Watch for second year blue liner Ivan Provorov to catapult up lists of top defensemen in the league this year. Carolina and Philly are built similarly and the Hurricanes’ young blue line should make this an exciting team to watch, especially in front of their newfound starter in Scott Darling. That goalie situation has nowhere to go but up.
Out West, the Central is a toss-up and you could really make a case for any team but Colorado to finish in any of the 1–6 spots. Chicago is out in these predictions but they could even end up winning the division. Dallas is the West’s Lightning this year and with Radulov in the fold, that first line is going to light up the scoreboard. Ben Bishop should finally give the goal crease some stability and this team should push 110 points even if they may not be built for a long run in the Spring. Watch out for Winnipeg to raise eyebrows this year with their absolutely loaded core of forward led by the best guy no one knows in Mark Scheifele. Little pop quiz: which team had the most 55 point players last year? Answer: Toronto, Washington, Minnesota…then Winnipeg! They may not be as good as those 3 just yet but this offense is going to explode behind Scheifele, Laine, Ehlers, and Wheeler, with rookie Kyle Connor on the way too. In the Pacific, status quo should reign here with Edmonton, Anaheim, and Calgary comfortably settling into playoff spots but watch out for Arizona to push for the second wild card. They’re a strange makeup of young core players and aging veterans, which may not bode well for the long term future, but with their current makeup they should finish around the 90–92 point mark.