With my MLB postseason predictions already down the toilet, it's nice to have another set of predictions to make almost immediately in order to wash that bad taste out of my mouth. And what a set of predictions it is... the 2016-17 NHL season is finally here. There are so many great young players, new faces, exciting teams and more to be primed for. It seems like the standard of play is rising as more teams try to emulate the Penguins model for winning the Stanley Cup, and that can only make the hockey better. There is a lot of predicting to do, so let's get to the predicting, shall we?
4. New York Islanders
5. New York Rangers
7. New Jersey
Blurb: The Penguins are the defending Stanley Cup Champs, and on paper they're almost exactly the same team from last year. Sidney Crosby's concussion is obviously a major concern for the start of this season, and could dig them a hole in a battle for eventual home-ice in the playoffs against Washington. But even with that said, all signs point to the Pens and Caps battling again for supremacy in this division. This season could be the last with these Capitals as currently constructed, and with some good tweaks to their bottom six, is this the year they finally break through? It feels honestly like they're due. Below them, Philadelphia's move to get younger and faster will pay dividends as they move up the standings, and become one of the league's more interesting teams to follow all season. Both the Islanders and Rangers were playoff teams last season, but there seem to be increasing odds that one of them will miss the dance this year. Replacing Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen with Jason Chimera and Andrew Ladd isn't exactly making things better, though some of the young talent they have is very exciting. They also have a much better defense corps than the Rangers do, which is critical. The Rangers could sneak into the dance because their forward group is younger and more exciting than ever, which could distract from the fact that they do have one of the worst D groups in the league.
Carolina's slow build is getting closer to bearing fruit, and while they're not making the postseason this year, they will continue steady improvement towards getting there soon. Bill Peters is one of my favorite NHL coaches for his emphasis on puck possession and now that he has a better roster, things could be fun out in Raleigh. New Jersey with Taylor Hall is a slightly better version of what they were a year ago, and Corey Schneider's presence keeps them just out of the Nolan Patrick sweepstakes. Columbus on the other hand...
1. Tampa Bay
Blurb: Steve Yzerman is a wizard, by the way. Tampa would have won this division if not for Steven Stamkos' injury last year, and with a (hopefully) full cast, they should likely waltz this year. Florida's surprising division win last year was a surprising twist to some (though not me, because I thought they'd make the postseason), but this year they have expectations after an unexpected front office shakeup and a radically remade D group. Injuries to Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad are going to hurt them from the start, but they still have enough talent, good coaching and Roberto Luongo to hold off Montreal and Boston for second. The Habs are going downhill, though the effects of that might not be felt for a few years yet. In the meantime, if Carey Price plays a majority of the Habs games, they will make the postseason with ease, though dealing with the Bolts and Cats will be a tough ask. Boston is in a very similar position to the Rangers, but playing in a worse division from top to bottom gives them a chance to sneak into the postseason after narrowly missing out the last two.
Detroit's amazing postseason streak comes to an end this year because their roster is nowhere near what it once was. Signing aging veterans and not giving the keys to the Mantha's, Larkin's and Athanasiou's yet is a mistake. They're heading for mediocrity fast. Buffalo could make some serious improvements again, but the injury to Jack Eichel is a major concern. They could challenge for a playoff spot for a bit before fading. Ottawa is a major wild card because of Guy Boucher, and I wouldn't be surprised if they're a playoff team this year despite roster issues that are well documented. And Toronto's youth movement continues, and they will be better than they have been, though probably still not very good.
3. St. Louis
Blurb: After making the PK Subban trade, the Preds are not only one of the most likable teams in the league (if not the most), they're also probably the best. Their D corps is absolutely amazing and at the top of their powers, and while that's never been an issue, now they have the forwards to match such as Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, Kevin Fiala, James Neal, etc. They aren't a trendy pick anymore; they are favorites. Behind them, Dallas will still have their run-and-gun offense with the same goaltending and defense issues behind Benn/Seguin/Spezza et al. That'll be good enough for the playoffs, but much beyond that who knows. St. Louis is in a transition year away from Ken Hitchcock, but they still are a playoff team at the very least. Adding Nail Yakupov in a trade from Edmonton is certainly going to help, especially if he and Vladimir Tarasenko can establish chemistry.
How about those Blackhawks? After last year's Game 7 loss to the Blues, they are in one of their biggest transition seasons since their run began eight years ago, and the bottom six certainly feels like it. Unless some of those youngsters and journeymen play above their heads, they have a mountain to climb in the NHL's deepest division, though they'll still make the playoffs since the Pacific is a trash heap. And while Bruce Boudreau always wins divisions, he won't this year with this Minnesota but the playoffs still seem likely. They aren't all that different from last year, but with a better coach they'll succeed, at least relatively. Colorado will make a marked improvement in their play now that Patrick Roy is out, and they could easily make the playoffs though they have so many teams to jump. And finally, while Winnipeg's youth is exciting and plentiful, they don't quite have enough to get through everyone else in the division, thanks in large part to Jacob Trouba's holdout.
1. San Jose
2. Los Angeles
Blurb: Now that the Sharks playoff hoodoo is officially gone, how do they follow up their trip to the Stanley Cup Final? It helps that their division is a trash heap, meaning they don't have to do much to win it, though they never seem to. The last ride for Marleau and Thornton will at least continue for one more season. LA's Cup runs seem more and more distant as the roster continues to decay and get older, though they clearly have enough in this division to make the dance. And finding that third team to round it all off was a tough decision. Calgary underachieved dramatically last year, and finally has decent goaltending, while Anaheim has the roster and pedigree, yet hired Randy Carlyle and could be an epic disaster, and Edmonton has a hopefully healthy Connor but still a rancid D corps and questions between the pipes... I ended up going with Calgary third because my memories of the 2015 playoffs are still vivid and I want the Ducks to be punished for making incredibly stupid decisions and essentially firing Bruce Boudreau for not winning Game 7's. Edmonton will have their flashes, but they aren't ready yet.
Though Arizona won't be very good just yet, they have the best assemblage of young talent in the league, and you'll get to see it most every night. Duclair, Domi, Dvorak, Crouse, Chychrun and more is coming too. And Vancouver... Nolan Patrick is really good and you should watch the Brandon Wheat Kings this season.
(A1) Tampa Bay over (WC2) NY Rangers in 5
(A2) Florida over (A3) Montreal in 7
(M1) Washington over (WC1) NY Islanders in 6
(M2) Pittsburgh over (M3) Philadelphia in 6
(A1) Tampa Bay over (A2) Florida in 6
(M1) Washington over (M2) Pittsburgh in 7 (just to slay all the demons)
(M1) Washington over (A1) Tampa Bay in 7
(C1) Nashville over (WC2) Minnesota in 5
(C3) St. Louis over (C2) Dallas in 6
(P1) San Jose over (WC1) Chicago in 6
(P2) LA over (P3) Calgary in 5
(C1) Nashville over (C3) St. Louis in 6
(P1) San Jose over (P2) LA in 5
(C1) Nashville over (P1) San Jose in 6
2017 Stanley Cup Final:
(M1) Washington over (C1) Nashville in 5
Yep, the Caps finally do it, and they do it by beating Barry Trotz's former team.
Hart: Alex Ovechkin
Norris: Erik Karlsson
Calder: Patrik Laine
Vezina: Carey Price
Jack Adams: Bill Peters
Rocket Richard: Alex Ovechkin
Art Ross: Connor McDavid
So here they are. Please feel free as always to tell me how wrong I am.