Amidst Lebron's Lakers debut, Pat Mahomes' domination of the universe and the Red Sox and Yankees playing what will likely be a one sided playoff series, the NHL's new season is about to begin. In many ways, the NHL is less relevant but more exciting than ever. The paradox makes it immense fun to be a hockey fan, while also wondering why so few people are excited then remembering #pleaselikemysport nonsense exists.
Anyway, this season could prove to be one of the most fun yet, with an influx of amazing young talent, offense on the rise and a more competitive race for the Cup than almost ever. There is more reason than ever to put the NHL's baggage out of your mind for a minute and remember how good the game itself is now. That's worth something, right? Here come the predictions, sure to be hilariously wrong come April:
6. New Jersey
7. New York Rangers
8. New York Islanders
It's hard for the Penguins to have a chip on their shoulder, but watching the Caps finally beat them in the playoffs and oust them from the postseason may well give them a chip they almost have never had before. With Sid, Geno, Phil and a cast of players who will become household names because they play with those players, the Penguins will actually win the division for once this year. Washington will slide neatly in behind, probably starting a little slow because that summer party was a banger, wasn't it? Philadelphia is also sneaky good in terms of their foundation, but they don't have the top end talent yet to firmly challenge those two for division supremacy.
Every question in Columbus is about the future of two Russian stars, Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin. They are integral to what the Blue Jackets are trying to do, and it seems like both don't want to be there beyond next year. So does Columbus trade them, or hold onto them for one last run? It's a dilemma that will define the franchise for perhaps a decade, but right now, they are a playoff team. Everyone's in-vogue team, Carolina, has new ownership, process and ideas, but whether that translates to results may come down to goaltending and getting a real center. New Jersey made the postseason last year on the back of a historic season from Taylor Hall and flukey goaltending that's not likely repeatable, and both New York teams are in the midst of long rebuilds to see which team can get more lottery balls for Jack Hughes.
1. Tampa Bay
Predicting this year's Atlantic is one of the easiest tasks in sports predictions ever. Almost everyone agrees on that order above. Tampa is a dominant team in all facets that would have won the Cup last year if they played their fourth line less, so it figures this year they probably will learn from their mistakes. Toronto finally got a prodigal son to return which should help push this team up a notch, but they still don't match up pound for pound up and down the roster with Tampa just yet. Boston has a good group of young players and an ageless Zdeno Chara backstopping them, but their stars are a little older, and last year's flameout against Tampa shows they may be a fair way away from true contention. Florida has a dominant top six and may be just good enough everywhere else to not just make the playoffs, but give someone fits in the first round, if they can get out of their own way.
The rest of the division is varying levels of mess. Buffalo resembles an actual NHL team this year, and with Jeff Skinner, Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Middelstat around to help Jack Eichel get out of his Buffalo blues, there should be progress in Western New York at long last, maybe even a playoff race. Montreal has Carey Price back and a couple of interesting young forwards, but the blue line is a mess with Shea Weber, let alone without him. Detroit is firmly in rebuild territory with what seems like more cap dollars on IR than on their opening night roster, but there are promising future signs. And the less said about Ottawa, the better.
3. St. Louis
It should be Nashville and Winnipeg once again duking it out for central supremacy, and they are on basically equal footing. Nashville's biggest weakness may be figuring out if and when to go to Juuse Saros, and hoping Zac Rinaldo doesn't cost them games. Winnipeg is thinner than they were last year, but boy are they going to be fun to watch. Their playoff experience now has to be an asset, especially having beaten Nashville when the chips were down already. St. Louis added some beef up front in Bozak, Perron and O'Reilly and to go along with their young bursting stable of prospects, they could be really, really good... if the goaltending holds up. Dallas has more depth up front now than they had in the last two years, and their top end talent is still fantastic. They should have enough gas now for the postseason.
Colorado's amazing run to the postseason last year was almost entirely Nate MacKinnon fueled, and while he's fantastic, he needs more help from his running mates to repeat the feat this year, and it's an open question whether he can get it. But don't weep for the Avs, the Sens gave them a potential #1 overall pick to make this group even better. Minnesota has Bruce Boudreau, a coach who is an expert in getting his teams to the postseason, but if he can do it this year, it will be his best job yet with an older group and a core that might not be all it was hyped up to be. Chicago's bottom finally fell out last year with injuries and a top heavy roster, all problems that haven't really been fixed this year. They won't be terrible, but that's a bad place to be in the Central.
1. San Jose
3. Los Angeles
San Jose went big game hunting this offseason. They couldn't get John Tavares or Ryan O'Reilly, but they got one heck of a consolation prize in Erik Karlsson. Him and Brent Burns on the same power play? Yes please. Doug Wilson is going for it and kudos to him for knowing his group and knowing the chance his team has this year. Are they the best team in the West? Probably not, but facing an easier division than the Central helps their cause. Vegas will not surprise anyone this year, and they are deeper up front than last year with Paul Stasny and Max Pacioretty buffering an already fantastic group. But some of that magic last year with a less than stellar D corps and a historic Marc-Andre Fleury season is probably not repeatable. They are still absolutely a contender in the Pacific though.
LA is still fairly old and slow up front, and Ilya Kovalchuk in spite of his offensive gifts won't change that. Their difference makers could be Gabe Vilardi and Jaret Anderson-Dolan because they may be the only players with foot speed on the roster. They have enough to make the playoffs, but probably not enough to do anything when they get there. The fourth spot in this division was wide open, but I leaned towards Southern Alberta because of Johnny Hockey, Sean Monahan and James Neal. If some of their offensive additions can help a D corps in flux, and Mike Smith can make a save or two, this team may finally live up to its own hype.
Anaheim is primed for a Chicago style fall because of their injury issues and roster construction from a by-gone era in the league. John Gibson is great, and some of their younger talent is good, especially on the back end, but last year's playoff exit against the Sharks is a warning sign too big to ignore. Arizona should be a lot better than last year, especially if they can keep their fantastic second half play up and get good-ish goaltending from Antti Raanta. Edmonton is a team I will not predict anything good for until they prove to me they deserve it, because Connor McDavid cannot do it on his own, nor should he. And while Vancouver gushes over Elias Pettersson, it's worth reminding them how much money they spent on Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle.
Tampa (A1) over Florida (WC2) in 6
Toronto (A2) over Boston (A3) in 6
Pittsburgh (M1) over Columbus (WC1) in 5
Washington (M2) over Philadelphia (M3) in 7
Tampa (A1) over Toronto (A2) in 7
Pittsburgh (M1) over Washington (M2) in 6
Tampa (A1) over Pittsburgh (M1) in 6
Nashville (C1) over Calgary (WC2) in 5
Winnipeg (C2) over St. Louis (C3) in 6
San Jose (P1) over Dallas (WC1) in 6
Vegas (P2) over LA (P3) in 5
Nashville (C1) over Winnipeg (C2) in 7
San Jose (P1) over Vegas (P2) in 6
San Jose (P1) over Nashville in 6
2019 Stanley Cup Final: Tampa over San Jose in 6
Hart: Connor McDavid (EDM)
Art Ross: McDavid
Rocket Richard: Patrik Laine (WPG)
Norris: Erik Karlsson (SJ)
Vezina: John Gibson (ANA)
Calder: Andrei Svechnikov (CAR)
Jack Adams: Jim Montgomery (DAL)
First Coach Fired; Todd McLellan (EDM)
So please feel free to tell me how wrong I'm going to be, because I often am. Happy hockey season!