This is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NHL preview coverage. You can read all our stories here.
Welcome to part two of our NHL season preview. We've split the league up into four divisions, and yesterday we covered the bottom-feeders and the middle-of-the-pack. If your team hasn't shown up yet, then that's a good sign, because today we'll be hitting on the cream of the crop, that small group of true contenders who have a real shot at the Stanley Cup.
But first, we've got one other division to get to. It's the fun one, made up of teams that are the hardest to figure out.
Sorry if your team wasn't there yesterday and you got your hopes up. Why yes, I'm talking to the Sabres fans.
The Your-Guess-Is-As-Good-As-Mine Division
Is that name too long? It seems long. But if the real NHL can have a Metropolitan Division, I think we'll be OK.
Last season: 46-25-11, 103 points, first in the Pacific, lost in the opening round.
Offseason report: After the Ducks were stunned by the wild-card Predators, GM Bob Murray appeared to call out his core and promise changes. There weren't many on the roster aside from trading Frederik Andersen. But there was a big one behind the bench, where Bruce Boudreau was replaced by the returning Randy Carlyle.
Outlook: After a slow start, the Ducks were one of the best teams in the NHL over the second half of last season, and they're bringing back essentially the same group. The Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry-Ryan Kesler core is getting up there, but they should contend for another Pacific title.
In the spotlight: So you've got a team that has plenty of talent but appears to be underachieving. You need to light a fire and get the best out of everyone. And so you turn it over to… Randy Carlyle? The guy who was last seen coaching a Maple Leafs team that had more fingers jabbing the "I'm a passenger" button than a school bus full of kids playing Pokémon Go?
I mean, it could work. Coaching a contender is different than coaching a tire fire like he had in Toronto. And Carlyle did win a Cup with some of these same guys back in 2007. But there's very strong evidence that at this stage of his career, Carlyle is a coach who makes everyone who plays for him worse. For Murray and the Ducks to go back to him now is, to use one of the coach's favorite phrases, mind-boggling.
Bold prediction: The Ducks aren't anywhere near as good as last year, and everyone ignores the obvious conclusion to make up narratives about compete levels instead.
Last season: 39-39-4, 82 points, missed playoffs.
Offseason report: The Patrick Roy era was fun, wasn't it? He arrived in 2013 and won the Jack Adams by leading the Avs to a 112-point season. The analytics guys screamed about how it was all an illusion, and they turned out to be right, as back-to-back playoff misses followed. This summer, Roy quit and was replaced by Jared Bednar. We'll miss you, Patrick.
Outlook: Everyone seems to be writing off the Avs already, and given the division they're trapped in, you can understand why. But let's remember that even with Roy, this team was almost in the playoffs last year—they had more wins and fewer losses than a team that made it. If Bednar is an upgrade, and he probably will be, they could be back in the race again.
In the spotlight: Matt Duchene led the team in scoring, then got called out by Roy for celebrating too much. He's 25 years old and two seasons removed from cracking 60 points. This feels like it could be the year that we figure out whether he belongs in the elite tier, or merely in the very good one.
Bold prediction: They're out of the playoff race by February. And you know what that means: It's time for another round of "Trade pending UFA Jarome Iginla to a contender." Let's hope it goes a little smoother than last time.
Last season: 50-23-9, 109 points, top seed in the West, lost in the second round.
Offseason report: A stacked team coming off a great season went into the summer needing just one thing: an upgrade in net. I'm sure they took care of that.
Outlook: Yeah, they're bringing back the same two goalies. That's not a shock—it's hard to unload big contracts and it's not like there were any Vezina winners just laying around—but it's still a big risk for Jim Nill and company. The Stars were the league's highest-scoring team, which made them all sorts of fun to watch. But the goaltending was always the question mark, and it let them down in the playoffs. Would they really go into another postseason with the same tandem?
In the spotlight: Ben Bishop. Don't act like you're not thinking it, Stars fans.
Bold prediction: With Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen locked in at a combined $10.4 million cap hit for two more years, maybe there's just no move to make here. So let's say the Stars defy everyone's expectations, head back into the playoffs with the same two guys and just pray that one of them gets hot. It could work. Goaltending is voodoo.
Last season: 31-43-8, 70 points, dead last in the West.
Offseason report: After years of skittish offseasons, you can't accuse the Oilers of standing pat this time, as they traded Taylor Hall and signed Milan Lucic in free agency.
Outlook: Last season was yet another disaster, and the Hall trade raises all sorts of questions about the decision-making of this management group. But none of it will matter, because someday Connor McDavid is going to single-handedly drag this team back to the playoffs. He's that good. Even the Oilers couldn't possibly screw this up. Probably.
In the spotlight: Lucic's seven-year contract is going to look awful by the end of it. But nobody will care as long as he can bang and crash and score a few goals for two or three seasons. Just watch: McDavid will be the savior, but Lucic will get all the credit for "changing the culture" and "teaching them what it takes to win."
Bold prediction: With all this young talent, this is the year that the Oilers finally break through and make the playoffs! Oh wait, I thought that said "old prediction," since we've been using that one for the last five years and it never comes true. So instead, let's go with this: McDavid stays healthy and wins the Art Ross in just his second season.
Last season: 35-36-11, 81 points, missed playoffs.
Offseason report: Their big move was landing Kyle Okposo in free agency.
Outlook: After years of tanking strategically to rebuild, last season was the one where the Sabres shifted into drive and hit the gas. And the results were… well, they were OK. And that's fine—this is a process, and nobody thought the Sabres would become Cup contenders overnight. But this year feels like a crucial one, where you'd want to see big progress to justify all the misery that came before. There's enough young talent here that you could certainly imagine it all coming together. But it's fair to say that not everyone is convinced.
In the spotlight: Jack Eichel put up a very good rookie year, and the Sabres will be looking for him to make the leap to true stardom in year two. He's no McDavid, and the idea that he's a can't-miss franchise player isn't as unanimously held around the league as you might think. But the Sabres are going to be built around him for years, and last season was a solid start.
Bold prediction: I still like what Tim Murray and the Sabres have done, and I really want to find a way to get them higher than sixth in the Atlantic. I'm not sure I can.
Last season: 47-26-9, 103 points, lost in the first round.
Offseason report: They had one of the busiest summers in the league, one that included a major front office shakeup and adding Keith Yandle, Jason Demers and James Reimer.
Outlook: The Panthers were one of last year's biggest surprises, making the jump all the way to the top of the division after three straight years of missing the playoffs. They've got a young core in place and one old guy who stopped aging eight years ago, so in theory they should be just as good this season. Then again, they didn't even win a round last year, their star goalie is 37, and young players are notoriously unpredictable, so in theory they should also be worse this year. Huh.
In the spotlight: Aleksander Barkov had a breakthrough in his third season, scoring almost a point-per-game while earning some Selke votes with his two-way play.
Bold prediction: The Panthers take a small step back and drop a few games under the 100-point mark. In a weak Atlantic, that's still enough for a comfortable playoff spot.
St. Louis Blues
Last season: 49-24-9, 107 points, lost in the conference final.
Offseason report: They lost their captain, David Backes, and their best goaltender, Brian Elliott. And then they didn't trade Kevin Shattenkirk, even though he wanted them to.
Outlook: This is a 107-point team that finally broke through in the playoffs. But this is a weird situation. Ken Hitchcock has said this is his last season, and the team already hired his replacement in Mike Yeo. Backes will be missed, Shattenkirk may be unhappy, and they've handed the goaltending over to Jake Allen, who deserves a shot but isn't exactly proven.
In the spotlight: Vladimir Tarasenko is one of the league's rising stars and is coming off a 40-goal season. But there have been rumblings that the team has been disappointed with him, and he had a minor blowup with Hitchcock during the playoffs over ice time. Man, this is a lot of drama for a 107-point team.
Bold prediction: Allen has his ups and downs over the first few months, which means it's time for the Blues to get silly with their mid-season goaltending situation yet again. This is where former Cup-winning starter Marc-Andre Fleury is winding up, isn't it?
Last season: 38-38-6, 82 points, missed playoffs.
Outlook: Last year left a bad taste in everyone's mouth. But as long as Price is healthy, this has the makings of a good team. Weber may not be Subban, but he'll still have an impact, and Radulov was a decent gamble. If Price gets hurt then sure, they're screwed. You could say that about most franchise players. But the pieces are here.
In the spotlight: Price's MCL. But also team captain Max Pacioretty. Between his alleged feud with Subban, rumors of problems with coach Michel Therrien, and World Cup struggles, he'll be under a microscope even more than captains usually are in Montreal.
Bold prediction: Do they make the playoffs, or does Therrien get fired midway through the season? Trick question. It's both.
The Contenders Division
And then there were… [does math]… seven. Let's wrap things up with a look through the league's top tier, with the seven teams that are most likely to win the Stanley Cup.
Last season: 48-26-8, 104 points, second in the Metro, won the Stanley Cup.
Offseason report: They were relatively quiet, without any major moves. The main goal seemed to be bringing back as much of the team as possible, and they managed to do that despite a salary cap situation that's looking strained to say the least. Their biggest offseason move may have been the one they didn't make; more on that in a minute.
Outlook: It's pretty much the exact same team that just won the Stanley Cup, so let's mark them down as "positive."
In the spotlight: The goaltending situations will be fascinating. Rookie Matt Murray took over during the Cup run, but he hurt his hand at the World Cup and will miss the start of the season. That opens the door for Fleury to win the job back. Either way, the Penguins will need to make a call by the trade deadline, since they'll have to expose somebody at the expansion draft and Fleury has a no-movement clause.
Bold prediction: The Penguins end up keeping both goaltenders all season in an all-out effort to repeat, everyone freaks out about the expansion draft, and then Fleury just waives his no-movement clause to allow the team to expose him.
Los Angeles Kings
Last season: 48-28-6, 102 points, lost in the first round.
Offseason report: Relatively quiet, with Lucic moving on and Teddy Purcell signing a cheap one-year deal.
Outlook: The Kings have had plenty of off-the-ice trouble over recent years, including the Slava Voynov and Mike Richards situations. This summer, they had drama around the captaincy, as the team stripped Dustin Brown and handed it over to Anze Kopitar. Still, once the games start, the team still figures to be very good, thanks to a stifling defense, strong possession play, and goaltending from Jonathan Quick that's either super-duper-elite or merely good enough, depending on who you talk to.
In the spotlight: Kopitar is the new captain. More importantly, he's now started his eight-year extension that carries a $10 million cap hit. Will he be able to handle the pressure? Yes, because he's awesome.
Bold prediction: Drew Doughty has a better season that last year, but doesn't win the Norris because we've all moved on to somebody else who we've somehow decided is due.
San Jose Sharks
Last season: 46-30-6, 98 points, lost in six games in the Stanley Cup Final.
Offseason report: They took a chance on Mikkel Boedker. That was about it.
Outlook: The Sharks spent much of last year hiding in plain sight, putting up very good numbers and challenging for the division lead but being mostly ignored as everyone waited for the inevitable Kings/Ducks showdown that never came. They figure to be at least as good this year.
In the spotlight: Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Brent Burns will all hit UFA status next year unless they get new deals during the year. Burns will, although it won't be cheap. The two veterans are bigger question marks.
Bold prediction: The Sharks/Kings second-round matchup is the best series of the playoffs.
Last season: 47-26-9, 103 points, lost in first round.
Offseason report: They got rid of Bryan Bickell's contract, but it cost them Teuvo Teravainen. They also got Brian Campbell on a super-cheap deal.
Outlook: They've been the NHL's most consistent powerhouse over the last half-dozen years, even though they've never been as good in the regular season as you remember. Now, they're relatively well rested. Uh oh.
In the spotlight: Artemi Panarin won the Calder Trophy last year, which made everyone mad because he's not Connor McDavid. Is he mature enough to handle the sophomore jinx? Probably, given that he's like 30.
Bold prediction: They couldn't possibly go out in the first round two years in a row, right? [Whispers.] I kind of think they might.
Last season: 41-27-14, 96 points, lost in the second round.
Offseason report: They stunned everyone by sending Weber to Montreal for Subban in a deal that lots of smart people thought was highway robbery.
Outlook: After last year's strong season, a wild-card upset of the Ducks, and the Subban acquisition, it seems like everyone is on the Predators' bandwagon this year. I'm on there, too, although it's just a little bit reluctantly given the goaltending situation (33-year-old Pekka Rinne is coming off an iffy season and there's not much in the way of depth behind him).
In the spotlight: Subban. Sorry, I know it's an easy pick, but it really can't be anyone else. Subban managed to be one of the league's most entertaining players even as he was having his every move dissected in Montreal. In Nashville, the sky's the limit. And he's off to a decent start.
Bold prediction: Subban is the most marketed hockey player in America within three years. Also, the Predators post the best record in the conference.
Last season: 56-18-8, 120 points, won the Presidents' Trophy, lost in the second round.
Offseason report: They added Brett Connolly, who's a nice player but not a difference-maker. That's about it.
Outlook: Is it weird that the Capitals are coming off a 120-point season, have pretty much the same roster and their goalie is the Vezina winner, and yet nobody seems to be talking about them as Cup contenders? I think it's weird. It's not like their playoff loss exposed some sort of previously hidden fatal flaw. They got beat by the eventual Cup champs. It happens. Reigning Presidents' Trophy winners shouldn't be under-the-radar Cup contenders, but here we are.
In the spotlight: Evgeny Kuznetsov was one of last year's biggest breakout stars. He'll have plenty of eyes on him during the season, right up until the playoffs start and we make everything about Alexander Ovechkin as usual.
Bold prediction: The Caps have a bumpy season, finish right around 100 points, go into the playoffs as an afterthought, and then knock off the Penguins.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Last season: 46-31-5, 97 points, lost in the conference finals.
Offseason report: The big news was about who they kept, as Steven Stamkos flirted with free agency before returning and Victor Hedman signed an extension. Now about Nikita Kucherov…
Outlook: The Lightning feature one of the best-constructed rosters in the league, and there's no reason to think they won't be very good yet again. If there's a question here, it's how long their window can stay open; they've got far more talent than the salary cap can realistically hold.
In the spotlight: Jonathan Drouin's 2015-16 saga included a demotion, a trade demand, a holdout, a sheepish return, and then some playoff heroics. This year, he'll be expected to finally live up to his potential for a full season.
Bold prediction: The Lightning are your Stanley Cup champions.
(And yes, I said that last year, too. I'll be right one of these years.)
Careful readers will notice a massive flaw here: While I've moved plenty of teams around from last year's standings, including four new division winners, I've still ended up with 15 of 16 playoff teams repeating. There's virtually no chance of that kind of consistency, so I'll definitely be wrong on a few of these (or more). It's tempting to make a few calls I don't really believe in just for the sake of working in some upsets, but I'll save that trick for the playoffs that would be dishonest.
5) Red Wings
8) Maple Leafs
4) Islanders* (wc)
5) Rangers* (wc)
7) Blue Jackets
4) Blues* (wc)
5) Wild* (wc)
* = playoffs; (wc) = wildcard
Western Conference final: Stars over Kings
Eastern Conference final: Lightning over Capitals
Stanley Cup pick: Lightning over Stars in six