This is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NHL preview coverage. You can read all our stories here.
The NHL regular season starts a week from today. That means it's preview time, as we run through all 30 teams to figure out who has a shot at the Cup, and who'll be more focused on the draft lottery by mid-season. Close your browser now if you want to be surprised.
As with previous years, we'll skip the usual division-by-division breakdown and make up a few of our own instead. Today, we'll cover the bottom feeders and the middle-of-the-pack teams. Tomorrow, we'll wrap up the league with the true contenders, as well as the teams that defy any attempt at prognostication. We'll also do a full prediction of the final standings and a Cup pick tomorrow, just so we can be extra
Let's do this. We'll start at the bottom and work our way up.
The Bottom-Feeder Division
These seven teams are going to try their very hardest and everyone will have some fun.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Last season: 29-42-11, 69 points, dead last in the NHL.
Offseason report: They flipped Jonathan Bernier for Frederik Andersen, kind of, and that's probably an upgrade. They also confused their more analytically inclined fans by signing guys like Matt Martin and Roman Polak. But none of that was as important as the night that this happened.
Outlook: Long term, it's pretty darn good. ESPN prospect guru Corey Pronman didn't just rank their prospects as the best in the league, he said that "there are zero reasonable arguments for anyone to even be in the same conversation." So the future looks bright. But the future isn't here yet, and this season figures to be one of slow but steady progress at best.
In the spotlight: In 1985, Toronto drafted Wendel Clark with the first pick in the draft. You could make a good argument that the three most promising Maple Leafs rookies in the 31 years since are all going to be on this year's opening night roster. William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews all look like they could be something special, and their progress this year will be far more important than wins and losses.
Bold prediction: For the first time in 50 years, a Maple Leaf captures the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year—but it's Nylander, not Matthews.
Last season: 31-38-13, 75 points, missed playoffs
Offseason report: They signed 31-year-old free agent Loui Eriksson to a six-year deal and traded draft picks and a top prospect for Erik Gudbranson. You know, like rebuilding teams do.
Outlook: The Canucks may very well be the worst possible thing you can be in the NHL: A bad team that doesn't know it's bad. Yes, there's talent here, but most of it is old and declining, and at some point this thing is going to collapse. That point may already be here. And no, it's not completely out of the question that they get one last big year from the Sedins, a nice boost from Eriksson, a make-the-leap season from Bo Horvat, and it all adds up to challenging for the playoffs. It's also not out of the question that they finish dead last.
In the spotlight: GM Jim Benning made the call to keep pushing forward. If it all goes bad, he's going to have some tough questions to answer.
Bold prediction: The enjoyable "Where will Ryan Miller get traded?" blockbuster from 2014 spawns a disappointing sequel.
Last season: 35-39-8, 78 points, missed playoffs.
Offseason report: They hired a child prodigy as their GM, then spent the summer making moves that landed them Alex Goligoski, Lawson Crouse, Pavel Datsyuk's cap hit, and whatever's left of Dave Bolland. You can't say the kid isn't willing to get creative.
Outlook: The Coyotes are packed with young talent. The two questions are how long it takes for it all to come together, and how much of it they'll be able to afford to keep once it does. The likely answers: Soon but not yet, and not as much as they'll need to.
In the spotlight: Dylan Strome doesn't get as much attention as other prospects because of where he plays, but he's an excellent young player who looks poised to grab some headlines as a rookie.
Bold prediction: Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a Norris finalist. Have I predicted this before? This feels like something I'd predict every year for four straight seasons and forget every time.
Last season: 35-31-16, 86 points, missed playoffs.
Offseason report: In one of the best trades of the summer, they plucked Teuvo Teravainen from the Blackhawks in return for taking on Bryan Bickell's contract. They also brought back Cam Ward. Two steps forwards, one step back.
Outlook: The Hurricanes are quietly looking like one of the smarter teams in the league (Ward signing aside), and you could make a decent case for them being one of this year's sleeper teams. They were for a big chunk of last year, too, sticking around the playoff race far longer than anyone expected.
In the spotlight: Jordan Staal was a highly regarded kid who was going to get to play with his big brother when he joined the Hurricanes four years ago. But with Eric gone, it's Jordan's turn to make this his team. He's been an excellent two-way player in Carolina, but you'd like to see more offense from a guy with that massive contract.
Bold prediction: The Hurricanes are holding down a playoff spot at the Christmas break. They're not holding one down when the season ends.
Last season: 38-35-9, 85 points, missed playoffs
Offseason report: They have a new coach (Guy Boucher) and a new GM (Pierre Dorion), and added Derick Brassard in a trade for Mika Zibanejad.
Outlook: On its own, the Brassard trade was fine. But like last year's Dion Phaneuf trade, it was the sort of move that you make when you think you're on the verge of contending, and nobody outside of the Senators' organization seems to think they are. There are times when the franchise seems like it's more focused on getting an extra two or three games of playoff revenue than in actually building an eventual Cup winner.
In the spotlight: Erik Karlsson is the team's best player by a mile, and is on the short list of the most entertaining players in the league. But will he stay that way? There's already some concern over what his game might look like under Boucher.
Bold prediction: Zibanejad ends up outscoring Brassard.
New Jersey Devils
Last season: 38-36-8, 84 points, missed playoffs. Look, everyone in this section missed the playoffs, OK?
Offseason report: Among a handful of minor moves, the Devils shocked everyone by getting Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson in what seems like one of the most lopsided one-for-one deals ever.
Outlook: After years of being old and (usually) bad, the Devils are still in the early stages of a rebuild. They've amassed a few good young pieces, and you can never write them off completely because they've got one of the best goalies in the world in Cory Schneider, assuming he stays healthy. But these things are tough to rush, and the standard timing calls for another rough season at least.
In the spotlight: Hall will be fun to watch, especially if he gets out to a hot start and the Oilers don't.
Bold prediction: Patrik Elias makes a mid-season comeback with some other team, and everyone feels really sad and uncomfortable about it. Not that something like that would ever happen.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Last season: 34-40-8, 76 points, missed playoffs.
Offseason report: They didn't do all that much. Oh, they wanted to—they spent much of the summer trying to dump contracts. But apart from a few buyouts and the addition of third-overall pick Pierre-Luc Dubois, they were pretty quiet.
Outlook: Not great, Bob. The Jackets went into last year as a trendy pick to shoot up the standings, then lost eight straight and were dead in the water before November. They should improve, sure, but there's little reason to think they'll be significantly better.
In the spotlight: Nobody's reputation took a worse hit at the World Cup than coach John Tortorella's, thanks to Team USA's disastrous no-show. It's only his second year in Columbus, but he wore out his welcome in Vancouver in just one.
Bold prediction: For a team with a history of terrible starts, that early schedule is brutal. Let's pencil them in for 2-4-1 in October. Or, as they'd call it in Columbus, "progress."
The Middle-of-the-Pack Division
These are the eight teams that aren't expected to be awful, but won't exactly scare anyone. It's not the worst place to be for a season, since a spot in this group can land you in the middle of the playoff race. But in an era where it feels like you need to be either contending or rebuilding, you don't want to stay here for long.
New York Islanders
Last season: 45-27-10, 100 points, won a playoff series for the first time since 1993 and then were eliminated in the second round.
Offseason report: They were busy on both ends of free agency, losing Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen while signing Andrew Ladd to a seven-year-deal. That doesn't really feel like an upgrade.
Outlook: It was only a year ago that the Islanders seemed like a team on the verge of ascending into the league's top tier. But after an uneven season, they're back to where they've been for years now: Expected to be reasonably good, but not especially threatening.
In the spotlight: Somehow, Jack Capuano is now the fourth longest-serving coach in the NHL. He's done a good job, especially given some of the trying circumstances this franchise always seems to find itself in, but at some point you wonder how long the Islanders can lurch along as a wild-card threat before his seat gets hot.
Bold prediction: They make the playoffs again, but this time don't win so much as a game before hitting the sidelines.
New York Rangers
Last season: 46-27-9, 101 points, lost in the first round.
Offseason report: They added Zibanejad from the Senators and signed speedsters Michael Grabner and Nathan Gerbe to cheap free-agent deals.
Outlook: The Rangers are in a tough spot. It feels like their championship window has closed, the prospect pipeline is largely dry, and there's plenty of overpaid deadwood on the roster that they'd love to move. But they can't exactly blow it up and start over when they've got one of the best goalies in the world at the tail end of his prime. You'd hate to waste the Henrik Lundqvist era, so you have to try that tricky "reload on the fly" plan. They've actually done a decent job so far, but it's a tough tightrope to walk.
In the spotlight: Rick Nash, who's coming off a tough season and makes big dollars through 2018. He's nowhere near the albatross that Dan Girardi and Marc Staal look like, which means that unlike those two, there could be a market for him if he gets off to a decent start.
Bold prediction: I really want to put "The Rangers miss the playoffs" here. But I feel like there's just enough talent here to squeeze in, even if it's just as a wild-card team.
Last season: 42-31-9, 93 points, missed playoffs.
Offseason report: They watched Eriksson bolt for Vancouver, then signed David Backes to a five-year deal.
Outlook: Despite getting dumped on for last year's bizarre offseason, the Bruins nearly slipped into the playoffs. They figure to be about as good this year, if not a bit better. But the blueline still looks iffy, and that's assuming 39-year-old Zdeno Chara stays healthy.
In the spotlight: Backes is the sort of player who Boston fans could fall in love with. But the track record of 32-year-old power forwards isn't exactly great, and that contract could look awfully ugly in a few years. Maybe sooner.
Bold prediction: They miss the playoffs again, which is enough to finally spell the end of Claude Julien in Boston.
Last season: 35-39-8, 78 points, missed playoffs.
Offseason report: It was relatively quiet, with the exception of winning the draft lottery to move up to second overall and landing sniper Patrik Laine. But it may not stay that way—defenseman Jacob Trouba wants a trade, and says he won't report until he gets one. Assuming a deal gets done, it will be a big one.
Outlook: Plenty of teams would love to have the Jets' depth of young talent throughout the organization. Laine is joining a team that was already so well-stocked that some had them just a few years away from a Stanley Cup. But is that enough for right now? In a ridiculously tough Central Division, maybe not.
In the spotlight: Laine is going to be so much fun to watch. He plays like Alexander Ovechkin, then gives interviews like this. He may not be the best prospect in the league, but he'll be the most fun.
Bold prediction: The Jets finally move on from Ondrej Pavelec and hand the reins over to someone else. Sure, I've been saying this for years, and lots of Jets fans have, too. But now they have Connor Hellebuyck, so there's no way they could screw it up. Is there?
Last season: 38-33-11, 87 points, lost in the first round.
Offseason report: They signed Eric Staal and bought out Thomas Vanek. But by far their biggest move was hiring Bruce Boudreau as coach, after the Ducks made him the scapegoat for another playoff disappointment.
Outlook: The Wild made the playoffs last year, but they weren't all that good; their 87 points was the lowest mark by a Western playoff team since 2000. Then the roster didn't get much better. But Boudreau is a wizard—in eight full seasons as head coach, he's finished first in his division every time. That streak will end this year, but it's hard to bet against him making the playoffs.
In the spotlight: Chuck Fletcher has been GM for seven years and has only been out of the second round twice. He has a roster that's top-heavy with older players on big contracts. He played his coach card last year. This team was built to contend for the Cup; they'd better get started soon.
Bold prediction: The Wild limp into the playoffs as underdogs once again, but pull off a first-round upset in a series that goes the distance, at which point we all agree that the "Boudreau can't win a Game 7" narrative was dumb.
Last season: 35-40-7, 77 points, missed playoffs.
Offseason report: We're still waiting on that Johnny Gaudreau contract, which will cap off a busy summer that saw the Flames re-sign Sean Monahan, replace Bob Hartley with Glen Gulutzan, and acquire Brian Elliott.
Outlook: Last year was a letdown after a trip to the second round in 2014-15. But the biggest issue was goaltending, and they've addressed that by adding Elliott, one of the most underrated goalies of recent years. Mix in a strong blueline and young forwards who should get better, and does it add up to enough to get back to the playoffs? In the Pacific Division, yeah, maybe.
In the spotlight: Gaudreau's deal will get done, and it will be for big money. That always translates to more pressure, although nothing we've seen from this kid so far would suggest he won't thrive under it.
Bold prediction: The Flames will edge out the Jets for the title of best Canadian team in the conference.
Last season: 41-27-14, 96 points, lost in the first round of the playoffs.
Offseason report: It was another relatively quiet summer for the calm, cool and collected Ron Hextall. That still feels weird to type.
Outlook: The Flyers exceeded expectations last season, making the playoffs a year or two ahead of where most of us figured we could pencil them in. Often, that means it's time for regression to kick in. But Hextall has put together a solid young team here, and there's reason to think they can build on last year.
In the spotlight: That playoff berth came despite an off-year from Jakub Voracek in the first season of his $66 million extension. One bad year is a blip. Two is a pattern, and it would be one that would make the Flyers cap situation look a lot more complicated going forward.
Bold prediction: With everyone waiting to see whether they improve or fall back, the Flyers do neither, and finish with 96 points on the nose.
Detroit Red Wings
Last season: 41-30-11, 93 points, made the playoffs for the 25th straight season but lost in the first round.
Offseason report: Stop me if you've heard this one before, but Ken Holland gave questionable contracts to a bunch of veterans.
Outlook: If you're a hockey fan of a certain age, it feels almost impossible to say that the Red Wings won't be good, because the Red Wings always find a way to be good. But, man, this year's edition sure has a creaky vibe to it, no? Losing Datsyuk hurts, and unless Petr Mrazek goes back to looking like a star, it's hard to see how they score enough to stay competitive.
In the spotlight: I'm fascinated by Holland. I'm not sure there's anyone in the league—player, coach or GM—who's more universally well-respected outside of his team's fan base but openly questioned within it. Red Wings fans don't trust Holland anymore, and haven't for years, but everyone else still thinks he's one of the league's best. I'm not sure who's right. This year might help us figure it out.
Bold prediction: Everything ends eventually. This is the year the streak does, too.