Yesterday, we covered half the league with a look at the bottom-feeders and the middle-of-the-pack. Today, we wrap up the season preview with a look at the very best teams the league has to offer, plus a full set of predictions and a Cup winner. Spoiler alert: It's a little anti-climactic.
But first, let's work on our exasperated shrugs as we tackle the league's misfits and question marks.
The Your-Guess-Is-As-Good-As-Mine Division
This is always my favorite division, for two reasons. First, by definition I can't actually be wrong about any of the teams here. And second, it's fun to watch fans read through the first half of the preview, not see their team listed, and get all excited about them being considered contenders. Not so fast...
Last season: 33-37-12, 78 points, last in the Atlantic, missed playoffs
Offseason report: They fired the coach and GM. As far as the roster, the emphasis was on the blueline, which looks better with Marco Scandella and Nathan Beaulieu added.
Outlook: 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. Sounds encouraging, right? The problem is I cut-and-pasted those two sentences from last year's preview, and then the team went backwards. It can't happen again... can it?
In the spotlight: Jack Eichel, and not just because he's the team's best player. Fair or not, Eichel was viewed as having a hand in those firings, and some Sabres fans joke that he's become the team's de facto GM. And he still needs an extension. It's fair to say there's a lot riding on this year.
Oddly specific prediction: I really want to find a way to get them higher than sixth in the Atlantic. I'm not sure I can. I cut-and-pasted that part, too.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Last season: 50-24-8, 108 points, third in the Metro, out in the first round
Offseason report: Other than that Brandon Saad/Artemi Panarin deal and dumping David Clarkson's contract on the Knights, nothing big.
Outlook: A year ago, everyone had them pegged for last in the Metro and John Tortorella was going to be the first coach fired. Then they won 50 games. Was it a fluke? Not necessarily, but it's fair to say that the hockey world wants to see it again before they're convinced.
In the spotlight: Zach Werenski. Other than goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, nobody was a bigger piece of last year's rise than the rookie blueliner. He's on track for full-blown stardom, but he also just turned 20 and some guys struggle in their second season. The Jackets may not be able to afford that.
Oddly specific prediction: They break through with the most successful playoff run in franchise history. Which is to say they lose in the first round in seven games.
Los Angeles Kings
Last season: 39-35-8, 86 points, fifth in Pacific, missed playoffs
Offseason report: They fired Dean Lombardi and Darryl Sutter, essentially hitting reset on their Stanley Cup era.
Outlook: Those two Cups feel like they were a long time ago, as the Kings have won just a single playoff game since 2014. They're still a good team on paper, and some new voices could spark a temporary return to the league's elite. But this is basically the same roster as last year, just older, and you have to figure that big changes are coming sooner or later.
In the spotlight: Drew Doughty. If the Kings can rebound, Doughty will be a big reason why. If they can't, expect his contract status—he'll be a UFA in 2019—to start to loom large. Especially if he keeps saying stuff like this.
Oddly specific prediction: They hang tough early, but the wheels come off by mid-November and they finish sixth in the Pacific.
Last season: 35-36-11, 81 points, sixth in the Atlantic, missed playoffs
Offseason report: They confused everyone at the expansion draft, said goodbye to Jaromir Jagr, hired a new coach, and basically tried as hard as they could to hit CTRL-Z on everything they did a year ago.
Outlook: They were really bad last season, and on paper they just got even worse. But last year felt like a worst-case scenario, and they still have one of the better young rosters in the league. There may not be a team in the league with a wider range of realistic outcomes heading into this season.
In the spotlight: Aleksander Barkov. He was the team's second leading scorer last year, trailing only [squints at scoresheet] Vincent Trocheck. Barkov has always been an excellent two-way player, but has yet to crack 60 points. With three of the other top six scorers shipped out for essentially no return, the Panthers will need him to be an offensive force.
Oddly specific prediction: Jonathan Huberdeau stays healthy and has his breakout year, leading the team in scoring.
Last season: 55-19-8, 118 points, won the Presidents' Trophy, then remembered they were the Capitals
Offseason report: They didn't blow it all up, despite rumors they were considering it. But they certainly didn't get any better, losing Justin Williams, Nate Schmidt, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Karl Alzner.
Outlook: Yet another loss to the Penguins seems to be the one that finally broke the Capitals—the players, the front office, the fans, everyone. With this year's team featuring the same core but less depth, it sure seems like there's only one direction to go. Then again, maybe that's the key. Maybe the Caps are the team that can't handle the pressure of being the favorite, but get dangerous once they're written off. We'll find out, because man, these guys have been written off so hard the pencil tore through the paper and carved "CAPS SUCK" into the table underneath.
In the spotlight: Barry Trotz. They're totally going to fire him if they start slow, aren't they?
Oddly specific prediction: The Capitals make the playoffs, face the Penguins, and beat them. I don't remotely believe that, I just wanted Washington fans to remember what happiness felt like for a moment.
Last season: 40-35-7, 87 points, fifth in the Central, missed playoffs
Offseason report: They signed Steve Mason and Dmitry Kulikov to UFA deals. Then they gave the coach and GM extensions, since organizational stability is crucial when you've got zero playoffs wins in six years.
Outlook: The roster is (mostly) young and (mostly) very good. It has to click eventually, you'd think. And yet here we are, once again, talking about this finally being the season the Jets break through and actually do something. We've been down this road for years, and it just never seems to happen. Meanwhile, other Central teams are making aggressive trades, firing people, and finishing ten points ahead of Winnipeg year after year.
In the spotlight: Mark Scheifele. The best forward whose name you still have to look up to spell correctly every single time broke through in 2015-16, then did it again last year. Was that his peak? He's 24, so maybe not.
Oddly specific prediction: Connor Hellebuyck wins the starting job, Patrik Laine scores 50, and the Jets make the playoffs. What the hell, I'll be right one of these years.
Last season: 41-29-12, 94 points, fourth in the Central, lost in the final
Offseason report: They lost their captain, Mike Fisher, to retirement, and saw James Neal head to Vegas. They also signed Nick Bonino away from the Penguins.
Outlook: The Predators' playoff run was so much fun that it's easy to forget that this team finished last year with the same point total as the Islanders. They have the talent to make another push for a title, but the margin for error isn't as big as you might assume. And the recent history of Cup final losers isn't pretty.
In the spotlight: Roman Josi. He's the new captain, and with Ryan Ellis out for a few months, he'll have to be at his best. There's been some debate in recent years as to whether Josi is one of the league's most underrated players, or sneakily overrated. We'll get some clarity this year.
Oddly specific prediction: The team struggles to score early on. In an unrelated story, Matt Duchene is starting every interview by mentioning how much he loves country music.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Last season: 40-27-15, 95 points, second Eastern wildcard, out in the first round
Offseason report: They signed Patrick Marleau to a three-year deal that would raise serious salary cap questions if this were the sort of team that worried about the rules.
Outlook: You know when your phone is completely dead and you figure it will take a while to charge back up but then you plug it in and suddenly it's at like 78% right away and on the one hand you think "Oh awesome that was fast" but on the other hand you're like "That's not supposed to happen, I think something might be wrong here." That's how longtime Maple Leaf fans feel about the rebuild.
In the spotlight: Jake Gardiner. The Leafs are stacked with young talent up front and seem adequate in goal, but still don't have that No. 1 stud defenseman. Or do they? Fans have been hoping that Morgan Rielly would grow into the role, but the oft-maligned Gardiner might be closer.
Oddly specific prediction: With everyone in the world seemingly convinced the Leafs are either headed directly for a championship or about to collapse, they annoy everyone by finishing with the exact same 95 points they had last year.
The Contenders Division
If your favorite team hasn't shown up yet, that can only mean one thing: They made the cut for the final group, the one featuring the teams with the best shot at the Stanley Cup. Well, that or I forgot about them and left them off the list completely. Crap, I probably should have double-checked this thing.
Last season: 50-21-11, 111 points, second in the Metro and overall, won the Stanley Cup for the second straight year
Offseason report: They kept the core intact, but the depth took a major hit with several departures. That includes longtime fan favorite Marc-Andre Fleury, who's now a Golden Knight.
Outlook: There hasn't been a three-peat in the NHL since the Al Arbour Islanders—even the Gretzky/Messier Oilers and Lemieux/Jagr Penguins never won three straight—so doing it in the cap era would seem like a borderline miracle. Still, the Penguins are already two wins deep, and they come into this year looking like the favorites. The depth is a big concern, though.
In the spotlight: Kris Letang. He's back healthy, and with him in the lineup the Penguins can make a reasonable case that their opening night lineup is better than the one they won the Cup with. Obviously, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are the keys, but Letang playing a full season for the first time since 2010-11 would be enormous.
Oddly specific prediction: Jake Guentzel goes five rounds too early in your office hockey pool.
Last season: 50-23-9, 109 points, first in the Central, swept in the opening round
Offseason report: They swapped Panarin for Saad, dumped Niklas Hjalmarsson's contract on the Coyotes, and lost Marian Hossa to a rare skin disorder.
Outlook: Between age, the salary cap, and some questionable roster moves, you can see the cracks starting to form. The question is: When things finally start to crumble, how fast does it all come down?
In the spotlight: Brent Seabrook. The Toews/Kane/Keith core is locked in forever, and Hawks fans are fine with that. But Seabrook's deal is tougher to defend, especially given his recent play. A return to form would be nice, but that's asking a lot from a 32-year-old with plenty of miles on him.
Oddly specific prediction: The Hawks hold off the inevitable for another year, cracking 100 points yet again.
Last season: 46-23-13, 105 points, first in the Pacific, lost in the conference final
Offseason report: The lost Shea Theodore to the Knights, which will hurt someday but is manageable now. They also added Ryan Miller on a cheap deal, and brought back deadline rental Patrick Eaves.
Outlook: The Ducks were a trendy pick to regress last year after replacing Bruce Boudreau with Randy Carlyle, but they had another strong season. The cap is jammed and the core is getting old, so the window is closing here. But for now, they look like contenders.
In the spotlight: Corey Perry. After scoring 110 goals over three years, the former MVP and Rocket Richard winner plummeted to just 19 last year. Even the best have off-years, and the Ducks better hope that's what this was, because Perry is 32 and makes big bucks for the next four years.
Oddly specific prediction: Hampus Lindholm has a breakout year, infuriating the analytics guys who insist he's already had several.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Last season: 42-30-10, 94 points, fifth in the Atlantic, missed playoffs
Offseason report: They finally traded Jonathan Drouin, re-signed several guys, and added veterans Chris Kunitz and Dan Girardi.
Outlook: It's rare for a team that missed the playoffs one year to head into the next as a consensus Cup favorite. Then again, it's rare for a team this good to miss the playoffs at all. On paper, the Lightning are as good as anyone out there, and with a healthy Steven Stamkos they're already better than last year's edition. Last year was about as bad as it could possibly get for this group, and they still only missed the playoffs by one point.
In the spotlight: Steve Yzerman. I know, I know, he's everyone's pick as the best GM in the league right now. But last year, he misplayed his Ben Bishop hand, made the call to sell at the deadline, and then lost out on the final wildcard spot by a single point to one of the teams he sold to. He had to do some of that to clear up cap space, sure. But then he used that cap space on Girardi, who even the most loyal Ranger fans had soured on. Are we completely sure he's playing 3D chess here? OK, just making sure.
Oddly specific prediction: Victor Hedman finally wins the Norris Trophy.
Last season: 34-37-11, 79 points, sixth in Central, missed the playoffs
Offseason report: They loaded up, adding Bishop, Alexander Radulov, Martin Hanzal, and Marc Methot. They also brought Ken Hitchcock back as coach.
Outlook: Wait, a 79-point team in the contenders section? Welcome to the parity era. But no team was a bigger disappointment last season, and no team did more to bring in reinforcements over the summer, so all signs point to a big rebound season in Dallas. The blueline remains a question mark, but there's so much firepower up front that they can cover for some of that.
In the spotlight: Bishop. Goaltending has killed the Stars for years, and GM Jim Nill finally went out and got the guy we all assumed he'd wind up with all along. But is it already too late? Bishop wasn't great last year, and he's a big guy on the wrong side of 30. If he slumps or gets hurt, look out.
Oddly specific prediction: The Benn-Seguin-Radulov line is the league's most entertaining until Hitchcock decides they're taking too many chances and breaks them up in the third period of the season opener.
Last season: 47-26-9, 103 points, first in the Atlantic, out in round one
Offseason report: Radulov left and Andrei Markov retired, but they added Drouin, Alzner, and Ales Hemsky. Most importantly, they got Carey Price locked in on a long-term extension.
Outlook: While the roster underwent some changes, when it all shakes out this year's Canadiens look a lot like last year's. Which is to say, they're good enough to make the playoffs and maybe even win the division, but it's hard to see a path to the Stanley Cup that doesn't involve Price stealing a few series along the way. Which he might.
In the spotlight: Alex Galchenyuk. Despite all the changes over the summer, GM Marc Bergevin never did find the surefire first-line center everyone in Montreal wants him to get. Maybe that ends up being Drouin. Maybe they try Galchenyuk again someday. Or maybe we all just keep talking about this forever. After five years in the NHL, the team still doesn't seem quite sure what it has in this kid.
Oddly specific prediction: Drouin hits the 60-point mark for the first time. It's not enough for Montreal.
Last season: 49-25-8, 106 points, second in the Central, out in round one
Offseason report: They swung a deal with the Sabres for Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno, signed Matt Cullen, and extended captain Mikko Koivu.
Outlook: Does it feel like we're stretching the whole "contender" thing here? It kind of does. The Wild are usually good, usually make the playoffs, and usually exit pretty quickly. Last year's team was quite possibly their best ever, so there's something to build on here, and the Central seems kind of wide open. Could they win it all? Sure, I guess.
In the spotlight: Zach Parise. Remember him? Last year he had 42 points to rank eighth on the team. He's 33, and still signed for another eight years. Those 2020 lockout compliance buyouts can't come fast enough in Minnesota.
Oddly specific prediction: Parise scores 30 goals and makes me eat that last paragraph.
Last season: 47-26-9, 103 points, second in Pacific, out in round two
Offseason report: They gave Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl all the money. Oh, and they traded Jordan Eberle to help pay for it.
Outlook: With a generational franchise player and some momentum from last year, the Oilers seem destined to win a Cup in the very near future. But is this year too soon?
In the spotlight: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Obviously McDavid is the big name here, and Draisaitl will be analyzed to death due to his new deal. But Nugent-Hopkins has become a bit of a forgotten man in Edmonton. This seems like the year when we figure out whether the former first overall pick can be a key supporting piece for a contender, or a salary cap albatross who has to be shipped out, Eberle-style.
Oddly specific prediction: McDavid becomes the league's first 120-point player in a decade.
Predictions: I've got four new playoff teams; history tells us that's two or three teams too few. Still, you have to give me credit for mixing it up a bit and not just sticking with the same-old same-old, right? Uh, feel free to skip the Cup pick.
3) Maple Leafs*
8) Red Wings
3) Blue Jackets*
4) Hurricanes* (wc)
5) Rangers* (wc)
4) Predators* (wc)
5) Jets* (wc)
* = playoffs; (wc) = wildcard
Eastern Conference final: Penguins over Lightning
Western Conference final: Oilers over Stars
Stanley Cup pick: Penguins over Oilers in five
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