The start of the NHL regular season is just two days away. And there's no better way to welcome the league back than with the biggest NHL VICE Sports season preview ever*!
(*In the sense that this preview has 31 teams. Every preview you read this year will technically be the biggest ever. But let's not let reality get in the way of some good marketing. Biggest ever!)
As always, we'll go division-by-division, but with a twist. Rather than use the NHL's boring geography-based format, we'll make up a few divisions of our own. Today, we'll start with the Bottom Feeder Division and the Middle of the Pack Division. Tomorrow, we work our way up to the Contender Division, with a detour through the always-popular Your-Guess-Is-As-Good-As-Mine Division.
The Bottom Feeder Division
As a wise Canadian poet once said, you started from the bottom, now the whole team is…well, still at the bottom, if these predictions hold true. It's hopeless, is what we're saying.
Last season: 22-56-4, 48 points, dead last, quite possibly the worst season of the salary cap era.
Offseason report: Pretty quiet. Which, given how much work there is to do, was kind of strange.
Outlook: Last year was a perfect storm—a bad roster full of players having bad seasons while getting pelted with bad luck. They have to be better. But yeah, they'll still be bad.
In the spotlight: Matt Duchene. Obvious choice is obvious, but Duchene is the story in Colorado right now. He clearly doesn't want to be there, and there was even talk that he might hold out to force a trade. That didn't happen, but at some point Joe Sakic has to stop kicking the can down the road and get this figured out. Duchene was awful after last year's trade deadline; his play early this season will go a long way to determining whether Sakic can somehow pull a solid trade out of a miserable situation.
Oddly specific prediction: Duchene is traded to the Blue Jackets, the return is underwhelming, and then we do this all over again with Gabriel Landeskog.
Last season: 30-42-10, 70 points, sixth in the Pacific, missed playoffs
Offseason report: They were busy adding legitimate NHL talent, like Derek Stepan and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Longtime captain Shane Doan retired, and goalie Mike Smith was traded. They also have a new coach, replacing Dave Tippett with Rick Tocchet.
Outlook: Some teams in this division are starting rebuilds; the Coyotes appear to be almost finished theirs. There's lots of young talent in place, and if any Bottom Feeder team is going to have a Maple Leafs-like leap directly from laughingstock to playoff contention, it's the Coyotes.
In the spotlight: Dylan Strome. The third overall pick in the 2015 draft has yet to have an NHL impact, playing just seven games, even as guys picked after him like Mitch Marner, Noah Hanifin, and Zach Werenski establish themselves. Nobody's calling him a bust yet, but the clock is ticking. Some guys just take longer, and if Strome breaks out then the Coyotes go from being flush with young talent to absolutely stacked with it. But if not, he'll face some tough questions.
Oddly specific prediction: Strome is fine, but Clayton Keller is the Coyote who captures the Calder.
Detroit Red Wings
Last season: 33-36-13, 79 points, seventh in the Atlantic, missed the playoffs for the first time since 1990.
Offseason report: For once, they were fairly quiet, especially in free agency where GM Ken Holland usually loves to throw around terrible contracts.
Outlook: The Wings had a great run, probably the greatest of the Bettman era. But now there's a price to pay, as a team that spent years moving picks and prospects for immediate help now turns to the future with an underwhelming pipeline of young players. They can't do a full teardown because of all those awful long-term contracts clogging the books, and they may not be as bad as many seem to think. But compared to what Red Wings fans are used to, it's going to be rough.
In the spotlight: Dylan Larkin. After a very strong rookie debut, Larkin saw his numbers dip across the board last year. As one of the few young building blocks already in place, he'll be watched closely for signs that he's back on track for stardom.
Oddly specific prediction: After being left unprotected in the expansion draft, Petr Mrazek wins back the full-time starter's job by mid-November.
Vegas Golden Knights
Last season: Did not exist.
Offseason report: Began existing.
Outlook: The NHL has a long history of expansion teams being embarrassingly awful, but the Knights are the first new franchise in the current era of hyper-parity, so they probably won't be as bad as you might expect. That said, George McPhee seems to have assembled this roster with both eyes on the future, and any pre-draft optimism that the Knights could be a playoff contender right away seems misplaced.
In the spotlight: Shea Theodore. The Knights drafted a ton of defensemen with the intention of trading several. So far that hasn't happened, creating a logjam that McPhee needs to address. Theodore is one of the few inaugural Knights who seems like he has a shot at developing into a genuine star, but he'll need to play to make that happen. Unlike the rest of the blue line, he can be sent to the minors without waivers, so it will be interesting to see whether the Knights are willing to bench veteran trade bait to let Theodore log NHL minutes.
Oddly specific prediction: Only seven players from the 2017 opening night lineup are still on the roster one year later.
New Jersey Devils
Last season: 28-40-14, 70 points, place, last place in the Metro, missed playoffs.
Offseason report: They won the draft lottery and picked Nico Hischier with the first pick. They also landed Marcus Johansson from the Caps at a nice discount.
Outlook: The Devils should be better than last year, but are very clearly rebuilding. They'll be more fun to watch than last year, at least.
In the spotlight: Cory Schneider. You'll see a few goalies show up in this section, for obvious reasons. Schneider was supposed to be one of the few bright spots on the Devils last year, but instead he struggled. If that's a temporary blip, he'll be good enough to keep New Jersey in a lot of games. But if it's not, his $6-million deal that runs through 2022 could become a major headache for GM Ray Shero.
Oddly specific prediction: Brian Boyle's Masterton speech is the best part of the 2018 NHL Awards.
Last season: 30-43-9, 69 points, last in the Pacific, missed playoffs
Offseason report: They fired Willie Desjardins and promoted AHL coach Travis Greene. The roster added a handful of useful veterans on low-risk deals, but starting goalie Ryan Miller left in free agency.
Outlook: After some early hemming and hawing, the Canucks seem to have embraced a true rebuild. That's good news for the future, although it probably means another rough season ahead.
In the spotlight: Bo Horvat. One of the few young players on the roster who seems like a potential star, Horvat just signed a six-year, $33-million extension that will shift fans' focus from his future to what he can do right now.
Oddly specific prediction: The Sedins have now made it absolutely clear that they don't want to play anywhere else, which should delay the first round of trade rumors all the way back to late-October.
New York Islanders
Last season: 41-29-12, 94 points, fifth in the Atlantic, missed the playoffs by one point
Offseason report: They made two big trades, adding Jordan Eberle and shipping out Travis Hamonic.
Outlook: Based on the last year, the Islanders are easily the best team in our Bottom Feeders division; if we're being honest, they should probably be one section down. But we need a seventh team, and the Islanders always seem like a team that could be on the verge of imploding. Enjoy sending me screen caps of this in May, Islander fans.
In the spotlight: John Tavares. Another obvious call, sure, but there's no denying that all eyes are on Tavares right now. He didn't sign an extension, and heads into the season as a pending unrestricted free agent. He really is the franchise, so this has to get done. But it hasn't…yet.
Oddly specific prediction: Josh Ho-Sang sticks around and is one of the year's breakout stories. He also says at least three things that make the oldest sportswriter in your town angry.
Middle of the Pack Division
These teams aren't the league's best, but they should be right in the middle of the playoff hunt. And as we saw last year, once you're in the postseason all bets are off.
New York Rangers
Last season: 48-28-6, 102 points, Eastern wildcard, lost in the second round
Offseason report: They bought out Dan Girardi and signed Kevin Shattenkirk to a big UFA deal. They also traded Stepan to the Coyotes for futures.
Outlook: The Rangers went to the final in 2014 and have had three straight 100+ point seasons since then, so they're certainly in the Cup mix. But they seem to be shifting their view to the future rather than going all-in on the last few years of Henrik Lundqvist's window.
In the spotlight: Lundqvist will turn 36 during the season, and the list of goalies who are still playing at an elite level at that age is a short one. It's certainly not unheard of, but Lundqvist is coming off a shaky season, and if/when his play dips further then the Rangers could be in big trouble. (Remember, dependable backup Antti Raanta went to the Coyotes in that Stepan deal.)
Oddly specific prediction: Among a forward group that's talented but lacking a true star, Mika Zibanejad leads the team in scoring.
St. Louis Blues
Last season: 46-29-7, 99 points, third in the Central, lost in the second round
Offseason report: They didn't do much, although they landed Brayden Schenn from the Flyers in the league's annual "offseason deal you weirdly have no recollection of."
Outlook: Last year was a strange one. Their coach quit a year in advance and then got fired anyway, goalie Jake Allen's midseason meltdown seemed to torpedo their season, and they sold at the deadline. But they made at least a little noise in the playoffs, so there's something to build on.
In the spotlight: Schenn. He's never lived up to his pre-draft hype as a future superstar, but he's been a solid 50-point guy for a few years now. The Blues are hoping he can be a little bit more.
Oddly specific prediction: Vladimir Tarasenko spends most of the season on pace for 50 goals before a late slump leaves him with 46.
San Jose Sharks
Last season: 46-29-7, 99 points, third in Pacific, out in the first round
Offseason report: They spent big to re-sign and extend guys like Martin Jones, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Joe Thornton, but lost 20-year Sharks icon Patrick Marleau to Toronto.
Outlook: The roster is a year older but otherwise largely the same as last season's, which would point to similar results. Playoffs? Sure. Another run at a championship? You never say never, but it's hard to see it.
In the spotlight: Brent Burns. The reigning Norris winner is always fun. But now that he's 31 and his $8-million extension has kicked in, any sign of a decline will cause panic.
Oddly specific prediction: The Sharks look mediocre by midseason, putting Joe Thornton firmly in the trade deadline spotlight. His one-year deal has a no-movement clause, but there's no better candidate for a Ray Bourque-style deal to a contender.
Last season: 39-33-10, 88 points, sixth in the Metro, missed playoffs
Offseason report: They replaced Steve Mason with Brian Elliott in goal, traded Schenn and drafted Nolan Patrick with the second overall pick.
Outlook: After making the playoffs in 2016, last year was a step back. But the Flyers don't seem to have panicked, and are moving forward on a slow-and-steady rebuild. That should have them back in the playoff mix this season.
In the spotlight: Claude Giroux. The captain has seen his points total drop three straight years, which isn't a great sign for a guy who's about to turn 30 and still has five years left on a deal with an $8.3 million cap hit. The team has been experimenting with moving him over from center to wing, which would be an adjustment but could give him a boost back towards his previous production levels.
Oddly specific prediction: Ivan Provorov showed up on a few Calder ballots last season; this year, in only his second season, he gets a handful of Norris votes.
Last season: 44-28-10, 98 points, second in Atlantic, lost in Game 7 overtime of the conference finals
Offseason report: They didn't do much beyond signing Johnny Oduya to replace Marc Methot, who was lost to expansion.
Outlook: The Senators were a goal away from the final and are returning almost exactly the same roster. And yet, almost everyone seems to be picking them to regress, if not miss the playoffs entirely.
In the spotlight: Thomas Chabot. He'll start the season in the AHL, which is a surprise, but he shouldn't stay there long. With Erik Karlsson's ankle sounding like a mess and Methot gone, it will put even more pressure on Chabot to contribute this year. He's one of the best blue line prospects in the league and a player that Senator fans have pinned a big chunk of their hope for the future on. We all assumed the future was now; instead, it's been delayed to "soon."
Oddly specific prediction: Karlsson returns earlier than had been originally indicated just like every injured Senator always does, and we're still all somehow surprised.
Last season: 44-31-7, 95 points, third in Atlantic, out in the first round
Offseason report: One of the quietest in the league, other than finally getting David Pastrnak re-signed just before camp.
Outlook: The Bruins have settled in as a mid-90s point team for three straight years, so they're a tough story to get overly excited about. But as the analytics folks would remind you, their underlying numbers last year were very good, and they could make for a sneaky pick to overachieve expectations.
In the spotlight: Charlie McAvoy. At the risk of turning this into the "young defenseman" section, McAvoy is another talented (and heavily hyped) young blue-liner who has a chance to make an impact. He's never played a regular season game but got into the lineup for the playoffs and didn't look out of place.
Oddly specific prediction: Brad Marchand fails to crack the 30-goal mark for the first time since 2014-15.
Last season: 36-31-15, 87 points, seventh in the Metro, missed playoffs
Offseason report: After years of being held back by subpar goaltending, the Hurricanes went out and got Scott Darling from the Blackhawks.
Outlook: In terms of last year's record, they're the worst team in this section. But Ron Francis has quietly put together a good young roster, one that features one of the better young blue lines in the league.
In the spotlight: Darling, of course. He put up great numbers as the backup in Chicago, but has never been a full-time starter. If he's even above-average, the rest of the Hurricanes roster should be enough to get them into the playoffs.
Oddly specific prediction: They end up flipping one of those young defensemen for forward help in the biggest pre-deadline trade of the season.
Last season: 45-33-4, 94 points, fourth in the Pacific, swept in the first round
Offseason report: The big change came in goal, where Elliott is out and Smith is in. They also added Hamonic, because they're apparently the only NHL team that realizes you're allowed to upgrade your blue line through trades.
Outlook: Of any team in this group, the Flames seem like the one with the best shot at making the leap to the next level. With that blueline and plenty of young talent up front, it almost feels inevitable as long as the goaltending is better. And in theory it should be, since that was the offseason focus. Except…Mike Smith? The guy who peaked in 2011-12 and hasn't been more than average ever since? Sometimes a change of scenery can be enough to push a guy back to his peak. But it doesn't happen all that often to 34-year-old goalies.
In the spotlight: Jaromir Jagr, who we found out today will be signing. He won't be the best player on the team or its most important, but the 45-year-old star should be all sorts of fun to watch. Or maybe sad. Definitely either fun or sad.
Oddly specific prediction: Elliott puts up a better save percentage in Philadelphia than Smith can manage in Calgary.
That does it for the first half of the league. Tomorrow, we'll cover the remaining two divisions, and finish by predicting the final standings and making a Cup pick.
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