Favorite: Tampa Bay
The Lightning are positioned for long-term success, with an excellent core of 20-somethings who are locked up for the long term. They have the star forward (Steven Stamkos), the elite defenseman (Victor Hedman), two tested goalies (Ben Bishop, Andrei Vasilevskiy) and loads of postseason experience. This is the team to beat.
The Panthers have a new general manager, new uniforms, and a newly revamped roster after a very busy offseason. Adding Keith Yandle, Jason Demers and Mark Pysyk bolstered the blue line significantly. But Jonathan Huberdeau’s leg injury will keep him out 3-4 months, a harsh blow to start the season.
Carey Price is back from a knee injury, and based on his play at the World Cup, he’s in great form. He’s good enough to keep the Canadiens competitive on his own, as he did when he won the Hart Trophy two seasons ago.
The Penguins return from their Stanley Cup run largely intact, and they’re the new model for the NHL, choosing speed and skill over grit and physicality. Sidney Crosby was sensational in the playoffs and at the World Cup, but he’s dealing with another concussion. Assuming Crosby gets healthy, the Penguins are a threat to repeat.
Last season’s Presidents’ Trophy winners were bounced in the second round by the rival Penguins. It was the latest postseason disappointment for a team that has made a habit of them. They’ll still score lots of goals, they’ll still have a decent defense, and they still have the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in Braden Holtby. But they’re still the Caps, and fool me once…
Darkhorse: N.Y. Islanders
The gap between the Penguins and Capitals and the second tier in the Metro is pretty sizable, and might only be getting wider. The Islanders did well to add Andrew Ladd and Jason Chimera, but that won’t make up for losing Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen. This is still a playoff team, but not yet a true contender.
The Predators made the biggest splash of the summer when they dealt away defenseman Shea Weber to Montreal for P.K. Subban, who is both younger and better. Subban makes the league’s top blue line that much scarier. As long as Pekka Rinne can play at a respectable level — no guarantee, mind you — Nashville is the team to beat in the West.
The Stars were who we thought they were last year — a sensational offensive team with suspect defense and lousy goaltending. They’re still going to score a whole lot of goals and win a whole lot of regular-season games. Adding Dan Hamhuis on the back end helps, but as long as Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen are sharing the goal, it’s hard to see Dallas making a Cup run.
This is life in the Central Division. The Hawks still are one of the best teams in the league, but maybe only the third-best team in their division. With a beefed-up blue line and Corey Crawford in net, the Hawks will be just fine. But they desperately need scoring from someone other than Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin. One-line teams don’t win Stanley Cups.
Favorite: Los Angeles
The Kings lost Milan Lucic to Edmonton, and Marian Gaborik for up to two months to a foot injury. And cap problems prevented them from adding much this summer. They’re still something of a lumbering dinosaur in the more speed-oriented NHL, but they’re still good enough to reign in a weak Pacific.
Contender: San Jose
Time could be running out on this incarnation of the Sharks. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Brent Burns are in the last years of their contracts, so there should be a sense of urgency for a team that reached the Stanley Cup Final last season. Mikkel Boedker adds speed to an already talented forward group.
After a fourth straight Game 7 loss at home, the Ducks jettisoned coach Bruce Boudreau for retread Randy Carlyle, who led them to the 2007 Cup. Like the Sharks, time is running out on the Ducks, whose core players (Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler) are on the wrong side of 30.
John Tavares, N.Y. Islanders
It seems silly to say the New York Islanders captain is underrated, considering he’s a two-time Hart Trophy finalist. But picking anyone other than Sidney Crosby (currently dealing with a concussion) or Patrick Kane (the reigning Hart winner) always feels like going out on a limb. But Tavares, already one of the best players in the world, seems to have hit another level. He had five goals and four assists, including the series-winning tally in overtime, in a six-game series over Florida last year, then was one of Canada’s best players in the World Cup. If New York returns to the playoffs, it’ll be on Tavares’ shoulders.
Auston Matthews, Toronto
Think of him as the American Connor McDavid. The Scottsdale, Arizona, native was the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft by the rebuilding Maple Leafs, and based on his play for Team North America in the World Cup, he’s going to be a megastar in the self-proclaimed center of the hockey universe. Big, fast, and skilled, Matthews could put up McDavid-like numbers right away. Keep an eye on Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine, too, an Alex Ovechkin-like sniper with a physical edge to his game.
Erik Karlsson, Ottawa
OK, so Karlsson doesn’t kill penalties and he isn’t exactly a shut-down defender. Who cares? He’s an offensive wizard, and drives possession like no other defenseman in the league. He had 82 points in 82 games last season, and should have won the Norris last year over the Kings’ Drew Doughty, who had worse possession numbers and 31 fewer points. The only question is whether new Ottawa coach Guy Boucher —a defensive-minded coach who basically ran the trap in Tampa Bay —ruins Karlsson by forcing him to rein himself in.
STANLEY CUP FINAL PREDICTION
Tampa Bay over Nashville
Nobody in the NHL had a better offseason than Lightning GM Steve Yzerman. The Lightning extended all their key pieces, including superstar Steven Stamkos, Norris candidate Victor Hedman, goalie of the future Andrei Vasilevskiy, and sniper Nikita Kucherov, all with team-friendly cap hits. Tampa has been one of the best teams in the league for years now, and is finally poised to break through and perhaps set up themselves up as the next dominant team in the NHL. There’s so much to like about Nashville, which boasts the best defense in the league and one of the most aggressive coaches in Peter Laviolette. But Pekka Rinne looked like a shell of his old self last season. He might be the Predators’ lone weak link, and it might be just enough to keep them from winning their first Stanley Cup.