Good Sports: The Best Sport Is Back

So, it’s obviously  November. An addendum to this article – I was writing this all up the day before the hockey season started, October 7th, when I got a job that literally took up all of my time through November. When I was free, I was sleeping, doing podcasts with Cory, or…well, more pressing things. Anyway, I don’t admire that I fell behind this far, but as we’ve seen all year, I write the articles anyway. I’m following this up later today with a Flashback Friday about the fall television season, so get ready for a blast from the past!

Luckily, I’d at least placed the teams in standings I’d considered prior to the first puck drop, so we’re keeping my preview the same, as if I didn’t know how poorly certain teams (cough…Anaheim) are doing, or how surprisingly well (hey, look at Lee Stempniak!)

Look below to check out what I thought about the 2015-2016 NHL season way back when leaves were still on trees:

I’ve never hidden my unabashed love for the great sport of hockey. There’s just something wonderful about hunkering down in a freezing arena in the dead of winter and watching incredibly tough guys swing pieces of wood at a tiny piece of black plastic while balancing precariously on thin sharp knives that guide them around 200 feet of ice.

Simply put, this is the most ridiculous of the four major North American sports, and it never fails to impress me that the athleticism is off the charts. The NHL are celebrating their 99th season (minus one or so for strikes) tonight, and it’s that time to predict how everything will play out. So:

Metropolitan Division

2015flyerspenguins
Steve Mason poses for the camera.

1) Pittsburgh Penguins

The Washington Capitals were perfect in the pre-season, 5-0, but from the NFL we all know how that plays out. While the nation’s capital will have plenty to cheer about, the Penguins still have the best player in the league, simply put. Sidney Crosby, when healthy, is unstoppable. Evgeni Malkin is beginning to show his age, and there were rumors of a trade to San Jose, but he’s firmly ensconced in the Steel City for a few more years, so he’ll want to make sure he wins another Cup there. Not only that, but a change of scenery for Toronto goat Phil Kessel could potentially reap rewards throughout the season, especially if he has amazing chemistry with those two and linemates Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang. Defense has lost a great stalwart in Paul Martin (who DID go to San Jose), but they still have some youth on their side with Olli Maata and Ben Lovejoy. Unless one of the other teams in this division pulls a Nashville and surprisingly leaps, Pittsburgh should still have this division in the bag, at least for one more year. (Later: Pittsburgh is doing fine, above-.500 hockey, but apparently some of the players are on thin ice emotionally).

2) Washington Capitals

Alex Ovechkin has plenty of chips on both shoulders after a decade of futility. He’s easily the best hockey player in the world not nicknamed Crybaby (could you imagine anyone saying a nickname like that to Ovi?) and his team got a big boost with the addition of American hero T.J. Oshie and the smart configuring of keeping the likes of Evgeni Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky and…Brooks Laich. This team will be both be plenty patriotic and plenty Russian, but that doesn’t make a team. Ovechkin will undoubtedly be the highest scoring Russian in the NHL someday, but that isn’t enough to keep your team from ever making it to the highest level of the playoffs. They finally have an elite goalie in Braden Holtby after the carousel of the past six years, so they’ll be pretty solid there. With the parity of today’s NHL and the quality of their divisional rivals, Washington will certainly have an easy time rising towards the top. But will it be enough to take the crown? We’ll see towards the end, but my money says no at this point in time. (Later: Washington is holding its own in second place behind the Rangers, and Ovechkin just became the highest scoring Russian NHL player.)

3) New York Rangers

Yes, I just chose the Capitals for second place in the division and then proceeded to claim they may not even do well this year. Most of that is for the playoffs, however, as I think a great goalie will contend a team’s way towards the top, and an elite scorer will bring them over the edge. The real battle for the Metropolitan is between the Penguins, the Capitals and the New York Rangers. The Islanders may make a good run, but that doesn’t mean a division title. I think the Rangers still have the right pieces to be great, if not best. The only reason for their third-place finish will be for the lack of an elite scorer. Rick Nash has been phenomenal since leaving Columbus (even with a rusty 2013) and he’ll be effective enough, but he’ll need contributions from his entire team to get them to rise above the rest – Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello. The thing that worries me is that many young players have been thrust into important roles, such as Kevin Hayes on the second line. JT Miller and Oscar Lindberg are also in higher positions than previously. We’ll see how they do this first week, but I think it won’t be as great as the higher two teams. Certainly Henrik Lunqvist will have a marvelous season again, and should be able to at the very least get this team back into the playoffs. (Later: The Rangers are off to a hot start, leading the Metro and while not all perfect, the team is still in as great a shape as they left off last season.)

4) New York Islanders

In the first season in their new home, I expect great things. The Islanders were more primed than the Nets were when they moved to Brooklyn, and it only took one season for Brook Lopez to lead that team into the playoffs. John Tavares is already a superstar in the NHL, so I expect him to want to prove his place among the elite, especially with grudges aimed squarely at Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. The two postseason series Tavares has experienced ended in heartbreak at the hand of his elder contemporaries, and there’s a lot to prove here besides just Tavares’ worth. Grant Snow has moved a team out of the heart of a neighborhood it won four straight Stanley Cups in, much farther down Long Island than exit 25 on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. With Tavares will be surprisingly good backstopper Jaroslav Halak, who was cast aside by three teams in a month (St Louis-Buffalo-Washington) before landing here. Snow has compiled a nice group of defensively minded scorers in Josh Bailey, Anders Lee, Kyle Okposo, Ryan Strome and Frans Nielsen. He also pulled off the coup of the summer in 2014 when he snaked away Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk. I expect great things from this team in the future, but with experience comes that quality. For now the veterans will take this division and duke it out in much smaller spurts come April. (Later: Brooklyn may not be the best commute for the Long Island inhabitants – they stayed in their homes near Nassau – but the team is still in the thick of the race for the Metro lead. Travis Hamonic inexplicably wants out to go home to Western Canada, but other than that, the kids are alright again.)

5) Columbus Blue Jackets

This is tough to swallow for Ohio hockey fans, but the division is still a bit rigid. 2016 may be the first best chance for Columbus to find its way to the top of the division after a decade of futility. Losing Nash was hard, but the team rebuilt well with players like Nick Foligno and Ryan Johansen leading the charge. On top of finding their identity, the Blue Jackets were planning on winning the division last year when they ended up losing over 500 man hours to injury. Sometimes you can use the excuse of injury as a way to shadow a larger problem, but for once, Columbus 2014-2015 had the proof. They were absolutely devastated by it, and this year should find a team no longer brittle and more than prepared to take on those teams that have looked down on them their whole existence. Really, this division will be tight either way, but from this point I see a fifth place finish. (Later: Surprisingly, the team is bad even without a plague of injuries. Maybe things will just never click in Ohio for hockey.)

6) New Jersey Devils

The Devils just aren’t great anymore, I hate to say it. To have them this high in the division actually says a lot more about the Hurricanes and Flyers, but the team has surprised in the strangest of seasons (though way back in 1987 when they started getting good). This is the other side of the waning sun that was the Devils’ dynasty, and it has shown badly over the past three years. As veterans such as Martin Brodeur, Jamie Langenbrunner, Jason Arnott and Brian Rolston limped towards retirement, the team attempted to affix bandages named Ilya Kovalchuk, Jaromir Jagr and now, finally, Michael Cammalleri on the bleeding offense. Once Kovalchuk abandoned ship for the KHL, it was easily apparent that the team wouldn’t be righted anytime soon. It’s been fun to watch them scramble and achieve some very plucky wins, it’s safe to say that the only quality players left are Cammalleri and goaltender Cory Schneider. I can see the pieces there (Eric Gelinas, Adam Larsson, Reid Boucher and Damon Severson) to build around and contend within a year or so, and they’ll all be tested this year, but I don’t see a surprise run or anything. Not when I’ve never even heard of your third-line center (Sergey Kalinin). (Later: I went to a San Jose-New Jersey game a week into the season and had Kalinin sign my magnet calendar, so I  know who he is now. Oh, and the team is firing on all cylinders and above .500, beating teams like Pittsburgh, Vancouver and Stanley Cup-defending Chicago twice. They’re this year’s Flames so far.)

7) Carolina Hurricanes

I briefly considered lifting Carolina above New Jersey, but the team has plugged some holes and look much better than they actually are. Much like the Devils, in fact, the team has third-line players playing on top lines. The Staal brothers and Jeff Skinner are joined by Kris Versteeg, journeyman James Wisniewski and backup goaltender Eddie Lack in their quest for excellence. Lack will really only be there in case old man Cam Ward realizes he’s too haggard to play anymore. The team was a bit out of options, so I like this as a plan for the future. Unfortunately, Lack may not be an elite goaltender, but more like a fixture to allow teams to think they’ll actually contend. (Later: While the Hurricanes are predictably low in the standings, they aren’t all that terrible. With the Blue Jackets floundering and the Flyers technically worse, there’s still breathing room for a nice run before the ‘Canes ship off stalwart Eric Staal to greener pastures.)

8) Philadelphia Flyers

Maybe it’s wishful thinking for my least favorite professional sports team, but the Flyers are kind of awful. GM Ron Hextall is doing all in his power to revamp the core of this team behind Claude Giroux, but it will likely be another season. Goalie Steve Mason is wildly inconsistent, and the defense is paltry, with Nick Schultz, Michael Del Zotto and old man Mark Streit. Even Andrew MacDonald even being waived earlier this week after only his first year of a massive six year contract. Many of the bad moves were made by a previous regime, and Hextall is doing some pretty impressive things, but he may call it again after a month of inadequacy like he did in 2014. I do think that the core will be built around Giroux and Jakub Voracek, but I can’t seeing any of the other players being much more impressive. (Later: When your GM calls for the team to take credit for such a poor turnout, it’s apparent that your team is getting worse before it gets better. Last year’s first-half wunderkind Jakub Voracek has yet to score, which is funny because I’ve missed as many goal opportunities as he has, except in this case, it was because I was doing my job. Claude Giroux is putting on a good face because he truly loves playing for Philly, but it’s the same look I saw when Hartnell knew the end might be coming soon and on Mike Richards/Jeff Carter after they knew the 2010 Cup was their best chance at winning with Philly. Luckily they won with Flyers West, the LA Kings.)

 

Atlantic Division

Anton Stralman, Ben Bishop, Brad Marchand
Bishop to Bolt 6. Checkmate!

1) Tampa Bay Lightning

Steven Stamkos’ contract year? A blossoming franchise goalie in Ben Bishop? The triplet trio of forwards – Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson set to lead the league in scoring? A defense bolstered by veterans like Anton Stralman and Victor Hedman? This team is going to blow the NHL up, and do it with flash and style. Jon Cooper has a good bunch here, and they’re hungry to prove that all that kept them from winning the Cup last summer was that little extra bit of steam. Certainly they can find some down in Florida. (Later: Tampa has fallen down to earth in a similar way LA did last season. I wouldn’t take it to heart, the Triplets seem to have bitten the injury bug, so I’d chalk it up to that and higher expectations than normal. I fully expect them to round back into form and find themselves just in time to make the playoffs.)

2) Montreal Canadiens

Now that Max Pacioretty has been named captain, will the second straight American finally lead the Canadiens back to victory? With a team that seems on paper ready to prove themselves, I think this team can go further than most expect. They’ve had the experience of losing, so they know how to overcome it. Their rivals are faltering a bit, and the biggest team in their way is Tampa Bay. As long as players like P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov and Carey Price can continue being the best they are at their positions, the Habs will find themselves entering this century with their 25th championship, a quarter of the total. (Later: Not only did they start off well, the team won 9 straight games to set a franchise record before Price found himself injured for a month. Since then, backup Mike Condon played fine mostly, going 5-4 through 11/19. Price returns this weekend against the Islanders, so I’m sure while the rust will sting a bit, he’ll backstop the Habs back into the stratosphere.)

3) Ottawa Senators

My guess is that surprise of the season goalie Andrew Hammond wasn’t a one-hit wonder. The Senators are a young team like the Lightning and have a lot to prove. They enjoyed their magical run to the playoffs and plan on repeating that spark behind Hammond or Craig Anderson, with Mark Stone and Bobby Ryan leading the way. I won’t be surprised that if Montreal handles Tampa, that they won’t find an even more formidable opponent in Ottawa. (Later: Ottawa is holding their own in the Atlantic in second place, similar to Washington over in the Metro. Hammond has indeed relinquished control back over the Anderson, but they’ve both played well, so the veteran should be spelled by last season’s hero plenty.)

4) Detroit Red Wings

Could this be the season that the longest postseason streak in sports ends? It certainly looks like it’s possible this season with injuries already starting to rack up – Pavel Datsyuk won’t return until November, and captain Henrik Zetterberg is already showing signs of wear and tear. This is the time for the next generation to step up, with Justin Abdelkader, Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Riley Sheahan ready to shine. Hmmm…maybe this streak will continue. With the teams I’ve already mentioned though, I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes the full 82 games to find out that answer. (Later: Abdelkader signed a huge contract, so he’ll make money longer than we care about him. Datsyuk came back and is fine. Petr Mrazek didn’t outright steal the goalie job from Jimmy Howard, as they’ve played 11 and 9 games respectively. I imagine the job will be his in 2016-2017, especially if the streak does continue. Howard, happily, retains a job.)

5) Florida Panthers

Jagr’s mullet is coming back. Repeat, this is not a drill. Jaromir Jagr is bringing his early career hair style back from the dead….much like his career…ah, I see what you did there, pal. You’re bored in Florida, I get it. I can see you spilling another 20 goals into the net and teaching kids like Aaron Ekblad everything you know. I can see you waving the entire season off as beneath you, like some backstabbing money-hungry people you might know. I mean, he just doesn’t care about much anymore, except being the best player on the ice. So let’s see if that translates into a playoff spot, shall we? (Later: The Cats are doing fine, hovering around .500 after Jagr went on IR for a few games. Interestingly, they seem to win when the guy is on the ice, so maybe there’s something to say for having a living legend play on your team. The kids on the team look like last year’s Senators, though, so this division race should be super interesting come March and April.)

6) Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs simply can’t be as bad as they were last year. They won’t have a month of David Clarkson missing. They won’t have a goalie controversy – they firmly split time between James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier – it’s just the way it’s always been and shall be. Now, will the team fix their other on-ice problems, like scoring? I don’t see them really reaching the playoffs this season, but they should at least not tank as badly as they did last year. (Later: They’re tanking worse, I was completely wrong. Not only are they just plain awful, but it’s like they pissed off the hockey gods by being nice to Nathan Horton and giving him a nice payment plan for his back. I just don’t know if we’ll ever see Toronto win again. Then again, the Red Sox won, the Royals won, the Blue Jays made the playoffs again. Hmm…I sense a theme…stop watching hockey Maple Leafs fans. Be glad Josh Donaldson MVPed his way into Toronto history and might lead the Blue Jays to another World Series in 2016. It’s really all you have to look foward to.)

7) Buffalo Sabres

Like I’ll point out with the Oilers later, you’ll notice a big addition to the Sabres this season: Jack Eichel. The bridesmaid of the 2015 draft, Eichel is a great hockey player in his own right. The kid can score almost as much as Connor McDavid, but he also seems to have a slightly more mature sensibility. He’s also coming into a team that has a more immediate plan for improvement. While the Oilers have stabbed at the draft the past seven years for number-one picks, the Sabres grabbed Evander Kane, Cody Hodgson, David Legwand, Zach Bogosian, Chad Johnson and Robin Lehner to fully overhaul the terrible team they put on the ice last year. In addition, the team is hopeful that Ryan O’Reilly will rediscover his penchant for scoring that worked so well in Colorado. His sizable contract says they expect him to do just that. (Later: Buffalo is indeed towards the bottom of the standings, but they’re not out yet. I don’t see them making the playoffs, but they’re a few cogs away from clicking.)

8) Boston Bruins

I’m taking a big gamble here placing the Bruins at the bottom of their division. But if you watched their draft this past June, you’d know why. The 13th, 14th and 15th picks won’t play in the NHL any time soon, and if my hunch is right, one or two may never really get there. The Bruins dug themselves a hole, but not as badly as they would have had they kept Dougie Hamilton, who has gotten off to an abysmal start in Calgary. Besides this, Rask is certainly beginning to show his age and Zdeno Chara is obviously a season or two away from retirement. It’s the beginning of the end of the short-lived 2010s Boston Bruins dynasty, fans. (Later: Boston is not fading as much as I thought they would, but every game brings a new article spelling doom and gloom. I won’t be surprised if they at the very least miss the playoffs by a game or two. That might actually be worse than bottoming out.)

 

Central Division

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1) Minnesota Wild

This is Zach Parise’s year. I’m sure of it. He and best buddy Ryan Suter teamed up a few years ago to make sure the world knew they wanted to win together, in Minnesota. Here they are leading the scoring in front of revitalized back-up turned phenom Devan Dubnyk. As this seems to be the strongest division, it’s hard to pick which team will storm to the front – but I have a hunch this is Minnesota’s season to reclaim the division for the first time since 2008. Plus looking at their history, they seem to be great once every 3 years or so. (Later: A fourth place spot would seem middling, but their record is 10-5-3. A great start does not mean much in the Central Division, as the teams are the best caliber in the NHL. I’m sure the Wild will end with a great record, and in my opinion, one of the playoff spots, but it’s actually kind of a toss-up with this division.)

2) St. Louis Blues

The Blues keep getting better, and they keep getting younger. Colton Parayko is coming into the team, and they still have the core of Vladimir Tarasenko, Paul Statsny, Alex Pietrangelo and Jaden Schwartz. Trading American hero TJ Oshie won’t slow the team down, but they still have that nagging playoff monkey to get off their back. The team can’t seem to find their way into the second round since their newfound quality. If they can’t get it done this season, look for a massive overhaul to figure out what will finally click in 2017. (Later: The Blues are indeed rolling along in the NHL’s toughest division, sitting comfortably in second place. There’s a slight gap between them and the first place team, but they have enough time to figure out any issues. They should slide right into the postseason. Obviously that first round will be the biggest test.)

3) Nashville Predators

A hot ride through the middle of last season led the Preds to come back from the basement of the Central and land the second spot. The revival of Mike Ribeiro was a big part of that – can he lead the team to another great start? Will Pekka Rinne stay in Vezina-caliber shape? Will younger players like Seth Jones step up and transition into leadership as Shea Weber lets go of the only place he’s called home? I’m going to be very fascinated by the stories that play out this season, and I think they’ll land right in this third spot when all is said and done. (Later: Sure enough, right now the Preds are in the third spot, and holding steady. They’ve played less games than the rest of their division rivals, but have the fewest losses (3-3) in 17 games. Here’s to seeing if they stay in this spot.)

4) Dallas Stars

Last year the Stars showed they were no longer green. Well, they were definitely greener, but their play showed how mature the team was becoming under GM Jim Nill. Former Cup winner Tyler Seguin helped lead the team by hammering home goals alongside Art Ross winner Jamie Benn (most points in 2014). I’m certain the Benn-Seguin line will continue to produce for as long as the two are in peak physical form, so fantasy owners should look to Dallas to get some more sneaky points this season. As for the rest of the team, Antti Niemi slinks over from San Jose where he never commanded quite as good a performance as he did when winning the Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010. He’ll split time with Kari Lehtonen, a veteran netminder who should continue to spell plenty of wins. I’m thinking they’ll at least get back into the playoffs, but they would steal the division if it wasn’t the most difficult. (Later: Surprise – Dallas has managed to pull to the top of not only the division, but the conference. Not only that, but it’s by a large margin. If their 16-4-0 record holds through the rest of the season, they’ll be looking at a potential President’s Trophy. Of course, that doesn’t mean much, as only 8 of the 29 winning teams have won since the trophy’s inception. Weirdly enough, they won most of the time before that.)

5) Chicago Blackhawks

And you all thought I was crazy for putting the Bruins in last place in the Atlantic Division! Much like last year’s champions who fell out of the playoffs (the Kings, it was wonderful), Chicago is primed for a fall. Trading away Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad, while losing Johnny Oduya, Brad Richards and Antoine Vermette might find the reigning champs slipping in the standings. I won’t be surprised, but the team is plucky and as long as certain star players avoid outside turmoil – see Patrick Kane – then I think the team could be in, albeit on the edge. (Later: Kane dodged the bad press and is currently on the hottest streak of his career. While Oduya and Sharp are helping the Stars to a renaissance, the Blackhawks are holding their own in…oh wait, fifth place. This division is insane, with the sixth place team at .500. It’s going to be painful to watch if one or two teams fall out just because all the good ones are in Central).

6) Winnipeg Jets

I’m not saying the Jets’ better play was a fluke last year. I fully expect the team to have a winning record. It just might not translate to a playoff spot, unfortunately, as the Central will continue to be the pride of the NHL. The team has really fallen into better form the past three years and the newest hometown has something to cheer for on the ice. Dustin Byfuglien may be playing the last of his time with a plane on his jersey, but he’ll probably be one of the better defensemen in Western Canada. Ondrej Pavalec may not play as well as he did in 2014, but he’ll at least be adequate. That’s likely the biggest reason for their lower position. (Later: Sure enough, Winnipeg is in sixth, albeit at .500. They’re as good as in if they were still in the East as the Thrashers, but it’s even more impressive because they’ve been playing their Central Rivals. I personally saw them get walloped by a fire-hot Montreal team in Montreal. That team I saw was still holding their own, and I truly believe with a good string of wins the team could ride their way to the top.)

7) Colorado Avalanche

A team not finding themselves anywhere near the top? The Colorado Avalanche. Sure, the team has decent leaders in Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog….but that’s about it. Semyon Varlamov’s play has slowed as of late, and he’s not going to be able to help the porous defense. Patrick Roy has his job cut out for him, and he’ll likely be kicked out quicker than his exit from Montreal, should the team truly stink by February. (Later: My predictions held true, and the team is likely headed for the basement. What the team needs is likely a high first-round pick, even a number one pick. Auston Matthews would look pretty good in purple, I’m guessing. I’ve never seen him.)

 

Pacific Division

NHL: Arizona Coyotes at Anaheim Ducks
Of clear mind, the Arizona rookie Duclair won’t be hampered by Lindholm.

1) Anaheim Ducks

This is the team most thought should win the cup. (Full disclosure, they were my pick for the champs last year, over the Rangers. In fact, those were the two best teams in each conference). With a chip on their shoulder after not making it to the Cup since 2007, the team is likely hungry for another championship. The young core is joined by veteran Kevin Bieska, who will hopefully be the key they needed after James Wisniewski didn’t quite do it for them in 2014-15. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Ducks win their second Cup after this year. (Later: Boy am I wrong. The team is having one of the worst starts in franchise history, as they’ve gone 7-9-4 to date, and that’s an improvement since October. Getzlaf has barely played due to an appendix problem, and the top line has not come close to producing. I’m looking at them missing the playoffs.)

2) Calgary Flames

Much like their Canadian neighbors in Winnipeg, Calgary was not a fluke. They’re led by up and coming stars in Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau, and helped by veterans Karri Ramo and Mark Giordano. With the addition of Dougie Hamilton, the defense should be one that other teams envy. The only thing holding them to the second spot is Anaheim’s fabulous offense. (Later: Well, I’m messing up the Pacific division pretty badly. Sure, the whole group of teams is awful, and anyone could really win this division, but Calgary is especially sad. Giordano and linemate Dennis Wideman have abysmal +/- ratings and Ramo looks like he had a fluke season. Hamilton looked like he was jumping ship when leaving Boston, and Calgary should have turned out better for the trade. Instead, he looks like the opposite of Tyler Seguin’s result – where Tyler has flourished in Texas, Dougie looks like he’s lost all ability to be a forward thinking defenseman. He may be done already after this season.)

3) San Jose Sharks

My beloved Sharks will likely never win in my lifetime: thus the sentiment from San Jose fans. I really hold it to be true, because franchise players such as Patrick Marleau just can’t seem to get it done. Sure, they’ve bolstered the squad with Joel Ward and Paul Martin, but will that be enough? I’m sure it’ll have been a fluke that the team missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade, but it really won’t make any difference. I’m a nihilist when it comes to the team with the sharpest logo in sports. They simply won’t have enough to get a Cup. (Later: Well, they started strong. Joel Ward indeed has helped the offense. Paul Martin got banged up but has helped young Mirco Mueller come back into form. Management want Marleau out of town finally, but for all the supposed issues, the team is hovering above .500. In the weakest division in the league, that’ll probably be enough to get in still. I just don’t want to hope for a championship or I’ll be disappointed yet again.)

4) Los Angeles Kings

After slipping out of the playoffs a year removed from winning the Stanley Cup, the Kings are hungry to get back in and prove 2014-15 was only a fluke. With one of the elite goalies in the NHL in Jonathan Quick, and some of the top shooting scorers in the league – Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter – the team should climb back into a spot. If the Central commands the West, that might be the only reason the Kings fail to make the playoffs. I see at least a wild card spot for the team. Remember, they won two Cups from low seeds. (Later: The whole division is awful, so it was really easy for the Kings to climb out of an early hole and take over the Pacific. I’m sure the team will dominate this division easily. Unfortunately.)

5) Edmonton Oilers

This year is all about wunderkind Connor McDavid. He is the second coming of Wayne Gretzky, obviously. Well, I’m sure the kid will do well, but the team is still kind of awful. Andrej Sekera is the only name on a blue-line that really has no big names. The kids that have come before McDavid are not nearly as good, so they’ll only look good playing around him. The team simply needs more to win a Cup. For now they can leap frog the backsliding Canucks and bottom-feeding Coyotes, perhaps finally to a playoff spot for the first time since losing the Cup in 2006. (Later: Well, I didn’t see a broken clavicle in Connor McDavid’s future. This injury will certainly hurt the team’s immediate future, but it surely won’t hamper them as they continue to rebuild around the young phenom. The Oilers are actually only 6-12-1 which is sadly better than recent years, so a quick turnaround won’t be too surprising with a more mature squad in time for McDavid’s return later this season. Maybe they’ll surprise for the second half. Or maybe they’ll purposefully tank again and get Auston Matthews to wear orange instead of purple).

6) Vancouver Canucks

The Sedin twins are done. Radim Vrbata is exciting and all, but he’s getting too old. Ryan Miller is over the hill as well. Simply put, Vancouver is aging out of the top of the league’s elite. I think they have one last burst of life in them, but it will perhaps be too difficult to stay up alongside teams like the Kings, Sharks, Ducks and Flames. We’ll see by the midway point whether this team is pretending or truly having one last go of it. (Later: At 7-7-6, the team is fine. With a division this putrid, it’ll be fairly easy to go on a good run in January and take a playoff spot.)

7) Arizona Coyotes

Unfortunately for the Desert Dogs, the team is likely to fall to the bottom of the pile once again. This doesn’t bode well for their housing situations, but that’s for another discussion. I see good things coming from youngsters like Max Domi and Anthony Duclair, but I’m not sure they’ll play until later in the season when Arizona finally wants to test them out. Surely their season will be over by then. (Later: Arizona has in fact played much better than expected, putting Domi and Duclair out there right away to lead rookies with their stellar play. With McDavid out for an extended period, look for Domi to run away with the Calder talk. The team is sitting on a decent 10-8-1 start in the league’s worst division, so a return to the playoffs isn’t as much of a question as I was led to believe, especially with surprisingly bad outputs from Anaheim and Calgary.)

 

Pressed for time, I’m going to say the playoffs go like this (I’ll have the playoffs go with the standings I wrote up above):

stanleycup

St. Louis vs. Nashville – The Blues finally eke out a series win in this century while knocking out the Predators early on in 5. The battle between Music cities will be intense, but Jake Allen shuts Nashville out twice.

Calgary vs. San Jose – San Jose is aging, and Calgary is on the way up. Johnny Gaudreau will single-handedly prove that Martin Jones was not the goaltender of the Sharks’ future, despite surprising everyone with his playing the team into the playoffs.

Minnesota vs. Dallas – Dallas may have the shooters to get themselves into the playoffs, but this is the Wild’s year. Parise and Suter will make sure the Stars forget they moved south. Should be a big crowd draw.

Anaheim vs. Chicago – The Ducks will hunger for this rematch of last season’s Western Conference finals. With the team depleted, the reigning champs won’t hold onto their Cup. Anaheim moves forward.

Montreal vs. Ottawa – When drafting the teams into these imaginary playoffs, I didn’t realize I had virtually the same matchups as last season’s. Montreal should handle Ottawa this year with even more aplomb.

Washington vs. New York Rangers – These teams have faced each other pretty much constantly in the playoffs the past decade, and if this happens this year, I’m feeling like the Capitals might get it done this time. Hunch in the moment.

Tampa Bay vs. Detroit – Tampa Bay has been on fire since Steven Stamkos came back from his injury. With no contract in sight, the team will want to win while he’s still in Florida. Detroit has a new generation rising, but they won’t match up to the Terrible Trio and Ben Bishop’s backstop.

Pittsburgh vs. New York Islanders – Crosby and Malkin have been around the block before against this team, and lost last year to them. The in-fighting may get the better of them for the last time as I predict the team will be imploded in the offseason. This coming especially after they lose in hipster territory during round one.

Anaheim vs. Calgary – Calgary is young and hungry, but Anaheim is better put together. I foresee the Ducks will want to make it to their second straight Conference Final.

Minnesota vs. St. Louis – Well, the Blues made it into the second round. They won’t make it to third. Devan Dubnyk has proven himself to be the goalie of the future for the Wild, and the future is now.

Washington vs. New York Islanders – The Capitals will want to make up for last season by hammering the Brooklyn youngsters. Ovechkin will get himself into the Eastern Conference Finals if he wants to!

Tampa Bay vs. Montreal – Another re-match of last year, Montreal will want to make up for lost chances and show Stamkos his way back to Florida. With a tighter-knit group of players, the team will find its way to the Conference Finals.

Anaheim vs. Minnesota – I may have predicted this last year, but mostly because I want a re-match of 2003’s Western Conference Finals. For some reason, I love these two teams playing each other. This time, though, I predict Parise will get the Wild into the Finals for the first time.

Washington vs. Montreal – The defense and goalie will be too much for Russia’s most prolific NHL player. Ovechkin will crumble like the Berlin Wall and ask for a trade out of the nation’s capital during summer 2016. I predict this to be the match of the playoffs, and it’ll go to seven games.

Minnesota vs. Montreal – This seems like a fun match-up, and I can see it going a full seven with two great goalies. It’ll be similar to that 2003 Cup Final, which saw a total of 5 shutouts. Carey Price will get MVP though, as he leads the Canadiens to their 25th Championship. Parise will be hungry for the Cup after losing a second time in four years, so look for 2017 for his return…

MONTREAL CANADIENS – STANLEY CUP CHAMPS 2016

montrealwin

EDITOR’S NOTE: I wanted to have a basketball preview, but as I already missed the NHL one and a fall television season preview, I’m just going to let that fall by the wayside. Here’s to hoping jobs don’t get in the way of my hobby from now on!

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