That’s right, it’s time for the Interjections annual NHL preview. As games kick off tonight in Ottawa, Chicago, Edmonton and San Jose, I’m going to briefly take a look at each division and settle in on who will champion their locale. I am by no means an expert, but rather I’m predicting on what I saw towards the end of last year and how newcomers might affect their team leading into 2017. Here we go:
A lot of soothsayers have thrown their weight behind Steven Stamkos and his Tampa Bay Lightning capturing the magic they had two years ago when they fell to the Chicago Blackhawks, so much so to say that the Bolts will win it all. I think they may make the playoffs, but I have this nagging sense that tells me they will regress. Plus the Florida Panthers are on the rise, despite losing left wing Jonathan Huberdeau on Saturday with a lacerated left leg. The Montreal Canadiens are due for a rebound, though if Carey Price doesn’t live up to 2014’s peak performance, he won’t have PK Subban there to save him. I feel that Ottawa and Toronto both have something to prove, especially the latter, with three young men (William Nylander, Mitch Marner and 2016 first pick Auston Matthews) expected to bear the brunt of the team’s future success. They’ll have to see if Frederik Andersen is worthy of his five-year contract first, but if they can get to scoring, they might have improved everything in one swift offseason. Ottawa, on the other hand, already has their young core formed (Bobby Ryan, Mark Stone, Andrew Hammond) and nabbed Chris Kelly from the Bruins and Derick Brassard from the Rangers for depth. With Guy Boucher behind the bench, they have a lot to live up to, especially in a weaking division. Speaking of weak, is this the year that Detroit finally falters and misses the playoffs for the first time in nearly three decades? Minus Pavel Datsyuk, and with an aging roster, the team will sorely miss the days of Nick Lidstrom and Chris Chelios. Throw in a semi-controversy in net, and you have yourselves the makings of the quietest April in Detroit in some time.
I was set to have Buffalo rise even higher, even close to sneaking a playoff spot, but as I wrote this, Jack Eichel went down with a nasty ankle sprain. I’m not saying that the team goes as Eichel goes, but they are setting it up a bit in that fashion. The nature of the game today is get your wunderkind (Stamkos, McDavid, Matthews) and then build the team around them. Any time one of the great kids goes down, we all hold our breath. As it looks now, there’s another year before any sports fan in Buffalo has something to root for. Luckily, they’re not Boston – who I pegged for freefall last year (and actually got right! Sort of.) I had the Bruins at the bottom of the division then, as they had whiffed during that summer’s draft and picked up nobodies, who as of this writing have done nothing to make anyone think ‘improvement in Beantown’. I’m looking at another early exit, closer to what I thought last October. This all comes down to the decline of Tuukka Rask, amidst the aging and dismissing of key players like Chris Kelly, David Krejci and Zdeno Chara. They’re even more unlikely than Detroit to flip the odds on aged stars – while Detroit at least added in Frans Nielsen (not saying much), the Bruins only added David Backes, and to a questionable four year contract at that. Get ready for some downtime in Beantown.
Standings: Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins
With Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin still in peak form, most pundits are predicting a top two finish for the division’s star players and their teams with the Stanley Cup defending Pittsburgh Penguins sitting pretty with a high points spread above their heavy rival Washington Capitals. Beyond that, a Yandle-less New York Rangers that must justify sending Derick Brassard up to Ottawa for Mika Zibanejad (and pissing off friend Mats Zuccarello in the process) as well as retaining a fading star in Rick Nash. Henrik Lundqvist may still have the net on lockdown, moreso than the battle in Pittsburgh (with the veteran Marc-Andre Fleury attempting to steal back his job from the injured playoff star Matt Murray). The goalies that will shine in this division, however, will likely be Washington’s own Braden Holtby and New Jersey’s Conn Smythe hopeful Cory Schneider. The latter’s team is slightly improved with embittered Taylor Hall being dumped by Edmonton in exchange for Russian defenseman Adam Larsson. It’s a new era for New Jersey, as the stars are Adam Henrique, Mike Cammalleri and Kyle Palmieri. Will they live up to their minimal potential and snag a lower-end postseason berth?
Or is it the Philadelphia Flyers’ turn, with Claude Giroux being joined by up-and-coming stars like Sean Couturier, Shayne Gostisbehere and Matt Read? Their goalie situation may be their undoing, but at least they’ll be far better than the hapless Columbus Blue Jackets – whose only improvement over the past two years has been to snag draft star Seth Jones from the Nashville Predators and Brandon Saad from the Chicago Blackhawks. It’s not like those teams needed the players, though, so perhaps they’re not too improved after all. Somehow I almost completely forgot about the New York Islanders, whose freefall will surprise the hockey world, but with the hockey controversy over frequent backup Thomas Greiss and 2015 stonewaller Jaroslav Halak, the Brooklyn team will long for their days in Nassau County. Andrew Ladd is no Kyle Okposo, and John Tavares will have too much on his plate as surprise stars Anders Lee, Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy will find themselves regressing just enough to slip below even the Blue Jackets. Of course they won’t be as embarassing as the Carolina Hurricanes, who will somehow find themselves yet again on the short end of history with an aging goaltender and a fresh core of youngsters on their roster.
Standings: Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes
With the inclusion of the star defenseman PK Subban, Nashville has traded their longest serving captain Shea Weber for a younger, swifter, higher scoring version of him. Subban also brings with him a ton of loyalty, so look for the fans to be excited for the first time as the Preds lift up a Western Conference banner on top of his MVP arms. It won’t be a shock to see Chicago take a step back after years of greatness, even if it’s only a step back to second. They’re bringing back old friends (Brian Campbell) and…that’s it. Sure, the core group of Jonathan Towes, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith and Patrick Kane are all still in their peak, but that doesn’t mean perfection. I think they’ll slip just enough to allow a new contender to steal their crown. Meanwhile, St. Louis will get in on the action, and attempt to give Ken Hitchcock one last run at the Cup. While they sent Backes to Boston, they replaced him with Nail Yakupov. It’s a slightly younger upgrade, and the team is still hungry for glory. I think the excitement about one more run for Hitch will get the team’s motors running.
Dallas, while built for the postseason, will still struggle down the stretch. I’d say it’s safe to say it’s a toss-up between them and Minnesota, and it comes down to goaltending. Antti Niemi is no longer effective, while Kari Lehtonen is aging out of the position and game. I’ve seen bold predictions of a trade for Ben Bishop, but I think the team will give the tandem one last unfortunate chance. And heck, they could always pick up Ondrej Pavelec as slightly effective insurance. I’ve seen stranger deals. Minnesota stayed mostly pat, like Chicago, effectively stuffing them below the quality teams in this division. Winnipeg will expect to improve and still stifle their chances under new management, coaching and players. The bright side is that, much like Buffalo, they have a superstar on the rise in the Patrik Laine, who could steal the Calder from Auston Matthews. Colorado looks like a mess, even worse than anything in the East. Expect them to dwell in the basement all season and eventually implode the team as they protect only Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog from Las Vegas’ expansion draft. They’ll also have Semyon Varlamov proving his relevancy, but I really only hope he’s decent enough to help my fantasy team.
Standings: Nashville Predators, Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Winnipeg Jets, Colorado Avalanche
San Jose has quite a bit to look forward to as they look to reach the summit of hockey once more. They lost in spectacular fashion to the Pittsburgh Penguins in April, and immediately set about improving their foibles. Mikkel Boedker is their biggest acquisition, serving to bolster their minimal scoring stamina and speed shown to be lacking against the swift Penguins. Calgary will likely be the most improved, as they snagged Brian Elliott away from a cushy job in St. Louis to finally get them back in postseason form. Look to see Johnny Gaudreau compete with Subban for MVP consideration. Los Angeles will surprise no one as they return to form after squandering their good will with two lackluster seasons. Quick will be one of the best yet again, and new captain Anze Kopitar will lead the next generation of So-Cal studs. Edmonton will also surprise no one when the official new Wayne Gretzky leads his Oilers to their first postseason in eleven years, ending the longest NHL drought (current and historical). Only the Bills and Mariners have longer droughts, so there’s a lot riding on how Connor McDavid acquiesces in his first full season in Alberta alongside newly acquired Adam Larsson, Milan Lucic and draft pick Jesse Puljujarvi. We’ll also look to see how the team fares minus Taylor Hall (NJ) and Nail Yakupov (St. Louis), although they still retain Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Arizona will struggle to make the postseason, hoping to add in one last run for Shane Doan before he wanders off into the desert sun, but it will be for naught as the youth movement behind Max Domi, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Anthony Duclair…as well as the youngest even GM in John Chayka. Honestly, I hope they do sneak in ahead of Los Angeles. After that, the Anaheim Ducks will fall flat on their beaks as they attempt to right the sinking ship they flew in on for the last half of the previou season. Ryan Getzlaf will have a career worst point total, while the goalie issue will not be fixed by John Gibson. Toronto not only traded to fix their own goalie curse, but handed it off to Anaheim for the next few years. However, Vancouver will be the worst of the worst. Before the Avalanche descend into sales, watch the Sedin twins split up for greater pastures in Florida (Daniel) and Tampa Bay (Henrik). It’ll be even better when they face off in the Stanley Cup, though I’m sure the fans in British Columbia won’t agree.
Standings: San Jose Sharks, Calgary Flames, Los Angeles Kings, Edmonton Oilers, Arizona Coyotes, Anaheim Ducks, Vancouver Canucks
Quickly, I’ll figure out how the postseason will go, all too early. In the first round, out East, we’ll see a healthy and fresh Florida Panthers take down the upstart Devils, while the President’s Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins will easily oust the youthful Maple Leafs. The Washington Capitals will strain their way through yet another matchup with the New York Rangers, their fifth in nine years. Montreal will have a tough time in their rematch with the Tampa Bay Lightning, as they do indeed make it through the gauntlet.
In the West, the conference winning Nashville Predators will get surprised by the Dallas Stars and fall as many other leading teams have in the past few years. Chicago and the St. Louis Blues will face off yet again, like a western version of the Rangers-Capitals. This time Hitchcock will get to the second round and briefly snuff a dynasty. Calgary will easily oust the Los Angeles Kings, while San Jose will have a tough time taking care of Connor McDavid, but ultimately stop the Oilers.
The second round will see yet another faceoff between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, but the Capitals will surprise this year and the improved defense and coaching will take care of the swift power play. Meanwhile the battle for Florida will conclude with the Cats on top of the Bolts.
The run for the Dallas Stars will be stopped as soon as they run afoul of a thirsty Blues team, while San Jose will unfortunately slip away in front of the only remaining Canadian team, the Calgary Flames.
The Eastern Conference will see the Washington Capitals take on their former Southern division rival Florida Panthers attempt to get Jaromir Jagr to one more Stanley Cup, but they’ll fall short as Alex Ovechkin reaches his first.
The St Louis Blues will indeed make it to the final round for Ken Hitchcock as Alex Pietrangelo proves why he was given the captaincy by snagging MVP, while Johnny Gaudreau heads home early.
With two teams that have never one a Stanley Cup facing off, who will win? I’m going to give the edge to Ovechkin, as he’s been waiting for this his whole career and has a lot to prove finally. The Blues will have to settle for getting their leader one last taste of glory.
So there you have it, I’ve once again chose the Washington Capitals.