Sure enough, we took a few more days to get around to this half of the NHL. No worries, though, I haven’t even had time to sleep, let alone look up the scores for any game. So let’s dive right into the Western Conference:
It’s their time, at long last. Born in Atlanta, and the second team to move from there to a western Canadian city, it’s time for the Winnipeg Jets to win the Stanley Cup. That’s at least what pundits from that area would have you believe, although I don’t hesitate to agree with them. There’s a lot to like on this squad, perhaps the best they’ve assembled in their short time in Manitoba and beforehand. Connor Hellebuyck is the crown jewel of the team, coming of a Vezina-caliber year, where he went 44-11-9 with a save percentage of .924. He dragged them forward up to the Western Conference Finals and an upstart in Vegas, but now they have the experience. Putting the loss behind them, veterans like Dustin Byfuglien, Blake Wheeler and Mathieu Perrault can hope the kids will be ready for another run. The younger class is sparkling, with Patrick Laine leading the way. Kyle Connor has breakout candidacy, while I wouldn’t discount role players like Brandon Tanev and Adam Lowry. This team is somehow the exact same as last year, unheard of when many teams have nearly half turnover in this day and age. I’d wager they hope to get to that final step and win, no?
St. Louis Blues
Taking another step forward this year will be the Blues, who despite posting 94 points was still unable to secure a playoff spot. That’s more to say about the division than the Blues, as they were even ahead of the Stars, who hope to return to the postseason as well. Shedding a lot of dead weight, St. Louis looks like a new team this season: acquiring Ryan O’Reilly, David Perron and Tyler Boak should more than make up for the loss of Tage Thompson, Patrick Berglund and Carter Hutton. Patrick Maroon turned a filler role on the Devils last year into a top line left wing spot. Does that translate into a lucky turn for Maroon, or proof that this team will actually regress? I’m thinking it’s the former, especially with all the rebound energy surrounding goalie Jake Allen. Steady backup Chad Johnson is there to spell him, so with more confidence, this team can go a long way.
Tyler Seguin has bought into the Dallas Stars, to the tune of eight years and $78.8 million. Have you? Not the money, just the buying in. The top line of Sequin, Jamie Benn and Alex Radulov would make any team envious, and beyond that trades for Blake Comeau and, in past years, Mattias Janmark and Jason Spezza have shored up a solid second line. Kids fill in the other two, and a line plucked from Toronto (Roman Polak and Connor Carrick) finish off the defense that’s headed up by John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen. With the goalie situation finally solved by Ben Bishop, they added one of the highest rated backups in the league, Anton Khubodin after his departure from Boston. I’m not saying this team is primed to break through after slipping just under the line last season, but I think they could steal this even from Winnipeg if the puck bounces their way.
I placed them here mostly because they’re so good. That makes sense, right? Nashville has been pretty elite for the past few seasons, making an appearance in the Cup Finals on Pittsburgh’s second straight Cup. It’s safe to assume, with familiar faces like Pekka Rinne (constant Vezina competitor), star defenseman PK Subban, top line contributors Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson that this team could handle things better than the rest of the league. On paper, they’re solid. One of my favorite acquisitions this off-season was their signing of fourth-line left wing Zac Rinaldo from the Arizona Coyotes, proving they think their depth can play alongside the best of them. If the Predators can stay healthy, they’re on the road back to success. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were the toughest division for a second year in a row.
That toughness means a bad break for Colorado here. If the four teams above them are as good as we expect, it’ll be tough to break back in again and swipe a playoff spot, even as thrilling as their last-week of the season wins were. Semyon Varlamov has a knack for clutch play, but he’s getting older and slightly less reliable. They nabbed Philipp Grubauer after he won a Stanley Cup backing up Holtby with the Capitals, so if Varlamov fades, they have a stellar replacement. It’s crazy that Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon have stuck with the team this long, while many thought they’d abandon ship when it started to sink. The teammates that joined them actually survived their own drops, whether from Buffalo (Nikita Zadorov) or Boston (Carl Soderberg) or Ottawa (Samuel Girard). Giving them a chance to start over might help the Avalanche continue to revitalize themselves too.
Someone has to fade, and my pick for this year is the Minnesota Wild. Having for years steadily made their way into the playoffs but never really going anywhere, they’re the epitome of mediocrity. Zach Parise has been hampered by injuries, while his close personal friend Ryan Suter has never been as good as he was in Nashville. Devan Dubnyk has been riding on his phenonmenal play from a few years ago, and though he has proven himself a worth netminder, there’s always regression lurking in the corners. The only improvements the team made this offseason were fourth liners Eric Fehr (San Jose) and Matt Hendricks (Winnipeg). They need to make a bigger splash like their division rivals if they’re going to think Stanley Cup.
What to say about the once great Chicago Blackhawks? Their time in the sun was cut inexplicably short and the downfall was rapid. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are still there, hoping for a rebirth of the vaunted legacy they’ve started in the Windy City. Two Cups aren’t enough for that pair, and while some of the role players (Marian Hossa, Artemi Panarin, Patrick Sharp) have retired or moved to other teams, there isn’t a total failure to fill in their roster spots. I’m a big fan of the effort Alex Debrincat brings to the team, he’ll be a star sooner than later. Artem Anisimov is the direct replacement for Panarin, and is overshadowed in many ways. Kid defenseman Henri Jokiharju is being thrown into the fire, but should help ease the eventual loss of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, as unfathomable as that is. Veterans like Marcus Kruger and Chris Kunitz fill in nicely, but more will be needed to prove they are a playoff worthy team. The biggest problem is that franchise goalie Corey Crawford has been out on IR with a concussion since December last season, and Cam Ward in a sunset season may not be enough to hold the net until he returns (slated for Oct 18 at this point). If Ward and backup Anton Forsberg can plug the holes, maybe this team isn’t in the basement. On the other hand, they may have already sunk.
San Jose Sharks
This may be the most excited I and other Sharks fans have been for the prospects of this year’s Sharks team. When they missed out on John Tavares at the break of free agency, the team spent the rest of the summer working out a deal to capture the true prize in top defenseman Erik Karlsson. While Brent Burns is perhaps the best blocker in the NHL, the Sharks just acquired his equal. With that brick wall in front of stand-up goalie Martin Jones, and many of the same scorers from the past few years (including 2016’s Cup run) they have a good chance to capitalize on the moment they have in front of them. This may be the last best chance for many of the Sharks to win a Cup, particularly ageless Jumbo Joe Thornton, who will play on the top line alongside Timo Meier and the other Karlsson, Melker. The late season acquisition of Evander Kane has sparked the team, and Kane is hungry for a Cup after tasting his first playoff game in April. Will this renewed sense of urgency translate into victory at last? They have the pieces, they just have to do the work.
Vegas Golden Knights
Speaking of the work, the Knights have it cut out for them this year, which can already be described as a sophomore slump. If you set the bar at the level this team did last year, it’s only natural to expect a regression. I personally don’t anticipate a return to the Finals, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Marc-Andre Fleury has a renewed sense of dominance, while breakout star and likely future captain William Karlsson will hope to repeat his impressive statistical performance. Naturally, several players departed the team in the aftermath of the loss to Washington, most notably James Neal (Calgary) and David Perron (St. Louis). They can salve those who are missing by absorbing newest players Nick Holden, Paul Stastny and my current favorite active player, Max Pacioretty. Looks like I’m rooting for Vegas to buck this sophomore slump, eh?
I don’t know why I can’t abide the Oilers, but something rubs me the wrong way. Perhaps it’s because after the incredible run through the ’80s, all I heard as a child was how amazing this franchise was…until they became the team with the longest drought in NHL history. Connor McDavid is the second coming of Wayne Gretzky (even after the now departed Taylor Hall and Nail Yakupov) even though every first-round pick has been dubbed as such. The goalie problem has been solved with Cam Talbot, and the whole team is virtually a first-round collection. Adam Larsson seemingly downgrades the blockbuster trade from a few years ago, but I think this year will be the year he stands out to prove neither side was imbalanced. Let the defense talk, and the offense open up – Milan Lucic’s disappearance into the lineup last year did no one any favors. If they can figure out how to score goals again, this could be an exciting team, for real.
Here we go, boys. Time to go all in and make it back to the playoffs. You have a great center in number three overall pick (in 2012) Alex Galchenyuk coming over from Montreal in a trade for Max Domi (who was becoming problematic, so a one-for-one swap isn’t out of the realm of a clear win for Arizona. Antti Raanta just needs to stay healthy, as he definitely knows the system in and out by now. Oliver Ekman-Larsson has taken over the captaincy now that we’re a year separated from the legacy of Shane Doan, so he can have a clear cut plan for making it to the postseason and beyond. My favorite addition to the team is former KHL defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin, who should bolster their blue line even further. This is going to be one of the most defense-minded teams, with veterans Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jason Demers backing up OEL, Lyubushkin and Kevin Connauton – all solid top-line d-men, in my opinion. Now they just need to get to shooting and scoring, but former Rangers Derek Stepan and Michael Grabner should help out Clayton Keller, Dylan Strome and the rest of the youth there. I peg this solid line-up for a fourth slot in the post-season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they rise higher.
Los Angeles Kings
Jonathan Quick is back, and won’t let the Kings backslide into history. If he stays healthy, this team could scare up a playoff spot. Helping in their journey back to relevance is another past-due player, Ilya Kovalchuk, returning from his exile in Siberia after breaking up with his beloved New Jersey Devils. With the game speeding up in his absence, will Kovy be able to contribute? It remains to be seen, but linemates Anze Kopitar and Alex Iafallo should keep his pace up. Can Drew Doughty transform a comeback year into solid defensive play? I’d say with veterans like Dion Phaneuf on his side, he may have to be the heart of the team. With Dustin Brown out with a broken finger, someone new may have to step up and will this team back to the playoffs. Any new injuries may stop this team’s run before it even gets going.
I’m not quite sure what to make of the Ducks this year – they’re in a bit of a transition period, as they had knock-out teams the last few years, but never truly put together a solid Cup run. Their veteran defense – Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson, Cam Fowler, Brandon Montour – makes them one of the most experienced defenses in the league, only to be joined by former Coyote Luke Schenn. After that, they have to hope Ryan Kesler and Ryan Getzlaf can stay healthy. Adam Henrique gets a full season look, and could shine on a line with Max Comtois and Jakob Silfverberg, so there’s a chance at quality. I just think they’re all middle of the road.
To be honest, I think Calgary is a shitshow this year and they’re not admitting it yet. Beyond his time goalie, Mike Smith, is on a shorter leash than ever before, including his time in Phoenix, and yet he ain’t getting any younger. I also sincerely believe management made a mistake bringing over James Neal on such a long and expensive deal. Good for Neal, but five years is a long time to stay relevant. His younger teammates – Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk – should shine, but with sub-par goaltending (the salve is someone named David Rittich) and a defense that is a tad inexperienced other than Noah Hanifin, we’re looking at a fade down the line. Rather, the flame may go out earlier than expected.
In what is clearly a rebuild year, the Canucks should have some underrated performances rise to the top. Jacob Markstrom is a fine goalie in a rough situation, so any win total over 20 and GAA below 3.00 should be a miracle. It’s Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser’s team now that the Sedin twins are retired, and they’re joined by fifth-overall pick from 2017 Elias Pettersson, who could be in Calder contention. The future is bright with those three, and we’ll get a taste of what it looks like now. Alex Edler, Loui Eriksson and Chris Tanev are joined by fellow veterans Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle (the only Cup-winner forward to leave Washington). I believe the Canucks could surprise, and a run of wins would get people talking Cinderella, but I don’t think they’ll maintain any semblance of consistency. It’s a preview for greater things come 2020.
At long last I’ve filled this in, and I sort of missed out on talking about the baseball Championship Series. Since I’m fucked as is, and want to save time, I’m going with Houston over Boston in 6, and Los Angeles over Milwaukee in 7, although I’d rather a Red Sox-Brewers World Series. Exciting, nonetheless.
As for my predictions for NHL playoffs, which I would have preferred to have in a separate article, I’ll go with this, if my personal standings hold:
1) Tampa Bay wins a divisional match over Boston, then has to face Toronto (who has ousted Buffalo in their return to the postseason). Washington ends up slipping early to an upstart Carolina team that has patched themselves together, but not enough to get past the second round where Columbus has shaken their Pittsburgh Penguin sized demon. In the Eastern Conference Finals, Toronto hosts Columbus and makes it to their first Finals since 1967.
2) In the West, Winnipeg handily defeats the Colorado Avalanche for a divisional matchup against Dallas, who has taken on the favored St. Louis Blues. The Edmonton Oilers stumble into the playoffs and get the Marc-Andre Fleury brick wall, allowing Vegas to get to a San Jose round. It’s a West Side Story Western Conference Finals as the Jets take on the Sharks, with Riff and Tony’s gang coming out on top.
In the Stanley Cup Finals, it’s an all-Canada throwdown, which should thrill true fans of hockey. With the first Canadian victor since Montreal in 1993, we watch a crazy seven-game series where Toronto finally bucks the curse and comes out on top.