It’s finally time for hockey. After a long wait, legions of puckers are ready for the 2015-16 season to begin. On Wednesday October 7, the NHL kicks off with four games. Eight teams will be in action.
That includes the Rangers who visit the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks who’ll raise their banner before the drop of the puck at 8 PM on NBC Sports Network. At 7 PM, classic Original Six Canadian rivals the Canadiens and Maple Leafs face off at Air Canada Centre. The two late games feature two more rivalries. The Sharks renew acquaintances with the Kings at Staples Center at 10 PM. A half an hour later, the Canucks visit The Saddledome to face the Flames in a first round rematch.
This year is about two of the most exciting rookies to join the league since Crosby, Ovechkin and Malkin. Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel will take their place as the next ones. The first and second overall picks are expected to do great things and turn around struggling franchises. McDavid will make hockey relevant again in Edmonton. Since a run to the 2006 Stanley Cup Final, the Oilers have been a doormat. But with McDavid and new coach Todd McLellan along with Cam Talbot, there’s hope for the Oilers. The same can be echoed for the Sabres with Eichel, who as a college freshman won the Hobey Baker Award leading Boston University to the championship game. With new coach Dan Bylsma along with key acquisitions Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane, things are looking up in Buffalo.
Regarding the rookies, keep an eye on Max Domi in Arizona. He’ll team with Anthony Duclair on the Coyotes top line as part of a rebuild that could land the troubled franchise top rated American prospect Auston Matthews. The projected 2016 first overall pick is playing pro hockey in Switzerland. He’s off to a quick start. The #TankForMatthews Watch should be fascinating with the Devils and Hurricanes also expected to be in contention with the ‘Yotes.
As for Stanley Cup contenders, there are as many as half a dozen. In the off-season, the Ducks added Carl Hagelin, Kevin Bieksa and Chris Stewart to a team that lost in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final to the Blackhawks. They’re the consensus pick along with the Capitals who acquired T.J. Oshie from St. Louis for Troy Brouwer and replaced Joel Ward (signed with Sharks) with former Conn Smythe winner Justin Williams.
The Pens also should be players after trading for Phil Kessel. If he thought there was nowhere to hide in Toronto, wait till he plays alongside Crosby in the Steel City. Pittsburgh also made smart moves bolstering depth by swapping Brandon Sutter for Nick Bonino while signing KHL import Sergei Plotnikov along with proven vets Eric Fehr and Matt Cullen. They’ll start without Pascal Dupuis, who’s out four to six weeks. 2015 second round pick Daniel Sprong will make his NHL debut.
Last year’s Stanley Cup runner up Tampa Bay made no major changes to a high scoring team that features Triplets Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat along with captain Steven Stamkos, who can become unrestricted next summer. The Stamkos story line will be intriguing. Victor Hedman should be a serious Norris candidate. Can Ben Bishop repeat? The Bolts will be tough to beat if they get the goaltending.
After winning a third Cup in six years, the Hawks once again subtracted key pieces. Gone are Brandon Saad (traded to Blue Jackets) and Patrick Sharp (traded to Stars). In their place are Artem Anisimov, Ryan Garbutt and Trevor Daley with the latter replacing Johnny Oduya, who signed with Dallas. Chicago brought in KHL imports Artemi Panarin and Viktor Tikhonov. Panarin is the one to watch. Front and center is Patrick Kane, whose off ice trouble will be followed closely by the NHL. The Hawks have gone about their business and even are holding a Kane Bobblehead Night in late January. Considering the leadership, it shouldn’t be a distraction.
The Rangers look to turn the page from a disappointing conclusion to the Eastern Conference Final. They subtracted Hagelin (Ducks) and Martin St. Louis (retirement). A strong core remains headlined by Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan, Derick Brassard, Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello. If Chris Kreider breaks out and youngsters Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller and Oscar Lindberg perform, the Blueshirts should contend.
The Canadiens and Wild also boast strong rosters. Montreal added Alex Semin and Tomas Fleischmann to a good nucleus featuring rating Hart and Vezina winner Carey Price, P.K. Subban and new captain Max Pacioretty. On a one-year deal, Semin better produce in Montreal or he could be out of the league. Not as promising is the problematic Zack Kassian who they gambled on dealing away popular pugilist Brandon Prust (Canucks). The 24-year old entered the NHL’s second stage of the Substance Abuse program following an incident that resulted in a broken nose and foot. He’s suspended without pay and has a serious problem. Hopefully, he gets the help he needs.
The Wild have essentially an identical roster to the one that upset the Blues. As long as Devan Dubnyk performs, they should be a playoff lock. Minnesota boasts one of the best team defenses anchored by Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin. Second-year blueliner Matt Dumba could break out. For Minnesota to have any chance, they need more consistency from Thomas Vanek. Zach Parise, Jason Pominville and Mikko Koivu are gamers. Nino Niederreiter continues to improve.
Despite another first round exit, the Blues remain a deep, talented team capable of going far. They made one major change acquiring gritty former Cup winner Brouwer for Oshie. Vladimir Tarasenko and Alex Steen lead a balanced attack that features Jaden Schwartz, David Backes, Paul Stastny, Patrik Berglund and Jori Lehtera. Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk are two of the league’s best defensemen. It gets thin after Jay Bouwmeester. Goalie remains the key with Jake Allen ready to take over as the starter. Brian Elliott will share time. To succeed, you have to ride one. Vet coach Ken Hitchcock could be on the hot seat if St. Louis underachieves.
If you’re looking for teams that could surprise, a few come to mind. The Red Wings boast two number one goalies in Petr Mrazek and Jimmy Howard. A good problem for new coach Jeff Blashill, who replaces new Leafs bench boss Mike Babcock. Mrazek gave Tampa fits. If Howard wasn’t signed thru 2019, he’d be the guy. Mrazek still could be if Detroit can find a taker for Howard ($5.292 million cap hit). The Winged Wheel aren’t just Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. With emerging Euro stars Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist plus Riley Sheahan and Luke Glendening, they are set up for the future. 2014 first round pick Dylan Larkin made the roster with Datsyuk out. They’ll be minus Danny DeKeyser at the start but former Cap Mike Green should provide a boost offensively. The Wings also added proven vet Brad Richards.
Injuries were the story in ’14-15 for the Blue Jackets with over 502 man games lost. Adding Saad to a talented forward crop featuring Ryan Johansen, Nick Foligno, Brandon Dubinsky, Scott Hartnell, Boone Jenner and Cam Atkinson should improve their chances of returning to the postseason. Health will be key along with former Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky, who will be under siege due to an unproven defense led by Jack Johnson, Fedor Tyutin and David Savard. Columbus could use a breakout year from former number one pick Ryan Murray. He only played a dozen games last season.
The Flames were a great story last Spring beating the Canucks and pushing the Ducks. Led by the talented Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler, Calgary was resilient despite uneven netminding from tandem Karri Ramo and Jonas Hiller. Coach Bob Harley has tabbed Ramo as the starter and is keeping Joni Ortio on the roster as a third goalie which could signal the end for Hiller. Calgary made a huge splash dealing for former Bruins defenseman Dougie Hamilton and inking ex-Jets forward Michael Frolik. With T.J. Brodie out at least three weeks, Hamilton strengthens a blueline that features captain Mark Giordano, Dennis Wideman, Kris Russell and bruiser Deryk Engelland. Arguably the best defense in the league, expectations are higher for the Flames. Sam Bennett also becomes a regular at 19.
The Panthers nearly surprised everyone by making the playoffs last year. Featuring Calder winner Aaron Ekblad and Roberto Luongo, they should be competitive once again. With 43-year old living legend Jaromir Jagr promising a “return of the mullet,” Florida should be fun to follow. The ageless Jagr continues to defy logic. Following a trade from the Devils, he put up 18 points in 20 games almost pushing the Cats in. What does he have for an encore? If Florida makes it, it’ll be due to young talent with Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad emerging stars. They swapped Jimmy Hayes to the Bruins for more versatile Reilly Smith. Brandon Pirri and Vincent Trocheck also should play key roles. Can a mix of youth and vets that also include Jussi Jokinen, Dave Bolland, Brian Campbell and Willie Mitchell make the postseason in the ultra competitive Atlantic?
The Senators used a ridiculous finish to shock everyone. Largely due to the brilliance of “The Hamburglar” Andrew Hammond along with sensational finishes from freshmen Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman, Ottawa made the playoffs. Erik Karlsson was dominant down the stretch proving why he’s one of the NHL’s best defensemen. Kyle Turris and Clarke MacArthur were big performers as was Bobby Ryan, who could return to scoring 30. If it wasn’t a fluke and all the young Sens such as Mike Zibanejad and Curtis Lazar perform well, then Ottawa could be in play. Craig Andersen is the number one goalie with Hammond on the mend. Marc Methot is the glue to the back end. The Sens need Jared Cowen to step up. Keep in mind they play in a tough division and the Metro could place five. Out of all teams, Ottawa is unpredictable.
The Islanders reached the postseason for the second time in three years. Led by star captain John Tavares, they gave the Caps all they could handle in a emotional seven-game first round that saw them bid adieu to Nassau Coliseum. With Tavares now 25 and one of the game’s brightest stars, the time has come for the Isles to win a round in the playoffs. It’s been 22 years since the ’93 team made a run to the Conference Final. There’s plenty of talent with Kyle Okposo in his walk year along with Frans Nielsen. Okposo is the more vital player with the Isles boasting scoring depth with Ryan Strome, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, Josh Bailey and Mikhail Grabovski. They also have muscle with Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck. Ex-Devil Steve Bernier made the club and is a perfect fit. Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy and Travis Hamonic anchor the blueline which also includes Calvin de Haan. There’s a lot to like about Brooklyn’s team which will take some getting used to for Long Islanders. But it hinges on Jaroslav Halak, who must be consistent for the Isles to succeed. Thomas Greiss backs up.
PAST CHAMPS LOOK FOR REVIVAL
If there was a huge surprise in ’14-15, it was that neither the Kings nor Bruins made the playoffs proving how competitive the NHL was. Down seasons from key contributors cost both along with injuries. Ironically, LA and Boston swung one of the biggest deals with the Kings acquiring Milan Lucic for Martin Jones (later moved to Sharks), Colin Miller and a first round pick (Jakub Zboril). Lucic is in his contract year and could be a rental due to star center Anze Kopitar needing to be re-signed. Los Angeles can ill afford to lose Kopitar. So, they’ll ante up.
The Kings also added vet Christian Ehrhoff after losing Andrej Sekera to the Oilers. Can the fragile German defenseman stay healthy and help offset the loss of Slava Voynov? Drew Doughty was a Norris runner up who anchors the back end with Jake Muzzin. Stanley Cup hero Alec Martinez is healthy. Brayden McNabb, Jeff Schultz and Matt Greene comprise the rest of the D. Marian Gaborik remains an elite finisher but always misses time. Jeff Carter is a strong second pivot. It largely depends on how well Lucic fits and the play of young forwards Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson. Rugged captain Dustin Brown isn’t what he was but always gives everything. Jonathan Quick must perform in goal. He had a inconsistent ’14-15 but still posted six shutouts and won 36 games. Jhonas Enroth backs up.
The Bruins are hoping new GM Don Sweeney’s unorthodox summer will revitalize them. The issue is whether coach Claude Julien will survive. It’s clear Team President Cam Neely dislikes him. Cornerstones Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask remain. They overpaid for Matt Beleskey, who brings a hard nosed style that Boston fans should love as long as he produces similar to pest Brad Marchand. But he won’t have Ryan Getzlaf getting him the puck. Hayes replaces Smith. He’s more of a finisher. So, he’ll probably play with Krejci. David Pastrnak and Ryan Spooner are top nine forward with potential. Pastrnak’s ceiling is higher. Former Bolt Brett Connolly has talent but it’s about consistency. How much does Chara have left? After Torey Krug and injured vet Dennis Seidenberg, the D is a giant question.
Here is how we see the regular season playing out. We’ll start in the East.
Metropolitan Division Points
*5.Blue Jackets 94
Atlantic Division Points
*3.Red Wings 99
8.Maple Leafs 70
Central Division Points
Pacific Division Points
M1 Caps over WC2 Jackets
A1 Bolts over WC1 Isles
M2 Rangers over M3 Pens
A3 Wings over A2 Habs
M2 Rangers over M1 Caps
A3 Wings over A1 Bolts
M2 Rangers over A3 Wings
P1 Ducks over WC2 Preds
C1 Blues over WC1 Jets
C2 Hawks over C3 Wild
P2 Flames over P3 Kings
C2 Hawks over C1 Blues
P1 Ducks over P2 Flames
P1 Ducks over C2 Hawks
Ducks defeat Rangers
Conn Smythe-Corey Perry
Art Ross-Sidney Crosby
Rocket Richard-Alex Ovechkin
First Coach Fired-Claude Julien
#TankForMatthews-Coyotes, Devils, Canes, Leafs