NHL PREVIEW 2016-17


Connor McDavid leads an improved Edmonton Oilers back into playoff contention. He’ll have a big year. See more predictions in our Season Preview. AP Photo via Getty Images

A new season is finally upon us. Even though we had to wait a bit longer due to Canadian dominance in the World Cup, it was a great event that showcased the world’s best players. The game’s best player Sidney Crosby reclaimed his throne by running away with tournament MVP on a lethal line with Boston duo Patrice Bergeron and breakout star Brad Marchand.

Now, Crosby is out with a concussion that happened in practice a week ago. No one knows how. He is practicing but his return is unknown. The concussion protocol has been upgraded during games which is good for players. Crosby’s team celebrated by raising their Stanley Cup banner in a Pens’ 3-2 shootout win over the Caps Thursday night.

The games have already begun. With apologies to our fans, I have been busy with work. However, as promised a look at the NHL in 2016-17:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlantic Division: The Lightning are the class of the division. Able to get Nikita Kucherov under contract for the next three years before he hits it big, they have everyone back. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Panthers are the main competition led by breakout star Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad and Roberto Luongo. Ageless star Jaromir Jagr is still playing and Keith Yandle should aid the blue line.

The Bruins are going with a revamped defense banking on Bergeron, Marchand and aging captain Zdeno Chara. They’re hoping David Backes’ good start and David Pastrnak’s big night in a win over the hapless Blue Jackets is a good omen. It all hinges on Tuukka Rask. The Red Wings have added Frans Nielsen and Thomas Vanek. But the defense remains influx. That leaves it up to Petr Mrazek and Jimmy Howard. The NHL will miss Pavel Datsyuk.

Auston Matthews already set the world on fire with a record setting four-goal debut. He’s made the Maple Leafs a must watch. William Nylander, Mitchell Marner and budding defenseman Morgan Rielly lead the new wave. Can Frederik Andersen make it work? The Sabres were hit hard by a freak injury to young star Jack Eichel, who fell awkwardly in practice and has a high ankle sprain. It could be two months. They finally got Rasmus Ristolainen signed ($5.4 million cap hit). Kyle Okposo has been added to a core that includes a healthy Tyler Ennis, Ryan O’Reilly, the controversial Evander Kane (fractured ribs) and breakout star Sam Reinhart. Robin Lehner must stay healthy.

The Canadiens get star goalie Carey Price back. He missed the first game with the flu but new backup Al Montoya subbed in successfully in a 4-1 win over Buffalo. With agitator Andrew Shaw added along with enigmatic Russian Alex Radulov, the Habs should be heard from. Shea Weber replaces P.K. Subban which means less headaches. Alex Galchenyuk’s star is rising. A more inspired year from Max Pacioretty would help. Tomas Plekanec remains up front with emerging grinder Brendan Gallagher.

The Senators added Derick Brassard (goal, assist in debut) to help Kyle Turris. Featuring Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone plus Erik Karlsson, they’ll score plenty but how many goals will they keep out? Vet Craig Anderson has his work cut out. Andrew Hammond backs up. A more consistent season from Bobby Ryan would help. But when you’re counting on Dion Phaneuf on a questionable blue line, it’s an awful lot to ask for.

Atlantic Rankings

+1.Lightning

*2.Panthers

*3.Canadiens

4.Red Wings

5.Bruins

6.Senators

7.Sabres

8.Maple Leafs

Metropolitan Division: The Caps and Pens will be competing all year for the top spot in the division. How long will Crosby be out? Pittsburgh boasts better depth as evidenced last June thanks to Carl Hagelin, Conor Sheary, Nick Bonino, Bryan Rust and Matt Cullen. If healthy, Kris Letang wins the Norris. Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray form the best 1-2 goalie tandem. Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist. Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley are keys on D with underrated Brian Dumoulin.

It again falls on Alex Ovechkin to get the Caps over the hump. How many times can he lose to Crosby? Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams lead a deep crop that also features Andre Burakovsky, pest Tom Wilson and newcomer Lars Eller. John Carlson anchors the back end with Matt Niskanen, overlooked Dmitry Orlov and Karl Alzner. Braden Holtby has more pressure.

The Rangers are banking on youth with kids Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey plus Mika Zibanejad added to a core of Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller. Marc Staal and Dan Girardi must rebound. Brady Skjei and Dylan McIlrath could play key roles if they falter. Rick Nash needs a better year. Improved depth on the fourth line should help with Brandon Pirri (goal, assist) continuing to look good.

The Islanders are John Tavares’ team. He doesn’t have a sidekick. Garth Snow has failed to get him one. Unless Anders Lee or Ryan Strome emerge, Tavares could be left pondering his future in 2018. Andrew Ladd and Jason Chimera are nice additions but neither will make Islander fans forget Frans Nielsen or Kyle Okposo. Rookies Mathew Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier are wildcards. They still have the best fourth line with Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck working with Nikolay Kulemin. Nick Leddy and Travis Hamonic anchor the back end with Calvin de Haan and Johnny Boychuk. Thomas Hickey and Dennis Seidenberg are the third pair which means they still don’t fully trust Ryan Pulock. Their run and gun style could leave Jaroslav Halak and backups Thomas Greiss and Jean-Francois Berube out to dry.

Last year, a great finish got the Flyers in the playoffs. Claude Giroux, Brayden Schenn and Jakub Voracek headline the offense along with the game’s most dominant power forward, Wayne Simmonds. Sean Couturier is the shutdown center. Dale Weise should fit in. Keep an eye on youngsters Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov, who will be a factor on a blue line led by Shayne Gostisbehere. Radko Gudas already got himself suspended six games. Michael Del Zotto is out at least a month. Unless Steve Mason and Michael Neuvirth stand on their head, the Flyers could get out to a slow start.

The Devils should compete for a wildcard. Cory Schneider remains the best kept secret in net. New addition Taylor Hall must deliver 30 goals and between 65-70 points. Adam Henrique is fresh off a 30-goal season as is Kyle Palmieri. Pavel Zacha (assist) should be exciting along with surprising Finn Yohann Auvitu. Michael Cammalleri was having a big ’15-16 before he got hurt. If anything, the offense should be improved. They added P.A. Parenteau after the Isles waived him. He scored the lone goal in an overtime loss at Florida. Pencil him in for 20 goals and 40 points. Travis Zajac remains a dependable two-way center who is good on draws and shorthanded. It will come down to defense. Subtracting Adam Larsson could hurt. It’ll be up to Damon Severson and vet additions Ben Lovejoy and Kyle Quincey to help out Andy Greene.

The final two teams are the Blue Jackets and Hurricanes. Of the two, Carolina is more promising thanks to All-Star defenseman Justin Faulk and second-year blue liner Noah Hanifin. Goaltending remains questionable with former playoff hero Cam Ward still number one over Eddie Lack, who should supplant him. Jeff Skinner rediscovered his scoring touch and Jordan Staal played better once older brother Eric left. Victor Rask is overlooked. Teuvo Teravainen could break out now that he’s free from Chicago. Elias Lindholm needs more consistency. Lee Stempniak is proven. Keep an eye on Finnish import Sebastian Aho.

Columbus remains a team without an identity. John Tortorella wasn’t pleased with their effort in a 6-3 loss to Boston. The back end remains young as they bank on Ryan Murray and former 2015 first round pick Zachary Werenski. If he sticks, the American prospect could have an impact. Holdovers Jack Johnson and David Savard remain. The future hinges on Werenski, Murray and Seth Jones, who was acquired last season for Ryan Johansen. Scoring shouldn’t be an issue with Andrew Ladd, Cam Atkinson, riser Boone Jenner and Brandon Dubinsky, who was an awful minus-five Thursday. Nick Foligno needs a bounce back year. Keep an eye on Oliver Bjorkstrand. It all falls on Sergei Bobrovsky. He was brilliant for Russia. As he goes, so do the Jackets.

Metro Rankings

+1.Capitals

*2.Penguins

*3.Rangers

*4.Flyers

*5.Islanders

6.Devils

7.Hurricanes

8.Blue Jackets

EASTERN PLAYOFFS

Round 1

Lightning over Islanders

Capitals over Flyers

Penguins over Rangers

Canadiens over Panthers

Round 2

Lightning over Canadiens

Penguins over Capitals

Eastern Conference Final

Lightning over Penguins

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Central Division: It’s a new age for a very competitive division. The Blues remain the team to beat with the Stars challenging along with the new look Predators and Blackhawks. So, how will it all shake out?

St. Louis looks mighty tough. Having lost captain David Backes to Boston, they reloaded with David Perron and former Oilers’ first overall pick Nail Yakupov. With top sniper Vladimir Tarasenko along with Alex Steen headlining a balanced roster up front that includes Paul Stastny, Jaden Schwartz (injured), Patrik Berglund along with youngsters Robby Fabbri, Jori Lehtera and Magnus Paajarvi, the Blues boast depth. The blue line is deep led by Kevin Shattenkirk, Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester and breakout candidate Colton Parayko. As long as Jake Allen performs in net, they’re one of the favorites to get out of the West. They’re already 2-for-2 so far and hosted the Rangers Saturday.

Dallas has some of the game’s most exciting players. Led by captain Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza, they’re gonna score plenty. Jiri Hudler was added to a deep core that includes Patrick Sharp, Antoine Roussel, Radek Faksa and injured forwards Mattias Janmark, Ales Hemsky and Cody Eakin. When they return, look out. Lauri Korpikoski was added for depth scoring in his Stars debut. Patrick Eaves is a solid depth player. The blue line lost Alex Goligoski to Arizona. They’re counting on John Klingberg along with Johnny Oduya, Dan Hamhuis, Jordie Benn and youngster Jamie Oleksiak to offset the loss of Goligoski. Valeri Nichushkin left for the KHL where he was demoted. It will come down to goalie tandem Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen. Can they stop enough pucks?

Friday marked the Nashville debut of P.K. Subban, who scored in a win. The over the top superstar was traded by Montreal for Weber. A blockbuster trade that is rare these days. Think Brendan Shanahan signing with the Devils and Lou Lamoriello getting Scott Stevens as compensation. Or more recently, Glen Sather acquiring Martin St. Louis (now retired) from Tampa Bay for Ryan Callahan. The Predators get younger with Subban, who wants to prove the Habs wrong. Featuring Roman Josi, Subban, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis, the Preds are going to be exciting. With Johansen and Filip Forsberg centering the top two lines along with Mike Fisher, Mike Ribeiro, James Neal, Craig Smith and Colin Wilson, they should be tough. Checkers Calle Jarnkrok, Viktor Arvidsson and Miikka Salomaki make them deep. If Pekka Rinne can get back to being elite, they could be a dark horse.

The Blackhawks still boast last year’s Hart winner Patrick Kane and captain Jonathan Toews. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook plus underrated Niklas Hjalmarsson headline the blue line with Brian Campbell back. Artemi Panarin, Artem AnisimovMarian Hossa and Richard Panik comprise the top two lines. They’re counting on rookies Ryan Hartman (goal, assist) and Tyler Motte. Marcus Kruger remains a key checker. Corey Crawford has his work cut out. Scott Darling backs up.

Minnesota is still a good team. But leaders Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise are getting older. Jason Pominville hasn’t been consistent. Eric Staal was added to supply center depth. Secondary scoring will be vital with Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker all capable. Ryan Suter anchors a strong back end with Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba, Jonas Brodin and Marco Scandella balancing it out. Mike Reilly could play a role. It falls on Devan Dubnyk in net. As he goes, so do the Wild.

Both Colorado and Winnipeg have exciting rosters that are unlikely to make the postseason. The Avalanche are led by breakout candidate Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie. Jarome Iginla, Carl Soderberg, Blake Comeau and enigmatic Russian Mikhail Grigorenko are keys up front. Former Jacket Fedor Tyutin has been added to a D that includes vet Francois Beauchemin and youngster Nikita Zadorov. Semyon Varlamov is the starter in net with Calvin Pickard capable of filling in.

The Jets have added second overall pick Patrik Laine to a core that features Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, Dustin Byfuglien and Toby Enstrom. Jacob Trouba’s trade request hurts a thin blue line. They better get a good package. Tyler Myers and Mark Stuart round out the top four. There’s good offensive depth with Drew Stafford, Nikolaj Ehlers and Mathieu Perreault. Keep an eye on prospect Kyle Connor. Connor Hellebuyck is a future American star in net. He gets the keys with Ondrej Pavelec bought out. He’ll be counted on heavily with Michael Hutchinson backing up.

Central Rankings

+1.Blues

*2.Predators

*3.Stars

*4.Blackhawks

*5.Wild

6.Avalanche

7.Jets

Pacific Division: The Sharks are the class of the division. Having finally reached the Stanley Cup Final before falling to the Pens, they’ll be looking to go back and win it. They added Mikkel Boedker up front to a talented crop featuring Logan Couture, captain Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joel Ward along with youngsters Tomas Hertl, Joonas Donskoi and Melker Karlsson. A blue line headed by behemoth Brent Burns and strong defensive defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic remains very strong with key actors Paul Martin, Justin Braun, Brenden Dillon and ex-Devil David Schlemko. Martin Jones should be a Vezina contender. But the Sharks lack a dependable back up with 27-year old Aaron Dell making his NHL debut. They’ll probably need to upgrade.

With the Kings losing Jonathan Quick for up to four months, that could spell big trouble. Former Pen Jeff Zatkoff takes over for now with Peter Budaj in reserve. They’ll have to play well in front of Zatkoff. Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin will be counted on heavily along with Alec Martinez. Matt Greene is back but what does he have left? Brayden McNabb will be vital. Even without Lucic, the Kings have enough talent up front. Led by captain Anze Kopitar, a cast featuring Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson and Dustin Brown should get by. Kyle Clifford and Trevor Lewis provide depth along with Dwight King and vet Teddy Purcell.

The Ducks are hoping to solve their playoff woes. With John Gibson the man in net, it’s another season where Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry will be counted on to lead the way along with Ryan Kesler. Randy Carlyle returns for an encore with the team he led to a Stanley Cup a decade ago. Youngsters Richard Rakell and Jakob Silfverberg are key contributors along with vets Andrew Cogliano and Antoine Vermette. Sami Vatanen anchors a questionable blue line that could struggle until Hampus Lindholm re-signs. They need better from Cam Fowler. With Simon Despres hurt again, Shea Theodore could be up soon. Kevin Bieksa also remains. It could come down to the kids including Gibson manning the net with Carlyle favorite Jonathan Bernier backing up.

In what feels like a wide open division after San Jose, anything can happen. With new Edmonton captain Connor McDavid already off to a flying start with six points (3-3-6), the Oilers could be back challenging for the playoffs. The top line with Lucic and Leon Draisaitl is scary. Jordan Eberle is a sniper. Jesse Puljujarvi is in the top nine with Benoit Pouliot and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who needs a better season with Taylor Hall dealt to New Jersey for Adam Larsson. Larsson is expected to strengthen the blue line which needs Oscar Klefbom healthy. Darnell Nurse is a future shutdown D. Andrej Sekera and Kris Russell are experienced vets. Given the run-and-gun style they play in their new building Rogers Centre, it’s asking a lot of Cam Talbot. Jonas Gustavsson backs up.

The Flames are counting on ex-Blue Brian Elliott to shore up the net. Already swept by Alberta nemesis Edmonton in a home-and-home, they need to be better in front of him. Mark Giordano anchors the back end with Dougie Hamilton, who disappointed in Year 1. T.J, Brodie is asked to log a ton of minutes and Dennis Wideman can bomb it from the point. There really are no changes to a unit that struggled. Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan lead a good offense that added physical big man Troy Brouwer and first round pick Matthew Tkachuk to a nucleus which includes Michael Backlund, Michael Frolik, Kris Versteeg and key pivot Sam Bennett. Calgary plays a fun up tempo style but that also leaves them vulnerable to counter attacks. Elliott needs to carry the load. Chad Johnson backs up.

The final two teams are Arizona and Vancouver. The Coyotes are more promising with top prospects Dylan Strome, Christian Dvorak, Lawson Crouse and first round pick Jakob Chychrun added to a young core that includes Max Domi and Anthony Duclair. Strome is still waiting to make his NHL debut. He can play nine games before Arizona makes a decision. The same for Chychrun. With Goligoski added to a blue line featuring Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Michael Stone and Connor Murphy, they should be interesting. Franchise leader Shane Doan is back with steady vets Martin Hanzal and Radim Vrbata returns. Tobias Rieder and Laurent Dauphin supply depth. Mike Smith is the starter with second-year man Louis Domingue backing up.

The Canucks boast The Sedins, who will play with Loui Eriksson. An upgrade over Vrbata. If the ex-Bruin forms chemistry with Daniel and Henrik, Vancouver’s top line should be fun to watch. Bo Horvat took positive steps last year reaching 40 points (16-26-40). The young center and Jake Virtanen are the future. Jared McCann was swapped for heavy defenseman Erik Gudbranson from Florida. Vancouver’s rebuild is gonna be a slow process. They’re counting on Gudbranson and Ben Hutton to boost a back end that includes Alex Edler and Luca Sbisa. Markus Granlund comes over from Calgary to bolster the depth up front with steady vets Jannik Hansen, Brandon Sutter and tough guy Derek Dorsett. Ryan Miller’s days as the top goalie are numbered with Jacob Markstrom capable of taking over. Their best prospect is Thatcher Demko, who is in his first pro year in the AHL after three impressive seasons at Boston College. Maybe Vancouver dangles Miller to Los Angeles if they’re desperate.

Pacific Rankings

+1.Sharks

*2.Ducks

*3.Kings

4.Oilers

5.Flames

6.Coyotes

7.Canucks

WESTERN PLAYOFFS

Round 1

Sharks over Wild in 4

Blues over Blackhawks in 5

Predators over Stars in 7

Kings over Ducks in 7

Round 2

Sharks over Ducks in 5

Blues over Predators in 7

Western Conference Final

Sharks over Blues in 7

Stanley Cup Champion-Tampa Bay Lightning

Conn Smythe-Victor Hedman

Art Ross-Connor McDavid

Hart-Connor McDavid

Norris-Kris Letang

Vezina-Martin Jones

Selke-Anze Kopitar

Rocket Richard-Alexander Ovechkin

Calder-Auston Matthews

Best Line-Lucic-McDavid-Draisaitl

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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