Pittsburgh Penguins’ Nick Bonino, facing camera at top, is mobbed by teammates after scoring against the Washington Capitals during overtime of Game 6 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference semifinals, Tuesday, May 10, 2016 in Pittsburgh. The Penguins won 4-3 to advance to the next round. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
The new season has already gotten going. Due to my taxing schedule along with a hockey draft, I’ve been unable to put up a preview with predictions. Here’s a quick outlook on a new year.
The Pens are trying to three peat. It hasn’t happened since the great Islanders dynasty when they won their third of four straight Stanley Cups from 1980-82. The Oilers dynasty nearly won three in a row but for a Steve Smith own goal that prevented them from having the chance in ’86. They would win the next two totaling four Cups with Gretzky. Messier led them to number five in ’90.
In ’91 and ’92, the Lemieux/Jagr Pens repeated. Astonishingly, the 45-year old legendary Jagr will play what could be his final NHL season after signing in Calgary. What can one of the all-time greats add to a good Flames roster that’ll again compete with Edmonton, who are led by rating Art Ross and Hart winner Conn Smythe? It’s like old times.
Once, Number 68 looked like he’d be a Pittsburgh Penguin for life. He even was team captain when he led them to a first round upset of the Devils on one leg. Then Mario returned for one more crack in ’00-01 helping Jagr capture the scoring title. A talented roster that reached the Conference Final before falling to defending champ New Jersey.
Here we are all this time later end it’s again the Pens featuring the game’s best player. Sidney Crosby is a three-time Cup champion and two-time Conn Smythe winner having won everything in a illustrious career including Olympic gold, the Hart, Art Ross and the Rocket Richard. He’s already in that category of elite at 30. Like Lemieux, he’s had a super sidekick in Evgeni Malkin to help win three Cups.
It’s still insane that a Canadian bias exists that omitted Malkin from last year’s top 100. The skillful Russian has done it all like his more popular Canadian teammate. Even with his own injuries similar to Crosby, he’s way over a point-per-game for his career with the three Cups, a Conn Smythe, league MVP and Art Ross. If he ever stayed healthy for a full 82, he could get back to the century mark.
Can the Pens three-peat? It’s Matt Murray’s team. He’s already won in his first two years and can reach elite status. Without Marc-Andre Fleury (44 saves in Las Vegas’ first ever win Friday), there is more pressure. Antti Niemi backs up. He was already chased in a lopsided 10-1 humiliation at Chicago. The Pens are off to a poor start having allowed 15 goals in a overtime loss on banner night and the forgettable game against the Blackhawks last night. Will all the games played and miles catch up? Kris Letang can help if he stays healthy on the back end.
The Lightning could pose the biggest threat. A healthy Steven Stamkos returns along with Ryan Callahan. They also added former Pens hero Chris Kunitz. A four-time Cup winner who knows what it takes to win. Dan Girardi still looks odd in a Bolts jersey. Young 19-year old Mikhail Sergachev made the roster. Acquired from Montreal for Jonathan Drouin, he’s expected to bolster the Tampa blueline which features Norris candidate Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman. Nikita Kucherov could be in line for a MVP season. He nearly carried the Lightning to the playoffs last season. Tyler Johnson and Ondre Palat make them dangerous. It falls on Andrei Vasilevskiy to assume the mantle in net. If he can, watch out.
Columbus should be a handful with Artemi Panarin added to a core of Alex Wennberg, Cam Atkinson, Brandon Dubinsky, Boone Jenner. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski lead the blueline. Sergei Bobrovsky is the last line of defense. The rating Vezina winner is a difference maker. Keep a eye on former 2016 first round pick Pierre-Luc Dubois, who already scored in his NHL debut. A 5-0 shutout of the Islanders.
Toronto is expected to be even better. Auston Matthews could hit 50 goals in Year 2. William Nylander and Mitch Marner should improve. Toronto added Patrick Marleau, who even at his advanced age can still motor notching two goals in his Leaf debut. There’s also James van Riemsedyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov and Nazem Kadri. Honestly, the Leafs’ scoring depth is scary. A defense led by Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner remains a question. Nikita Zaitsev is solid but basically swapping Matt Hunwick for Ron Hainsey makes no sense. At least top goalie Frederik Andersen knows what to expect in Year 2.
Do the Caps have anything left following another second round flop? Alex Ovechkin already recorded a hat trick in a win. He must score more with Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams gone. Nick Backstrom and Evgeni Kuznetsov form a dynamic center duo. Washington is counting on Andre Burakovsky and Jakub Vrana (2 assists) to pick it up. T.J. Oshie stayed. He will be a huge player. I’m not liking the blueline. John Carlson will produce offense but at what cost? Matt Niskanen is their best overall. Dmitry Orlov the most underrated. After that, it hinges on unproven guys like Taylor Chorney and Christian Djoos. What does Brooks Orpik have left? Braden Holtby is one of the game’s best goalies. But he’ll be under siege.
Which one of the Hurricanes, Devils or Flyers will become a wildcard contender. The short money is on the candy Canes as long as Scott Darling solves their goaltending issue with Cam Ward backing up. Jeff Skinner and Sebastian Aho will torch opposing goalies. Williams is back to where his Mr. Game 7 status really began. Martin Necas is a new face to watch. Teuvo Teravainen and Elias Lindholm must perform more consistently. Justin Faulk and Jacob Slavin lead a mobile defense that could make strides with Noah Hanifin in Year 3.
What to make of the Islander situation? They’re leaving Brooklyn after this year. A failed experiment that was never gonna work. It’s Belmont or they’re gone. It would be a death knell on Gary Bettman’s watch if the Islanders are forced to leave. John Tavares remains without a contract past this year. He doesn’t want to have open discussions now. With so much uncertainty surrounding the franchise, will he go to July 1 and leave? How much will Eberle help? Anders Lee is a legit 30-goal man who could Post even bigger numbers. Is this the year Brock Nelson breaks out? With Thomas Greiss allowing five on Friday and Jaro Halak likely in against the Sabres for the home opener tonight, can they coexist? What are the Islanders? A playoff team or a team that remains incomplete with their captain possibly gone.
Out west, the Oilers are expected to be strong contenders to make it through. McDavid is only getting better. Already with an Opening Night hat trick, he’s a locomotive. After reaching 100 points in Year 2, he could be in line for a 40-goal, 120 point campaign. The speed at which he does things is amazing. Sidekick Leon Draisaitl makes the Oilers a similar problem that Crosby and Malkin do out east. Cam Talbot could win the Vezina. Milan Lucic and Patrick Maroon provide the beef. How will former Islander Ryan Strome fit in? He was acquired for Jordan Eberle. Is the defense good enough? Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson and Darnell Nurse lead it.
They’ll face strong challenges with Stanley Cup runner up Nashville remaining a big favorite as long as Pekka Rinne holds up. Juuse Saros was first off for tonight. Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson lead a talented group up front with potential breakout candidate Kevin Fiala fully recovered from a horrific leg injury that ended his postseason. The blueline remains the best in hockey led by Roman Josi and P.K. Subban. Mattias Ekholm and ex-Hab Alexei Emelin will be crucial until Ryan Ellis gets back in January.
Anaheim should again challenge. They fell short against Nashville, who prevailed in a good Conference Final even after Johansen went down. Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler lead the way at center. Corey Perry will look for a bounce back. Richard Rakell could hit the 40-goal mark. Jakob Silfverberg remains underrated. Cam Fowler leads a balanced back end that includes Sami Vatanen, Hampus Lindholm along with up and comers Josh Manson and Brandon Montour. John Gibson could become one of the game’s best netminders by year’s end. Ryan Miller backs up.
Many expect the Stars to improve along with Winnipeg. Both can score in bunches but their wide open styles could be a detriment due to questionable defenses. Dallas added Marc Methot via a trade with expansion club Las Vegas. He can help a D corps that features offensive minded John Klingberg. Alex Radulov is a good fit up front with Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza. It hinges on Ben Bishop.
The Jets can score with anyone. Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and uh lethal finisher Patrik Laine will be a nightmare for opponents. Bryan Little and newly re-signed Nikolaj Ehlers can fly. Looming from the point is Dustin Byfuglien. Jacob Trouba is their best defenseman. He is tough one on one and can leave a mark. Toby Enstrom and Tyler Myers form the top four. Goaltending depends largely on Steve Mason. A streaky netminder who can be inconsistent. Connor Hellebuyck is the understudy. Don’t be surprised if he pushed Mason.
The Blues and Wild remain good teams who are being overlooked. The Wild boast one of the game’s best goalies in Devan Dubnyk along with Ryan Suter anchoring a solid D which includes Jared Spurgeon and Matt Dumba. Scoring is by committee with Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Eric Staal, Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle leading the way. How much does a broken down Zach Parise have left to give?
St. Louis has electrifying Vladimir Tarasenko along with Alex Steen, Jaden Schwartz and ex-Flyer Brayden Schenn. Injuries to Steen and unlucky Robby Fabbri (done for season) have led to some not even picking a good team for the playoffs. Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko headline the D. Jay Bouwmeester starts on IR. Jake Allen regained his form after some work with legend Martin Brodeur. He remains a goalie who’s capable of bigger goals.
San Jose and Los Angeles are on the way down with aging rosters. They’ll need their goalies to perform. Both Martin Jones and Jonathan Quick are excellent. But there are question marks surrounding each team.
Keep an eye on Arizona. They should be exciting with young rookies Clayton Keller and Dylan Strome. Derek Stepan centers Keller and Max Domi. A line which could become a hallmark. Christian Dvorak is in Year 2. So is Lawson Crouse. Anthony Duclair needs a good year. Niklas Hjalmarsson was added to the D with Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Jason Demers was also acquired. He and Alex Goligoski form the top four. How will Antti Raanta do as a starter? He missed the first game. They blew a 4-1 lead with Louis Domingue in. Raanta has his big chance.
There are many good rookies to watch. Keller and Strome from Arizona. Devils first overall pick Nico Hischier, who looks ready for the show. Charlie McAvoy is a headliner on the Boston back end to watch. Mathew Barzal could have a impact with the Islanders. Where does Alex DeBrincat fit on Chicago? Second overall pick Nolan Patrick is centering the Flyers’ second line. Hopefully, he stays on the ice.
Even the Rangers are looking at first round pick Filip Chytil. A talented Czech who is the youngest player in the league. He will get at least nine games to prove himself. Hopefully more minutes than the home opener.
Now it’s time for some division rankings and predictions.
EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFFS
M1 Blue Jackets over WC1 Rangers
M2 Penguins over M3 Capitals
A1 Lightning over WC Senators
A2 Maple Leafs over A3 Bruins
M2 Penguins over M1 Blue Jackets
A1 Lightning over A2 Maple Leafs
A1 Lightning over M2 Penguins
WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFFS
C1 Predators over WC1 Stars
C3 Blues over C2 Blackhawks
P1 Oilers over WC2 Wild
P2 Ducks over P3 Flames
C1 Predators over C3 Blues
P1 Oilers over P2 Ducks
C1 Predators over P1 Oilers
STANLEY CUP FINAL
A1 Lightning over C1 Predators
NHL FUN PREDICTIONS
Art Ross-Connor McDavid
Conn Smythe-Victor Hedman
Lady Byng-Jaromir Jagr
Rocket Richard-Patrick Laine
Jack Adams-Rick Tocchet
First Coach Fired-Paul Maurice
Most Goals-Laine 60
McDavid Points 45-80-125
Matthews 51 goals 42 assists
Breakout Player-Anthony Rantha
Best FA Signing-Stars Alex Radulov
Best Rookie Signing-Devils Will Butcher