Welcome back to the NHL season everyone! It’s September and that means preseason hockey games, predictions and previews galore of your favorite NHL teams. I always try to pride myself on predictions so that I get a better understanding of the clubs, so during the summer I talk to a countless amount of fans, season ticket holders and media personalities who cover the NHL to get a good pulse for the upcoming year. Since this is usually New York Islanders centric, I wanted to go deeper in my research this year with readers so that they understand how I come up with my predictions. When I first make attempts at placing teams, I always look to see if there is a theme to the year, such as: what teams the media/fans are focusing on and who are not on much on anyone’s radar or what team has already been labeled to the 2018 draft in September. Are there any players still in the news or injuries that could shift a team in the standings. In my opinion this could be a year where we see a changing of the Guards or the scenery of the NHL changes, and by scenery I mean different teams stepping into the spotlight that many fans are not used to seeing. So let’s start with the Western Conference and I’ll shift over to the East.
The Pacific Division
Not too long ago when fans thought of the Pacific Division there were only three teams: The Kings, Sharks and Ducks. Last year we witnessed the emergence of both the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames. When people talk about the Pacific, it’s really about Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers making a Stanley Cup run and needing to get by the Anaheim Ducks to do it. That is certainly going to be the headlines. What I’m curious to see is if the younger Calgary Flames, who are boasting a top five defense in the NHL, can overcome the aging San José Sharks and take a shot at third place in the division. As for the Kings, they’ll make a run of their own, but I’m very curious to see if the Arizona Coyotes dethrone the Kings in the standings should they stumble or falter. It was odd not to see the Kings in the playoffs, but to possibly see the Sharks and Kings begin the offseason early just doesn’t happen.
The Central Division
There was a changing of the guard of sorts last year when the Nashville Predators knocked off the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round sweep on their way to their first Western Conference title and Stanley Cup appearance. Chicago did not get past the first round and with the Central Division arguably being the toughest division in hockey, can Nashville repeat as Division champs in the playoffs or will another team rise to the occasion? Can Chicago reclaim playoff dominance once more? Who will step up?
Colorado Avalanche center Matt Duchene is still in the media as a possible trade chip and could shift the balance in any of the standings should he be traded to a team looking to fill a second-line center need. The fact that he’s still with Colorado means teams are not willing to part with the asking price of general manager Joe Sakic, but if a trade is made then that will certainly change the dynamics of the standings.
So that’s it for the West, let’s now see what you should expect from the Eastern Conference. Let’s begin in the Atlantic.
The Atlantic Division
When I look at the Atlantic, I’m really only looking at three teams: The Leafs, Canadiens, and the Lightning. I do think the other teams will have good years, but I believe that only three teams from the Atlantic make the playoffs unless the Metro has a plague of injuries that will affect the standings. When it comes to the playoffs, you could make the safe bets that the Habs and Lightning were usually in the playoffs or place in the top three in the Atlantic every year. Now that scenery may change a bit. Let’s start with the Leafs. Can they do it again? Can they make the playoffs and beat either Montreal or Tampa? What more can Auston Mathews do? Does he have another level or do any of his teammates? Can Jonathan Drouin become the superstar for Montreal and help Carey Price and Shea Weber go deep into the playoffs. How will they play without long-time Habs André Markov? Can Steven Stamkos stay healthy this year and dominate the Atlantic with such a deep Tampa squad? Should Tampa be the favorites to win the Eastern Conference? Is there another club who could challenge the above mentioned teams? This is certainly the one division that should be watched the most because at some point, it may end being the best in the near future.
The Metropolitan Division
This is really the simplest of themes for the Metro: Can the Pittsburgh Penguins three-peat as Stanley Cup Champions? When I think playoffs and the Metro, I usually think of three teams: the Penguins, Capitals and the Rangers. They’ve been the most consistent in getting to the playoffs every year, but last year we saw the emergence of the Columbus Blue Jackets take center stage and knocked off the Rangers for third place. Can they challenge the Penguins for first place this year? The Islanders had a second-half season for the ages and narrowly missed the playoffs by one point. Do they have enough to challenge a team like Washington who is in a transitional year due to the salary cap restrictions? Can the Carolina Hurricanes make a splash big enough to completely knock out the Rangers? Can anyone in the Metro take out the Penguins in the playoffs?
So as we prepare for making our predictions, you can also ask questions like these:
Who would you rather have: Crosby or McDavid?
Who’s the better sniper: Ovechkin or Laine?
Who’s the better defenceman: Karlsson or Ekman-Larsson?
What would be a bigger rivalry: Ovechkin/Crosby or Drouin/Stamkos or Stamkos/Mathews?
What player combo is still the best in the NHL: Crosby/Malkin, Toews/Kane, Benn/Seguin, McDavid/Draisaitl, Mathews/Marner,
The point is we no longer have the same names year after year. Some of these questions can be answered now, but when the season ends and we come back to them, if it takes us a little longer to answer then yes we could see a changing of the old guards to the new ones in the near future. The change has already begun and it’s this theme that will help determine where I place each hockey club and its significance to the season. Next up will be an Islanders season preview that will be released early next week followed by the preseason predictions for each team.
Also on Sunday, September 17th I’ve been asked to join SportsTalk1240 WGBB Gary Harding, John Panarese, and John Sweeney and many others for an NHL season preview which starts at 8:00pm. I’ve been asked to cover the Islanders segment so stay tuned for more information.