Another exciting season of NHL hockey starts tonight. NHL fans everywhere are probably wondering if their team has what it takes to raise Lord Stanley’s Cup next June. If a team like the St Louis Blues can go from league worst in January to Stanley Cup champions, the 51 year old franchise’s first championship, you’ve got to be optimistic and feel that anything is possible. Especially after an expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights, made it to the Stanley Cup Finals their inaugural season the previous year.
I followed player movement in the offseason and watched a number of preseason games thus far. Here are my predictions.
This is the best division in the NHL. The Tampa Bay Lightning won the President’s Trophy last year and then embarrassingly got swept in the first round of the playoffs. The Boston Bruins were the Eastern Conference champions. The Toronto Maple Leafs are loaded offensively with Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and John Taveras. Vegas oddsmakers have the Tampa Bay Lightning as the favorite to win the Stanley Cup this year. I think the Lightning are the most talented team offensively in the NHL and they will put a ton of pucks in the back of the net. Especially adding offensive minded defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. They also have a great goaltender in Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Overall, I think the Lightning win the Atlanta Division but I still have some question about whether they have enough grit to win the Cup. Adding winger Patrick Maroon will help but they need a few more like him. I also think that five teams will qualify for the playoffs from this division. The Montreal Canadiens narrowly missed making the playoffs this past season. I think they get in this year. The Florida Panthers have greatly improved with the hiring of head coach Joel Quenneville and signing goaltender Sergei Bobrovskiy.
My Division Pick: Tampa Bay Lightning
Playoff Teams: Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens
The Washington Capitals are still the class of this division. The Pittsburgh Penguins seem to be on the decline and you got to feel that trading Phil Kessel was a sign that they are retooling for the future. The New Jersey Devils had a great offseason, acquiring P.K. Subban and getting Jack Hughes with the first pick in the NHL draft. Hughes is my pick to win the Calder Trophy (rookie of the year). He is a special talent and will be a league star very soon. So I expect the Devils to make the playoffs and the New York Islanders to slip a bit in this division.
My Division Pick: Washington Capitals
Playoff Teams: Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey Devils
The St Louis Blues return with nearly the same group of players that won the Cup last year. Many experts are picking the Colorado Avalanche to win the Central this year. They are a great young team that is getting better, but I still have some questions about their goaltending situation. The Dallas Stars added Joe Pavelski and if I had to pick a surprise team to win this division, they would be my pick. I expect the Chicago Blackhawks to return to the playoffs after missing out the past two season. I don’t see the Blues getting off to a poor start this year and they are my pick to win the Central. I also expect the Central Division to produce five playoff teams.
My Division Pick: St Louis Blues
Playoff Teams: Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Winnipeg Jets, Chicago Blackhawks
This is the weakest of the four NHL divisions. It has quite a few teams that are young, inexperienced and rebuilding for the future. The Vegas Golden Knights are the class of the Pacific. and they are solid top to bottom. The San Jose Sharks had too many key personnel losses in the offeseason to make me feel that they can compete for the Pacific crown. The Calgary Flames surprised this past season, but I still have question marks about their goaltending.
My Division Pick: Vegas Golden Knights
Playoff Teams: San Jose Sharks, Calgary Flames
Stanley Cup Prediction
If the past couple of seasons have taught us anything, the most skilled hockey clubs aren’t always the ones who advance to the Finals. The NHL regular season is about qualifying for the playoffs and getting your team ready for the run. There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered. Injuries can play a huge role. But if I had to make a prediction now, I’d go with the Tampa Bay Lightning beating the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Finals in seven games.
Although I still think the Lightning have some concerns about toughness and grit, this can easily be rectified by the trade deadline and the Lightning have enough offensive weaponry as trade-bait to get what they need.