After a long summer of reflection and planning, we’re just days away from the start of the new NHL season. Let’s take a quick look at some of the top contenders this season, a couple dark horses to keep an eye on, and finish up with some local flair.
Atlantic Favourite – Florida Panthers: The Panthers have recently been on the upswing, and this current group took a big step forward by making the playoffs and providing a strong test against a more veteran Islanders roster. Florida looks to win its first playoff series since 1996 and has brought in veteran defencemen Keith Yandle and Jason Demers to give the team the edge it needs. With a mix of youngsters and tested veterans, the Panthers should be able to return to the playoffs and be a tough test.
Metropolitan Favourite – Washington Capitals: It’s hard to not put the current Stanley Cup Champions as the favourite, but the Capitals are a team with room to grow. Alex Ovechkin still leads this mostly veteran team, but youngsters Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, and Dmitry Orlov can take small steps forward, leading to bigger results for the whole team. While the playoffs may provide an entirely different challenge, the Capitals have dominated the regular season and that trend should continue.
Central Favourite – Nashville Predators: The Predators didn’t do a lot this offseason, but they made one giant splash, trading long-time captain Shea Weber for superstar P.K. Subban. Nashville boasts a strong defence and a deep group of forwards who can score. The only question mark is in net, where Pekka Rinne hasn’t been strong the last few seasons.
Pacific Favourite – San Jose Sharks: The Pacific looks to be the toughest division to call, but the Sharks are a safe bet to win it. Martin Jones provided fantastic goaltending throughout the season and can be expected to improve after a deep playoff run. While everyone in the division looks to have question marks on their rosters, the Sharks return much of their roster and can be expected to pick up from where they left off.
Eastern Dark Horse – Columbus Blue Jackets: For what feels like the first time in Blue Jackets history, the team will be fielding a strong group of defenders to accompany their group of scoring forwards. Youngsters Seth Jones and Ryan Murray will likely be joined by rookie Zach Werenski to anchor a strong defence. Off the heels of Sergei Bobrovsky putting up fantastic efforts at the World Cup of Hockey, Columbus looks to be more than a one-dimensional team. This could lead to a playoff berth.
Western Dark Horse – Winnipeg Jets: The Jets look to bounce back from missing the playoffs after previously making it the season prior. Winnipeg continues to add young talent to its roster, with second overall pick Patrik Laine likely joining the team along with young defender Josh Morrissey. The problem Winnipeg has faced is that, despite how balanced its team has been, it hasn’t been able to secure even average goaltending. Connor Hellebuyck will challenge for the starting spot, and if he or anyone else can provide at least average goaltending, the Jets should have the talent to compete for a playoff spot.
Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks should be a better team this season — but to what extent is anyone’s guess. New additions Loui Eriksson and Erik Gudbranson will help stabilize the team and bring much-needed scoring and defence help. The problem, which has been a perpetual one, is that the team lacks secondary scoring. The forwards are a strong group of checkers and grinders, but after the Sedins and Eriksson, the team desperately needs rookies to step up or else improvement will be minimal.