First off, I fully realize there are hundreds of prognosticators, and people are probably tired of reading through so many of these ESPECIALLY considering the VAST majority of us will be TOTALLY wrong (heck look at the current NFL season who the heck had the 49ers down near the basement and the Dolphins in line to possibly win their division and finish 11-5!)
Throw in the fact this season will undoubtedly add additional (huuuuuuge- said in Trumponian) elements of unpredictability - an ultra condensed schedule sprinkled in with fewer teams playing each other over and over again hence more injuries, fatigue, etc - and you have the perfect storm for a season that will be ripe with many surprises (you ever seen that commercial where the couple order the "sushi surprise" and once they lift the wooden box open a squid jumps in their face- yeah THAT kind of a surprise).
So given all this why read another blogger making his season predictions? I haven't a clue. But hey you read all the way here so might as well continue a little bit longer?
I do promise my analysis will be quick, to-the-point and I will only offer commentary on the Northeast division (and then give my quick predictions on the others)
Let's start with the We-Are-The-North Division:
1. Toronto Maple Leafs:
The Leafs boast the most lethal foursome of stars up front (do I really need to name them?) but they have yet to learn how to play like winners, how to peak at the right them, how to manage their emotions when the going gets tough and how to play responsible two-way hockey. Time for Sheldon Keefe to have a lengthy talk with Marner, Mathews and Nylander and sell them on (at least slightly) altering their game in the same way the great Scotty Bowman sold Stevie Y on playing a more complete brand of hockey?
The Leafs have plenty of depth in scoring with the likes of Hyman, Kerfoot, Mikheyev and a young talented kid like Robertson should also add additional punch. They added much-needed veteran depth on both D and O and have a capable NHL backup now in Jack Campbell. Regardless of how they perform during the season, the time has come to answer the bell come playoffs (The Bruins being in their way will no longer work as an excuse).
Gone is the long-standing reputation which was that when Autumn would come the Leafs would fall. However it is fair to ask : has this image of old been replaced by a new one of being playoff chokers?
2. Montreal Canadiens:
The Canadiens didn't prove anything in the playoffs. Please. Stop right there. They came in as bandits and stole a playoff spot. They had absolutely no pressure whatsoever and a LOT to prove. The Penguins were ripe for the picking especially in a best of five playoff series. Sure, a couple of their up-and-coming stars, rose to the occasion. But it would be foolish to put a lot of stake in their semi-successful- summer playoff stint.
Having said that, General Manager Popeye Bergevin had himself quite the summer. The additions of power wingers Anderson and Toffoli, has not only added size and scoring to a lineup sorely in need of offensive punch, but it also had the benefit of pushing some pretty good players on what will possibly be the second best fourth line in the NHL (Islanders hold that title). A combination of Joel Armia, Arturi Lehkonen, Michael Frolik with some energetic youth like Ryan Poehling and Jake Evans will give the Canadiens much needed depth and the ability to roll for lines in a season where the compressed schedule will make this an indispensable asset (that few teams in this division have- more on this later). Depth on D will also be critically important this upcoming season and the Canadiens will have plenty of it with the additions of Edmunson and Romanov. Having a more rested Price given the luxury of having a very capable backup will further bolster the Canadiens' chances in this slightly overrated division. Now granted, Canadiens have addressed many of their flaws in this off season but to be devil's advocate, they still don't have any game breakers nor do they have an elite left-pairing d-man to play alongside Shea Weber or Jeff Petry. They are also very much inexperienced at the Center position. The core components on defense are aging and not as mobile. A more promising regular season awaits but can they really go the distance in the playoffs?
3. Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks were pleasant surprise last season, and have arguably the best crop of young talent out of all the Canadian teams. Their brand of hockey is fun to watch and players like Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes are undoubtedly worth the price of admission.
The Canucks were also one of the hardest hit teams during the offseason losing important pieces like Chris Tanev, Josh Leivo and their starting goalie in Markstrom. Olli Juoelevi will need to take on Tanev's minutes on D. Any injuries to the Canucks D core could be an insurmountable mountain to climb with the aging Edler and oft-injured Myers having little in the way of a supporting cast around them. Other questions abound like whether either Thather Demko or Brayden Holtby can provide a solid goatending duo. Lack of depth on the 3rd and 4th lines could also come back to haunt them. Still, there seems to be enough talent at the top of the roster to allow the Canucks to battle for third place in what should be an ultra-tight division.
4. Calgary Flames
The Flames have a solid foursome on defense, quite possibly one of the better top four in the division and perhaps in the league. The addition of Tanev will give veteran Mark Giordano a D partner capable of eating up a lot of minutes. The Flames also addressed their goaltending issues with the signing of hulking 6 foot 6 goalie Jacob Markstrom. They also boast one of the most talented top lines in the NHL and one can expect a rebound season from Johnny Hockey. Beyond that, the team has glaring weaknesses. There is not a whole lot of depth on the wings beyond the top line.
Most good teams typically have a group of talented young players that join a roster every season and push some veterans to give a little more. There hasn't been a whole lot in the way of an emerging youth movement (at least not in terms of forwards) from within the organization for quite some time. This will have to be addressed eventually if the Flames wish to compete for more than just a bottom-seeding playoff spot.
5. Winnipeg Jets
The Jets and Oilers both have a similar glaring issue (flashing neon sign!). A "remarkable" lack of talent and depth on Defense. Outside of Josh Morrissey the Jets have nothing but questions marks and a ton of concerns. Still, they have the luxury of having one of the NHL's most consistent and reliable goaltenders in Connor Hellebuyck. Up front, despite a lack of scoring on the bottom lines the likes of Laine, Scheifele, Wheeler, Connor and the underachieving Ehlers, will provide enough offense for the Jets to outscore opponents and battle for a playoff spot. They also have size and play a physical style which could go a long way given the amount of back-to-backs this coming season. Beyond that, what seemed like a Cup contending core not too long ago, is now likely to be a middling team for the foreseable future.
6. Edmonton Oilers
Pathetic. One word that really sums up the Edmonton Oilers. Wasted. Is another that comes to mind. Connor McDavid, Leon Draisatl, two generational talents with little to nothing in the way of a supporting cast. A season-ending injury to a defenseman like Oscar Klefblom would not be a tragedy on most NHL rosters. It will be here. The Oilers have little in the way of puckmoving defenseman. In fact, the Oilers have little in the way of anything throughout the lineup outside of their two superstars. Oilers fans will be praying that the aging James Neal along with budding star Yamamoto can generate enough secondary scoring in most games. The likelihood though is that the Oilers will be golfing by the middle of May and quite possibly draft in the top 10 AGAIN. Pathetic (or did we already use that one?)
7. Ottawa Senators
The Senators, seemingly as low budget a team as there is in professional sports, are unquestionably loaded with upcoming young talent particularly up front. Upcoming though being the key word. Patience being the others. Matt Murray is undoubtedly a capable number one goalie, something the Senators were sorely lacking. The Senators should be good ....one day but will they commit to signing their budding stars to long term deals when the time will come? Or will this organization continue to be a revolving door of players departing? Time will obviously tell. But for the immediate future, playing the role of spoilers is all the Sens can possibly hope for.