How are the divisions going to shake out this season? Here’s a look at some pressing questions — and some not so much — facing the Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central and Pacific.
Which team can shake up the division?
Even without their captain for the majority of last season, the Lightning still almost snuck into the playoffs. With Steven Stamkos back at full strength, the Lightning should once again be a favourite to win the Atlantic. He’s one of the NHL’s top centres when healthy, Victor Hedman is a Norris-calibre defenceman and Nikita Kucherov established himself as an MVP candidate last season. They just have too much talent up and down their lineup to remain on the outside looking in. There are some questions surrounding Andrei Vasilevskiy in goal, but the 23-year-old has posted a .915 SV% in 90 career games and still has room to improve.
The division’s X-factor?
The Bruins are a tough team to peg. They have the best line in hockey in Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. Tuukka Rask has the ability to be one of the top goalies in the NHL. Their defence has a lot of potential with Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Torey Krug leading the next wave, and Zdeno Chara is still a beast, even if he has lost a step. But they don’t have too much outside of that top line, and young players, especially defencemen, can be volatile in their development and Rask has been pretty average for two straight seasons. Like several teams in the Atlantic, the Bruins could very well win the division or miss the playoffs entirely.
The Panthers probably deserve to be mentioned here as well. They won the division two years ago and have the talent to make another push. Their defence is impressive and on the rise, they have some nice pieces up front, including stud centre Aleksander Barkov, and a quality tandem in goal. But they did make some head-scratching decisions in the summer and on paper don’t appear much improved from the team that finished sixth in the division with 81 points. But they did deal with a number of injuries to key players last season, so they definitely could surprise some teams if they can remain healthy.
Team most likely to finish behind the Golden Knights?
The Red Wings are an odd team. They have some good young talent in Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou (if he even plays) and Dylan Larkin, along with solid veteran support in Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Tatar, Frans Nielsen and Gustav Nyquist. And they have two goalies who combined should be able to provide adequate goaltending. But their defence is bad and they lack the top-end talent up front to compete with some of the division’s heavy hitters. It should be another grim year in the D, which at this point is probably a good thing for the franchise.
The team with bust potential?
Given their well-rounded forward group and god-level goaltending, it seems unlikely the Canadiens will finish outside of the playoff picture. They don’t have great centre depth, but they didn’t last year either and still finished with 103 points and added Jonathan Drouin in the summer. So how could they bust? Their defence is a little slow-footed, which can be problematic in a league where speed kills. And if Price goes down, well we saw what happened in 2015-16. You can’t bank on that happening again, but few teams rely on one player like the Canadiens do with Price.
Which team falls furthest?
Erik Karlsson is one of the best players on the planet. Erik Karlsson also had half his ankle bone taken out during offseason surgery. It’s hard to doubt Karlsson, especially with how he recovered from his Achilles injury a few years back, but things don’t sound too rosy at the moment. That’s part of the problem, but the main reason the Senators could see a drop-off this year is because of how good they were last year. It will be tough to repeat their success if they’re once again a team with a negative goal-differential and bottom-10 special teams whose best player is skating on half an ankle.
Which team is irrelevant?
Jack Eichel single-handedly makes the Sabres relevant — he’s awesome. But in the context of this exercise, the Sabres aren’t quite there yet. They have two good lines, but their defence is suspect and they don’t have much up front in their bottom six. Phil Housely should help them improve, but it’s hard to see the Sabres taking a giant leap forward.
Which team is must-see TV?
The NHL is all about speed and skill, and the Leafs have both in spades. Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner are just plain fun to watch, whether you like the Leafs or not. Their first-round series against the Capitals bore this out, as it was some of the most exciting hockey last spring.
Which team will make you want to change the channel?
A few exciting parts and a shiny new barn won’t make up for the fact the Red Wings play a boring brand of hockey. It’ll still be worth tuning in to see the final days of Henrik Zetterberg and to keep tabs on the kids, but purely from an entertainment standpoint, there’s probably something better to watch.
Finally, who takes it?
Really, this is a complete crap shoot — there’s not much separating the top five or six teams in the Atlantic and each one has a worthy case to win the division. But the Leafs get the edge because of their superior firepower and depth up front.
Individually, the Leafs had five forwards who had 20-plus goals and six players with 55-plus points last season and they added Patrick Marleau, who should be good for another 20-goal campaign. Regression is always a possibility, for sure, but it’s usually less likely for elite offensive talents like Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner, who will only get better. They also have plenty of players waiting in the wings should they not be so fortunate on the injury front.
The Leafs will have no problem filling the net again this season after finishing fifth in that department a season ago (both overall and at 5-on-5) and their power play, which ranked second, will once again be a major threat. Frederik Andersen, although not Carey Price, gives the Leafs stability in goal.
If they can tighten up a bit defensively and win a few more one-goal games (they finished last in those contests with a .378 winning percentage, including going 1-8 in the shootout) the Leafs should improve on their totals from a year ago.