(The 2018-19 NHL season is almost here. This week Pro Hockey Talk will be previewing all four divisions looking at strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)
The Metropolitan Division produced the Stanley Cup champion for the third season in a row, yet you couldn’t call it a familiar sight.
After decades of heartbreak as a franchise and a decade of heartbreak for signature star Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals finally did it. After seeing their Presidents Trophy run end and “only” winning the Metro, the Capitals won their first-ever title. Fittingly, they end to get through the Penguins, a team that’s crushed their dreams multiple times in the past. In hindsight, it HAD to happen that way.
Five Metro teams ended up making the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, with the surprising Devils, persistent-if-frustrated Blue Jackets, and rising Flyers joining the Capitals and Penguins. Few would bat an eye if the division once again sent a maximum of five squads to the postseason in 2018-19, although the cast of characters could change.
This post winds through the ups, downs, dreams, and fears for all eight teams.
Better or worse?: Oh dear, that’s a loaded question.
One thing’s for sure: they’re different. They changed their coach and GM, so we’ll see if Rod Brind’Amour can maintain the possession-happy ways that partially explain why the Hurricanes have frequently been go-to dark horse candidates. (Here’s hoping that “Rod the Bod” is more progressive and modern than “Team Grit” and “Team Grind” would indicate.)
Let’s lean toward better because, frankly, it’s tough to imagine their goaltending declining from last year’s season-sinking mess.
Strengths: Hamilton and free agent signing Calvin de Haan bolster a defense that already ranked among the deepest in the NHL. That’s especially true if the Hurricanes hang onto Justin Faulk, even if Brind’Amour will need to juggle to get everyone proper ice time. (Most other NHL GMs are sarcastically playing the world’s smallest violin.)
Beyond defense, Carolina boasts a ton of youth, and Svechnikov only strengthens that point.
Weaknesses: Goaltending, duh.
Mrazek didn’t exactly stop every puck that came his way after being traded from Detroit to Philadelphia, and while he showed flashes of brilliance in the past, his best Red Wings days are moving further away in the rearview mirror. Mrazek and Scott Darling could be OK, yet they don’t exactly inspire utmost confidence.
Also, while that offense has some pieces, it’s fair to wonder if there are enough gamebreakers. Trading away Skinner did not help.
2017-18 Highlight: The team kindly collects the best of last season in this clip.
MVP Candidate: Hamilton may put on an exhibition that will make him the guy in Carolina, but let’s bet on Aho, who led the team in scoring last season and is just 21 years old. Aho isn’t a household name, yet if you turn on a Hurricanes game, he’ll likely be the player who captivates you.
Playoffs or Lottery?: As “fool me once” as this feels, Carolina leans closer to the playoffs. No, this is not a recording; yes, it will be tough for them with plenty of other viable teams in the East. Whether they actually make it or not, Carolina is much more likely to be in the bubble than in the cellar this season.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Better or worse?: Worse, in some ways for matters that are out of their hands. The uncertainty surrounding Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky – two enormously important players – hangs over Columbus like a dark cloud. If one or both gets traded away, you can move this from a soft worse to a hard worse.
Strengths:Zach Werenski and Seth Jones might comprise the NHL’s most dazzling young defensive duo, and if they continue progressing in this current direction, you might not need the young caveat much longer.
Also, the Blue Jackets currently have a high-end forward (Panarin) and a Vezina-quality goalie (Bob). Currently.
Weaknesses: It could all come crashing down if they move Bob and Bread. We can all acknowledge that Pierre Luc-Dubois was a success a rookie, but how good is he really if he doesn’t have one of the world’s most explosive wingers helping him out? They might need to go back to a rat-like mentality if they lose their stars.
MVP Candidate: Panarin and/or Bob if one or both stays. If not, Seth Jones was really drumming up Norris Trophy buzz, although he’d need to fight off his buddy Zach, who’s generally an even more explosive scorer.
Playoffs or Lottery?: It’s easy to forget that the Blue Jackets generated 108 points in 2016-17, and were quite potent with 97 last season. They haven’t met their goals during the postseason yet, but they’ve been a force during regular seasons. Of course, losing their stars could warp that outlook …
Generally speaking, they’ve mostly just stayed in place, but call it a step back.
Strengths:Taylor Hall faces long odds in producing back-to-back Hart Trophy seasons, but he’s a spectacular winger who absorbed a comically outsized array of abuse during his Edmonton days. Hall is awesome, and the Devils have some other nice forwards, including Nico Hischier, who immediately backed up his status as the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft. Kudos to New Jersey for embracing its strengths on offense last season, and there’s little reason to expect them to turn away from what worked.
Weaknesses:Cory Schneider was basically in a crisis in 2017-18, and it’s not as if that defense is really equipped to bail him out. The Devils’ forward group has some other nice pieces (especially if Marcus Johansson can get healthy), yet they still ask Hall to pull off one too many miracles.
2017-18 Highlight: All Hail Hall.
MVP Candidate: Uh, duh, the reigning MVP.
Playoffs or Lottery?: Last year, it was a no-brainer to be lottery, and then the Devils made a stunning run to a playoff berth. GM Ray Shero deserves some credit for not overreacting and messing things up by adding a bunch of short-term investments, but New Jersey is unlikely to walk that tightrope again. They’re closer to lottery fodder heading into 2018-19.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS:
Better or worse?: (Laughs awkwardly.)
Strengths:Mathew Barzal should soothe some of the John Tavares-related wounds, as he is a splendid scoring wizard of a sophomore. Sure, it will be tough to ask him to top or match last season, especially with a lot more pressure on his shoulders and far more attention from opposing defenses. Barzal, Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, and Nick Leddy provide the sort of offensive spark that might make the Islanders fun to watch, at times.
Also, Barry Trotz could help clean up that disastrous defense.
Weaknesses: Good grief, that defense was horrendous last season, and the goaltending couldn’t clean up matters, either. Both stand as likely problems heading into 2018-19, although improvements are easy to imagine simply because the bar is so long. Unfortunately, no Tavares means that their offense is weaker by a face of the franchise-sized margin.
2017-18 Highlight: The Islanders might as well put up a Barzal billboard.
MVP Candidate: Sorry to heap all of these expectations on you, Barzal, but there’s no other choice. The 21-year-old scored 85 points in 82 games last season, and who’s to say that isn’t just the tip of the iceberg?
Playoffs orLottery?: Lottery, by a mile. On the bright side, the Islanders hit it out of the park during the 2018 NHL Draft, and could very well land another blue chipper in 2019. Jack Hughes could look really nice as a one-two punch with Barzal, eh?
NEW YORK RANGERS
Better or worse?: Worse, yet by design. Management acknowledged that a rebuild is in motion. The fascinating question is: how long will they commit to that plan? What happens if Artemi Panarin really does heart New York?
Weaknesses: That defense is a tire fire inside a Dumpster fire transported by a train wreck. Holy smokes. Also, Lundqvist may indeed be feeling his age and all of that past hockey mileage, and the offense is unlikely to hang with other explosive groups in the Metro. So, let’s broadly say “lots.”
2017-18 Highlight: Pavel Buchnevich made a fan’s day last season.
MVP Candidate: If anyone’s even in the realm of Hart chatter, it has to be King Henrik. Even Rangers management might root against that, consider New York’s eyeing of the basement.
Playoffs or Lottery?: Lottery, and expect the Rangers to chase more chances at first-round picks. Could they trade Zuccarello? Maybe the question is actually, “Who won’t they trade?”
Better or worse?: The glorious return of James van Riemsdyk gives a boost to a power play that already consistently ranked among the NHL’s most terrifying groups. Considering how Nolan Patrick ended last season, it wouldn’t be surprising if he made a nice jump – if not leap – this season, too.
Strengths: Remember that bit about Columbus’ defensive duo? Philly readers might have been yelling at their screens while eating decadent sandwiches (seriously, I need to get to Philly one of these days). Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere are right up there with the best young duos in the NHL. With Claude Giroux revamped last season, Sean Couturier climbing the Selke ranks, and other scorers looking promising – opponents can’t be happy that Travis Konecny blew up once the calendar turned 2018 – this offense should be potent.
It sure seems like GM Ron Hextall’s vision is coming into focus, and it’s a sight for sore eyes.
Weaknesses: Head coach Dave Hakstol isn’t exactly beloved by Flyers fans, so that’s something to watch if Philly stumbles out of the gate.
Brian Elliott tends to play best when people count him out, and all three of Philly’s potential goalies should have motivation (contract years for Elliott and Michal Neuvirth, Carter Hart wanting to prove himself as NHL goalie now). Still, goaltending is the eternal question for the Flyers, and this year probably won’t disappoint.
2017-18 Highlight: Giroux clinched a Flyers playoff spot in style.
MVP Candidate: Giroux crossed the triple-digit barrier for the first time last season, collecting a whopping 102 points. If he can avoid the erosion of age – he turned 30 in January – then the Flyers captain could be in the Hart discussion once again.
Playoffs or Lottery?: Playoffs. Considering the young players Philly boasts, it’s not outrageous to daydream about exponential growth for the Flyers. If they see more baby steps than leaps, they’re still likely to at least be in the bubble.
On one hand, Matt Murray is likely to enjoy a better season, and the hope is that Kris Letang will be healthier. On the other, this team’s getting older; considering how star-dependent this team can be, any slippage from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin could really sting.
Strengths: Still, those stars.
Crosby and Malkin remain among the cream of the crop. All of the drama around Phil Kessel really distracts from the remarkable feat he accomplished in 2017-18, setting a new career-high with 92 points, including 34 goals.
This team has a lot of weapons, and a coach willing to actually deploy them. It’s plausible that Derick Brassard will rebound during a contract year, too.
Weaknesses: This Penguins team gives up almost as much as it produces, and that puts a heavy burden on Murray. If Brassard and others can’t get it together, Pittsburgh will continue to ask the world of their world-beaters. In a team sport like hockey, that frequently translates to asking too much.
2017-18 Highlight: Last season felt like an elaborate MLB tryout for number 87.
MVP Candidate: The Penguins remain a pick your poison proposition: will Crosby be the top star this year, or will Makin snatch the crown? Despite playing four fewer games in 2017-18, Malkin generated 98 points to Crosby’s 89. Sometimes it’s as simple as which superstar center enjoys the most help. In that regard, did you know that Jake Guentzel is entering a contract year?
Playoffs or Lottery?: Playoffs. This team’s managed to clinch berths even during seasons when multiple star players miss huge chunks of time due to injury. The Penguins remain all-in, and the window to contend remains open. We’ll see if they can put it all together.
Better or worse?: Worse, yet not to the extreme that plenty of championship teams encounter. They managed to bring back key pieces of their magical curse-breaking Stanley Cup run, with John Carlson‘s re-signing ranking as arguably the biggest surprise. They didn’t even break the bank with depth players, generally speaking, as many championship teams do. That Michal Kempny deal was remarkably reasonable.
Then again, they did give Tom Wilson a gobsmacking amount of money, and Barry Trotz is out. Also, they killed untold number of brain cells celebrating their epic victory …
Strengths: The Capitals feature the many building blocks of a juggernaut. Alex Ovechkin is the high-end sniper. They have a great one-two punch of centers in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, while their supporting cast features a nice veteran (T.J. Oshie) and intriguing young scorers such as Jakub Vrana and Andre Burakovsky. For all the worries about Todd Reirden taking over for Trotz, he might be more willing to unleash Vrana and Burakovsky. The defense has some nice pieces, and Braden Holtby shook off a tough regular season to remind us why he’s one of the league’s most reliably great goaltenders.
There just aren’t a lot of holes on this team.
Weaknesses: Reirden’s never been a head coach, and he’s facing a huge challenge in trying to repeat. Like the Penguins, the Capitals aren’t ancient, yet Father Time is at least hovering as a threat, at least when it comes to competing at the highest levels. With Philipp Grubauer in Colorado, Washington may not have much of a safety net if Holtby once again falters.
2017-18 Highlight: Pick your favorite.
MVP Candidate: People expect Ovechkin to stagger through the first few months of the season after knocking the biggest, silver item off of his bucket list, and understandably so.
On the other hand, he’s Alex Ovechkin. Despite playing a physical style where he receives and delivers a raucous number of hits, Ovechkin’s managed to play almost every game possible. Ovechkin’s played in far more games than Crosby (1,003 to 864) despite his rambunctious style.
Playoffs or Lottery?: Most seasons, it’s more reasonable to merely wonder if the Capitals will win the Presidents’ Trophy, or just their division. With a coaching change, less certainty at backup, creeping age, and the Stanley Cup hangover, maybe the Capitals will relinquish the Metro crown. Regardless, they still have the tools for a playoff berth.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Nashville Predators see no reason to make any major changes to a roster that won the franchise’s first Presidents’ Trophy, not with a group that has been so very close to that elusive Stanley Cup the past two seasons.
”It didn’t work out in the playoffs the way we wanted,” Nashville captain Roman Josi said. ”But we truly believe this team can win a Stanley Cup, and that’s why we want to keep this team together.”
The Predators lost the 2017 Stanley Cup Final in six games to Pittsburgh and followed that up with the best regular season in team history. But Nashville’s quest for a repeat run to the Final ended in the first Game 7 on home ice in the Western Conference semifinals with a loss to Winnipeg , the team that finished second overall behind the Predators in the regular season.
Defenseman Mattias Ekholm said a Game 7 can go either way. The Predators know the rest of the Western Conference keeps loading up with talent through trades and signings. That makes just reaching the playoffs a challenge in the West, much less repeating either as conference or Central Division champs.
”It’s a privilege we are together still, and we barely had any change on our roster,” Ekholm said. ”I see that as a very positive thing.”
Some other things to know about the Predators this season:
Pekka Rinne is coming off a Vezina Trophy-winning season, his first in his fourth time as a finalist for the award for the NHL’s top goalie in the regular season. He was at his best carrying the Predators to the Presidents’ Trophy, going 42-13-4 with eight shutouts, a 2.31 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage. He also earned his 300th career victory on Feb. 22. Rinne turns 36 in November and is going into the final season of his current contract.
The Predators also signed Rinne’s backup, a fellow Finn in Juuse Saros who was named to the NHL’s All-Rookie team for the season. Saros, 23, signed a three-year extension after going 11-5-7 with a 2.44 goals-against average and .925 save percentage.
”There’s more skill on the ice than ever before, the same goes for goalies,” Rinne said. ”You really have to take care of yourself, and I feel like I had a good summer. I’m healthy and energized and feel really good so looking forward to this season.”
Center Mike Fisher retired again, this time for good after coming out of retirement to rejoin the Predators in late February. Veteran forward Scott Hartnell also was let go with his experienced replaced by signing Dan Hamhuis, a defenseman Nashville drafted at No. 12 in the 2001 entry draft. Defenseman Alexei Emelin also was allowed to leave for the KHL.
Along with an extension for Saros, general manager David Poile also signed forwards Ryan Hartman and Miikka Salomaki to extensions keeping the restricted free agents around. The biggest deal of the offseason for Nashville easily was signing defenseman Ryan Ellis to an eight-year deal worth $50 million that keeps him under contract through the 2026-27 season. Ellis still had a season remaining, so Poile kept the defenseman’s status from hanging over the Predators. The move also keeps three of Nashville’s top four defensemen – Ellis, P.K. Subban and Ekholm – signed through the 2021-22 season.
Eeli Tolvanen couldn’t have come to the NHL with much higher expectations after setting a scoring record as an 18-year-old for Jokerit in the Kontinental Hockey League, and he also tied for the second-most points by an under-19 player for Finland at the Winter Olympics with nine points in five games. He played three games down the stretch for Nashville. Rinne said European media were disappointed Tolvanen didn’t have a hat trick in his opener, but the goalie believes the teen made the right move to get acquainted with the Predators last spring.
”I’m expecting big things out of him,” Rinne said.
The Predators sure could use a big step forward in the regular season by the big first-line center. Johansen ranked fourth on the team in points in the regular season with 54 in 79 games. Then Johansen scored better than a point a game with 14 points in 13 games in the postseason, and the center looking a bit more at the net than passing could provide a boost across the top line with Filip Forsberg.
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — An offseason of soul-searching led forward Kyle Okposo to realize a roster overhaul alone wasn’t going to improve the Buffalo Sabres’ fortunes.
Okposo figured out that he and other team leaders would also have to change their approach. They had to buy in mentally and physically if Buffalo stood a chance of climbing out of a rut after finishing last in for the third time in five years.
”Everybody talks about change and change and change. You hear it 100 times. But until you do, you haven’t,” Okposo said. ”You have to put the work in. You can’t just show up next year and say, ‘Oh, I think it’s going to be different,’ because that’s the definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”
With Buffalo mired in a franchise-worst seven-year playoff drought, it’s now on the players and second-year coach Phil Housley to show they’re not the same dysfunctional team, whose season was summed up by now-traded center Ryan O'Reilly‘s claim of a losing culture having crept into the locker room.
”I’ve used those words a few time,” Okposo said, when asked if he was cautiously optimistic. ”It’s more of a fresh start, like a baptism almost.”
And that was after Buffalo drafted 18-year-old Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin with the No. 1 pick.
Housley took aim at addressing the team’s culture. He opened a dialogue by allowing his leaders to air differences and raise concerns through a series of frank discussions in what became an offseason-long cleansing session.
”I give them all credit, because they have had to put themselves in a vulnerable position at times, they’ve had to listen to feedback and a lot of criticism they might not have liked to hear,” Housley said, including himself and staff in that equation. ”But I think if you are going to make a difference, and you want to change the direction of this franchise, we have to change as people.
The challenge now is seeing how the Sabres respond once they open the season hosting Boston on Oct. 4.
”There’s just a really good vibe right now,” Housley said. ”But when we face adversity, it’s going to be interesting how we handle that. And I have the trust and confidence in our group.”
DAHLIN ON D
Dahlin has already created a buzz with his smooth-skating and heads-up play-making abilities. Fans packed the Sabres practice facility to watch Dahlin take part in the team’s rookie camp in June and a prospects tournament in September. Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman told The Associated Press Dahlin has the potential to become the best defenseman in franchise history.
YOU KNOW JACK
Center Jack Eichel has changed his number, from 15 to 9, and acknowledged a need to have a more even-keeled approach by openly showing fewer signs of frustration on the ice and in the locker room. The second player selected in the 2015 draft also enters the first season of an eight-year, $80 million contract, and eager to show he’s maturing into a leader.
”The losing the last few years, I’ve never dealt with that in my life. You have to learn from it and figure out what you can do to change it,” Eichel said.
BETWEEN THE PIPES
Hutton is pegged to share the goaltending duties with Linus Ullmark, who makes the jump to the NHL on a full-time basis after spending most the past three seasons developing in the minors. They replace the tandem of Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson, who departed in free agency. Hutton enters his sixth season after spending the past two in St. Louis, where he went 30-15-5 in 62 appearances.
FROM THE CO-OWNER
”Listen, it can’t get any worse. I mean 31st is pretty much the bottom,” Sabres co-owner Kim Pegula said with a laugh. But she and her husband, Terry, remain patient.
”Consistency and growth is really where we are from an ownership standpoint, as opposed to the fan,” she said. ”We need to temper our kneejerk on that.”
The Sabres open with a four-game homestand before playing 12 of 17 on the road, including a western swing that has them playing five games in nine days.
It happens every year. Fantasy hockey GMs draft a guy and expect a lot from him until he falls flat on his face. Oh the frustration. Well, the good news is that we’re here to tell you which of those players will bounce back in a big way in 2018-19.
Here’s the top bounce back candidates for the upcoming season:
Pacioretty went into last season having scored at least 30 goals in each of his previous four seasons. Things went off the rails in a hurry in Montreal last season and it led to Pacioretty being traded to the Golden Knights. The incredible thing about Pacioretty’s production, is that it came without him ever having a top-end center. Paul Stastny isn’t necessarily a high-end center, but he’s better than anyone Pacioretty’s played with before. Don’t be surprised if the newest Golden Knight hits 35 this year.
Drouin had an incredibly difficult first year with the Montreal Canadiens last season. Not only did he have to get used to a new team and new teammates, he also made the move from the wing to center. This preseason, the Canadiens moved him back to the wing and he looks a lot more comfortable. Don’t be surprised if the 23-year-old surpasses the 13 goals and 46 points he put up last year.
Rattie comes into this season having put up 19 points in 49 career games in the NHL, but he’s getting the opportunity to play with Connor McDavid this preseason. As you’d imagine, things have gone pretty well. He picked up seven points in his first two exhibition games, so if he sticks with McDavid, there could be some serious fantasy value appeal there.
Lindholm has been pretty consistent over the last four years. He’s put up between 39 and 45 points with the Hurricanes since 2014-15. Now that he’s with the Flames, he’ll have more offensive talent around, which means there should be more opportunities to pick up points as the season progresses.
Saad had an incredibly disappointing first year back in Chicago. The 25-year-old scored just 18 goals and 35 points after hitting at least 52 points during the previous three seasons. Saad could get an extended look with Patrick Kane to open the season, so the upside for him to hit the 30-goal mark, again, is definitely there.
Beauvillier ended up finishing last season with a respectable 21 goals and 36 points in 71 games, but he had his share of ups and downs. The Islanders even felt the need to send him back to the minors mid-season. With John Tavares no longer in New York, Mathew Barzal will need someone new to step up. Enter Beauvillier. The 21-year-old could be one of the big surprises of 2018-19.
After reading everything he went through while dealing with a concussion, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Okposo and his family. Now that he’s healthy again, the 30-year-old could get back to surpassing the 20-goal and 50-point marks this season. The Sabres are young, but there’s no denying that they have talent.
Schultz posted a career-high 12 goals and 51 points two years ago, but those numbers dropped 27 points last season. Of course, he also missed 19 games due to injury. Expecting him to score 51 points again might be a little ambitious, but he should be able to improve last year’s numbers.
The Canadiens probably won’t be a playoff team, but it’s hard to imagine that Price will be worse than he was last year. The 31-year-old had 16-26-7 record with a 3.11 goals-against-average and a .900 save percentage. Yeah, it was a brutal year for him. His new eight-year extension that comes with a cap hit of $10.5 million kicks in this year, so the pressure will definitely be on. Price should be fine.
Murray’s first year as the undisputed starting netminder in Pittsburgh didn’t go so well. He had a solid 27-16-3 record, but that had more to do with the fact that he was on a good team. He added a 2.92 goals-against-average and a .907 save percentage in 2017-18. Now that he’s gone through one year without Marc-Andre Fleury, he’ll be better equipped to handle a heavy workload.