Ah, the start of a new season. Coffee tastes better, air smells fresher and optimism abounds across the NHL.
For the most part, off-season moves are finished, prospects are a year closer to impact and hypothetical rosters begin to take shape. Not every fan base will have Stanley Cup on the mind, but everyone is hopeful for something good this year. What is that? We take a look at all 30 NHL teams and provide a point of optimism for each.
Whether or not you believe in the impact of a coach “lighting a fire” under his players, the Ducks hired Randy Carlyle to do just that. By the end of Bruce Boudreau’s tenure, the former Ducks coach seemed frustrated with his team and their lack of discipline in the playoffs. There will be no lolly-gagging under Carlyle.
Numbers! Stats! Analytics! The right way of thinking!
The youngest GM in the NHL, 27-year-old John Chayka, promises to present the latest interesting test case in the Fancy Stats vs. Eye Test debate. And earlier this summer he was quoted as saying “defence isn’t about defending” and went on to talk about the importance of moving the puck. This could be fun.
Don’t sleep on Tuukka Rask. The Bruins tied the Red Wings at 93 points at the end of 2015-16, but were eliminated from the post-season via tie-breaker. So, it’s reasonable to believe that if he has a more Raskian season (he had a .915 SP last season), the Bruins will get back into the playoffs after missing two years in a row.
It’s time, right? Anything less than a playoff appearance – or at least in the hunt with 91-95 points – would be a disappointment. Kyle Okposo adds more scoring punch and if Robin Lehner can stay healthy all year, the Sabres’ period of tanking could end.
They finally got a goalie! Brian Elliott’s .925 save percentage over the past five seasons is second-best among all goalies who have played at least 50 games in that time. You may say he accomplished that behind one of the league’s best team defences, but Calgary’s blue line is no slouch, finishing in the top half of the league in shot suppression.
If you’re looking for a sneaky team, the Hurricanes are it. This team allowed just 27.6 shots against per game last season, fifth-best in the league. Justin Faulk, Jaccob Slavin and Noah Hanifin make up one of the most exciting young blue lines in the league. We’re also going to really see what Teuvo Teravainen is all about.
Getting Brian Campbell for one year at $1.5 million against the cap was the best value signing of the off-season as he moves on from Florida, where he was a valuable — if overpaid — top-pair blue liner the past five seasons. Chicago was eliminated in Round 1 by the St. Louis Blues last season, which could be a blessing in disguise for 2016-17. For the first time since 2012, the Hawks got a decent summer break to recuperate.
A favourite whipping boy of the analytics community recently, the Avalanche made overtures to tame that reputation this summer. Former coach Patrick Roy, who you probably noticed most when he was pulling his goalie halfway through the third period or calling out his top scorer for celebrating a goal, is gone. Thankfully, Tyson Barrie is not. The dynamic 25-year-old defenceman was a fixture in the summer trade rumour mill, but moving him would have been a huge mistake. And 2014 Vezina finalist Semyon Varlamov is bound to be a little better, right?
Another case of a Russian goalie who can’t be in decline yet. Turning 28 in September, Sergei Bobrovsky had his worst season since 2011-12, but if he does struggle with injury again, Joonas Korpisalo looked pretty good in 31 games. The Blue Jackets were in the bottom half of the league in goals for and against last season and didn’t make any significant changes in the off-season. But their division looks wide open, with a few declining teams and others who aren’t all that special. It’s not impossible to believe the Jackets could crack the top five in the Metro Division.
The most “fun” team in the NHL, the big knock on the Stars was its defence and goaltending. Dan Hamhuis was added to the D-core and nothing was done to the goaltending, so what do you do? Add more scoring of course. Jiri Hudler is the latest addition to this ridiculous team. Dallas also has Jim Nill, one of the more active GMs since he came aboard in 2013. The window is open now for the Stars and you can be confident Nill will be aggressive to correct any shortcomings during the season.
The Red Wings have not missed the playoffs since 1990, so its supporters have been brought up on optimism. But we basically start each season now wondering if this is the one when the Wings’ streak ends, and where the next group of core players is coming from. We’re asking that again now that Pavel Datsyuk is retired. But in 54 games last season, Petr Mrazek looked magnificent in goal. Dylan Larkin lurked in the background of the Calder Trophy race. Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist are in a bounce back spot after both had drop-off seasons in 2015-16. And keep an eye on Anthony Mantha. Lots to like here still.
This is it. This has to be it. It is inevitable. Isn’t it? Adam Larsson adds the stay-at-home defence that’s been missing. Milan Lucic adds the size and physical play up front that’s been missing. Jesse Puljujarvi adds another high-upside offensive weapon because the Oilers really needed that. And best of all: Connor McDavid should be good to go for a full season. Welcome to the new era in a new arena.
The stats guys are running the show now, and the off-season was a great one for them. Keith Yandle comes in to be the younger, more dangerous version of Brian Campbell. Jason Demers locks into a much improved D-corps. And even if you don’t think Roberto Luongo can repeat his great season, that’s fine, because James Reimer effectively gives Florida two No. 1 goalies. And we haven’t mentioned the overwhelming collection of budding young talent up front. Is any team rising faster than the Panthers?
The Kings haven’t won a playoff series since winning the Stanley Cup in 2014, but they’ve still been at or near the top of the league in possession metrics among Stanley Cup winners and contenders. So fear not, because the Kings are still very much alive. And, like the Hawks, they should be rested too.
The Bruce Boudreau effect, ‘nuff said.
When he arrived in Washington in 2007-08, he took a non-playoff team back to the post-season, then back-to-back 50-plus win seasons and a legitimate league powerhouse. When he arrived in Anaheim mid-way through the 2011-12 season, they missed the playoffs, but returned in his first full year behind the bench and didn’t miss again. Even last year, after an atrocious start, Boudreau adapted his system and the Ducks ended up winning the Pacific Division. The Wild already have a good base with a great defence — and now they have the Boudreau magic. Just avoid a Game 7 and the Wild will be fine.
The Carey Price effect, ‘nuff said. The way we watched the Canadiens fall apart after Price went down made us realize he should be a Hart Trophy candidate every year. The analytically inclined hated the P.K. Subban–Shea Weber trade, but as much as that trade may be a loser in the long run, it’s not as though the Habs got Mike Komisarek here. Weber is still a top pair defenceman with a booming shot to dominate the power play. With him and the low-risk addition of Alexander Radulov, it’s hard to believe the Canadiens would be worse this year, assuming Price is 100 per cent.
On the flip side of the team above: P.K. Subban! One of the most electrifying talents in the NHL, Subban was left off Team Canada because of the risks he takes on the ice, an element not needed on a stacked international squad. But in the NHL, Subban is a top-line star on any team and really a terrific fit with Roman Josi. As far as possession stats go, only Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Dallas finished with better numbers than the Predators. They seem destined for a breakthrough.
When you have Cory Schneider as your goalie, you have plenty of room for optimism. Even though he was on a non-playoff team last year, Schneider still finished with a better GAA, SP and more shutouts than Vezina winner Braden Holtby. Offence was really where New Jersey struggled, so a warm welcome to Taylor Hall, who brings something the Devils rarely have had on their rosters – a potentially explosive scorer.
The Islanders finally won their first playoff round since 1993 last spring, but some fans were frustrated by the lack of upgrades through the summer. Instead, the Islanders lost Kyle Okposo to free agency and picked up an older Andrew Ladd. But don’t underestimate the natural progressions that could happen here and the fact GM Garth Snow has been quietly doing an excellent job bringing this team along. Thomas Greiss looks like he should be the No. 1. The defence is already a good collection and could get a nice young addition in Ryan Pulock. Speaking of emerging prospects, Mathew Barzal is a good candidate to crack the roster and have an impactful season. If you want to make a bold prediction, you could do worse than suggesting the Islanders will be the best New York State team.
Optimism is easy to come by when the ultra-consistent Henrik Lundqvist is in your crease. It’s a popular opinion to suggest the Rangers are in a decline — but there is still lots of production power in the lineup. The Rangers had the eighth-best offence in the NHL last season. For an aging team, the added some much-needed youth with Jimmy Vesey, Pavel Buchnevich and Mika Zibanejad. The Rangers looked old and slow against the Penguins in the playoffs, which they made moves to address.
The Mika Zibanejad-Derick Brassard trade was a move for the present as the Senators added a top-line centre to the mix, one who could take a run at his first 30-goal season in Ottawa. Last year’s penalty kill was atrocious, which is what UFA Chris Kelly was brought in to improve. Curtis Lazar should see more opportunities and Craig Anderson, who seems to alternate between good and mediocre seasons, is scheduled for another above-average year. Overall, the Senators are one of the younger NHL teams so there’s a growth factor here too.
OK, so GM Ron Hextall’s comment to NHL.com may not have inspired much optimism, saying “Was it a perfect summer for us? Probably not.” But there’s reason to believe Philadelphia could be better than last year’s team that made the playoffs.
Their offence struggled last year, finishing 22nd in the league, but you’d be smart to bet on Jakub Voracek recovering from a rough 11-goal, 55-point season. Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth both had pretty good seasons in net and are now in contract years, so the motivation to earn time and keep it is high. Maybe the blue line didn’t improve enough over the summer, but young stud defenceman Ivan Provorov will make a strong case for a spot at camp – it’s exciting to think of a blue line with him and Shayne Gostisbehere. Bottom line: the Flyers didn’t get worse in the off-season and one of their star players should get better this year. That’s a recipe to return to the playoffs — and a reason for optimism.
They’re the Stanley Cup champions, what’s not to be optimistic about? Their possession metrics were excellent, indicative of sustainable carry-over success. They have two No. 1 goalies — assuming Matt Murray wasn’t a blip on the radar — a clearly underrated group of defenders that would be even better if Kris Letang and Olli Maatta stay healthy, and a thick spread of high-octane offensive talent. Phil Kessel, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can be spread over three lines. That kind of star depth has no equal. This is why the Penguins could be the first repeat champs since the 1997-1998 Red Wings.
Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have one more year left on their contracts, so while last year’s Cup final appearance was somewhat of a breakthrough, this core has one more year to really go hard at a championship. The Sharks already had one of the better offences in the league and did not lack for speed, so the signing of Mikkel Boedker is just another weapon in a stacked arsenal.
The Sharks are made up of three “core” age groups. You have the Thornton-Marleau grey-veterans group, the Pavelski-Couture-Burns-Vlasic “in their prime” group and the Hertl-Donskoi “baby face” group. Last year proved the Sharks can get through the West, and they could be even better this year.
It’s their turn to break a curse. Good enough? Eventually, you figure that if you keep putting good, deep teams on the ice that luck will eventually fall in your favour and you’ll find your way through the bracket. The Sharks finally made it last year — the Blues, who have been cursed longer are on the clock.
What’s not to like here? Coach with a Stanley Cup and proven track record: check. No. 1 goalie: check. Game-breaking offensive weapons: check. Stud defencemen and a deep blue line: check. How can the Blues be more prepared than this? Have faith this is the year, Tony X.
The Lightning have a couple legitimate Hart Trophy contenders (Stamkos, Kucherov), a No. 1 defenceman who will win a Norris some day (Hedman), and a two-time Vezina finalist in net (Bishop) who has a back up so good that he’s expected to push for more starts (Vasilevskiy). The Lightning were second to Pittsburgh in the East in terms of possession metrics, they had the 13th-best offence even with down years from Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and only 21 games played from Jonathan Drouin. Depth and skill is the name of the game and the Lightning have all of that.
Believe in the process. Don’t believe in Cups (yet), but have faith that your patience will start paying off this year, Leafs fans.
Whether or not they achieve the unfathomable and make the playoffs, the Leafs should be more exciting this year as the likes of Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Zach Hyman and Nikita Soshnikov could all see a full 82-game slate. Maybe Mitch Marner, too. Frederik Andersen, hopefully, is the answer to the goaltending woes that have followed the Leafs since they basically turned their back on James Reimer after he led them to the playoffs in 2013. The analytics community loves Jake Gardiner, who has yet to really leave an impact, and Frank Corrado, who the numbers suggest deserves more playing time. The roster is still a work in progress, but at least the start of this year feels like an attempt at progress rather than settling for a participation ribbon.
If you had to point out two shortcomings of the 2015-16 Vancouver Canucks (not hard to do) you might say goal scoring and defence. So, the Canucks added Loui Eriksson, fresh off a 30-goal campaign, and big bruising defender Erik Gudbranson. Eriksson should combine with the Sedins for create a formidable top line and hopefully Vancouver gets some growth out of Bo Horvat and Jake Virtanen. Gudbranson, while not flashy, adds a physical element the Canucks were lacking on the blue line – a big problem in the tough Western Conference.
You might turn attention to the lack of goal scoring, and the lack of defending. The Canucks scored the second-fewest goals last season and allowed the second-most shots against.
The Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy, but had a familiar post-season experience: an early exit. So what is the source of optimism? The fact the front office didn’t overreact and change anything. Instead, there is an understanding this is still the best team the Capitals have iced in the Ovechkin era and that if you keep throwing these players over the boards, playoff success will come. At the very least, you get the sense that at some point, Ovechkin is just going to win a second round series all on his own.
The Jets are the most dangerous non-playoff team from last season for two reasons: 1. Their roster makeup is better than the 25th overall finish would suggest. 2. They’ve added Patrik Laine to that group.
Mark Scheifele emerged as a devastating No. 1 centre after Bryan Little went down, finishing with 32 points in his final 25 games. It’s reasonable to expect growth out of Jacob Trouba which, if it comes, would bolster a big, deep group of blue liners. There is a lot to love about this Jets roster.