Leaves are still clinging to their branches, frost has yet to encroach, and a delicious nip of hope wafts in the air.
No matter how underwhelming your preseason or how torturous your RFA experience may have been, there are 31 juicy doughnuts in the NHL’s loss column.
That clean sheet of ice on Opening Night is, in essence, a blank sheet to rewrite your narrative and force the critics and naysayers to crumple up those dismal off-season prognostications.
Search hard enough and you’ll uncover reasons to believe in every market. Hey, there is always a surprise club or two that makes a run out of nowhere. Such is the beauty of a league built on parity. That team could be yours!
Without further ado, we present 2019-20’s NHL Power Rankings: 31 Reasons To Believe Edition (a nod to your favourite aging hockey reporter’s favourite rock star).
All 31 teams are ranked according to this author’s highly biased evaluation of their strength heading into the season.
The Lightning return with essentially the same roster that tied the 1995-96 Red Wings’ NHL record for most wins in a season (62). It’s a group that features the reigning Vezina champ, Andrei Vasilevskiy, the reigning Art Ross and Hart winner, Nikita Kucherov, and young stud Brayden Point, the latest to take advantage of Florida’s lax state tax. Complemented by inexpensive Cup winner Patrick Maroon and a Kevin Shattenkirk with something to prove, presumably the group will be steeled by their post-season ouster by eight-seed Columbus and eager to avenge that embarrassment.
2. Dallas Stars
Corey Perry turns that chip on his shoulder into a 60-point campaign, a 35-year-old Joe Pavelski picks up where last year’s 38-goal season left off, and Dallas finally has the secondary scoring punch to complement one of the league’s most mobile D corps and best goaltending tandems. Book a trip to the final.
The Maple Leafs have identified and locked up their core — and it’s young, quick and can pile up goals. True, the futures of defencemen Jake Muzzin, Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci are undetermined, but they are Leafs today—and they’ll provide a dynamic top four to skate in front of Frederik Andersen, among the world’s best at his position.
Matt Duchene can actually be what the Predators were banking on Kyle Turris to be: a solid 2C that piles up points and provides a much-needed jolt to a sagging power play. Yes, P.K. Subban’s departure represents a drop in blue-line talent, but it also signals a drop in rumours and conjecture. The pressure is off as expectations ramp up in Dallas and Colorado. Now is the time for Nashville to strike.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The champions will defend their title with essentially the same lineup as the one that threw its gloves high into the TD Garden air last June and piled on top of each other. Sure, hometown hero Maroon moved on, but youngsters like Robert Thomas and Vince Dunn have space to grow, and surprise acquisition Justin Faulk can aid a sluggish power play. Goalie Jordan Binnington took a short-term contract and is dead set on proving his half-season run was not some spectacular anomaly.
Maxed out near the cap ceiling, Don Sweeney’s Bruins were unable to add any player of significance in the off-season, and they watched a good winger in Marcus Johansson walk away. Fatigue, age and injuries may play a factor after driving within 60 minutes of another Beantown championship—but the B’s are an established, experienced force in this league. Boston dresses one of the best goaltending tandems, surrounds Zdeno Chara with an exciting young blue line, and can put their top trio of forwards against anybody.
Who cares if common belief has the Oilers getting the overpaid winger (James Neal) with the better upside in the big intraprovincial trade? Or if Calgary doesn’t truly know what it has in its goaltending tandem of David Rittich and Cam Talbot? The Flames unleash one of the league’s deepest offences up front, didn’t have to trade a body to sign Matthew Tkachuk, and are blessed with a dependable corps of blueliners led by the Norris champ. They were the West’s best regular-season club in 2018-19 and can take advantage of not being in the Central Division. Like Tampa, the Flames should storm in hungry after a shaky Round 1 exit.
Still stewing after their dramatic Game 7 loss to San Jose, the Golden Misfits will re-establish themselves as the toast of the Pacific, thanks in large part to what a full season of Mark Stone can do for a group.
Nathan MacKinnon doesn’t catch feelings that he helped make Mikko Rantanen richer than himself, Nazem Kadri rediscovers his 30-goal game as a second-line centre, and a fresh start allows Andre Burakovsky to realize his untapped potential. Fast, fun and young, the Avalanche hit the gas and speed from lovable underdog to legit threat.
10. San Jose Sharks
A healthier, less-stressed Erik Karlsson and a return-to-form Martin Jones help make up for the loss of Joe Pavelski, while Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl and Kevin Labanc each take another step in their path to bona fide top-six threats.
After serving his three-game suspension, Evgeny Kuznetsov will be inspired to bounce back from both a soft season production-wise but also an off-season of criticism and punishment for cocaine use. Top centre Nicklas Backstrom and No. 1 goalie Braden Holtby will reach new heights in contract years. And Nick Jensen and Radko Gudas will pick up the slack left by stable Cup winners Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen.
12. Winnipeg Jets
Those on the outside look at the departures of Tyler Myers and Jacob Trouba, the enigma that is Dustin Byfuglien, plus the contract disputes of Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine, and see a window closing shut. Inside, the Jets suddenly feel underestimated. This is still a strong, well-balanced, battle-tested core that can go as deep as Connor Hellebuyck takes them.
13. Florida Panthers
The arrival of Sergei “He’ll Get You to the Dance” Bobrovsky and a healthy Vincent Trochek made Coach Q look like a genius and thrust the Panthers right in the mix of the competitive Atlantic.
If there was fret that Pittsburgh’s stars would get comfortable with their accomplishments, the happenings of recent months should serve as a wake-up call: getting booted from the playoffs with relative ease from the Islanders; hearing Evgeni Malkin’s name pop up (again) in trade speculation and vent his frustrations with himself; and watching sniper Phil Kessel get traded for Alex Galchenyuk, who has much more to prove. After a Jim Rutherford reset, Sidney Crosby & Co. take aim to reclaim a Metropolitan Division that is totally up for grabs.
Now unburdened by holding the NHL’s longest playoff drought — here’s the baton, Buffalo — Carolina’s middling offence will get a boost from affordable acquisitions Jake Gardiner, Ryan Dzingel and Erik Haula. Franchise centre Sebastian Aho will take another step toward greatness. And the luxury of having six picks in the first three rounds of the 2020 draft will give Don Waddell the currency to be a deadline buyer.
Jonathan Drouin gets his groove, Max Domi proves 2018-19 wasn’t a fluke, and Ryan Poehling averages three goals a game. Marc Bergevin uses his plethora of picks and cap space to become a serious mid-season buyer, and, mercifully, Carey Price has the run support he craves to go on another playoff run.
Moving on from Robin Lehner and his Vezina-finalist season was the right call because Semyon Varlamov, 31, must be due to play like he did in 2017-18 (.920 save percentage), not 2018-19 (.909), right? Derick Brassard has plenty to prove on a one-year, $1.2-million contract, and young talent like Michael Dal Colle and Mathew Barzal are ready to provide some goals to go with the Isles’ solid team defence.
18. New York Rangers
Jeff Gorton is crowned 2020 GM of the Year after his acquisitions of Jacob Trouba, Adam Fox, Artemi Panarin and Kakko Kaapo make Rangers hockey must-see TV again. Chris Kreider is rented away for more futures to funnel into the rebuild, and People finally rights a wrong and names Henrik Lundqvist as Sexiest Man Alive.
Robin Lehner proves 2018-19 was no fluke and makes the decision to move on from Corey Crawford easier on Stan Bowman. The overhauled blue line adds some balance to a dangerous mix of youth and vets up front, and the late-surging Blackhawks steal a wild-card spot as the team no one wants to face in Round 1.
20. Arizona Coyotes
Phil Kessel’s wrister and charisma will pack Glendale. Clayton Keller, Nick Schmaltz and Christian Dvorak made John Chayka look like a genius for locking them up long and early. And Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper provide the best goaltending $6 million can buy. The Yotes’ undeniable wagon status leads to an insufferable amount of Paul Bissonnette’s boasting about their Cup chances on Spittin Chiclets.
Columbus no longer has a bona fide No. 1 goaltender or dynamic scoring winger. It lost a top-two centreman, too. But no one can sell an us-against-the-world narrative like coach John Tortorella, who can count on one of the game’s best young D pairs, a nice cap cushion and a collective chip on the shoulder to try to build off the best season in franchise history.
Kevin Hayes proves that $50 million isn’t too much to shell out for a solid two-way centre. Carter Hart, now old enough to order a beer with his cheesesteak, is the NHL’s best bargain at $730,833. And Alain Vigneault and Chuck Fletcher return the Flyers to relevancy in their first full year running the show. (Bonus: Gritty sees the light, gets his life in order and finds himself nominated for the Masterton.)
Loui Eriksson enjoys a resurgence not even his mother saw coming, the new-look top six gels like hair grease, and Quinn Hughes bests little brother Jack to give the Canucks back-to-back Calder trophies. All this results in a wild-card spot and the coach and GM keeping their jobs.
P.K. Subban is a distraction in the best way possible—meaning people actually discuss the New Jersey Devils. Jack Hughes is dynamic enough to spur a round of “Is he better than Connor?” hot takes. Taylor Hall re-signs. And, most importantly, “Hip Hop Hooray” becomes the club’s new goal song.
25. Edmonton Oilers
As ticket prices, mercifully, remain flat, a fully rehabbed Connor McDavid & Co. treat the tortured Edmonton fan base to their second post-season run in 13 tries. New coach Dave Tippett finds an effective defensive structure that so many others before him missed, and GM Ken Holland doesn’t make the mistake of trading away Ryan Nugent-Hopkins for pennies on the dollar.
26. Buffalo Sabres
Jason Botterill’s leftfield hire of Ralph Krueger has an immediate impact throughout a previously inconsistent roster. We see more of the Sabres who ripped through a 10-game win streak and less of the one that couldn’t rub two W’s together to save their lives. Buffalo’s low-key acquisitions of Marcus Johansson, Colin Miller and Jimmy Vesey help solve the depth issue, and Carter Hutton is more relaxed knowing what a full winter as an NHL starter feels like.
27. Anaheim Ducks
Corey Perry is gone. Ryan Kesler and Patrick Eaves are ailing. It’s time for a new wave of Ducks to float. The Dallas Eakins hire helps expedite a faster, younger wave of hockey in Anaheim. And without the burden of high expectations, the Ducks are celebrated as 2020’s comeback kids.
28. Minnesota Wild
Mats Zuccarello gives the franchise some jump and personality. Kevin Fiala emerges as a star on the rise, the veteran core stays healthy, and new GM Bill Guerin makes some shrewd in-season moves that keep the Wild in contention through a series of 2-1 victories.
29. Ottawa Senators
They’re a team. And one no one is counting on them to make noise outside of the lottery-odds conversation. But what if expensive players like Bobby Ryan, Nikita Zaitsev and Craig Anderson were to give good bang for their buck? What if a healthy Jean-Gabriel Pageau makes a difference? What if new coach D.J. Smith gets the type of work ethic he’s demanding, and the kids—Brady Tkachuk, Logan Brown, Drake Batherson, Thomas Chabot—all take another giant step? We’re saying there’s a chance.
Dylan Larkin is crowned captain in his first point-per-game season, Detroit’s veterans don’t fall off as fast as you think, and younger talents like Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou wow with breakout seasons. Such is the magic of Steve Yzerman.
Ticked off by a dismal season racked with injuries and firings and buyouts and underwhelming effort, the great Kings core pulls it together for one last hurrah and Todd McLellan reminds the world that, yes, he is the type of coach that can guide a team to the playoffs.