Editor’s note: Contributor Phil Stacey helps us kick off the NHL season with a preview of which teams he thinks will make the postseason.
Picking which NHL teams will make the playoffs before the season actually begins—you know, before injuries and trades and coaching changes and momentum swings and lulls that go from a few games to a few weeks and disappointing veterans and unheralded rookies making an impact and so on—is like shooting fish in a barrel.
But what the hell, let’s give it a shot anyway.
- Tampa Bay Lightning: Aside from maybe an upgrade over Ben Bishop in goal, where would you improve this team? From scoring and speed to defense and depth, Steve Yzerman has built a club that’s stacked to the gills.
- Washington Capitals: There have been teams (see: Boston Bruins, 2011) that had to suffer a crushing playoff defeat before earning ultimate victory the following season. Alexander Ovechkin, Braden Holtby & Co. can only hope this is the way they shoo away their postseason demons for good.
- Pittsburgh Penguins: Is Sidney Crosby’s concussion a precautionary measure or a legitimate concern? Can Matt Murray remain a bona fide No. 1 goalie in the NHL? Will Geno Malkin return to the scoring force he was in years past? How will Phil Kessel play now that he has his ring? Can the Penguins repeat and become the first team to do so in 21 years?
- Florida Panthers: After years of being a league laughingstock, the Panthers have built a foundation that virtually every other NHL club would love to own. Lots of young, fast, talented and hungry players eager to erase last year’s one-and-done playoff appearance.
- Montreal Canadiens: Does Carey Price mean that much to the Canadiens’ franchise that no one else could pick up the slack and carry the team a year ago? Assuming the all-star goaltender can stay healthy this winter, we’ll find out.
- New York Rangers: It’s easy to feel like their chances of hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup for the first time since 1994 are slipping away and that Henrik Lundqvist won’t ever get his name on the mug. Still, the Broadway Blueshirts had a lot more rest this offseason—thanks to a first round exit at the hands of eventual champion Pittsburgh—and start this campaign more rested than they have in years.
- New Jersey Devils: Legitimate Vezina Trophy candidate in Corey Schneider keeps them in virtually every game they play. If Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique & Co. can find a way to pop the puck in the net with more frequency—and the team can win a few OT games for a change—Jersey earns a postseason ticket.
- New York Islanders: Not sure I’d bet the farm on a Jaroslav Halak-Thomas Greiss goaltending tandem, but it seems to work for the Islanders. John Tavares alone is worth 85 points and probably 10-15 points in the standings.
Eastern Conference champion: Washington Capitals
- Chicago Blackhawks: Best coach, best leader, top scorer. The pieces may change around those three men (Joel Quenneville, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane), but along with a killer D and steady Corey Crawford in goal, the Hawks are going to be there in the end.
- Dallas Stars: A one-year wonder, or the start of something big happening in Big D? That’s the question so many of us want answered this season. Closest thing we’ve seen to firewagon hockey in 20 years.
- Calgary Flames: While it all fell apart in Alberta a year ago, I’m sensing the Flames might do a complete reversal and turn it around in ‘16-‘17. Johnny Gaudreau’s recent signing cements the team’s commitment to winning: starting now.
- Nashville Predators: If Dallas is the league’s run-and-gun bunch, Nashville combines speed with more structure. Adding P.K. Subban to an already elite defensive corps could put the Preds in line for their best season in franchise history.
- San Jose Sharks: Long postseason run to the Cup final, then eight of their players taking part in the World Cup of Hockey just two minutes later. Might be some tired legs that will need to be dealt with at some point this season.
- Los Angeles Kings: I’ve gotten the feeling that over the last half-dozen years, it doesn’t matter to the Kings where they finish in the playoff race as long as they get in. No matter what seed they end up slotted in, they’ve had a tendency to make the most of their opportunities. Need a much better season from Jonathan Quick in goal, though.
- Minnesota Wild: Switch this team into the Eastern Conference and they’re probably a top-3 seed. Yeah, sometimes life is unfair. That just gives Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Devan Dubnyk and friends a reason to prove their doubters wrong.
- St. Louis Blues: Saying goodbye to David Backes, Troy Brower and Brian Elliott doesn’t feel like a step in the right direction. Will be challenged by Anaheim and Winnipeg for this final spot right down to the wire.
Western Conference champion: Dallas Stars
STANLEY CUP CHAMPION: Washington over Dallas in 7