NHL 2016-17 Season Preview, Part Deux: Here we go!

Editor’s note: Cold As Ice head honcho Jay Kumar previews the new NHL season.

Two weeks ago, Canada won the 2016 World Cup of Hockey by sweeping the two-game final series over Europe in dramatic fashion, with two goals in the last three minutes of game 2. And with that, the Canadians celebrated and then went to join their respective NHL team training camps. The tournament of stars is over. It’s time for the 82-game grind to begin. On to the 2016-17 season!

Four months after the Pittsburgh Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup, a new season means a clean slate and new opportunities for the NHL’s 30 clubs. There was a lot of player movement in the offseason, some huge trades and plenty of free agent signings. Subban for Weber. Lucic to the Oilers, Okposo to the Sabres, Backes to the Bruins. Some teams made big moves by holding onto their assets; Tampa was able to re-sign Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevsky and just this week, last season’s leading scorer Nikita Kucherov.

There are also injuries to major players to start the season. None more major than Sidney Crosby, who just came off a huge year in which he re-established himself as the league’s premier forward with MVP performances in the playoffs and then the World Cup. This week, it came out that Crosby sustained a concussion in practice last Friday and will be out indefinitely. Definitely a tough blow for a guy who had serious concussion issues several seasons ago. Yesterday, Sabres wunderkind Jack Eichel had to be helped off the ice after he went down in practice with a high ankle sprain. In addition, the Panthers lost key forward Jonathan Huberdeau to a leg laceration and Nick Bjugstad to a broken hand. Kings forward Marian Gaborik suffered a broken foot in the World Cup. Islanders forward Mikhail Grabovski is out with a concussion and Jaden Schwartz of the Blues is out with an elbow injury.

Hope springs eternal, but only 16 teams will make the postseason. Let’s break it down a bit.

Eastern Conference

The elite

Washington

For all their postseason failings, the Caps are stacked with talent. Between Ovechkin, Backstrom and Holtby, the feeling has to be the time is now.

Pittsburgh

The Crosby injury has to hurt, especially given how unpredictable concussions can be. Still, the Pens are loaded with the likes of Kessel, Malkin, Letang, et al. They’ve got more than enough to be a force until Sid the Kid returns.

Tampa Bay

As mentioned earlier, the Lightning were able to keep a deep, contending and still young team intact. Steve Yzerman has built a club that could be around when all is said and done next spring.

Above average

Florida

While the ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr keeps chugging along, he distracts everyone from the terrific young team in Florida. Tons of talent and yeah, a few major injuries, but a team that has a great future and possibly a great present.

New York Rangers

Time is running out for King Henrik and his quest for the Cup. The Rangers got a little younger by adding former Sens top pick Mika Zibanejad and landing coveted college free agent Jimmy Vesey, but there are still plenty of holes to fill.

 

Squeaking in

Philadelphia

The Flyers have some nice pieces in captain Claude Giroux, scorers Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds and sophomore defense sensation Shane Gostisbehere, but GM Ron Hextall still hasn’t addressed the team’s glaring weakness (one that has been the problem in Philly since Hextall was between the pipes): goaltending. There have been flashes over the years, but Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth don’t exactly strike fear in opposing shooters.

New York Islanders

The Isles have one of the league’s great young leaders in John Tavares, but they lost some depth when Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen departed as free agents. P.A. Parenteau was signed as a free agent but surprisingly released on waivers this week and claimed by the Devils; the team is hoping youngsters Mathew Barzal and Anthony Beauviller can step in. Netminder Jaroslav Halak had a strong World Cup, but the Isles D is looking a tad thin.

Detroit

The post-Datsyuk era has begun, as the Wings mainstay decided to go home to Russia. The team still has its usual quota of speedy forwards, but there are concerns about an older D corps and the dependability of keepers Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek.

Not this year

Boston, Buffalo, Carolina, Columbus, Montreal, New Jersey, Ottawa, Toronto

 

Western Conference

The elite

Nashville

The perennially disappointed Preds pulled off a shocking blockbuster trade in the offseason, dealing mainstay d-man Shea Weber to Montreal for P.K.  Subban. The flamboyant Subban gives Nashville a younger, electrifying leader with a more reasonable contract. The Preds are hoping he’s the last piece of the puzzle. The likes of forwards Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and James Neal, stud defenseman Roman Josi and goalie Pekka Rinne should be tough to beat.

Dallas

The Stars are an exciting team, with offense to spare from guys like Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza and Patrick Sharp. If they can play a modicum of defense and get some good goaltending from Antti Niemi, Dallas may just survive the brutal Western Conference playoff gauntlet.

Chicago

What can you say about the Hawks? Simply the best team in the league over the last seven years, with three Cups in that span, Chicago is looking to rebound after a disappointing first-round loss to St. Louis last spring. Still loaded to the brim with sick talent (Kane, Toews, Panarin, Hossa) and replenished with six rookies on the opening night roster, it’d be foolish to disregard this always-dangerous team.

Above average

San Jose

The Sharks finally broke through to the Cup finals after years of early playoff exits, but it wasn’t enough to beat the speedy Penguins. They’ve got lots of talent, but they’re also a pretty old team. Will Jumbo Joe Thornton and crew have enough to make another Cup run?

Los Angeles

Like the Blackhawks, LA has been another consistently excellent team for the last several years. They’ll make the playoffs and make another run, although goalie Jonathan Quick’s recent decline could be of concern.

St. Louis

The Blues are yet another deep West squad that has yet to break through into a true Cup contender. Goaltending has been an annual problem that hasn’t really been addressed, but the club is hoping Jake Allen can take the next step (especially after dealing former #1 Brian Elliott to the Flames).

Squeaking in

Minnesota

After some playoff bumps in the road, the Wild are hoping new coach Bruce Boudreau can ignite the team’s offense and do some damage. The team has plenty of quality players—Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Eric Staal, Devan Dubnyk, Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund and Teemu Pulkkinen (just plucked off the waiver wire from the Red Wings)—but the West is full of challenges.

Anaheim

The Ducks are yet another Western club that has felt playoff disappointment regularly in the last several seasons (after winning the Cup in 2007). In the offseason, coach Bruce Boudreau was canned and curiously replaced by former coach Randy Carlyle, most recently experiencing abject failure in Toronto. The team also opted to dish goalie Fredrik Andersen to the Leafs for Jonathan Bernier, who will back up John Gibson. Plenty of weapons in Getzlaf, Perry, Silfverberg et al., but don’t expect Anaheim to get much further than they did last season.

 

Not this year

Arizona, Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, Vancouver, Winnipeg

 

Predictions:

East: Lightning over Capitals

West: Predators over Stars

Stanley Cup: Tampa Bay

Hart (MVP): Alex Ovechkin

Art Ross (leading scorer): Patrick Kane

Norris (best defenseman): Victor Hedman

Vezina (best goalie): Cory Schneider

Calder (best rookie): Auston Matthews

Selke (best defensive forward): Patrice Bergeron

Adams (best coach): Jon Cooper

NHL 2016-17 Season Preview: Picking the winners

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.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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

 

WESTERN CONFERENCE

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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

Cold As Ice: Don’t call it a comeback

Editor’s note: Welcome to Cold As Ice, 2.0! This blog is new, but we originally started writing about the NHL a few years ago for Popblerd. We took a couple of seasons off, but we’re back for the 2015-16 NHL season. Stephen Mapes, a diehard Pittsburgh Penguins fan living in California, and Jay Kumar, a long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs fan living in the Boston area, will be posting regularly throughout the season, providing insight and analysis on the ins and outs of the NHL. For our initial post, we got together to chat about what to expect once the regular season gets underway on Wednesday, Oct. 7.

Jay: Well, we’re back. I have to admit I’m a little distracted right now from the start of the NHL season by the amazing run the Blue Jays have had, but I’m still excited about hockey. What are you looking forward to this season?

Stephen: I feel like every offseason the Penguins front office pulls some voodoo magic to produce an even more amazing line-up then last year, and then we forget how to play hockey in the playoffs. But this year I’m feeling like we’ve got a good balance of forward guns with a workable blue line. Not just thanks to the Phil, but because we managed to keep our younger defense talent like Pouliot and Maata.

So I am looking forward to a Pens team that can score at will, but also can stop goals and not leaving Fleury out to dry and the target of many an angry Yinzer.

sudden death

Jay: I can’t say I feel the same sense of optimism about my Maple Leafs, at least not for the next season or two. The Leafs are in the midst of a major rebuilding effort, having cleaned house after last season’s disaster. They brought in Mike Babcock to coach on a historic 8-year, $50 million contract. They brought in Lou frickin’ Lamoriello as GM. And yeah, they traded Phil Kessel to your Penguins for prospects. This year’s going to be difficult. Babcock says it’s going to take three years to get back to contention through building up high draft picks and young talent. I guess we Leaf fans have to console ourselves with the belief that the reward is down the road. Hey, it’s been 48 years since their last Cup. What’s a few more?

Stephen: If you’re going to put your futures in the hands of anyone, Babcock and Lamoriello are a hell of a team to believe in.

Jay: Big changes ahead this season. The introduction of 3-on-3 overtime for one. What do you think about it?

Stephen: As a hockey fan, I love it. OT hockey is thrilling and hockey lives on the thrill of seeing a puck surge from one end and back. The three man rosters are going to leave room for some exciting set-ups and shots, but also allow goalies to shine. The shootout can be fun too, sure, but it always felt like a cop-out. As a Pens fan, I’ll miss it because we seemed to win so many extra points in the shootout thanks to Crosby and Malkin and Fleury, who is probably good because he practices against Crosby and Malkin. But a three-man force chosen from Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Bonino, Hornqvist, et al is still going to be formidable.

I know you’ve never been a fan of the shootout. So I take it you’re excited?

Jay: Yeah, I like it. I’ve always felt the shootout, while exciting, is the wrong way to resolve a team game. Sure, the 3-on-3 is gimmicky, too, but it should be fun to watch and hopefully will reduce the number of shootouts.

Another change is the coach’s challenge. I know challenges in other sports have had mixed results. What do you think about the NHL adopting it?

Stephen: I think like baseball we’re going to have to wait and see how it goes in the wild. Hockey is such a fast-paced game and as a purist, I love the idea of the hockey gods going against you, be it an iffy goal or an offside that should have been called. But on the other hand, you hate to see games decided by stuff like that, especially in neck-and-neck battles. My hope is it’s going to iron out some of those borderline issues but not break down the flow of the game. I don’t expect to see coaches abusing it, but if they do, it’s going to be a cause of consternation for a lot of long-time fans.

Jay: The manager’s challenge in MLB has been iffy so far. It’s definitely slowed down the game, which is something baseball definitely doesn’t need. It looks like there’s a limited amount of situations NHL coaches can challenge, so hopefully it doesn’t get overused.

Before we get to our look at the teams, any thoughts on the World Cup of Hockey, which will be held next September before the 2016-2017 season? Some interesting teams they’ve added this time around.

Stephen: Yeah, some of the groups are a touch confusing, such as Team North America, which is exclusively the under 23 year olds from Team USA and Team Canada, but I do think the grouping are going to add some much more exciting competition. I think if every tournament boils down to the U.S., Canada, and whichever European countries happen to be on, it’s going to get boring. And unlike the World Cup, hockey seems a little less ideal for producing those Cinderella wild cards. I think it’s going to be a compelling showdown.

Jay: I’ve always enjoyed the international competitions like the World Cup (and its previous incarnation, the Canada Cup) and the Olympics. Players definitely seem to take pride in playing for their countries, moreso than in the other sports. And the talent is so spread out now that pretty much every team is competitive. Not sure about the under-23 and rest of Europe teams, but it should be fun. The last World Cup was in ’04, right before the lockout that wiped out that season.

Stephen: Speaking of under-23s, this season has a LOT of exciting young talent. Thoughts on who to keep an eye on?

Jay: Obviously Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel in Edmonton and Buffalo, respectively, will be interesting to watch as the stud #1 and #2 picks in last summer’s draft. But I’m a big fan of Vladimir Tarasenko of the Blues, who had a breakout season last year. Victor Hedman emerged as a dominant d-man in the Lightning’s run to the finals last year. He could win the Norris this year. Johnny Gaudreau in Calgary had an excellent rookie year and will only get better. And Morgan Rielly on the Leafs could be ready to emerge as a star under Babcock’s tutelage.

Stephen: Agree with you there, and while he’s a bit outside the under-23 group, I’m excited to see how Kadri continues to develop, especially as Kessel’s absence makes him that much more integral to the team. For the Pens, Maata and Pouliot have had exciting starts, and I’m hoping they can continue to develop into rounded defenseman.

Jay: Yeah, this is Kadri’s do or die year. He had a setback last year and was suspended for being late for practice last season; hopefully he comes in with a good attitude. Okay, let’s move on to our conference/division previews and start with the Eastern Conference. Who are your picks to click in the East?

Stephen: I’d be remiss if I didn’t give my Penguins some props, and bias aside, I think they’re poised to do damage. They’ve added depth and the only missing weapons are Martin and Sutter. Last year it was injuries (and some Malkin yips) that sank us, so I think we’ve got a shot. As always Rangers and Bruins are going to be stalwarts, I imagine. But after that, it opens up. Buffalo was a turd of record-setting proportions but with Eichel onboard and Bylsma at the helm, we could be in for some surprises. Philly has made some decent off season moves and could make up for their futility of last season. Then of course there are the Islanders, who always seem so damn close to hitting that elite level thanks to Tavares. Florida has Jagr. Ottawa has the chance to surprise again if the Hamburglar repeats his last season magic. In fact the only teams I don’t like are the Devils, who seem to be mandating AARP memberships to be on the roster, and the Leafs, if only because they are by their own admission rebuilding (sorry, Jay).

Your picks?

Jay: I like the Lightning, who took their game to another level in the playoffs last spring. If Ben Bishop can bounce back from his injury and the young forward corps can keep progressing, they’re going to be dangerous. The Penguins and Rangers have veteran squads—one focused on offense, one on defense, but both want and need to win now. I think the Islanders are ready to finally break through. John Tavares is a special player and he’s going to lead a strong collection of forwards and a solid defense in front of Jaro Halak. I was less impressed with the moves made by the Bruins and I’m not sold on Don Sweeney as GM. Montreal and Washington are also above average teams that could make some noise. Detroit is always dangerous, even without Babcock, and Columbus may contend for playoff spot. I don’t expect any of the other teams in the East, especially the Leafs, to do much this year.

How about the West?

Stephen: God, I still forget Detroit is in the East now. It feels so wrong.

The West is going to be interesting. We have the Hawks coming fresh off the championship, with a few pieces gone but a lot of their major weapons still intact. There’s Dallas, who is looking dangerous coming into the season. The Ducks are always a silent threat, and I do not expect the Kings to be underwhelming two years in a row. There are the Blues too, who look so damn good on paper but seem to have a Sharks-level knack for collapsing in the post-season. Then of course, there are the Sharks, who seems to be reaching the twilight years of the Thornton/Marleau era. Colorado has a developing crop of young guys too that might be surprising. And then there is Connor McDavid on Edmonton, who is the closest thing to a ringer we’ve seen in many a class of rookies. I think it’s going to be a rough year for Vancouver after their recent roster moves, and I’m not sure Calgary is deep enough to repeat last season’s magic. It will be interesting to see where the dust settles after the first few weeks and see if any clear contenders rise.

Jay: The West is a beast. So many good teams. The Ducks and Hawks are probably the two best teams in the league, so you know they’re going to be right up near the top all season. The Patrick Kane alleged rape case has been such a strange distraction; it’ll be interesting to see how he plays with that hanging over his head. The Blues tried to shake things up by trading American Hero T.J. Oshie, but they’ve got a lot to prove that they’re not just perennial playoff chokers. The Kings had to be one of the best teams to ever miss the playoffs; that won’t happen again. Adding Lucic into the mix was smart; he’ll give them some more beef in those battles with Anaheim and Chicago. Dallas should step things up with the addition of Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya from your Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks; they’re already got ridiculous offensive upside with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Calgary added a big piece in Dougie Hamilton from the Bruins; still can’t believe Boston traded him away. Minnesota’s got a fast and defensively strong team. Nashville has an excellent defensive squad by could use some help up the middle. Winnipeg made some strides last year. And that still leaves teams like San Jose, Edmonton and Colorado fighting for a spot. Always interesting in the West.

Any big predictions? Who’s going to be in the finals?

Stephen: It’s so hard to tell thanks to the depth of both conferences, but I like the Penguins for the East, just because I really think Crosby and Kessel are going to gel into a Jagr/Lemieux-esque nightmare. I give that with the caveat that injuries and shoddy defense don’t become the norm down the stretch. For the West, I think this is the year Anaheim finally gets that deep push they need to challenge in the finals. From there? I think Ducks have the edge, but I really want to see the Pens finally meet expectations for a season. And you best believe if my predictions come true, I will sell any vital organs necessary to get tickets to a Stanley Cup game in Anaheim.

How about you?

Jay: I think this is the year Anaheim finally breaks through to that elite level. I too am excited to watch the Penguins, especially with my boy Kessel playing with Sid and/or Geno and possibly netting 50, but I believe the Lightning are a more complete team than any other in the East. I say Ducks-‘Ning in the finals, with the Ducks prevailing.

Stephen: Fair enough. The Lightning do seem to have a balance that’s missing from a lot of their Eastern compatriots.

Jay: Indeed. Although my predictions are often wrong. Whatever the case, I’m looking forward to seeing how this season plays out and contributing to this very blog with you.

Stephen: Same here! It should be a great season, and hopefully a fun ride for us and whoever comes along via the blog!