Mike O’Brien ‘23
Cries of “Is it October yet?” from NHL fans around the world have finally come to an end as the league will undergo its 102nd season starting on Wednesday, October 2nd. With plenty of storylines in the upcoming season, we’ll dive into each division around the league for a preview on what to expect and what teams can make a deep run.
The Teams: Bruins, Sabres, Red Wings, Panthers, Canadiens, Senators, Maple Leafs, Lightning
In the 2018-2019 season, the Atlantic was dominated by the Lightning, putting up a staggering 128 points behind offensive juggernauts Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos along with Vezina Trophy winning goaltender Andrei Vasilevsky. In sports, it is often difficult to label a clear favorite to win a championship come playoff time, but the Lightning seemed to be head and shoulders above the rest of the league in terms of sheer talent. And then they did something that had never been done before – become the first team to win the President’s Trophy and get swept in the first round of the playoffs. The NHL world was in shock when the Columbus Blue Jackets broke out the brooms against a team that seemed pretty darn close to a lock to hoisting Lord Stanley; the Lightning had gone from a 62-win regular season to not winning a single game in the playoffs. This will be remembered as one of the greatest underdog (or choking) stories in the history of the NHL. But this doesn’t mean that Tampa is simply going to roll over after a historic loss. Such as how one-seed Virginia stormed back in the 2019 NCAA March Madness Tournament to win it all a year removed from becoming the first team to ever lose to a 16 seed, the Lightning are going to be back with a vengeance. Bringing back all of their offensive firepower from last year, including an incredibly well-valued contract of Brayden Point with a three-year, $6.75 million AAV for one of their most efficient forwards and expecting Vasilevsky to stand tall between the pipes, the Lightning look poised to win the Atlantic again. However, don’t count out the Boston Bruins or Toronto Maple Leafs, who have likewise locked up young studs such as forward Mitch Marner and defensemen Charlie McAvoy in free agency. While I don’t expect either team to win the division over the league-leading Lightning, watch for the Stanley Cup Final runners-up to battle Toronto in another seven game opening round series, which they have done for the previous three seasons.
The Teams: Capitals, Islanders, Penguins, Hurricanes, Blue Jackets, Flyers, Rangers, Devils
This could very well be the most wide open division in hockey. In a 2018-2019 season that saw just six points separate the Atlantic’s top five teams, who all qualified for the playoffs, the Metropolitan could find itself to be even more competitive this year. While the division should likely still belong to Alexander Ovechkin’s Capitals and Sidney Crosby’s Penguins, watch for two new dark horses to emerge – the New Jersey Devils and the New York Rangers. Both teams had incredibly productive offseasons, both in free agency and the NHL Draft. The Devils committed highway robbery on the Nashville Predators and acquired elite defender and former Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban. Subban not only possesses the skills of excelling checking and hitting that a defender requires, but also has silky smooth hands and a powerful shot that can contribute to any offense. The Devils also acquired veteran forward Wayne Simmons in this trade, who can provide both seasoned leadership and a fair amount of points to the offense. The Devils also possessed the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Draft and selected American Jack Hughes, who is expected to have an instant impact on the Devils’ offense. The Devils’ interstate rivals, the New York Rangers, also had a massively productive offseason via draft and free agency. The Rangers locked up elite winger Artemi Panarin with a massive seven-year, $11.5 million AAV contract to bolster their offense. Additionally, similar to the Devils, the Rangers fleeced the Winnipeg Jets in acquiring Jacob Trouba, who could blossom into a top two defenseman for the Rangers. Lastly, with the No. 2 overall pick in the NHL Draft, the Rangers drafted young Finn Kaapo Kakko who drew up conversations about potentially going No. 1 with his impressive performance at the World Junior Championships. Expect for the 2018 Stanley Cup Champion Capitals to hold onto their divisional crown, but watch for the Rangers and Devils to battle for top three spots against a regressing Penguins team that was swept in the first round of the 2018 playoffs at the hand of the New York Islanders.
The Teams: Predators, Jets, Blues, Stars, Avalanche, Blackhawks, Wild
Also being an extremely competitive division in 2018-2019 with just 10 points separating the top five teams, this could be a very interesting race. Perhaps the greatest storyline of the NHL last season came out of the Central Division with the St. Louis Blues going from being dead last in the NHL on January 2nd to winning the Stanley Cup Final on the back of their heroic rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington who went a stellar 24-5-1 in the regular season to bring St. Louis into the postseason. If there’s one thing the Central Division taught us last year, it’s that no team can be counted out; the bottom two teams to miss the playoffs, the Blackhawks and the Wild, were only six and seven points away from the Avalanche, respectively. Although the Blues captured the biggest prize in all of hockey, they will have some extremely stiff competition during the regular season. Watch for the Winnipeg Jets to do a ton of damage; just two years removed from a Western Conference Finals appearance, the Jets likewise made a splash in free agency by locking up their best offensive player Patrick Laine to a two-year, $13.5 million AAV contract to make sure the offense continues to be dangerous. The Jets also succeeded in keeping Kyle Connor, who put up an impressive 66 points during the 2018-2019 season with a long-term seven-year, $7 million contract. With the defense losing Trouba to the Jets and veteran defender Dustin Byfuglien on a leave of absence, expect Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck to have a big year and help the Jets in making a deep postseason run. This is the first time I’ll predict a new division champion for the 2019-2020 season, as I just don’t see the Blues continuing their magic from last year with a potential Cup hangover. The hungry Jets will be your 2019-2020 Central Division Champion.
The Teams: Flames, Sharks, Golden Knights, Coyotes, Canucks, Ducks, Oilers, Kings
To be very frank, this is easily the weakest division in the NHL. The fifth place Pacific team, the Canucks, only racked up 81 points in the 2018-2019 season which would have been good enough for dead last in the Central. Expect the division to be a three-horse race between the Flames, Sharks, and Golden Knights, with a potential dark horse in the Arizona Coyotes after a major free agency acquisition in Phil Kessel. Watch for the division crown to come down between the Vegas Golden Knights and the San Jose Sharks, which is quickly shaping up to be one of the most intense rivalries in the NHL. Their playoff series in 2019 was one of the best to date; with Vegas being up three games to one, the Sharks clawed their way back to force a decisive Game 7 in San Jose. The Knights were up 3-0 just midway through the third period to all but ensure that they would avoid blowing a 3-1 series lead. And then everything changed. San Jose scored four power-play goals on an extended five minute power play on the heels of a controversial penalty call to go up 4-3 with just over six minutes to go. But Vegas wasn’t done yet. With their goalie pulled and 47 seconds separating them and a historic choke, the Knights put one behind Martin Jones to make the score 4-4 and send the game to overtime; but it just wasn’t the Knights’ day. Barclay Goodrow found himself on a breakaway just before the end of the first overtime period and made no mistake scoring to end both the game and the series. An improbable comeback not only inspired the Sharks for the duration of the playoffs, making it all the way to the Western Conference Finals; but the Knights didn’t forget either. In a preseason game between the Sharks and Knights on September 29, the Knights pummeled the Sharks 5-1 in a game that saw Evander Kane suspended for the first three games for San Jose after shoving a referee while trying to seperate Kane from a scrum. I expect this bad blood and newfound rivalry to fuel the top two teams in the Pacific for this upcoming season, with the Knights being the newly crowned 2019-2020 Pacific Division Champions over the Sharks by a point or two.