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Welcome. Today I have a very exciting piece to share with you guys. It's my outlook on the NHL Eastern Conference!
Opening night is tonight! Get ready for plenty of rule adjustments for the 2017/2018 season, which happens to be the 101st season of operation for the National Hockey League.
There’s a lot of anticipation around this season with the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights playing in their inaugural season . The thrill of the expansion draft might of settled a little bit but the thrill for the upcoming season is at an all time high, with the Golden Knights social media team showing off their expertise. Where do we see this young team, insulated with a few veterans such as first overall pick goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury heading? Any chance they make the playoffs?
Most Recent Rule Changes
The new faceoff rule will likely drive head coaches mad given that penalizing a player will be at the sole discretion of the referee and based on his sight line while simultaneously dropping the puck. It was already heavily scrutinized this pre-season by players, coaches, management and the media. Expect the referees to start out by enforcing this rule heavily, but much like the” hurry-up” faceoff, the enforcement of this rule will fade as the season gets deeper. There will be plenty of pressure on the referees to not to penalize players for this throughout the season. On the flip side, imagine a player getting a minor penalty for a faceoff infraction in playoff games. It just wont happen. Please, don’t let it happen, NHL!
Less is More?
Over the last 3 seasons, goal production has actually increased, but very marginally at a total of 2%. However, since 2005, goal production is actually down a considerable 11%.
The recent rule changes have definitely been instituted to encourage more goal scoring with an increase in penalties & powerplays inevitable.
The Youth Movement!
These past couple seasons have produced some potential generational talents and have boosted the buzz around the league immensely. Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Jack Eichel are exciting new ambassadors for the National Hockey League, drawing in many new fans and rejuvenating loyal, die-hards. The league continues to evolve and teams continue to get younger.
Can McDavid Continue Making History?
The 20 year old phenom had a stellar season in his sophomore year. For most, his season would be considered a career. Last season his line was 82GP, 30G/70A, 100P as he ended up winning multiple awards in convincing fashion. He eclipsed the 100 point plateau and is fully capable of doing that and more again this season, which can only be said for a handful of players in the whole league. McDavid’s lethal speed makes him an offensive catalyst & makes the Oilers a legitimate contender in the West. Look for him to contend for the Hart trophy again this season after winning it convincingly in 2016.
Can the Toronto Maple Leafs Win the Cup?
The question everyone has been asking for 50 years still has the same answer. Yes, the Leafs can win the Stanley Cup, but so can 30 (31 now) other teams. Ok, all jokes aside, the “Plan the Parade” satire is getting old and this team is actually pretty good. Their chances of winning the Cup are actually better than they have been in over a decade.
Known as one of the best coaches in the league, Mike Babcock has a highly talented roster. His main challenge will be to ensure his rookies turned sophomores can shake the elusive “sophomore slump” and produce at the same level they did last season, while staying healthy. The Leafs had plenty of good fortune in the health department last season which played a large part in their first playoff berth since 2013. Lead by their big three: Matthews, Marner, & Nylander all had great rookie campaigns & if they can put up similar numbers this season the Leafs should have no trouble being a top 5 team in the east. The acquisition of Patrick Marleau in the off-season provides this team with a much-needed veteran presence and flexibility to move a forward like James Van-Riemsdyk for an asset if necessary. Although their offense has arguably gotten even better, their defense is still somewhat of a question mark. Matt Hunwick was replaced by Ron Hainsey, which isn’t really an upgrade (although Hainsey is now a Cup winner). Jake Gardiner, Morgan Reilly & Nikita Zaitsev are their young guns on D but at times have shown a lack of defensive awareness throughout their careers. This may be the year they put it all together, but if not the Leafs will need their offense to perform an elite level & goaltending to be above average to offset the lack of improvement on the back-end. They will continue to need Frederik Andersen to put up top 10 numbers & steal them some games when the team really needs it, which he is fully capable of. Look for the Leafs to be an offensive juggernaut, but ultimately fall short of the Cup this season unless their young stud defensemen all have career years.
Where is Winnipeg Headed?
Much like the Maple Leafs, this team also has a big three in Scheifele, Laine, Ehlers (or Wheeler). However, unlike the Maple Leafs their bottom six has plenty of question marks. Dano, Hendricks, Lemieux, Copp and Connor must have a good season if they want to make the playoffs
It goes without saying that Patrick Laine is a superstar in this league and could score anywhere from 40-50 goals this season. Will that be enough to get the Jets into the playoffs?
Usually having a lethal scorer of Laine’s caliber will get you into the dance, but the Jets have lacked consistency in goaltending & defense for the last decade. Byfuglien, Enstrom, Trouba, Myers, Morrissey form an average defense corp to try and hold the fort in front of young Connor Hellebuyck.
These areas will have to be improved upon for the Jets to make a run at the Wild Card in the West.
Buffalo Sabres Back in the Playoffs Picture?
If Jack Eichel can stay healthy the whole season, the Sabres have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs. A playoff berth this season would definitely be considered a successful season for the organization given the overhaul this franchise has taken on over the last few years. Last season his stat line was 61GP 24G 33A 57P and the Sabres actually lead the league in powerplay efficiency. If they can manage to be a top 5 powerplay team again this season and get more consistency out of their netminder and defense, they may just have a shot at one of the wild card playoff spots in the east.
Eichel’s help will come from O'Reilly, Nylander, Reinhart, and Kane. These guys will need to have at least 50 points each this season. Ryan O’Reilly is known as one of the better two-way centers in the game and is especially good on faceoffs, finishing below only Patrice Bergeron with a 58% faceoff win efficiency. They’ll need him to stay healthy probably just as bad as they’ll need Eichel to.
On the back-end, look for the newly acquired Beaulieu to help the Sabres transition game. Scandella, Bogosian, Gorges and Ristolainen will have to be strong in front of Robin Lehner who s put up 2.68 GAA & .920 sv. % last season but ended up with only 23 wins and 26 losses.
Can Crosby do it all over again and win his 4th Stanley Cup and 3-peat? Look for Crosby, Malkin, Kessel to continue putting up numbers that this team needs.
Jake Guentzel is quickly making a name for himself in the league. He came on strong last season, finishing with a line of 40GP 16G 17A 33P in the 2016 regular season. The 22 year old’s numbers only got better as the games tended to mean more as he put an amazing 25GP 13G 8A 21P monster stat line in the playoffs as a rookie. Look for him to finish this season with 30G 25A 55P with a full nhl season.
With the rise of Matt Murray, Marc-Andre Fleury found himself unprotected in the expansion draft and ultimately drafted by the Las Vegas Golden Knights. Matt Murray is an elite goaltender and a huge reason why the Penguins have won back-to-back Cups. If the Pens are going to threepeat, Murray will have to dominant between the pipes again, but so far he has shown no signs of that ever being an issue in his young but highly successful career.
On defense, Kris Letang carries this team and when healthy he is one of the best puck-moving defensemen in the league. It definitely helps when you have playmakers like Sidney Crosby & Evgeni Malkin feeding you the puck at the point. Look for Maata, Schultz, & Hunwick to make significant secondary contributions, particular Justin Schultz who had a breakout season last year. The Penguins are once again the team to beat this upcoming season and it seems no matter what holes we say they have they will continue to prove us wrong.
Is Montreal Still a Playoff Team?
This team will continue to go as far as Carey Price wants them to go. He will continue to steal games for this squad. He put up a stellar 2.23 GAA & .923 sv. % last season. He will need the team in front of him to score more, which may be challenging now that Alexander Radulov is a Dallas Star.
They’ll look to Max Pacioretty to produce at his usual 30+ goal per season rate, but they’ll need more from the likes of Tomas Plekanec, Brendan Gallagher & new addition Jonathan Drouin to replace Radulov’s production. Keep your eye on Alex Galchenyuk who was the subject of many trade rumors over the last few seasons but this off-season more than ever. Look for him to silence his critics this season and be the player “Les Canadiens” need him to be. Gallagher, Drouin, Danault, & Lehkonen will have to have good seasons if this offense is to push them into a top 8 seed in the east.
Montreal's back-end, headed by Shea Weber will have to work extra hard to keep pucks out of their net this season with the imminent lack of scoring this team will encounter. The Habs paid top dollar for Karl Alzner this off-season who is a decent two-way defenseman, but still does not provide them with an elite puck-moving defenseman this team desperately needs. It’s still early, but the Subban-Weber trade in the 2016 off-season may prove more costly than Montreal fans ever anticipated. While Weber is a very good defenseman, puck-moving offensive defensemen are rare in this league which is why they rarely, if at all get traded in their prime. It doesn’t help that the Habs traded away a promising young defenseman in Mikael Sergachev. This hole in their back-end was especially evident in the playoffs last season. Look for it to continue to be an issue this season.
Carey Price is a top 2 or 3 goalie in the league and Montreal’s only hope to make the playoffs. If they do make it, don’t expect them to get out of the first round. If Price misses any significant amount of time due to injury, the Habs will sink just like they have in previous seasons with Price absent.
Can Karlsson's Senators Have Another Deep Run?
Look for Jean-Gabriel Pageau to continue to keep smiles on his teammates faces as he continues to be a fan favorite.. If this team wants a deep run for Lord Stanley, they will have to continue to play good team hockey. They rely heavily on a system and will have to continue to buy into it to have success. Leaning on the back of their all-star defenseman Erik Karlsson, the Sens should be a playoff team and make a run in the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.
He will need help from Turris, Stone, Ryan, and Hoffman to put up some points in front of their goaltender Craig Anderson who seems to only get better the older he gets. Do they have what it takes for a deep run? If rookie sensation Thomas Chabot can make an immediate impact on the back-end, this Senators team could surprise a lot of people.
Big Bad Bruins Still Bad?
Patrice Bergeron, arguably the best two way center in the league is still going strong with the Bruins. Last season his stat line was a solid 79GP 21G 32A 53P. He’s only been a minus player once in his 13 seasons in the league. He led the league in faceoff win efficiency again last season & is a perennial Selke candidate. Who will be helping Bergeron lead the way? Look towards forwards Backes, Krejci, Marchand, & Pastrnak, especially the young David Pastrnak who had a breakout season putting up 70P in 75G. Look for him to put up similar, or possibly even better numbers this season. Zdeno Chara continues to age but continues to be good enough for this team. Krug, Carlo, and Postma, will have to help carry the minutes on the ice so Chara can rest.
Tukka Rask has shown why he is a top goalie in the National Hockey League. Look for him to keep proving why he is up there every year in every major goaltending stat category.
Lookout for McAvoy and Zboril as the young defensemen try and crack the lineup for 2017-18.
The Bruins have a ton of organizational depth, but it remains to be seen whether that will translate into a deep playoff run this season. Everything will have to just right for them to make a run.
Stamkos Back But For How Long?
The injury plagued Steven Stamkos is back once again with a chip on his shoulder. He’s suffered some horrible injuries over the last couple of seasons, which is a shame because Stevie Yzerman has orchestrated a fantastic team. Hopefully he has better luck this year. This team has remained a competitive even without their franchise player thanks to the emergence of sharpshooter Nikita Kucherov, who vows & insists the Lightning must be better this season. If he can remain healthy, Stamkos could still hit 50+ goals, especially if playing with Kucherov the whole season.
Victor Hedman is an absolute stud & will look to be a Norris finalist again this season. I’m a big fan of Hedman, and think that he deserves more credit and recognition than he’s gotten throughout his career. He’s one of the best defensemen in the game and despite putting up a tremendous 72 points in 79 games, I still think he has better seasons ahead of him, which is saying a lot. Hedman is so good, but he plays in Florida where hockey media presence is limited & tv coverage barely escapes regional landscapes.
Johnson, Callahan, Palat, & Killorn will provide sufficient secondary production for this team, while off-season acquisitions Dan Girardi & Mikael Sergachev make the Tampa back-end one of the best in the league.
The only real question mark other than the health of Steven Stamkos is whether goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy can be consistent between the pipes. Last season he definitely showed flashes of brilliance, and with the departure of sought after goaltender Ben Bishop at last season’s trade deadline, it looks like Yzerman is all in on Vasilevskiy. He’s only 23 years old.
The Lightning are overlooked by many around the hockey world, but realistically this is a team that if firing on all cylinders, may find itself in the Eastern Conference Final, or even in the Stanley Cup Final. They are a real contender.
Is It Warm in Florida?
Ah, the Florida Panthers. This team has shown flashes of brilliance and potential over the last few seasons, but ultimately failed to have success consistently. Their management has arguably had a very confused approach, first insulating the team with young talent like Ekblad & Barkov and then trying to mesh them with the likes of veterans like Jaromir Jagr or Thomas Vanek. The result has been mixed but overall the direction of the team seems to be uncertain. Are they rebuilding? Are they insulating their youth? You just never know with the Panthers.
Managing a professional sports team is all about direction. The Panthers seem to direct themselves in different directions all the time and it’s clear that whatever they’re doing isn’t working. For the sake of the Panthers fans, I hope the next few seasons are a different story.
Alexander Barkov has developed into a 50-60 point player. For this team to have any chance of making the playoffs, Barkov will have to reach new heights and put up 65-70 points. The Panthers will need significant help from Huberdeau, Trocheck, Vrbata, and Bjugstad to have any remot chance of being a bubble team this year.
The one consistent bright spot in sunny Florida is Aaron Ekblad. He is one of the best young defenders in the league, but like the aforementioned Victor Hedman, probably does not get the credit or attention he deserves. If Florida can win more games this year than last, that may change. He will have Petrovic, Yandle, and Pysyk with him on the back-end. Roberto Luongo finds himself in similar territory as every other “sunny” day in Florida. The problem is that Luongo can no longer play close to the volume of games he’s been accustomed to his entire career & James Reimer, although not a bad backup, is not really a formidable 1B.
Don’t expect much out of this group. As long as the direction of this team remains confused & the Panthers leave their goaltending situation in limbo, the Panthers aren’t going anywhere.
New Stadium to Give New Found Confidence in Detroit Fans
Fans of Detroit will be watching their team in the new “Little Caesars Arena”. Look for 21 year old Dylan Larkin to have a bounce back year. He finished last season with 80GP 17G 15A 32P and was a -28. His +/- will have to improve this year and so will his offensive production for Detroit to get back to their winning ways. With captain Henrik Zetterberg aging, the torch looks like it’s officially finally being passed to the young guns in Motown. The captain will in large part play a leadership role to mentor the youthful Red Wings.
Helm, Abdelkader, Tatar, Nyquist, and Nielsen will provide secondary scoring will all be hungry to get back into the postseason. Mike Green will look to find his old Washington self this season, while Ericsson, Kronwall, Ouellet, and Dekeyser will be helping green out the best they can. Howard and Mrazek are back between the pipes which actually isn’t a bad duo, but the lack of speed and puck moving ability on the back-end will ultimately be the Red Wings achilles heel. The Wings will likely miss the playoffs and not factor into the playoff race down the stretch.
Every season since Ovechkin entered the league, the Washington Capitals have been one of the favorites to win the cup. Each year, they have an amazing regular season but always faulter in the playoffs. Is this their year again? Ovi will continue being the face of the franchise, while all-stars Niklas Backstrom & Kuznetsov will produce at elite levels again. It’s a no brainer that these three will put up numbers, but what about the rest of the team?
It’s nice when you have the likes of TJ Oshie, Marcus Johansson, Tom Wilson, Lars Eller & Andre Burkavosky to name a few as secondary scoring options when you already have Ovie/Back/Kuzy. The Capitals will find success in goal scoring with a plethora of talented forwards.
On the back end this team has Niskanen, Carlson, Orlov, Orpik,& Bowey. They have a group of versatile defensemen, but none of the elite superstar calibre. What will get them close to the President’s Trophy again this season is none other than Braden Holtby, a top 2-3 goaltender in the league.
Can Werenski Do It Again For Columbus?
Zack Werenski might only be 20, but he is already one of the best upcoming young defensemen in the game. In his rookie season he put a stat line of 78 GP 11G 36A 47P, which is oustanding for a rookie defenseman. 55-60 points isn’t out of the question for this talented 20 year old.
The Blue Jackets acquired forward Artemi Panarin from Chicago to reunite Brandon Saad with the Black Hawks. Look for Panarin to fit in well with this young and highly talented squad. They have plenty of offense from the likes of Atkinson, Dubinsky, Foligno, Jenner, Wennberg, and Bjorkstrand. Look to see if top prospect Pierre Luc Dubois can crack the roster and make a difference for them. The back-end consists of one of the youngest d-cores in the NHL with oldest member being Jack Johnson, who was born in 1987. Keep your eyes on Harrington, Murray, Jones, Savard and their other young defensemen. In net for this playoff bound squad is former Vezina winnner Sergei Bobrosky, who is fully capable of putting up another Vezina caliber season !
Scrappy Rangers Still Strong!
The pesky Rangers are back with some of their usual core players, Nash, Zuccarello, Kreider, Staal, McDonagh, and Lundqvist. Former captain Derek Stepan & fan favourite Dan Girardi have both moved on which means new leaders will emerge for the Rangers this season.
This team is still solid from top to bottom. They bring a lot of energy and can stretch teams out with their pure speed and aggressive forecheck better than most teams in the league.
Michael Grabner was a pleasant surprise for the Rangers last season. He has always lacked consistency and it to be seen whether he can put together back-to-back solid seasons. Last season he scored 27 goals in 76 games, and if he can come to close that kind of production, or better yet eclipse it, the Rangers will be good shape. Chris Kreider, at 26 still has a lot of hockey left in him & is another key to the Rangers success. He could be in for a career year and maybe even score 30 goals. Look out for Harvard University graduate Jimmy Vesey. He had a moderate rookie season and could be line for 20-25 goals in his sophomore year.
In net this season King Henrik will get adequate rest this season with the Rangers acquiring Pavelec in the off-season. Pavelec should be a formidable backup on a stingy Rangers team. This could really help the Rangers down the stretch and deep into the playoffs when a well-rested Lundqvist is the most dangerous.
Islanders Poised for the Playoff Picture?
The Islanders enter the season with hunger as they made a huge push & fell short last season by one point. They will be on a mission. John Tavares is entering the last season of his contract and will be poised to lead his team back into the playoffs & land a big contract in the off-season. Last season he put up 66 points in 77 games played. He could put up better numbers this year if he and off-season acquisition Jordan Eberle have good chemistry.
This team will be needing their young studs if they want to contend. Players like Ho-Sang, Barzal, & Pulock will have to each have a good season. In the 2016-2017 World Junior tournament, Mathew Barzal was possessed and definitely stood out as one of the better forwards in the tournament. At times it looked like he had the puck on a string. With many budding stars on the horizon, the immediate future of the Islanders looks pretty good, although questions about the state of the franchise keep getting raised. Making the playoffs this season would be bonus for the Islanders, but with Thomas Greiss & Jaroslav Halak in net it might be a tall task.
Young Flyers the Key for Philly?
Second-overall draft pick Nolan Patrick will look to make the opening-night roster and be a factor this season. The big 6'2 center will look to fill the void behind the Flyer’s all-star captain Claude Giroux. Travis Konecny showed glimpses of what the Flyers have to look forward to. He’s lightning quick and silky smooth with the puck. Look for him to eclipse 40 points this season. Key forwards on this team are Simmonds, Voracek, Filippula, and Couturier look for these guys to provide the offense on this talented younger squad.
With one of the youngest back-ends in the league lead by Gostisbehere. He’ll have to do better this season after putting up a rather disappointing stat line of 76GP 7G 37A 39P -21. That’s not a bad offensive stat total for most defensmen, but in his rookie season he put up 17G & 49 P with a +8 rating, so the bar was set pretty high on this young superstar. For the Flyers to be a playoff team this season, Gostisbehere will have to have a bounce back season.Sanheim, Provorov, Morin, and Hagg will have to make secondary contributions this season protecting their veteran goaltenders Elliott, and Neuvirth. This team will go as far as its younger players.
Can Carolina Calm the Hurricane?
For the Carolina Hurricanes, the story of the season last year was the emergence of 20 year old youngster Sabastian Aho. Aho put up great numbers in his first season of work with 82GP 24G 25A 49P. 82. Carolina, unlike the aforementioned Florida Panthers has a clear direction, and that is to go young.
After making a decent run at the playoffs at the tail end of last season, ultimately falling short, the Hurricanes are primed for a run at one of the Wild Card spots this season. With young players like Lindholm, Kuokkanen, Skinner, Teravainen, Wallmark, Bean, Fleury, Hanifin, Slavin, and Faulk it looks like this team has the potential to be a contender in a few years if kept together. Making the playoffs this season would be a bonus, but don’t count these Hurricanes out! They’ll be fighting till the final days of the season.
Cam Ward & Scott Darling will tandem in net for the Canes. This could be a 1A & 1B tandem. Both goaltenders are capable of stealing games for their team and getting hot at the right time. There’s a Hurricane coming, it just might not be this year!
New Jersey in Trouble?
Is the first overall pick, Niko Hischier from the Halifax Mooseheads going to save this team? He will have to produce at a high rate to get this team into the playoff race. I can't see this team getting anywhere with the team they have in the toughest division in hockey right now. Taylor Hall will have to carry the backpack as he continues to be the lucky draft charm every team needs. He put up 53 points in 72 games but will have to be better than that and approach a point per game this season if he wants to see his Jersey team improve from last in the East.
Boyle, Henrique, Palmieri, Zacha, and Stafford will provide secondary scoring for this not so talented team. On defense Severson, Mueller, Santini, and Greene will have to keep the puck from going in on top netminder, Cory Schneider who has a career GAA of 2.28 & .922 sv % but last season was not kind to him, as he slashed 2.82 & .908. Although his numbers reflect the team in front of him he will have to be better if he wants his team to win more games.