Summer is coming to a close and fall is (almost) officially upon us, Mojoholics. In other words, NHL training camps and the preseason are just getting underway, with the regular season coming right after on October 4!
While Sidney Crosby and the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins could easily challenge for a threepeat, there are still several teams that could rival them in their quest to be the NHL’s biggest dynasty in recent memory. The young and feisty Columbus Blue Jackets, the offensively skilled Tampa Bay Lightning and last year’s runner-up, the Nashville Predators, are but three teams that come to mind that could make a big, big splash this season.
Without further ado, here’s how we think the regular season standings will end up after April 7, 2018. Today, we start with one of the league’s most competitive divisions: the Atlantic.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
After a 2016-17 campaign that saw the deeply talented Lightning get hit with all sorts of injury woes and just barely miss the playoffs despite an inspired late-season rally, Stamkos and co are primed to reclaim the Atlantic division title and get their Stanley Cup pursuit back on track. Experienced vets like Dan Girardi and Chris Kunitz, as well as young stud defenseman Mikhail Sergachev and plenty of other skilled young forwards in the system, should help them top the Atlantic.
2. Toronto Maple Leafs
Despite losing in round one against the Caps last season, the years of pain and suffering in Toronto appear to be over. The Leafs’ rebuilding process has borne plenty of fruit, especially on offense: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander – all rookies last season – are poised to become the team’s best forwards for years to come. Second-year players can easily fall victim to the sophomore slump, but you’d have to think this group of youngsters have too much skill and upside to let that happen.
3. Montreal Canadiens
While the Habs could easily take second in the Atlantic ahead of Toronto, this is a team that carries with it many question marks. Although they acquired mega-talented local boy Jonathan Drouin from the Lightning, the Canadiens also lost Alexander Radulov to the Stars, and saw a massive turnover on defense – including longtime powerhouse Andrei Markov. The organization has holes at both first-line centre and first-pairing LD, with no one in the current setup poised to claim either role (not to mention the organization’s unwillingness to play Alex Galchenyuk at C). But of course, there’s always Carey Price.
WILDCARD 2. Ottawa Senators
After missing the playoffs in 2015-16, the Sens sealed second place in the Atlantic and then proceeded to go all the way to the Eastern Conference Final, coming one game short of upsetting the Penguins to compete for the Stanley Cup. While the team hasn’t made major adjustments aside from inking veteran defenseman Johnny Oduya (and unfortunately losing Marc Methot to Vegas and then to Dallas), they’ll be eager to build on what they accomplished this spring. Whether it’s a genuine sign of a contender, or just a simple case of overachievement, remains to be seen.
5. Boston Bruins
This is a Bruins team that, as they’ve been doing in recent years and as their tough style of play is starting to erode in today’s NHL, will once again be in the thick of the playoff race. That said, their minimal offseason adjustments make it difficult to tell how far they’ll go. Rookie defenseman Charlie McAvoy and flashy scoring winger David Pastrnak will certainly be ones to watch, but their core of Bergeron, Krejci, Marchand and Rask are getting older, and it’s anyone’s guess if their younger generation of players will be skilled enough to fill those shoes eventually.
6. Florida Panthers
They’ve built a reputation of sorts as the NHL’s perennial underachievers, but a new head coach in Bob Boughner and the return of Russian forward Evgeny Dadonov could be just what the doctor ordered for this young, talented Panthers team built around Jonathan Huberdeau, Sasha Barkov, Aaron Ekblad and Michael Matheson. They’ll be in the wildcard hunt until the bitter end, but this Florida team may still be too inexperienced to get over the hump – not to mention questionable management decisions that were made last season. *cough* Gerard Gallant *cough*
7. Buffalo Sabres
Despite franchise centrepiece Jack Eichel coming into this season healthy – he spent the first two months of last season on the sidelines with a high ankle sprain – and blueline additions like Marco Scandella, Nathan Beaulieu and Viktor Antipin alongside Finnish stalwart Rasmus Ristolainen, this is still a team very much in rebuild mode. That said, they’ve got a strong group of young talent waiting in the wings, so progress is being made. They’ll need a couple more years of drafting and developing, but the Sabres’ fortunes are closer to reversing than they’ve been in a while.
8. Detroit Red Wings
It’s an unusual predicament for one of the NHL’s greatest dynasty teams to be in: a rebuilding phase. Despite good younger forwards like Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha set to be mainstays on the Wings’ top six this year, the team will have to hope that Petr Mrazek can regain a stranglehold on the number one goalie position, and that their middling defense can help hold the fort well enough. Add to that the team being right up against the cap, and it’s set to be another playoff-less season in the Motor City.
Featured image credit: NHL.com