#1 Tampa Bay Lightning
There isn’t a team with as much top end talent backed with great depth as much as the Lightning. Their forwards are fast, skilled and very opportunistic, especially with Kucherov and Stamkos leading the way up front. They were first in scoring with 296 goals last season. That was the highest amount of goals recorded in a regular season since the Washington Capitals filled 318 pucks in the net during the 09-10 season.
Their defense is filled with workhorses as Hedman, Sergachev and newly acquired McDonagh are in for a full season. They can each run the powerplay and cover their man in the defensive end very well. Most teams are lucky to have just one of those guys as good as they are. Tampa has three. That will be very scary for opponents to deal with.
Great goaltending from Vasilevskiy will once again vault this team over the top. He was outstanding for the Lightning last season and is likely going to do work his magic again this year.
Overall Tampa will be one of the best teams in the league with a very dangerous team up and down the roster. Their weakness is the penalty kill as they just averaged 76% last season and was a direct result as to why they lost the very few games they did lose last season. Other than that, they’ll be a deadly team all season long.
#2 Toronto Maple Leafs
Fans have been gushing over the John Tavares signing in early July of this year. Why not? This is a great times to be a Leafs fan. The turn around of the team started with great management as Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and Head Coach Mike Babcock turned water into wine with their consulting, drafting and signings they’ve made in the last three seasons. Rookie GM Kyle Dubas made a great first impression by landing the big fish in John Tavares. Dubas hasn’t even been GM for a month and he already signed him for 8 seasons on contract to play for the Buds.
Toronto is a team that boasts a great top 6 forward cast with Matthews, Tavares, Nylander, Marner, Kadri and Marleau as the main scoring weapons up front. With a group like that, you’ll have a solid chance of getting 3+ goals per game average and score one out of every four powerplays (25%) which will most likely make you a top 3 scoring team in the league.
On paper, their defense doesn’t have a bonafide powerplay quarterback or even a defensive stalwart but they’re still alright as they averaged over 80% on the penalty kill. They were slightly above average in goals allowed (232 GA, 12th in league) which is still good considering the weapons they boast up front. Having a goaltender like Frederick Anderson saving your butt combined with Mike Babcock’s excellent coaching will boost the team’s defensive prowess too.
Overall, you’ll see the Leafs in high scoring games, they’ll be fun to watch, but they will need an additional defenseman at the trade deadline. They will get their man next Spring if they want to push for a deep playoff run.
#3 Florida Panthers
Ok, so this a gamble and some of you will say I’m crazy for writing this but there is a lot to like about the Florida Panthers being a playoff team this year. My reasoning is that the Panthers young nucleus of Ekblad, Barkov, Dadonov, Huberdeau and Bjugstad still have the best years ahead of them. I wouldn’t be surprised if Huberdeau, Barkov and Trochek all had 80 point seasons and they are talented enough to make it happen. They made a terrific late season push last year and were just one point away from making the playoffs.
Florida doesn’t have a ton of depth but they do have Borgstrom and Tippett on the verge of making the team and if they do, they’ll have a chance to make a great impression on the checking line and even special teams as well.
Goaltending is a bit uncertain as Luongo is getting up there in age and James Reimer still needs to post better numbers to be a solid #1 goaltender. It’ll be interesting to see how this pans out.
The Panthers are not known to be strong starters but they tend to play better late in the season. That’s the best time to watch them play.
#4 Boston Bruins
There is no doubt that everything worked out for Boston last season. They were scoring, defended well, plus they were converting powerplays and killing penalties at a high-caliber rate. Sometimes, I wonder about Boston because they’ve had some great seasons with the same core of players. Sometimes, they’ve had some mediocre years where they’ve finished 9th in the conference two years in a row. Finishing 9th is really bad because it not only means you’re not in the playoffs, you don’t get a high draft pick either.
Boston is still a really good team and they definitely do have talent but I think they over-achieved last season. We might see a correction in their stats. Marchand is a slippery player and hard to play against but it wouldn’t amaze me if he drops 10-15 points. Same goes with Pastranak and Chara. I can see the team trending sideways or even down because of how much better teams like Florida is getting plus with division rivals Tampa Bay and Toronto making strides in the off-season.
Boston will be at least be a wild card team but their path to the playoffs will be inconsistent especially if Rask has a few off games but overall, it shouldn’t be anything to worry about.
#5 Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres will not focus on making the playoffs this year, they will focus on development. What’s positive about the Sabres is that unlike the other teams not making the playoffs in the Atlantic Division, they’re trending up, not down. Buffalo boasts the best prospect pool in the league with Rasmus Dahlen, Casey Mittelstadt, Alex Nylander and Brendan Guhle all projecting to make the team next season.
The Sabres already have Eichel, Reinhart and Ristolainen on the team showing great play and excitement but the issue will be how they will gel playing with new players making the cut.
I believe they’ll have a great nucleus in the future. They might surprise with a couple winning streaks this year, especially once the kids find their way playing in the NHL. They’ll show a huge improvement between now and April of 2019 but they’ll be golfing after that time.
#6 Ottawa Senators
Let’s not talk about last season. That’s a topic for another day. This prediction is made assuming Erik Karlsson is finally out and it was a sad ending for him in Ottawa. They still have some good players in Stone, Duchene plus up-and-comer Chabot but the atmosphere in the locker room needs to be addressed. There are still controversies and issues that haven’t been settled since last season and that can affect the team this season. Some more moves on the roster will have to be made in order to clear the air to start fresh and no team needs it more than the Sens.
Despite their shortcomings on the current roster, Ottawa does have a few good prospects. Brady Tkachuk is their top gun that can make camp this year as well as Logan Brown. There are spots available so look for them to make an impression right out of the gate.
The Sens might be in for another fiasco if the garden hose is still kinked but I think it’ll be a little bit more stable this season, but just a little.
#7 Detroit Red Wings
If there was a word that would describe Detroit right now, it would be ‘underwhelming’. Nobody on Detroit was an impact player last season. Forwards like Larkin and Mantha are good, but they are better suited for secondary scoring roles, not top line duties.
If this team gets one or two studs that can plug and play into the lineup(most likely won’t happen), the whole dynamics of this team will change for the better but it’s wise to go for the rebuilding strategy since Detroit is excellent at drafting. They got Pavel Zadina at the draft this Summer. He’s a pure goal-scorer who can make the team but he won’t a impact right away. Michael Rasmussen is very intriguing as well. He will most likely make the team with a great impression but overall the Wings won’t be taken seriously this season. They don’t have any established elite players at this point in time.
Give it another year for Detroit be a much better team who can quietly make a massive leap forward if the development of Zadina and Rasmussen goes well.
#8 Montreal Canadiens
I wish I could say that the Habs have something going for them but I’m afraid they don’t have much at this point, at least for now. The team on paper looks like it’s rebuilding especially with Pacioretty recently traded to Vegas for Nick Suzuki, Tatar and a 2nd round pick. Looks like a type of trade for a rebuild to start but GM Bergevin says otherwise. He still wants to keep Weber and Price on the club despite the club going on a downward trend. Drouin and Gallagher still had good seasons despite how poorly the team performed but they need a wealth of support around them if they want to improve their numbers.
If the Habs want to trend upward, they have to focus on developing their current prospects. They have a long list of centers that are in development and that’s an area where they need top get much better at. They do have Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Ryan Poehling aa their top center prospects but they won’t be ready for awhile yet. Now that they have Suzuki, it should be interesting where he slots in if he makes the club. Nikita Scherbak is talented and will challenge for a wing position as well.
Victor Mete and Noah Juulsen saw some action last season and made an impression to the coaching staff. They’ll have an advantage in training camp because of the experience.
The Habs have a much better prospect pool than what most people think and they still have decent pieces in place to make a good team down the road but their locker room is filled with distraction. The media always puts a spin on the team’s affairs which makes it difficult to focus on playing hockey. Because of that, they’ll have a rocky season ahead of them.