NHL: What chances does the league have to surprise its fans?

Ben Mandell and Kevin Singhel

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The 2019 National Hockey League season is finally upon us, and after the last two seasons saw teams win their first ever Stanley Cup. After the Vegas Golden Knights surprised everyone two years ago, nothing should have been a surprise in 2018-2019. But then the St. Louis Blues and rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington went from worst to Stanley Cup Champions.

So the 2019-2020 season really shouldn’t have anything that surprises us, right? Obviously not, but that is what we love about professional sports — fans never know what to expect and nobody can ever predict everything correctly.

The NHL looks significantly different after a crazy summer. The New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers went from being two of the league’s worst teams to being legitimate playoff contenders. Although it was expected, the Columbus Blue Jackets lost three of their best players, stripping the team of its talent.

Out west, Joe Pavelski is no longer a member of the San Jose Sharks, Phil Kessel is a Coyote and Nashville shipped out superstar defenseman P.K. Subban to make room for Matt Duchene.

Every team has seen some of the effects from the offseason, and the league can prepare for some movement in the standings from last year.

 

Eastern Conference

The last few years, the East has been dominated by the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins. 

Washington and Pittsburgh reside in the Metropolitan Division, but their reign could be ending. Pittsburgh saw a decline last year and the team is getting older. Players like Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin are not the same players they used to be. Sidney Crosby is still one of the world’s best players but his ability to elevate other players may start to slip this year.

Washington should still be where they were last season in terms of talent. The only issue that could arise is Alexander Ovechkin’s age is continuing to climb. However, the sniper’s play hasn’t shown signs of aging yet.

Last year, the Islanders shocked the league with a great season under Barry Trotz. But they’ve now lost goaltender Robin Lehner, who was a big part of their success. Carolina also made some waves with an appearance in the Eastern Conference Final, but some big departures could put them right back in the middle of the pack.

The Devils and Rangers are the real wild cards of the division, and the conference for that matter. New Jersey made the playoffs in 2017-2018 off the heels of Taylor Hall’s amazing MVP season. Hall missed the majority of last season, resulting in the Devils having one of the league’s worst records and winning the draft lottery. They added Jack Hughes as the first overall pick and he already has demonstrated the makings of a true super star in the NHL at just 18. They traded almost nothing for Subban and they acquired the best professional player not in the NHL in Nikita Gusev. He led the KHL (professional league in Russia) in points and looks to bring his game overseas to the NHL. They also brought in veteran winger Wayne Simmonds, giving the team a tough net-front presence. New Jersey will also look for contributions from Jesper Boqvist and Ty Smith, two players in their system. Add key players from last year’s team, such as Kyle Palmieri, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Travis Zajac, Damon Severson, Sami Vatenen, Will Butcher and Blake Coleman, and the Devils should be in the mix for title contention.

The Rangers, like the Devils, were at the bottom of the league last season. They were awarded the second overall pick and selected Kaapo Kakko, arguably just as good as Jack Hughes who was selected first by New Jersey. The Rangers were also successful in bringing in the best free agent forward this year in Artemi Panarin. The “Bread Man” was instrumental for Columbus and will immediately spark the Rangers’ offense. They also solidified their defense when they brought in Jacob Trouba in a trade from Winnipeg.

Both of these teams will have to see how their new additions work out before making any rash predictions, but they both are talented enough and are more than capable of winning the Metropolitan.

The Atlantic division should see the same from Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto. All three teams are still notably talented and are more than qualified to compete for a Stanley Cup. The Florida Panthers, in particular, are the team to look out for. They have been good the last couple of years but not good enough to get over the hump. That might change this year with the addition of Sergei Bobrovsky. “Bob” is one of the best goalies in the NHL and with definitely provide a boost to Florida. 

Overall, Tampa Bay and Boston are the most talented teams in the east, but there definitely can be some surprise teams. The Rangers seem a little too young this year to make a playoff run, but New Jersey can be in the mix if they gel together.

 

Western Conference

Last year, the St. Louis Blues stunned the hockey world by winning the Western Conference and ultimately the Stanley Cup. However, this year things may be different. Yes, the Blues looked fantastic during the second half of the season and had a magical playoff run, but the same team also struggled mightily during the first half of the season. Did the team really turn things around or was it just a magical mirage? The Blues are the defending champs, so naturally they’ll be in discussion for contention, but repeating as Stanley Cup champs may be a tall task. 

Challenging the Blues in the Central Division is the Nashville Predators, a team hungry to finally claim the Stanley Cup. This team has been contending for awhile now, even making the Stanley Cup Finals against the Penguins a few years back. This year, the team appears even more menacing with the off-season addition of Matt Duchene. However, the team did also lose star P.K. Subban, so there are questions to be answered. Despite this, the Preds should remain strong and contend for a division title and the Cup. 

The Colorado Avalanche are a young squad looking to make a name for themselves this year with a deep playoff push and contention for the division title. The Avs have one of the best lines in hockey and are surprisingly deep at multiple positions. Last year, they won a playoff series for the first time in a long time, and the team is looking to build off of that momentum. The Avs certainly have the talent and the stars to contend this year, so don’t be surprised if you see them still playing in June. 

In the Pacific Division, the Vegas Golden Knights were poised to make a deep run before a controversial call cut their season short. This is an extremely talented team with plenty of veteran talent that was in the Finals just a few seasons ago. Star talent like William Karlsson and Mark Stone, backed by solid goalkeeping, make Vegas a strong contender to win the division and march through the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The San Jose Sharks were the team that bested Vegas in the playoffs last year, and ultimately fell to the Blues in the Western Conference Final. The Sharks hope for similar success this year, but they’ll have to do it without long-time star Joe Pavelski. The team extended star Erik Karlsson in the offseason, and they still have great players in Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl. However, the team’s netminder was the Shark’s Achilles heel last season, and the team has done little to address the issue in the offseason. If the goalkeeping can’t improve drastically, then the Sharks will most likely have to wait another year to hoist the Stanley Cup. 

The Calgary Flames won the Pacfic Division last year and will look to defend their title from some strong contenders. The Flames benefited from great performances off their stars last season, and hope they develop into bona fide superstars. The team also made a curious trade in the off-season, shipping James Neal to Edmonton in exchange for Milan Lucic. Whether this deal pans out and whether Edmonton can repeat last season’s success remains to be seen. 

 

 

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