The Edmonton Oilers are going to win the 2024 Stanley Cup.
Granted, I predicted that the Oilers would win the 2023 Stanley Cup, which they very much did not. In fact, my preseason championship prognostications have become something of a curse.
As is tradition, I reached out to the general manager of my Stanley Cup champion-in-waiting to let him know what’s coming.
Me: “I’m picking you to win the Stanley Cup again. I’m sorry.”
Ken Holland, general manager of the Edmonton Oilers: “Oh boy.”
And that was the extent of it.
My logic last time was that Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are generational talents on the same team, and that eventually that kind of partnership leads to a Stanley Cup win. Like it did for Gretzky and Messier, for Mario and Jagr, for Sakic and Forsberg and for Crosby and Malkin.
I still believe that to be the case for Connor and Leon but now have an additional reason to believe this is the year: They’ve reached a point of utter disgust over falling short in the playoffs.
Look at Draisaitl’s reaction after being eliminated by the Vegas Golden Knights last season. Hood up. Eyes filled with rage. He’s over it. I see in him what I saw in Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche before they won the Stanley Cup: I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.
At the NHL Players Media Tour, I asked Draisaitl whether he has reached that MacKinnon Moment.
“I certainly have those moments,” he said. “We’ve been at it for a while now. We’ve had some competitive, good teams over the last couple years. And it feels like we’re really close and we’re right there. I’m ready to win. I want to win.”
Meanwhile, I’ve been hearing tales of what McDavid was saying behind the scenes to his team, including an emphatic speech after being eliminated about preparation for the 2023-24 season. But he told me recently that it’s just about being the better team for a two-week period.
“Yeah, I mean, you can stomp your feet and say all the things you want,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter unless, you know, there are some things that need to go your way when it matters most.”
I think when it matters most, the Oilers are ready to win. I know Connor and Leon are.
Who will they defeat for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1990?
A team that’s been waiting to win one since 1967.
That’s correct: I’m predicting an Edmonton Oilers vs. Toronto Maple Leafs Stanley Cup Final.
Alas, this does mean that the Cup will return to Canada for the first time since 1993. It’s been a good run, my fellow Americans. But it’ll be worth it just to see the brains of Calgary Flames fans break as they figure out who to root for here.
What about the rest of the NHL? Here’s my division-by-division breakdown of the projected standings. Playoff teams are bolded. Good luck to all 32 teams. Hope everyone has fun out there.
Let’s begin with the major shift in power here: I have the Ottawa Senators making the leap from near the back of the pack to a playoff spot, and the Tampa Bay Lightning failing to make the playoffs for the first time since 2017.
The case for the Senators starts with their offense. Ottawa’s 2.35 expected goals per 60 minutes isn’t going to cut it for a playoff push. I’m not worried about their top line, as Brady Tkachuk–Tim Stutzle–Claude Giroux generated a 59.8% expected goals percentage. They lose Alex DeBrincat, add Vladimir Tarasenko and Dominik Kubalik, and hope they get more than eight games from Josh Norris at center, whose presence will also lift up Drake Batherson.
I’m asking Jakob Chychrun to stay healthy, which I know is asking a lot. I’m asking for Thomas Chabot to level back up a bit, which is again asking a lot. My biggest ask is of the goaltending, as Joonas Korpisalo joins his old AHL teammate Anton Forsberg in an attempt to be better than 20th in team save percentage — and I believe they will be.
Michael Andlauer is their new deep-pocketed owner. The vibes are good. I think Ottawa makes the leap to the playoffs.
If they’re in, that means someone is out, and that team is the Lightning. I made this prediction on our podcast The Drop before Andrei Vasilevskiy had back surgery, potentially keeping their No. 1 goalie out until December. At some point, roster attrition catches up with every championship team, and you could put together a pretty great starting five of players to whom they’ve said goodbye since their last Stanley Cup win: Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, Alex Killorn, Jan Rutta and Ryan McDonagh among them. The supporting cast behind the team’s core stars is almost unrecognizable from their 2021 Cup run.
That said, we’ve seen top-heavy teams like the Penguins make the playoffs through the sheer power of their stars. Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Mikhail Sergachev and Brandon Hagel are good enough to carry a team. Jon Cooper, for my money, is the best coach in the NHL and has missed the playoffs just once in 10 full seasons behind the Lightning bench.
Would I be surprised if Tampa Bay stubbornly refuses to vacate a playoff seed in the Atlantic? Of course not. But I think even they know this group is diminished compared to past seasons. I keep thinking about GM Julien BriseBois justifying his decision not to extend Stamkos before the season starts: “I need to see how the pieces of the puzzle fit this year. I need to see who steps up and is ready to handle a bigger role. I need to see how the team performs,” he said. Does that sound like a guy ready to fire up the propellers on another boat parade?
The other three playoff teams in the division are carryovers from the previous two seasons. I think the Toronto Maple Leafs rise back to the top of the Atlantic. Offensively, they’re absolutely stacked. I think Tyler Bertuzzi gets Auston Matthews back to 50 goals and makes their top line with Mitch Marner the best it has been. I love the concept of moving William Nylander down the lineup to anchor a third scoring line, although I worry about the execution. I think Matthew Knies and Nick Robertson are the quintessential young talents that you see make a difference on a championship team.
The Leafs are a great offensive team at 5-on-5. And while not every power play in Toronto works well — see Dubas, Kyle — theirs ranked second in the league last season.
But my favorite thing about this Leafs team is how sneaky good they are defensively. This is a multiyear trend for coach Sheldon Keefe, who the Leafs smartly brought back as their head coach. Toronto was seventh over the past two seasons in expected goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. Their save percentage at even strength was .924 thanks to a great season from Ilya Samsonov. Losing Matt Murray and gaining Martin Jones and an increased role for Joseph Woll only makes them better.
I did not think I’d have the Boston Bruins in a playoff seed after observing the aftermath of their Game 7 loss to the Florida Panthers in the first round. It felt apocalyptic for the franchise. Squandering the best regular season in NHL history was a gut punch. Losing Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci — as well as some other key veterans due to the salary cap — was a right hook that sent Boston crashing to the mat.
But the Bruins are going to stand up, dust themselves off and keep fighting. As captain Brad Marchand told me recently, the best way for Boston to make up for failing to send Bergeron and Krejci off with a Stanley Cup is to continue the legacy of competitive excellence they built there. “The culture is bigger than any of us. It’s what allowed the team to have success every year. It’s what will allow the team to continue to have success,” Marchand said.
Something else that will enable them to have success: The foundation of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman, the best goalie tandem in the NHL; defensemen Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm, who are going to play around 45 minutes per game combined; and Jim Montgomery, whose teams have never been worse than second in goals against in his two and a half seasons as an NHL coach.
If I’m being honest, I contemplated whether the Florida Panthers might be the next team to make the Stanley Cup Final and then fail to make the playoffs in the following season. This is a team that barely made the cut in the Eastern Conference before going on an epic run. Having Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour begin the season on long-term injured reserve? Not ideal! Neither is remembering that regular-season Sergei Bobrovsky and “Playoff Bob” are as diametrically opposed as Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk.
But boy, can this team score. The Panthers were third in the NHL in expected goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (3.14). Matthew Tkachuk, Aleksander Barkov, Carter Verhaeghe (42 goals!) and with players like Anton Lundell and Eetu Luostarinen just scratching the surface of their potential? If they can hold the fort until they’re healthy, I think the Panthers are good for about 98 points.
If the Senators are making the playoffs, that means the Buffalo Sabres, sadly, are not. Thankfully I think this is the last season we’re going to have to say this.
The Sabres are going to be tons of fun — outside of the Devils, no one creates more off the rush in the East than Buffalo. Tage Thompson is a star — OK, an offensive star. Dylan Cozens is on his way. Rasmus Dahlin is in his Norris Trophy contention phase. Owen Power is probably a couple of seasons away from joining him.
But they’re a turnstile defensively — 26th in the NHL in expected goals against per 60 minutes, and 28th in the league on the penalty kill. Their forwards don’t play well enough away from the puck. Their blue line is middling beyond Dahlin, Power and Mattias Samuelsson, who might be one of the most underrated defensemen in the league. Yeah, there’s a chance that Devon Levi becomes the first goalie to win the Calder Trophy since Steve Mason of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2008-09, carrying the Sabres to the playoffs. There’s also a chance he’s good, not great, while Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Eric Comrie struggle to get to “good.”
The Detroit Red Wings get lumped in with Ottawa and Buffalo as teams on the cusp, but I still think they’re a tier behind them.
Part of that is because the Red Wings’ prospects are still growing, with players like Simon Edvinsson, Marco Kasper, Nate Danielson and Sebastian Cossa not ready for prime time. They’re a team filled with enough veterans to be just competitive enough to not land the first or second overall pick, which is indeed a very strange aspect of the Yzer-plan. They added J.T. Compher this offseason to a team that feels like it already has several versions of J.T. Compher.
Speaking of worth the price of admission: Montreal Canadiens forwards Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield are like that dependable tag team that’s going to always get their high spots in no matter how mediocre the rest of the wrestling card looks like. That’s probably not fair to Kirby Dach, Alex Newhook or the curiosity factor inherent in Juraj Slafkovsky‘s second season in the NHL, but that dynamic duo is clearly the raison d’etre in watching Montreal play this season. Well, that and how high their lottery odds can climb.
The Devils are going to be the most entertaining thing to come out of New Jersey since Tony Soprano first sauntered down his driveway to pick up the Star-Ledger.
As someone who has watched this franchise for most of its existence, this is still a surreal thing to declare. The Devils were not the team with the star offensive players; former NHL coach and current NHL senior VP Colin Campbell once called them “an interchangeable flock of forwards.” Bill Simmons once told me he wanted to do a “30 For 30” on the Devils’ neutral zone trap as “the thing that almost killed hockey.”
Now they’re the team of Jack Hughes, who finished one point away from becoming the franchise’s first 100-point scorer; Nico Hischier, who was second for the Selke Trophy last season and on deck to become the NHL’s next great two-way center; Dougie Hamilton, Timo Meier and Tyler Toffoli, all established names that pile on the points; and now Luke Hughes, who might be the most exciting offensive blue line prospect since his brother Quinn dueled Cale Makar for the Calder in 2019-20.
They were second in expected goals scored per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, only a few percentage points from first overall. They stretch the ice and win track meets against opponents.
But what makes that speed really scary, and led to their 49-point improvement in the standings year over year, was how they used it defensively. Coach Lindy Ruff helped get players like Jack Hughes to buy into using pressure defense and smartly getting back off the rush to protect their own zone. Their offense was already trending up in 2021-22. But their expected goals against per 60 at 5-on-5 basically jumped across the Grand Canyon in a motorcycle from 14th to fifth. It should be good enough to compensate for their average-at-best goaltending, unless Akira Schmid pops off.
There are concerns. Losing Damon Severson and Ryan Graves off their blue line is going to have more of an impact than many anticipate. I’m also curious how the departure of associate coach Andrew Brunette impacts their power play, which went from 28th to 13th year over year. But the Hughes boys might be enough to compensate for that.
The Devils are a team that should win their division this season, maybe even raise the Stanley Cup at season’s end. But they’re not alone in that category in the Metro.
The Carolina Hurricanes will see their run of three straight division titles end, but not their championship aspirations. Coach Rod Brind’Amour led them to the conference final for the second time in his five-year tenure, watching the Hurricanes grind down the Islanders and Devils before succumbing to the unexpected Panthers juggernaut.
You know what to expect here. Solid goaltending from Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta, both of whom have new contracts. A top line led by Sebastian Aho and Seth Jarvis, with Michael Bunting a smart offseason addition on their flank. Offensive support from Martin Necas, Teuvo Teravainen, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and especially Andrei Svechnikov, who hopefully stays healthy enough to put together the breakout goal scoring season we all anticipate. Jordan Staal, holding court on one of the league’s best checking lines.
The most notable addition to their roster in the offseason was on defense: Former Bruin Dmitry Orlov, who has certainly made the rich a bit richer on a D-corps that already boasts names like Brent Burns and Jaccob Slavin.
What they need is that break, that bounce, that goal at a vital time in the playoffs. The one that wins either of the overtime games that started their Eastern Conference finals loss to Florida. Maybe they can find that solution from within. Or maybe they need to import a goal scorer — and have it work out better than the ill-fated acquisition of Max Pacioretty.
The Pittsburgh Penguins missed the playoffs by two points last season and added the reigning Norris Trophy winner, so I think they’re good for a postseason berth. Erik Karlsson allows the Penguins to have an elite puck-moving defenseman on the ice whenever Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin jumps over the boards. It would be dumbfounding if he doesn’t elevate their power play (14th last season) back to elite status.
But the genius of the Karlsson trade for GM Kyle Dubas wasn’t just adding the superior Swede. It was tossing so much baggage overboard to lighten the load for Pittsburgh. That helped enable them to afford former Golden Knights glue guy Reilly Smith to slot into their top six. Running it back with Tristan Jarry is fine for the regular season. But they must see something in Alex Nedeljkovic that I don’t, because I think that’s a downgrade from Casey DeSmith.
The average age of the 2023-24 Pittsburgh Penguins carbon dates back to the Mesozoic Era, so the caveat is, as always, health. The Penguins are adept at playing without their stars, but as last season showed, a point here or there lost by a short-handed team can make all the difference.
The New York Rangers earned 107 points in the standings, three points fewer than the previous season, and were ousted in the first round after blowing a series lead to the Devils after making the conference finals in 2021-22. For that reversal of fortune, coach Gerard Gallant was rewarded with a cardboard box for his things. Enter the well-traveled Peter Laviolette. The buzzwords out of camp have been “smart” and “aggressive” to describe their style of play under Laviolette, which can be translated as physicality. As Chris Kreider told the New York Post: “A big part of it is putting yourself in situations to be physical and to get into battles.”
None of these words are synonymous with “speed,” which is the thing a team like New Jersey has and the New York Rangers simply don’t have in their lineup. That’s still this team’s Achilles’ heel, because otherwise there’s a lot to like here: Arguably the best goalie in the NHL with Igor Shesterkin, a Norris winner and two-time finalist in Adam Fox, and offensive stars like Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin who anchor their own lines and posted over 90 points each last season.
New York Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello has been long characterized as stubborn in his ways, but seriously: There are so many names on this roster that were there when the Islanders last made the Eastern Conference finals in 2021. Lou did more retention of talent than acquisition of new players during the offseason. Not that you can fault him for some of those extensions: Ilya Sorokin was second in the Vezina voting last season, and the Islanders now have him until 2032. Scott Mayfield is a strong defensive presence, and Lamoriello signed him through 2030.
Besides Sorokin, there are two players that are going to determine whether coach Lane Lambert has another playoff team here: a healthy (and freshly shorn!) Mathew Barzal and center Bo Horvat, playing his first full season on the Island. In Horvat’s case, the Islanders gave him eight years and $68 million, and then watched his offense crater after the Canucks traded him. One assumes that’s an aberration and he’ll be back to a 30-goal pace. It had better be for the Islanders’ sake.
Here’s the gamble with having the Columbus Blue Jackets so high: I’m assuming four key additions to their blue line and a new head coach will compensate for what might be the worst goaltending in the NHL. GM Jarmo Kekalainen acquired Ivan Provorov and Damon Severson this offseason. Most importantly, Zach Werenski is healthy again after being limited to 13 games last season.
But the trio of Elvis Merzlikins, Spencer Martin and Daniil Tarasov in goal is … bad. They’re going to cost the Blue Jackets the lead in some games faster than Mike Babcock was run out of a job. It’s on this defense corps, and new coach Pascal Vincent, to figure out how to compensate for it.
But man, this might be a fun time up front. Johnny Gaudreau doing his thing. Patrik Laine getting some looks at center in the preseason. And while so much attention has been given to how Connor Bedard, Logan Cooley and Devon Levi might elevate their teams this season, it’s entirely possible that Adam Fantilli ends up being the one to actually push his team the highest.
The Washington Capitals were a .488 points percentage team last season, and I’m not exactly sure what they’ve done to improve on that, having apparently not found that genie to wish for everyone being six years younger than they are.
Granted, getting more than 40 games from John Carlson and more than 33 from Tom Wilson will certainly help. (And I really like that pairing of Rasmus Sandin and Carlson.) Darcy Kuemper and Charlie Lindgren are a solid duo in goal, too.
Maybe 41-year-old Spencer Carbery, a coveted assistant with the Leafs who became the Caps’ new head coach over the summer, is a wunderkind that circles them back to being a playoff contender. Or perhaps this franchise is just what it is right now: an average team that exists so we can watch Alex Ovechkin chase goal-scoring records. (Just 72 more to catch the Great One!) Which, having watched his first few seasons in Washington, is sort of weirdly nostalgic.
If there have been doubts about Philadelphia Flyers coach John Tortorella being a patient man, then they should be erased by the end of the 2023-24. The old Torts would have handled a major rebuilding season with explosions that would have made J. Robert Oppenheimer jealous. The kindlier, sweater-vest-wearing Torts seems content to try to make a young team play as hard as possible, setting the groundwork for their eventual return to contention under new GM Danny Briere. Whenever that might be. Patience, John. Patience.
Last season, the Colorado Avalanche were Stanley Cup hangover tired, and suffered through injuries to players like Nathan MacKinnon (limited to 71 games), Cale Makar (60 games), Valeri Nichushkin (53 games) and most of all Gabriel Landeskog, who missed the entire season. They had to adjust to the loss of second-line center Nazem Kadri to free agency and the transition from Darcy Kuemper to Alexandar Georgiev in goal.
And they still won the division with 109 points, one better than Dallas.
This Avalanche team could be better than that one. Instead of hoping Alex Newhook might develop into the second-line center they needed, they flipped him to Montreal and traded for Predators center Ryan Johansen on a salary-retention deal. The depth forwards they added are all solid: the feisty speed of Miles Wood, the offensive upside of Ross Colton and the dependable play of Tomas Tatar. Jonathan Drouin arrives as an absolute wild card, looking to reestablish himself as an offensive force in a reunion with former Halifax Mooseheads teammate MacKinnon.
Cale Makar is less than 100%, but Cale Makar at less than 100% is like another defenseman at 150%. It just means that my half-serious prediction that he’ll score 102 points this season to trump Erik Karlsson‘s output in 2022-23 probably won’t happen — but I expect winning the Norris again will.
Makar leads a terrific blue line, which includes a contract-seeking Devon Toews and two players — Bowen Byram and Josh Manson — they absolutely need to stay healthy this season after injury-riddled 2022-23 campaigns.
I imagine the Avalanche aren’t happy with the way things went last season. I like them when they’re angry. I want MacKinnon to look at that first-round loss to the Seattle Kraken like he looks at a teammate eating a bag of Skittles. That kind of disgust.
The Dallas Stars were a couple of bounces and a less exhausted Jake Oettinger away from playing in the Stanley Cup Final last season, as coach Pete DeBoer continued his first-year magic streak with new teams. The good news for Dallas is that DeBoer’s teams in San Jose and Vegas actually improved their regular-season performances in Year 2, and the Stars could best their .659 points percentage from last season.
The line of Roope Hintz, Joe Pavelski and Jason Robertson might be the best in the NHL for its combination of offense and defense — a 59.2% expected goals percentage at 5-on-5 last season. The Stars are just so deep up front, with players like Wyatt Johnston ready to level up, too. Getting a post-buyout Matt Duchene only makes them deeper.
The back end is going to improve as players like Thomas Harley and Nils Lundkvist improve. They have a Norris-caliber star in Miro Heiskanen. They also have two more years of the diminishing returns of Ryan Suter. With Oettinger in the conversation for best goalie in the West, the Stars are right there with the Avalanche as the cream of the Central.
The Minnesota Wild have, in my eyes, leveled off; and frankly, that’s OK when one’s level is over 100 points and playoff qualification. The problem is getting to that next level, as the Wild haven’t won a playoff series since 2015. If Kirill Kaprizov scores 55 goals, Filip Gustavsson is a Vezina finalist and players like Marco Rossi and Brock Faber take significant leaps in impact, maybe the Wild reach that level. But for now, they’re just … there: a talented group with a star winger, a terrific checking line, a deep defensive group that remains in desperate need of point-producing centers but can’t acquire them under their current cap crunch.
I think Andrew Brunette might be the most “vibes” coach in the NHL. He somehow kept the Florida Panthers on track to the playoffs after Joel Quenneville resigned in 2021-22. He became the associate coach for the New Jersey Devils and helped oversee their transformation from struggling young team to highlight-reel stalwarts. Now he’s the head coach for the Nashville Predators, a franchise that’s about as synonymous with offensive explosiveness as Broadway is with moderation. But that’s why GM Barry Trotz hired him: To give Nashville some rock ‘n’ roll in its game.
He takes over a team that has two forwards over the age of 30 in newly acquired Ryan O’Reilly and Gustav Nyquist. Everyone else is an established veteran in their prime (Filip Forsberg, owner of one of the most epic mustaches in the NHL) or on the way up like Cody Glass and Luke Evangelista. Brunette’s going to get some scoring from the blue line, too, with Roman Josi and Tyson Barrie back there.
But the reason I like Nashville to make the playoffs has less to do with vibes and more to do with stopping pucks. The combination of Juuse Saros and Kevin Lankinen rated third in our goalie tandem rankings, finishing fourth in the NHL in team save percentage last season (.914). Saros is one of the NHL’s true work-rate goalies, having led the league in games played, saves and shots faced in 2022-23. Both of these netminders give the Predators a chance to win almost every night. It’s going to be up to Brunette to find a way to get Nashville to score more goals (2.72 goals per game average last season) than they give up (2.88 in 2022-23). I say he does it.
I believe in the “Mullett Magic!” Or at the very least, I believe that adding Logan Cooley to the roster means there’s a chance the Arizona Coyotes will move up the standings in an unforeseen way this season. I can see a scenario in which Connor Bedard wins the rookie goal-scoring title, Cooley wins the rookie points title and then the Calder for having done so with the Coyotes.
Recent acquisitions Jason Zucker and Alex Kerfoot should also bolster an offense that already has Clayton Keller, Lawson Crouse and Matias Maccelli back after impressive seasons. Sean Durzi should contribute points from the back end. This might not sound like much on paper, but I think the Coyotes’ sum will be greater than their parts and that coach André Tourigny is the right guy to solve that equation. If nothing else, Karel Vejmelka and Connor Ingram might be one of the most underrated goaltending tandems in the NHL.
Goaltending is also the reason why the Winnipeg Jets could be the one to snag the wild card that I expect the Predators will hold down. Rather than trade him as unrestricted free agency looms, the Jets have Connor Hellebuyck between the pipes to start the season. He was fourth in goals saved above expected last season (30.8) in 64 games, and a whopping 69% of his starts were considered “quality” starts by Hockey Reference. No matter what’s in front of him in Winnipeg, Hellebuyck makes the playoffs a possibility.
What’s not in front of him this season: Pierre-Luc Dubois, traded to the Kings, and Blake Wheeler, who is now with the Rangers. The Dubois trade yielded some interesting pieces in return: workmanlike Alex Iafallo, 23-year-old Rasmus Kupari and most notably center Gabriel Vilardi, who they hope continues to trend up after a breakout season in 2022-23. They join a forward group that’ll run it back again with Mark Scheifele as the No. 1 center, and Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor back as goal-generating wingers. I’m excited to see what Cole Perfetti does as a center this season. I’m also intrigued to see if Josh Morrissey‘s 76-point monster of an offensive season is a leap forward or an anomaly.
If I were St. Louis Blues coach Craig Berube, I would put Pavel Buchnevich, Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou on the same line all season and let them cook, considering they generated 4.17 goals per 60 minutes in 2022-23. But last season, Berube had to move some of those players around due to injuries and lineup inefficiencies. The same probably happens this season, as the Blues continued to say goodbye to familiar names (Ryan O’Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko) and didn’t sufficiently replace them. I like the Kevin Hayes trade fiscally more than I like it on the ice. We’ll see if Kasperi Kapanen and Jakub Vrana build on the numbers they put up in what was essentially garbage time for the team.
The Blues are just kind of confounding at the moment. They have a bunch of defensemen with trade protection whose name recognition is more notable than anything they’re doing on the ice. And then there’s Jordan Binnington. He posted a minus-9.2 goals saved above expected and added only 0.5 wins in the standings, and yet there are always Blues fans at the ready to defend his “eye test” results … despite his save percentage having dropped in every season since leading them to the Stanley Cup in 2019. Ah well, at least we have his (seemingly inevitable) first fighting major to look forward to — will this be the year?
The Chicago Blackhawks have a 2005-06 Washington Capitals vibe. That team saw an unstoppable rookie force (Alex Ovechkin) win the Calder Trophy with an ungodly number of goals (52) on a roster populated by helpful veterans (Dainius Zubrus), remembering-some-guys randoms (Andrew Cassels) and franchise stars just trying to weather the rebuild (Olaf Kolzig).
When the Edmonton Oilers win the Stanley Cup as I have predicted (again), the acquisition of Mattias Ekholm from the Predators last season might be viewed as a turning point. Their expected goals percentage improved after his arrival on March 1. He’s a stabilizing force on their blue line and could be called upon to partner with young Evan Bouchard this season. That duo produced a robust 64.2% expected goals in just under 290 minutes of ice time together. If Bouchard has the star-making season many anticipate, Ekholm should have a hand in it.
The Oilers were two points away from winning this division last season. The Vegas Golden Knights ended up atop the Pacific and then rolled through the West en route to their first Stanley Cup championship. They’re going to be terrific again, with a clear path to being a 100-point team.
Coach Bruce Cassidy helped turn this group into an elite defensive team, finishing in the top three in expected goals against per 60 minutes. That enabled them to weather their problems in goal in a way that Pete DeBoer’s Golden Knights could not. That’s encouraging, because who knows what Vegas ends up with in the tandem of Adin Hill, who has never handled a starter’s workload, and Logan Thompson, who has only one injury-stunted rookie season to his credit.
But at 5-on-5 offensively, they were a middle of the pack team last season. Some of that was due to injuries, but that can’t be ignored when talking about Vegas. Mark Stone hasn’t played 80 games since 2014-15. Players like Jack Eichel and Shea Theodore missed significant time last season. The Knights played some physical hockey in their Cup run. While they’re clearly a playoff team again, it wouldn’t surprise me to see them take a small step back in the standings.
Moving ahead of the Knights into second place are the Los Angeles Kings. I’m not sure there’s a more fascinating team on paper in the NHL.
GM Rob Blake has been collecting impact veteran players like Pokémon for the past few seasons: Phillip Danault, Viktor Arvidsson, Kevin Fiala, Vladislav Gavrikov and now Pierre-Luc Dubois. They have a collection of young impact players like Quinton Byfield, Arthur Kaliyev and Brandt Clarke. All of them orbit around Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty, the franchise icons looking for one more championship parade.
They feel like a team that could win the Stanley Cup … provided their goaltending gambit works, which is to roll with Cam Talbot and Pheonix Copley behind an outstanding group in front of them and win this thing Vegas Golden Knights style. (It would also be advisable not to play the Oilers again in the first round.)
Fourth place in the Pacific is going to be a Tyler Durden-style fight club.
The Seattle Kraken earned that spot last season by a fairly comfortable margin, and then won a playoff round against the Avalanche in a seminal moment for the franchise. Dave Hakstol proved the haters wrong. Matty Beniers won the Calder. Jared McCann potted 40 goals on a team that was fourth in the league in goals per game (3.52). It was everything we expected from their inaugural season, just one year later!
But I can’t put my faith in this goaltending. No matter how impressive Philipp Grubauer looked at times in the playoffs, he and Chris Driedger rated out as our 25th-ranked goalie tandem. In two seasons, the Kraken have ranked 30th and 32nd in team save percentage. I also can’t put my faith in Seattle shooting 10.4% at 5-on-5 again. Regression happens, and playoff spots slip through a team’s tentacles when it does.
The Calgary Flames finished seven points behind the Kraken in the Pacific last season, which led to the firing of coach Darryl Sutter and the departure of GM Brad Treliving. Enter new GM Craig Conroy and coach Ryan Huska, who take over a talented roster.
Can Huska find a way to get the Flames back on track offensively, after dropping from sixth to 19th in goals per game year over year? Getting Jonathan Huberdeau to be Jonathan Huberdeau again would certainly help … and getting him out from under the sullen scowl of Sutter should do wonders. But for the second straight offseason, the Flames bid farewell to a leading goal scorer. While losing 30-goal scorer Tyler Toffoli might not have the franchise-altering impact of losing both Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk the summer prior, it’s still more degradation of their offense. Calgary remains a supporting cast in search of a star player.
The quickest road back to contention for the Flames would be through dominant goaltending. Jacob Markstrom, Dan Vladar and an emerging Dustin Wolf should be better than 23rd in the NHL in team save percentage. Markstrom in particular has a lot to prove after posting a negative goals saved above expected last season.
My pick to snag the No. 4 spot in the Pacific are the Vancouver Canucks. Coach Rick Tocchet gets a full training camp to put his stamp on the team. The Canucks improved their defensive corps by adding Filip Hronek, Carson Soucy and Ian Cole in the offseason. Quinn Hughes, the team’s new captain, was nearly a point-per-game player on D last season. Thatcher Demko is healthy, and the addition of Penguins backup Casey DeSmith moves the Canucks into the top 10 in goalie tandems.
But my prediction of a Canucks playoff berth hinges on Elias Pettersson being just as good — and maybe even better — than he was last season. Petey had 102 points, including 39 goals, in 80 games. That included a league-high five short-handed goals from a player that’s fast becoming one of the best two-way talents on the planet. His contract status and future with the franchise has become a cottage industry in the Vancouver media. That’s to be expected: He’s a Hart Trophy-caliber talent, and one who I think is going to drag this team back to the playoffs for the first time since 2020.
It’s going to take a lot of things going right, including solid performances from their depth forwards and a penalty kill that isn’t an abject embarrassment (32nd overall), but I think Vancouver is going to be just a little bit better than Seattle and Calgary and will get back into the postseason.
After Trevor Zegras signed his much-negotiated contract extension with the Anaheim Ducks, someone asked him about what he and new coach Greg Cronin were discussing on the ice during practice. “How to play defense,” he said, with the goofball energy we’ve come to love in Zegras.
But yeah: The Ducks’ defenders saw more rubber fly past them than a spectator at Le Mans. They were last in expected goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (3.41) and last in goals against per game (4.09).
Some of that was a personnel problem, something they sought to rectify with veteran additions like the currently injured Alex Killorn and bruising defenseman Radko Gudas. Much of it was just the folly of youth, as players like Zegras, Mason McTavish and Jamie Drysdale figure out the wacky world of defending NHL talent while also earning their own offensive chances. But let’s also not forget John Gibson, who was a negative-11.5 in goals saved above expected last season, and a penalty kill that ranked 30th in the league.
Light a candle for Tomas Hertl and Logan Couture, who have watched an All-Star team’s worth of talent jettisoned by the San Jose Sharks over the past few seasons, culminating in the trade of Norris winner Erik Karlsson to Pittsburgh this summer. The Sharks are in a full rebuild now, with a collection of young talent buoyed by well-traveled names like Anthony Duclair, Mike Hoffman and Mikael Granlund. It’s a team in desperate need of a draft lottery win, and one that might be bad enough to maximize their odds to get one. Oh, the stories of better days that Tomas and Logan could share with Macklin Celebrini. “Did we ever tell you the one about Joe Thornton and the four-goal game?”