Forget Christmas, today is the most wonderful day of the year — where the NHL and its fans are concerned.
The century-old loop kicks off with a quartet of games tonight, including two all-Canadian tilts between Toronto and Winnipeg and the Battle of Alberta, Edmonton vs. Calgary.
The defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins also get their 2017-18 season fired up with a visit from the St. Louis Blues, while the Philadelphia Flyers are on the west coast to face the San Jose Sharks.
The NHL’s newest entrant, the Vegas Golden Knights, play their first ever regular season game in Dallas on Friday.
We are looking forward to seeing guys like Connor McDavid improve on his Hart and Art Ross winning 2016-17 season, ditto Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns, Calder winner Auston Matthews and Vezina recipient Sergei Bobrovsky.
We are publishing our inaugural monthly NHL rankings, with a twist, in that it will only be who we think are the top 16 squads (i.e. 16 teams make the playoffs). Here they are, in ascending order.
16. Calgary Flames
If in fact ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr does suit up for Calgary — his first ever Canadian team — he definitely won’t hurt them. As it stands, this is a pretty darned good team. Their top two lines are loaded with young talent, including first liners Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Michael Ferland, along with second liners Matthew Tkachuk and Mikael Backlund. The addition of Travis Hamonic to the defence was an off-season coup and gives the Flames a frighteningly good top four with Hamonic, Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton and T.J. Brodie. The biggest concern for the Flames is how their goaltending will fare. Gone are Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson, replaced by veteran Mike Smith and journeyman Eddie Lack. Smith, 35, was decent in 55 games with the woeful Coyotes last year, winning 19 games with a .914 save percentage, 2.92 goals against and three shutouts. Lack, late of Carolina, has played in 135 NHL games and has a career goals against of 2.56, with nine shutouts.
15. New York Rangers
While Calgary deals with new goaltenders with big question marks, the Rangers have to wonder how aging veteran and career Ranger Henrik Lundqvist will hold up. The 2012 Vezina winner had his worst statistical season since breaking in 12 years ago. The two-time All-Star posted career worsts in save percentage (.910), goals against (2.74) and shutouts (2). A lot will hinge on King Hank have a bounce-back year, but, if he fails, the second stringer is Winnipeg cast-off Ondrej Pavelec — which isn’t a good thing. In their favor, however, the Blueshirts won’t have too much trouble scoring with four deep lines. That is, they have offensive catalysts Jimmy Vesey and David Desharnais on the fourth line. The addition of top free agent defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk gives the Rangers plenty of offensive explosiveness from a back end that also features Ryan McDonagh, Brendan Smith and Brady Skjei. There may be a few shootouts this year, for sure.
14. Chicago Blackhawks
September was old home month in the Windy City as the team welcomed back 35-year-old winger Patrick Sharp (free agent), as well as Brandon Saad (trade for Artemi Panarin). So, say hello to the Blackhawks, same as the old Blackhawks. Sharp, who won three Cups in Chicago, had an awful, injury-plagued season in Dallas, scoring just 18 points and logging a -22 in 48 games. Saad, who has hoisted hockey’s holy grail twice in a Hawks’ uniform, returns after two good years in Columbus, where he scored 53 points in both. He is slated to play on the top line with Jonathan Toews, while Sharp lines up opposite Patrick Kane on the second unit. The Hawks core that includes warriors Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will need help from youngsters like forwards Alex DeBrincat, Tanner Kero, John Hayden and newly acquired defenceman Connor Murphy. They shouldn’t have any problems in goal with Corey Crawford starting and Anton Forsberg backing up.
13. Montreal Canadiens
The way we see it, the Habs will have tough time filling the opposition net this season. Thus, much will hinge on the play of all-world goalie Carey Price, once again. What they can’t afford, is an injury to their superstar netminder, as happened in 2015-16. The Canadiens did do themselves a favor by beefing up the back end by acquiring veteran free agent defenceman Karl Alzner, along with Cup winner Mark Streit. The emergence of rookie Victor Mete, who will line up with Shea Weber, may also have an impact (especially since emerging D Mikhail Sergachev was traded). Up front, the Habs lost Alexander Radulov to free agency, but gained homeboy Jonathan Drouin (for the aforementioned Sergachev). He supplies plenty of skill to the first line, but Montreal isn’t otherwise deep in scoring through four lines. There may be many low scoring, one-goal squeakers this season.
12. Winnipeg Jets
The Jets are opposite their confreres in Montreal, in that they will score in buckets, but may be nip-tuck to keep the biscuit out of the basket. There was virtually no change to their starting four forward lines, headed by leading point producer Mark Scheifele (82) and followed by top goal scorer Patrik Laine (36 in his rookie campaign) as well as Blake Wheeler (74 points) and Nikolaj Ehlers (64 points, tied with Laine). The Jets also get an offensive boost from a blue line that features heavy hitter Dustin Byfuglien (13 goals, 52 points) and Jacob Trouba (33 points in 60 games). Winnipeg did make one major move in free agency, scooping veteran netminder Steve Mason from Philadelphia. A renaissance year of sorts will be required of Mason, who wasn’t brilliant for the Flyers last year (2.66 GAA, .908 save percentage in 58 games). He forces incumbent starter Connor Hellebuyck to the second banana — nice insurance if Mason flames out.
11. Ottawa Senators
The Canadian contingent in our inaugural power rankings is fairly strong. The Sens, who made it all the way to the Eastern Conference finals last season, will need to prove to the rest of the hockey world that they are that good. Like Winnipeg, Ottawa has two very good top forward lines, headed by scorers like Mike Hoffman (61 points) and Kyle Turris (team-leading 27 goals). However, the team’s most important player, and leading scorer from a year ago, Erik Karlsson, is still a question mark as he recovers from off-season surgery to repair a tendon in his left foot. Without their most important offensive catalyst, the Senators may be a little lost to start the season. That puts pressure on free agent acquisition Johnny Oduya, as well as veteran Dion Phaneuf (30 ponts last year) and the emerging Cody Ceci to pick up the slack. Ottawa is still solid in goal with returnees Craig Anderson and Mike Condon.
10. Anaheim Ducks
The time for the Ducks to win again, like they did in 2007, was likely yesterday. The third oldest team in the National Hockey League at an average age of 28.442, will again rely on 30-somethings Ryan Getzlaf (32), Corey Perry (32), Patrick Eaves (33), Andrew Cogliano (30), Antoine Vermette (35) and, when he gets back from injury, Ryan Kesler (33) to score goals. The Ducks, who made it all the way to the Western Conference finals last year, will be in tough early on without Kesler (58 points last season), who has no clear timetable for return after off-season hip surgery. Defenceman Sami Vatanen (24 points last season) is also out for a while after shoulder surgery, ditto Hampus Lindholm (20 points, +13), who is out until November after shoulder surgery to correct a torn labrum. The Ducks brought back oldster and 2007 Cup champion Francois Beauchemin to shore up the D and will have to count on relatively untested but decent puck-mover Brandon Montour for big minutes. In net, the Ducks made a bold move to bring in veteran Ryan Miller to back up John Gibson.
9. Columbus Blue Jackets
There will be a few new wrinkles to the Eastern Conference’s fourth most potent attack this season. The Blue Jackets, who scored 249 goals last year, but bowed meekly in five games to Pittsburgh in the first round, weren’t content with status quo and made some changes. First, they traded Brandon Saad back to Chicago for elite playmaker Artemi Panarin. They waived by bye to veterans Sam Gagner and Scott Hartnell, which opens up prime spots for young gunners like rookie Sonny Milano (second line left wing), third-year man Oliver Bjorkstrand (second line right wing) and 2016 third overall pick Pierre-Luc Dubois (third line left wing). They will all learn well with veteran centermen Nick Foligno (second line) and Brandon Dubinsky (third line). The defence is as solid and mobile as any, with super sophomore Zach Werenski anchoring a first pair with Seth Jones. And, Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky will nearly always give them a chance to win.
8. Minnesota Wild
While the playoff result, a first round, five-game loss to St. Louis doesn’t show it, the Wild’s first year under Bruce Boudreau signaled a big change. The team scored the second most goals in the NHL (266), with the scoring spread all around, led by Eric Staal’s 28 markers. Fully 12 players scored double digit goals and nine players had 40 or more points. Jason Zucker, who had 22 goals and 47 points, was tops in the NHL in plus-minus at +34. They return their six top scorers but will have to do without Zach Parise for the early going, as he has a back injury. They picked up plenty of grit and some scoring by acquiring Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis from Buffalo and signed free agents Daniel Winnik and former Wild forward and Stanley Cup champion Matt Cullen. On defence, their top four are formidable, with a great top pair in Ryan Suter and Mathew Dumba. Goaltender Devan Dubnyk is coming off a stellar campaign, where he got in 65 games, winning 40 and posting five shutouts.
7. Toronto Maple Leafs
Depending on who is talking, the Leafs are either a) primed for a major move toward a Stanley Cup or b) due for a tumble because their young core won’t sneak up on anyone this year. With the load of talent up front and a capable goalie in Fredrik Andersson, the former may be a more realistic outcome than the latter. Auston Matthews leads this team into a season where many expect the team to push a little further than last year. He was a 40-goal man and the Calder winner in 2016-17 and will only get better. The veteran/youngster mix up front is sound and got a boost in leadership when they signed Patrick Marleau. The defensive corps looks a little better, given that Cup-winning veteran Ron Hainsey was added to the mix and will help in the further development of Morgan Rielly. Undrafted Swede Andreas Borgman, a sturdy defenceman who surprised all by making the opening night roster, might be this year’s Nikita Zaitsev.
6. Dallas Stars
We’ll believe it, when we see it. Most pundits predict that the re-vamped Stars have done enough to help erase a lost 2016-17 campaign. They added enigmatic playmaker Alexander Radulov to a top line featuring Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, as well as veteran pivot Martin Hanzal to the third line to give them more depth. Free agent Marc Methot joins an underachieving blue line, headed by homegrowns Esa Lindell and John Klingberg. The biggest, and most important changes for the Stars come in net and behind the bench. Ben Bishop gives the Stars the goaltending they have lacked for some time, pushing the mediocre Kari Lehtonen to back-up duties (which may suit him better). Bishop was so-so in 2016-17, playing in 39 games and posting a 2.54 GAA and .910 save percentage. With a change of scenery and renewed commitment to defence under Ken Hitchcock (more on him), Bishop may regain the all-star form he had during the 2015-16 campaign. Hitchcock is back for another go-around in Big D, where he won the franchise’s only championship in 1999. He’s a taskmaster who will get more out of the troops than they were capable of last year.
5. Tampa Bay Lightning
Like the Stars, the formerly glorious Bolts are due for a climb in the standings after narrowly missing the playoffs last season. With a healthy Steven Stamkos back (he missed all but 17 games last year), the rudderless Lightning have their captain. The Lightning fixed a couple of holes with kids and vets in the off-season. They brought in D Dan Girardi to provide grit on the blue line, then signed former Penguin Chris Kunitz for scoring depth on the left wing. In a bold move, they flipped playmaker Jonathan Drouin to Montreal in return for highly touted young defenceman Mikhail Sergachev, who will be tutored by partner Anton Stralman. The forward lines have great depth, with leading scorer Nikita Kucherov (40 goals) only getting better and the defence is very capably quarterbacked by Victor Hedman. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy gets a second season as starter after a fairly decent 2016-17 season.
4. Edmonton Oilers
Can anyone stop Connor McDavid? We’ll see. The super sophomore racked up a league leading 100 points last year, capturing the Art Ross, Hart and Ted Lindsay awards for an Edmonton team on the way up, up and up. The Oil have a captain not seen since the great one left town and are tracking toward a long overdue championship. Management extended McD with the soon-to-be richest contract in the league ($12.5 million per season starting in 2018), as well as putting pen to paper with scoring sidekick Leon Draisaitl ($8.5 million per season for eight years). Subtle changes to a dynamic group included dealing the more expensive and older Jordan Eberle for the Islanders’ Ryan Strome and the addition of rookie scoring sensation Kailer Yamamoto to the top six. Veteran forward Jussi Jokinen was also signed to an inexpensive deal to give depth to the bottom six. The defence is unchanged (a good thing) and starting goalie Cam Talbot has really come into his own, what with the 73 games played last year, 2.39 GAA and seven shutouts.
3. Washington Capitals
The magic potion to winning a Stanley Cup continued to elude the Capitals in 2016-17. Despite boasting some of the game’s great scorers (Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom), great defence and a yearly Vezina candidate in goalie Braden Holtby, the Caps succumbed to the eventual champion Penguins, yet again. So, this year, instead of fishing about in free agency to try and buy a championship, the Caps stood relatively pat and will go at it with a still very formidable line-up. They lost trade deadline acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk to free agency, which will open up more ice time for the likes of Dmitri Orlov and John Carlson. Up front, Marcus Johansson and his 58 points are gone, which opens the door for former first rounder Jakub Vrana to pick up the slack on the first line with OV and Kuznetzov. The most changes came in the bottom six, with newcomers Alex Chiasson (24 points for Calgary), Tyler Graovac (seven goals and nine points in 52 games with Minnesota) and Devante Smith-Pelly (nine points in 53 games for the Devils), providing checking, grit and a little scoring.
2. Nashville Predators
Smashville came pretty close to winning it all last year and with the line-up they have now, will beat teams on the scoreboard and in the trenches. On the grit side, the Preds picked up noted banger D Alexei Emelin (1,235 hits in 380 games) as well as bringing back gritty scorer Scott Hartnell, who will man the left side on the second line. Speaking of that second line, the Predators poached the Penguins for center Nick Bonino, who will ably replace Mike Fisher. Roman Josi and P.K. Subban are two of the better offensive defencemen in the league and man the point in a scary good first powerplay unit that also sports Hartnell, Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg. Pekka Rinne returns for a 12th season and will mentor up-and-coming countryman Juuse Saros, who looks like the goalie of the future. The Western Conference is tough but the Predators have the horses to go far.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
Until proven otherwise, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins are still the class of the NHL. Sidney Crosby and the gang may have dropped a few pieces to a second consecutive title (Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, Marc-Andre Fleury, Matt Cullen and Trevor Daley), but on paper they are still scary good. As it is, none of the departed were in their top six in scoring and most are long past their prime. So instead of big name free agents joining the Pens for a possible three-peat, the team welcomed some bottom six depth in guys like Greg McKegg and Ryan Reaves, along with defenceman Matt Hunwick. Matt Murray will continue on as undisputed no. 1, with Dallas cast-off Antti Niemi riding shotgun (they better hope a change of scenery is the tonic). Do all signs point to another Cup? Don’t count Crosby and the Penguins out.