Happy days are here again, hockey fans.
For some NHL teams, these are truly giddy times, as they get to show off new players and schemes or in the case of the Washington Capitals, hoist a first Stanley Cup banner.
Speaking of the Stanley Cup, last year’s final between the Capitals and upstart Vegas Golden Knights was compelling hockey and left little doubt that the landscape of the NHL has changed yet again.
Once proceedings were over, the NHL draft was a little less compelling, in that most players landed pretty much where they were supposed, like Rasmus Dahlin to Buffalo at no. 1.
The opening of free agency, though, had a little more drama to it than the draft. The big fish in free agency, John Tavares, found an open pond in Toronto, signing a big deal to play for his hometown Leafs.
Elsewhere, the Sharks improved their lot in life by trading for Erik Karlsson (after they dealt for Mike Hoffman and sent him packing to Florida). Ilya Kovalchuk is back and with his still significant wheels and smarts, might make the Los Angeles Kings a better club. Buffalo made a few deals to get better, ditto trading partner St. Louis.
Here is the first installment of our 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. Florida Panthers
Florida missed the playoffs by a single measly point in 2017-18 season and set about to try and shore any roster shortcomings in the off-season. The Cats got better down the wing when they ended up with veteran scoring winger Mike Hoffman, who was dealt in the same day from Ottawa to San Jose and ultimately Florida for draft pick considerations. He had 230 points (107 goals) in 342 games with the Sens and will skate with Vincent Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdeau on a very good second line. Aleksandr Barkov, the team’s leading scorer, will skate into the 2018-19 campaign as the first line center, between Evgeny Dadonov and Nick Bjugstad. The defence, headed by Aaron Ekblad, remains unchanged heading into the new season, ditto the goaltending where veteran Roberto Luongo is still no. 1.
A look ahead: Florida kicks off its season on the road against rival Tampa Bay on Oct. 6 and plays six of nine away from SoBe in the month of October. Not an easy slog as they visit Philadelphia and Washington in consecutive road starts and finish out on the road in the New York area (Rangers and Islanders back to back then the Devils two days later).
15. St. Louis Blues
The Blues, like the Florida Panthers, missed the big dance by one point, but took more drastic measures with their roster to try and keep pace with the big kids in the Western Conference. First they went bold and dealt three regulars to Buffalo for disgruntled center Ryan O’Reilly, who slotted in right away on the Blues top line with Vladimir Tarasenko and free agent signee Patrick Maroon. The team also welcomed third line center Tyler Bozak from Toronto, who will center a nice looking line that includes Alexander Steen and David Perron, who retruns to the Blues for the third time and fresh off a career high 66-point season in Vegas. Jake Allen will get another chance to handle full-time netminding duties after losing his job to Carter Hutton in 2017-18, with very capable back-up Chad Johnson, who is coming from Buffalo (which signed Hutton to a free agent contract).
A look ahead: The Blues and their re-vamped roster get a stern test right away when they host Winnipeg to open the season on Oct. 4. The rest of the month sees them play six at home and four on the road. They’ll be pretty sick of Chicago before Halloween, having to play the Blackhawks three times (two home, one road).
14. Colorado Avalanche
Somehow, the trade that sent Matt Duchene to Ottawa last year had the reverse effect most hockey literati originally predicted, and that was a complete turnaround for the surprising Avalanche. After a dismal 48-point season in 2016-17, a revised Avs team put up 95 points last year and made the playoffs, where they lost in six to Nashville in the first round. Colorado was reasonably active in the off-season, making some small but not entirely insignificant moves to augment a good young team headed by Nathan MacKinnon (career high 97 points last year), Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. The grabbed Columbus refugee Matt Calvert for three years and $8.4 million to play on a decent fourth line with fellow pluggers Matthew Nieto and Carl Soderberg. They also got another Columbus free agent in veteran blueliner Ian Cole, who will shore up the third pair with Patrik Nemeth. Perhaps the biggest move, with the most upside, was trading a second round pick in the draft to Washington for premier back-up goalie Philipp Grubauer.
A look ahead: Colorado actually has one of the busier Octobers in the NHL, with 12 games between the 4th and 27th. Seven of them are on the road and one particularly rough patch sees them play six of seven on the road, with a lone home game against Calgary sandwiched into and extended Eastern Conference run. In fact, only three of 12 games are against western foes.
13. New Jersey Devils
After the Devils won the draft lottery in 2017 and were able to add no. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier to a changing roster, they too turned things around like Colorado and made the post-season (losing to Tampa in five). The team also welcomed, out of training camp, rookies Will Butcher (123rd overall to Colorado in 2013), LW Jesper Bratt (162nd overall, 2016) and Blake Coleman (75th overall, 2011), all of who had good seasons, especially Butcher. The team is also banking on Taylor Hall continuing his ascent up the playmaker ladder after a career high 93 points in 2017-18. This off-season, the team wasn’t as busy, making few moves other than getting depth forward Jean-Sebastian Dea from Pittsburgh.
A look ahead: It’s a soft touch in the month of October for the Devils, who play their first five games at home and seven of nine in the friendly confines. But, there are few pushover teams coming in, as New Jersey entertains Washington, San Jose, Dallas, Colorado, Nashville and has a road game against Tampa on, aptly, Devils Night (Oct. 30).
12. Columbus Blue Jackets
Another playoff year, another first round exit. It’s a familiar refrain in central Ohio, where the Blue Jackets have been good enough to make the post-season, but get bounced early. There are a few new faces in Columbus to augment on offence led by elite playmaker Artemi Panarin and developing stars such as Alexander Wennberg and Pierre-Luc Dubois. Former Bruin Riley Nash signed for three years this past summer to anchor what could be a very good fourth line with an improving Sonny Milano and free agent signee Anthony Duclair, who is running out of chances to prove his fine 2015-16 season in Arizona wasn’t a fluke. The defence is going to have to go without Norris Trophy candidate Seth Jones early on as he nurses a knee injury. The rest of the defensie unit is still solid and mobile as any, with Zach Werenski anchoring a first pair with David Savard in place of Jones. Former Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky will have to shake off the effects of a horrid playoff run (3.18 GAA, .900 save percentage in six games).
A look ahead: The Jackets will be busy in October, starting with a visit to Detroit on Oct. 4. They play seven of 11 at home, which is a good thing, with a mixed bag of eastern and western conference competition. The Jackets were 26-12-3 at home last season and a fast start will be needed if they want to crack the top eight again.
11. Minnesota Wild
The Blue Jackets cousins in the West, the Wild, fared the same in the post-season. That is, another disappointing first-round ouster after a second consecutive 100-point season. A seemingly ageless Eric Staal led the team in scoring again in 2017-18, with 42 goals and 34 assists and the squad could do with a full campaign from Zach Parise. Nine players managed to score double digit goals and six players had 40 or more points. In the longer than expected off-season, they picked up veteran checking forward Eric Fehr to center the fourth line, along with former longtime Philadelphia Flyers winger Matt Read. On defence, their top four are still one of the most formidable quartets, with a great top pair in Ryan Suter and Mathew Dumba and second duo in Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon. Reliable stay-at-home defender Greg Pateryn joins the third pair. Goaltender Devan Dubnyk is coming off a fair campaign, where he got in 60 games, winning 35 and posting five shutouts.
A look ahead: Right out of the chute the Wild will have their hands full in a month that will see them play 12 games, seven of them at home. An ever improving Colorado team hosts them Oct. 4 and after that it’s pretty much a steady diet of Western Conference competition. October isn’t a “make or break” month, but the Wild can ill afford a poor start.
10. Dallas Stars
Things did not go quite as planned for the Stars in 2017-18. A team many expected to contend in the Western Conference instead missed the playoffs by three points, sending them into another off-season of introspection. There is lots of talent there, but also a whole lot of inconsistent play. Their biggest off-season acquisition, though, should help alleviate any concerns over when/if Ben Bishop gets hurt or needs some rest. The Stars inked Boston Bruins solid back-up Anton Khudobin for just that eventuality and should provide better than adequate netminding when they need it. Otherwise, the team remains relatively unchanged, with a stellar top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov. Well-traveled veteran winger Blake Comeau also came over in free agency from Colorado and is slotted into the second unit with Jason Spezza and Mattias Janmark. The defence got a bit of a facelift in the pre-season, with teenaged sensation Miro Heiskanen making the big club and former Maple Leaf Roman Polak joining Julius Honka on the third pair.
A look ahead: A tame start to an 11-game October as Dallas plays its first four straight at home, with a visit from Arizona to start proceedings on Oct. 4, followed by Winnipeg, Toronto and Anaheim. They were stellar at home last season (26-12-3) and will need to be good there again if they have designs on a playoff berth.
9. Nashville Predators
Smashville took two steps back last season after going to the Stanley Cup finals in 2017. The Predators finished with a NHL best 117 points, but the President’s Cup curse saw them buckle in the second round to Winnipeg. They are still a deep and talented team which did little in the off-season other than sign ultra-reliable depth defenceman Dan Hamhuis away from the Dallas Stars. They had 13 double-digit scorers on the roster that year and there is no reason to believe that can’t be the case again in 2018-19. The team’s top four defencemen are otherwise one of the finest quartets in the league. Roman Josi pairs with Ryan Ellis on the top pair, followed by P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm. Pekka Rinne returns for a 13th season and is the reigning Vezina winner after posting a 42-13-4 mark last season, with a 2.31 goals against average and league leading eight shutouts. The Western Conference is tough and the Predators will have to wash out the bitter taste of last season’s playoff exit.
A look ahead: Nashville will hit the ice 12 times in October, with seven contests at home. They too have a variety of opponents, starting with road contests against the Rangers (Oct. 4) and then the Islanders (Oct. 6) in the Big Apple.
8. Pittsburgh Penguins
Like their 2017 finalist brethren the Nashville Predators, the Penguins were unceremoniously dumped in the second round, this time by perennial Penguins’ doormats, the Washington Capitals. The road to the Stanley Cup, then, literally went through Pittsburgh. Sidney Crosby and the gang will be out for redemption this season and should be better rested after winning it all in 2016 and 2017 and then going out a littler earlier in 2018. The top two lines remain unchanged heading into the 2018-19 season, however, the bottom two got some savvy veteran know-how in Matt Cullen, who returns for a second go-around, while youngster Dominik Simon may get a full season to showcase his offensive smarts on the third line. Veteran defenceman Jack Johnson came over in free agency from Columbus to make a fairly good rearguard corps a little deeper. No. 1 goaltender Matt Murray needs to bounce back from a less-than-impressive 2017-18 campaign, where every significant stat took a nosedive.
A look ahead: The month of October starts off relatively light for the Pens, who will play a total of 10 games between Oct. 4 (home to defending champ Washington) and Oct. 30 (home to the Islanders). There is a fairly brutal stretch near the end of the month when they criss-cross Canada for four road tilts, starting in Toronto on Oct. 18.
7. Boston Bruins
The Bruins were good again last year, just not good enough. They did go an extra round in the post-season after a 112-point regular season, but fell to Tampa easily in the second round in five games. There wasn’t call for wholesale changes in Beantown, but after a fairly veteran group on the first line (Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak), the youth movement is in full force. Among the fresh faces are C Danton Heinen (116th overall pick in 2014), LW Jake DeBrusk (14th overall in 2015), C Sean Kuraly (133rd overall to San Jose in 2011) and C Noel Acciari (undrafted). Joakim Nordstrom (formerly with Carolina) and Chris Wagner (Islanders) joined the fourth line after being picked up in free agency. On the defensive side, Zdeno Chara is still kicking around and paired with ascending Charlie McAvoy. Veteran stay-at-home type John Moore comes over from New Jersey to play with Brandon Carlo. Tuukka Rask still mans the pipes as the no. 1, while very capable veteran free agent pick-up Jaroslav Halak gets clipboard duties at no. 2.
A look ahead: The Bruins will be road warriors in October, with seven of 12 games away from TD Banknorth Gardens — which was started with a horrid 7-0 loss in Washington Oct. 3. Just after mid-month, the Bruins will be on a tiring stretch of road tilts, with games against Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Ottawa between Oct. 17 and Oct. 23.
6. Toronto Maple Leafs – February Rank: 6
We’re not going to drink the Kool-Aid the oddsmakers are dispensing and put betting line Stanley Cup favorites Toronto into the early season no. 1 position. Yes, they signed prime free agent John Tavares, a huge coup, and have three incredibly deep forward lines, but there are still question marks on how an offensive minded blue line will fare again this year. Depth down the center is not a problem either, as the Buds sport Tavares, Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri, 1-2-3. William Nylander, Toronto’s third leading scorer in 2017-18, was RFA at the beginning of the season and his contract status up in the air. After jettisoning pluggers like Matt Martin and Leo Komarov, the Leafs picked up speedster Tyler Ennis to play wing on the second line and Swedish free agent Par Lindholm brought aboard to be the fourth line pivot. On the back end, the Leafs got another KHL refugee in the mold of Nikita Zaitsev, signing 25-year-old Igor Ozihiganov, who played six full seasons in Russia. AHL star goalie Garret Sparks usurped the back-up role from veteran Curtis McElhinney in training camp.
A look ahead: The Leafs kicked off their 2018-19 with a 3-2 OT victory over Montreal on Oct. 3. After that they play 11 more games, five on the road. The Leafs get a stern test after Ottawa visits on Oct. 6, with four on the road against Chicago, Dallas, Detroit and Washington between Oct. 7 and Oct. 13.
5. San Jose Sharks
Forever a bridesmaid, never a bride, the San Jose Sharks. They notched yet another 100-point season in 2017-18, only to lose in the second round to Stanley Cup finalist Vegas in the second round. But, the Sharks took a huge step in the right direction this off-season, trading away a small package of players and draft picks to get two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson in Sharks teal and black to go along with fellow Norris guy Brent Burns. The Sharks, then, boast one of the best top six in the NHL. Up front, things remain relatively unchanged, with longtime captain Joe Thornton inking a one-year deal to play in his 21st season. The only new face is undrafted Finnish free agent Antti Suomela, a 24-year-old center who was a sniper in the Finnish league and is the third line pivot between Evander Kane and Joonas Donskoi. The biggest question the Sharks face is: will goalie Martin Jones bounce back from a bit of a lackluster 2017-18 season?
A look ahead: It’s a fairly brutal first month for the Sharks, who will play a dozen in October, with eight on the road. They lost to Anaheim at home on Oct. 3, then hit the road for five straight, starting in Los Angeles then heading to the East Coast to tangle with the Islanders, Philadelphia, Rangers and New Jersey.
4. Vegas Golden Knights
The Knights, for a throw together team, sure shocked the hockey world in 2017-18, going all the way to the Stanley Cup finals, losing in five to the Washington Capitals. Just about everyone they got in the 2017 dispersal draft, from James Neal (since departed) to Reilly Smith, Nate Schmidt, Jonathan Marchessault, David Perron (also departed), Luca Sbisa, Cody Eakin, Colin Miller, William Karlsson, Oscar Lindberg and Erik Haula all made significant contributions to the Knights astounding success. To the team’s credit, it didn’t stand pat in the off-season, adding big time players in Montreal captain Max Pacioretty (trade) and playmaking center Paul Stastny (free agent via Winnipeg).
A look ahead: Vegas kicks off its defence of the Western Conference title with a visit from Philadelphia Oct. 4. Otherwise, the Golden Knights have 12 total games in October, with an even split between home and road. A potential rough patch awaits after the Flyers leave, as Vegas hits the highway for five in a row, including stops in Minnesota, Buffalo, Washington, Pittsburgh and Philly.
3. Winnipeg Jets
The Jets nearly put it all together in 2017-18, combining great goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck with stout defence and timely scoring to go all the way to the Western Conference finals. After losing out to Vegas, the Jets have not tweaked the line-up appreciably, staying the course with what they have. They are headed by leading point producer Blake Wheeler (91 points) and followed by top goal scorer Patrik Laine (44 in his second season) as well as Mark Scheifele (60 points in 60 games) and Nikolaj Ehlers (60 points). Kyle Connor added surprise scoring depth with 31 goals, second most on the Jets. The team also get an offensive boost from a blue line that features heavy hitter Dustin Byfuglien (8 goals, 45 points) and Tyler Myers (36 points). Winnipeg did make one minor move in free agency, scooping back-up Laurent Brossoit from Edmonton in free agency to replace the disappointing Steve Mason.
A look ahead: Winnipeg gets the ball rolling hard with three of their first four on the road, including trips into St. Louis on Oct. 4, then Dallas (Oct. 6) and Nashville (Oct. 11). Then they play and nice stretch of six straight at home before bookending the month with two on the road, back-to-back in Detroit and Toronto.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning, as good as they were in 2017-18, finishing with an Eastern Conference high 113 points, were ultimately no match for eventual Cup champion Washington in the Eastern Conference finals (they lost in seven). As a unit, the Bolts are deep and very talented, with every-improving Nikita Kucherov leading them in scoring with his first 100-point season. Steven Stamkos returned to put in a full campaign and tallied 86 points, while Brayden Point (66 points) and Yanni Gourde (64 points) were full value. Very capable defensive quarterback Victor Hedman copped his first ever Norris Trophy award, while goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy had a superb season, finishing third in Vezina Trophy voting. The only two changes to the line-up include rookie right wing Mathieu Joseph and reserve netminder Louis Domingue.
A look ahead: The schedule maker was equal parts naughty and nice to the Lightning, starting their 11-game October slate with five straight at home. But, on Oct. 20 they embark on a five-game road swing with two back-to-backs in seven days. They hit Minnesota, Chicago, Colorado, Vegas and Arizona.
1. Washington Capitals
The magic solution to winning a Stanley Cup was finally solved by the Capitals in 2017-18, ending decades of playoff futility.Their best players were their best players when it counted, with Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, John Carlson and perennial Vezina candidate Braden Holtby leading the charge. There was very little tinkering needed then for a roster that is formidable from top to bottom. The only thing that will hurt the Caps in the early stages of the 2018-19 season will be the absence of agitator supreme Tom Wilson, who earned a 20-game suspension for a questionable hit in a pre-season game. Rookie Nathan Walker (89th overall, 2014) and free agent signee Nic Dowd will occupy two thirds of the fourth line early on. Longtime minor league goalie Pheonix Copley takes over back-up duties from the departed Philipp Grubauer.
A look ahead: The Capitals rose their title banner in their first game of the 2018-19 season on Oct. 3, then went out and laid a beating on Boston, 7-0. After that, a relatively light slate that includes five on the road and three at home. The four games after the Bruins are no pushovers, with a tilt in Pittsburgh, then home to Vegas, on the road in New Jersey and then home to Toronto.