The 2015-16 NHL season was a rather boring one, if you ask me.
There was virtually no excitement in Canada during the playoffs, as zero teams from The Great White North qualified. This may have been a delight to many Americans, but hockey was created in Canada. It was therefore not made for this country's seven teams to all have forgetful years...in the same season.
Also, we had so many intriguing playoff series that didn't live up to the hype. The Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers renewed their rivalry, but the Pens made easy work in five games. The Crosby vs. Ovechkin Playoff Rivalry, Part II, was a huge bust. The Stanley Cup Final itself was boring, too.
Well, that's all behind us now. Finally, hockey is almost back. So how will the season play out? We take a look into the crystal ball. And here's what we see.
15 Penguins Disappoint
The Penguins went 30-11-4 in the new year and rode a red-hot Matt Murray to the Stanley Cup in 2016. But let's put it this way: They barely beat the Tampa Bay Lightning who had Ben Bishop AND Steven Stamkos one game each in the Eastern Conference Final. They only got through the San Jose Sharks by six games, and that series could have easily gone the other way.
In other words, the Pens' run last season was far too impressive to repeat. It was a once-in-a-lifetime run where Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were shut down, yet this team's bottom-six forwards led them to the title. Murray is out 3-6 weeks with a broken hand, so it could be a while until he finds his groove when he returns.
The Pens will make the playoffs, but they won't get out of Round Two.
14 Canucks Host a Garage Sale
The Vancouver Canucks have not been a realistic Cup contender since losing it all to the Boston Bruins in 2011. Management made a disastrous decision year-after-year to go all-in by spending big money on past-their-prime veterans while handing out no-trade clauses to players like they were money growing on trees.
Well, it all caught up to the team as they finished third-last in the NHL last season. Their defensive core got a huge makeover with the draft selection of Olli Juolevi and trade for Erik Gudbranson. But the Canucks have some vets to move: Alex Burrows and Ryan Miller are free agents in 2017, and the Sedin Twins have two years left on their deals. Alex Edler could also bring in a nice package if he goes to a playoff contender.
The Canucks are my pick to finish last in the NHL; I expect them to gut the roster by giving away a handful of their veterans. Burrows and Miller are easily gone. No question about it.
13 Michel Therrien Gets Fired
Michel Therrien is like Catwoman from Batman Returns: They have nine lives.
Listen, Therrien has been a great NHL coach. He guided a lifeless Penguins team to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008 after years of embarrassment. He took over the Habs in 2013 after a last-place finish in the East in 2012 and took them to the Atlantic Division title. He's done a remarkable job.
But there's no way he should have been given a vote of confidence after the Habs freefall once Carey Price got hurt. The Habs will struggle through two months, fire Therrien and get a new head coach. Just look at the 2009 and 2016 Cup-winning Pens: A new coach can mean a new Stanley Cup.
Fact of the day: Therrien was replaced by Dan Bylsma in 2009 when the Pens won the Cup.
12 Patrik Laine Outplays Auston Matthews...By Miles
Auston Matthews was the more hyped-up draft pick when he went first-overall to the Toronto Maple Leafs in this year's draft. He just missed out on eligibility for the 2015 draft, and many scouts believe he could have gone before Connor McDavid.
No doubt that Matthews will become the face of the franchise in Toronto, but it's a bit too soon to expect him to be a star right now. With the Leafs in full rebuild mode, 23 goals and 46 points may be more realistic for Matthews.
As for Laine, the second pick of the draft? He's joining a core with Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, Mark Scheifele, Dustin Byfuglien, and Drew Stafford. He'll score 30 goals and 63 points en route to the Calder Trophy.
11 Dallas Stars Regress Big Time
The Stars went from no playoffs in 2015 to winning the Central Division in 2016--easily the most difficult in the NHL. But the Stars are a team that thinks scoring enough goals is all it takes to win the Cup.
Well you know something, Mean Gene (sorry, I love Hulk Hogan), the Stars goaltending tandem of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi held them back in the playoffs. But poor goaltending is also because of porous defence.
The Stars defence was awful last year. Kris Russell, Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers all left, and Dan Hamhuis (33, injury prone and no effective partner to play with) is their lone big name on the back end. The Stars will score lots, but opponents will score more and Big D misses the playoffs.
10 Jagr Time Shows Its End
The 44-year-old led the Florida Panthers in scoring last year with 27 goals and 66 points. No, the Panthers were not a laughingstock. They won the Atlantic Division and boast rising stars in Aaron Ekblad, Vincent Trocheck, Aleksander Barkov, and Jonathan Huberdeau. So yes, Jaromir Jagr's season was incredible, not a sign that his team was awful.
However, can you really expect this man to keep finding the fountain of youth? We're not only suggesting that the Panthers young guns will outscore Jagr in 2016-17, but he's going to take a sharp turn in his own scoring. 18 goals and 43 points is more likely. We all love the guy and it's remarkable to see this kind of production, but it's not sustainable. Oh, and watch out taking him in fantasy.
9 Ben Bishop Gets Traded
The Lightning were close to trading away Bishop in the offseason, but will hold onto the man who has one year left on his contract. Tampa Bay has a rising star in Andrei Vasilevskiy and a Bishop trade could net them a player to go on a deep playoff run next year.
Bishop will get traded at the deadline, but to whom? The Calgary Flames will be the front runners if Brian Elliot doesn't work out. The Edmonton Oilers could also make a pitch if they make a surprise run for the playoffs. The Dallas Stars also could if they shed Kari Lehtonen's or Antti Niemi's contract. But all signs are pointing to Bishop Time ended in Tampa. It'll be official at the deadline.
8 Edmonton Oilers Begin Rising
To be clear, we don't mean rising as in win the Stanley Cup and start a dynasty like they had in the '80s. We mean that the Oilers will begin rising in the Western Conference standings and not finish in the bottom five of league standings anymore.
I've been saying this for the past three years, but 2016-17 is totally the year you'll see a new Oilers team. A healthy Connor McDavid would be enough for optimism, but power forward Milan Lucic now gets to skate on a line with the new face of the NHL. Jesse Puljujarvi gives them another scoring winger, while Leon Draisaitl will also produce aplenty after a 51-point campaign in 2015-16.
The Oilers will finish ninth in the Western Conference, just missing out on the playoffs.
7 Three Flames Score 30 Goals
In case you didn't know it, the Calgary Flames are a promising NHL team who are on the verge (if they're not already there) of being a Stanley Cup contender.
Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau are the faces of the team, but Sam Bennett is often being overlooked. No doubt Johnny Hockey will post another 30-goal season after scoring 78 points in 79 games last season. At 23 years of age, he's only getting better. Sean Monahan scored 27 and will reach that 30-goal plateau. And as for the forgotten Bennett? He had 18 goals in 77 games--his first full season in the NHL. Bennett will also take the next step.
The Flames will be lighting a lot of lamps in 2016-17. Their trio of superstar forwards in their early 20s will really take off.
6 McDavid Wins the Scoring Title
The last NHL player to win the scoring title in his second season was none other than Sidney Crosby in 2007. Now, just watch Connor McDavid roll this upcoming season.
McDavid put up 48 points in just 45 games, playing on the NHL's second-worst team last year. Now, he has a fresh new winger in Milan Lucic, who'll easily score 20-plus goals and adds size to the small-framed Oilers. Jordan Eberle will skate on McDavid's right wing after scoring 25 goals and 47 points last year.
So a Lucic-McDavid-Eberle line looks pretty good. The second and third lines are scary beyond that, so defences can't focus entirely on McDavid. The addition of Adam Larsson will bring more offence to the power play. McDavid scores 95 points and wins the scoring title.
5 Maple Leafs Make Playoff Push
The Leafs were far-and-away the NHL's worst team last year, and it got them Auston Matthews. Mike Babcock basically coached an AHL team and you could see how much the young players bought into the system. It was a promised year of pain in Brendan Shanahan's "Shanaplan." Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander give the Leafs a forward group that looks scarier than the days of Mats Sundin, Gary Roberts, and Tie Domi 15 years ago. That is not an exaggeration.
Oh, and Frederik Andersen may finally be the answer to this team's goaltending woes. He can't be any worse than Vesa Toskala, J.S. Giguere, Jonathan Bernier or basically any other Leaf goalie since Ed Belfour left.
Toronto will be in the playoff race up until the end of April, where they fall out and finish 10th in the East.
4 4. Red Wings' Playoff Streak Ends
The Detroit Red Wings have needed a lot of luck to make the playoffs over the years. They got in on the final day of the regular season in 2013. They got in by virtue of a weak Eastern Conference in 2014. A major collapse by the Boston Bruins in 2015 got them by. A major unraveling by Boston and Montreal in 2016 got the Wings in on the last day. Now, they have to qualify again without Pavel Datsyuk, who'll play out his final hockey days in Russia.
Well, you know the Canadiens and Ottawa Senators will bounce back, and the Bruins could as well. Detroit has gotten through by the slimmest of margins, but that's all going to change now. A tougher Eastern Conference will mean a slump late in the season will keep Detroit out of the playoffs.
3 Four Canadian Teams Make the Playoffs
It's been up-and-down over the years of Canadian teams when it comes to making the playoffs. It turns out that if it's an odd year, it'll mean more playoffs teams from Canada. Here's the proof:
2012: Vancouver and Ottawa
2013: Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal
2015: Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary, Winnipeg
But all history aside, you know Montreal will make the playoffs with Carey Price returning. The additions of Shea Weber, Alexander Radulov, and Andrew Shaw cement their status as a real Cup contender. The Ottawa Senators have talent all across the board and will be fine with a new head coach in Guy Boucher.
The Flames and Jets are loaded with young talent and got better through the draft. Their young guys are going to take the next step. So count on Ottawa, Montreal, Calgary, and Winnipeg to make the playoffs
2 Alex Ovechkin Finally Gets His Ring
We're not talking about a wedding ring or an ear piercing. Alex Ovechkin has seen his long-time rival Sidney Crosby steal Olympic Gold and Stanley Cups from him. It's now Ovi's time to lead his team to glory.
So basically, the Capitals are going to be really good. Don't let their loss to the Penguins in the second round last season fool you: That was the tightest a series could get and the Caps just happened to be on the wrong end. Braden Holtby will continue to carry this team with a Vezina Trophy to defend.
The Capitals will beat Chicago in the Stanley Cup, ending the 'Hawks dynasty run and cementing the legendary status of Ovechkin. It's been long overdue for the Great Eight, and he'll finally get everything he's dreamed of.
1 John Tortorella Doesn't Get Fired
John Tortorella just keeps finding ways to get jobs. His style of play ruined the New York Rangers' chances of winning a Stanley Cup. No coincidence that the Blueshirts made the Stanley Cup Final in their first season with Alain Vigneault.
The Canucks went from a disastrous 2013-14 season with Torts to second in a very tough Pacific Division. The Columbus Blue Jackets decided to bring him in last season as interim coach, and they were a .500 team yet decided to hold onto him. But Torts' handling of the skilled Team USA in the World Cup of Hockey was a mess.
It's absolutely a sign he should not be coaching at this level anymore; his style has run out and players don't have his attention. But he'll survive all of 2016-17 as he coaches the Jackets to a non-playoff year.
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