With a wild October in the books, the NHL's pecking order is once again beginning to take form. While it's still too early to call favourites and busts, emerging trends all point towards a season of dramatic highs and lows. From Auston Matthews' sensational four-goal opening act to Craig Anderson's emotional return; from Carey Price's superhuman dominance to Vancouver's hard fall down to earth – it's clear that this year, anything is possible.
A fascinating first month indicates that winds of change may be picking up around the NHL, bringing up questions that may shape the league for years to come. Have the Oilers finally turned a corner? Will Montreal's hot start once again end in disaster? What in the world is going on in Vancouver? Are we witnessing the beginning of the end for the Boston Bruins, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, and even the mighty Blackhawks? While the questions certainly outnumber the answers, we've seen just enough to make some gutsy predictions about how things will all line up next April.
Just one win away from the Conference Finals in 2016, the Dallas Stars were a dark horse Stanley Cup candidate. With one of the league's most dynamic attacks featuring Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and John Klingberg on the back end, many expect the Stars to make a strong return to the postseason. However, with a marked increase in league scoring and goaltenders faltering across the board, the ability to get timely saves is more important than ever. Despite Lindy Ruff's unwavering defence of Kari Lehtonen and Anttii Niemi, it has become clear to everyone else that the tandem approach just isn't going to work. The Stars may hold on to make the postseason, but don't expect to see them past the first round as they will burn out early.
Ever since their surprise playoff appearance in 2014, no one has given the Blue Jackets much thought. Written off as a perennial bottom feeder with little future prospects, Columbus made a booming statement in a 10-0 dismantling of the high-flying Canadiens (Carey Price was not in nets on this night), followed up a week later with a commendable 8-4 effort against the Blues. Former Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky is having a resurgent season after a few years of injury troubles, and the Jackets are getting some impressive offensive numbers from captain Nick Foligno, Cam Atkinson, and rookie blueliner Zack Werenski. With nothing to lose and a huge chip on their shoulders, expect the scrappy Blue Jackets to claw their way into a Wild Card spot.
The tumultuous reign of Patrick Roy is over (what a crazy run this former superstar goaltender had in Colorado) , and if anything, rookie coach Jared Bednar has brought a sigh of relief to Colorado. Since their breakout Central Division title season in 2014, the Avs have been the posterboys for the unsustainable possession numbers. Collapsing into mediocrity in 2015, Colorado has left some of the league's top talent muzzled by poor deployment and lack of consistency, while prime contract years waste away. However, the likes of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Tyson Barrie, and Semyon Varlamov are ripe put the Avs back on the radar. After the team finds its rhythm under Bednar, expect the Avs to make a strong push to claim a postseason berth.
With all eyes on newcomer P.K. Subban, it's easy to forget that the Predators were one win away from last year's Western Conference Final. A rocky October has pushed Nashville to the bottom of a merciless Central Division, and despite Pekke Rinne's apparent return to form, the club has been unable to find any offensive consistency. Once revered for an infinitely deep blue line, the Preds pairings suddenly look like hasty patchwork around Roman Josi and P.K. Subban. As the year goes along, the Preds biggest enemy will be their position in an incredibly difficult division. Even if they manage to put together an impressive second half, it will be an uphill battle to get back into the postseason. Expect a tired Nashville team to fizzle out of the first round.
With head coach Guy Boucher's return to the NHL, the Sens are hoping that a decade-long coaching carousel is finally over. Riding the solid play of recent pick-up Mike Condon during Craig Andersen's indeterminate absence, the recent injection of emotion to the room has thrust Ottawa into a surprisingly hot start. Led once again by Erik Karlsson, who is coming off of his most prolific season to date, it appears that the Sens have finally found the track of consistency they had been searching for. While production has relied heavily on the blue line, the time is ripe for talented forwards like Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone, and Kyle Turris to add some punch to a sound defensive team. If Ottawa can find their rhythm like they had during the late Andrew Hammond run of two years ago, expect them to return to the postseason with demons to slay.
Following a disappointing first round exit last season, the Wild have come out of the gates hot – largely due to the dominance of goaltender Devan Dubnyk. With four of his seven wins coming as shutouts – three of which were on consecutive starts – the former Vezina candidate has quietly passed Carey Price to hold the league's best save percentage (surprising, right?). A resurgent Eric Staal is leading the team's offence, followed closely by All-Star defenceman Ryan Suter. With a balanced attack and a dynamic blue line, the Wild are looking to put their recent postseason woes behind them and finally reach their potential as one of the league's most dangerous teams. And if Dubnyk can continue this play into the postseason, then the Wild will be a legitimate threat.
After a lame start to their 2016 campaign which saw franchise goaltender Jonathan Quick go down minutes into the Kings' first game, all talk of a possible LA dynasty seems like water under the bridge. Once lauded for their ability to play shut down defence and execute a simple, structured attack, a missed postseason followed by a first round exit to San Jose last year have all but handed the Kings their expiration date. Leaning on the uninspiring tandem of Peter Budaj and Jack Campbell, this historically low-scoring LA team is suddenly feeling the weight of its aging core. While Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar are still without a doubt two of the best at their positions, the Kings pedestrian supporting cast makes it incredibly difficult to stay competitive in a league that is relying more and more on secondary scoring. Expect the Kings to ultimately come up short, marking the end to a remarkable half-decade of dominance.
It's been a rough couple of years in Toronto, but the pain is finally starting to pay off. After a complete dismantling under the careful watch of Brendan Shanahan, the Leafs have executed a point-by-point rebuilding plan which focused on accruing a massive reserve of young talent, flipping utility players for assets, and filling gaps through trade. Freddy Andersen's hefty five-year contract indicates that the Leafs want to start winning, and an exciting first month show that, at the very least, the kids are pretty damn fun to watch. As dynamic as they are up front, the Leafs have obvious insufficiencies on the blue line. And while Andersen has put a good string of games together after a rough start, this young crew still has lots of tough miles to go before they learn how to hold leads and win hockey games. Expect the Leafs to put up a good fight, but in what is shaping up to be a tough Atlantic Division, defensive woes and inconsistency will leave them just short of the postseason.
Following two consecutive years of postseason success – the first ending in a Stanley Cup Final appearance and the second in the Eastern Conference Final – the Tampa Lightning come into the 2016-2017 campaign as odds-on favourites to repeat a deep run. However, a devastating knee injury to Steven Stamkos that will keep him out for at least four months may be a sign of things to come. Coming off of trade speculations, Ben Bishop's sloppy start has not helped his case to remain the team's number one, as 22 year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy continues to dazzle in limited starts. Tampa will no doubt put up another impressive regular season, but with their Championship window quickly closing, expect the Lightning to fail to prove themselves as one of the league's truly elite. If the Ranger, Capitals, or Penguins have anything to say about it, Jon Cooper will have to settle for another second or third round exit.
After barely squeezing into the postseason last year, the Red Wings were easily disposed of by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Things have not since looked up, as Detroit sits well out of a Wild Card spot, once again struggling to put an end to the Jimmy Howard – Petr Mrazek charades. Meanwhile, injuries have piled up early on, and the Red Wings simply can't find a way to generate offence. It would be hard to deny that the once formidable Mike Babcock-era Red Wings have had their time. The earlier management can realize this, the earlier they can set a rebuild plan in motion. As the NHL leans further and further towards youth, speed, and skill, the Red Wings find themselves in a steep uphill battle as an outdated management team will no doubt resist the tides of change. As the team is torn down to make room for pieces of the future, an incredible 25-year consecutive playoff streak will inevitably come to an end this season.
Despite a first round upset at the hands of Nashville last season, the Anaheim Ducks have been considered perennial playoff contenders on the calibre as the Blackhawks and Kings. With Randy Carlyle back at the helm, and John Gibson given the nod as the team's number one, the Ducks are off to another good start. The usual suspects have propelled Anaheim to the top of the Pacific Division, as Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Ryan Kesler show no signs of slowing down. There is no reason to believe that the Ducks won't easily punch their fifth straight ticket to the postseason, but how far they will get is a different story. Should the Ducks come out of the Pacific Division, a tough Central opponent will await in the Conference Final. A capable but untested goaltending duo of John Gibson and Jonathan Bernier may prove to be the Ducks' undoing this year, sending them home once again without the Western Conference title.
The jokes about the Edmonton Oilers have pretty much been depleted at this point, and perhaps rightly so. Led by newly-appointed captain Connor McDavid, the Oilers responded to their 29th-place finish last season with a 7-2 record in October, giving them a brief stint as the best in the West. With the injury bug biting a chunk out of the Oilers' blue line, they have struggled as of late. However, with one of the fastest forward groups in the league and Connor McDavid fitting the bill as an elite centre at 19 years of age, the Oilers are more than capable of keeping themselves afloat down the stretch. Like it or not, the Oilers have turned a crucial corner in their troubled rebuilding journey, and now must push to prove themselves playoff-worthy. With McDavid at the helm and a sturdy Cam Talbot in the crease, expect this team to ride a late season surge and perhaps pull off an upset to reach the second round.
Last season, Ovi and the Caps won the Eastern Conference with an astounding 120 points, only to lose in six to the eventual Champs in Pittsburgh. Once again neck and neck with Sid and the Penguins in the Metro Division this year, don't expect the Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin narrative to go away any time soon. With Braden Holtby having yet another hot start, the Caps are an automatic Cup Champion candidate. However, a closer look a this roster shows a top-heavy team with a very vulnerable blue line. Every Championship team in recent years has relied heavily upon one or two dynamic defensemen who both generate offence and eat up ridiculous minutes – think the likes of Drew Doughty, Victor Hedman, Kris Letang, and Brent Burns. The Caps are icing the reliable but unimpressive top pairing of Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen, and a thin blue line will be their Achilles' heel in the postseason. Expect Ovi and the Caps to once again be outclassed by a more complete team, and put more question marks around the Great Eight's Stanley Cup aspirations.
After years of success, the Chicago Blackhawks still show no signs of regression. A tough first round loss to a hardy Blues team last year, the Blackhawks are once again flying at the top of the Western Conference. The dynamic duo of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews remain one of the best in the league, and a potent offence is being bolstered by Marian Hossa, Artem Anisimov, and Artemi Panarin. While Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have shown no signs of fatigue even after four excruciating playoff runs, goaltender Corey Crawford has been the difference-maker early on. Having taken a lot of criticism in recent years, Crawford is finally getting recognition as one of the league's best. Looking at the competition in the West, it's hard to imagine the Blackhawks repeating last year's early exit. If they are firing on all cylinders heading into the postseason, expect them to challenge for their third Stanley Cup in five years.
Since a devastating overtime loss to the LA Kings in the Stanley Cup Final three years ago, the New York Rangers have been fighting for a second chance. After a lacklustre first round exit to the Penguins last year, Alan Vigneault's crew started this season with a big chip on their shoulders. Having added depth forwards like Mika Zibanejad, Michael Grabner, and college standout Jimmy Vesey, the Rangers are suddenly boasting the most potent offence in the league, scoring at an insane rate of 4.11 goals per game. With Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi holding down the fort on the back end, Henrik Lundqvist only needs to play up to his career average for the Rangers to come out of the East as a true powerhouse – and most know that he will do much more than that with a Stanley Cup on the line. Knowing that their window is quickly closing, expect this Ranger team to take the hockey world by storm in the postseason. You heard it here first – the New York Rangers will be the 2016-2017 Stanley Cup Champions.