The 2016-17 NHL season is just days away. It only seems like yesterday that Sidney Crosby captured his second Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins. But to be honest, 2016-17 easily had to be considered a disappointment. It lacked in quality playoff series and of course a Canadian postseason team.
You all know that Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, and San Jose will be among the main Cup contenders. But how about the rebuilding efforts of all the Canadian teams? They ought to be considered excitements, right? Andrew Shaw and Shea Weber join a healthy Carey Price to the revamped Canadiens. The Toronto Maple Leafs now have Auston Matthews. Milan Lucic will be on a top line with Connor McDavid. What's not to love?
As we all know, there are only a handful of teams that can be considered Stanley Cup contenders. On the other hand, there'll be a handful of teams vying for the first-overall pick.
15 Compete for Stanley Cup: Montreal Canadiens
For some reason, a large majority of NHL pundits are forgetting this team is just three seasons removed from an Eastern Conference Final trip and two seasons removed from winning the extremely difficult Atlantic Division.
The Canadiens were running away with the Atlantic...in November of last season. That was before Carey Price had an MCL Sprain and missed the final five months. The Habs went from first to among the NHL's worst. So Marc Bergevin wasted no time bringing in change. Gritty Stanley Cup winner Andrew Shaw and two-time Olympic gold medalist Shea Weber was brought in with P.K. Subban on his way out.
This Habs team also has the rising stardom of Alex Galchenyuk to go along with Tomas Plekanec, Max Pacioretty, and Brendan Gallagher. Alexei Emelin and Andrei Markov round out a solid defensive core. The Canadiens will be among the East's top teams in 2017.
14 Compete for Lottery Pick: Edmonton Oilers
It seems a bit odd putting them this low when they've picked first four times since 2010. But believe us once and for all: The Oilers are going to be much better in 2016-17. And by much better, we mean not finishing so low in the Western Conference.
Connor McDavid's health alone should be a reason for optimism. But what about the addition of power forward Milan Lucic, who joined Edmonton just to be with the Oilers' future face of the franchise? Oh, and Leon Draisaitl should be much better after a spectacular 2015-16 on their second line.
But the Oilers aren't going to fight for a playoff spot in 2016-17. There's plenty of young talent, but it's hard to go from second-last in the West to playoff team. If anything else, it could be another bottom-10 finish in the NHL, which gives them a decent shot at winning the Lottery pick.
13 Compete for Stanley Cup: San Jose Sharks
The Sharks overcame their decade-long tag of being "playoff chokers," by cruising their way to the Stanley Cup Final. However, the younger and faster Pittsburgh Penguins defence shut them down and tamed the Sharks away from their tastiest meal yet: The Stanley Cup.
Even though the Sharks core is getting older (Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are 37, Joe Pavelski 32,) they're still seasoned enough to go on another deep run. Martin Jones is just 26 and should have no problem backstopping them to the playoffs. Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski, Joel Ward, and Logan Couture are a dangerous forward group up front.
Their defence also isn't half-bad. Brent Burns is coming off a Norris-caliber season and Marc Edouard-Vlasic played like the 2014 Olympic gold medalist we saw. The Sharks won't have it easy, but they ought to be considered a Cup favourite in 2017.
12 Compete for Lottery Pick: Colorado Avalanche
The Avalanche just don't make any sense to me.
Two-straight non-playoff seasons and they refused to listen to head coach Patrick Roy. Sure, the Avs struggled, but he was a great coach with this unit and made a lot out of a team that has been mismanaged for years. But he resigned after the team refused to make changes to the roster he had demanded.
So the Avalanche don't have their power head coach any more. Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Tyson Barrie, Semyon Varlamov, and Nate MacKinnon haven't gotten it together. It's been long enough yet the Avalanche refuse to make changes. So why should we believe in change? We're not going to. The Avalanche will miss the playoffs again in 2016-17, but just might get yet another lottery pick.
11 Compete for Stanley Cup: Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks haven't come anywhere close to Lord Stanley's mug since winning it all in 2007. They have watched their season end in a Game 7 loss on home ice in each of the past four seasons. As a result, Bruce Boudreau lost his job and old friend Randy Carlyle was brought back; attempting to help them bring a second Cup.
This team's championship window is closing rapidly, however. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry will be 32 years of age by season's end and are already past their primes, but still effective. Ryan Kesler turned 32 in the summer and regressed significantly after a strong first year in Anaheim.
Anaheim put all of its eggs in John Gibson's basket this season. He's got plenty of promise, but he hasn't shown it fully yet. Their blueline is one of the best in hockey, however. The Ducks should once again be among the West's favourites in 2017.
10 Compete for Lottery Pick: Columbus Blue Jackets
Death, taxes, and John Tortorella coaching his team to a non-playoff season. Why else should it change? Yes, the Blue Jackets have limitless potential with Sergei Bobrovsky as their netminder. Brandon Saad, Cam Atkinson, Boone Jenner, and Brandon Dubinsky will score a lot. Pierre-Luc Dubois, the third pick from the 2016 Draft, should also display his flashy skills with the puck.
But come on, everyone knows where a John Tortorella team goes. Team USA goes winless in the World Cup of Hockey. The New York Rangers go to the Stanley Cup Final in year one without Torts. The Vancouver Canucks go from five-straight division titles to no playoffs in their one year with Tortorella.
If Columbus hired a new head coach, they wouldn't be on here. But the fact is Torts finds new ways to run his teams to top-10 draft picks. For good measure, why not the first in 2017?
9 Compete for Stanley Cup: St. Louis Blues
The Blues, like the Sharks, got over the years of underachieving in the playoffs as they advanced to the Western Conference Final. That was before the Sharks dispatched them in six games. Now, they're loaded up for another run. But it won't be all that easy.
You see, Brian Elliot proved to be more reliable in the playoffs than Jake Allen, yet the Blues traded the former to the Calgary Flames for just a second-round pick. They also lost heart-and-soul leader David Backes in free agency to the Boston Bruins while gritty forward Troy Brouwer signed with the Calgary Flames. The Blues didn't replace any of those three big losses.
However, we can't discount Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, Paul Stastny, Robby Fabbri, Alexander Steen, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Alex Pietrangelo. The Blues are a lethal team in the West and betting against them would be foolish.
8 Compete for Lottery Pick: Carolina Hurricanes
The Hurricanes 2006 Stanley Cup championship seems like forever it go. Well, 11 years is quite some time. They own the second-longest non-playoff drought, having last made it in 2009. It's been nothing but mediocrity or awfulness since.
Long-time leader Eric Staal is long gone, mediocre goalie Cam Ward was given an extension to man the crease longer. Their blue line has plenty of promise with Noah Hanifin and Justin Faulk. Victor Rask and Jeff Skinner take care of the scoring up front, but the 'Canes need a whole lotta more starpower before they can even consider making progress.
They're constantly among the worst teams in the Eastern Conference. Playing in the division of death, the Metropolitan, doesn't make things any easier. The Hurricanes will once again fight for being last in the NHL.
7 Compete for Stanley Cup: Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins won their second Stanley Cup with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as the core of this team. Though their star players are starting to near the end of their primes, the Penguins have another year (or more) to add to their trophy room. Crosby (29), Malkin (30), Marc-Andre Fleury (31,) Kris Letang (29), and Phil Kessel (29) know that time to add more is running out, but the end won't be this year.
Pittsburgh finally learned how to play effective defence instead of worrying so much about scoring five goals a game, and it paid dividends. They turned around a miserable first three months and were virtually unbeatable in June.
But can they find yet another hot run to go on? We've seen them dominate the regular season then collapse in the playoffs many times. They flipped that script last year, so can they do it again?
6 Compete for Lottery Pick: New Jersey Devils
The Devils once watched another disappointing season sail by. Their biggest move of the offseason was trading stud blueliner Adam Larsson for Oilers' sniper Taylor Hall. Though many praised New Jersey for the move, Hall hasn't lived up to his full potential. And who on earth in New Jersey will feed him the puck to score?
This team has played remarkable defence for many years, and Cory Schneider is among the NHL's elite goaltenders. However, there just isn't any starpower on this team to go far. The Devils always avoid picking in the top-five, yet they never come close to the playoffs. So to sum it all up in one word: Mediocre.
The Devils will give their opponents' challenges for sure, but they should realistically expect nothing more than a non-playoff season. And a chance at the lotto pick.
5 Compete for Stanley Cup: Tampa Bay Lightning
In case you didn't notice, the Lightning are pretty good. They went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, only to fall to Chicago in six games. In 2016, they played all but one playoff game without Steven Stamkos and pushed the Penguins to seven games despite not having Ben Bishop for six of those matches.
A healthy Stamkos? Check. A healthy Bishop? Check. The rest of the roster? Priceless.
Jonathan Drouin withdrew his trade request after becoming their playoff hero. A season full of him in Tampa? Yes please. Oh, and Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Victor Hedman, and Nikita Kucherov. Hey, a healthy Ryan Callahan should be able to do wonders, too. Overall, there isn't a weakness on this Lightning team. They went far without their franchise star. You can bet they'll be among the NHL's top teams in 2017.
4 Compete for Lottery Pick: Toronto Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs underwent year one of a major rebuild last year. The ultimate prize? Last place in the NHL, which gave them the best lottery odds, which ended up giving them the first-overall pick, which gave them Auston Matthews. He joins a future that includes rising stars in William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, and new goaltender Frederik Andersen.
The great Mike Babcock may have coached far-and-away the NHL's worst team last year, but the Leafs played much more sound defensively and responsible, though that was overlooked.
Despite all of that, Toronto isn't ready for primetime. Brendan Shanahan said there'd be years of pain before they were finally ready to compete. If fans didn't believe it then, they will in 2017 when the Leafs vie for the top pick. Again.
3 Compete for Stanley Cup: Chicago Blackhawks
Do we really need to explain this? No. But we will any way.
The Blackhawks have won three Stanley Cups since 2010. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Marian Hossa, and Corey Crawford have been the core parts of this team for years. Without a doubt, the Hawks are geared to make a few more runs with this unit.
Don't let their early exit against St. Louis fool you from last year. That was a hard-fought series and not every Stanley Cup champion can win it every year. We know how dangerous the Hawks are once they get in. The Central especially looks weaker. St. Louis lost Brouwer and Backes. The Dallas Stars lost virtually their entire defence, which was a problem to begin with.
Another year, another Hawks run to the Cup.
2 Compete for Lottery Pick: Vancouver Canucks
Saying this as a young man from Vancouver: They're going to be awful in 2016-17.
Yes, Loui Eriksson should be a great fit with the Sedins. But even if each guy put up 60-plus points, it would not be able to make up for the pitiful secondary scoring. Their defensive core looks a lot more promising with the addition of Erik Gudbranson. But the Canucks are rebuilding and experimenting with their young players. They have to stop thinking they can make the playoffs.
Unless Bo Horvat and Jake Virtanen (2013 and 2014 first-rounders, respectively) finally break out and reach their full potential, the Canucks are easily the worst team in the Western Conference. There just isn't any starpower to keep up with the most dangerous teams in the Pacific Division.
1 Compete for Stanley Cup: Washington Capitals
The Capitals have yet to advance past the second round in the Alexander Ovechkin Era. Everybody thought it was bound to happen after they ran away with the President's Trophy last year, thanks to Braden Holtby's Vezina season, especially. But Washington HAD to run into the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins, with the latter happening to be on the winning end of a super close series; where three games went into overtime.
Washington has every necessity to be a Cup contender. Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, and Evgeny Kutnetsov score a lot. John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Brooks Orpik, and Matt Niskanen round out the NHL's best defensive core. And, oh yeah, Holtby is pretty good.
Not many may willingly pick Washington, given their failures. But they're easily my pick to win the East, and my not-so-easy pick to win the Stanley Cup.