NHL Season Preview

by Tyler Roaix

Fall is here and that means the National Hockey League has returned. Not only do we get to watch the stars of the league night in and night out, but now we actually have a new team to watch: the Vegas Golden Knights. The new expansion adds a new wrinkle to the now 31-team league. But we go into this season with the same question as last season: can anyone beat the Pittsburgh Penguins? Here are some teams to look out for.

First up is the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. When Mike Sullivan took over as head coach in December of 2015, the Penguins were in the midst of a disappointing season. But since then, the team has posted a .670 win percentage en route to two Stanley Cups. Sidney Crosby has played the best hockey of his career the past two years, cementing himself as the best player of this generation. 2017 will bring much of the same. Crosby, along with Evgeni Malkin and Matt Murray will again lead Pittsburgh deep into a playoff run.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have had some terrible luck on the injury front of late, especially in 2016. Going into last year, the Lightning were the team many experts thought would dethrone the Penguins and make a run at the Cup. But Steven Stamkos, the heart of the team and one of the best overall players in the league, tore his meniscus in November last year and wasn’t able to get back on the ice in time as Tampa missed the playoffs. Looking ahead to this year, that hype has returned. They’re healthy and they have one of the deepest teams in the NHL. If they can keep Stamkos on the ice, Tampa will give Pittsburgh a test in the Eastern Conference Finals.

But a dark horse out of the East is definitely the Toronto Maple Leafs. With a plethora of young talent including Austin Matthews, Will Nylander and Mitch Marner, Toronto was one of the most exciting teams to watch in 2016. The Leafs surprised everyone when they made the playoffs last year, since many thought they were still years away from competing. But taking the Washington Capitals to six games showed the hockey world that they were ready to take the next step. They will do that in 2017. Expect them to compete for a top-four spot and establish themselves as one of the elites.

Moving over to the Western Conference, the Edmonton Oilers begin the year as the favorite to make it to the Stanley Cup. Connor McDavid proved he was one of the game’s best by leading the NHL in points last year. Cam Talbot impressed as goalie last year, and if he can do the same, Edmonton has a great shot at a deep playoff run.

The Nashville Predators went into the playoffs last April as an underdog wild card team. But they lost just four games in the first three rounds, including a sweep of the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks. But when veteran captain Mike Fisher announced his retirement in the offseason, it left Nashville with a hole that they will have to find a way to fill this year. More responsibility will be placed on star defenseman P.K. Subban to take the reigns and lead the Predators back to the playoffs.

The west has a dark horse of its own in the Dallas Stars. Head coach Ken Hitchcock is beginning his second stint in Dallas, after coaching the Stars in the late 90s. Hitchcock won the Stanley Cup with Dallas in 1999, and has racked up 781 wins in his coaching career, good for fourth all-time. With the spotlight on many of the other favorites, Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and the rest of the team have been overlooked. The Stars could be a team to look out for in June.

With so many potential storylines, an expansion team and young teams competing, this has the making to be one of the most exciting seasons in recent memory. Here are some predictions I see happening come playoff-time.

Predictions:

Western Conference Finals – Oilers def. Stars, 4-2

Eastern Conference Finals – Lightning def. Penguins, 4-3

Stanley Cup Final – Lightning def. Oilers, 4-3

The Eastern Conference has the potential to be absolutely electric in the playoffs. If it does end up being Tampa and Pittsburgh playing for a spot in the Stanley Cup Final, expect to have seven hard-fought games that come down to the wire. I think Tampa just barely edges the champs due to the simple fact that it is hard to maintain the level of success Pittsburgh has had over the last two years. After all, the last team to win back-to-back championships before last year’s Penguins was the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. That proves that Pittsburgh had a tall hill to climb this past year. Hockey may very well be the toughest sport to repeat in. So the chances of the Penguins win three consecutive championships are slim.

Tampa is my ultimate champion because they are so stacked from top-to-bottom. Assuming they stay healthy, they will be playing with a chip on their shoulder and Stamkos will capture his first Stanley Cup.