Hockey is back, so we asked our NHL insiders some burning questions around the league about what you can expect this season, including bold predictions for the campaign, surefire breakout candidates and which lottery teams could be headed back to the playoffs. Let’s dive in.
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: The Vancouver Canucks make the playoffs. No, it hasn’t been the best start, but I have faith in that young core of stars — Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and now Quinn Hughes — as long as they stay relatively healthy. And I have faith in Travis Green, one of the league’s more underrated coaches, to figure out the lineup. And I actually quite like their goaltending this season. The Pacific Division already looks to be as wildly unpredictable as expected, outside of the Vegas juggernaut. So why not Vancouver?
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: The Ottawa Senators are sold. Rumors circulated this weekend — and were quickly debunked — that New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was looking into purchasing the Senators. That’s not happening. However, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk has been saddled with debt, lawsuits and scandal, including now a U.S. casino suing Melnyk or $900,000 in damages after he allegedly tried to pay debts with five “dishonored” bank drafts in 2017. I do believe there is enough pressure mounting for Melnyk to put the team up for sale.
Chris Peters, hockey prospects analyst: Mark Stone wins the Hart Trophy. I don’t think Stone is going to be the top scorer in the NHL which would make it a lot easier to also win the Hart, but I think he’s going to end up being the best player on one of the league’s best teams. The Golden Knights are looking like the team to beat in the West, and Stone is already rolling. He’s the player who puts this team over the top, and that will be evident throughout the season.
Dimitri Filipovic, hockey analytics writer: The Winnipeg Jets won’t make the playoffs. I’m not sure how bold this is after all of the negative buzz they received as the summer progressed, but I believe the perception of the team still far exceeds its current reality. At the moment, the Jets are without four of their top five defenders from last season and are relying on a number of players who have either never done it or have already shown us no reason to believe they can do it in patching up those holes. They still have the talent up front to stay in games and win their fair share of high-scoring shootouts, but it’s stunning how quickly they’ve gone from contender status to the playoff bubble.
Rick DiPietro, radio host and former NHL goalie: The Toronto Maple Leafs finally get past the Boston Bruins in the playoffs. They had their opportunity last year with a 3-2 series lead headed back to Toronto, but again came up short, losing the final two games of the series. The additions of Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci to go along with Morgan Rielly will help to shore up their defensive zone. Auston Matthews should flirt with 50 goals, while John Tavares and Mitch Marner will build off last year’s great regular seasons. All of this will get the Maple Leafs home ice advantage in the series and in the perfect situation to slay their postseason dragon.
Victoria Matiash, fantasy hockey analyst: Despite the wobbly start, the Dallas Stars will finish atop the Central Division. The offseason acquisition of Joe Pavelski coupled with Roope Hintz‘s anticipated maturation finally rounds out Dallas’ top-six in offering a legit one-two punch. The (largely unheralded) depth signing of Andrej Sekera helps steady the blue line. The Ben Bishop/Anton Khudobin goaltending tag-team is one of the best in the league. This team will bust through the 100-point plateau this season, bettering Colorado, St. Louis and Nashville.
Wyshynski: Cale Makar, D, Avalanche. It’s not exactly an off-the-board pick since many believe he’ll end up with the Calder Trophy, but nonetheless. He’s poised to be the breakout player of 2019-20, not only as a supremely talented offensive defenseman but also as the quarterback of what will end up being one of the NHL’s most lethal power plays this season. Cale Caesar, indeed.
Kaplan: Kaapo Kakko, RW, Rangers. I liked this quote from Rangers coach David Quinn: “With Kaapo, even if he’s not great on certain nights, he’s not going to be bad. That makes him a pro. I don’t think he’s going to have bad nights. I think ‘OK’ is going to be his ‘bad.’ And if that’s the case, he’s going to have a hell of a career.” In the small sample size, Kakko has looked calm and composed. The 18-year-old could have the most goals for a rookie since Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin entered the league.
Emily Kaplan picks Rangers rookie Kaapo Kakko as a breakout star this season, while Greg Wyshynski likes Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar.
Peters: Samuel Girard, D, Avalanche. Though Makar is deservedly getting a lot of attention on the Avs, Girard has already grown into a top-pairing player for the club. He’s a dynamic talent who defends well and can make plays to aid the Avs’ breathtaking transition game. He only had 27 points last season, his second full campaign in the league, but with his ability to get pucks to one of the best forward groups in the league, I only see his totals growing over the next few years, starting with a breakout in this one. Girard can also play a little more care-free now that he has a seven-year, $35 million extension all set to kick in next season.
Filipovic: Roope Hintz, LW, Stars. He already flashed his ability on a beautiful breakaway goal against the Bruins in the season opener, and there should be a lot more where that came from. He’s going to get a chance to either play down the middle with someone like Alexander Radulov or slide up to Tyler Seguin‘s wing on the top line. The Stars really need him to keep producing, which means he has the ideal combination of opportunity and talent to break out this year.
DiPietro: Dylan Strome, C, Blackhawks. Drafted third overall and expected to be a star on some bad Arizona teams made for a less-than-ideal situation for Strome to flourish. But being able to learn and grow alongside the likes of Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Patrick Kane could propel Strome to a 30-goal, 80-point season.
Matiash: Victor Olofsson, RW, Sabres. He is going to be a lot of fun to watch under new Buffalo coach Ralph Krueger. Skating on Jack Eichel‘s wing and gifted with a dynamite shot, the 24-year-old is going to put up some serious numbers in his first full NHL season: Maybe not the near point-per-game pace he pulled off last season in Rochester, but not far off, either.
Wyshynski: Florida Panthers. Scoring hasn’t been the issue here. Stopping the puck has. Sergei Bobrovsky goes a long way towards fixing that, but so does the structure that coach Joel Quenneville will give this team. The Atlantic Division has two teams with little shot of being competitive this season (Ottawa and Detroit) and two teams that the Panthers are, in theory, better than (Montreal and Buffalo). It’s a wild-card play, as they aren’t breaking into that top three, but they should make the playoff cut, although putting faith in the Panthers to make the playoffs in a season of high expectations has been, shall we say, problematic in the past.
Kaplan: Montreal Canadiens. And this isn’t just recency bias from their thrilling, 6-5 come-from-behind shootout win over the Maple Leafs this past weekend (though I’d take that matchup in the playoffs…). Montreal now has young, exciting talent in the top-nine, plus a goalie in Carey Price who is more than capable of carrying it down the stretch. I see the Canadiens making it as the Eastern Conference’s first wild-card team.
Peters: Arizona Coyotes. If they can stay healthy, that is. The Coyotes are off to a rough start, but I look back to the way they closed out last season despite all of their bad injury luck as a preview for what they can be this year. The Coyotes had the 11th best record in the NHL after Jan. 1 last season. Now they have Phil Kessel, a healthy Nick Schmaltz, a potentially healthy Antti Raanta and some young new faces like Barrett Hayton to boost the offense and make the most of an especially deep defense corps. The Yotes have the tools to be better, and I don’t view the Pacific as a particularly strong division this season.
Filipovic: Philadelphia Flyers. If they’ve taught us anything over the years, it’s to not trust them, but things appear to have lined up nicely for them this season. They presumably won’t have to use eight different goalies again, Kevin Hayes fills an important need for them down the middle despite his ghastly contract and the combination of Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov should be significantly more effective than it was last season. Plus, Alain Vigneault has a strong track record of coming in and squeezing results out of his new teams before his message begins to wear thin.
DiPietro: Florida Panthers. The additions of a three-time Stanley Cup champion coach Joel Quenneville and a two-time Vezina-winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky should be exactly what this team needs to qualify for the playoffs. The Panthers scored 264 goals last season, which put them at ninth in the NHL, and that number should only go up with a healthy Vincent Trocheck. Protecting leads in the third period and keeping the puck out of their net were the Panthers’ biggest problems. Quenneville and Bobrovsky should go along way in correcting those.
Matiash: New York Rangers. They are significantly better with Artemi Panarin, Kaapo Kakko and Jacob Trouba aboard. Mika Zibanejad looks ready to go full-tilt nuclear this season. So as long as the tandem of Henrik Lundqvist and Alexandar Georgiev can keep it together in net, the Rangers should have little issue finishing top-three in the Metropolitan division.
Wyshynski: Nashville Predators. The real answer might be the Tampa Bay Lightning, because I have a growing concern that the Bolts are going to be up as one of the most supremely talented teams in NHL history that never earned the chance to hoist the chalice, but at least their franchise has captured it before. It’s been a real kick to see Stanley Cup newbies like the Capitals and Blues send their respective franchises and fan bases into a state of heretofore unseen levels of euphoria. We’ve already seen the party in Nashville just for making the Cup final. What does that party look like if they actually win it?
Kaplan: Carolina Hurricanes. They’re fun, and I’m not just talking about their Storm Surge celebrations. For the last year-plus, this team has been bucking NHL conventions and has enough young, budding stars who make them a must-watch. They have the league’s deepest blue line, plus a trio of 25-year-and-under forwards that are a treat to watch in Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov. I am concerned about their goaltending, though, especially since goaltending coach MIke Bales, who got the most out of Carolina’s netminders last year, left for Buffalo.
Peters: Tampa Bay Lightning. It seems like they’ve been on the cusp for long enough and now have the bitter disappointment of last season’s ouster as motivation. Having followed Jon Cooper’s career for a long time, I think this is the longest he’s gone without a championship, too. He’s a really good coach, and I always enjoy when people follow non-traditional routes to success at the highest level. I also don’t have a ton of patience for the Lightning becoming the new Capitals, where we’re constantly asking if they can win the big one. If they don’t find a way to win it, and soon, there’s no stopping that narrative.
Filipovic: Colorado Avalanche. It’s likely one year too early for them, but whenever you have a player of Nathan MacKinnon‘s caliber you have a fighting chance. I like to see smart team building rewarded, and the Avalanche have been putting on a masterclass on how to do it over the past 24 months. They already have a good team, but they’ve given themselves an opportunity to keep improving it by staying financially flexible and accumulating premium assets. Getting out of the Central Division will be an absolute bloodbath which makes it difficult to put too many expectations on them, but seeing them make another extended run after how fun they were last postseason would be delightful.
Matiash: Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s been so rough for so long. Now all the pieces finally appear to be in place, patiently and smartly acquired through the draft, free-agent signings or trades. A Stanley Cup title would serve as the ultimate follow-up to last spring’s NBA championship run by the Toronto Raptors. Truly, the city would lose its collective mind. Fun — and not far-fetched.
Wyshynski: Tyler Toffoli, RW, Kings. He’s a pending unrestricted free agent with some exceptional offensive seasons in his past and some versatility on the wing — and he only turns 28 next April. But most of all, he plays for a Kings team that, while valuing the player, probably wants to start transitioning some of their forward spots to the next wave.
Kaplan: Rasmus Ristolainen, D, Sabres. Trade talk has been brewing surrounding him for some time. (Ristolainen has declined to tell Buffalo reporters whether he requested a trade or not). The 24-year-old had a strong first two games, and if he continues, that could boost his value even more. I also think Henri Jokiharu could be a breakout candidate, and his presence on the right side could allow general manager Jason Botterill to pull the trigger on a trade.
Postgame analysis and highlight show airing each night throughout the season from Barry Melrose and Linda Cohn. Watch on ESPN+
Peters: Jack Johnson, D, Penguins. The rumors have been swirling for a while, and Johnson doesn’t have no-trade protection. The term left on his contract is probably going to require a lot of creativity from Jim Rutherford to get it done, but the Pens need to make sure they have ample room for the contracts they have to get done next season.
Filipovic: Jimmy Howard, G, Red Wings. This one is kind of cheating, but I may as well make sure that I get at least one correct here. The contract he signed last season all but ensures it’ll happen: A one-year deal with no trade protections, which provides him with an extra $1.1 million playoff bonus. Since neither he nor the Red Wings could possibly believe that would be realized in Detroit, it signals a wink-wink agreement between the two that he’ll eventually be sent to a contender. With all of the questions some good teams in San Jose and Calgary have in net at the moment, there should be some interesting landing spots for him that materialize between now and the deadline.
DiPietro: Ron Hainsey, D, Senators. He was signed by Ottawa this offseason to provide veteran leadership in a very young locker room. The Senators are not a playoff team and come trade deadline time, there will be teams with Stanley Cup aspirations looking to add a reliable former Stanley Cup champion defenseman to their back end.