It’s here! The hockey is finally here! Tonight, on this most special of nights, we’ll see meaningful puck drops across North America for the first time since June, and I could not be happier. Thank you for clicking on this preview, and in doing so choosing to enjoy or learn about the best game you can name.
All the teams are listed in a rough approximation from best to worst, because I will gladly court danger and embarrassment from any and all fanbases.
The Good Ones
Tampa Bay Lightning
Last Season: The Lightning are already good most of the time, but they were historically dominant last regular season. They earned the Presidents’ Trophy for the most points in the league, and with 62 wins they tied the 1996 Detroit Red Wings for the all-time season mark. This gang put on a show by icing a trio of 40-goal forwards: Steven Stamkos in a return-to-form year, limitless youngster Brayden Point, and Nikita Kucherov in an all-time great season. Even if their blue-liners couldn’t quite compare, they still had netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy play his best hockey yet. At their most overwhelming, the Lightning were the Golden State Warriors of the NHL, using otherworldly skills and chemistry to score astonishing goals of uncut joy. But then they refused to show up for the playoffs, and found all their accomplishments erased in four horrible games against Columbus, which gave them the ignominious honor of being the only Presidents’ Trophy winners to be swept in the first round.
This Season: Jeez, imagine if that was the peak for this era of the Lightning, never again touching the ecstatic high they were riding as they entered the postseason. That’d be some Shakespearean tragedy, but nah—this is the most talented team in hockey, especially now that Brayden Point is re-signed on an absurdly team-friendly contract. They’re out for redemption and that should scare every other team. Maybe Tampa won’t blow up the conference again, but the Lightning are still the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
Who’s a guy? Anthony Cirelli certainly isn’t the player you’d put on the poster to sell Lightning tickets, but in his rookie season the center nearly touched 20 goals, and put up 39 points while also proving to be a mature defensive presence—a grinder who’s no slouch with the stick. The 22-year-old will have a tough time announcing himself with Stamkos and Point ahead of him on the depth chart, but as a role player he’ll balance out their skills by being a monster on the penalty kill and allowing the top guys rest when they need it. Will he get enough opportunity to grow as a player on such a stacked roster? That remains to be seen, but if the Lightning make a run to the Cup, Cirelli will be making all the little plays they need, just out of the spotlight.
Last Season: They were righteously struck down by the St. Louis Blues in the Stanley Cup Final—losing Game 7 at home like a bunch of chumps—but not before they sliced through feel-good Eastern Conference stories like the Blue Jackets and the Hurricanes. The Bruins had a fantastic season but also a bitter one, considering the only two NHL teams that matched or beat their 107 points were taken out in the first round of the playoffs, and they still lost at the end. For a team that featured shutdown defense, an effective goalie platoon, and a frighteningly talented Big Three on their forward lines, it must really eat the Bruins up inside to remember that even with their biggest obstacle cleared for them, they couldn’t capture just one more win. It must haunt them, that feeling. It must absolutely burn them every time they remember their failure.
Isn’t that awesome? Hopefully it happens again this year, too.
This Season: It’ll probably be a little worse, just by virtue of how difficult it can be to win three playoff series in a row. But they’ll be fine. With the exception of back-up goalie Jaroslav Halak’s exceptionally strong year, nothing about the Bruins screams “big-time regression!” The fact that they still earned 107 points with extended absences from top scorer David Pastrnak and inimitable center Patrice Bergeron is reason to be optimistic. The Bruins are getting older—Rask, Bergeron, David Krejci, and now Brad Marchand are all on the other side of 30, and Zdeno Chara just logged over 1,300 minutes as a 41-year-old. But by connecting on draft picks like top defenseman Charlie McAvoy (21 years old), Pastrnak (23 and already astounding), and Jake DeBrusk (also 23), the Bruins have been able to reload on the fly, and they’ll continue to disappoint everyone outside Boston by hanging around in May.
Who’s a guy? Jake DeBrusk had a mullet.
In his sophomore season, DeBrusk showed himself to be a wicked finisher of David Krejci’s passes, putting in 27 goals in 68 games to top his rookie total by 11. Strangely, his point total went down by one, to 42, because he barely managed any assists. Whether DeBrusk is simply a winger who benefits from the talents of his linemates, or a crucial scorer for the Bruins’ future, will be a huge question that Boston will want answered this year, as the kid is now a season away from restricted free agency.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Last Season: It was Boston in a first-round Game 7, for the second season in a row and the third time in their last four playoff appearances, that kept the Leafs once again from advancing. As this team continues to search for its first Cup since the Original Six era, and its first playoff series win since before the canceled season, the young core assembled—plus the blockbuster signing of John Tavares last summer—has given plenty of reason to hope for a breakthrough. Last season, however, was disappointingly repetitive. Despite the expected offensive improvements brought by Tavares and the continuing evolution of Mitch Marner, the Leafs stayed stuck in neutral due to holes on the defensive end, where they gave up the eighth-most shots of any NHL team. That shortcoming doesn’t quite explain why the Leafs lost to the Bruins again—it was probably the Curse of Terry Sawchuk—but it does explain why they’re more of a 100-point team, instead of a powerhouse like the Lightning.
This Season: There are reasons to be nervous. Frederik Andersen has been a godsend in net with that shaky defense, but after spending more time on the ice than anyone else in the NHL over the past three seasons, the ticking clock counting down to a serious injury is audible all the way up in Moosonee. And even though the defense has been shuffled—Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci are among those who have replaced Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev, and Ron Hainsey—there’s not necessarily a reason to believe it’s any better. Barrie is an offense-first dude and Ceci might be out of his depth after leaving Ottawa, so there’s still plenty of uncertainty.
But cheer up! The Leafs may be forever impossible to sell as a lovable underdog story, but they’re still fun to watch. Mitch Marner is adorable and shows off a new element to his game every week. Auston Matthews is a guaranteed 30-goal scorer you can almost take for granted. Tavares looked like he was worth every penny of that $77 million contract. There’s no reason why the Leafs can’t find themselves in the second round come springtime—provided they avoid Boston.
Who’s a guy? William Nylander has a lot to prove after missing a chunk of last season due to a contract dispute, then returning to underwhelm with seven goals in 54 games. But the 23-year-old forward is capable of much greater things: Nylander was a 20-goal scorer in each of his prior two seasons, and his play at the World Championships for Sweden last May was an encouraging sign he’ll be fully ready for 2019-20, as he tallied 18 points in eight games. He appears set to play mostly alongside Matthews again this year, instead of Patrick Marleau like he did last season, so the opportunity is his for the taking.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues paid their dues time after time, serving as a consistent presence in the playoffs for five decades without ever taking home the Cup. And yes, if you want to bring up bad mistakes, they’ve made a few. They had to fire head coach Mike Yeo after a weak start, and in December, morale was so low that players were fighting in practice. But just as the rest of the league was enjoying kicking their share of sand into the Blues’ faces, an unflappable savior named Jordan Binnington arrived in net. Starting in January, Binnington went 24-5-1 as the Blues’ top goaltender, usurping Jake Allen and leading St. Louis all the way from worst to first, all while exuding a kind of ineffable chill that belied his inexperience. Thanks to Binnington, as well as the offensive efforts of stalwart Vladimir Tarasenko and newly acquired center Ryan O’Reilly, the Blues are suddenly the team with the target on its back this season.
This Season: It’s mostly the guys who stunk it up for half a season and then won it all, minus second-round Game 7 hero Pat Maroon and plus Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk. But defending their title will be no bed of roses. Only the Pittsburgh Penguins have repeated as champs in the last 20 years.
How much you believe in the Blues depends on how much you believe in Binnington, because even with a stout defense ahead of him, it was that .927 save percentage that really dragged them out of the gutter. He’ll likely regress a bit, because almost all goalies do. The Blues will likely fail to repeat, because almost all teams do. But that doesn’t mean they can’t match or improve upon last season’s 99 points and then hang around for a couple of playoff rounds.
Who’s a guy? Vince Dunn is the young future of the aforementioned stout defense. Entering his third season, the 22-year-old Dunn flies under the radar with first-class guys like Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko anchoring the blue line, but his 35 points and 12 goals were second only to Pietrangelo among Blues defensemen last year, despite ranking fourth in ice time, and his Corsi/Fenwick numbers both led the whole team. Less analytically, Dunn is a tough cookie. Last season he survived several punches from Ian Cole, a hard crosscheck to the head, and a busted jaw from a puck to the face. After the jaw injury, Dunn missed only six playoff games.
Last Season: The Canes were so much fun, emerging from a decade of playoff absences to go all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals with the young dynamic duo of Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen leading the way. These guys on a long-stuck franchise seemed to genuinely enjoy the ride as they transformed from one of the least talked-about NHL franchises to an entertaining gang that lived in Don Cherry’s head rent-free. The evolution of the Storm Surge celebrations—which became more and more elaborate after every home win—was unforgettable.
This Season: Analytics are kind to the Hurricanes. They seriously underperformed in 2018-19 based on their expected goals for and against numbers: 16th in goals for but third in expected goals for, seventh in goals allowed and second in expected goals allowed. Considering that the 22-year-old Aho—whose 83 points led to an offer sheet from Montreal this summer—and the 25-year-old Teravainen appear to have even higher ceilings than they’ve already shown, it’s a safe bet that the Hurricanes are no one-hit wonder.
The roster will look a tad unfamiliar, however. The most noticeable guy missing is team captain and opening-round hero Justin Williams, whose 23 goals and 30 assists last season were nearly as vital as his leadership of an otherwise very inexperienced squad. He hasn’t officially retired yet, but the 37-year-old won’t start the season with the team and can’t be long for the NHL. The Canes also lost Micheal Ferland, a solid second-tier winger who left in free agency but could be swapped seamlessly with new arrival Ryan Dzingel, who slumped in Columbus at the end of last year but has generally shown himself to be a reliable 20-goal guy. And just last week, Carolina sent workhorse defenseman Justin Faulk to St. Louis for Joel Edmundson and some loose change.
In net, though they’ve switched back-ups from Curtis McElhinney to James Reimer, the Hurricanes will once again ride Petr Mrazek, a streaky 27-year-old goalie who hovered around average for most of last season. Even without a premier shotstopper, the Canes made it deep into the playoffs, so if Mrazek finally makes good on the promise he showed early in his career with Detroit, they could really be something special.
Who’s a guy? Andrei Svechnikov is a teen best known for getting dropped by Alex Ovechkin in a playoff fight, but he had an excellent rookie year. He wasn’t especially disciplined, leading the team in penalty minutes, but as he gets more acclimated he’s a candidate to fill the production void left by Williams’s absence. The kid’s a major offensive weapon with a nose for the net.
Last Season: A neat little surprise in the West, improving by 23 points to finish first in the whole conference. Then in the postseason, the Flames delivered another shock by bowing out to the Avalanche in five games. They only got mediocre-to-average goaltending from the platoon of Mike Smith and David Rittich, but they overcame that weakness with some incredible play from the skaters. The trio of “Maddening” Matt Tkachuk, “Skillful” Sean Monahan, and “Gentle” Johnny Gaudreau all tallied career highs in goals with at least 34 each. On defense, 35-year-old Mark Giordano led the unit and owned every inch of the ice, picking up the first Norris Trophy of not just his life, but the Flames’ existence as a team. Too bad that was the only hardware they were able to pull.
This Season: Even if 107 points is a high mark to replicate, this team should have staying power. The Flames were the best in the league at limiting opponents’ shots last season, meaning they weren’t at the mercy of puck luck, and though they were only a bit above average at creating their own chances, the continuing evolution of their trio of youths promises greater things to come. Most nerve-racking for Calgary is the goalie situation—it’s between Rittich and former Edmonton pariah Cam Talbot. Neither is a netminder to put your faith in, but with a world-beating blue line, Calgary won’t have to.
Who’s a guy? Elias Lindholm, a versatile 24-year-old forward, is right on the cusp of turning Calgary’s talented trio into a commanding quartet, as he came over from Carolina last season, got more ice time, and saw a huge bump in his stats. As a defender, he may be the best of the forward bunch, and as an attacker, his 27 goals and 51 assists helped the team score more than anyone but the Lightning. He also has a big-ass chip on his shoulder, as seen by the salty way he celebrated a win against his old franchise last season.
San Jose Sharks
Last Season: The Sharks’ season turned on a five-minute power play in Game 7 of their first-round series against Vegas, in which a 3-0 Golden Knights lead dissolved because of a referee overreaction to what should’ve been a minor cross-check penalty on Cody Eakin. Because Joe Pavelski bled on the ice and it was real scary, San Jose had the opportunity to score four straight goals with the man advantage and knock Vegas out in OT, avoiding the failure of a first-round exit. The stink of lucky whistles followed the Sharks all the way to the Western Conference Finals, where they were surprisingly but mercifully killed off by the Blues.
This Season: The Sharks have made the playoffs in all but one season since the lockout (the big one), and they’re not ready to lose that consistency. When Erik Karlsson joined up with this squad at the beginning of last season, it only added to what was already a blockbuster bunch that continues to include Evander Kane, Brent Burns, Logan Couture, and not a damn good goalie to speak of. If Martin Jones slips into sieve mode too often, the Sharks are going to fight a tough uphill battle to advance as far as their top players deserve. But they still boast one of the best collections of skaters in the league, and for that reason they should be okay regardless.
It’s going to be weird without Pavelski, though. The 35-year-old ex-captain left in free agency after a lifetime with the Sharks to go play for the Dallas Stars, in large part because he became less of a priority after all the other big contracts San Jose gave out. His 38 goals from last season aren’t likely to be repeated, but his status in the locker room seems near-impossible to replicate, even with Joe Thornton still around. The Sharks certainly don’t lack experience, but you have to wonder if the removal of such a crucial and beloved longtime piece will affect an otherwise dependable franchise.
Who’s a guy? The most interesting Shark who’s not quite a household name yet is Timo Meier, but that’ll change soon if he does what he’s supposed to and supplants Pavelski as the team’s top scorer. Meier’s 30 goals and 66 points last season were a clear improvement on the still-impressive 21 and 36 he got in his first full year in 2017-18. And as his ice time continues to increase—particularly with the power-play unit—so should his numbers. The Swiss winger brings a rare dash of youth to this team and signed a four-year extension this summer because he possesses everything you want: the toughness required to score right in front of net, the speed necessary to confound defenders, sneaky stickwork, and a wrist shot that must be respected.
New York Islanders
Last Season: My inbox filled with rowdy Islanders fans after every New York win because I decided to trash them when team captain John Tavares ditched for Toronto in the summer of 2018, and I turned out to be massively wrong. The ’Lander Lads responded to the indignity of Tavares’s exit not by collapsing into a heap of failed plans, but by putting together their best season in a couple of years. With new head coach Barry Trotz, the team went from worst to first in goals allowed and swept the Penguins in the opening round of the playoffs thanks in part to a raucous Nassau Coliseum, but fell out of the postseason when the Hurricanes took care of business in the second round. I’ve done my penance and am ready for a fresh start.
This Season: Don’t make me fucking regret this, Islanders. The more scientifically-minded hockey observers are lining up to call last season an aberration. Goaltender Robin Lehner—who’s now in Chicago and has been replaced by Semyon Varlamov—posted an astounding .930 save percentage as the 1A goaltender last season, while 1B Thomas Greiss (still on the team) wasn’t much worse at .927. Lehner, who went public about his mental health struggles just before the season started, made for one of the best stories in hockey, but those kinds of shot-stopping results are nearly impossible for a team to maintain, and it’s hard to see where the other talent is on this roster. Here is the best bit of hockey analysis I saw all year:
Normally, I’d be with the haters. Give Trotz plenty of credit for transforming a defense that looked straight-up unprofessional before he came around, but it takes a lot of optimism to see them as more than a league-average group helped along by puck luck. There’s a bit of good among the forwards—I’d recommend going to a game just to watch the beautiful captain-in-waiting Mathew Barzal make flawless decisions everywhere he skates—but when Anders Lee tops all scorers with a mere 28 goals, that’s not going to carry a team all that far. Still, there was something spooky about the way the Islanders kept winning games, like a supernatural force kept the other team’s pucks out of the net. I don’t want to be the fool who doubted them two years straight, so here they are, hanging out around the top of this blog.
Who’s a guy? Anthony Beauvillier is somebody to keep an eye on after he failed to deliver on the promise held by a strong second half of his 2017-18 campaign, scoring three fewer goals this year (18 total) while playing in 10 more games. Only 22 years old but entering his fourth season, the former first-round pick is quickly hitting that point where he’ll either rise to another level or settle in as a decent but inconsistent second-tier winger. When he does click with his linemates, however, Beauvillier looks like a versatile weapon. And the fact that the Islanders didn’t add any major forwards this offseason gives him a chance to earn top-six ice time.
Last Season: Despite the Predators having plenty of good players still in their 20s, and despite winning the Central Division last year, it’s hard not to feel like this summer was the summer when the promise held by that 2017 Finals run helplessly died. After dropping 17 points from their total in 2017-18, the Preds were bounced out disappointingly early for the second straight season when the Stars beat them in six games. When the team traded face-of-the-franchise P.K. Subban to New Jersey in June for not much in the way of short-term returns, it was as close as one single action could get to closing the book on a uniquely fun but all-too-brief era of boisterous hockey in Nashville.
This Season: That’s a gloomy paragraph above, no doubt, and any analyst would do well to point out the Predators’ tidal wave of injuries last season. This team is still excellent in many facets, and their busy offseason positions them as a more balanced team than last year’s defense-heavy group. At center, the Preds signed a potential 30-goal guy in Matt Duchene, and they have high hopes for Mikael Granlund in his first full year with Nashville. Meanwhile, Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg, two delicious slices of Swedish bread in the Ryan Johansen sandwich on the first line, come back after missing a combined 42 games last year but still placing first and second in scoring. And the blue-line depth, even without Subban, is spectacular, featuring three of the game’s best in Mattias Ekholm, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis. Additionally, goaltender Pekka Rinne still puts up a solid wall back there, and even if he starts to decline at age 36, backup Juuse Saros has looked respectable when he’s needed to carry the load.
So why is it so hard to get behind a still-lovable team with a passionate fanbase? Whether it’s because of the problems inherent in the playoff format or stupid bad luck, the Predators have been a stark disappointment two years running. I don’t really feel like trying to swing and miss at strike three.
Who’s a guy? The hope for Nashville is less that any young kid breaks out and more that their top guys can stay healthy and on the ice, so instead of using this space to sing the praises of Eeli Tolvanen, I’d rather just spotlight a pair of my favorite goals from the Predators’ top scorers last season. Here’s Arvidsson, who set the franchise single-season goal record (34) despite playing only 58 games, turning Ryan Pulock into a pretzel before five-holing Thomas Greiss.
Forsberg can make a highlight reel just by getting out of bed, but here he is with a swift between-the-legs goal that can only be fairly appreciated at 0.25 playback.
Okay, the Predators make me happy again.
Last Season: As miserable as a 99-point season can be. While the Jets were considered one of the favorites to come out of the West, and played up to those expectations early on, they stumbled in the second half and suffered a first-round exit against the Blues. The Jets were largely fine, but rather than lift them to new heights, the good things about this team merely papered over the disappointments. An overachieving season from center Mark Scheifele—a career-high 38 goals and 84 points—covered for prodigious sniper Patrik Laine becoming completely unreliable, and the strong fill-in play in net from backup Laurent Brossoit helped soften the blow of a dropoff from centerpiece netminder Connor Hellebuyck. As the season continued on, guys on the team got grumpier, and the bad mood doesn’t seem to have dissipated over summer break.
This Season: It would’ve been fun to put the Jets all the way at the bottom, just for the laughs, but Winnipeg’s an easy enough punchline as it is, and I couldn’t do that to poor Kyle Connor. Even with the eleventh-hour signing of him and Laine, there’s a real morale problem here. Laine in particular seems really upset about not playing on the first line, eh?
On the blue line, Jacob Trouba was traded to the Rangers since the Jets couldn’t re-sign him, while Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot left in free agency, and Dustin Byfuglien doesn’t yet know if he wants to play this season. What an absolute horror movie for a franchise that two years ago looked right on the verge of finally introducing Winnipeg to happiness.
Who’s a guy? Due to an injury, 23-year-old winger Nikolaj Ehlers saw a big dropoff last season compared to his previous two campaigns—getting 37 points in 62 games after topping 60 points in each of his last two campaigns. But on a team desperate for good news, the possibility of a bounce-back year is reason enough to get excited. Ehlers is an undersized youngster, standing six feet and weighing 172 pounds. But what he lacks in strength he makes up for with speed, and at his best, he’s a real dangerous scoring-chance creator. He sounds determined to get back to where he was before 2019. He says that over the summer, he rewatched every shift he played last season to find the little mistakes that hindered him. This game would’ve been a fun one to remember:
Last Season: Poor by the Penguins’ standards—they were swept by the Islanders in the first round—but not a disaster by most everyone else’s. Pittsburgh didn’t win a playoff game for the first time since Sidney Crosby’s rookie season (which was approximately 124 years ago), but they had 100 points and saw Sid put together his most productive season since he won the Hart in 2014. Most intriguingly, it was not somebody named Malkin or Crosby or even Phil Kessel who finished first in team scoring, but Sid’s left-wing linemate Jake Guentzel, who broke out for 40 goals in his second full season. At some point, I suppose you have to consider Guentzel a good player in his own right, and not a dude lucky to play next to an all-time great center.
This Season: Phil’s been traded, reportedly because he took younger players to the casino, or because Geno couldn’t stand him anymore, or because of whatever weird rumor you want to believe. Coming back in the return from the Coyotes is Alex Galchenyuk, who doesn’t have quite the goal-scoring consistency as Kessel, but is six years younger and presumably holds fewer awkward grudges with Penguins players and staff.
Of more concern than the attack, however, is the blue line. Matt Murray has proven to be a strong goalie when healthy, but the defensive pairings leave a lot to be desired. Kris Letang is still good and Brian Dumoulin is fine, but that big Jack Johnson contract that everybody said was stupid turned out to be stupid, and as a whole this unit gave up the sixth-most shots of anyone in the NHL. There simply isn’t room under the salary cap to bring in better reinforcements, so unless Marcus Pettersson breaks out in his second season, this will be a thin group. The Penguins should be broadly okay, because they always are, but this is far from the best possible version of this team. And yet, half the league would kill to be this uninspiring.
Who’s a guy? Dominik Simon is a fascinating little study for the upcoming season. The 25-year-old winger’s numbers in his first full season look ugly on paper—eight goals and 20 assists—but when paired with Guentzel and Crosby, Simon made the Penguins more of a scoring threat. He was tops out of the whole team in Corsi and Fenwick last season, and according to head coach Mike Sullivan, “There’s a lot of subtleties in Dom’s game that help the line he’s on be effective.” That may include just defensive work and passing ability right now, but if Simon’s skillset grows to include goal scoring, the Penguins will be ecstatic.
Last Season: The much-expected comedown from a championship high. The Caps’ title run in 2018 always had a One Last Job feel to it, and even though Washington managed 104 points in the regular season, a Game 7 first-round knockout by the Hurricanes snuffed out any possibility of a repeat or dynasty. Like the Penguins, the Capitals are all right across most areas of their team: The defense is average, Braden Holtby is pretty good in net, and there’s some real forward talent. But also like the Penguins, they’re trending downward with no legitimate options for reversal.
This Season: Of most concern for Washington should be that Alex Ovechkin is entering his age-34 season. If he gets injured, declines, or gets lost on a weekend bar crawl, never to return again, their offense is screwed. Ovi followed up 49 goals in 2017-18 with 51 last season, once again blowing all his teammates away. While it once looked like Evgeny Kuznetsov was waiting to take over when Ovechkin passed the torch, he took a statistical dip in 2018-19 that probably can’t be attributed to whatever’s going up his nose. Elsewhere, longtime reliable options T.J. Oshie and Niklas Backstrom aren’t getting any younger, and ever-violent goon Tom Wilson feels like he’s one flare-up away from going full Bertuzzi. This may not be the season the Capitals miss the playoffs for the first time since 2014, but it’s coming.
Who’s a guy? With Andre Burakovsky traded to Colorado, there are even fewer up-and-comers on this roster than before, so fuck it, let’s go with Jakub Vrana, a 23-year-old winger who made a proper step up in his second full season with 24 goals and 47 points. Vrana signed a team-friendly two-year deal this offseason, and even though he was basically invisible in his seven playoff games last year, the resourceful Czech scorer already ranks among the most skilled offensive players on this team. He’s also a promising source of young blood for the aging, possibly vampiric Alex Ovechkin.
Vegas Golden Knights
Last Season: If the Golden Knights dramatically overachieved with their Cup run in their first year of existence, they were the victims of too stark an overcorrection in 2019. By expected goals, they were the second-best offensive team and the seventh-best defensive team in the league. That turned out to not mean much. The Golden Knights earned 93 points, 16 fewer than their previous mark, and with a stroke of tough luck in the third period of Game 7 against the Sharks, their season ended with an unsatisfying first-round whimper.
Everything special about Vegas’s debut season became a little less special the second time around. Marc-Andre Fleury is still a better starting goaltender than he should be at this point in his career, but his save percentage took a hit from .927 to .913. Wild Bill Karlsson, who broke out with 43 goals, regressed to 24. Erik Haula, a pleasant surprise in 2017-18, lost most of his season to a nasty knee injury. The Knights as a team saw a 20-goal decline mainly sparked by a shooting percentage drop from 10.0 to 8.7. So, divorced from the lofty expectations, the fact that the Knights were able to push the Sharks to seven games should count as an impressive accomplishment for this team.
This Season: The delirium from that unforgettable postseason run has worn off, and Vegas is left with a very good hockey team, but not a major contender. In two short years there’s already been a lot of shuffling in the second tier of the roster—defenseman Colin Miller and Haula both left this offseason. Top defender Shea Theodore’s testicular cancer—from which he’s expected to make a full recovery—still adds to the uncertainty. But Vegas’s management has done a solid job in replacing departed veterans like David Perron and James Neal with comparables like Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny, or most recently, Mark Stone. With Karlsson and Jon Marchessault still leading the way on the top line, and plenty of experience behind them, there’s no need to worry about the skaters doing their part to improve on 93 points. It’s only the goaltender in his mid-30s who feels like a time bomb.
Who’s a guy? Alex Tuch is a killer skater with some sweet stick moves who’s only 23 and should keep improving after a 20-goal season. Tuch was one of two mistakes the Minnesota Wild made in the 2017 expansion draft, when they dealt the winger to get Vegas to draft Haula, and his promising play in his first two seasons has already made him a rich man. Tuch’s seven-year, $33 million contract extension kicks in at the beginning of this season, and if he can beat out his peers for top-six ice time, Tuch should challenge for the Golden Knights’ scoring crown.
Last Season: How many good players does a team need to make the playoffs? The answer, at least out West, appears to be four. The Avalanche were one of the top-heaviest teams in the league, but with otherworldly play from their first line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog, plus the contributions of defenseman Tyson Barrie, they managed to be the last team in. That’s when the weirdness of hockey took hold and carried them further than expected. The Avalanche upset the Flames in five games, marking their first playoff series win since 2008, and then they pushed the Sharks all the way to the brink, losing Game 7 in part because of a brutal replay review on a potential tying goal.
This Season: The Avalanche can breathe a big sigh of relief that they resigned the RFA Rantanen before the real games began. The 22-year-old Finnish winger scored or assisted on a whopping 33.7 percent of the team’s goals last season, and even if the front office didn’t think he was worth Marner Money, the Avalanche weren’t a team that can afford to lose any more of their top players now that Barrie’s been traded to Toronto. Regardless, this is still the Nathan MacKinnon Show. The former first-overall pick actually improved upon his 97-point year in 2017-18, scoring two more goals and dishing out 58 assists once again, while putting 81 more shots on net to lead the league with 365. With a salary that stays under $7 million until 2023, he’s hockey’s biggest bargain as well as one of its deadliest weapons. There may not be a lot underneath a shiny surface, but the highlights from the guys who top 20 minutes a night make Colorado a team worth getting invested in. If Philipp Grubauer can handle being the full-time starter at goalie and put up anything like his career save percentage of .921 as a part-timer, the Avalanche are in great shape.
Who’s a guy? Landeskog might be viewed as the least important member of the Avs’ top line. He’s the captain, sure, but he’s never touched 80 points like Rantanen and MacKinnon do, and as the oldest member of the trio, his ceiling is a little less fun to imagine. But even if Landy is more of an all-star threat than a perennial Hart candidate, he’s an indispensable part of the Avalanche as a leader and a clutch performer. After hitting 30 goals last season for the first time in his career, there’s no reason his output won’t continue to climb as long as he stays a part of the power trio.
Last Season: Really impressive, actually! I mean, they didn’t make the playoffs, but after waving the rebuilding flag all offseason by ditching contributors like Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk, the Canadiens somehow improved by 25 points in 2018-19 and found themselves in the East’s ninth-place spot. Netminder Carey Price bounced back from an ugly season, and Montreal found offense in surprising places. Former Golden Knights bust Tomas Tatar turned out to be much happier as a Hab and scored 25 goals to mitigate Pacioretty’s departure, while Max Domi—the return for Galchenyuk—did even better, finishing first on the team with 72 points. Defensively, this team is getting older, and the next great Canadiens era almost certainly won’t feature Price at goalie. But Montreal showed last season that they’re way farther along than anyone could have hoped.
This Season: It won’t be easy, but with Columbus losing its best players, the Habs could nab that open eighth spot. Shea Weber and Jeff Petry aren’t the guys you necessarily want anchoring the blue line on a playoff group, but the Canadiens worked to cover that weakness by signing Ben Chiarot from Winnipeg, and going after but failing to capture Jake Gardiner on the open market. (The offer-sheeting of Sebastian Aho, long shot though it may have been, is another sign of Montreal’s sudden aggression.) At forward, the Canadiens are overflowing with young, exciting attackers. That unit is led by top scorer Brendan Gallagher, whose seven years with Montreal make him the elder statesman. Further down the list, there’s a top-notch defensive forward in Phillip Danault, and a couple of left wingers who look primed for a breakout: Artturi Lehkonen and former Lightning lad Jonathan Drouin.
Who’s a guy? Say it with me: Yes-perry Cot-kuh-knee-em-ee. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, drafted third overall in 2018, was a lovable underdog as a rookie with the Habs. Experts said the 18-year-old Finn was too undersized and too raw to slot immediately into an NHL roster, but Kotka proved his competence. Though he slowed down by the end of the long season, the first NHL player born in the 2000s was comfy enough around adults that he managed 11 goals and 23 assists. This summer, he’s been beefing up, adding 14 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-2 frame.
Last Season: The best possible version of a campaign that featured Stars CEO Jim Lites calling the team’s two best players “fucking horseshit” on the record in December. The Stars have been perennial underachievers with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn as their top forward duo, but they managed to weather the adversity and discord, place sixth in the West and win a playoff series against the Predators. Though their skating lines were top-heavy, the Stars outlasted other teams because Ben Bishop was a goaltending god, leading the league with a .934 save percentage that maintained at .933 for the playoffs. (Backup Anton Khudobin wasn’t too shabby either.) It seems impossible that Bishop will continue to be that good, so if they’re going to top 93 points this year, the Stars will have to find offense from sources beyond Seguin, Benn, and Alexander Radulov.
This Season: Joe Pavelski, who signed this offseason for three years and $21 million, is the Stars’ biggest swing at improving their scoring. At 35 years old, he’s certainly a risk. The San Jose captain scored 38 in 2018-19, more than anyone on the Stars, but he did so with a worryingly high shooting percentage of 20.2, and after netting 22 goals the prior season. Pavelski is no threat to top dog Seguin, who puts more shots on net than almost anyone in hockey, but if he does his job, then Dallas will have much-needed depth at forward.
Who’s a guy? Miro Heiskanen delivered on the hype in his rookie year. The 2017 third-overall pick debuted with a 33-point season, fifth-most of anyone in Dallas. Heiskanen isn’t the dominant blue-liner on the Stars yet, but the 20-year-old from Finland is already a mesmerizing skater—one of the best in the whole league, according to his most famous teammate—and his speed can overwhelm any less skilled forwards he matches up against. The way Heiskanen plays already is smart, efficient, and mature—it’s fun to imagine what he’ll look like a few years from now.
Weirdos and Wackjobs
New York Rangers
Last Season: Who cares! This is a brand-new team now; see below.
This Season: The Kakk Man is here. Second in the draft but first in the hearts of New Yorkers, 18-year-old Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko is ready to restore fun and excitement to a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in the past two seasons. Kakko is truly brilliant for a kid his age, a master with possession of the puck who owns the ice with strength and speed as a skater and can doubtless handle NHL-level defense. Here’s a couple of the many highlights he’s had in just the few months since he was drafted.
Somehow, Kakko’s not even the best new arrival suiting up for the Rangers this year. That’s Artemi Panarin, coming from Columbus at a reported discount from what other franchises offered so he can live it up in Manhattan, become an enemy of Vladimir Putin, and score some damn goals to help make up what was a dreadful -45 scoring differential last year. These new-look Rangers are cool, if not in the sense that they’re a good playoff team, at least in the Oilers-esque “There are a couple of guys here you have to watch” sense. If only Henrik Lundqvist were alive to see it.
Who’s a guy? You mean who else? Hm. Well. Chris ... Chris Kreider? He can score, and so can Mika Zibanejad. There’s also unpredictable 24-year-old winger Pavel Buchnevich, who seems to be able to get goals when given the opportunity. And there’s Jacob Trouba, a first pair-level defenseman (at least on this sorry unit) stolen from the Jets in a lopsided trade. But, look: This season is about the Kakk Man and the Bread Man, and if that’s not enough, I don’t know what to tell you.
Last Season: Mediocre. Florida’s done an admirable job of assembling a powerful young core of skaters—led by Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, who each topped 90 points last year—but the Panthers were undone by crappy goaltending, and finished 10th in the East. While most of their guys played to their full potential—and Mike Hoffman left an unsalvageable situation in Ottawa to lead every Panther with a career-high 36 goals—the final season of Roberto Luongo’s career was not pretty. Starting most of the games for Florida because none of the backups could do any better, Luongo’s .899 save percentage was the worst of his career. His retirement this summer was melancholy but the correct decision.
This Season: There may be no better candidate for a Hurricanes-esque jump into playoff position than the Panthers. Ownership paid a pretty penny for former Blackhawks coach and three-time Stanley Cup champion Joel Quenneville, and though it couldn’t close a deal with Panarin, it spent big to fix Florida’s goalie problem by signing his ex-teammate, Sergei Bobrovsky. If the 31-year-old Bob isn’t quite the presence he used to be in goal, he is at minimum a huge improvement over Luongo. That alone, if everything else holds, would vault the Panthers right into the playoff discussion.
Who’s a guy? Captain Aleksander Barkov is the definition of a workhorse, with his 1,833 minutes of ice time last year placing second only to Leon Draisaitl among forwards. And somehow, in all that time, the league’s most gentlemanly player picked up only eight minutes’ worth of penalties all season. Barkov’s all kinds of fancy as a scorer, putting pucks in the net by picking pockets, looking off goaltenders or sneaking the stick between his legs. He’s 24, but he feels like he’s been on this Panthers team forever. Now entering his seventh season with Florida, he’s hit at least 20 goals in his past four. But Barkov has been in only one postseason series, back in 2016. If Quenneville does what he’s supposed to, that’ll change soon.
Last Season: As long as Patrick Kane is alive and healthy, the Blackhawks will be interesting. But even a career-high 110 points wasn’t enough to get his team to the playoffs last season, as Chicago finished 10th in the West with 84 points. Forward is absolutely not a problem position for the Hawks. Beyond Kane they still had major contributions from Alex DeBrincat (41 goals in his second season) and Jonathan Toews (a career-high 35). It was the defense that proved frustrating, giving up the most shots of any team besides Ottawa. Without a healthy, reliable goalie to bail them out—Corey Crawford had concussion trouble and wasn’t effective when he could get on the ice—Chicago was helpless. It felt like a massive overreaction to fire Joel Quenneville, especially so early in the season, but the Blackhawks haven’t looked well for a couple of years now.
This Season: Andrew Shaw is back from Montreal, if you’re feeling nostalgic for the good ol’ days. A couple of defenders have arrived to do damage control: Olli Maatta from the Penguins and Calvin de Haan from the Hurricanes. And Robin Lehner is joining the team in net to try and prove that his outstanding 2018-19 for the Islanders wasn’t a fluke. He and Crawford will battle it out for the starting gig, and their combined success or failure could be the difference between playoffs and irrelevance. Six points was the gap between the Blackhawks and the eighth-seeded Avalanche last season, and even if the Hawks’ defense hasn’t been fixed, a reliable presence in net would be of great help.
Who’s a guy? Finding effective defenseman pairings should be priority number one for the Blackhawks, but in the forward unit, one guy who’s spent the past few seasons bubbling under the top lines, perhaps waiting to break out as a first-tier contributor, is Brandon Saad. The 26-year-old winger, who had the unfortunate burden of headlining the return for Artemi Panarin in 2017, is a 20-ish goal scorer who has flashes of brilliant stickwork and tricky skating littering his highlight reel. It’s hard to imagine him doing anything in 2019-20 that would supplant the status of Kane, Toews, and DeBrincat, but he was a clear offensive plus when he was on the ice, and if he works hard to ... ah, you know what? Let’s just watch DeBrincat slide tackle his goalie in warm-ups last year:
Last Season: Below average, but with a 6-foot-2, 176-pound bright spot named Elias Pettersson. The 2017 fifth overall pick was one of the best surprises of the season, surviving an early chokeslam to put up highlight after highlight as he led Vancouver with 28 goals and 38 assists. But even though the Canucks’ 81 points resulted in their best season since 2015, they still finished well outside a potential playoff spot. It’s not that anything went horribly wrong for Vancouver, but after the scorers at the very top, there just wasn’t enough developed talent left over to provide anything more than 225 goals, tied for 25th in the league.
This Season: If we’re being disappointing and honest, Pettersson might be due for a regression with the way that 19.4 shooting percentage sticks out. And unfortunately, even with Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser both providing hope for the future, goal-scoring forwards are the thing this team can least afford to lose. To shore up the weakness, the Canucks signed J.T. Miller from the Lightning and Micheal Ferland from the Hurricanes, but the team’s still working on a long timeline. It remains unlikely that this is the season they finally return to competitiveness.
Who’s a guy? Quinn Hughes has all the British Columbian hype around him heading into this season, though his younger brother Jack in New Jersey is more heavily favored to win the Calder. The dynamic rookie defenseman from the University of Michigan impressed in a five-game cameo at the end of last season, showing immediate chemistry with Boeser and Pettersson while picking up three assists, and he’s another source of hope for hapless Canucks fans.
Last Season: They puked all over themselves. Not the lovely Connor McDavid of course, who kept his clothes vomit-free by tallying a career-high 116 points, and not his skillful sidekick Leon Draisaitl, who doubled the previous season’s total and hit 50 goals. But as a team, the Oilers sucked once again to an inexcusable degree, finishing second-last in the West with 79 points. They placed 28th in shots despite featuring two of the best offensive players in the world playing over 22 minutes of every game. They hitched themselves to a mirage of a goalie through 2022 because 30-year-old KHL transfer Mikko Koskinen had a decent start to the season before leveling off with a .906 save percentage. And every year Edmonton fails to make good on the promise held by 2017 is another year that McDavid drifts closer to getting the hell out. Only seven more to go.
This Season: Ken Holland, a guy who did a lot for the Red Wings and then spent years slowly draining away his goodwill by getting sentimental with his checkbook, is now Edmonton’s GM. It should tell you just how awful Peter Chiarelli was that this is considered an improvement. Holland’s biggest signing of the summer was a very Ken Holland move, getting 37-year-old Mike Smith to spar with Koskinen for the goalie job. But the GM did appear to make a savvy trade with the Flames, unloading Milan Lucic’s contract in exchange for a bet that James Neal’s one bad year with Calgary was just that—one bad year. Try to say it with me, though: The Oilers ... won a trade? The Oilers won a trade. The Oilers? Won a trade. It doesn’t sound very likely, does it?
Who’s a guy? Shut up and watch some Connor highlights.
New Jersey Devils
Last Season: So terrible that I keep doing double-takes at their stats. Did you know the Devils’ leader in points, Kyle Palmieri, finished 111th in points for the entire league last season? Damn. Anyway, the Devils were bad—the third-worst team in the NHL, to be exact—in large part because of injuries. Reigning MVP Taylor Hall could only play 33 games because of a knee problem, and there wasn’t enough offense to cover for that, so the Devils finished 26th in the league in scoring. The defense, built around the still-growing Damon Severson, managed to keep the team respectable in the shots-allowed department, finishing 15th, but in net they couldn’t find consistency. Keith Kinkaid, the guy with the most starts last season, was a wet paper bag who was shipped to Columbus at the deadline. Between the inexperienced MacKenzie Blackwood and the veteran Cory Schneider, there’s not enough to inspire full confidence here.
This Season: Aside from a healthy Hall, and the signing of Wayne Simmonds for some more scoring depth, the story here is two marquee new arrivals, one who just turned 18 and one who just hit 30. P.K. Subban has come in a trade with Nashville, coming off a down year but still bringing with him an atomic slap shot and big-game experience. Even more exciting: JACK HUGHES. The barely legal American center was the first overall pick in this summer’s draft, and despite his lack of size, he’s proven at the amateur level to be a dynamite playmaker who’s gorgeous on skates. He alone is a worthy reason to tune in.
Who’s a guy? If you think you’re going to be talking about the Devils this month and want to sound smart, you should take Nikita Gusev 101. Originally drafted in 2012, the 27-year-old Russian hasn’t yet made his NHL debut, but the idea of him playing in America bounced around to a couple different teams before Vegas traded his RFA rights to the Devils this offseason. Gusev was the top point producer in the KHL last year, and the winger has made a name for himself as one of the best offensive players in the league. At the World Championships in May, he looked strong against very good competition, with 16 points in 10 games.
Last Season: The Sabres were fun for a bit! Looking at the standings, you wouldn’t really know it. In November they enjoyed an insane run of close wins to seemingly assert that they were much better from the prior year’s cellar-dwelling squad. Not long after, the facade cracked, and they found themselves near the bottom of the East, making it now eight seasons without a playoff showing.
This Season: Let me peer into this crystal ball: They need ... to be better ... at hockey. It’s a safe bet that the Sabres can improve, even if it’s not by much. Jeff Skinner’s career-best 40-goal season struggled to lift a team that finished 24th in goals scored, but with a team shooting percentage of 8.2—30th in the league—that number should rise. Defensively, it’s a bit more scattered, but 2018 first overall pick Rasmus Dahlin was deserving of the hype, leading his team in Corsi and notching 35 assists to raise hopes even higher that he can be the backbone of Buffalo for years to come. In net, there’s more of a problem, as neither Carter Hutton nor Linus Ullmark could top a mediocre .908 in the save percentage department. Ullmark, at least, is 26 years old and still green, so those numbers aren’t too difficult to shrug off. Put that all together, and you have a team that rises above worthlessness.
Who’s a guy? Jack Eichel got a bit lost last season, especially when compared to his peers in the 2015 draft class—McDavid, Marner, Rantanen, Aho, etc. The second overall pick had enough of a head start that he still ranks second among the ‘15ers in goals, assists, and points. But last season’s tallies—28 goals and 54 assists—saw him eclipsed, at least as a scorer, by several guys who were drafted below him. With new head coach Ralph Krueger joining the picture, 2019-20 would be the perfect year for Eichel to make a statement about how far he’s capable of carrying this team.
Last Season: If you’re reading this, the odds are good that you started in goal for the Philadelphia Flyers last season, so you don’t need me to remind you how disappointing the year was for a team coming off a 98-point season and a playoff appearance. The Flyers dropped off by 16 points in 2018-19, fired their coach and GM midseason, and had to use eight different goaltenders due to a mix of injuries and poor play. That was the silver lining: Carter Hart, a kid who just turned 21 this offseason, was called up midseason and sparked a brief exciting hot streak in the dead of winter while putting up a save percentage of .917 in 30 starts.
This Season: The Flyers’ future isn’t bright, but once your eyes adjust to the darkness, they might be able to see something. The defense was poor last season but with Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, and Shayne Gostisbehere, there’s space and time to transform into a solid unit. The offense was merely adequate, as longtime centerpiece Claude Giroux hit the regression everyone saw coming after a career season. But 22-year-old Travis Konecny, who signed a new six-year deal, has shown real potential as a finisher on the forward line, scoring more goals at 5-on-5 (39) than any other Flyer over the past two seasons.
Who’s a guy? Sean Couturier has for most of his career been a depth guy for the Flyers, but two seasons ago, the center earned more ice time and came alive for 76 points. Last year, he replicated that performance almost exactly despite starting slow due to knee troubles. He’s consistently been one of the best defensive forwards in the game, finishing top-10 in Selke voting four times, and no matter which wingers he played with in 2018-19, he powered his lines to shot-differential advantages. If there’s even just one more level to the 26-year-old Couturier’s game, he would be a legit top-line center to build a contender around.
The Junk Heap
Last Season: Actually not that bad, by Arizona Coyotes standards. If it were possible to take this franchise seriously, they’d probably be a lot higher on this list. Their 86 points were their best since 2014, when they still went by their city name and not the moniker of the Copper State. Too bad they did it in the dullest way possible. Despite being the sixth-best team in goals allowed, the Coyotes still finished with a -11 goal differential, because they couldn’t find a single goddamn 20-goal scorer anywhere. Did they even try looking in that enormous canyon they have out there?
This Season: The Coyotes figured out this offseason that teams need to score in order to win in the NHL, so they made a swap with the Penguins for Phil Kessel, dealing Alex Galchenyuk and a prospect with two first names to reunite the infamous Phil with head coach Rick Tocchet. Any of Kessel’s past 11 seasons would have been tops among Coyotes goal-scorers last year, but frankly, his main interest has to be the fact that he can finally golf year-round.
Who’s a guy? Let’s be real, buddy. I’m not going to pretend that either of us care enough about the Coyotes to make this worth our time. Just check out a weird couple of goals they scored earlier last season.
You still want a guy? Fine. Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Never say I didn’t do my job.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Last Season: Enjoyable in the way that I’d imagine eating a perfectly cooked steak on death row is enjoyable. The Jackets achieved their first-ever playoff series win with an absolute shocker last season, sweeping the Lightning in an unforgettable upset. They did this by going all-in at the trade deadline, bringing in new contributors instead of punting by dealing the expiring contracts of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. They had guts, and more teams should follow their example. But now that their two best players are gone, this season won’t be fun.
This Season: I just said it won’t be fun. The Jackets signed Gus Nyquist from San Jose, will have their top goalscorer in Cam Atkinson, and can boast a solid defense led by Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. But thinking about the goalie position gives me the shakes—do the names Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins fill you with anything but anxiety? As much as Columbus made a statement by knocking out the Lightning, it’s important to remember that the Jackets were the eighth seed out East, and the offseason they had killed any possibility of optimistic momentum. Without a steady goalkeeper like Bobrovsky, or Panarin’s 87 points, a team like this falls right out of the picture.
Who’s a guy? Pierre-Luc Dubois played all 82 games for the second time in his two-year career (plus 10 in the playoffs!), and the 21-year-old has already become Columbus’s first-line center. He had 27 goals and 61 points last season, although that might be more difficult to repeat with Panarin no longer on his left. Regardless, Dubois brings a goofy sort of charm that makes you believe in him. Here he is celebrating a goal by losing a fight with the boards.
And here he putting some sort of Quebecois curse on the Bruins before a playoff game.
Last Season: Three of their top four point-getters last season were 34 years old, and the Wild finished last in the Central with 83 points. That should tell you all you need to know about the future outlook of this team, which has cap money tied up for several more years in the epic contracts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, with barely a playoff series win to show for that huge investment.
This Season: The 32-year-old Mats Zuccarello’s five-year contract and the two-year extension that Eric Staal signed in February don’t do much to ease the idea that the Wild are a bunch of washed-up old men, but the good news is that the team cut its losses this summer when GM Paul Fenton was replaced with Bill Guerin. The extent of this team’s foundation is a respectable defense, headlined by Matt Dumba, and a sure thing in net with Devan Dubnyk. But finding the offense that this team so desperately needs, after so many bad trades and hefty contracts, will be a whale of a task.
Who’s a guy? There isn’t much on the come-up here, unless patriotism has you fondly eyeing former Olympians Ryan Donato and Jordan Greenway. Jason Zucker is a fine guy to root for, though, because he’s the reigning winner of the NHL’s Clancy Trophy as the best humanitarian. (Being a good person isn’t a competition, but he did win.) Zucker was reportedly an eyelash away from being traded by Fenton for Phil Kessel, because he dropped down to 21 goals and 42 points after a career-best 33 and 64 the year prior. But his Corsi and Fenwick were best on the team, and he shot pucks in the goal less often than his career shooting percentage would predict, which means he’s a prime candidate for a return to form. Also, when given the opportunity to describe himself with one word, any word from the entire dictionary, Zucker picked “organized,” and then “boring.” That a true hockey man.
Detroit Red Wings
Last Season: For the third season in a row, stuck in a deep well and jumping impotently in a failed attempt to escape. There’s some talent at the very top of this squad, but nothing was quite right in 2018-19 for the former dynasty. The Wings’ top defenseman on a patchwork unit was the now-retired Niklas Kronwall. They still don’t have a long-term solution at goaltender as they continue to ride Jimmy Howard. On offense, despite a talented quartet of young forwards, they still finished 26th in shots on goal.
This Season: Stevie Y is back, bitches. The Red Wings legend as a player—and frankly, the near-legend with the Lightning’s front office considering what he did with that roster—came home this summer to replace GM Ken Holland in a long overdue, peaceful transition of power. Yzerman brings two crucial things to a fanbase not used to waiting around: optimism and the benefit of the doubt. He already made a quirky choice when he reached at No. 6 in the draft to take German defenseman Moritz Seider, but Yzerman will get a couple of years of leeway before anyone starts to seriously question his savvy. In the meantime, Detroit can enjoy the growing genius of Dylan Larkin, who’s a mere four years away from unrestricted free agency, and the hyperspace speed of Andreas Athanasiou, who nearly doubled his previous year’s goal total by getting 30 in his age-24 season.
Who’s a guy? Tyler Bertuzzi’s hair. That’s it. That’s the paragraph.
Last Season: The end of an era for the Ducks, as they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2012 and saw a couple of their most identifiable players take curtain calls in Anaheim. Corey Perry only played 31 games and moved on to Dallas this summer, while Ryan Kesler, possibly the most frustrating pest on those teams that dominated the Pacific, cobbled together eight points in 60 games and has been ruled out for the entirety of this season due to hip surgery. Ryan Getzlaf is still around, and he led an injury-ravaged team with 48 points. But with goaltender John Gibson’s numbers dropping, and with few if any skaters showing their value, the Ducks were a team to completely ignore.
This Season: Dallas Eakins is the new coach after Randy Carlyle got canned midseason, and though he inherits a squad whose top players can’t possibly miss as many games as they did last season, turning the Ducks into a playoff team will still be one of the toughest challenges in the NHL. Check back in a few years.
Who’s a guy? One time the Deadspin staff did a round of one-day fantasy hockey, because we were going to an Islanders game, and I don’t gamble, but I told a colleague to pick Ondrej Kase, and he went on to pot a hat trick that very night! So, his victories feel like my victories. But I’m not just being a biased journalist when I say he might be the best thing the Ducks have. Kase played just 30 games for the Ducks because of a season-ending shoulder injury, but he scored 11 goals in that time. The 23-year-old winger hasn’t been able to put on a full dominant season yet in his three years as an NHLer, and his name has popped up in trade rumors with the Hurricanes. But wherever he plays, the limited numbers imply that a healthy Kase can be a first-line Kase. Bet on him to be an offensive leader in this wasteland.
Los Angeles Kings
Los Angeles Kings
Last Season: They were worst in the West and old as shit, which is an uglier combo than chicken tenders and pop. Skating for the Kings were all those players who had won those Cups earlier this decade, except they weren’t as good, plus Ilya Kovalchuk, who only managed 16 goals in 64 games after coming back from Russia as the team’s marquee signing. They’ve won just a single playoff game in the past five years, and have been pronounced legally dead by a qualified medical professional.
This Season: “Out with the old, in with the new,” is what the Kings would say if they had anything new to, you know, in with. Instead, they’ll run back the season with the declining Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Drew Doughty anchoring the first line, while younger guys like Tyler Toffoli and Alex Iafallo will have to work to prove they can be consistent 20-goal men. Get these clowns outta here.
Who’s a guy? Snoop Dogg, who made for a decent guest announcer in what otherwise would have been a dull mid-January game.
Last Season: So putrid that they don’t even deserve their own section heading. There is absolutely no reason to pay any attention to the Ottawa Senators in their current form. Owner Eugene Melnyk was forced to admit that the Sens weren’t all that close to being Cup contenders in 2017, and blew up his disastrous win-now scheme at the trade deadline. Erik Karlsson was already long gone, but now so are Mark Stone, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel, and because of a legendarily putrid trade with the Avs, the Sens didn’t get a top-four pick out of their 64-point season. One Canadian politician called Melnyk a “fucking piece of shit” and “a fucking loser.” I wouldn’t say that myself—personally, I’d say Melnyk’s a spiteful sicko who doesn’t even have the money, let alone the brain, to own a professional sports team. Senators scandals in 2018 included a top player’s longtime girlfriend allegedly cyberbullying another top player’s wife; a former assistant GM pleading guilty to harassing a bus driver; and, most righteously, a bunch of players getting caught shit-talking the team in a car.
This Season: There are maybe two players here who know how to stand up on skates without slipping and smashing their faces on the ice. Normally, most hockey teams like to have as many as 20 of those guys.
Who’s a guy? Congrats on getting to the end of the blog! Your reward is you don’t have to hear any more about the Ottawa Senators. Set your alarms for 7 p.m. tonight for the first game of the season, as the Toronto Maple Leafs take on ... oh God no.