So there is not a ton of interest in hockey in Houston. We don’t have a team (we should, but that’s a rant for another day), we don’t even have minor league hockey, and the nearest team is in Dallas, and you know how Houstonians feel about that. But there are a lot of people from the Midwest — Detroit and Chicago specifically — as well as places like Calgary that have moved here and remain fans of their teams and the sport.
As a kid, I grew up a fan of the original Aeros. My dad spent a lot of time around the team, and I got to meet the great Gordie Howe (as well as Mark and Marty). I have made profits on the Stanley Cup playoffs the last two years, which is a nice bonus.
As far as rooting interests go, I’ve been a Leafs fan since 1996. Which means I have seen two playoff appearances and one series win since 2002. Oh yeah, and I was three years old the last time they won a Cup. At least I can say they have won one in my lifetime. Since the Leafs never make the playoffs, I usually root for the original six teams, other than the Bruins. I will probably adopt the Vegas team as well since I spend so much time there. In general, I just enjoy the sport and watching different teams. So let’s take a look at how this season should shake out:
The Cup contenders: Pittsburgh, Washington, Florida, Tampa Bay.
Playoff contenders: Montreal, Philadelphia, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Detroit, Boston, Carolina, Ottawa.
Fringe playoff contenders: Columbus, Buffalo, New Jersey, Toronto.
The rundown: If they stay healthy, you can probably just circle Pittsburgh and Washington and say one of them comes out of this conference. The Pens return everyone from last year’s cup winner, and Washington returns almost everyone from last year’s Presidents’ Cup winning team that had the misfortune of running into the Pittsburgh buzz saw in the playoffs. This might be the last call for both teams as currently constructed, as salary cap woes will hit both hard next year. Sid Crosby is playing at an elite level again, but already has a concussion, so that bears watching. If it is not one of these two…
Tampa is a trendy pick coming off a Stanley Cup loss two years ago and a conference finals loss last year. The Lightning also bring everyone back and locked up Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman to longterm deals. This will be the last call for this particular group as well, as Ben Bishop will likely be gone at season’s end and players like Jonathan Drouin and Tyler Johnson will have to get paid. They are talented and deep, but they also seem to be missing something. Stamkos might be declining and has been injury prone. Serious contenders, but prefer the others.
Florida, meanwhile, is a really interesting case. The Panthers won the division last year, then went out and reworked their defense, spent a ton to lock up their own players and basically retooled everything. That makes them the most intriguing team in the field. If all that works, they could win the Cup. It could also backfire and they miss the playoffs entirely.
That’s where the next tier is so tough. These teams are all very close, and a bad run of injuries could make the difference between any of them making or missing the playoffs. Montreal should be a contender with a healthy Carey Price in net. They also have a potential future star in center Alex Galchenyuk. The off-season trade of P.K. Subban for Shea Weber was widely ripped, but Weber might be a better short term fit. If Price is healthy, they should be contenders, but if he gets hurt or the Weber trade backfires, they could be sitting at home again come playoff time. And everybody is fired.
Of the rest of that group, the Flyers seem to be on the biggest upswing, with a nice mix of established forwards and talented young defensemen. They just snuck in last year and should be better this year. The Rangers might have missed their window. The Islanders won a playoff series last year then let two of their key players walk and could take a step back. Boston is talented up front but is questionable on the blue line and also seems like a fringe contender. Carolina and Ottawa are capable if they get solid goal tending.
The most interesting of that group is Detroit. The Red Wings have made the playoffs a remarkable 25 years in a row. They lost Pavel Datsyuk, but picked up underrated Frans Nielsen in free agency from the Islanders. They made a low-risk, high reward move in signing Thomas Vanek. If they can milk just a little more out of Nik Kronwall on the back end, they might make it 26 in a row.
Finally, the bottom of the conference at least should be interesting. New Jersey finally has some offense with its trade for Taylor Hall, and Corey Schneider might be the most underrated goalie in the sport. But the rest of the roster lacks explosiveness, depth and quality, especially on the blue line. Schneider almost carried them to the playoffs on his own last year, so it is possible, but he will need some help for them to sneak in.
Colombus is another trendy playoff pick with solid D and a terrific goalie in addition to a good mix of youth and experience at the forwards. They played roughly .500 hockey after a terrible start last year. Don’t see them as much better than that despite the hype. And as good as Sergie Bobrovsky is in net, he never stays healthy.
Buffalo and Toronto are still in the early stages of deep rebuilds. But both teams now have the pieces in place to be successful down the road. Great teams are strong up the middle, have a lock down defensemen, and are strong in goal.
The Sabres have Jack Eichel up the middle along with Ryan O’Reilly. They have Rasmus Ristolainan as a potential back-end lockdown D man. And they think Robin Lehner can be their goalie of the future. Buffalo took a step forward last year, but there is something about this team that just makes you think they regress a little this year.
Toronto also has its key pieces. Auston Matthews is going to be a superstar center. Morgan Reilly is really developing into a future No. 1 defensemen. They went out and added Fredrick Andersen to be their longterm goalie answer. Throw in a bunch of talented forwards — their last three No. 1 picks (all selected in the top six) will be in the lineup tonight — and the Leafs should be fun to watch. Like Buffalo, they should hang around in the playoff race a little longer this season before bowing out at the end.
Metropolitan Division best guess: 1) Pittsburgh, 2) Washington, 3) Philadelphia, 4) Rangers, 5) Carolina, 6) Islanders, 7) Columbus, 8) New Jersey.
Atlantic Division best guess: 1) Montreal, 2) Tampa, 3) Florida, 4) Detroit, 5) Ottawa, 6) Toronto, 7) Boston, 8) Buffalo.
Playoff teams: Pittsburgh, Washington, Philly, Montreal, Tampa, Florida, Detroit, Ottawa.
Conference champ: Washington.
WESTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW
The Cup contenders: Chicago, Nashville, San Jose.
Playoff contenders: St. Louis, Minnesota, Dallas, Anaheim, Los Angeles, Calgary, Winnipeg, Edmonton.
Fringe playoff contenders: Arizona, Vancouver, Colorado.
The rundown: The San Jose Sharks made it to the Cup last season, and bring back most of that group, and brought in a nice couple of additions. They should be in the thick of things all season. Martin Jones was terrific in goal and Brent Burns is one of the most exciting offensive-minded defensemen in the game. But there is cause for concern. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are both 37 years old. Thornton had a monster year last year, but it is realistic to expect it to continue? Joe Pavelski has the second-most goals in the game behind Alex Ovechkin over the past three years, but he turns 32 and looked slow at the World Cup. (Then again, all of Team USA did). Tons of depth and skill, solid on D and in goal. But just two years ago the same group missed the playoffs. Serious contender, but also a possibility to fall off the map or drop somewhere in between.
Chicago is the San Antonio Spurs/New England Patriots of the NHL. They reload every year. This year, they have beefed up the defense, which was a problem last year, and will go with a youth infusion at the forward positions. The Hawks are better than anyone in hockey at being able to replace talented players with younger, cheaper fill-ins. Patrick Kane was the best player in hockey last year and could easily repeat that (he was leading the league in scoring two years ago before he was injured). Jonathan Toews is still a clutch 2-way player. The window is getting smaller, but it is still wide open and Chicago will be a serious threat once again.
Nashville was oh, so close last year to knocking off San Jose. The Preds then made the monster deal in the off-season to pick up P.K. Subban, an exciting, 200-foot player who will bring a new element and seems to fit what the Preds want to do. He might put them over the top. The one concern is something that has been a perceived strength for years — goalie Pekka Rinne. Three of the last four years his save percentage has been .910 or less and was .908 last season. The league average has been between .912 and 915 for that stretch. He simply has been below average more often than not. If he can return to his 2014-2015 form when he notched a .923, the Preds are in business.
As for the next level, St. Louis made it to the conference finals last year, but lost some key pieces and start the season with injury concerns. Still seem to be a playoff lock, but think they will be hard-pressed to match last year’s success and if they slip too much… Minnesota should be better in the regular season with new coach Bruce Boudreau. All he does is win in the regular season. Then lose in round one of the playoffs, which is why he is no longer in Anaheim. The Ducks have gone back to Randy Carlyle. Both of these teams might have missed their windows. Ducks stars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry regressed last year, and they are putting all their goalie eggs in the John Gibson basket. Still, they are good on D and might have one last run left in this group. As for the Wild, Zach Parise was a shadow of himself last year and injuries have become a real problem. Boudreau tends to get the best out of veterans like Parise so if he can stay healthy, the Wild should be able to make it back to the playoffs. We will guess he is not healthy and they just miss.
The Kings still have Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Quick, but they have not won a playoff series in three years. They have not had the influx of young talent that Chicago brings in year in and year out. The door is still open for this group, but they appear to be in decline.
Winnipeg should be better this season after missing the playoffs last year. They lucked into forward Patrik Laine, who should be a Calder candidate. They need one of their young goalies to step up, and need to work out a deal with defenseman Jacob Trouba, who is a key part of their back end. But this team could take a serious step forward.
Edmonton had an interesting off-season, dealing away former No. 1 overall picks Taylor Hall and Nail Yakupov. For Hall they got what they hope will be a key defenseman in Adam Larsson. They got little for Yakupov, who has been a complete bust. Milan Lucic is a good addition, and they added Kris Russell late in free agency. Of course, there is Connor McDavid, who has already been anointed the next hockey god by the media. He is a wonderful player, but how many guys has Edmonton drafted that actually improved there? This is an organization that has been gifted high picks year in and year out and just can’t seem to improve. This team should be in the playoffs, but until it happens? Pass.
Which brings us to the two most interesting teams in this tier.
The Dallas Stars had the best record in the West last year. They won the rugged Central Division. They led the league in scoring and looked like a juggernaut. They have two of the top 15 players in hockey in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. They are built to have another big regular season.
But they lack two things necessary for playoff success: A solid back end and excellent goal tending. The goalie duo of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi was terrible in the playoffs. Lehtonen’s save percentage was a paltry .899. Which made him light year’s better than Nieme’s .865. And guess who is back in goal? Yep, Lehtonen and Niemi.
The Stars are fun to watch. They play fast. They score goals. They are exciting. They are not afraid to give up a few chances in their own end. In the regular season, that’s OK. But good teams will take advantage of that in the playoffs, and we saw that with the Blues series last year. As constructed, they are probably not a realistic Cup contender. They are also dealing with minor injuries to Seguin and Benn, which is a concern, so expect a small regression this year. But if one of their youngsters develops into a solid defensemen, and they make a deal at some point to add a legitimate goal tender (Ben Bishop, anyone?) then they move to the top of the line on the contenders list.
Calgary is a lot like Dallas. The Flames can score. They have one of the most exciting young forwards in hockey in Johnny Gaudreau. Defensively, they are loaded. But they gave up too many goals last year. Like Dallas, the goal tending was the issue. The Flames were dead last in save percentage at .892. How bad was it? The No. 29 team, Carolina, was at .902 and was closer to the no. 15 team (.910) than No. 30 was to No. 29! That’s a nice way of saying they sucked in goal. Adding Brian Elliot could make all the difference in the world. He was part of a tandem that led the league in save percentage. The Blues played a more disciplined form of hockey than the Flames do, but if he can just keep this team in games, we are looking at not just a playoff team but a long shot contender.
As for the other teams, Arizona is going almost all youth in an attempt to field a squad younger than their 27-year-old GM John Chayka. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is one of the best scoring defenseman no ever gets to see. This team has drafted very well and has a really nice future, but they are at least a couple years away from the playoffs.
Colorado has some nice talent, and the surprise coaching change late in the summer might be enough to fix things. They were close last year and could sneak into a spot.
Vancouver still has the Sedins. But they are in the no man’s land of trying to be competitive for a playoff spot (they made it two years ago) and trying to rebuild. Could see one last run from these guys, but it seems unlikely.
Pacific Division best guess: 1) San Jose, 2) Calgary, 3) Anaheim, 4) LA, 5) Edmonton, 6) Arizona, 7) Vancouver.
Central Division best guess: 1) Chicago, 2) Nashville, 3) Dallas, 4) Winnipeg, 5) St. Louis, 6) Minnesota, 7) Colorado.
Playoff teams: .Chicago, Nashville, Dallas, Winnipeg, San Jose, Calgary, Anaheim, St. Louis.
Conference champ: Chicago.
Stanley Cup: Chicago over Washington.
Stanley Cup exacta box: If you give me, Chicago, Calgary, Nashville, Washington or Pittsburgh to win it all and you take the field…I like my chances.
Wrapup: I wanted to pick Calgary to win the Pacific and the conference, but I chickened out. Canada got shut out last year. I have four teams making it this year.
From a betting perspective, I wait on Stanley Cup futures until late in the year when I can sort out improving teams. We got Pittsburgh at 12-1 in April. So I won’t be doing any Stanley Cup futures. But how about Calgary plus 800 to win the Pacific for a small play?
Also like Montreal plus 550 to win the Atlantic. And for point totals, Calgary over 87.5 points, Winnipeg over 88 and St. Louis under 101.
Good luck. If this gets enough hits I will do a weekly update. If not? No worries.