Sports | New season, new hope

All you need to know about this year’s NHL

Montreal is a hockey city, but approaching the sport can be daunting. The game is fast-paced, intense, and has a unique culture. Sports writer and avid Canadiens fan Michael Ziegler is here to help out. Check out his preview of the season, learn about the teams and players, and have something to say about the good ol’ hockey game:

With the NHL season kicking off, there’s reason to get excited. A new season means a blank slate and fresh hope for fans around the league. Warning: your favourite team probably won’t win the cup.

Previewing an NHL season is always tough. So much can happen, and the loss of one player could mean the end of all hope for some teams (see: Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens). With that said, I’ll do my best. I’ll lay out which teams improved most in the offseason and which team took the biggest step back. Then, I’ll introduce the teams and players that I am paying close attention to this year.

 

WHO TO WATCH

The teams:

Vegas Golden Knights: This should be fun. Despite some questionable moves at the expansion draft, Vegas added some nice pieces. Erik Haula, Vadim Shipachov, Shea Theodore and Nate Schmidt make up a very solid core and having a goalie like Marc-Andre Fleury helps. Veterans like James Neal and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare solidify the team, and I think they’ll end up doing a lot better than most people think. Are they a playoff team? No. But there are at least five teams worse than them right now.

Chicago B********s: This team is interesting. Losing defender Nik Hjarmalsson is tough, but there are some young players in the system who will soften the blow. Winger Brandon Saad is off to a hot start, and the chemistry between him and Jonathan Toews is obvious. I don’t know if they necessarily improved this offseason, but keep an eye out for them.

Winnipeg Jets: Simple—their offense is elite, their defense is solid, and their goaltending sucks. If goalie Steve Mason can figure it out, they’ll be in the playoffs. If he falters, it’ll be a repeat of last year.

The players:

Auston Matthews: It must be nice to be a Leafs fan. This centre is an all-world talent, and I don’t see his game dropping off at all this year. He’ll be much more comfortable than last year, and playing with Nylander from the get-go should help. He could score 50 goals this year.

Jonathan Drouin: It’ll take Drouin some time to get used to playing centre, but I think he could hit the 70-point plateau. He should be able to help Max Pacioretty hit the 40-goal mark for the first time as well.

Matt Duchene: It’s wild that he’s still in Colorado, so we’ll see how motivated he’ll be. He’s a great player who needs a change of scenery. I’m curious to see where he ends up.

John Tavares: His contract expires this year, and he’ll be seeking a considerable raise. He’s stated his desire to stay in New York, but I can see him being moved at some point. If he doesn’t commit, New York could deal him at the deadline. Should be interesting.

 

THE OFF-SEASON REVIEW

The good:

Dallas Stars: General Manager (GM) Jim Nill had one of the more impressive off-seasons in the league. He added ex-Hab Alex Radulov, 6’6 center Martin Hanzal, and goalie Ben Bishop in a matter of weeks. Radulov brings a level of competitiveness to Dallas that few other players have. His passion for the game was noticed by linemate Tyler Seguin during Radulov’s first practice. Dallas now has perhaps the most dynamic top line in the NHL, with Seguin playing centre between Radulov and captain Jamie Benn. The addition of  Hanzal also brings a level of depth down the middle of the ice that most other teams cannot match. Cups are won in the middle of the ice, and Dallas has the depth necessary to make a run at the cup this year. Finally, in adding Ben Bishop, Dallas solidifies their goalie position after years of watching Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen struggle. Goaltending used to be Dallas’ Achilles heel, but with the addition of Bishop, it has become one of the team’s strengths. Other notable additions: Marc Methot, Ken Hitchcock.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Aside from trading Jonathan Drouin to Montreal for Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay has had a rather quiet offseason. So why are they on this list? Because without having made a move, they’ve added one of the most dynamic goal scorers back into their lineup. After missing the entire season last year with a knee injury, captain Steven Stamkos is back. I look for the line of Stamkos, Kucherov, and Namestnikov to be one of the most productive lines in the NHL this season. Signing three-time Stanley Cup champion Chris Kunitz doesn’t hurt either. Other notable additions: Dan Girardi.

Calgary Flames: Much like Dallas, the Flames’ off-season could not have gone much better. In adding goalie Mike Smith from Arizona, the Flames hope to have found a long-term solution in goal. Flames GM Brad Treliving then acquired defenseman Travis Hamonic from the New York Islanders. Hamonic rounds out what I believe to be the best defensive unit in the league alongside Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie, and Dougie Hamilton. Other notable additions: Jaromir Jagr.

The bad:

Montreal Canadiens: As a die-hard Habs fan, this is tough to admit, but it’s true. The Drouin trade aside, this summer was a disaster for GM Marc Bergevin. Losing Radulov to Dallas was a massive blow, especially considering he took an identical deal to change teams. Bergevin’s hard-ball tactic with Radulov was a huge risk, and he got burned. On defense, losing Andrei Markov hurts just as bad, and Bergevin’s inability to replace him leaves a massive hole on the blue-line. While locking up Carey Price was necessary, it’s tough to sneak under the salary cap when your goalie makes $10.5M per year. The Habs have some good pieces, but if they don’t add help, their position in the playoffs is in serious doubt. It may be a quiet spring in Montreal. Notable losses: Alex Radulov, Andrei Markov, Alexei Emelin, Nathan Beaulieu, Mikhail Sergachev. Notable additions: Karl Alzner, Jonathan Drouin, David Schlemko.

 

PREDICTIONS

Eastern Conference:

  1.     Tampa Bay (A1)
  2.     Pittsburgh (M1)
  3.     Washington (M2)
  4.     Toronto (A2)
  5.     Columbus (M3)
  6.     Montreal (A3)
  7.     New York Rangers (WC1)
  8.     Carolina (WC2)

Western Conference:

  1.     Edmonton (P1)
  2.     Dallas (C1)
  3.     Minnesota (C2)
  4.     Anaheim (P2)
  5.     St. Louis (C3)
  6.     Calgary (P3)
  7.     Chicago (WC1)
  8.     Nashville (WC2)

Eastern Conference Champ: Tampa Bay

Western Conference Champ: Dallas Stars

Stanley Cup Champs: Dallas Stars—depth at center, an elite offense, very solid defense, much improved goaltending, and one of the best coaches of all time.

 

Follow Michael Ziegler on Twitter for more hockey updates: @Zignasty2point0


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