The 2017-18 NHL season officially drops the puck tonight at 7 EST between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets. The new year is filled with juicy storylines, including the Pittsburgh Penguins’ chance to win a third straight Stanley Cup. Can our Canadian neighbors claim their first title since 1993 and will the new off-sides challenge rule actually promote more offense? The immortal Jaromir Jagr gears up for his 24th season in the league, while the Las Vegas Golden Knights begin their inaugural campaign. Let’s take a look around the league heading into the NHL’s 101st season of operation.
Does McDavid Supplant Crosby?
The chatter began a year ago and the noise around Connor McDavid is now at deafening levels. Can McDavid claim the title of league’s best player from long-time incumbent Sidney Crosby? TSN’s panelists rankings of the top-50 players in the league featured McDavid at number one, marking the first time Crosby hasn’t claimed the top spot since 2010. The majority of experts and fans believe this is already McDavid’s league, but is it a consensus?
The 20-year-old phenom was the only player in the league to hit triple digits in points last season, while Crosby finished second overall with 89 points. The one improvement Sid the Kid made in his game last year was his shooting percentage – his rate of 17.3% was the second highest of his career. He led the NHL with 44 goals last season; the first time he won the Maurice Richard Trophy since 2009-10. While McDavid truly is a complete player, Crosby has never had a line mate with Leon Draisaitl’s capabilities. Crosby has spent most of his career centering good, but not great players like Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. If Crosby keeps up his torrid shooting percentage and McDavid feeds his wingers constantly per usual, the race for this year’s Hart Trophy may be unprecedented.
Eastern Conference Top Contenders:
Tampa Bay Lightning
Don’t be surprised if the Lightning re-introduce themselves as a contender right away in 2017-18. A healthy Steven Stamkos will more than revitalize a team that represented the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final just three years ago. Last season, Stamkos missed an astounding 65 games due to injury. When he was healthy though, he was very Stamkos-like, putting up 20 points in just 17 games. 2017’s breakout star was RW Nikita Kucherov, who put up 85 points (good for 5th in the NHL) and he was one of just three players to score at least 40 goals. A still-in-his-prime, 27-year-old Stamkos, paired with Kucherov gives Tampa two top-ten NHL forwards on the same team. Only the Penguins can relate to that. And oh by the way, Norris finalist Victor Hedman mans the backend. During the off-season, Jonathan Drouin was swapped out for the young stud D-man Mikhail Sergachev, who could illustrate the difference between a playoff team and a Cup contender.
The 2017-18 off-season has been a good thing for the Washington Capitals. They have disappointed in two straight playoff appearances, they lost Karl Alzner and Justin Williams, and many think Alex Ovechkin’s best days are behind him. Aka the standards have been lowered in our nation’s capital. That can be a very good thing for this incredibly dangerous team. The 16-17 season saw Washington finished on top of the league (in a landslide) with 118 points. It was the second straight year they won the President’s Trophy. And management did very little to change things up – Devante Smith-Pelly, who recorded 9 points last season, represents their biggest off-season addition. Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie both had the best years of their careers last season and it’s likely to expect even more from then this year. Can the Caps finally turn regular season success into postseason prowess?
Western Conference Top Contenders:
Last year’s Western Conference finalists will begin the year short-handed. Sami Vatanen, Hampus Linholm, and Ryan Kesler will all be out until the holiday season. This may just mean that the team doesn’t catch fire until the back half of the season. Just ask the 15-16 Penguins if that is a good recipe for playoff success. It’s also incredibly impressive that the Ducks were able to keep the majority of their young core of defenseman together during an off-season that featured an expansion draft and a flurry of trade activity. Up front, Ryan Getzlaf put up a PPG, Corey Perry remains Corey Perry, and Rickard Rakell emerged as one of the league’s top snipers. In net, John Gibson appears to be a perennial Vezina contender, while the addition of veteran Ryan Miller makes this squad arguably the most complete and deepest team in the entire NHL.
A healthy Connor McDavid in year two of his career merely meant a 33-point turnaround for the Edmonton Oilers last season. McDavid’s league-leading 100-point season helped pace a team that dazzled offensively and more importantly, found its rhythm defensively. Adam Larsson, Andrej Sekera, and Oscar Klefbom helped solidify one of the NHL’s most hapless units of the past decade. McDavid wasn’t the only forward to flourish under head coach Todd McLellan last season though. Leon Draisaitl’s 77-point campaign earned him a lucrative extension just like McDavid. Zack Kassian and Patrick Maroon enjoyed breakout seasons, while Milan Lucic rekindled his scoring touch in his first year as an Oiler. This young team found itself a period away from the Western Conference Finals last season, so don’t be surprised if they lace up the skates in hockey’s final four this year.
Trending Upward: Jack Eichel, Philadelphia Flyers, Dallas Stars, Auston Matthews, and Mark Scheifele.
Trending Downward: Detroit Red Wings, Henrik Lundqvist, Ottawa Senators, Patrice Bergeron, and the Colorado Avalanche (somehow).
Hart Trophy: Connor McDavid
Art Ross: Connor McDavid
Vezina: Brayden Holtby
Norris: Victor Hedman
Calder: Nolan Patrick
Jack Adams: Phil Housley
Stanley Cup Final: Anaheim Ducks over Washington Capitals