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Proteau's Division Predictions

September 24, 2017, 1:06 PM ET [7 Comments]
Adam Proteau
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My previews of the 2017-18 NHL season hit the halfway point last week when I ranked the Pacific Division. (The week prior, I kicked things off with a look at the Central Division). This week, it’s time for the Metropolitan Division, home to the league’s two best regular-season teams in 2016-17, and home to the back-to-back Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

There’s been considerable change from the top of the divisional standings through the bottom, and by the time the 2017-18 campaign ends, there could be less separation between each of the Metro’s eight teams than in any other division. The division is a microcosm of how little it takes to go from winner to loser in hockey’s best league, and there promises to be all sorts of drama as the clubs jockey for position from the starting block to the finish line.

Here’s how I see the Metropolitan Division looking at the end of each team’s 82-game schedule:

1. Pittsburgh Penguins

Additions: Ryan Reaves, RW; Matt Hunwick, D; Antti Niemi, G

Deletions: Nick Bonino, C; Chris Kunitz, LW; Matt Cullen, C; Ron Hainsey, D; Trevor Daley, D; Mark Strait, D; Marc-Andre Fleury, G

Why I picked them where I picked them: The Penguins didn’t have their best player for nearly ten percent of the regular season last year. They didn’t have their second-best forward for nearly 30 percent of the regular season. They didn’t have their best defenseman for half of the regular season. And they didn’t have their top goaltender for more than half of their playoff run. Yet they still finished the regular-season second only to the Capitals in terms of standings points, and laid waste to their opponents in all four post-season rounds en route to winning their second straight championship. Now that’s what you call depth.

Some of that depth has been cut away by the salary cap, with veteran contributors Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Marc-Andre Fleury departing either via trade or free agency. Consequently, GM Jim Rutherford and head coach Mike Sullivan have no alternative but to turn to younger Pens players such as winger Conor Sheary (who produced 23 goals in his sophomore NHL season), center Jake Guentzel (who amassed 16 goals in 40 NHL games) and winger Bryan Rust (15 goals in 57 games) to pick up the slack. They’ve also replaced Fleury – who was fabulous for them in his final year as a Penguin – with 33-year-old veteran Antti Niemi, and signed former Maple Leafs experienced hand Matt Hunwick to fill a spot on the blueline. Otherwise, it’s essentially the same team looking to three-peat this year, and when you have the best player on the planet in Sidney Crosby on your side, as well as a fully-returned-to-good-health top-end blueliner in Kris Letang and a dynamic young starting netminder in Matt Murray, who’s to say they don’t have a better than decent shot at doing so?

The Pens have less depth/insurance against injuries this time around, but their biggest adversary in D.C. has taken an even bigger cap-related roster hit. That is likely going to be enough to push Pittsburgh Past the Caps to finish first in the Metro.

2. Washington Capitals

Additions: Devante Smith-Pelly, RW 

Deletions: Marcus Johansson, LW; Justin Williams, RW; Daniel Winnik, LW; Nate Schmidt, D; Kevin Shattenkirk, D; Karl Alzner, D

Why I picked them where I picked them: Washington stomped all over the league during the regular season, winning five more games than the next-best team, and losing only seven home games in regulation time. But the same plague that’s hurt them so often in the Alex Ovechkin Era hurt them terribly in the 2017 post-season, and they failed to make it to the third round yet again, falling to Crosby and the Pens in seven games. But rather than break up the core that hasn’t been achieving results when they matter most, Caps management sat back and allowed the machinations of the salary cap to do it for them: mid-season trade acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk left as a free agent to sign with the Rangers, and blueline staple Karl Alzner also departed via free agency to become a Montreal Canadien; the blueline was further depleted when Nate Schmidt was selected by the Las Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft, and wingers Justin Williams (who returned to Carolina) and Daniel Winnik (still an unrestricted free agent) also moved on; and, after GM Brian MacLellan chose to re-sign winger T.J. Oshie, the Caps dealt productive winger Marcus Johansson to another division rival in the New Jersey Devils.

By the time the roster settled down, the Capitals still looked like a playoff team – any team that has Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov is going to put up enough offense to excel in the regular season – but the sense they were a Stanley Cup frontrunner had vanished. After all, if they couldn’t get the job with a far deeper defense and more weapons up front, how could they hope to get to the Eastern Conference Final now, with only the addition of much-travelled winger Devante Smith-Pelly to show for all the faces who no longer are there? Either their biggest stars are going to have to carry them on their back come playoff time, or MacLellan & Co. will face even more pressing questions this time next year.

To say there’s never been more pressure on the Caps is true, but unless there’s someone prepared to step up from within the organization to help shoulder the load, it’s more likely than ever they won’t be able to rise to expectations.

3. Columbus Blue Jackets

Additions: Artemi Panarin, LW; Jordan Schroeder, RW

Deletions: Brandon Saad, LW; Scott Hartnell, LW; Sam Gagner, C; Kyle Quincey, D

Why I picked them where I picked them: Thanks to the standout performance of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, a smart and young defense corps and the emergence of a number of forwards, the Blue Jackets enjoyed the best regular season in team history, winning 50 games and allowing just 195 goals – the second-lowest total in the league behind Washington (182). They managed to stay relatively healthy, and head coach John Tortorella deserves credit for resuscitating his career by taking a less corrosive approach while adding structure to the franchise’s up-and-coming youngsters.

That said, the Jackets’ swift, five-game dismissal from the playoffs at the hands of the Penguins showed this group has more development to do. And GM Jarko Kekalainen wasn’t shy about making changes of consequence, shipping winger Brandon Saad back to Chicago in return for 25-year-old winger Artemi Panarin, a two-time scorer of at least 30 goals in the past two seasons. The Jackets also allowed center Sam Gagner to leave via unrestricted free agency, and bought out the contract of veteran winger Scott Hartnell. The loss of all three means 55 goals from Columbus’ lineup last year have now departed, which means that defense is going to have to be just as good this time around.

The good news is, it very likely will be. Employing Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and Ryan Murray all in their early 20s bodes well for the present and the future of the blueline, and with Bobrovsky in his prime at 28, the Jackets should once again give opponents fits trying to produce offense. A playoff berth seems to be a given for this team, and now it’s about taking the next step, perhaps adding a veteran or two prior to the trade deadline, and doing some damage once the post-season arrives.

4. New York Islanders

Additions: Jordan Eberle, C 

Deletions: Ryan Strome, C; Travis Hamonic, D; Jean-Francois Berube, G; Mikhail Grabovski, C

Why I picked them where I picked them: The Islanders were a playoff team in each of the two years that preceded the 2016-17 campaign and really should’ve been again last year, but a brutal start to the season cost head coach Jack Capuano his job and proved too deep a hole to climb out of, and they missed out on the final wild card berth by a single standings point. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot to like about this group, which underwent some notable changes this summer as the team searches for a new home arena and attempts to re-sign star center John Tavares to a long-term contract extension.

For starters, blueliner Travis Hamonic was dealt to Calgary for a first-round pick and two second-rounders – a savvy move at a time when teams perpetually need to generate young and cheap talent from within – and center Ryan Strome was traded to Edmonton in return for veteran pivot Jordan Eberle. And GM Garth Snow cleared up his goaltending glut by working out a deal with the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights to select netminder J-F Berube. That means Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss will battle it out to be the Isles’ starter in net, and now-permanent head coach Doug Weight (who led the team to a 24-12-4 mark after taking over from Capuano) can make it a clear meritocracy between the two.

I don’t see the Isles as a top-tier Cup threat just yet, but with the addition of Eberle, a more well-rounded contribution from 2016-17 big free agent signing Andrew Ladd (who finished the year with a full-season career low of just eight assists), a full year from dazzling winger Joshua Ho-Sang, steps ahead from some of their young blueliners, and consistency in goal, there’s enough balance and high-end talent here to push them back into the post-season.

5. New York Rangers

Additions: Kevin Shattenkirk, D; Anthony DeAngelo, D; Ondrej Pavelec, G; David Desharnais, C

Deletions: Derek Stepan, C; Antti Raanta, G; Oscar Lindberg, C; Brandon Pirri, RW; Dan Girardi, D; Kevin Klein, D; Adam Clendening, D

Why I picked them where I picked them: The Blueshirts started the 2016-17 season strongly, carving out a 13-4-0 record and putting teams on notice they’d be a potent group with which to contend. However, the wheels began to wobble in March (when they went 6-5-4), and after disposing the Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs, they were ousted by the Ottawa Senators in six games. Another year of star goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s career came and went without a Cup, and, as is usually the case in Manhattan, what followed was more than one significant transaction.

One of those transactions sent veteran center Derek Stepan, the Rangers’ second-best assist-man (38) to Arizona along with stellar backup netminder Antti Raanta in return for the seventh pick in the 2017 entry draft and blueliner Anthony DeAngelo. GM Jeff Gorton used some of the cap space he gained in that deal by signing Kevin Shattenkirk to bolster the defense corps, some of it to extend the contract of D-man Brendan Smith (whom he acquired during the 2016-17 campaign), and some of it to sign center Mika Zibanejad to a five-year extension.

In many ways, Gorton has done yeoman’s work strengthening the long-term position of the Rangers, who too often dealt away their future to acquire veterans who could have a major impact for a year or two. But given that Lundqvist will be 36 in March, and given that the star Swede has major mileage on his personal odometer, and given that his new backup (former Jets starter Ondrej Pavelec) is considered a downgrade from Raanta, I think there’s a distinct possibility the Blueshirts are in a position to struggle for stretches and could be fighting for their playoff lives right to the final week of the regular season this year.

Gorton is one of the savvier management figures in the game and it wouldn’t surprise me to see head coach Alain Vigneault squeeze every drop out of this group and get them into the post-season, but no GM can prevent downturns in a franchise’s competitive cycle, and the race in the Metro is so tough, I can see a situation where the Rangers are on the outside looking in come mid-April.

6. Carolina Hurricanes

Additions: Justin Williams, RW; Marcus Kruger, C; Josh Jooris, C; Trevor van Riemsdyk, D; Scott Darling, G

Deletions: Eddie Lack, G; Jay McClement, C; Matt Tennyson, D; Ryan Murphy, D

Why I picked them where I picked them: The Hurricanes won only three of their first 13 games, and in the modern-day NHL, that ends your season pretty much as it’s just beginning. But to the credit of head coach Bill Peters and GM Ron Francis, no white flags were raised in Carolina and the organization worked its way back to the periphery of the playoff race later in the year. Still, this was a streaky group – they had a five-game win streak, a four-game win streak, and three five-game losing skids including one at the end of the year – and their goaltending was far from elite.

It’s Peters’ challenge to produce a more consistent effort this year, but Francis has made that task easier with the acquisition of former Hawks backup netminder Scott Darling. The 28-year-old is a huge upgrade on the traded Eddie Lack, and he’ll get the bulk of the work while veteran Cam Ward finishes the final year of his contract. Darling also has the luxury of playing behind one of the league’s best young groups of defensemen, one that Francis worked to help secure for the long-term by signing Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce to seven and six-year deals respectively. 

Darling deepened the blueline by trading for former Hawks D-man Trevor van Riemsdyk, but he wasn’t done there, also landing former Hawks center Marcus Kruger and signing veteran sniper Justin Williams to add to Carolina’s collection of forwards.

There was much to like about the Canes’ off-season manoeuvres, and once some of their younger players mature, there’s big things ahead for the organization. But it’s going to take some time for the new components to gel with the ones who’ve been there for a while, and in this difficult division, that likely means more growing pains in the short term and probably a playoff miss this season.

7. Philadelphia Flyers

Additions: Jori Lehtera, C; Nolan Patrick, F; Brian Elliott, G

Deletions: Brayden Schenn, C; Michael Del Zotto, D; Nick Cousins, C; Chris VandeVelde, C; Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, LW; Steve Mason, G

Why I picked them where I picked them: It’s tough in some respects to say the Flyers will take a step back in the standings, especially after good fortune smiled on them in the draft lottery and they came away with Nolan Patrick with the second overall pick in the 2017 draft. However, although they might be set up to be stronger over the next decade – a plan which is for the best, obviously – Philadelphia had more than a few veteran pieces removed this summer and don’t appear to be as strong in the short term.

To wit: Brayden Schenn – the Flyers’ second-best goal-scorer and third-best point-producer last year – was traded to the Blues for the older, less-productive center Jori Lehtera; blueliner Michael Del Zotto left as a free agent to sign with Vancouver; and after goalie Steve Mason ended his four-plus-year-run in Philly’s net to sign with Winnipeg, Flyers GM Ron Hextall turned to former Flames/Blues/Avs/Sens netminder Brian Elliott to replace him. Sorry, but that doesn't suggest they're going to take a step ahead.

It’s true star center Claude Giroux and others had sub-par seasons, and perhaps that changes this year and Elliott puts in a career-best effort and Patrick stars right away and that blueline looks better than it does on paper. But I think this is another year that will test the patience of Flyers fans as management shrugs off bumps in the road in favor of the bigger picture.

8. New Jersey Devils

Additions: Marcus Johansson, LW; Brian Boyle, C; Nico Hischier, C

Deletions: Mike Cammalleri, LW; Beau Bennett, RW; Devante Smith-Pelly, RW; Jacob Josefson, C; Jon Merill, D; Sergey Kalinin, C;

Why I picked them where I picked them: The past five seasons have not been kind to the Devils, who haven’t played a playoff game since their 2012 run to the Cup Final. But, the end of the regular season aside, 2017 has been markedly kinder. They beat the odds to land the No. 1 pick in the draft – using it on Swiss center Nico Hischier – and held up the Capitals to bring in winger Marcus Johansson for a second-round and third-round draft pick. Johansson set career highs in goals (24) and points (58) last year, and the 26-year-old is likely to thrive in his new environment.

Unfortunately, the Devils finished last year 25 points out of the final wild card berth, so it’s a long haul for them to get back to a place the franchise had once been so accustomed to. They’ll almost certainly get back over the 30-win plateau, but until their defense corps takes a big step forward, a post-season game remains a longshot at best. And having recently-injured veteran Travis Zajac out of the lineup for 4-6 months doesn’t help matters at all.

There’s reason for optimism in New Jersey, but this season isn’t likely to deliver much in the way of results in the standings.

It’s hard to believe it’s that time already, but season previews for the NHL’s 2017-18 campaign are beginning to appear. Some teams still have moves to make – either to deal with salary cap or internal budget issues – but for the most part, rosters have been constructed for the year and expectations are settling in.

As always, the analysis that follows isn’t a guarantee of the way the season will unfold; franchises overachieve and underachieve every year, injuries waylay the meticulously mapped-out plans of GMs and coaches, and unforeseeable on-and-off-ice events can derail championship aspirations or propel clubs to heights even their most fervent fans could’ve hoped for.

But when analysts publish our projections for the season to come, we’re really just underscoring what people around the league believe each team is (a) capable of; and (b) likely to do. If you take offense, odds are you’re just being a good fan and envisioning the best-case scenario for your favourite group of players. That’s how it should be. But when you don’t have any inherent rooting interest, your task is simple: evaluate changes that were made and the state of lineups as they currently stand, and based upon those factors, put together a guesstimated order of finish.

The Central Division

1. Nashville Predators

Additions: Nick Bonino, C; Scott Hartnell, LW; Alexei Emelin, D; Anders Lindback, G

Deletions: Colin Wilson, LW; Mike Fisher, C; James Neal, LW; P.A. Parenteau, LW; Vernon Fiddler, C

Why I picked them where I picked them: The Preds finished the regular season with the worst road record (17-20-4) of any team that qualified for a playoff spot, and even a couple more wins away from home will push them up the Central ranks. Losing the production of Neal, Wilson and Fisher takes 53 goals out of their offense, but the acquisitions of Bonino (who had 18 goals for the Pens in 2016-17) and Hartnell (13) takes away some of the sting, and youngsters Viktor Arvidsson and Pontus Aberg have the ability to raise their games and increase their contributions. A full season from P.K. Subban (who missed 16 games last year) won’t hurt, either.

Nashville’s defense needs to tighten up a bit, as they allowed more goals (224) than any other Western Conference squad. But GM David Poile addressed that concern, bringing in former Canadiens brute Alexei Emelin to add more depth to what many believe is the league’s best defense corps. All in all, this team is a terrific mixture of dynamic youth (including Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Ryan Ellis) and veteran knowhow, and given that their division rivals in Chicago, Minnesota and St. Louis have taken some hits of late in their roster quality, the Preds are in a very good position to follow up their first Stanley Cup Final appearance with their first division title.

2. Dallas Stars

Additions: Martin Hanzal, C; Alexander Radulov, RW; Marc Methot, D; Ben Bishop, G; Ken Hitchcock, head coach

Deletions: Patrick Sharp, LW; Antti Niemi, G; Jiri Hudler, RW; Lindy Ruff, head coach

Why I picked them where I picked them: Dallas was the West’s best team in 2015-16, but a slew of injuries, sub-par goaltending and erratic play in their own zone, and a drop in goals-for resulted in the Stars finishing 15 points out of a post-season berth and posting the fourth-worst record in the conference. So GM Jim Nill had little option other than making big moves, and he struck down upon the organization with great vengeance and furious anger, dismissing head coach Lindy Ruff – and replacing him with the familiar face of Ken Hitchcock – and working the trade and free agent markets to bring in a quartet of experienced hands to bolster the ranks at all four positions.

Nill began his roster work by breaking up the netminding platoon of Antti Niemi (bought out of the final season of his contract) and Kari Lehtonen (who’ll stick around for one more year at a pricey $5.9 million cap hit) and making former Lightning cornerstone Ben Bishop his new No. 1 goalie. Nill then added two veteran forwards – center Martin Hanzal and winger Alexander Radulov, who combined to register 38 goals last year – via free agency, and completed his notable transactions by making a deal with the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights for blueliner Marc Methot.

All four new Stars players are between ages 30-32, an indication Nill believes his franchise’s competitive cycle hardly is in its infancy – indeed, although Tyler Seguin is 25 and John Klingberg is 24, Jason Spezza and Dan Hamhuis are 34 and Jamie Benn is 28 – and if they can stay healthy, a rebound back to prominence is perfectly reasonable. We agree. Dallas still has depth concerns, but Hitchcock will instil structure and a sense of urgency, and they’ve got more than enough top-end talent to score their way back into the post-season and hope Bishop’s confidence is peaking once they get there.

3. St. Louis Blues

Additions: Brayden Schenn, C; Chris Thorburn, RW; Oskar Sundqvist, C; Beau Bennett, RW; Nate Prosser, D

Deletions: David Perron, LW; Jori Lehtera, C; Scottie Upshall, RW; Ryan Reaves, RW; Nail Yakupov, RW

Why I picked them where I picked them: The Blues more or less stood pat with the team that finished third in the Central last season, and seven points behind Minnesota for second in the division. However, there was one notable exception: the trade that sent center Jori Lehtera, a first-round draft pick in the 2017 draft and a conditional first-rounder in the 2018 draft to Philadelphia for center Brayden Schenn. At first glance, it seemed like a steal for St. Louis, who was getting a 25-year-old pivot who nearly matched career bests in goals and points last season and who’s under contract for three years.

At second, third, fourth and fifth-through-every-other-glance, it seems like even more of a steal for the Blues. First-round picks are valuable, but Schenn gives St. Louis much more skill than Lehtera could, and his cap hit of $5.125 million is a nice insurance policy when veteran center Paul Stastny’s contract expires at the end of this season. Stastny’s contributions have never been commensurate with his $7-million cap hit, but for this year, at least, the Blues have them both and their depth up front is impressive.

Despite the departure of Kevin Shattenkirk midway through last year, St. Louis also has two of the league’s better younger blueliners in captain Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko, and the steady Jay Bouwmeester can still play well over 20 minutes a night without making any errors. There’s still a lot to like about the Blues, and it’ll be intriguing to see how Schenn changes the chemistry of the group, particularly come playoff time. But there’s no reason why they can’t be at least as effective as they were in the most recent regular season.

4. Chicago Blackhawks

Additions: Brandon Saad, LW; Patrick Sharp, LW; Lance Bouma, LW; Tommy Wingels, RW; Connor Murphy, D; Anton Forsberg, G; J-F Berube, G

Deletions: Artemi Panarin, LW; Marian Hossa, RW*; Niklas Hjalmarsson, D; Marcus Kruger, C; Brian Campbell, D; Trevor van Riemsdyk, D; Dennis Rasmussen, C; Johnny Oduya, D; Scott Darling, G

* – will not play this season due to skin condition

Why I picked them where I picked them: Only the Washington Capitals finished with more wins (55) than the Hawks’ Central-best 50 victories last year, and only the Caps and Penguins had more standings points (118 and 111 respectively) than Chicago’s 109. Unfortunately for Blackhawks fans who’ve grown accustomed to consistently outstanding play, a post-season, first-round sweep at the hands of Nashville exposed the Hawks’ weaknesses, and GM Stan Bowman wasted no time in shaking his franchise up in a jaw-dropping manner.

Out the door went 25-year-old winger (and two-time 30-goal-scorer) Artemi Panarin, who was shipped to Columbus in return for former-and-now-second-time Hawk winger Brandon Saad. The 24-year-old Saad has been about as consistent as a player of his calibre can be, registering 53 points in both of his two seasons with the Blue Jackets after Chicago dealt his negotiating rights in June of 2015. But Bowman is banking on his chemistry with the Hawks’ key players this time around, and has him under contract for four seasons at a $6 million cap hit – the same hit Panarin had, only for two additional seasons.

Money and term always matters in Chicago, and the Hawks have been arguably the best team in the cap era when it comes to producing young players to take the spot of talented veterans forced to move along by the constraints of the cap ceiling. But this summer’s cap challenges have had an especially brutal impact, and the consequences were such that eight regulars – including key blueliner Niklas Hjalmarsson and backup goalie Scott Darling – either changed teams or moved into retirement. But the biggest whammy came when star winger Marian Hossa announced he would not play this year because of a severe skin disorder. The 38-year-old no longer is in his prime, but he’s still a sublime competitor whose absence will be agonizing.

Bowman was able to mitigate some of the damage done by landing solid workers such as winger Tommy Wingels, D-man Connor Murphy and another returning Hawk in 35-year-old winger Patrick Sharp. And make no mistake, a lot of NHL GMs would love to have this team as-is and challenge for a Stanley Cup. But Chicago’s core of stars is going to have to do much more of the heavy lifting this season if the Blackhawks are going to keep pace in the Central. They no longer have an embarrassment of riches on the depth front, and an injury or two to the wrong player could mean they’re fighting for their playoff lives come March and April.

5. Minnesota Wild

Additions: Tyler Ennis, LW; Marcus Foligno, RW

Deletions: Jason Pominville, RW; Antti Niemi, G; Jiri Hudler, RW; Lindy Ruff, head coach

Why I picked them where I picked them: Yes, Minnesota won more games (49) last year than at any point in franchise history. Yes, their goals-for/against differential of plus-58 was second only to Washington (plus-81) in 2016-17. Yes, only Pittsburgh had more goals-for (282) than the Wild (266). Picking this team as the one that might miss the post-season is, to a degree, going out on a limb.

That said, here’s some facts to consider: Minnesota was one of the healthiest teams in the league last season. Sure, Zach Parise and Jonas Brodin missed 13 and 14 games respectively, but otherwise, they were very fortunate – and I don’t know they could put up nearly as many victories if two or three of their more important players went down for any long period of time. And also, look at the way the Wild played down the stretch last year. At the end of February, they were 41-14-6, and from the start of March through the first day of April, they went 4-11-2. (Wild fans might point out they finished the regular season schedule with four straight wins – to which, I’d reply, “Yeah, and two of those wins came over Colorado, one came over Carolina, and the final one came against Arizona”.)

In other words, the Wild essentially stumbled into the playoffs, and once they were there, they were defeated in five games by the Blues. One season earlier, Minnesota went out relatively easily in the first round, falling to Dallas in six games. So, before we keep pointing to this franchise’s regular-season successes in the past four seasons, we need to acknowledge the reality: thus far, their core has shown no indication they’re built to win a Cup.

And with that in mind, let’s look at what GM Chuck Fletcher did this summer: he brought in forwards Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno from Buffalo in exchange for winger Jason Pominville and blueliner Marco Scandella; he signed free agent defensemen Kyle Quincey and Ryan Murphy; and, um, that’s it. More or less the status quo, and in this division, I don’t think that’s good enough.

Any team that has the services of a blueliner such as Ryan Suter and a goalie like Devan Dubnyk is likely to be in the playoff hunt, but I can see the Wild battling the Blackhawks, or a team in the Pacific Division, for one of the final wild card playoff berths far more easily than I can see them sitting atop the Central this year.

6. Winnipeg Jets

Additions: Dmitry Kulikov, D; Steve Mason, G

Deletions: Paul Postma, D; Drew Stafford, LW; Chris Thorburn, RW; Mark Stuart, D

Why I picked them where I picked them: I wrote extensively about the Jets last week, but when you look at how few alterations GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has made to the group that finished fifth in the Central last year, you realize how truly dependent Winnipeg is on internal improvement this season. No team’s off-season acquisitions should be the sole basis for where you slot them in for predictions, but the nagging questions remain with this franchise: after the way the summer has shaken out, which of Winnipeg’s fellow divisional rivals would you place money – serious money – on them finishing ahead of in the standings this season? Colorado, sure, but that’s more a comment on the mess in Denver than it is a positive remark on where the Jets are at right now. And that's pretty much it. I'm open to the possibility the Jets will excel, but this is a prove-it-first scenario.

Is it possible Paul Maurice and patience pay off and the Jets’ core of youngsters leads the organization to a standings surge and surprise many an NHL observer? Of course. But the point is, as it stands now, it would be a surprise. The expectations for this franchise are still modest, and Winnipeg supporters are rightfully itching to put the excuses aside sooner than later and raise those expectations exponentially.

7. Colorado Avalanche

Additions: Colin Wilson, LW; Nail Yakupov, RW; Jonathan Bernier, G

Deletions: Mikhail Grigorienko, C; John Mitchell, C; Blake Comeau, LW; Francois Beauchemin, D; Fedor Tyutin, D; Patrick Wiercioch, D

Why I picked them where I picked them: The Avalanche won 22 games last season – just six more than the lowest total in franchise history. And if you think that’s awful, consider that 16-win season came in 2012-13 – the lockout season when there were only 48 regular-season games-played. That’s how bad the Avs were last year. Like, Xanadu bad.

And yet here we are in mid-August, and Colorado has done next to nothing to alter the core of a team that desperately requires altering. GM Joe Sakic has listened to offers for first-rate talents including Matt Duchene, but his reticence to consummate any deal is troubling in the extreme. Either Sakic’s asking price is outlandishly high, or he honestly believes the team that had a minus-112 goals-for/against differential – nearly double the total of the next-worst team (Arizona, at minus-63) is going to enjoy a miraculous turnaround this season.

Avs fans should be irate at the inertia that’s enveloped the franchise, and unless something drastic takes place prior to the start of training camp, it could get even worse in Denver this year.

This week marks the final installation of my previews of the 2017-18 NHL season. (Last week, the the Metropolitan Division was covered; the prior week, the Pacific Division was analyzed , and we kicked the process off with a look at the Central Division). Now we close things out with an analysis of the Atlantic, somewhat of a surprise last season with two teams (the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs) defying the expectations of some analysts and securing a playoff spot while projected post-season organizations in Florida both missed out on playoff games.

This season has seen a good deal of roster alteration by most Atlantic Division franchises, and the battle for playoff berths promises to be rigorous right from the first regular-season showdown. As we now know, even an early-season losing skid of significance can prove to be a playoff-killing debacle for franchises, and consistency will be crucial for all clubs, regardless of where they are in their competitive evolution. And given that only nine standings points and five wins separated the Atlantic’s first-place team from its fifth-place team, it’s likely to be a dogfight from start to finish this year

Here’s how I see the Atlantic Division shaking down at the end of the 2017-18 campaign:

1. Tampa Bay Lightning

Additions: Chris Kunitz, LW; Dan Girardi, D; Mikhail Sergachev, D

Deletions: Jonathan Drouin, LW; Jason Garrison, D

Why I picked them where I picked them: As noted above, the difference between first place in the Atlantic and fifth (where the Lightning finished despite going 8-1-1 to end the regular season) was only nine points. And if you examine the Bolts’ 2016-17 season, you’ll notice two distinct problems: firstly, an injury bug that limited captain and star winger Steven Stamkos to only 17 games and sidelined center Tyler Johnson for 16 games; and secondly, a two-month stretch through December and January in which they went 9-13-5.

From February on, Tampa Bay engineered a major-league reversal of fortune, going 20-7-4 through the final two-and-a-half months of the season. In the end, they finished one point behind Toronto for the final wild card berth in the Eastern Conference, but they once again looked like the squad who’d played 42 playoff games in the previous two seasons and made it to a Stanley Cup Final in 2015 and an Eastern Final the following year.

Bolts GM Steve Yzerman has proven to be one of the NHL’s more active wheelers and dealers, and this summer he engineered a blockbuster when he dealt blossoming winger Jonathan Drouin to Montreal for 19-year-old blueliner Mikhail Sergachev. The move freed up valuable salary cap space Yzerman needed to sign key members of his current core, and firmed up his defense corps with a dynamic youngster who doesn’t need to step into the NHL lineup right away. He also added a pair of veterans with no shortage of playoff experience in former Pens fixture Chris Kunitz and ex-Rangers D-man Dan Girardi.

Neither of those two will be a difference-maker, and the loss of Drouin (who was the Lightning’s second-best scorer last year with 21 goals) will make it more crucial for Stamkos and others to have bounce-back offensive years. But Tampa already has more than enough difference-makers (including star winger Nikita Kucherov and blueliner Victor Hedman), and so long as they can stay healthy, there’s no reason to believe this lineup can’t be as fast, skilled and successful as it was at the end of last season and in years past.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs

Additions: Patrick Marleau, RW; Ron Hainsey, D; Dominic Moore, C

Deletions: Matt Hunwick, D; Roman Polak, D; Alexey Marchenko, D

Why I picked them where I picked them:
(First thing’s first: I write as a columnist for the Maple Leafs’ website. But my employment link wouldn’t change the prediction for them in this, or any other season.)

Here’s the opening paragraph of what I wrote about the Leafs for my pre-season analysis of them last year:

“Any team that finishes the previous season with the NHL’s worst record will have to prove themselves good before people believe them, and that’s where the Leafs are at entering this campaign. However, if you were paying close attention to Toronto’s games last year, you’ll know this franchise was competitive in the grand majority of games in their first year under head coach Mike Babcock and GM Lou Lamoriello – and their transactions in this off-season, combined with the growth of some of their younger talents, could give them enough firepower to surprise people this year and put them in the race for a wild-card berth.”

Lo and behold, could became did, and that’s exactly what happened. Toronto rode the stunning contributions of their young players – most notably, rookie center Auston Matthews, and fellow-first-year NHLers William Nylander and Mitch Marner – as well as career years from veterans such as pivot Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk, to lock up a post-season slot and put a scare into the Washington Capitals before being eliminated in six games in the first round. The Buds’ offense was thrilling, they received better-than-stellar goaltending from first-year Leaf Frederik Andersen, and their still-developing blueline took steps forward.

And while it’s true fortune smiled on them when it came to good health, it’s also true their organizational depth is at its best in years, if not decades. That much was apparent this summer, when Toronto GM Lou Lamoriello used much of his available cap space to bring in a trio of veterans – former Sharks cornerstone Patrick Marleau, ex-Penguins blueliner Ron Hainsey and former Bruins center Dominic Moore, who’ll start his second stint with the Buds – to help the franchise take its next step forward. Marleau clearly is the biggest name of the three, and the 37-year-old still has enough left in the tank to be a big-time contributor; his arrival also deepens the Leafs’ impressive collection of young forwards, and though moves will have to be made to get them under the cap ceiling, the Buds now have a wealth of talent who can step in should someone go down to injury.

If there was one area in which the Leafs have nowhere to go but up, it’s their prowess in the shootout. They were 1-8 in games that extended beyond overtime last year, and you know head coach Mike Babcock will take aim at that stat considering improvement in it could’ve vaulted his team into third or second in the Atlantic. Toronto won’t sneak up on anyone this year and they’ve still got room to grow, but that’s as much of a worry for their opponents as it is an internal challenge. Last year was a taste of what’s to come, and what’s to come looks better than anything Leafs fans have tasted in recent memory.

3. Montreal Canadiens

Additions: Jonathan Drouin, LW; Ales Hemsky, RW, Peter Holland, C; Karl Alzner, D; David Schlemko, D; Mark Streit, D; Joe Morrow, D

Deletions: Alexander Radulov, RW; Andrei Markov, D; Nathan Beaulieu, D; Alexei Emelin, D; Brian Flynn, C; Nikita Nesterov, D; Mikhail Sergachev, D

Why I picked them where I picked them: The Canadiens finished first in their division for the second time in three seasons and the third time in five seasons, but their 2016-17 campaign included a coaching change (with the jettisoning of Michel Therrien in favor of Claude Julien) and it ended with a weak first-round exit at the hands of the New York Rangers. And for the second straight season, it led to a summer filled with high-impact roster changes that have polarized Montreal’s passionate fan base.

This time around, Habs GM Marc Bergevin allowed two more fan favorites – winger Alex Radulov and cornerstone D-man Andrei Markov – to leave via unrestricted free agency for Dallas and the Kontinental League respectively. He also moved blueliner Sergachev to Tampa for budding star Drouin, signed veteran forwards Ales Hemsky and Peter Holland, and radically remade his defense corps, shuttling out Alexei Emelin (via the expansion draft), moving Nathan Beaulieu to Buffalo, acquiring David Schlemko from Las Vegas, and signing former Capital Karl Alzner, ex-Bruin Joe Morrow and former Penguin Mark Streit (for his second go-around with the franchise).

All this, remember, for a team that finished atop the Atlantic. Of course, Bergevin still retained the services of star goalie Carey Price and blueliner Shea Weber, and still has winger Max Pacioretty in his prime and 23-year-old forward Alex Galchenyuk working toward his prime. There’s a foundation of talent that will keep Montreal competitive, and adding Drouin to that mix gives the franchise a key contributor for at least the next six years.

That said, Price is now in his thirties, Weber is 32, their highest-paid forward (Tomas Plekanec) is 34, and four other blueliners (Jeff Petry, Schlemko, Jordie Benn and Streit) will be 30 by Christmas. The Habs are now looking like a team that has to win much sooner than later, and their depth in any given area isn’t the envy of their competitors. It’s difficult to envision them not making the playoffs, but they shouldn’t be considered a lock to repeat as division champs, and I don’t expect the Canadiens will enjoy a longer playoff run with this roster.

4. Ottawa Senators

Additions: Nate Thompson, C; Johnny Oduya, D 

Deletions: Tommy Wingels, C; Viktor Stalberg, LW; Chris Neil, RW; Chris Kelly, C

Why I picked them where I picked them: Ottawa was one of the streakier teams in the league last season, posting two four-game losing skids and a five-game slide, but head coach Guy Boucher always found a way to correct course and get his players refocused. Because of that resiliency, the Senators wound up winning 44 games – the most for them since the 2009-10 campaign – and surprised more than a few observers by pushing their way to the Eastern Final before falling in seven games to the eventual-champion Penguins.

That cohesion was reason enough for Sens GM Pierre Dorion to keep his lineup relatively intact: the only newcomers this season are former Ducks center Nate Thompson and former Hawks blueliner Johnny Oduya, and veteran Sens Chris Neil and Chris Kelly were cut loose, as were mid-season trade acquisitions Tommy Wingels and Viktor Stalberg. What you saw last year in Ottawa is what you’re going to get to start the season, and that’s not a bad thing.

Indeed, when you employ arguably the game’s best defenseman in Erik Karlsson, a terrific veteran netminder in Craig Anderson, and a solid mix of young and experienced forwards, you’ve got enough with which to be in the thick of the playoff race. But it’s not going to be a cakewalk for the Sens to get back to the post-season – I’m not sure their defense corps could handle a major injury without serious and unpleasant ramifications – and it’s not unreasonable to see them fighting with the Panthers and Bruins for the final playoff spot in the East.

5. Florida Panthers

Additions: Evgeni Dadonov, LW; Radim Vrbata, RW; Micheal Haley, C, Bob Boughner, head coach

Deletions: Jussi Jokinen, F; Jonathan Marchessault, C; Jaromir Jagr, RW; Reilly Smith, RW; Thomas Vanek, LW; Michael Sgarbossa, C; Seth Griffith, C; Shawn Thornton, RW; Jakub Kindl, D; Tom Rowe, head coach

Why I picked them where I picked them: The Panthers were a huge disappointment last season, falling from first in the Atlantic in 2015-16 to sixth in the division and 14 points out of the final wild card berth. Part of that plummet can be attributed to injuries – Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad and Nick Bjugstad all missed significant time for one reason or another – but there were optics problems in the way head coach Gerard Gallant was fired, and Tom Rowe, his replacement, never got the group fully on track in the 61 games he was running things.

There were some curious moves made by Panthers brass this summer – most notably, the choice to allow leading scorer Jonathan Marchessault to be selected by Vegas in the expansion draft, and veteran star Jaromir Jagr, who had 16 goals and 46 points last year, was not re-signed – but GM Dale Tallon (now fully in control of the team once again) has a stable of talent that isn’t to sneer at, and he’s got a new head coach in former NHLer and Ontario League bench boss Bob Boughner, so fresh starts are the order of the day in South Florida, and that could be just what this franchise needs.

The Panthers also have more than $10 million in available cap space, and nobody should be surprised to see Tallon utilize it in trades if the team doesn’t start off well. As I mentioned in the Senators analysis, I think the Panthers will fight it out for a playoff spot and may edge out the Sens and/or Bruins to secure one, but a return to the very top of the Atlantic seems a jump too high after a season that ended with so much change.

6. Boston Bruins

Additions: Paul Postma, D

Deletions: Jimmy Hayes, RW; Dominic Moore, C; Colin Miller, D; Drew Stafford, RW; John-Michael Liles, D

Why I picked them where I picked them: For a while there, Bruins fans had become accustomed to their team being a front-of-the-line Cup contender that was destined for a deep playoff run year-in and year-out. That changed beginning in the fall of 2014, when the Boston team that finished first in the Atlantic the year prior suddenly fell to fifth in the division and failed to make the playoffs in either 2015 or 2016. Last year was a rebound of sorts, but don’t kid yourself – the Bruins finished with the same number of points as the final wild card berth team did, and they needed a late-season six-game win streak to get there. Then, they fell in six games to the Senators in the first round, and looked nothing like the dominant Bs of old.

Don’t take this to mean the hockey apocalypse is on the horizon in Boston. GM Don Sweeney and his staff have some gems – including blueliners Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy, and winger Jake DeBrusk – they expect to perform at a high level in hockey’s top league. Unfortunately, there’s usually a price to be paid for all the seasons in which a team does a whole lot of winning, and the Bruins look like one that’s still in the early stages of paying that price.

With Zdeno Chara turning 41 in March, and with Tuukka Rask turning 31 in that same month, most of Boston’s best players are out of their twenties, and in a young man’s NHL, that’s a non-positive development. The Bruins have enough skill to stay out of the Eastern Conference’s basement, but they’re looking like a team that will be on the outside of the playoff picture if only one or two things don’t go their way – an injury here, or an extended losing skid there – and one that needs to focus even harder on their future.

7. Buffalo Sabres

Additions: Jason Pominville, RW; Benoit Pouliot, LW; Jacob Josefson, F; Marco Scandella, D; Nathan Beaulieu, D; Victor Antipin, D; Matt Tennyson, D; Chad Johnson, G; Phil Housley, head coach; Jason Botterill, GM

Deletions: Brian Gionta, RW; Marcus Foligno, LW; Cody Franson, D; Tyler Ennis, LW; William Carrier, LW; Dmitry Kulikov, D; Derek Grant, C; Anders Nilsson, G; Dan Bylsma, head coach; Tim Murray, GM

Why I picked them where I picked them: There hasn’t been a playoff game in Buffalo since 2011, and there hasn’t been a second-round playoff game since 2007. So you can understand why Sabres fans have had it with promises of future triumphs and eventual growth. But that’s precisely where the organization is after another distressing season and a full housecleaning with management. Now Jason Botterill is GM and Phil Housley is head coach (replacing Tim Murray and Dan Bylsma respectively), and a new period of evaluation and change has begun.

For the short term, at least, Botterill took a scalpel to the roster rather than a sledgehammer, making relatively minor moves that brought in secondary components Benoit Poulioit, Marco Scandella and Chad Johnson, and pushed out Brian Gionta, Marcus Foligno and Cody Franson. He’s clearly counting on a full season from burgeoning star – and who wouldn’t – as well as the type of massive year from winger Evander Kane that he hasn’t produced since his 30-goal, 57-point season with Winnipeg in 2011-12. But there simply isn’t enough top-end talent in the forward group, nor is there any real semblance of a high-performing defense corps, to move up the division and challenge for a playoff slot.

Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula have shown the willingness to spend money to bring a winner to Western New York, but they haven’t made choices that resulted in success. Perhaps it will come with this new management team, but it won’t come quickly, and it almost assuredly won’t come this season.

8. Detroit Red Wings

Additions: Trevor Daley, D; Luke Witkowski, D

Deletions: Drew Miller, LW

Why I picked them where I picked them: There’s something that feels unnatural about positioning the Red Wings as the last-place team in their division, but after a summer in which GM Ken Holland basically stood pat with a squad that won just 33 games – nine of them via shootout – that’s where we are. The Wings have been the gold standard for playoff consistency prior to the 2016-17 season, but sooner or later, the tentacles of the salary cap wrap around every organization’s net and commence with the squeezing. And the squeeze is on in Detroit.

If it’s tough on Wings fans, imagine how tough it must be on star forward and captain Henrik Zetterberg, who at age 36 has three seasons left on his contract. The problem for him and the franchise is, not only are they currently more than $3 million over the cap upper limit this year, they’re also committed to more than $62 million for 16 players in 2018-19. Extricating themselves from some of their onerous contracts should be priority one for Detroit management, but nobody will be doing Holland any favors in that regard.

The Wings have young players who’ll serve them well this year and beyond, but their current group isn’t close to a playoff contender, let alone a championship-calibre club. They’ll have a new arena to celebrate in Motown this season, but that’s very likely all they’ll have to celebrate.

The Pacific Division

The Pacific is a division that’s grown to eight teams thanks to the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights. It’s a group of teams that has been dominated by the three Californian clubs in recent years, but the two Albertan franchises are in a good spot to change that this year.

Here’s my best guess as to how the Pacific looks after everyone has played 82 games:

1. Anaheim Ducks

Additions: Dennis Rasmussen, C; Ryan Miller, G

Deletions: Shea Theodore, D; Jonathan Bernier, G; Clayton Stoner, D; Nate Thompson, C

Why I picked them where I picked them: The Ducks began last season winning just nine of their first 21 games, but their veteran core and deep and talented collection of young blueliners pushed them to the top of the Pacific and behind only the Hawks and Wild as the Western Conference’s top squad. They had some of that defensive depth stripped away in the expansion draft, with Shea Theodore traded to the Golden Knights and Clayton Stoner also heading to Vegas, and they may yet trade Vatanen when he and fellow blueliner Hampus Lindholm return to the lineup from shoulder injuries that are likely to keep them sidelined through training camp and into the regular season. That may make their job of repeating as division champs very difficult.

However, there’s a reason why Ducks GM Bob Murray more or less only tinkered with his roster this summer: he’s got a trio of 32-year-old forwards (Cory Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler) all with at least four seasons to go on their contracts, and a solid balance of experience and youth behind them that, with the signing of goalie Ryan Miller, now extends all the way back to Anaheim’s net. Miller’s presence is an upgrade on Jonathan Bernier, and he’ll give head coach Randy Carlyle some terrific insurance in both the regular season and the playoffs – the only place the Ducks are judged.

They made it to the Conference Final for the second time in three seasons last year, but Anaheim are playing for bigger stakes than that – and if Murray can keep the team intact and injury-free, they’ve got a very good chance of representing the West in the Stanley Cup Final.

2. Calgary Flames

Additions: Travis Hamonic, D; Mike Smith, G; Eddie Lack, G

Deletions: Brian Elliott, G; Chad Johnson, G; Lance Bouma, LW; Alex Chiasson, RW; Dennis Wideman, D; Deryk Engelland, D

Why I picked them where I picked them: Calgary made it back into the post-season after a disastrous 2015-16 campaign, but getting swept at the hands of the Ducks in the first round of the 2017 playoffs made evident the Flames’ weaknesses: most notably, their inability to get timely saves. The duo of Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson were allowed to walk away in free agency, and Calgary GM Brad Treliving replaced them by dealing for former Coyotes mainstay Mike Smith and ex-Hurricane and Canucks netminder Eddie Lack. 

The 35-year-old Smith languished with a weak Arizona franchise for the past six seasons, getting to enjoy post-season play in only his first year with the Yotes. But he’s a workhorse – and Treliving made his life exponentially easier by buttressing an already-formidable Flames defense corps with the addition of former Islanders D-man Travis Hamonic. Alongside Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, T.J. Brodie and Michael Stone, Hamonic will give Calgary that much more bite in their own zone, and if the Flames’ skilled forward unit delivers on their side of the competitive equation, there’s nothing stopping this team – which won just two fewer games than the Oilers did last season – from leapfrogging their provincial arch-rivals and evolving into a true powerhouse in the West.

3. Edmonton Oilers

Additions: Ryan Strome, C; Jussi Jokinen, LW

Deletions: Benoit Pouliot, LW; Jordan Eberle, C; Tyler Pitlick, C; Matt Hendricks, LW; David Desharnais, C

Why I picked them where I picked them: The Oilers last year finally looked like the team their ownership and management had sold fans on for the previous decade, finishing second in the Pacific and finishing with the second-best goals-for/against differential (plus-35) in the West. But they got a career season out of goalie Cam Talbot – who appeared in a whopping 73 games – and only one of their top seven point-producers (Patrick Maroon, who played 81 games) failed to play all 82 games in the regular season. Health and production from their netminding are two elements that could be less of a positive for them this year, and with Calgary building a better blueline, I think it’s entirely possible Edmonton falls a spot in the standings.

Still, that doesn’t mean the Oilers aren’t going to be a ton of fun to watch and a major threat in the post-season. Their young core is the envy of many teams; their blueline is still developing and is likely to be a focus of GM Peter Chiarelli, and in Connor McDavid, they have an astonishing centrepiece and a legend-in-the-making. Adding two helpful components in veteran winger Jussi Jokinen and 24-year-old centre Ryan Strome will change the chemistry to a degree, but don’t kid yourself – in many ways, this is a squad that’s essentially the same and is being counted upon to grow together.

The Oilers can’t avoid the injury bug forever and when it does bite, their depth will be tested, but who can fault Edmonton fans for champing at the bit to see the players back on the ice? They’ve given them ample evidence better days are in the very near-future.

4. San Jose Sharks

Additions: none

Deletions: Patrick Marleau, LW; David Schlemko, D; Micheal Haley, C

Why I picked them where I picked them: Sharks GM Doug Wilson is famous for his consistently patient approach – one that may have frustrated some of San Jose’s fans, but one that resulted in the organization’s first Stanley Cup Final appearance two years ago – but the machinations of the salary cap forced Wilson into saying goodbye to franchise lifer Patrick Marleau, who departed for Toronto this summer. Marleau’s absence from the team’s offense (which, at 221 goals-for, was the second-lowest of any playoff team last season) will be felt, and the pressures on the Sharks’ terrific blueline will increase.

But in Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Logan Couture, San Jose still has sufficient firepower, and the players coming out of Wilson’s development system will be given every opportunity to assert themselves as the next wave. That said, you get the sense the Sharks will need to lean on their back end in a bigger way this season – goalie Martin Jones’ goals-against average and save percentage crept up a bit last year and they’ll look to him to get them back to 2015-16 levels – rather than rely on their forwards to be the difference-makers.

The Sharks have only missed the playoffs once since 2002-03, a remarkable feat in this day and age. But one catastrophic injury could put them under the gun to make the post-season and leave them in a last-minute scramble to lock up a playoff spot. And with Thornton, Burns and Pavelski all in their thirties, the window on this competitive cycle for them could be shrinking, and shrinking fast.

5. Los Angeles Kings

Additions: Mike Cammalleri, LW; Darcy Kuemper, G; Christian Folin, D; John Stevens, head coach; Rob Blake, GM

Deletions: Jarome Iginla, RW; Devin Setoguchi, RW; Brayden McNabb, D; Darryl Sutter, head coach; Dean Lombardi, GM

Why I picked them where I picked them: When you’ve enjoyed as much success as the Kings did from 2012-14, the struggles they’re currently enduring feel more pronounced to their fans, and so, after missing the playoffs for the second time in three years, team ownership made sweeping changes to the front office, pushing coach Darryl Sutter and GM Dean Lombardi out the door and replacing them from within, promoting assistant and former Flyers bench boss John Stevens and assistant GM Rob Blake. 

Blake and Stevens inherit a squad that excels in the possession game, but can’t finish. Centre Jeff Carter (with 32 goals) and winger Tanner Pearson (with 24) were the only Kings with 20 or more goals, and although injuries limited winger Tyler Toffoli to 63 games and 16 goals, captain Anze Kopitar posted the worst offensive numbers (12 goals and 52 points) of any of his 10 full NHL seasons. The 29-year-old Kopitar is in Year 2 of a 10-year contract extension with a $10-million cap hit, and the pressure on him to return to his days of scoring anywhere close to 30 goals – something that hasn’t happened since 2013-14 – is enormous.

Under an equal amount of pressure is goalie Jonathan Quick – he of the contract that has five years left at an annual value of $5.8 million after this year – as he tries to rebound from a groin injury that cost him 59 games in 2016-17. When he’s healthy, Quick can be a dynamo, but he’s also now 31 and has a good deal of mileage on him (playing 140 regular-season games from 2014-16 alone). Blake signed former Wild understudy Darcy Kuemper to serve as Quick’s backup, but if Quick hits the injured reserve again, it could translate into another year of disappointment.

Is it possible for everything to go L.A.’s way and see them back in the post-season? It is. But, with due respect to forward Mike Cammalleri – back in a Kings uniform on a cheap $1-million, one-year deal – not enough has changed and there isn’t enough depth in their system to expect that’ll happen. It’s just as possible they’ll be in the playoff race through the end of March, but out of it once the regular-season ends.

6. Vancouver Canucks

Additions: Sam Gagner, C; Alexander Burmistrov, F; Michael Del Zotto, D; Patrick Wiercioch, D; Anders Nilsson, G; Travis Green, head coach

Deletions: Luca Sbisa, D; Ryan Miller, G; Willie Desjardins, head coach

Why I picked them where I picked them: Vancouver’s non-traditional rebuild continued this summer with many moves of note, not least of which was a change behind the bench: Willie Desjardins was let go after three years as head coach, and former NHLer Travis Green was promoted from the Canucks’ American League affiliate to replace him and work with some of the youngsters management is counting on as the team’s base for the next seven-to-10 years.

However, Green is also tasked with making the most out of the elements that remain from the Canucks’ Cup Final glory era – namely, the Sedin Twins and defenseman Alex Edler – and the veterans the franchise surrounded them with as they tried in vain to build upon that era. They’ve finished sixth in the Pacific two seasons ago and dead last in 2016-17, but GM Jim Benning and team president Trevor Linden are banking on the insertion of a quartet of experienced hands – including forwards Sam Gagner and Alex Burmistrov, defenseman Michael Del Zotto and goalie Anders Nilsson – adding enough depth to the mix to vault Vancouver back into the playoff race.

That’s not going to be easy when you consider the Canucks were 15 points out of a playoff spot, but you also need to remember (a) Vancouver closed out the year on a 1-9-0 skid (b) they were ravaged by injuries, with only the Sedins and centers Bo Horvat and Brandon Sutter playing anywhere close to 82 games. With a fresh messenger directing them, better luck on the health side and growth from burgeoning talents such as D-man Troy Stecher, Horvat and winger Brock Boeser, it’s not at all a stretch to see them vaulting past the Kings and challenging for a wild card berth. I don’t think they’ll get there, but considering how poorly things have gone for them in recent years, any steps ahead are good ones for them.

7. Arizona Coyotes

Additions: Derek Stepan, C; Nick Cousins, LW; Antti Raanta, G; Niklas Hjalmarsson, D; Adam Clendening, D; Rick Tocchet, head coach

Deletions: Radim Vrbata, RW; Shane Doan, RW; Connor Murphy, D; Mike Smith, G; Alexander Burmistrov, F; Anthony DeAngelo, D; Peter Holland, C; Josh Jooris, RW; Dave Tippett, head coach

Why I picked them where I picked them: Other than a three-year span from 2010-12, the Coyotes have missed the playoffs every season since 2003. They were out of the playoff race almost before it began last season, winning their first game, then losing six of their next seven and 18 of their next 25. Consequently, more change was in order, and this time, the change affected virtually every aspect of the organization: head coach Dave Tippett was shown the door in June (one year and one month
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More from Adam Proteau
» Proteau's Division Predictions
» Pre-season picks: Atlantic Division
» Pre-season picks: Metropolitan Division
» Pre-season picks: Pacific Division
» Pre-season picks: Central Division