While us Seattle locals still might have to wait a season or two for our own team to follow, there will be no shortage of good hockey to watch between now and then. To help you dig through the 1,271 National Hockey League games that will be played in the next seven months, each of our writers at NHLtoSeattle.com has picked a pair of teams to highlight. We each chose one heavy hitter with Stanley Cup aspirations (and talent to match) and one team that might surprise you, whether they play in June or not.
Can’t Miss… The SAN JOSE SHARKS.
I selected San Jose mostly because I was drafting just before long-time Shark obsessor, John Barr, and I was feeling a bit spiteful on the day of our draft. But I also selected them because they truly are the team I anticipate watching the most this season, aside from my beloved Minnesota Wild.
The Sharks already had one of the most exciting offensive defensemen in the league in Brent Burns, who had something of an off year and still managed 67 points in ’17-’18. But with the recent landing of the offseason’s white whale, AKA Erik Karlsson, AKA Orlando Bloom on skates… well… let’s just say these guys will be worth the price of admission. Like Burns, Karlsson is easily among the top-three defensemen in the NHL, meaning that two of the three best blueliners will now (at least occasionally) be skating alongside one another. That’s just not fair.
Up front, the top two forward lines, which still feature such long-time Sharks as Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, and Jumbo Joe Thornton, got a nice boost at last season’s trade deadline, when GM Doug Wilson reeled in another big trade fish in Evander Kane. Kane was expected to become an unrestricted free agent, but he re-signed with San Jose for seven years and $49 million, according to CapFriendly.com. After being moved from Buffalo, Kane emerged in the Bay Area in a big way, notching 9 goals and 5 assists in 17 regular season games, then adding 4 goals and 1 assist in 9 postseason games.
Two years removed from a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, and coming off of a 100-point season, Wilson has astutely reloaded San Jose with top-flight talent, making a deep playoff run seem inevitable.
Oh yes, the Sharks must be watched.
But Don’t Forget About… the BUFFALO SABRES.
Yes, I’m talking about those Buffalo Sabres, who have now gone seven years without reaching the playoffs and eleven years without getting out of the first round. Entering last season, with new Head Coach Phil Housley behind the bench and new GM Jason Botterill calling the shots in the Front Office, many in the hockey world believed that Buffalo would return to respectability. But it was another disastrous year, as Buffalo finished 25-45-12, good enough for last place in the entire NHL.
Here’s why I think this team will be fun to watch this year, though. Already boasting some exceptional young talent in guys like Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, the Sabres finally hit the jackpot by drawing the first pick in the NHL Draft. After previous GM Tim Murray had deliberately tried to tank his team to win the draft lottery in 2015, only to see Connor McDavid go to the Oilers, it was a bit ironic to see Botterill get gifted the opportunity in his first year to draft generational talent Rasmus Dahlin, a surefire top-end blueliner who will be impactful this season.
Aside from Dahlin, superstar-in-the-making Casey Mittelstadt is likely to see an opportunity in the team’s top six, and Tage Thompson was brought in from St. Louis as part of the Ryan O’Reilly trade that happened on July 1st. Speaking of that O’Reilly deal, the Sabres got a huge haul of veterans in the transaction as well, landing Vladimir Sobotka and Patrik Berglund, plus two high-end draft picks over the next few years. Botterill wasn’t even finished picking over the Blues’ roster at that point either, as he also inked goaltender Carter Hutton to a three-year deal.
Though the Sabres may not compete for the Cup this year, or even make the playoffs, this is a new-look squad with excitement written all over it. I will be watching.
Can’t Miss… the TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS.
Two years ago, going into the 2016-17 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs found themselves slotted into the surprise category. Coming off a last-place season that allowed them to draft franchise center (and American Hero), Auston Matthews, they infused their roster with a huge crop of fun young rookies. They were going to be extremely watchable but weren’t expected rise particularly high in the standings. Twenty four months later, after making the playoffs in consecutive years, the Leafs won the 2018 Offseason Battle Royale to sign John Tavares, a top ten center in the league in his own right, in free agency.
The Leafs Big Three—Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander—are barely legal to drink in the US but all scored 60+ points each in consecutive years. They’re now headed into their third full NHL seasons only just entering their peak years. Matthews (after nagging injuries last year held him to just 34 goals in just 62 games) just celebrated his 21st birthday and looks ready to have an absolutely monstrous year. Mitch Marner is slated to slot in as a wicked little playmaker next to Tavares, giving both of them the best linemate they’ve ever really had. Nylander should line up next to Matthews and dominate again… as soon as he signs his contract that is.
I’ve only mentioned four players in the Leafs’ forward group. Down the lines is a continued embarrassment of riches. Nazem Kadri, who’d be a great second-line-center on any team, will be playing third line shutdown minutes at home—allowing Tavares and Matthews to potentially feast on weaker competition. While the Leafs have one of (if not the) most lethal forward groups in the league, their relatively average defense keeps things interesting for a team with cup aspirations.
You definitely won’t be lacking goals on either side when you sit down to watch a Leafs game.
But Don’t Forget About… the ARIZONA COYOTES.
The Arizona Coyotes have been offseason favorites to make the leap into real competition for years. Their habit of making great trades and collect assets leave lots of us wondering, “Is this the year?!” This year is no different. I’m Excited About the Coyotes.
Last year the Coyotes began their season with a historically bad start, going twenty games before winning a game in regulation. It was… catastrophic. A combination of terrible luck and key injuries sewered the season—but there’s hope. The ‘Yotes actually ended the season extremely strong, with a .591 points percentage over the last 22 games which would have put them in the Wildcard conversation. Obviously, you have to take the whole picture into account, but there were a number of factors that lead me to believe that team is a better representation of what the Coyotes really are than whatever abomination we saw at the beginning of last season.
So why am I excited about the Coyotes? They’ve got an extremely underrated goaltender in Antti Raanta (which is worth its weight in gold for a team trying to make the jump). There’s also 2017-18 Calder Nominee, Clayton Keller, who was a bright spot in a dark night throughout last season. Arizona also made a big 1-for-1 trade over the summer, moving winger Max Domi for Montreal’s Alex Galchenyuk. While it wasn’t a blowout one way or another, I personally prefer Galchenyuk. Plus, because Montreal moved a guy who can play center that they refused to play there (in spite of desperately needing help up the middle), Galchenyuk will be extremely effective playing center for the Coyotes this year.
Them’s the rules of the hockey universe.
As a final note, the Coyotes were the recipient of a salary dump trade (you can learn more about the concept here) and received young winger Vinnie Hinostroza in payment for taking the Marian Hossa contract from the Blackhawks. There’s some indication that he could break out this year. Maybe he’ll be the Coyotes’ Teuvo Teravainen?
All in all, if I learned from the past I’d stop betting our money on the Coyotes, but here I am again, convinced they’re going to do something big this year. Either way, the youth in the lineup backed up by consistent goaltending could make the Coyotes fun to watch at the least and a big surprise if all breaks right. I know I’ll be tuning in.
Can’t Miss… the TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING.
I am not exactly going out on a limb saying the Tampa Bay Lighting will be a fun team to watch this year. They have gone to the Conference Finals 3 out of the last 4 years and, with very little turnover in their roster, are poised for another deep playoff run. Their style of play and forward depth makes them an easy team to watch during the regular season. Last year they had the most goals scored during the regular season and the third best power play unit in the NHL. Casual fans immediately think of Stamkos when they think of the Lightning, but Brayden Point will center Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat for the club’s top line, while Stamkos will center JT Miller and Alex Killorn.
The fun doesn’t end there, though. Tampa Bay’s third line is probably one of my top 10 most watchable lines in the league. Spokane native and undrafted player, Tyler Johnson lines up on the right wing on the 3rd line and is truly one of my favorite players to watch. On the other wing of that 3rd line is Yanni Gourde. Yanni is another undrafted player, who is an undersized underdog that’s fun to watch.
On the blue line, Victor Hedman was the Norris Trophy winner last year and eats up about 25 minutes per game. Between the pipes is big Andrei Vasilevskiy who was third in the Vezina Trophy voting last season.
But Don’t Forget About… the NEW YORK ISLANDERS.
I do not have any illusions that the Islanders will be making the playoffs this year, but on pure entertainment value, they are my sleeper team to watch. After losing blockbuster free agent, John Tavares, in the offseason, the entertainment starts and probably ends with former Seattle Thunderbird, Mathew Barzal. Last year Barzal was one of the most exciting players to watch in all of hockey. If you are watching a game and are lucky enough to get 3on3 overtime, then don’t you dare change games. Barzal is the master of the single skater regroup and, with extra space in overtime, he enters the offensive zone like he is being shot out of a cannon.
The Islanders have a few other fun players to watch like Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee, but the biggest impact to the team’s success might be a refreshed approach to their systems with Stanley Cup Winning head coach, Barry Trotz, taking the reins as their new head coach. Should be interesting to see if Trotz can fix the swiss cheese defense that plagued the team last year. The Islanders also have former Seattle Thunderbird, Scotty Eansor in Bridgeport, their AHL affiliate. We could see Eansor get a call-up here or there if the Islanders face some injury issues.
Can’t Miss… the BOSTON BRUINS.
Heading into last season the expectations for Boston were modest at best but, they surprised quite a few people. After 50 wins and coming within a point of catching Tampa Bay for the Atlantic Division title those expectations have now jumped. They eliminated the rival Maple Leafs in the first round of the playoffs but could not get past the Lightning in the second.
With last year’s success, the expectations are sky, or Cup, high this season. Not only is Boston a contender but they play entertaining hockey. They boast a top line that you could argue is among the NHL’s best. Patrice Bergeron is back to center that line and is coming off a 30-goal year. He’ll be matched up with the villain that everyone loves to hate in Brad Marchand – a 34-goal scorer himself. Those two provide the veteran leadership and will be again complimented with the younger David Pasternak who potted 35 goals a year ago.
That line is the epitome of the Bruins. They are a mix of vets who have been to the top before along with a group of impressive younger players. That younger brigade includes 21-year-old forward Jake DeBrusk who caught fire in the playoffs, scoring six goals on a scorching 31-percent shooting percentage. On the back end, Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo are two exciting young defensemen to compliment the ageless Zdeno Chara. Goalie Tuukka Rask returns after backstopping Boston to 34 wins as a starter last year.
Boston is good. Boston will be in contention, but they have to deal with a couple of heavy hitters within the division. Tampa Bay is a top club again and Toronto made a bit of news in the offseason as far as player acquisitions go. It makes the games between that top Atlantic trio must watch and should create an exciting race to the top.
But Don’t Forget About… the VANCOUVER CANUCKS.
Yes, the Vancouver Canucks are a sleeper this year. No, not in the sense that they’re going to be good or make a playoff run. But, for the first time in recent memory, they will be entertaining. Vancouver was not just a bad team last year, but they were dull. Goal scoring was sparse, and they only managed 2.66 markers per contest. That was only better than five other clubs and worse than the Ottawa Senators – yeah, those Senators. They did manage the NHL’s ninth-best power play but a good part of that was thanks to Henrik and Daniel Sedin. The twins are gone. Off to play soccer and run marathons.
So, why are the Canucks more entertaining this year?
To quote noted time traveler and inventor Doc Brown, its ‘the future, Marty’.
The Canucks have a done a good job of collecting enough good young prospects to give fans some hope. Not for this season mind you, but for that future. Recently, The Athletic’s Corey Pronman ranked the Vancouver prospect pool as the second best in the NHL. Some of the players are going to be on the roster this year. Bo Horvat will center the top line along with last year’s rookie sensation Brock Boeser – he of an outstanding 29-goal rookie campaign cut short by injury. The biggest buzz is around incoming rookie sensation Elias Pettersson. The fifth overall selection in the 2017 draft has dazzled in the preseason at the tender age of 19. All three of these players will one day make up the core of a good team and all three are under the age of 23.
The Canucks still have no goaltending and gave Jay Beagle way too much money in the offseason but don’t let that distract you from the Hovart-Boeser-Pettersson triumphant. Someday, you’ll be able to reminisce about how you’ve been enjoying them from the beginning, which is, of course, this season.
Can’t Miss… the NASHVILLE PREDATORS
Despite bowing out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the second round last season, the Predators come into this season relatively unchanged and are still a team to beat in the Western Conference. They were one win from the Western Conference Final and will be up there with some of the best teams in the West this season. Nashville boasts a group of elite forwards in Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, Kevin Fiala, and Viktor Arvidsson, and supplements that with arguably the best defensive unit in the league and a Vezina Trophy-winning goalie in Pekka Rinne. They are one of the most well-constructed teams in the league, and they will be fun to watch when they take on teams like the Sharks and the Jets this season.
But Don’t Forget About… the VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS.
It’s hard to call the defending Western Conference Champions a “sleeper” team but the Golden Knights have suddenly become a trendy “regression” pick.
Have we not learned our lesson from last year?
The more you doubt Vegas, the stronger the team becomes, and based on the team’s offseason, they have no plans of regressing anytime soon. They went out and got Max Pacioretty in a blockbuster trade, signed Paul Stastny after an impressive playoff performance and still have elite prospects waiting in the wings in Cody Glass and Erik Brannstrom. The only major loss of the offseason was really James Neal. Most of the core of players that took them to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season is still there. Sure, it’s hard to pick them to win a division that now features Erik Karlsson, but all this talk of a “regression” seems far-fetched. I think the Golden Knights will have another stellar season, and don’t be surprised to see them playing late into May again.