Fresh of the return of the World Cup of Hockey, the 2016-17 NHL season kicks off tonight. Can the Pittsburgh Penguins become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions for the first time in almost two decades after winning their fourth Stanley Cup this past summer? Expect 29 hockey clubs to target the Pens when the season resumes. But in the end, one team will hoist the holy grail of Hockey in the summer of 2017. It is time for the Strictly Sports 2016/17 NHL Preview & Predictions.
Atlantic Division: This looks to me that we will have the battle of Florida for the Atlantic Division, but I believe that the Tampa Bay Lightning are the favorites to win that division. The Lightning got the offense and the defense and a reliable goalie between the pipes, which makes them legit Stanley Cup contenders. Meanwhile, the Panthers were the surprise last season and look to be a good hockey club this season. Yes, they still have the ageless Jaromir Jagr. But, the Panthers have this strong youth movement and made some significant acquisitions to upgrade the defense. Watch out for Montreal especially with the return of Carey Price, despite trading P.K. Subban for Shea Weber, and the power play has to improve. Next, I can see the Bruins become this darkhorse playoff contender thanks to a decent offense and a good goaltender in Tuukka Rask, but that defense is still hot garbage. I wouldn't underestimate the Red Wings, but I believe that their playoff streak is going to end this season because the defensive core is old and that is going to kill them against their division rivals. There is no debate that Jack Eichel and the youth movement that the Sabres have is on the rise, and they will be a work in progress this season, despite missing the playoffs. Ottawa did make some moves in the offseason such as bringing in Dion Phaneuf, but it's going to be a while for them to return to postseason hockey and while the future looks great in Toronto, that future will continue to be a work in progress for the Maple Leafs.
Metropolitan Division: The Metropolitan will be a tough division to watch especially with a defending champion representing that division, but I do like the Capitals to win this division. After all, they had a strong regular season campaign last year and brought back the same core they have. The offense, which is led by Alex Ovechkin, is high, and the defense is good with Braden Holtby behind the pipes. The Penguins have one goal, and that goal is to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions, as they have the same lineup from that winning team last year. While the Rangers are on the decline, they still have plenty of chances to make the postseason. After all, they do have the best goalie in Henrik Lundqvist, and they added some speed in the offseason. And if Sidney Crosby gets off to a slow start due to his concussion, the Rangers could claim the Metropolitan. Dave Hakstol had an excellent debut last year with the Flyers, and I do believe that this team can do better this season with a talented youth movement. The Islanders won their first playoff series in over two decades, but I don;t think this team got better after losing key players in free agency. If Jaroslav Halak stays healthy, they could be a darkhorse team in the playoffs. After a horrific start, the Hurricanes got hot down the stretch and played pretty good. They could get into the postseason, and I wouldn't be surprised, but they need some offensive help to help with their defense and need an upgrade on goaltending. The Devils made some huge offseason moves with a blockbuster trade after trading for Taylor Hall, and he will be an upgrade to that offense, but having to get rid of Adam Henrique weakens their defense. Columbus looks like that bottom-tier team, but who knows what will happen if a player like Sergei Bobrovsky has a tremendous season.
Central Division: The Central Division is by far the best conference in the NHL. You can pick any team tow in this conference, but I'm picking the Blackhawks. The offensive core is back; Corey Crawford continues to do a decent job between the pipes and bringing in Brian Campbell upgrades their defense. The Predators got a great fit for Peter Laviolette's coaching scheme by getting P.K. Subban in a trade, and they have that offensive firepower. The key for the Predators is Pekka Rinne. Bruce Boudreau should have an impact with the Wild, especially in the regular season, as he has the offensive players in Zach Parise and Eric Staal. The Stars have one of the best cores of forwards in the NHL, and that will get them into another playoff run, but goaltending is going to be the difference. St. Louis did lose some key players this offseason, but since this is Ken Hitchcock's last year, the Blues will still be a playoff team, and Jake Allen needs to step up between the pipes. If things go their way, Winnipeg may slip into the Wild Card mix. The Jets do have some talent, and if they get some plays by Ondrej Pavelec, they can be a darkhorse. Lastly, the departure of Patrick Roy can help the youth movement of the Avalanche succeed, but they are still green as grass.
Pacific Division: The Sharks may be getting older, but they showed last season that they can still get to the Stanley Cup finals. Their offense has always been strong, but their defense looks pretty good, and Martin Jones continues to play solid between the pipes. I believe that the Flames are going to take this huge step this season after bringing in Brian Elliott to play between the pipes and I think that is going to be huge especially having a new guy in Glen Gulutzan taking over the helm down in Calgary. Los Angeles will miss Milan Lucic, and their key players are getting past their prime, but they didn't get better in the offseason. With that said, I still think this team will make the postseason come April. Firing Bruce Boudreau and hiring Randy Carlyle is a step down for the Ducks and the ageing of their key players will keep them out of the postseason. The Coyotes have a great youth movement and are moving in the right direction, but the experience is not there, and that keeps them out of the playoffs. In conclusion, the Canucks look horrible, and many people will be surprised if the Canucks have the worst record in the NHL this season.