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Pigeon River… The 2016-17 NHL season has kicked off and there has been some exciting games taking place over the weekend even though the season is young. With year round training and workout programs in place the level of play is already at a high pace. In addition, with the recent World Cup of Hockey tourney, all NHL players that participated are already in mid-season form. The past few days I have studied a variety of pre-season predictions and Las Vegas betting odds, and this week I will be taking a look at the Eastern Conference and how they will fare and next week I will look at the West and offer a Stanley Cup outlook as well.
In the Metropolitan Division, predicted order of finish; 1.Pittsburgh 2.Washington 3.NY Rangers 4.Philadelphia 5.NY Islanders 6.Carolina 7.New Jersey 8.Columbus
The Pens are the defending Stanley Cup Champions and had a minimum of roster turnover in the off-season. They lost journeyman D-Ben Lovejoy but will still be strong on the backend. Goalie Matt Murray returns as the number one but could get a stiff challenge from Marc-Andre Fleury. I look for a very good regular season from the Pens. The Caps, who are the reigning Presidents Cup winners, had no major roster turnover in the summer. Can they bring it again for an 82 game campaign? If perennial Maurice Richard Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin has a typical season and his supporting cast continues to chip in, along with another superior performance from net minder Braden Holtby, the Caps will be near the top of the division and conference once again.
Most analysts are looking for a drop-off from the NY Rangers this season and I am not going along with that train of thought. They still have the King between the pipes, they still have a solid ‘D’ corps and a better then average group of forwards that will feature rookie Jimmy Vesey and I look for Chris Kreider to finally fulfill his potential, spurring the Blueshirts to the playoffs. I have picked the Flyers to get the 4th spot in the Metro although G-Steve Mason concerns me and I believe the number two there, Michal Neuvirth is better then Mason on most days. This club is trending up though because of 2nd year defensive wonder Shayne Gostisbehere and Coach Dave Hakstol, the former North Dakota bench boss. Hakker is a solid coach and has transitioned to the pro game well. They have enough up front to compete.
For the rest of the Metro, the NY Isles lost forward depth over the summer but signed former Jets Captain Andrew Ladd. How much does he have left offensively? We will find out. Gave him a longer contract then I would have too. I see Carolina in the 6 spot and while I believe they are moving forward they are doing so at a rather slow pace. I like Coach Bill Peters alot, and they finally parted ways with longtime Hurricane Eric Staal. The Devils are also in a rebuild mode of sorts and because of G-Cory Schneider they are in more games then they should be. In a deal that I still can’t reconcile they moved D-man Adam Larsson for Oiler F-Taylor Hall. Not certain this moves them forward or just puts more load on Schneider. Bringing up the rear (again) will be the Bluejackets. They have some good parts, just not enough of them. Rookie D-man Zach Werenski will be a bright spot.
In the Atlantic; 1.Tampa Bay 2.Florida 3.Montreal 4.Toronto 5.Detroit 6.Boston 7.Buffalo 8.Ottawa Most sources I reviewed not only have the Tampa Bay club winning the division but the Stanley Cup as well. I believe they will be in that hunt and looking at their competitors in the division and Conference, the experts just might be right. Only two other teams in the East can compete with them (Pens & Caps) and if they remain healthy they will stay at or near the top. Whether it’s Bishop or Vasilevskiy between the pipes they are in good shape and the bulk of their core are on long term deals. I have Florida in the 2nd spot here but I still don’t see them as good as the Bolts. Strong in net with Luongo and Reimer, they also have the best young D-man in the league with Aaron Ekblad and ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr up front. Center Aleksander Barkov is one of the best and they have other components, I just believe they are still in the maturation process.
I look for a Montreal resurgence of sorts this year with the return of the best goalie on earth, Carey Price. The problem is that he has missed the Habs first two games with a mystery flu. If he plays the bulk of the Habs games they get into the playoffs, if not, they are out. He looked good in the World Cup. Trade addition Shea Weber will make the Habs backline better. Since the trade of fan fave PK Subban this team will be on a short leash with the fans as will Coach Michel Therrien. I believe Toronto gets the 4th spot here if they get good net minding and defensive play because I don’t think scoring will be a problem for them. Coach Mike Babcock is the X factor here.
The Wings are still in transition mode after the Bowman-Babcock, Yzerman-Lidstrom era and I think this is the year their playoff string breaks. They do have some quality components, just not developed enough yet. The Bruins have talent up front, does G-Rask recover from a mediocre year and how many times will slow and getting slower D-man Chara get burned this year? Too many question marks, not enough depth. Buffalo will continue to learn and improve but have already suffered key injuries. They are still on the front end of their process but Coach Dan Bylsma is a pretty good teacher. Ottawa? At times they have good net minding, defense and offense along with special teams. It is a rarity for all to click consistently at the same time. The Sens will bring up the rear….
Next Week; The Western Conference…. Peace
MFAN EXTRA; Sport headline of the week, “Big 12 to table expansion, will stay at 10”.