Column: NHL Season preview

Toronto Maple Leafs' John Tavares (91) celebrates his goal against the Detroit Red Wings during the second period of an NHL hockey preseason game Friday, Sept. 28, 2018, in Toronto. (Jon Blacker/The Canadian Press via AP)

Toronto Maple Leafs' John Tavares (91) celebrates his goal against the Detroit Red Wings during the second period of an NHL hockey preseason game Friday, Sept. 28, 2018, in Toronto. (Jon Blacker/The Canadian Press via AP)

Hockey is back! The NHL kicked off the 2018-19 campaign Wednesday night with four games highlighted by a matchup between the defending Cup champions, the Washington Capitals, and the Boston Bruins. The Capitals raised their first Stanley Cup banner to the rafters and received their championship rings.

With that, we have officially transitioned to a new year. A clean slate for everyone, rising expectations and intensifying pressure makes for yet another thrilling year. Last season will be tough to top though, as the unpredictable became the norm as the year passed. The Vegas Golden Knights, an expansion team, made their Cinderella run to the Final. The Colorado Avalanches accelerated from back of the pack to a playoff team. The so called dynasty of the Chicago Blackhawks officially died. The New York Rangers, a team that almost never hits the reset button, committed to a complete rebuild. It seemed like it was one surprise after another in 2018-19, which makes predicting the new season a futile task.

But still we picture what might arise in the new season, with imaginations running wild with hope and possibility. Questions soar in anticipation, but answers will only become available through the playing of games over the next six plus months.

It all leads us towards that climactic moment when one of the league’s captains will hoist the Stanley Cup and scream out of pure joy. That moment when the dramatic music picks up in an almost scripted fashion, as the Cup glides across the ice in the hands of the champions. It is a beautiful sight.

So what should we be looking out for this year in the months leading up to that magnificent moment?

Pay close attention to the scattering of stars onto new teams. The once heralded New York Islander, John Tavares, is now a villain on the island. Tavares ditched the only team he has ever known to run home and play for the rising Toronto Maples Leafs. Look out for these guys with young guns up and down the lineup. They feature the 2016 first overall pick, Auston Matthews, as they look to contend for the Cup this year.

Tavares will return to Barclays Center on Feb. 28, bound to receive a bitter greeting in his former home. The team he left will be interesting to monitor as well, fielding a team without Tavares for the first time since 2008-09. Mathew Barzal is set to take over as the face of the franchise. The transition to a Lou Lamoriello run organization will be intriguing to keep tabs on as well, especially with the challenge of losing a player of Tavares’ caliber.

Out west, the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights are poised to ignite after the flashy acquisitions they made this summer. The Sharks reigned in elite defenseman Erik Karlsson, while Vegas brought in star winger Max Pacioretty. The moves make these western powerhouses serious Cup threats. There still may be some doubters for Vegas though, as critics will look to see how the franchise looks in year two. They certainly proved that they were no fluke after the thrilling run they made last season, but any struggles this year will have people saying otherwise.

These teams have all begun compiling superstars, creating a minor reflection of the superteam ideology. The Canadiens, Senators and Islanders all lost their biggest stars to teams that already had elite forces. Auston Matthews is still the face of the Maple Leafs over Tavares. Erik Karlsson does not stand out as much alongside defensemen like Brent Burns and Marc Edouard Vlasic. Max Pacioretty joins an astounding group of forwards in Vegas including William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Paul Stastny and Reilly Smith.

Tavares, Karlsson and Pacioretty expect to be stars on their new teams, but they will not necessarily be the “it” guys that they were with their previous clubs. This is a common effect of joining a new team, not only because the team already has a strong ensemble of players, but because they are not homegrown or established there.

In some ways this dissipates the parity of the league, giving teams like the Islanders, Senators and Canadiens little draw. But simultaneously it also creates intrigue to see which formula of new mixtures of players can yield the most success. Will Tavares, Karlsson and Pacioretty thrive in their fresh colors, or crumble under the pressure of starting over.

Certainly, these stars are in a much better position now to target the Cup, the question is can they actually get there?

Under the radar, the Buffalo Sabres might not be a doormat in the league this season, especially after roster switches and the selection of Rasmus Dahlin first overall in the 2018 Entry Draft. He is the best defensive prospect the league has seen in years, and is ready to break on the scene in Buffalo. He is precisely what Buffalo needed in order to propel them in the direction of the playoffs, as they hope to end a drought that has lasted seven seasons. How far off they are from that remains uncertain, but they could vie for a spot this season. Former UConn player Tage Thompson looks to inject some extra life into Buffalo’s offense after being traded from the St. Louis Blues in the offseason. Combined with newly-named captain Jack Eichel and youngster Casey Mittelstadt, the Sabres could warrant some attention this season.

Here are some too-early predictions for the season:

Metropolitan

Pittsburgh Penguins

Washington Capitals

Philadelphia Flyers

New Jersey Devils – WC

Columbus Blue Jackets

Carolina Hurricanes

New York Rangers

New York Islanders

Atlantic

Tampa Bay Lightning

Toronto Maple Leafs

Buffalo Sabres

Boston Bruins – WC

Florida Panthers

Detroit Red Wings

Montreal Canadiens

Ottawa Senators

Central

Winnipeg Jets

Nashville Predators

St. Louis Blues

Colorado Avalanche – WC

Dallas Stars

Chicago Blackhawks

Minnesota Wild

Pacific

San Jose Sharks

Vegas Golden Knights

Calgary Flames

Los Angeles Kings – WC

Edmonton Oilers

Anaheim Ducks

Arizona Coyotes

Vancouver Canucks

— — — — —

Eastern Conference Champion: Toronto Maple Leafs

Western Conference Champion: Winnipeg Jets

Stanley Cup Champion: Winnipeg Jets

Awards

Hart: Jack Eichel – Buffalo Sabres

Art Ross: Connor McDavid – Edmonton Oilers

Calder: Elias Pettersson – Vancouver Canucks

Vezina: Connor Hellebuyck – Winnipeg Jets

Norris: Erik Karlsson – San Jose Sharks

Selke: Patrice Bergeron – Boston Bruins


Dylan Barrett is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus.  He can be reached via email at dylan.barrett@uconn.edu.