Hockey returns tomorrow night with a four-game slate headlined by a clash between the two most recent Stanley Cup Champions, the St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals. The Blues will raise their first ever Stanley Cup banner to the rafters, just as the Capitals did a year ago.
The matchup is not only a showcase on the NHL’s recent successes, but also the stories that represent the magic of the sport. It brings back memories of Alexander Ovechkin bellowing with pure joy after being handed the Stanley Cup for the first time. It also reminds us of the Blues’ improbable run from the league basement in January to champions in June. But mostly, the game joins two fanbases that waited a combined 94 years, enduring countless playoff failures, for their first Stanley Cup.
Wednesday night’s season introduction should foreshadow that the year will be filled with unexpected excitement. Washington and St. Louis are proof that in hockey you can never predict a season outcome. Although I will attempt to choose one later, the eventual champion is never recognized in October. For the teams hungriest for a championship, the season should be full of optimism, sparked by the inspiration of the Capitals’ and Blues’ fairytale seasons.
Could a team like the San Jose Sharks follow suit, filling the role of the two previous champions? Like the Capitals and Blues during their Cup seasons, San Jose appears to be falling off a bit after stringing multiple years of contention together. Over the past decade, they have been thrown around in championship discussions regularly. Last year, more than any other, they were a hot pick after adding Erik Karlsson to an already elite group.
But once again, the Sharks lost in the playoffs, falling to the Cup winning Blues in the Eastern Conference Final. This continued a trend of what has become 14 out of 15 seasons of making the playoffs without winning the Stanley Cup. Another season of lofted expectations resulted in disappointment has almost entirely destroyed belief that the Sharks can win it all. Combined with the loss of franchise star, Joe Pavelski, nobody is picking them to win.
Although the Blues and Capitals did not face anything close to the magnitude of the loss of Pavelski, the state of these franchises prior to their cup yielding seasons align. Years of accumulated playoff shortcomings had deteriorated all projections that they would win the Stanley Cup. But it was right at that point, when everyone was least expecting it, that they struck to finally go all of the way.
Even though it has become a common narrative the past couple of years, it is still most likely the Sharks continue to fall short. In a weak Pacific Division they should have no issue making the playoffs, but getting past any of the powerhouses of the Central would be quite the challenge.
The Central is stacked, featuring the Nashville Predators, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and Winnipeg Jets all with cup aspirations. Not to mention, the division beholds the defending champion Blues. If I had to pick, I would say the Cup champion will come out of this division, but it is hard to say which team. The Predators are stronger up the middle with the addition of Matt Duchene. The Stars are loaded with veteran leadership after signing Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry. The Avalanche are electric up front with one of the best players in the game, Nathan MacKinnon, centering their top line. Even the Chicago Blackhawks, who had fallen off a bit the past couple of years, look poised to once again engage the playoff fold.
With the division so heavy, a talented squad like the Winnipeg Jets could find themselves outside of the postseason. While all of their competition made substantial moves this summer, they lost Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Kevin Hayes and could lose Dustin Byfulgien. Without significant replacement, this especially leaves the team with a massive void on defense.
The Eastern Conference presents more opportunity for new teams to make playoff pushes. After the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, there are not many locks. The trio projects to make up the top three in a top heavy Atlantic Division.
With strong showings last year, each of the three teams made tweaks to their rosters, but remain mostly the same. They have all hit a wall in terms of building a cup caliber team. The talent is in place. At this point, it simply comes down to if they execute.
In the Metropolitan division, the new faces of Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko could propel the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers to new heights in their first seasons. In a wide open division, both teams should compete for the playoffs. Meanwhile, two surprise teams from last year, the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders, will look to spring off of their success from last season.
Here are my predictions for the 2019-2020 season:
*asterisk indicates playoffs
Carolina Hurricanes *
Washington Capitals *
New Jersey Devils *
New York Islanders- WC *
New York Rangers
Columbus Blue Jackets
Tampa Bay Lightning *
Boston Bruins *
Toronto Maple Leafs *
Detroit Red Wings
Colorado Avalanche *
Nashville Predators *
Dallas Stars *
St. Louis Blues- WC *
Vegas Golden Knights *
Calgary Flames *
San Jose Sharks *
Arizona Coyotes- WC *
Los Angeles Kings
Eastern Conference Champion: Tampa Bay Lightning
Western Conference Champion: Colorado Avalanche
Stanley Cup Champion: Colorado Avalanche
Hart: Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils
Art Ross: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
Vezina: Andrei Vasilevski, Tampa Bay Lightning
Calder: Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche
Norris: John Klingberg, Dallas Stars