Greetings and salutations everyone and welcome to another blog here on BlueCollarBlueShirts.com. Let the NHL’s 2023-24 season commence!
(While I’m using an exclamation mark after the word “commence” – sadly, and if you’ve been reading this site during the off-season – I don’t have high hopes for the Blueshirts this year. But as mentioned before – I can only be surprised – and not letdown – so there’s that!)
Unlike last year at this time when I wrote my annual NHL season preview, when it felt like just the other day that the Colorado Avalanche had vanquished the Tampa Bay Lightning in order to win the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoff tournament; this year, it feels like it’s been a while since we last saw NHL hockey, when the Vegas Golden Knights cruised by the Florida Panthers in five-games this past June.
Of course, and for yours truly at a personal level, the early Rangers’ exit is a big part of it; but even so, the 2023 Stanley Cup Final was also somewhat disappointing, only because the Panthers’ biggest star, Matthew Tkachuk, who had just dominated the Eastern side of the bracket, was injured early into the series and as a result, Florida never had a real chance against the six-year-old franchise from Sin City.
In other words, once Tkachuk went down, a #19 who had entered the series as a Conn Smythe favorite – that was it.
But alas, another season is upon us, and where like any other NHL campaign before it, a majority of these teams will qualify for the playoffs – and aside from this select “Sweet Sixteen” – there will be plenty of other teams vying for a playoff berth come April, 2024.
Up front: This will be a long blog – my longest yet (and that says something) – as there’s no possible way for me to cover all 32 teams in just two sentences – and as many others do.
But hey – you have all weekend, and all of next week too, to read every word!
After that? Every team opens up their camp – so get in when the water is still warm!
For you youngins’, think of this as a transcript of a ninety-minute podcast!
In other words, get out your favorite beverage, sit back and get ready to scroll. We’re hitting the 20,000 word mark – and all for your one click too!
Plus, and even better than that – unlike every other site known to man, and despite these blogs going 10,000+ words on a daily basis – you don’t have to worry about ads, text-links, spyware, pop-ups, multiple clicks to read content or any of that other junk. It’s all about hockey here!
But if you want to donate some dough to my beer and Ranger road-trip funds, then don’t hesitate to ask!
(Have I mentioned yet that my PayPal address is BULLSMC@aol.com and that my Venmo account is Sean-McCaffrey-34? Plus, I have a few books on sale too – and you can find all of that information at the end of this blog, the PLUGS segment.)
Seriously speaking – I wanted to give you the best NHL Season Preview around – and you can be the judge of that!
And now, with the pandering out of the way, let’s roll.
A few quick notes and disclaimers before giving you my profiles on the 32 teams and my Stanley Cup Playoff predictions.
Keep in mind that everything you’re about to read here, while including facts, is all opinion-based – where I’d also like to think that I have somewhat of an educated opinion! (Easy for me to say!)
In addition, other factors, such as injuries, trades or other outside influences, which could stunt momentum or give sliding teams a breather, will play a part in this 2023-24 season – and just like it always does.
In other words, whatever I’m writing right now is based on how these teams stack up prior to the start of the season.
Whatever happens in-season? Well, all of that stuff is totally unpredictable – especially since there also are roster cuts to be made and a few prominent names currently without contract (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Phil Kessel, Tyler Motte, etc).
I have listed/profiled these teams based on their conferences and divisions, and in the order that I feel they will finish in.
Once going through all of the teams, I’ll give you my Conference Final predictions and my Stanley Cup winner. And as I do every season, I’ll revisit this blog once the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs wrap-up and see how I did!
(While I’ve had success in the past, including when I picked three of the four conference finalists in 2022 – I completely bombed last year. Then again, I don’t think anyone predicted a Vegas vs Florida 2023 Final to begin with – a consolation prize for yours truly!)
As it’s been for the past two years, and now for the third consecutive year – the Denver club is this season’s favorite to win the Stanley Cup, with odds of +800 in some places.
And while I don’t believe that the odd-makers are wrong about Jared Bednar’s squad – I also get a chuckle whenever I look at these preseason odds.
After all, and as it’s always the case – the Toronto Maple Leafs, without a Stanley Cup since 1967, have the third-best odds of winning the silver. This just tells me that Leaf fans, and as they usually do, heavily bet on their team, thus bolstering their cause.
But alas, this isn’t a blog about gambling, especially since the hockey gods sure know that we get enough of that crap with the 9676786786786796 commercials during any NHL game.
In other words, there’s no need to routinely pester you with that nonsense here.
Similar to last season, and even with their captain, Gabriel Landeskog, projected to miss the entirety of the 2023-24 campaign – I think the Avalanche greatly benefit from the division that they play in – a division that I believe is the worst in the league – and with all due respect to the flailing clubs in the Pacific.
While the Dallas Stars should remain as a viable threat, the rest of the teams in this division are floundering.
What makes Colorado so strong is that they still have one of the best 1-2 punches in the league, the perennial Hart Trophy candidate, center Nathan MacKinnon, and the best defenseman in hockey today, Cale Makar, who won both the Norris and Conn Smythe trophies in 2022.
Former Ranger goaltender Alexandar Georgiev, who always clamored for a starting spot in New York, thrived in his first foray as a bonafide NHL starter in the Mile-High city. Not only did he receive Vezina voting attention last season (seventh-place), but his 39 wins were only second-best (or first runner-up), to the 2023 Vezina Trophy winner, Linus Ullmark (40).
A word that’s often used in hockey circles these days, especially during playoff time, is the word “grit” – and following the beat-up Avalanche’s first-round loss to the Kraken last year, the franchise sought out “grit” this summer, in the likes of Miles Wood (New Jersey) and Ross Colton (Tampa Bay).
The Avalanche, and just like any other Stanley Cup winner from the salary-cap era, were stripped down a bit following their championship, especially after losing Nazem Kadri (Calgary) last off-season. However, they also didn’t expect to lose Landeskog too – an injury, that unlike last season, that they have prepared for this season.
This franchise is still a winning organization and has all of the pieces in place, all the way up from management and all the way down to their 13th forward and 7th defenseman.
And due to the division that they play in, a playoff spot seems nothing less than automatic for Stan Marsh’s favorite team.
One thing to watch for, especially as a Stanley Cup contender?
Patrick Kane, who had previously expressed interest in joining the Avs last season.
Perhaps the “Carolina Hurricanes of the West,” although the Stars have appeared in a Stanley Cup Final more recently than their Raleigh counterparts (2020); the team from the Big D have been knocking on the door for a while now – but have yet to get over the hump. However, this fact provides not too much concern, as the “Shooting Stars” are a team on the rise – and not a falling star.
Goaltender Jake Oettinger, who finished fifth-place in last year’s Vezina voting, has already put together a string of amazing playoff performances. In front of him is a core that any fan base should be envious of, including the sensational Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz, the ageless Joe Pavelski, captain Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. And who can forget about the 23-year-old defenseman, Miro Heiskanen, who finished seventh-overall in the Norris Trophy voting last year – and who definitely should’ve fared much better than that.
However, I’ve previously aired my gripes on this site with the minus-26 2023 Norris Trophy winner, Erik Karlsson. I won’t bore you again with such redundancy!
Led by the accomplished Peter DeBoer, who admittedly, has always been the bridesmaid but never the bride; the head coach who has lost in two separate Stanley Cup Finals (2012 and 2016), brought another one of his teams to the Conference Finals last year, the sixth of his career, and his first as bench boss of the Stars.
Unfortunately for DeBoer, once there, his team then lost to his former team in six-games, the Golden Knights, who then went on to win the Stanley Cup after firing him a year prior.
Similar to Colorado, Dallas benefits by playing in this weak-on-paper (and we all know how that goes) division. But even so, the Stars would be a top team in any of the league’s four divisions.
Hoping to help get the Stars to the silver for the first time since 1999 is Matt Duchene, who was bought out by the Nashville Predators this summer. The soon-to-be 33-year-old is expected to play in his 1,000th game this season (he’s played in 976 regular season contests) and the veteran is still seeking his first dance with hockey’s holy chalice.
While not exactly a true “dark-horse pick,” I’d expect to see a lot of pundits picking the Texan club to win it all this year over the Vegas favorites, including the Golden Knights themselves.
Even if the team from 10,000 lakes had some sort of a Doc Brown time machine, where they could add an in-their-primes Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe to their ranks – even then – I’d still be hesitant to pick the Wild to win the Stanley Cup, much less their division.
Whatever is in the water in those many lakes in Minnesota, winning is not part of it.
The franchise, set to turn 23-years-old this year, has reached the playoffs in thirteen of those years. However, the last time that the Wild have made it out of the second-round was in 2015 – nearly ten-years ago – and even then, that was a six-game upset, where they were then swept in the next round.
Starting with the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Wild have reached the playoffs seven times in the last eight years, and have only pushed one first-round series to seven-games, and even that comes with an asterisk/footnote, as that was in 2021 – the Covid Cup Playoffs – but the end result was still the same anyway – a first-round seven-game loss to the Vegas Golden Knights.
The Wild, while possessing one of the hottest up-and-comers in the league in Kirill Kaprizov, are somewhat in a mini-rebuild mode, as they are still pressed against the salary-cap following the shocking buyouts from last year (Ryan Suter and Zach Parise).
In a way, they’ve also gotten older, much older at that, too.
While Marc-Andre Fleury is still reliable in net, he’s also not what he once was. For all we know, this may be the last season of the future Hall of Famer’s career – and who knows if he even finishes it in Minnesota, especially should the team falter? It’s expected that his time-share in net will continue with Filip Gustavsson.
Former Ranger Mats Zuccarello, if you can believe it, is now 36-years-old. For the greatest Norwegian hockey player of all-time, #36 remains productive in Minnesota, as his 67 points were good for second-best on the club last season. (Kaprizov scored 75.)
Due to both age and their cap issues, it feels like the Wild enter this season weaker than how they exited last year’s playoffs – a first-round loss to the Stars.
Rather than improving, the Stars lost Ryan Reaves (Toronto), Gustav Nyquist (Nashville), Sam Steel (Dallas), John Klingberg (Toronto), Oskar Sundqvist (St. Louis) and Matt Dumba (Arizona).
And as much as I personally like Vinni Lettieri – the former #95 of the Rangers isn’t going to make up for that lost man-power – duh!
The biggest name that the Wild acquired over the summer was Patrick Maroon – who will turn 36-years-old come the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs – and while still an asset – the best days of his career are now behind him.
So why do I have the Wild finishing third in the division?
It’s what I said before – this division is weak.
Plus, it’s in Minnesota’s DNA, if not their destiny, to lose in the first-round too!
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Admittedly, while I could see Craig Berube’s team finishing ahead of the Wild; but to me, it just feels like the Blues, despite the additions of Kevin Hayes and Oskar Sundqvist, are a team on the decline, rather than on the rise, and especially ever since their 2019 Stanley Cup victory.
Following their first silver win in franchise history, the Blues were bounced out of the playoffs in the first-round twice (2020 and 2021), lost a second-round series to that year’s eventual champions, the Avalanche (2022), and then finished sixth-place in the division last season.
Similar to their divisional foe, the Wild; the Blues also feature a 1-2 punch featuring a young star (Jordan Kyrou, 73 points last season) and a former Ranger too, Pavel Buchnevich (67 points).
The Blue Note also have another former Blueshirt on their roster, Sammy Blais, who was reacquired by general manager Doug Armstrong in the Vladimir Tarasenko trade from last season.
Following Blais’ P.K. Slewban truncated Rangers’ career where he scored zero goals in fifty-four games played – #91 then scored a whopping nine goals in just 31 games played when returned to St. Louis.
There’s been a lot of roster turnover in Missouri, as aside from the names previously mentioned, other former champions, such as Ivan Barbashev and Ryan O’Reilly, are long gone too.
A big question mark for St. Louis is in net.
Back-up goaltender Thomas Greiss is now retired. Replacing the back-stop is the unproven 23-year-old, Joel Hofer. However, it’s the starting goalie, Jordan Binnington, that raises the most eyebrows.
The hero of their 2019 run, it’s been downhill ever since for J.B.
Between his many on-ice blow-ups and breakdowns, Binnington, ever since hoisting the Cup after vanquishing the Bruins in seven-games, has seen his numbers worsen year-by-year.
After starting his NHL career with a 24-5-1 record, a .927 save percentage and 1.89 GAA; last season, Binnington went 27-27-6, finished with the worst GAA of his career (3.31) and for the first time in his short career, posted a save percentage under .900, with a depressing .894%.
If Binnington can’t improve, then it’s hard to see the Blues improving; that is, unless the team catches fire with Hofer – both a tall order and expectation.
The Blues went into tear-down mode at last year’s trade deadline – and I suspect that we’ll see more of the same this season.
Just like the Blues, the Cats from Broadway (albeit, Nashville’s Broadway – and not the one in the Big Apple), have been in a tailspin ever since their lone Stanley Cup Final appearance (2017). However, at least the Blues won the whole shebang in their appearance.
Following their six-game 2017 loss to the Penguins; the Predators, who missed the playoffs last season after their fifth-place finish, haven’t made it out of the second-round since 2018.
And poor Ryan McDonagh, the former captain of the Blueshirts, and two-time Stanley Cup champion in Tampa, who for the first time in his career since entering the league in the 2010-11 season, missed the postseason in 2023.
Currently, Mac is climbing the league’s all-time playoff games played list (185), but it feels like these numbers won’t increase in the Music City.
As shoved down your throat during the never-ending 2023 NHL Awards Show broadcast, there’s a new man in Nashville.
Following twenty-five seasons where David Poile, the only general manager in franchise history, couldn’t bring a championship to town; former Preds’ bench boss, Barry Trotz, is now calling the shots from the big chair.
The biggest acquisition of Trotz’ summer is Ryan O’Reilly, the 2019 Conn Smythe trophy winner, who agreed to a four-year deal worth $18,000,000. Joining R.O.R. for the ride are Luke Schenn (Leafs), Gustav Nyquist (Wild) and Denis Gurianov (Canadiens). This trio joins a group featuring the accomplished defenseman Roman Josi, the strong in net Juuse Saros, and left-winger Filip Forsberg (now on an eight-year deal worth $68,000,000).
Trotz didn’t only make tinkers to his roster, but he made a major change at the bench too.
In one of Big Time Barry’s first moves, the head coach of the 2018 champs, the Washington Capitals, fired John Hynes and then replaced him with Andrew Brunette.
Brunette, who had regular season success (but not postseason, where it matters the most), in his one-and-done season in Florida, when he became the interim head coach following Joel Quenneville stepping down, has been in the news lately for events involving alcohol.
While this may mean nothing; Nashville, or “Smashville” as they call it, is a party town. I can personally attest to that!
In my eyes, the Predators are in a rebuild-on-the-fly mode, and at the very least, can’t compare to the top two teams of this division.
Outside of Manitobians, I think the Jets, now in their second incarnation of the franchise, draw the least amount of interest among the 32 NHL fan bases.
And if it weren’t for the two other teams that follow them, where hey who knows – maybe Connor Bedard sparks the ‘Hawks – then I’d have them further down on this list.
This currents Jets’ core, or what’s left of it, peaked in 2018, following their Conference Final loss to the expansion Golden Knights. After that, it’s been four first-round exits in the last five-years, and where Winnipeg didn’t look impressive in any of those series’.
Even Paul Maurice, former head coach of this crew, realized as much, as he stepped down on his accord, before accepting the job in Sunrise, FL last season.
Rick Bowness, now in his second season with this struggling squad, is still making changes.
After stripping the captaincy away from Blake Wheeler, the 37-year-old was bought out over the summer and then agreed to a one-year cheap deal in New York, following the urging from his former Jet teammate, and now captain of the Rangers, Jacob Trouba.
The Jets didn’t really add much help this summer, where only goaltenders Colin Delia and Laurent Brossoit joined the club via free agency. These two will battle it out for the back-up job, behind Connor Hellebuyck – assuming that the 2020 Vezina Trophy winner isn’t “jettisoned” off himself.
Following the recent loss of Pierre-Luc Dubois (Los Angeles); outside of Hellebuyck’s name in the trade rumor mill, are other long-time Jets, including Kyle Connor, Josh Morrissey and Mark Scheifele – with the latter involved in the trade mix for the past three years. (He may break Jakob Chychrun’s record!)
While the Jets aren’t looking to admit defeat just yet – and embrace a full-blown rebuild – that’s what might eventually happen for general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff – who won’t be afforded to take a “day off” this season either.
As you may have heard, the NHL “allegedly” rigged their annual entry draft this year and awarded the stained Blackhawks with the first-overall pick.
At least that’s the story in both Columbus and Anaheim, among other league markets.
Similar to the Connor before him, McDavid – for Connor Bedard – all eyes are on him.
Suspected and promoted to be a “generational talent” (and boy, oh boy, do pundits love throwing those two words around) – the Windy City club are using the Sidney Crosby blueprint with Bedard – by surrounding him with as many NHL veterans as possible.
Joining the mix in Chi-Town are Corey Perry, Taylor Hall, Nick Foligno and Ryan Donato – but of course – it’s the Bedard Show for the Blackhawks – as the teenage center looks to usher in a new era of success, following the 2023 departures of former Indian Head pillars, and future Hall of Famers at that too, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
If there was ever a franchise “punished” by the salary cap for their success, then it’s these Hawks, who have been forced to trade and ship away more talent than the 2020 and 2021 Lightning ever did.
After winning three Stanley Cups in five years (2010, 2013 and 2015), the Blackhawks haven’t made it out of the first-round since – and have also missed the playoff cut-line four times in the last five years, with their only playoff appearance taking place during the Covid Cup playoffs. (They pulled off an upset against the Oilers in the qualifying round, then lost in the first-round to the Golden Knights.)
And yes, while the whole Kyle Beach fiasco/crimes committed still lingers above them, but it’s a black cloud that the Hawks have been trying to get rid of some for time – and where they are hoping that Bedard is the ray of light that shines through and gets them out of this mess.
It’s going to take some time for this team to regain their status as one of the league’s elite, and while that may eventually happen – it won’t happen this season.
As mentioned many times before on this site – it’s a joke that Gary Bettman’s Personal Pet Project continues their existence.
These Desert Dogs should’ve been put down years ago, as they are nothing but a financial strain for the other 31 teams of the league.
A mockery of the NHL for years, where bad contracts go to die in the cap era; the club is presently without a home and now temporarily plays their “home games” in front of 4,000 fans or less at a college rink.
So much for “revenue sharing.”
Only desperate players, still looking to cling onto an NHL job, agree to a contract with the ‘Yotes.
This franchise, who has never even dared to sniff the salary cap ceiling, and much like their cellar-dweller status, are much obliged to remain at the salary-cap floor. And then they wonder why they have no fan support, and for that matter, local support, in the form of a new arena, either.
Until this franchise moves to Houston, Salt Lake City, Atlanta, Kansas City, Quebec or elsewhere – then the wheels of this hamster cage continues to spin in their fruitless, and without endeavor, exercise.
It doesn’t matter who is on their roster, because even if the Coyotes develop someone and/or find a diamond in the rough – then like Jakob Chychrun (now in Ottawa) – they’ll leave the confines of Arizona at the first chance that they get.
Can you blame the players?
But don’t worry, Bettman says that hockey continues to thrive in Arizona, where outside of their off-ice/arena issues, the team hasn’t qualified for the playoffs since 2012, sans their lone Covid Cup appearance (five-game loss to the Avalanche).
In what’s becoming redundant in Alberta, the Oilers are led by arguably the two best players in the league today – Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl – but as always, and despite this “Batman Meets Superman” duo of all-world talent – it’s what in net that usually sinks them.
McDavid, if you can believe it, finished the 2022-23 campaign at his all-time best, topping his already impressive feats, with a stat line of 64 goals, 83 assists and 153 points, as he easily cruised his way to another Hart Trophy, the third of his career.
Draisaitl, no stranger to the Hart Trophy either, as he won the hardware in 2020; along with his 52 goals, set his career-highs in both assists (76) and points (128) last season. (The German scored 55 goals in the 2021-22 season.)
And while the Oilers have much more depth when compared to previous years of the McD/Drai era (Evander Kane, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zach Hyman and Darnell Nurse); they still have an albatross in net, now in the form of Jack Campbell, who signed a five-year deal worth $25,000,000 overall last season.
Fortunately, the Oilers have seen Stuart Skinner emerge in net – a 24-year-old goalie with a cap charge of $2,600,000 – and which goes through the 2025-26 season.
While Skinner played well in the regular season, he was also exposed a bit in the playoffs, his first true taste of starting postseason action. However, for a league that’s defined by their salary cap – having “The Soup Can” on the books for five-million bucks a season doesn’t help matters.
The Oilers finished only one win and two-points shy of last season’s divisional champs (50 wins, 109 points), and the eventual Stanley Cup champs too, the Golden Knights.
While Vegas may challenge the Oil for the divisional crown once again; I also think it’s safe to assume that Edmonton will also once again break the 100-point barrier – and in turn – easily find themselves in postseason play.
It’s just what they do once they get there.
What’s really been concerning about the Oilers whenever the regular season turns into the postseason, is how they’ve struggled to get out of the first-round.
To be fair, first-round match-ups are usually the most physical and hectic – and anything can happen too – but even so, during the past two postseasons, the Oilers found themselves on the verge of being eliminated by the Kings before eventually finding a way.
While I don’t know if “burnout” plays into this; following these two back-to-back first-round series wins over the Kings, the Oilers haven’t been much of a match for the upper-echelon teams, where ironically, following both their 2022 loss to the Avalanche and their 2023 defeat to the Golden Knights – both of these teams, after knocking off McDavid’s men, then went on to win the Stanley Cup.
It’s my belief that McDavid is going down the Alex Ovechkin career path, rather than down the Sidney Crosby road.
What I mean by this, is that I feel that #97 will eventually win his silver – and in Edmonton too – but he might not get there until he’s in his 30s.
It’s true that goaltending doesn’t mean as much in the postseason when compared to previous eras (who had Logan Thompson winning the Stanley Cup in 2023?); but still, you need to have at least someone capable in-between the pipes.
Until the Oilers can find their man, and a goalie that can prevent first-round series from hitting six and seven games too; it just feels like Edmonton is destined for another postseason loss to an eventual Stanley Cup champ or finalist.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
In a way, it doesn’t really matter what the Golden Knights do during the 2023-24 season.
While of course, a repeat would be nice (duh); just the fact that the franchise lived up to owner Bill Foley’s prediction – a Stanley Cup win in the first six years – well, that was all that was needed.
And while several other teams of the salary cap era have repeated before (Penguins and Lightning), it’s a tall order.
Perhaps what’s most impressive about the Sin City squad, and unlike previous champions before them – the Knights really didn’t lose much during the summer, as no severe roster turnover was suffered.
Most of the crew is back, including Jack “Buffalo Who?” Eichel, 2023 Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Marchessault, Ivan “Best Trade Deadline Acquisition” Barbashev, captain Mark Stone, Brett “Ha Ha Rangers” Howden and everyone else, sans Original Misfit, Reilly Smith – who was dealt to the Penguins this summer in order to open up cap space for Barbashev.
Really, the biggest question mark for the Knights this season is the status of Robin Lehner, the goaltender that led Vegas into trading away the first face of their franchise, Marc-Andre Fleury.
After missing the entire 2022-23 season, and where Vegas used five different goalies when trying to find someone to fill Lehner’s skates; the 32-year-old Swedish netminder’s future is presently unclear.
Currently, Lehner, with a cap-hit of $5,000,000 per season (and with two seasons remaining on his contract), remains on Vegas’ long-term injured reserve list. With Lehner out of the mix, at least for now, both Logan Thompson and Adin Hill will return to the Golden Knights’ nets.
But once Lehner is able to return?
Then Vegas general manager, Kelly McCrimmon, and head coach Bruce Cassidy too, will have to make a decision.
A high-roller franchise as you’d expect, Vegas always operates at the cap ceiling and doesn’t have enough room to retain Lehner – not that I’m sure that he’ll ever play again for the team anyway.
But still, if it’s not an early retirement, then Vegas will have to find a way to eliminate his contract from their books.
This team is built to win, and win they will this season.
Despite residing in Vegas, I don’t forsee a “championship hangover” for this bunch and the Knights will have no problems reaching the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
It’s been a nice little turnaround in La La Land, where following their 2014 Stanley Cup victory (over the Rangers – UGH), the Kings experienced some lean years, due to age, wear-and-tear and the salary cap.
Ever since their second Stanley Cup win in franchise history (2012 was the first), the silver-and-black haven’t made it out of the first-round since that time.
After missing the playoff cut-line in three straight seasons (2019-21), the Kings have played valiantly in a pair of first-round losses to the Oilers (2022 and 2023).
While I can’t see the Kings sitting atop of the NHL’s throne again just yet; this is a new group full of potential.
Only Anze Kopitar (36-years-old) and Drew Doughty (33-years-old) remain from the glory years, as Jonathan Quick, traded to Vegas last season, is now in New York to wrap up his future Hall of Fame career. These two LA leaders are now joined by a plethora of scoring talent, including Adrian Kempe, Philip Danault, Kevin Fiala and the recently acquired Pierre-Luc Dubios.
Now out of the Quick era, the Kings are experimenting in net. Two of the three goaltenders that LA used last year, Cal Petersen (Flyers) and Jonas Korpisalo (Ottawa) are gone. Only Pheonix Copley, who will turn 32-years-old next season, remains.
Joining Copley in the ranks are a pair of former starters, and once former rivals in the “Battle of Alberta,” journeymen Dave Rittich, and my favorite, “The Goalbuster,” Cam Talbot.
While it’s Talbot’s job to lose, he caught the injury bug last season. In either event, whoever prevails for the #2 spot will most likely enjoy a timeshare in net, unless Copley, or his back-ups (on paper), can firmly wrest the job away.
And for what it’s worth, it was Korpisalo, and not Copley, who started for the Kings in their six playoff games last year.
Should the Kings really make a run, then most likely, and similar to the Rangers, they’ll need something out of their high-end draft picks – Quinton Byfield and Alex Turcotte – two players who haven’t lived up to the billing just yet.
On paper, and again, we all know how that goes, the Ducks should be good. Then again, I thought the same thing last year and in turn, the Ducks quacked themselves straight to the bottom – with a league last-place finish of 23-47-12 (58 points).
One look at the Ducks roster and it’s perplexing to figure out why Pat Verbeek, now the team’s general manager, has such a mess on his hands.
With budding stars such as Troy Terry, Trevor Zegras and Mason MacTavish, coupled with veterans such as Ryan Strome, Frank Vatrano, Cam Fowler, Adam Henrique and long-time franchise goalie, John Gibson – it’s baffling when trying to explain why the Ducks were blown out of the water last season.
While yes, up-and-coming rearguard Jamie Drysdale was lost early into the season due to injury; that is no excuse either. Every team battles injuries.
The Ducks saw a lot of roster turnover this season, as they parted ways with Kevin Shattenkirk (Bruins), Simon Benoit (Leafs), Max Comtois (still a UFA) and several other fringe NHLers.
Joining the party in Anaheim are two-time Cup champ Alex Killorn, Radko Gudas and Ilya Lyubushkin.
On paper, Killorn should bolster this team, but one last time – the games are played on the ice – and not on paper.
The Ducks haven’t reached the postseason since 2018 – where they were swept by their in-state rivals, the Sharks, in the first-round.
There’s nowhere to go but up in Disneyland, and maybe the Ducks will have “Disney Moment” too – and finally snap their playoff schneid.
For what it’s worth, that’s what I expect.
As a whole, the league’s 32nd team fell victim to the franchise that preceded them, team #31, the Golden Knights.
After one of the best expansion drafts in league history in 2017; five-years later, NHL general managers wised-up and wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.
Previous to the inception of the Seattle squad, Vegas was able to fleece numerous teams, in order to build a team that made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in Year 1. When it came time for the Kraken expansion draft, rival general managers weren’t as obliging, and in turn, not one pre-draft trade was made.
However, none of that deterred the Krakheads.
Following an inaugural 2021-22 season where the team finished in last place; a year later, their sophomore year in the top league in the world, the Kraken not only finished forty points better than the year before (a whopping total of 100 points – where admittedly, it’s much easier for NHL teams to hit the century-mark plateau these days); but then they qualified for the playoffs too.
As the first-seeded wild card team of the West, the Kraken upset the 2022 Stanley Cup champs, the Avalanche, in a first-round seven-game set, thus securing their first playoff series win in franchise history.
In the second-round, the Kraken fell one goal shy of moving on to the Conference Final, but they were ultimately defeated by the Stars, 2-1, in another do-or-die Game 7.
And to think, none of this happened with Shane Wright, the once thought-to-be no-doubt-about-it first-overall pick of the 2022 NHL Entry Draft – and who fell to fourth-overall to Seattle. Following a disappointing eight-game stint, Wright spent the rest of the season at both the AHL and OHL levels.
Going into this season, Wright’s future, which can still be bright (he’s only 19-years-old – and thus he has plenty of time to figure it out), is yet to be determined – as it’s not known yet where he’ll start the season – as all three leagues, the NHL, the AHL and the OHL, are still on the table for him.
While it wasn’t Wright, it was Matty Beniers for the Kraken, as the southpaw center, following his 57-point season, won the 2023 Calder Trophy.
The Kraken’s summer wasn’t entirely “sexy,” but entering Year 3, it didn’t have to be. It’s still all about development and growing pains for this up-and-coming club.
Joining the likes of Jared McCann, Vince Dunn, Jordan Eberle, Yanni Gourde, Brandon Tanev and goaltenders Chris Driedger & Phillip Grubauer this season in Seattle are not exactly a “who’s who” list of hockey, as the Kraken, who are spending all the way up to the salary-cap ceiling, added Marian Studenic, Brian Dumoulin, Kailer Yammamoto, and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.
These players replace the retired Joonas Doskoi, Martin Jones (Toronto), Ryan Donato (Chicago), Daniel Sprong (Detroit) and Carson Soucy (Vancouver).
For head coach Dave Hakstol, his team won’t catch anyone in the league by surprise anymore, and while I don’t think that the Kraken will repeat their second-year success with another 100-point season – I do see them reaching the playoffs again – this time as a second wild card.
A once proud hockey market, the city of Calgary has seen many of their cowboys leave for different rodeos, and in a way, is now viewed as either Winnipeg or Columbus – not so desirable.
Former general manager, Brad Treliving, now in Toronto, had his hands tied – and did the best that he could – when he watched Johnny Gaudreau bolt to Ohio for nothing in return, while being forced to trade away Matt Tkachuk, a unicorn in this league, to Florida.
To replace these stars, Treliving brought in Jonathan Huberdeau and Nazem Kadri – and where both players had down seasons (Huberdeau went from a 115-point season to only netting 55-points) – which matched the down-and-disappointing season that the Flames had, following their fifth-place, and no playoffs to be had, finish.
Come the end of the season, head coach Darryl Sutter joined Treliving on the unemployment line.
Led by former Ranger and now Calgary’s Head of Hockey Operations Don Maloney, the Flames have a new brain trust in town – general manager Craig Conroy, and his head coach hire of Ryan Huska. This tandem is tasked to bring the Flames back to the Final for the first time in twenty years (2004, seven-game loss to the Lightning).
While I have the Flames pegged to finish in fifth-place again, mainly due to the top three teams of this division being so heavy; you have to think that they’ll improve a bit this year.
After all, it can’t get much worse, as there was a lot of mutiny in Calgary last season, and as is evident by the managerial and front office changes.
Similar to the changes in management, there is some roster turnover too, as Milan Lucic (Boston), Tyler Toffoli (New Jersey) and Trevor Lewis (Los Angeles), among others, are gone. The Flames didn’t really add too much this summer, as Yegor Sharangovich, formerly of the Devils, was the only “get.”
In a way, the Flames are banking on their stars from a yesteryear, including both Huberdeau and Kadri, along with goalie Jacob Markstom, Blake Coleman, MacKenzie Weegar and Rasmus Andersson, to carry the load.
However, what’s emerged in Calgary in recent years still lingers, as defenseman Noah Hanifin, like other previous Flames’ stars before him, has made it clear that he won’t re-sign with the club.
The blue-liner is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and one of Conroy’s credos is to not repeat the mistakes of the past.
In other words, Hanifin will be traded soon enough, but for the new GM, he won’t have much leverage until the trade deadline – assuming that Hanifin remains and plays well.
The 2022-23 season for the ‘Nucks was an utter disaster, between the way the whole Bruce Boudreau debacle was handled and with the team’s performance on the ice. The only bright spot for the City of Lights? The fact that they weren’t the Ducks or the Sharks.
However, and unlike the two struggling Californian clubs – Vancouver was expected to be better, as San Jose has embraced a full-blown rebuild, while the Ducks are still trying to put the pieces together.
Rick Tocchet, who replaced Boudreau in-season, remains behind the Canucks’ bench, as he continues to push his message – a message that former Ranger, and one of the biggest first-round lottery pick busts of all-time, Vitali Kravtsov, didn’t embrace.
After being told that he has to work hard in the summer by his head coach; Crybaby Kravtsov immediately ran home to Russia and will now spend the 2023-24 season toiling around in the league where NHL careers go to die, the KHL.
There is plenty of talent in Vancouver and it’s up to Tocchet to get the most out of it. The 24-year-old star, center Elias Pettersson, still remains, but he’s also set to become a restricted free agent in the Summer of ’24.
J.T. Miller, the biggest cap percentage hit on the team (9.7%), is entering the first-year of his new seven-year deal which annually pays him $8,000,000. Miller, the former Ranger and who is now 30-years-old, experienced a slight drop-off last season, going from 99 points to 82 points. It should also be mentioned that his contract carries a no-move clause – and for a team that may look to rebuild if things don’t work out.
A name that was linked in some trade talk this summer is Brock Boeser, who finished with 55-points, but also finished second-worst on the team with a plus/minus stat of -20. Only the departed Oliver Ekman-Larsson (-24, and now in Florida), fared worse.
The team is still anchored in net by Thatcher Demko, but even he had the worst season of his career last year, going 14-14-4, a 3.16 GAA and a .901 save percentage. However, he was also injured, having suffered a torn groin.
Joining the Pacific Northwest this season are the controversial Ian Cole, 2023 Cup Champ Teddy Bleuger, the reliable Carson Soucy, agitator Matt Irwin, and the Swiss winger, Pius Suter.
The Canucks didn’t lose anyone of true significance in the off-season either.
A player to keep an eye on, and who could tremendously benefit the team, is the 22-year-old Russian right-winger, Vasily Podkolzin.
For a franchise that hopes to turn it around, I must ask – can this team compete with top three teams of the division? To me, that’s a big ask.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
For former Rangers’ head coach David Quinn, his team didn’t have much “swagger” last season. And with their best player from the 2022-23 campaign now in Pittsburgh, Erik “Not My Norris Trophy Winner” Karlsson – it figures to be another long season for a club that’s embraced a full-blown rebuild – where unfortunately for DQ – seems to be the only work that he gets – teams years away from winning.
Most likely, the Sharks, the fourth-worst team of the league last season (60 points), will finish the 2023-24 campaign with five consecutive seasons of playoff misses. But for them, and at this present moment – that’s okay – as they looking to stockpile young talent for potential future perennial playoff runs.
Simply stated, there’s not much to get excited about in San Jose, where you have to wonder if other Shark stalwarts, such as team captain Logan Couture and their alternate captain Tomas Hertl, will go back on what they’ve previously said – and look for a way out – and as previous stars have done, including Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns, Joe Thornton and Karlsson.
Goaltending wise, neither Kaapo Kakanen, nor Mackenzie Blackwood either, will instill fear into anyone.
The biggest add for the Sharks this summer was the now 28-year-old Anthony Duclair – who adds the seventh NHL jersey to his resume.
And after reaching a Stanley Cup Final last season in Florida, I’d expect a “first-to-worst” scenario for the former Duke of New York.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
In my eyes, this division, which has produced the last five Eastern Conference/Prince of Wales champions (Boston in 2019, Tampa in 2020, 2021 and 2022 and Florida in 2023), is the toughest to predict.
However, when it comes to who finishes in first, I feel extremely confident in saying that the Leafs will blow away the competition – at least during the regular season.
After that? It’s anyone’s guess.
While the bottom teams of the Atlantic Division, franchises who haven’t sniffed the playoffs in recent years, such as the Sabres, Senators, Red Wings and Canadiens, all made improvements; at the same time, and like other bad teams profiled in this preview – this quartet has nowhere else to go but up – except for the Habs!
It’s the three other franchises, assumed competitors, that I have ranked below the Original Six Leafs, that are most concerning.
As mentioned numerous times before, the Lightning, following all of their success, have been stripped nearly to the bone as result of the hard salary-cap era. The Panthers, who won this conference last season, had a Cinderella run, and on paper (no more disclaimers about this phrase), enter the 2023-24 campaign weaker than when we last saw them. (Or so I say!)
The Bruins, who made NHL history last season following their 135 point 2022-23 regular season campaign?
Well, we’ll get to them in just a bit.
Similar to the Avalanche, I think that Toronto wins this division by default, as they had the least amount of significant departures (roster-wise), while the other teams chasing them were nicked.
Following the Leafs reaching the second-round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since Brian Leetch last manned their blue line (2004); their near twenty-year-old first-round “curse” was finally broken.
Better than that, they were also able to dethrone the reigning three-time Eastern Conference champs too, their rival, the Bolts.
After ending the Lightning dynasty, the Leafs then received another fortunate break (again – on paper!), when the second wild card of the East, the Panthers, pulled off one of the biggest playoff upsets of all-time, in their seven-game series victory over the Presidents’ Trophy winners, the Bruins.
(Crazier than that? The Cats once trailed the series, three games to one.)
But of course, Toronto is Toronto.
As Leaf fans peppered all of Ontario with “WE WANT FLORIDA” chants – that dream was soon realized – a dream that immediately became a nightmare – as the Panthers made short work of the Leafs in five-games.
Following the embarrassing loss, it was a tumultuous summer in Leaf Land. After second-guessing himself in his own public exit interview, the hand-picked general manager Kyle Dubas, long to be rumored on the hot seat, was finally fired by team president Brendan Shanahan. Now replacing Dubas in the city that Conn Smythe made famous is former Calgary GM, Brad Treliving.
Right away, Treliving had to make a ton of big decisions, where not only did he have to determine the fate of his “Core Four” (where let’s face it – this Toronto foursome is nothing like the championship “Core Four” New York Yankees – Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada – a quartet who first received such a label, and with a tip of the cap to #51, Bernie Williams, too) – Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander; but for good measure – the GM had to make a decision on his head coach too.
As the dust cleared, and as July 4th quickly became Labor Day in the USA; this franchise, which has not been able to win with bench boss Sheldon Keefe and their top stars, brought everyone back – while the fired Dubas quickly moved on to Pittsburgh, PA.
Similar to their counterparts in western Canada, the Oilers; the Leafs from the east have had their own goaltending issues over the years too – and where it’s also hard to get excited about the four backstops currently on the roster – Joseph Woll, Martin Jones, Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov.
While all four of these rubber-stoppers have had a modicum of success in the league; the “puck stops here” mantra doesn’t apply to any of them either.
During these myriad of recent Leaf failures, aka playoff runs; the franchise has done both everything and anything possible to acquire gritty players – and playoff battle-tested players too.
Whether it’s been Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Ryan O’Reilly (who I was surprised to see leave the Leafs for the lowly Predators, as he’s a prototype for what Toronto needs), Mark Giordano (who remains) and whatever other veteran name that you can conjure up – it hasn’t worked.
“Insanity is doing the same thing over-and-over and expecting different results.” – Webster dictionary.
Perhaps the biggest name acquired by the Leafs this off-season is one of the league’s heavyweight champions, Ryan Reaves.
While Reaves is a good locker room guy and will protect his teammates too; it is just baffling that he received a three-year deal, worth $4,050,000 overall, from Treliving. After all, who was Treliving competing against?
Simply put: I just can’t imagine the other 31 NHL GMs around the league lining up to offer the soon-to-be 37-year-old a three-year deal. A one-year deal would have been suffice.
But of course, this is also a copycat league, and after watching Vegas win the Stanley Cup by embracing an “all-in” mentality (and contracts too), while not worrying about the future – I guess you can see why Treliving went to such extreme measures to land his man. (And it’s a good plan – but only if it works.)
Furthermore, and while they are two different players, it’s also tough to envision Reaves replacing the production of Michael Bunting, who is now in Carolina.
Defensively, the Leafs lost Erik Gustafsson to New York, but they are hoping to upgrade with a rejuvenated and motivated John Klingberg, who joins a blue line anchored by Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie.
Offensively, the Leafs are also crossing their fingers that both Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi are upgrades over Noel Acciari (Penguins) and Alexander Kerfoot (Coyotes) too.
As you can see, there’s been a lot of turnover in Toronto – but at the same time – nothing too drastic.
And at the end of the day, it all boils down to what the top four forwards will do.
While I do believe that the Leafs will steamroll this division – if not win the Presidents’ Trophy too – until this core has one signature playoff performance – then it’s hard to pick them to go far in the Stanley Cup tournament.
However, I do think that they’ll win two rounds this year – and for the first time since 2002.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Arguably, the Bolts still have one of the best coaches in the league (Jon Cooper), one of the best defensemen in the league (Victor Hedman), one of the best goalies in the league (Andrei Vasilevskiy) and a heck of a 1-2-3 scoring punch too (Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov).
What can’t be argued?
This franchise has peaked – but that’s not a bad thing.
After all, every fan base in the league would give their left testicle (and their right one too) to see their favorite team win back-to-back Stanley Cups – and where really – Tampa has been a prominent threat to the silver ever since 2015 – nearly a decade’s worth of time.
What was built by former general manager Steve Yzerman, and then improved on by his successor, GM Julien BriseBois, has been nothing short of amazing. But for the last time – they are now a victim of their own success.
Between losing one of the greatest third lines in NHL history due to the salary cap (Yanni Gourde/Barclay Goodrow/Blake Coleman), an assistant captain (Ryan McDonagh), grit guys (Ross Colton and Corey Perry), and budding stars (Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat) too – this once super-team has been broken up – if not shattered.
Plus, their superstars are now older – and have all of the playoff mileage to show for it too.
While I wouldn’t throw in the white towel on the Bolts just yet; they had their time.
BriseBois has made some savvy moves to soften all of the blows, as the previously acquired Tanner Jeannot and Brandon Hagel are good additions. And due to this division, although there is a possibility of one or two of the teams that I have ranked below getting hot – I still think that the Lightning are a playoff team.
But do they stack up against other playoff contenders?
I think those days are bygone.
For the Lightning, and akin to other seasoned playoff squads – there are two major things to keep an eye on – injuries and the trade deadline.
Should the Bolts, who have had injury issues before, stay healthy, then they should be in a good position to do what they’ve been doing in recent years – beef up at the deadline. However, it will be tougher in 2024, as the franchise has pretty much traded away most of its draft capital when preparing for deep playoff runs in the past.
I have a 2014 Ranger vibe (Cinderella) about the Cats this season – but unlike that Eastern Conference Champion – I don’t see the Panthers winning the Presidents’ Trophy in 2024, nor reaching the Eastern Conference Final again either.
Let’s face it – everything broke right for the Panthers during the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs, aside from the Final itself – and that’s not a knock against them – nor is that to take away from anything that they achieved either.
But to expect this team to pull off three historic playoff-round upsets again? That’s a big ask.
Like any other preview that you’ll read about this franchise, the biggest question mark for Florida is in net, where the $10,000,000 per-year (12% of the team’s cap), Sergei Bobrovsky, has been inconsistent ever since first inking that deal in the summer of 2019. His back-ups (Anthony Stolarz and Spencer Knight) are just as shaky, and no one knows the status of Knight just yet, who is currently in the league’s rehab program.
The Panthers will most likely be missing one-third of their starting blue line entering this season, as both Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour are recovering from off-season injuries. Ditto the new face of the franchise, perhaps the most exciting player in all of the league today, Matthew Tkachuk.
General Manager Bill Zito said goodbye to several of his playoff stalwarts this summer, including Anthony Duclair (Sharks), Marc Staal (Flyers), Radko Gudas (Ducks) and Alex Lyon (Red Wings); while former Cup champion, Patric Hornqvist retired.
To fill the holes, Zito made a bevy of depth signings/moves, especially at defense, including former Ranger Niko Mikkola, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Dmitry Kulikov and Mike Reilly; while adding to his forward group in the likes of Evan Rodrigues, Rasmus Asplund and Steve Lorentz.
Similar to their in-state rival, the Lightning; I think the Panthers are good enough to reach the playoffs again, but as said at the top of this – this is a coin-flip division – and the toughest one to get a read on too.
Truly, I could see five teams from this division nabbing playoff berths, and outside of Toronto as the first seed of the Atlantic – I think it’s a crap-shoot – which is good for the NHL.
This is not a misprint – not only do I have the Sabres finishing ahead of the Bruins, who need I remind you, had the greatest regular season of all-time – but I also have the wing-eaters devouring-and-snapping their dozen-year playoff drought too.
After all, the law of averages will tell you that it’s finally time for Buffalo, the league’s best American market (television/streaming ratings-wise), to end their historic schneid.
Admittedly, the reason for this bold prediction (but perhaps not-so-bold for Buffalo residents), is predicated on the club’s up-and-coming emerging goaltender, Devon Levi.
In just seven games of action, Levi, called-up at the end of the season, went 5-2 and finished with a 2.94 GAA and .905 save percentage.
And of course – he went 2-0 against the Rangers too.
While maybe Levi, like many before him, is just a “Ranger Killer” (no one knows more about this topic better than me – after all, I just wrote a book about it – and check the PLUGS segment for all of the details); in my eyes, he does look to be the real deal.
It’s hard to envision Levi beginning the season in the AHL, even if the Sabres have two other NHL goalies on their roster, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Eric Comrie. While UPL may start the season – Levi will finish it.
After years-upon-years of growing pains, the Sabres finally have something exciting to watch. Tage Thompson (94 points last season) could hit the century-mark this season. Even Jeff Skinner, who has one of the worst contracts in the league (eight-years/$72M overall), scored 82 points last season – good for second-best on the club – and his best season yet in Western, NY.
Former Bruins’ rearguard, Connor Clifton, joins a youthful bunch at the Buffalo blueline, in the likes of former first-overall picks, Owen Power and Rasmus Dahlin. They are complemented by the stay-at-home Mattias Samuelsson, son of former Ranger, Kjell (and read my “Tricks of the Trade” book to see what a disastrous trade that was, when then GM Phil Esposito shipped Kjell to the Flyers).
Head coach Don Granato has done an admirable job ever since taking over the team during the Covid era, and players such as Dylan Cozens and Alex Tuch have also taken major strides under him.
If not now, then when?
I believe it’s this year for the Sabres, who only missed the playoffs by one-point last season, to finally make their long overdue postseason return.
I say this every year in my annual NHL Season Previews, but I really mean it this time – this will be the year that the black-and-gold tumble down the standings.
And while anything can happen in this division, and you can’t count them out either – I think the Bruins’ seven-year playoff streak finally comes to an end too.
In either event, there’s nowhere to go but down for the B’s.
After all, there’s just no way that the B’s will match their unprecedented and historic 2022-23 campaign, where they went 65-12-5 (135 points) – and where both their win and point totals are now league records.
(Of course, and I don’t think I have to explain this to you – they are also a product of their era, since they play a 82-game schedule, devoid of ties – and unlike previous NHL superteams, including the multiple Montreal Canadien dynasties. But of course, you can only do what you can in your own era – and they were pretty damn good at it. In fact, they were the best at it.)
In a way, these Bruins of the past dozen years, are somewhat disappointing.
Yes, they won the Stanley Cup in 2011, but historically, I think this team will one day be remembered (if not right now in the present day), for all of their misses, rather than for their one win.
While they aren’t exactly the Emile Francis “We Did Everything But Win” era of Rangers; how can anyone argue against the notion, that this team, and their core, should’ve won multiple Stanley Cups, including in 2009, 2010, 2013, 2019, and of course, in 2023 too?
While I’m not saying that the Bruins should’ve won in each of these years; at the very least, they should’ve at least won three championships, rather than the one that they actually won.
It’s something that Bruins fans, and down the line, when a future generation dissects and examines all of this, will routinely think about.
I’m just ahead of the curve!
(And all of this gives more credence to a cause that I’ve been pushing for years – goaltender Tim Thomas belongs in the Hall of Fame. He did what no one else could do in Boston in this era.)
Following the previous retirements/departures of Thomas, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask; two other legendary Bruins, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, are now retired too.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the team also lost 2018 MVP Taylor Hall, the crown jewel of their 2023 trade deadline Tyler Bertuzzi (and to a rival no less), Nick Foligno (Chicago), Connor Clifton (Buffalo), the gritty Garnett Hathaway (Philadelphia), Dmitry Orlov (Carolina) and Tomas Nosek (New Jersey).
There’s no way to spin it – the additions don’t replace the subtractions.
Joining the likes of Brad Marchand, Charlie McAvoy, David Pastrnak, Charlie Coyle, Linus Ullmark and Hampus Lindholm in Massachusetts are Morgan Geekie, the returning Milan Lucic, the checked-out Kevin Shattenkirk, Jesper Boqvist and James van Reimsdyk – a motley crew who obviously can’t replace the Hall of Fame talent that was lost.
For head coach Jim Montgomery, now in his second season, and who watched his team choke in the playoffs last year; there are a lot of holes in the middle in Beantown. Maybe GM Don Sweeney can find a center or two to replace his retired black-and-gold players, but that won’t be easy. (One suggestion? Mark Sheifele.)
Everyone involved with the Bruins – management, players, coaches and the fans – have to be sick to their stomach over last year. That should’ve been the last hurrah – and a way to end an era on a high note too.
Instead, the Bruins may now find themselves in a similar fate as their other Original Six peers are currently experiencing – the Wings and the Habs – via a rebuild – and with many lean years ahead.
Last year at this time, everyone was raving about GM Pierre Dorion’s off-season and where it was also thought that the team from Canada’s capital city would finally end their five-year playoff drought, having last made their most recent playoff appearance during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs (a seven-game Eastern Conference Final loss to the Penguins).
And yes – I was one of these people too!
After adding Claude Giroux, Cam Talbot, Alex Debrincat, Tyler Motte and Derick Brassard to their ranks; the team then went 39-35-8 (86 points) and then ultimately missed the playoff cut-line by seven points.
And oh, following all of these additions, only Giroux remains with the club today, as Talbot is now in Los Angeles, Motte was traded to the Rangers at the deadline (again), Brassard is an unrestricted free agent and Debrincat forced a trade to Detroit.
If that wasn’t enough on the Senators’ plate, then here’s one for you: Head coach D.J. Smith, and according to those evil sports books in Vegas, currently has the best odds of being the first coach fired in-season during the 2023-24 campaign.
That just goes to show you the faith that the sharps and pundits have in this team.
However, there is some cause for optimism in Ottawa.
Vladimir Tarasenko, the 2019 Stanley Cup champ, is in town. Joining him are starting goaltender Joonas Korpisalo and Zack MacEwen, among others.
The Senators will also have a healthy Jakob Chychrun in their ranks, who they traded for prior to last year’s deadline.
As previously stated, your guess is as good as mine when it comes to this division.
If this young core, led by captain Brady Tkachuk, and bolstered by fellow “youts” such as Tim Stutzle, Drake Batherson, Shane Pinto, Thomas Chabot and the recently re-signed defenseman Jake Sanderson (eight-years/$64,400,000 overall) can put it together; then it wouldn’t be a surprise should the Sens finally end their six-year playoff drought.
However, can they bump the Leafs, Lightning and Panthers?
I’m not so sure about that – but I can see them contending for a wild-card berth – but only if the Sabres continue their losing ways.
Should the Senators extend their playoff schneid to seven-years, then expect Tarasenko, who only signed a one-year deal in Ottawa, to become the top name of the 2024 NHL Trade Deadline – and that’s what I think will happen.
And perhaps #91 will land with the team that he originally rebuffed this summer too – the Hurricanes.
DETROIT RED WINGS
After leaving the Lightning as their general manager; the legendary Class of 2019 Hall of Famer, Steve Yzerman, made his grand return to Detroit in April of 2019. However, for the three-time Stanley Cup champion, the Wings have been without a playoff berth during his entire tenure – four consecutive seasons – and with this division – I think that streak will soon extend to five.
I have to ask – at what point do we see the fruits of the “Yzerplan” in Motown?
However, Yzerman, win-or-lose, will be afforded a long leash, not only because of his success as a player with the Spoked Wheel, but because of the success that he had in Tampa too.
The Red Wings, who finished thirteen points out of a playoff spot last season (80 points), had a busy summer.
Gone are Dominik Kubalik (Ottawa), former draft lotto pick Filip Zadina (San Jose), Pius Suter (Vancouver), Robert Hagg (Anaheim), Gustav Lindstrom (Montreal), goalies Alex Nedeljkovic & Magnus Hellberg (both with Pittsburgh) and Adam Erne (UFA).
Joining the ranks are the previously mentioned Alex Debrincat, J.T. Compher, Shayne “Thank God I’m Out of Arizona” Gostisbehere, Jeff Petry, Daniel Sprong, Klim Kostin, Justin Holl and journeyman goalie, James Reimer.
This mish-mash lot joins a franchise led by captain Dylan Larkin, and a team also featuring the likes of the disappointing hometown boy Andrew Copp, the 35-year-old David Perron, young stud Lucas Raymond, the sensational up-and-comer Moritz Seider, and the long-in-the-tooth Ben Chariot.
One look at all of this turnover tells me that this is a roster that will need a lot of time to gel – and I’m not so sure how long this roster sticks together in the first place.
After all, with a goaltending tandem of Ville Husso and Reimer, it’s one of the weakest duos in the division.
In a way, it feels like Yzerman is throwing stuff at a wall and hoping for something for stick.
Prediction? He’ll be doing the same thing next summer – after trading away many of his players at this year’s deadline.
As said many times before on this site – I don’t want to hear it. Yes, the Habs reached the 2021 Stanley Cup Final – but they weren’t only a Cinderella team – but they greatly benefited from the Covid Cup times too.
Following that appearance, it’s been a pair of last-place finishes in this division.
However, Montreal is in it for the long haul, and the modus-operandi under Team President Jeff Gorton, GM Kent Hughes and head coach Martin St. Louis is to embrace some bad times, with the hopes of many glorious years in the future.
That said, the 2023-24 season won’t be that year, as very likely, the once-great Canadiens will find themselves in last-place again.
Just one look at this roster, and especially when compared to the other teams of the division, and then it’s very easy to ascertain that there isn’t much to be excited about.
Captain Nick Suzuki leads a group that won’t be together much longer, including the soon-to-be 32-year-old Brendan Gallagher, and other elder statesmen as well, including Christian Dvorak, Joel Armia, Josh Anderson, David Savard, Chris Wideman and Jake Allen.
For Montreal, it’s all about developing their younger players, including the hit-or-miss Cole Caufield, first-overall draft pick Juraj Slafkovsky, Arber Xhekaj, Jordan Harris, Kirby Dach and Alex Newhook.
And if things “break right” – then perhaps Montreal will find themselves as a winner of another NHL Draft Lottery too.
For what it’s worth, the 36-year-old Carey Price, the goaltender of his own generation, and who has only played in five games since the team’s 2021 Stanley Cup Final loss, remains on the roster, albeit with the long-term injured reserve designation. Perhaps a retirement is forthcoming – but with three-years left on a deal that pays him $10,500,000 annually – he may just be happy to be perpetually injured.
Either way, it makes no sense for Montreal to return Price to their net – and it makes no sense for any of the other 31 teams in the league to take on his contract either.
Then again, Arizona is always willing to bend over and take it up their five-hole.
After all, that’s where Price’s former captain, Shea Weber is – as the Yotes are using the final five-years of the d-man’s contract to reach the NHL’s salary-cap floor.
What a joke.
While I said in the Avalanche preview that I didn’t want to get bogged down with the gambling odds in Vegas – a quick exception here for Rod Brind’Amour’s group – and as a way to explain why the Canes aren’t a “dark horse” pick for the Cup anymore.
Similar to Colorado, and depending where you shop for your bookie or legal betting operator, Carolina currently has the best odds of winning the chalice at +800. However, most books have the team from Raleigh at +900 – good for second-best behind the Mile High bunch.
In other words, Carolina is primed now, and as previously mentioned, it seems like they have followed the Tampa Bay blueprint too.
After missing the playoffs in nine consecutive seasons (2009-10 through 2017-18); in 2019 and with a new core emerging, a group featuring such talent as Sebastion Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov, Jaccob Slavin, and long-time Cane Jordan Staal too; the franchise made a statement in their return to the postseason.
During the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Hurricanes upset and eliminated the 2018 Stanley Cup champions (Capitals) in the first-round in seven games and then swept the Islanders in the second-round. Now in the Conference Final, the Canes were then swept by the Bruins. While that loss was crushing, it was this run that gave the bulk of this core their first taste of playoff experience.
However, it then took the Hurricanes four more years to return to the Conference Final, where in 2023, and just like in 2019 – they were swept again, this time by the Panthers – where this time around – not only was this loss crushing, but it was also somewhat inexcusable – especially with all four games being decided by only one goal.
Anyone want to be a hero?
Maybe we’ll see one in 2024.
You only get so many kicks at the can, a limited amount due to this salary cap era, and for this franchise, who has won the last three straight Metropolitan Division titles – it’s now starting to feel like now-or-never.
And with the recent and arresting moves that general manager Don Waddell has employed – the man on Tobacco Road has the same mentality.
For a team with high hopes, and projected to reach the Stanley Cup Final too (and then win it once there); it is curious when looking at the state of their goaltending.
The pair of veterans, Antti Raanta and Frederik Andersen, both serviceable in their own right but still concerning nonetheless, haven’t had their jobs wrested away from them just yet, in the form of the younger puck-stopper on the roster, the 24-year-old Russian, Pyotr Kochetkov.
That said, it might not even matter, as the only thing that matters is who gets the nod in net come the postseason.
After all, and injuries were a factor too, this trio split the net last season. (Andersen played in 34 games, Raanta played in 27 games and Kochetkov played in 24 games.)
During the 2021-22 season, the exiled-from-New York Tony DeAngelo scored 51 points in only 64 games – a new franchise scoring record as set by a defenseman. Come the off-season, DeAngelo decided to take the money ($5,000,000) and play for his hometown Flyers. To replace his offensive production, especially on the power-play, the Canes received Brent Burns for pennies on the dollar from the rebuilding Sharks.
A year following DeAngelo setting the club’s scoring record – Burns topped him – by scoring 61 points in 82 games played last season.
Going into this season, DeAngelo and Burns will now play together, following TDA’s “Philly Phailure.” However, there’s only one puck, and only one of these players can be the quarterback of the team’s first power-play unit. Then again, healthy competition, and a hunger for more ice time, is a good thing.
While there was a ton of roster turnover in Raleigh, Waddell went for quality over quantity.
Gone are the always-injured Max Pacioretty (Capitals), Max Lajoie (Leafs), Zach Sawchenko (Vancouver), Shayne Gostisbehere (Red Wings), Mackenze MacEachern (Blues), Calvin de Haan (Lightning) and Ondrej Kase, who is now playing in the Czech League.
Also departed are a pair of aging centers, Paul Stastny and Derek Stepan – a duo of middle-men who are still unrestricted free agents as of this writing.
Joining DeAngelo in the Raleigh ranks is one of his best friends, the pesky agitator Brendan Lemieux – but it’s the additions of both Michael Bunting and Dmitry Orlov that really improves this team.
And of course, and this applies for every franchise – they must stay healthy too – as not only was Pacioretty on the IR all season, but superstar Svechnikov missed the entirety of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs too, due to an ACL tear.
There will be a lot people picking the Canes to go all the way in 2024 and it’s easy to see why. Outside of the Penguins, of the assumed contenders in this division, no one can match the Canes’ recent postseason experience, nor has any team been knocking on the door for so long.
However, if the Canes don’t bust through that door – then it feels like a lot of wholesale changes will be coming – especially since the franchise only has eleven players on the books for the 2024-25 campaign.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
Unlike the Atlantic Division, the other side of the Eastern Conference, this Metropolitan Division, is a bit easier to predict.
While I believe that the Penguins can be the “wild card” of this division, both literally and figuratively (but can you really dismiss a black-and-yellow club featuring Sidney Freakin’ Crosby?); it feels like the Canes and Devils are destined to go 1-2 in this division, while the Ice Birds and Blueshirts duke it out for the third seed.
But who knows, and as I continue to speak out both sides of my mouth (sorry – I’m just covering all of my bases!) – maybe Columbus will be this year’s surprise – as there’s always one team in every season that exceeds expectations.
As mentioned plenty of times ever since the Rangers’ playoff loss to Satan’s favorite team – in a way, the Devils are very much like their hated Hudson River rivals themselves. However, it’s now up to head coach Lindy Ruff and company to not repeat the same mistakes of the 2022-23 Rangers.
The Blueshirts, and as dedicated readers of this site are all too aware, rebuilt, surprised everyone with an Eastern Conference Final berth in 2022 and then completely choked, ghosted and played like dog poo during the final games of their 2023 first-round series with the Devils.
While you can’t really say that the Devils upset the Rangers, as they were the higher-seeded team going into the postseason; they did erase a 2-0 series deficit before winning the series in seven-games.
In the second-round, the Hurricanes completely had their way with the Newark, NJ team. In the Canes’ five-game series win, three of their four wins were blowouts – and after watching the then unknown goaltender Akira Schmid absolutely baffle the Blueshirts – of course, and because it’s always the way – he then became the biggest victim of the multiple goal explosions.
(And you can read all about this in my “Ranger Killers” book – as it was Schmid’s performance that was the final straw for me – hence yours truly finally finishing that project – a project that I did write at times with pure rage and red in my eyes!)
The Devils, who prior to 2023, had only won one playoff game in their lone postseason appearance ever since their 2012 Stanley Cup Final loss to the Kings (that one win took place against Tampa in 2018); were finally rewarded for all of their many lean years, with a 52-22-8 (112 points) second-place finish last season.
Better than that, as a team on the rise, and as led by the next generation superstar Jack Hughes – the franchise is now attracting lucrative stars.
In the summer of 2021, the offensive-powerhouse defenseman, Dougie Hamilton, was the first “name” player to choose New Jersey as his destination. Of course, a seven-year deal worth $63,000,000 is also one hell of an incentive!
A year later, in the summer of 2022, the two-time Stanley Cup champion, Ondrej Palat, signed a five-year deal worth $30,000,000 to play in Hockeytown, USA, aka Newark, NJ.
An exciting group, and a core now finding success; at the 2023 NHL Trade Deadline, the Swiss right winger, Timo Meier, joined his fellow countryman, and captain of the Devils, Nico Hischier. Come the end of the season, Meier signed an eight-year deal worth $70,400,000 to remain in the swampland.
Now primed to go deeper and further than the second-round; another right-winger, the 2014 Stanley Cup champion (ugh), Tyler Toffoli joined the club via a trade. (Toffoli, like many others, wanted out of Calgary, and in return, the Flames received Yegor Sharangovich.)
And while like any other team, there are some departures in Jersey, most notably Miles Wood (Colorado), Jesper Boqvist (Boston) and Ryan Graves (Pittsburgh); the Devils also added both accomplished and gritty talent in the forms of Cal Foote and Tomas Nosek.
Both offensively and defensively – the Devils should be an upper-echelon team. The biggest question, and the one I keep asking about many of these clubs, is in regards to the goaltending.
Is the 23-year-old Schmid the real deal – or is he a flash-in-the-pan – where like so many before him, is only destined to destroy the Rangers and then wilt against everyone else?
More concerning is the alleged starter, Vitek Vanecek, who had a terrible 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs (1-3, 21 GA, 4.64 GAA and a .825 save percentage).
But of course, this is a team that will go for it all, and accomplished goalies are out there, including both Connor Hellebuyck and John Gibson.
In other words, if the two men in the barrel don’t work out, then general manager Tom Fitzgerald will have options at the deadline.
Sadly for Ranger fans, but great for fans on the other side of the river – the Devils will not only be good this season – but in the many years ahead too.
Is it just me, but doesn’t it feel like everyone is writing off Kyle Dubas’ new club – or at the very least – before they acquired Erik Karlsson?
Even with the 2023 “Not My” Norris Trophy winner now in the fold – I’m hearing a lot of pundits say that Pittsburgh is too old, washed-up and that the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin-Kris Letang trio is done.
Maybe this is a “Ranger Fan Overreaction,” or maybe it’s because I feel this too – but I think the Penguins have one last run in them, a run so big in fact – that I see Crosby hoisting the fourth Stanley Cup of his career in 2024.
Everything that I’ve previously written on this site about the Blueshirts’ off-season applies to the Penguins – although it’s not as drastic in the Steel City as it is in Gotham, as this franchise has won three Stanley Cups in the past fourteen years – where ironically – is how the Blueshirts started their entry in the league.
(The Rangers won three Stanley Cups from 1926-1940 – and as you may have heard – only won one more in the next 83 years – for a grand total of four. The Penguins, who debuted in 1967, have won five Stanley Cups in their history. What’s that word again? UGH!)
For the Penguins, outside of securing a spot in the playoffs – the regular season doesn’t matter. And for an older team, stay healthy applies to them more than the other 31 teams in the league.
Should things work out as designed, then the Penguins will cruise into the playoffs, be able to rest their guys going into the tournament (and play stress-free hockey – and unlike last season – when they choked in Games 81 and 82 to miss the playoff cutline), and once there – then do their damage.
Prior to the 2023 playoff miss, this franchise, formerly under the braintrust of Brian Burke and general manager Ron Hextall (a former Flyer that many Penguin fans accused of “tanking” his once arch-rival), had been eliminated in the first-round of the playoffs in the past four consecutive seasons.
Come the end of their disappointing 2022-23 season, both Hextall and Burke were shown the door, while former Toronto GM, Kyle Dubas, replaced both, in his now and new dual-role of Team President/General Manager.
The analytical whiz-kid wasted no time in giving his head coach, Mike Sullivan, plenty of help this summer.
Aside from the big three, joining the likes of Rickard Rakell, Bryan Rust, Jake Guentzel and the ageless Jeff Carter in Pittsburgh are players that will give this club a ton of depth, including Ryan Graves, Noel Acciari, Lars Eller, Will Butcher, Rem Pitlick, Vinnie Hinostroza, Andreas Johnsson and 2023 Cup Champion, Reilly Smith.
The departure list is nothing that anyone in Pittsburgh will cry about, where only Josh Archibald, Brian Dumoulin, Nick Bonino, Drake Caggiula and Jason Zucker moved on – a quintet that isn’t exactly “make-or-break.”
Another departure, although one of not too much significance, is back-up goaltender, Casey DeSmith. However, a better back-up may have been found in Alex Nedeljkovic. And really, and I know this is a tired point, this topic raises the most eyebrows in Pittsburgh, PA – goaltending.
In Dubas’ most perplexing move, he brought back the inconsistent and struggling incumbent starting goalie, Tristan Jarry, for the 2023-24 season.
Crazier than that? Dubas doubled-down on Jarry and on July 1st, re-signed the backstop to a five-year deal worth $26,875,000 – and for the gut-punch to fans of the Penguins – granted the 28-year-old a NMC too!
If the Penguins fail to win, then you can expect Jarry’s deal, as orchestrated by the general manager, to be scrutinized, criticized and torn to shreds by league pundits.
And of course, there was the trade for the $11,500,000 cap-hit defenseman, previously considered one of the worst contracts in all of the league today (and it still is – in spite of his only one good season in San Jose), Erik Karlsson.
Karlsson, who first signed his eight-year deal worth $92,000,000 in June of 2019 in the Bay, had been a complete albatross with the teal jersey – where his minus-26 Norris Trophy means nothing – as all he did was compile points with one of the worst teams in the league. (He also didn’t have to deal with Brent Burns on the San Jose power-play anymore either.)
The Sharks, now playing like minnows, were wise to trade EK65 – and better than that – are on the hook for only $1,500,000 of his contract per-year, a deal which runs through the 2026-27 season – and a bounding document that still has a NMC attached to it too! (Karlsson waived his NMC in order to go to Pittsburgh.)
But as said with Vegas and the others – this is a copycat league – and many teams are going to subscribe to the “ALL IN” approach.
And for the Penguins, you can’t blame them, as their big three, and as mentioned before, aren’t getting any younger.
Perhaps Karlsson shines in his first year in Pittsburgh – and then helps the team win the Stanley Cup. Should the 33-year-old do so, then no one will care if the final three years of his contract with the Penguins are abysmal. But if that doesn’t happen, then just like his overpaid goaltender, Dubas will have a montrosity of a contract on his hands.
So why am I so high on the Penguins?
This team, this core, knows how to win.
And after five years of disappointment, I’m banking that Crosby and company have one last hurrah in them.
I also feel that Dubas, jettisoned from Toronto, feels like he has something to prove in his new town.
After all, who wouldn’t feel the same way in his position?
In other words, I expect a very busy trade deadline for the Penguins and where you’ll see many first-round draft picks flying out the door, as this team gears up for one last dance.
And for as much that I believe that Karlsson shouldn’t have won the Norris Trophy, much less even be considered for it; I do think he realizes he’s nearing the end of line and this season may be his last best chance.
Then again, maybe I’m just trying to “reverse curse” the Penguins by predicting them to go all the way!
NEW YORK RANGERS
A preface, as this will be one of the longer profiles in this never-ending preview: I have previously given you all of my thoughts on the Rangers all summer. Just check the front page of this site for all of it. I just don’t want to rewrite everything again, nor make this manifesto go on any longer than it needs to be!
And now, with that disclaimer out of the way – let me tell you why yours truly, a devout and diehard Rangers’ fan, has no faith in this club. (Then again, you probably already know why!)
As a cockeyed, and perhaps delusional optimistic fan during the past two seasons, there comes a point where you just have to admit defeat. Must I remind you of the textbook definition of the word “insanity” again?
And not for nothing, I do have a pretty good track record when it comes to prognosticating the Blueshirts’ future.
After all, who else told you for years on end that the Henrik Lundqvist contract would never produce a championship?
(And I’m not going to go down that road again here, only to say that I saw the shift in the league when it was emerging – you can’t win with a goalie eating up 10% of your salary cap in this era – and especially years ago when the salary cap was under $70M. Furthermore, and most importantly – I hate, hate, hate that I was right about this. But on the other side of it, the positive side – I also did predict a Rangers’ Eastern Conference Final berth in September of 2021.)
Just like any other team, I ask you this: Are the Rangers better entering this season when compared to how they ended the 2022-23 season?
If you can block out the 2023 playoff chokejob to the Devils, then I think the answer is a resounding no.
While sure, there have been teams to fire head coaches and then win the Stanley Cup the next season, and as Vegas just did in 2023 (fired Deboer, hired Cassidy); do you really think that a franchise like the Rangers, four Stanley Cups in nearly 100 years worth of time, are going to join this select and elite crew?
You have a better chance of seeing a drug-free Penn Station.
The firing of Gerard Gallant was a full-blown overreaction – and where replacing him with Peter Laviolette, who was dreadful in Washington for the past three years, is a complete bandaid of a move.
What caused the need for a bandaid, the root of the problem, were the players themselves.
When your top stars do nothing in the playoffs, the 1-2 lack-of-punch DJ MIA (Missing In Action), Mika Zibanejad and “The Bakery is Closed” Aturnover Panarin, then you have no shot of winning.
And while CZAR IGOR Shestyorkin is still one of the greatest goalies in the league today – much like his predecessor, Lundqvist, he can’t do it all.
The following may come off as a shot or barb, but it’s not – it’s just a fact – when you get outplayed in the playoffs by the unknown Akira Schmid – then what does that say?
In a way, the Rangers are kind of like the two New York baseball teams from 2023, the Yankees and the Mets.
For the baseball teams, when they hit they can’t pitch and when they pitch they can’t hit. For the Rangers, there weren’t many times last season where a majority, much less everyone, was in sync and producing at the same time.
When Adam Fox was playing well, Jacob Trouba was not. When Ryan Lindgren was playing well, K’Andre Miller was not. And you can say the same things and make similar comparisons about the forward group too.
The two biggest names that the Rangers acquired at the 2023 NHL Trade Deadline, thought to finally get this franchise to Stanley Cup number five, Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko, are now elsewhere.
Due to the salary-cap crunch, and you can read about every move that the Rangers made, and in detail, by visiting this link, https://bluecollarblueshirts.com/82723/; Team President and General Manager Chris Drury just loaded up on long-in-the-tooth veterans on six-figure contracts.
In other words, and unlike the teams that I have pegged above them – the Blueshirts did not improve their ranks as their competition did this summer, nor are they any better entering this season than how they were at their (early) exit interviews.
The Rangers, and Drury himself, are banking on two things this season – outside of luck.
One, that their top players actually show up in the playoffs – maybe an impossible ask.
Two, that their two lottery pick players, Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko, finally blow-up and show the world why they were worthy of being consenus #1 and #2 overall picks (respectively) at the time of their drafts.
However, or at least in the case of Lafreniere, how is that going to happen?
We’ve talked a lot about Lafreniere on this site in the past, but to sum it up, he had the most unorthodox entry into the league as a first-overall pick in NHL history.
Between COVID-19, having two high-paid players playing the same position ahead of him (Chris Kreider and Artemi Panarin) and the team trying to win, rather than embracing a true development/rebuild; it hasn’t been easy, nor is there a clear path for Lafreniere.
But to be fair – Lafreniere isn’t without blame either. After all, were the two other rookie sensations, Adam Fox and Igor Shestyorkin, just supposed to twiddle their thumbs?
Another thing to consider? Lafreniere will now play under his third coach in just four seasons too.
Hell, you know it’s bad when Lafreniere’s name has already been linked to trade rumors. Even worse, at least for him, are the salaries that other first-round picks have received in recent years.
Prior to re-signing with the club two weeks ago, a two-year deal worth $4,650,000 overall, the first-overall pick of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft saw previous first-overall picks receive these deals:
2019 first-overall pick: Jack Hughes, eight-years/$64M overall
2018 first-overall pick: Rasmus Dahlin, eight-years/$84.5M overall
2017 first-overall pick: Nico Hischier, seven-years/$50.57M overall
2016 first-overall pick: Auston Matthews, four-years/$53M overall
2015 first-overall pick: Connor McDavid, eight-years/$100M overall
2014 first-overall pick: Aaron Ekblad, eight-years/$60M overall
2013 first-overall pick: Nathan MacKinnon, eight-years/$100.8M overall
Lafreniere’s new deal only pays him, and one more time for effect, $4,650,000 overall.
And as an unsigned restricted free agent, the first-overall pick didn’t even receive an offer-sheet, nor was there any hint of one coming either.
In other words, he was somewhat powerless, and forced to accept “chump change” by a general manager who sure took his sweet old time before making the deal happen.
The franchise’s mandate, as stated by both Drury and Laviolette, is “WIN NOW.” In other words, there’s no time for Lafreniere to make mistakes. If he isn’t up-to-snuff, then he’ll sit and have his ice time cut.
With a now volitaile owner realizing that he’s only getting older, and with no championships in his fifty plus seasons as owner of both the Rangers and the Knicks; James Dolan wants a championship now.
And while Senile Sather has a job for life for whatever unknown and ungodly reason; the same luxury isn’t afforded to both Drury and Laviolette.
If it’s another losing season, then Drury, who has already fired two head coaches since taking over in May of 2021, may not get to fire a third.
But when I look at “The Pizza Man” aka “ZOOM ZOOM;” I can’t exactly blame Drury either.
To me, he’s had a lot more hits than misses (his 2022 NHL Trade Deadline was one of the best in franchise history), but for the final five games of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs, his top stars, his young players and his team in general, just didn’t show up.
As said all summer, this is the least jazzed I’ve been about an upcoming Rangers’ season in some time.
For starters, I don’t have much faith in this team. Even when the team was rebuilding, at least it was going to be exciting to see how the young players would do.
However, and as you already know, the biggest reason for my sour attitude is because the regular season means nothing.
This team, this general manager and everyone else involved will only be judged by one thing – their performance in the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs – assuming that they qualify.
The 82 regular season games? It’s just going through the motions to me.
I think I’ve said it before, but to add it here, I wouldn’t necessarily be too concerned if the team starts slow. After all, they started slow last year, then received some luck when Jordan Binnington imploded on that early December night, which then led to a nine wins in ten games win streak before Christmas. Once the calendar turned, the Rangers already had a firm grasp of a playoff berth – and one that they never let go.
One player to watch is Mika Zibanejad. While it’s great that he had a new baby, and no one is saying that he shouldn’t start his family; there is something to athletes having a new child at home. After all, Derek Jeter, one of the greatest Yankees of all-time, has said the reason why he didn’t start a family, nor get married for that matter either, during his playing days is because he didn’t want those distractions in his career – and right-or-wrong – that’s what worked for him.
And while no one has ever asked CZAR IGOR about this directly (and as we all know, the Ranger beat reporters belong at the circus wearing red noses – and whatever happened to that Jim Ramsay feller too?); it has been speculated by fans, including the bozo you’re reading right now, that one of the reasons why #31 had a slow start last season is because of his new son at home.
But of course, after a poor start (at least for him, coming off of his 2022 Vezina Trophy winning season); the CZAR eventually returned to his throne – but didn’t finish as a top three Vezina nominee either.
And let’s not forget this either – Zibanejad is notoriously known for his slow starts too.
I also think there will be more pressure on Shestyorkin this season – a player that always assumes a lion’s share of the success and failures of the club.
His previous back-ups were more than suitable, as Alexandar Georgiev, who wanted the starting job himself, always pushed him. Jaroslav Halak was fine in the back-up spot and allowed Igor to get some rest.
Jonathan Quick, the future Hall of Famer? He was completely abysmal last season, where at points, you wondered if he should just retire.
As predicted before, I think Quick does retire this season (ala Marty Biron), and similar to previous seasons, a young back-up is called-up (as Cam Talbot and Georgiev himself once were) in-season.
Truthfully, I could see the Rangers missing the playoffs this year – especially if the Atlantic Division teams are vying for wild-card spots.
However, the fan in me wants to believe, so I see the Rangers, because of the talent and veteran experience they possess, at least finishing with the second-wild card spot.
But once there, can this team compete with the Avalanche’s, Leafs, Canes, Devils, Golden Knights and Stars of the league?
I have no confidence in that.
After all, there has been no evidence in the likeliness of such an event – and the team recently blowing 2-0 series leads in their past two Spring outings is also equally as concerning.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
For a franchise, following their back-to-back Eastern Conference Final appearances in 2020 and 2021, followed by a 2022 playoff miss and a 2023 first-round series loss, and also a club led by Team President/General Manager Lou Lamoriello, who thinks that what he has is a strong Stanley Cup contender; the Isles’ off-season is puzzling.
When Julien Gauthier is your biggest “get” of the summer, then you my friend, have issues.
To be fair, following the events of the 2023 NHL Trade Deadline, “Little Brother” did sign center Bo Horvat, acquired from Vancouver, to an eight-year extension worth $68,000,000; but at the same time, Horvat was also there for the Isles’ short stay in the playoffs, where he only picked up two points in his six-games of action.
When the Isles pretty much adopted the “Run It Back” philosophy at the start of the 2022-23 season, where right-or-wrong, they blamed COVID-19 for their dreadful 2021-22 campaign (and there is merit to that); you can’t blame the pandemic for their disappointing showing last season.
And let’s not forget – had the Penguins not choked, when they lost to two of the worst teams in the league in their final two games (Columbus and Chicago), then the Isles would’ve missed the playoffs last season.
As they did last year, and with all due respect to both Horvat and Gauthier – the Isles are once again subscribing to the “Run It Back” mantra.
Granted, when you have a starting goalie, and now a perennial Vezina Trophy candidate in Ilya Sorokin (and his back-up, Seymon Varlamov, isn’t shabby either); it’s easy to see why “Long Island Lou” has confidence.
But to not upgrade his team, especially when watching the other top teams of the division do as such?
I can’t say that I agree with that.
In a way, the Isles are getting long in the tooth too, especially with their heralded “Identity Line.”
Left-winger Matt Martin is now 34-years-old. His center, Casey Cizikias, will soon turn 33-years-old. The right-winger of this line, Cal Clutterbuck, turns 36-years-old in November and has already shown signs of regressing due to injuries sustained.
While Anders Lee wears the “C” (and perhaps rightfully so), it’s been Brock Nelson that’s somewhat been the lifeblood of this team – and a team that no longer has Josh Bailey in the mix either, as the veteran of fifteen seasons in Nassau County, Queens and Brooklyn is now an unrestricted free agent, following a summer trade-and-buyout with Chicago.
Of course, the orange-and-blue are hoping that Mathew Barzal, the former center now on the right wing due to the Horvat trade, can have that come-to-Jesus breakout season. While he’s played well, he’s also not on the level of a Jack Hughes, but sadly – he is better than the pair of two Ranger lottery picks, Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere.
Defensively, the Isles are anchored by the shutdown first pair of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock. After that, it’s a bunch of “iffiness,” with Alex Romanov, Scott Mayfield, Noah Dobson and Sebastion Aho trailing behind.
Admittedly, I’m a hater of all things related to the Islanders (but I also feel the same way about the Penguins – and I was extremely kind to them, ditto the Devils and Hurricanes); but to me, this team will only go as far as Sorokin takes them.
That said, this division is stacked and the Isles stayed idle this off-season.
Plus, it’s not like Lamoriello is known for his splashy moves, as the Horvat trade was an anomoly for him.
This is not a Ranger fan saying this, this is an accomplished 10-time author and a contributor to both The Hockey News and NHL.com (thank you Stan Fischler – who will be mad at me for disparaging his club) saying this – the Isles miss the playoffs.
Furthermore, unless the soon-to-be 81-year-old Lou Lamoriello, the oldest general manger in league history, wants to become the first nonagenarian in NHL history too; then I’m not so sure how long he remains at his Belmont post.
Last season, Team President John Davidson watched his club finish one-point shy from being the worst team in the league, as the Bluejackets, with their dreadful record of 25-48-9 (59 points), were only “bested” by the Ducks (58 points).
While the team from Ohio didn’t really stack up well in this division last season in the first place; losing over 500 games of man-power via injury, including star Patrik Laine and stud d-man Zach Werenski, didn’t help matters either.
Also not helping the cause? The state of the goaltending, which got pummelled all season.
And when Joonas Korpisalo (11-11-3, 3.17 GAA and a .913 save percentage) was moved to Los Angeles at the deadline – it only got worse.
Put it this way: Once Korpisalo left, the best goaltending stats on the team belonged to the 24-year-old Russian, Daniil Tarasov, who posted a 4-11-1 record, a 3.91 GAA and a .892 save percentage.
And for whatever reason, Tarasov, along with the Latvian Elvis “My Stats Have Left The Building” Merzlikins (7-18-2, 4.23 GAA and a .876 save percentage), return for the 2023-24 campaign.
While I don’t think that anyone expected CBJ to reach the playoffs last season after their out-of-nowhere free agent signing of Johnny “Hockey” Gaudreau (seven-years worth $68,250,000 overall – and another player who bolted out of Calgary); I don’t think that anyone predicted this team would be so bad either.
However, help is on the way. Plus, and like other bottom-feeders in the league – the only direction to go is up.
In what may have come as a suprise, especially when you consider how deep this division is, the injuries incurred and the state of the franchise; general manager Jarmo Kekalainen fired his head coach of two seasons, Brad Larsen – the once handpicked successor to the previously departed on his own accord, John Tortorella.
Now behind the bench, the “controversial” to some, “old school” to others, Mike Babcock.
While Babcock has a successful resume (the only hockey coach in history to be “inducted” into the “Triple Crown Club” – a Stanley Cup, an Olympic Gold Medal and an IIHF Gold Medal); it can be argued that he’s better suited for a team trying to win, rather than a team full of young players that need development.
But then again, the 60-year-old head coach, who would be a no-doubt-about-it Hockey Hall of Famer in any other generation besides in this present “woke” and “cancel culture” generation, already has all of the hardware. In other words, he’s not an aging bench boss looking for his first taste of beer from the silver cup. Instead, he’s looking to right the alleged and percieved “wrongs” from his past in Toronto.
Now under Babcock are new additions, defensemen, in the form of Ivan “I saved hockey fans from political pandering” Provorov (Philadelphia) and Damon Severson (New Jersey).
But of course, the biggest new name in Columbus is center Adam “I’m Not a Consolation Prize” Fantilli – who after Connor Bedard predictably went first-overall to Chicago; fell to third-overall, after the Ducks, and for whatever reason, went with the Swedish Leo Carlsson with their second-overall selection.
Immediately, Fantilli, already signed to a three-year NHL Entry level contract, should slot at the 2C position, behind Boone Jenner. And if things should break right, then by the end of the season, the product from the University of Michigan should be receiving first line shifts with the likes of Gaudreau and Laine.
Other young studs that Columbus hopes to see take the next step include the soon-to-be 21-year-old left-winger Kent Johnson and the 23-year-old right-winger Kirill “Not a Thrill Yet” Marchenko.
And let’s not forget about the projected third-line center, coming off of one of his better seasons, Jack Roslovic, either.
When I fully examine this club that calls Nationwide Arena home, there is no bone in my body that suggests that they won’t improve this season.
Not only do the two teams that I have ranked below them look to fare worse; I can’t see this team losing another 500+ games of star man-power to injury either.
And if Fantilli is all that he’s hyped up to be, then, and very easily, I could see Columbus being the surprise team from not only this division, but in all of the NHL too.
After finally winning their first Stanley Cup in franchise history (2018); five years later and it feels like the Capitals made a deal with the devil (not the mascot from New Jersey) in order to do so.
Following Alex Ovechkin cementing his Hall of Fame career with the holy grail of hockey, the Stanley Cup; “The Great Eight” and company suffered four straight first-round exits, followed by a playoff miss last season.
Granted, while the Capitals have had a lot of bad luck in recent years due to injuries; part of the reason for all of the medical bills in D.C. is because they have one of the older rosters in the league.
Last season, the Caps went 35-37-10, “good” for sixth-place in the division and their first playoff miss in eight years. As a result, the team parted ways with their head coach, Peter Laviolette (contract expired, wasn’t renewed) and then hired the 41-year-old Spencer Carbery to man their bench. While Carbery has head coaching experience at the minor league levels, and also served as an assistant in Toronto, the job in Washington is his first as an NHL head coach.
This squad is one of the oldest in the NHL, and as you’d deduce, have more players nearing retirement than anyone else.
While still viable, I think it’s safe to say that the best years of this core, including Niklas Backstrom (35), T.J. Oshie (36), John Carlsson (33) and of course, Alex Ovechkin (37) are long behind them.
And while Ovechkin is still one of the greatest players in the league today (42 goals and 33 assists for 75 points last season); it does feel like the goal in Washington is individual-oriented, rather than team-oriented.
As we all know, and with his name already etched on the Cup, the last thing for Ovechkin left to accomplish is to surpass Wayne Gretzky’s NHL all-time goal scoring record (894). Presently, Ovi has 822 goals to his name, and should he stay healthy and productive, he should not only be able to break “The Great One’s” record – but also become the first 900-goal scorer in league history too.
Had Washington not won in 2018, then I think that you’d see more desperation out of this franchise. Instead, they seem resigned and focused on getting Ovi to the record.
But hey, if you can’t win, then you need a draw and Ovi chasing the record will fill seats in D.C.
Brian MacLellan, the team’s general manager, would suggest that this is the gameplan too – at least when you look at his off-season.
When the 34-year-old Max Pacioretty, who hasn’t played an 82-game season since the 2015-16 season, is your biggest acquistion – then you’re in trouble. And really, would it surprise anyone if the center gets hurt again, following his recent seasons of 48, 39 and 5 games played?
Furthermore, the Caps have also seemed to embrace a rebuild somewhat, as previous to the summer, they dealt away Dmitry Orlov, Garnet Hathaway, Marcus Johansson, Erik Gustafsson and Lars Eller at the 2023 NHL Trade Deadline.
In net are the overpaid 33-year-old Darcy Kuemper (five-years at $26,250,000 overall) and the still looking to find his way, and the soon-to-be 30-year-old, Charlie Lindgren, brother of the Rangers’ Ryan.
Neither goaltender is exactly a game changer.
Maybe this old bunch has one last run in them, but it looks like they are waving the white flag a bit, especially with the moves made since February of 2023. In other words, they didn’t reload as Pittsburgh did this summer.
While maybe they can flirt with a playoff spot, and make things hairy for both the Rangers and the Penguins; if it wasn’t for the state of Philadelphia, then I’d have them projected to finish last in the Metro.
There is a good chance that the orange-and-black set an NHL record this season – as the worst team of all-time.
While the loser’s point (no ties) may help them, it’s very easy to see the Flyers challenging the 1974-75 Capitals (8-67-5, in an 80-game season) and the 1992-93 Sharks (11-71-2, in an 84-game season) for the “honor.”
Following the dismissal of Chuck Fletcher in the City of Brotherly Love, the team hired Keith Jones as their Team President, while also removing the interim label from their new general manager, Daniel Briere.
In Philly, the reaction to these moves are mixed, as one side argues that you need former Flyers, men who understand what it’s like “to play like Flyer,” which in reality, is just romanticism over the days of the Broad Street Bullies from fifty years ago, while the other side of the argument is that a fresh pair of outside eyes are needed.
In a way, I guess head coach John Tortorella is supposed to be the outside eyes.
If the Flyers weren’t still paying former head coach Alain Vigneault $5,000,000 a season, then I think it’s most likely that Coach Torts would’ve joined Fletcher out the door. However, Torts still has three-years remaining on a deal that annually pays him $4,000,000.
In other words, for a franchise that’s now fully embracing a complete teardown of a rebuild, management and ownership doesn’t want to pay three head coaches next season, two not to work, and for a sum that would easily eclipse the $10,000,000 mark.
At the same time, the Flyers run the risk of having Torts “poisoning the well,” as one of the greatest American hockey coaches of all-time isn’t exactly best tasked to facilitate a rebuild. A younger coach, known as developer, would’ve been a better fit.
But for what it’s worth, and while his detractors may want to ignore it, Torts has had success with younger players in the past, including in his previous stops in Tampa, New York and Columbus. He’s also mellowed down over the years, but even so, the fire that brought him to prominence isn’t gone either, as he also had issues that led to departures with such players as Tony DeAngelo and Kevin Hayes.
There are only five players on this team making $5,000,000 or more, including Travis Konecny ($5.5M), Joel Farabee ($5M), Rasmus Ristolainen ($5.1M) and Cal Petersen ($5M). The highest-paid player on this now young team is rearguard Travis Sanheim at $6,250,000.
When you look at the other teams in the league, their top stars are flirting with or surpassing the eight-digit mark.
While it’s going to be many lean years in Philadelphia, at least you can see what they are doing. They haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1975, so something had to change.
If there is one thing that really baffles me in Flyer Land, then it’s the soon-to-be 37-year-old Marc Staal, who left the Panthers and signed a one-year deal worth $1,100,000 to play here.
Had Staal had a Stanley Cup to his name, then I’d understand his decision. However, to go from first-to-worst makes no sense for a veteran still chasing a championship, especially to play for a coach that he’s blocked a lot of shots for before.
Most likely, Staal is dealt at the deadline to a contender – and just like the other remaining veterans on this team – including the once thought-to-be franchise goalie of the future, Carter Hart.
For the Flyers, they have two goals this season. Develop their younger players and win the 2024 NHL Draft Lottery.
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS
Eastern Wild Card Teams: Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers.
Western Wild Card Teams: Anaheim Ducks and Seattle Kraken.
Eastern Conference Final – Toronto Maple Leafs vs Pittsburgh Penguins, aka “The Dubas Cup.”
Western Conference Final – Colorado Avalanche vs Edmonton Oilers.
Stanley Cup Final – Pittsburgh Penguins over the Colorado Avalanche.
If you’re still here, after word 20,000, and what feels like word 2,000,000, then thank you!
I hope you enjoyed this, as I don’t think you’ll find a better and deeper NHL Season Preview than this manifesto!
PLUGS TIME! (Buy a book and support my Rangers’ induced therapy bills. After all, I don’t run ads on this site!)
“The Top 100 Villains of New York Rangers History,” is now available for preorder.
For complete information, please visit: https://bluecollarblueshirts.com/rangerkillers/
My second plug of tonight’s blog – the mandatory plug for my book, “The New York Rangers Rink of Honor and the Rafters of Madison Square Garden.”
As mentioned previously, the book is now available in hardcover, in paperback and in Kindle formats. To purchase a copy of the book, visit this link:
For those still looking for signed paperback versions of the book, I have re-ordered more copies. I now have a few signed copies for sale at $25 a pop (includes shipping price) through me directly. Here is all the information on that:
My four-volume set of books, “One Game at a Time – A Season to Remember,” is a game-by-game recount of the Rangers 2021-22 campaign.
My second title as an author, “One Game at a Time – A Season to Remember,” is now available in eBook, paperback and hardcover formats.
To obtain signed copies, visit: https://bluecollarblueshirts.com/onegamebook/
To purchase all four volumes on Amazon, visit: Amazon.com – “One Game at a Time.”
The greatest volume-set of books on Rangers’ history today!
“Tricks of the Trade – A Century-Long Journey Through Every Trade Made In New York Rangers’ History,” a four-volume set of books that meticulously covers every trade made in franchise history, is now on sale.
All four volumes of the title can be purchased on Amazon.com and are presented in three different formats – eBook, paperback and hardcover.
To purchase Volume I: Conn Smythe (1926) – Craig Patrick (1986), visit Amazon.com
To purchase Volume II: Phil Esposito (1986) – Neil Smith (2000), visit Amazon.com
To purchase Volume III: Glen Sather (2000-2015), visit Amazon.com
To purchase Volume IV: Jeff Gorton (2015) – Chris Drury (2022), visit Amazon.com
To purchase signed copies of all four volumes, visit https://bluecollarblueshirts.com/tricksofthetrade/
Here are my last few blogs, in case you missed them:
“Once a Ranger, Always a Ranger”: Former Blueshirt Carl Hagelin Announces His Retirement; A Career Retrospective, Ranger Alumni Update: Phil Watson, Tex Rickard and Pete Stemkowski, Patrick Kane Ready For Return, 2023-24 NHL Preview & More
Alexis Lafreniere Drops Bat; Picks Up Pen & Re-Signs with NYR, Rangers Off-Season Finally Complete; Full “Somber Summer” Recap, Chris Drury Overhauls Staff But Does It Matter? Panarin In Town After Gun Charge, Alumni Updates; Tex Rickard, Ron Greschner, Eddie Giacomin & More
“Top Gun” Artemi Panarin Saves His Shooting For the Off-Season; Busted in Russia on Gun Charge, Alexis Lafreniere Still Unsigned, RIP BIV & More
“The Top 100 Villains of New York Rangers History” Set for Release, Blueshirts Bring the Cincinnati Cyclones Into the Mix, NYR Alumni Update, Tarasenko Teetering & More
If you haven’t already, subscribe to this blog for the next update:
Don’t forget to order my recently released four-volume set of books, “Tricks of the Trade!”
If you don’t order through me, all four volumes are now available on Amazon.com
For more details, check out: https://bluecollarblueshirts.com/tricksofthetrade/
Thanks for reading.
LET’S GO RANGERS!
@NYCTHEMIC on the Tweeter machine