It’s a hockey fanatic’s favorite time of year.
NHL hockey is back for the 2017-18 season, and with it arrives a whole new list of unknowns.
Can the Pittsburgh Penguins become the first team to win three Stanley Cups in a row since the New York Islanders won four in a row from 1980-83? Who will be the Columbus Blue Jackets of this season? How will the Vegas Golden Knights perform?
Although these queries won’t officially be answered for six to eight months, here’s a look at how the 2017-18 season could shake down.
New Arrival with Biggest Impact
In an off-season that included several notable transactions involving impact players like Patrick Marleau (Maple Leafs), Kevin Shattenkirk (Rangers), and Artemi Panarin (Blue Jackets), the Montreal Canadiens will prove to be the real winner when the 2017-18 season concludes.
Jonathan Drouin, acquired in a trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning, brings a highly-explosive offensive game to a team in dire need of such a player. Since the 2009-10 season, the Canadiens have cracked the top ten in goals scored only once.
Drouin, 22, tallied 95 points (29 goals, 66 assists) in 164 regular season games with the Lightning, while also adding 14 points in 23 playoff games.
Max Pacioretty has led the Canadiens in scoring each of the last six seasons, but failed to eclipse the 70-point mark in any of those seasons, largely due to the absence of a dynamic counterpart. Not only will Drouin fill that void, but he sets up both himself and Pacioretty for career years.
With the talent and offensive firepower possessed by both Pacioretty and Drouin, the sky is the limit for the duo and the Canadiens offense.
Just like any expansion team in any league, the Vegas Golden Knights will be in tough.
Goaltending is the only area not in question. Marc-Andre Fleury will shoulder a heavy workload this season and will give his team the opportunity to win its fair share of games. But it won’t be enough.
Despite the solid goaltending Fleury will provide, the Golden Knights don’t yet have the firepower or depth to consistently compete with organizations that have been building their rosters for years.
The top line of Jonathan Marchessault, Vadim Shipachyov, and Reilly Smith should have no problem finding the back of the net, but the remaining three lines will struggle mightily.
There will be ups and downs for the new club and their fans during the inaugural season, but the downs will far outweigh the ups.
The 2017-18 season will end with the Golden Knights being bottom three in the standings, but with a good chance of winning the draft lottery and potentially finding a future face of the franchise.
Most Surprising Team
Every season, there seems to be one team that surprises everyone – a team no one expects to be in playoff contention, let alone make the playoffs. Last season, it was the Columbus Blue Jackets. Two seasons ago it was the Florida Panthers.
This season, the Buffalo Sabres are primed for a breakout.
Fresh off of signing Jack Eichel to an eight-year, $80 million contract extension, the Sabres have all the pieces to be a playoff team.
The off-season acquisitions of forwards Jason Pominville, Benoit Pouliot, and Seth Griffith add to an already dangerous group led by Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly, Kyle Okposo, and Sam Reinhart. If everyone in the Sabres’ top nine can stay healthy, this team will have no problem finding twine.
The Sabres also added two key defensemen in Nathan Beaulieu and Marco Scandella, which makes for a more reliable defensive core with Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe already on the back end.
With the pieces they have on offense and defense, the Sabres will find themselves in the postseason for the first time since 2010-11.
Dark Horse Goaltender
Everyone expects top goaltenders like Carey Price, Braden Holtby, and Sergei Bobrovsky to perform well. It’s why they get paid more than the average goalie, and it’s why they get criticized more than the average goalie.
But there’s also the dark horse; the underdog.
Everyone loves an underdog story, and this year it will be Frederik Andersen.
Although the Toronto Maple Leafs had a strong overall season in 2016-17, Andersen struggled at times posting a 2.67 goals-against average (GAA) and a .918 save percentage. The 2.67 GAA was the highest of his career.
On a team as raw as the Maple Leafs were last season, there were bound to be some growing pains defensively. But, with Mike Babcock likely making defense a top priority this season and the younger players gaining more experience, the stars could align for Andersen to have an outstanding year.
Andersen has all the skills to be a top goaltender in the NHL, and, with a little help from his teammates, will be that guy this season.
Who Wins the Calder Trophy?
In a season lacking a Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews-type rookie, the race for the Calder Trophy is truly anyone’s game.
It won’t necessarily come down to who leads the rookie scoring race, but who is given the biggest opportunity.
Boston Bruins rookie defenseman Charlie McAvoy finds himself in the perfect situation to have an outstanding rookie campaign.
McAvoy will begin the season locked into a top four defensive role, while also quarterbacking the top power play unit until Torey Krug returns.
Not only does he have a huge opportunity, he also has significant experience after playing last season’s playoff series against the Ottawa Senators, tallying three assists in the process.
Although McAvoy won’t be challenging Nico Hischier or Clayton Keller for the rookie scoring title, the significant role he plays on the blue line coupled with the 40-plus points he amasses will win him the Calder Trophy.
Surprise Team to Miss Playoffs
Just like the surprise team to make the playoffs, there’s always the team that doesn’t live up to expectations.
Whether it’s bad luck with injuries or too many significant off-season departures to offset, it happens every year.
Unfortunately for hockey fans in Tennessee, the Nashville Predators may leave you disappointed come April.
After making it to the Stanley Cup Finals last season, the expectations surrounding the Predators are sky-high.
But, overshadowed in the deep playoff run is the reality that the Predators squeaked into the playoffs with 94 points for the final wild-card spot, which may have been a different story with a significant injury or two.
Well, the injury bug has already arrived in Nashville as defensemen Ryan Ellis is set to miss at least the first half of the season due to knee surgery. The Predators also said goodbye to forwards James Neal and Mike Fisher in the offseason.
The Predators aren’t the same team without Ellis, Neal, and Fisher, and, although the off-season acquisitions of Scott Hartnell, Nick Bonino, and Alexi Emelin may soften the blow a little, it won’t be enough.
Who Wins the Stanley Cup?
In eight of the last nine seasons, the Stanley Cup has been won by one of three teams: the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, or Los Angeles Kings.
Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins would like to keep that trend going, while also defending the title for the third year in a row.
But as much as Sid the Kid and company would like to make it a three-peat, there’s a new kid on the block named Connor McDavid looking for his first taste of Stanley Cup glory. And he doesn’t want to wait.
The Edmonton Oilers proved in last season’s playoffs they’re for real.
The Oilers outplayed the San Jose Sharks in every facet of their opening 4-2 series win, a Sharks team that’s been to playoffs 11 of the last 12 seasons. They gave the Anaheim Ducks all they could handle in a series that went the full seven games; a series they probably should’ve won.
The off-season acquisitions of Jussi Jokinen and Ryan Strome add even more depth and experience to an already elite roster.
This season, the Oilers will deploy a well-balanced lineup led by the most dynamic player in the NHL, and use the experience from last season’s playoff run to win their first Stanley Cup since 1990.
The time is now for McDavid and the Oilers.
I’ve been writing for over three years and have work published by the Calgary Herald, National Lacrosse League, Hard Knocks Fighting and The Weal at SAIT. Although I’ve covered many different topics as a journalist, sports writing remains my main passion and strength.