We’re about a day removed from the end of the 2016-17 NHL season. So, naturally, it’s time to skip the entire offseason and look ahead to the 2017-18 hockey campaign.
As you do.
We came up with three boldish predictions for the upcoming season. Tell us how wrong we are in the comments.
Pat: You’re up first, Mary!
Mary: The Vegas Golden Knights won’t be the NHL’s worst team next year.
Hear me out, guys. I know we won’t know what the landscape will look like until the expansion draft has come and gone, but I don’t think the Golden Knights will be as bad as everyone says they will be.
Maybe it’s the optimism talking, but I think Gary Bettman and the Vegas leadership are trying to set the Golden Knights up for as much success as they can. After all, this will be the first professional sports team to play in Vegas and the NHL likely wants a good showing for their first year to build a fan base. Sure, the Golden Knights won’t be leading a playoff charge, but I think there’s more reason to believe they can build a good base.
Vegas picked up KHL standout Vadim Shipachyov back in May, and his 76 points in 50 regular season games as the alternate captain of SKA Saint Petersburg is quite a catch. The Golden Knights will likely get a very patchwork defense, but there are more than a few solid goaltenders on the market to potentially stabilize them.
Don’t get me wrong, Vegas won’t be good. But, after all, the Colorado Avalanche are still playing in the NHL next year.
Pat: Technically, though you’ll have to prove to me that they exist.
I agree the NHL has done a lot of work to ensure the league won’t mop the floor with the Knights. And they will get some decent players in the expansion draft. Marc-Andre Fleury, Marcus Kruger, and Shipyachov aren’t spare parts. But they are role players, and Vegas needs stars to make headway. Falling to the sixth pick in the draft was a terrible thing for them.
But you’re right; as bad as the Knights could be, there are a handful of NHL teams in just as dire straights.
Alrighty, my first prediction: John Tavares will not agree to a contract extension by either June or the March trade deadline, forcing the Islanders to trade the face of their franchise. Reports indicate New York might not wait to do this past June.
I expect this not because the two sides don’t like each other, but because New York hasn’t done enough to prove to Tavares they’re capable of building a contender around him. This situation reminds one of Steven Stamkos and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Stamkos signed long-term partly because they paid him, but largely because GM Steve Yzerman built a strong foundation to win now and in the future. Garth Snow hasn’t done that in New York, and between head coach changes and arena issues I wonder if Tavares just doesn’t cut bait.
Mary: Oh, boy. The Islanders are in a real rough spot. Tavares is 26, and will be turning 27 in September. New York has made the playoffs just three times since Tavares joined the team in 2009-10, and they’ve yet to get past the second round.
Tavares’ next contract is likely going to be a long-term deal worth a lot of money, and likely very unmovable. With the future looking bleak for the Islanders, as Snow hasn’t built a quality team around their captain, it’s no wonder many are speculating Tavares might jump ship. And this one feels more substantial than the other rumors like Stamkos, since there is no foundation for the Islanders to build upon. I don’t envy them at all this postseason.
My next prediction: A Canadian team makes the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2011.
The Oilers and Maple Leafs have shown real promise as young, talented Canadian teams this past postseason. Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid drove their respective teams to levels of success not many predicted this year. It’s probably bold to say that one of these teams will make it, but I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility here. Calgary might also be a team to watch next year, too, if they get a goaltender on the market in the offseason.
In any case, the Maple Leafs and Oilers are the blueprints of the NHL’s future. They’re coming to the Stanley Cup Final, sooner or later.
Pat: I like that prediction a lot. Of all the Canadian playoff teams this season, few thought Ottawa would be the last one out. You’ll have to bank on teams like Tampa Bay and Dallas not rebounding and making that trip harder, but it’s plausible.
Speaking of progression: My second prediction is that the Penguins regress next year. Not enough that they miss the playoffs, but enough to keep them from three-peating. Without Fleury, the Penguins will rely on an untested backup for the first time in a few years. That blue line was held together with wire and glue and prayers, and Trevor Daley and Ian Cole aren’t getting younger. I’m also skeptical about their forward depth (yes, even though they just won the Cup).
The East is only getting stronger, and I think Pittsburgh grabbed their titles before the party really started.
Mary: That’s a real hot take, but I think it’s very likely, too. Marc-Andre Fleury’s absence will sting in more ways than one for the Penguins. Matt Murray is more than capable, but the safety net will be off now. Their offensive depth didn’t mesh as well this year as it did back in their 2016 Stanley Cup run, so who knows what 2017 will bring.
Still, many said a lot of things about their run this year and they still won!
My final prediction: Jack Eichel breaks out for Buffalo.
The Sabres forward suffered a bad injury before the start of the last season. Though he played in 20 fewer games for Buffalo, he had one more point than his 56-point rookie season last year. Plus, he has to be motivated seeing the successes of Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, and Patrik Laine over the last hockey season.
He’ll also have a new head coach and GM after Buffalo cleaned house back in April. I’m not sure where the Sabres will end the season, but I think Eichel takes a stride forward into the national spotlight as long as he stays healthy.
Pat: I hope so, otherwise he’ll take a ton of heat after kinda sorta maybe accidentally pushing his head coach and general manager out the door this spring. It is funny that Auston Matthews’ shadow has completely eclipsed Eichel in the race to be the American face of hockey. Hopefully he closes the gap next year for sure.
My final prediction: Hockey fans will spend two weeks griping about no NHL players at the Olympics while the rest of the world offers a collective shrug.
I’ve been pretty consistent about wanting NHL players at the Olympics, and I still do. But I also know that hockey is hockey. Watch the World Juniors or NCAA hockey for five minutes and you’ll realize hockey is fun no matter the talent level. Countries will scrounge up players for the Olympics, they’ll become minor national heroes for a bit and it will all be fine. Even fun. Whether anyone pays any/more attention to the NHL or the Olympics will be interesting, but Olympic hockey will still be enjoyable.
And then we’ll get NHL back there for China in 2022 anyway and forget any of this happened.
Mary: I know I’ll be glued to the women’s side of things in the upcoming Olympics. Revenge on Canada will feel sweet now that things have been resolved with USA Hockey.
It feels like there will be less national interest if the NHL isn’t there, and hockey fans may be divided if their favorite team is playing opposite the Olympics. Still, there’s intrigue. How will these teams fare? What will they be marketed like? Who goes and who stays? I know I’ll be watching, not only for the hockey but for the storylines to come.
Pat: Yep. I like the idea of unknowns. It should even the playing field a bit, and fans love latching onto underdogs anyway. Now there might be a whole field of them.
Anyway, those are our predictions for what will happen in the next year. I look forward to them all being proven wrong by tomorrow, because that’s how news works.