NHL 2016-17 predictions: our writers call the winners, losers and also-rans

Will the Penguins repeat? Will Crosby continue to be the king? How will Gary Bettman mess up this year? Our NHL writers on what’s coming up this season

I’m most looking forward to watching …

Connor McDavid. We didn’t get to see a full season from him last year, but the 45 games we did get lived up to the hype. He looked phenomenal at the World Cup, and when I was down there I talked to a few hockey people who thought he might be very close to “best player in the world” status right now. Not eventually, or a few years down the line, but right now. If he stays healthy, I think he has a shot at the Art Ross. SM

Connor McDavid. The supposed next [insert great forward from hockey history] had his rookie season interrupted by a broken collarbone last year, yet in 45 games he still nearly bested No2 overall pick Jack Eichel’s full-season points output. Of course, in true Bettman/NHL form, the league is capitalizing on McDavid’s draw by putting the Oilers on national TV in the States this season a grand total of zero times. DG

Connor McDavid: the next big thing?
Connor McDavid: the next big thing? Photograph: Perry Nelson/USA Today Sports

The Calgary Flames. One of the biggest issues for Calgary has been goaltending, but they picked up Brian Elliott from St Louis over the summer, so that could now change. Elliott had a 2.07 goals-against average, and a .930 save percentage over 42 games last year with the Blues. Also, adding Troy Brouwer (also from St Louis) gives them some necessary experience up front. And if Matthew Tkachuk, picked sixth overall in the draft, makes the permanent lineup, there’ll be a lot to be excited about in Calgary over and above of the fact they got rid of Bob Hartley. CH

Mitch Marner. The Maple Leafs rookie racked up 116 points in 57 games in junior last season and embodies everything that the modern NHL is about: speed, skill and not necessarily size. Sure, 1st overall pick Auston Matthews will have more eyes on him in Toronto this season but Marner creates magic with the puck not unlike last year’s Art Ross winner Patrick Kane. If he can make the jump to pro, the Leafs could have a Toews/Kane duo on their hands. JK

The biggest disappointment will be …

The Vancouver Canucks, who think they’re a playoff team but could end up finishing dead last. I don’t think this will qualify as a major surprise to anyone outside of the Canucks organization – even their fans seem really down on the team right now – but it will be a disappointment to the management group that apparently thinks they have a contender. SM

Maybe this answer is a cop-out because it can be submitted every year, but: the Washington Capitals. After the Presidents’ Trophy winners got knocked out of the second Round of the playoffs by the Penguins, general manager Brian MacLellan said the team needed to get faster. So the Capitals enter this season with ... almost exactly the same roster. It’s a bold (and very slow) approach. DG

Over the summer, the Toronto Maple Leafs grabbed Frederik Andersen from Anaheim and gave him a stack of cash ($25m over five years). Andersen is an OK goalie! But when it comes to hockey, Toronto is a hellish panopticon, where the punishment for mistakes – perceived or real – is swift, brutal, and unending. Andersen is bound to disappoint, even if he has a good year. Call it the Phil Kessel effect. CH

The Anaheim Ducks. They’ve won the Pacific Division the last four seasons but won’t qualify for the playoffs this season. Their aging group of forwards will do little to inspire this season and eventually, the speed of the league will lap them. Hiring a coach with methods as dated as Randy Carlyle’s won’t help matters either. JK

One bold prediction

Shameless plug: I’ve already made 30 of them, one for each team, and you can find those here and here. But one that sticks out would see the Red Wings finally miss the playoffs after 25 straight seasons. And I’m not even sure they get to go out with a dramatic chase; they could already be done by April. SM

The Penguins stick with Marc-Andre Fleury as their No1 goalie. Matt Murray was in net for most of Pittsburgh’s Cup run last spring, no small accomplishment for a 22-year old, but he’s rail thin and is already developing an injury track record. If Pittsburgh isn’t 100% sold on him, they could find a trading partner who is and get a nice haul in return. DG

The Vancouver Canucks will finish in the bottom five. The Canucks appear to be adrift. Back in May, the team made a curious trade, sending Jared McCann, a rookie with some promise, and two draft picks to Florida in exchange for Erik Gudbranson and one draft pick, much to fan shagrin. Meanwhile, there are two question marks in goal – Ryan Miller has yet to deliver on the (somewhat limited) promise he had when he arrived, and Jacob Markstrom has struggled, while at 26 is running out of time to solidify himself as a likely successor for the first-string role. The Sedin twins are still around, but beyond that top line, can Vancouver score? Or keep goals at bay? CH

Corey Perry will be traded before the new year. Another early season slump will be too much for Ducks GM Bob Murray to stomach and he will ask Corey Perry to waive his no-movement clause as a means to shake up his roster and remind the Ducks he means business. Perry’s even-strength points production has decreased dramatically through the last three seasons but another GM will have no trouble offering a roster player and a prospect, plus taking on Perry’s $8.625m cap hit for the next five seasons. Perry may be just five seasons removed from his Hart Trophy win but his style of play has proven to be unsustainable lately. The cap space allows Murray some flexibility and having only made it past the second round of the playoffs once in his eight-season tenure, buys him some more time on the job. JK

One change to improve the NHL

Make the nets bigger. I know it’s sacrilege to some hockey fans, but enough is enough. The dead puck era is now two decades old. The NHL has been talking about increasing scoring for over 20 years (literally, I catalogued it). They keep making little tweaks, and those changes always end up having no impact at all. This year, it was supposed to be smaller goalie equipment, but the league dropped the ball and it couldn’t get it done in time for the start of the season, so it’s the status quo yet again. It’s ridiculous.

Hockey’s a great sport, but far too often these days, the NHL product is just flat out boring. Imagine going to you very first game, and you end up watching a plodding 1-0 contest where the only goal comes on a fluke deflection. You’d never come back. How many potential fans has the NHL’s inaction cost them over the last two decades? Make the goal an inch or two bigger all around, give the shooters some net to actually shoot at, force the defense to cover a wider scoring area, and make the goalies work for their shutouts. It won’t solve the problem of dull, defense-first coaching sucking the life out of the game, but it will at least bring a bit of excitement back to the sport. SM

Time to stop the fighting?
Time to stop the fighting? Photograph: Sergei Belski/USA Today Sports

Finally ban fighting. The World Cup was the latest example that the best hockey happens without any punches thrown – also see: Olympic hockey – and ridding the game of goons frees up roster spots for skilled players who can actually play the sport at a high level. Sure, some fans want to see pointless brawls, but the NHL shouldn’t degrade the quality of its product just to appeal to the basket of deplorables demo. DG

The NHL’s Stadium Series bills itself as all-important, but it is nothing more than a branding exercise taken past its reasonable limit. We’re getting plenty of that elsewhere. Shut it down. CH

Be more liberal with 30-40 game suspensions for players who fight more than once in a season and those who commit violent hits to the head. You can be sure that players will choose much more wisely when fighting as a means to sway the momentum of a game. This would also quicken the pace of the game. Few things will make a player re-think his violent on-ice actions than threatening a giant hit to his paycheque. And, most importantly, the health of players around the league could hopefully be protected. JK

How many Canadian teams will make the playoffs?

One – the Montreal Canadiens. The Jets and Flames have a shot. The Leafs, Senators and Canucks would be shockers. The Oilers, really, who knows. SM

One – the Calgary Flames. They made the playoffs two years ago a bit ahead of schedule, but took a big step back last year and got head coach Bob Hartley fired. They’ll be improved this season thanks to acquiring Brian Elliott, a significant upgrade over the goalie-shaped, cardboard cutouts they tried in net before. DG

Two? Maybe Montreal can sneak back in, if Carey Price remains healthy and things don’t fall apart too badly in front of him. And, on paper anyway, Calgary looks best positioned in the west to make the playoffs. CH

Two – the Winnipeg Jets and the Calgary Flames. Carey Price will do everything in his power to get the Montreal Canadiens to the post-season but they don’t have enough talent to find the back of the net. The Edmonton Oilers will be fun at times, messy at others. The Jets will see their young goalie tandem step up in a big way and the Flames will surprise their way into a division win. JK

How will Gary Bettman upset hockey fans this year?

By continuing to exist. But if you want something more specific, let’s say by pulling the NHL out of the 2018 Winter Games and then, in typical Bettman form, making some ridiculous comments about how hockey fans don’t really like the Olympics anyway. SM

Bettman said in a press conference before the start of the World Cup of Hockey that the thing he loves most about being commissioner is presenting the Stanley Cup each year. Yes, the thing he does while getting booed, loudly, every time. Gary Bettman is clearly a heel and will do anything and everything to enrage fans further. DG

Gary Bettman: not exactly you average hockey fan’s favourite person.
Gary Bettman: not exactly you average hockey fan’s favourite person. Photograph: Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

When it comes to concussions, Gary Bettman adopts the same stance as a climate change denier. For this, history should judge him extremely harshly. Well, for that, and putting a team in Las Vegas. CH

By not getting ahead of the concussion problems, which could still threaten to damage the integrity of the NHL. Yes, the league-wide concussion spotting program has been amped up yet again in an effort to catch players who sustain concussions in game but there are still far too many players involved in a lawsuit against the league. Bettman is in a tough spot here with regards to fighting in the game: he’d upset purists by instilling tougher punishment for fighting and could also upset progressive fans who want to see it banned from the game. But with the mental health of future hockey players at stake, Bettman needs to take a stand and eliminate any opportunity for unnecessary, long-term head injuries. JK

Metropolitan winners

Regular season: Pittsburgh Penguins; playoffs: Washington Capitals. SM

Washington. The Penguins are the better team, but having a big regular season is very Capitals. Soon the Verizon Center ceiling won’t have any room left for more banners that no one cares about. DG

We need some hope in our lives these days. The New York Islanders. (Just kidding. The Caps.) CH

Washington Capitals. The best pure goalscorer and goaltender in the game right now topple a Penguins team that could be hurt with injuries. JK

Atlantic winners

Regular season: Tampa Bay Lightning; playoffs: Lightning. SM

Tampa Bay. The Lightning lost in the 2015 Cup Final and the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals. That may look like a team on the decline, but they’re still one of the youngest teams in hockey and they made the best offseason acquisition of all in keeping Steven Stamkos. DG

This is going to be a weird division. Florida Panthers. CH

Tampa Bay Lightning. If Nikita Kucherov’s game takes another step and they receive a decent return in a possible Ben Bishop trade, the collection of also-rans in this division won’t be able to touch them. JK

Central winners

Regular season: Predators; playoffs: Stars. SM

Dallas Stars. Dallas started fast last year and then waned as the season wore on. This year they open with four top forwards battling injuries. That could be a blessing in an ice pack disguise, allowing Dallas to peak later in the year with everyone healthy. DG

What happens when the Nashville Predators bring in PK Subban to energize an offensive defence, while adding center Ryan Johansen? Maybe they take the division. CH

Nashville Predators. Under Peter Laviolette, this lineup will be one of the most dynamic and entertaining to watch. The most offensive defence corps in the league should keep games as high scoring affairs, even if that means their Goals Against Average will suffer too. Nevertheless, this is a team that’s been on the verge for years and with a number of players, including possible Norris Trophy winner Roman Josi, entering their primes, they will emerge as one of the league’s elite. JK

Pacific winners

Regular season: Kings; playoffs: Kings. SM

LA Kings. Speed and youth is the new Stanley Cup model, whereas the Kings are remain built around size and veterans. That style still works to get through the long grind of the regular season, but the Kings may want to make a few trades before the playoffs start. DG

Someone from California. CH

Calgary Flames. A new coach will inject life into this up-and-down team. Plus, Johnny Gaudreau could challenge for the scoring title and new man between the pipes Brian Elliott will give this team the stability in net that they’ve lacked for years. Post-season success is another question, of course. JK

Eastern Conference finals prediction

Lightning over Capitals. SM

Penguins over Lightning. DG

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals. Will Sidney Crosby recover quickly from his latest concussion? Hopefully! CH

Washington Capitals over Tampa Bay Lightning. JK

Western Conference finals prediction

Stars over Kings. SM

Stars over Ducks. DG

San Jose Sharks v Chicago Blackhawks. Recent history might suggest San Jose is a good candidate to reach the conference final. Less recent history might suggest that San Jose is a good candidate to go off the rails in the first round. Let’s assume irregular things happen in San Jose again this year, and somewhat regular things happen in Chicago. CH

Nashville Predators over Chicago Blackhawks. JK

The Hart Trophy winner is …

Sidney Crosby. McDavid wins the Art Ross, but voters shy away from giving him the Hart too after the Oilers don’t make the playoffs. SM

Sidney Crosby: he’s still pretty good at hockey.
Sidney Crosby: he’s still pretty good at hockey. Photograph: Nathan Denette/AP

In the last 10 months, Sidney Crosby went from 100-something in NHL scoring to third, won the Cup, won the Conn Smythe, won the World Cup and won the World Cup MVP. It’s been a reminder to the hockey intelligentsia that he’s still pretty good at the sport. Barring a long-term absence from concussion (or McDavid scoring 150 points and single-handedly taking the Oilers to the playoffs), it’s Crosby’s to lose. DG

If Dallas has a similar season to its last one (which they might!) and Jamie Benn equals or exceeds his 2015-16 performance (which he could!) one would hope that he is rewarded properly. CH

Alex Ovechkin. Like it or not, Ovechkin will always be linked and compared to Sidney Crosby. Crsoby himself reminded the world why he’s one of the league’s greats both in last season’s run to the Stanley Cup and in this fall’s World Cup of Hockey. This will only light a fire under Ovechkin. At 31, he knows his window for a Stanley Cup is closing and seeing what one of his rivals did last season will push him not only to another 50-goal season but also a determined approach the likes of which we’ve never seen from him. As talented as the Capitals are, he could take them on his back. JK

The 2017 Stanley Cup winners will be …

The Tampa Bay Lightning over the Stars in six. SM

No team has repeated as Stanley Cup champions since the Red Wings did it in 1997 and 1998, but Pittsburgh returns almost the exact same roster that dominated the NHL last winter and spring. No one would be surprised if Gary Bettman hands them the Cup (while getting booed) again this June. DG

Maybe the Chicago Blackhawks can play the Pittsburgh Penguins in the final, and we all win, but more specifically the Penguins can. CH

Washington Capitals, finally. The defending champs will run into injuries and Braden Holtby’s regular season workload may be as exhaustive as seasons previous. Carey Price’s Montreal Canadiens won’t factor into the playoffs and these will be the playoffs when Holtby emerges not just as one of the best goaltenders on the planet, but a big-game player as well. And of course, Ovechkin, on his own mission, will take these two to the promised land, finally. As per usual the Western Conference will beat themselves up. The Capitals, however, won’t have to sustain nearly as much damage in the early rounds. JK


Sean McIndoe, DJ Gallo, Colin Horgan and Joshua Kloke

The GuardianTramp

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