While the first day of winter may not be almost two months away, the 31 teams in the National Hockey League (NHL) are already playing in the snow. Just about three weeks into the 2019-2020 campaign, several teams have already impressed and appear to be major contenders for this year’s Stanley Cup.
It’s only fair to begin with the defending champions, the St. Louis Blues, who went through an emotional roller coaster in the 2018-2019 season. They fired head coach Mike Yeo in the middle of November after a 7-9-3 start, then experienced Jordan Binnington’s introduction as the Blues’ top goalie, who went on to a 24-5-1 record en route to the Blues’ first ever Cup win.
The Blues going from disappointment to hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup made for an incredible story, but don’t expect them to be able to repeat that this year.
First, much of their success last year came on the back of Binnington’s incomparable run, and it’s hard to expect the 26-year-old to be able to match his performance. They do have some impact players around him, including right winger Vladimir Tarasenko and center Ryan O’Reilly, but they are also in the brutal Central Division that will push them to their limits.
Traveling just over 1,000 miles southeast to Tampa, Fla., we find the winner of last year’s Presidents’ Trophy, the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning finished last year’s regular season tying the 1996 Detroit Red Wings for most wins in a season with 62 and looked poised to continue their dominance with a deep playoff run. The excitement was dashed in just the first round when the Columbus Blue Jackets swept Tampa Bay, and they became the first team ever to win the President’s Trophy after being swept in the first round.
Reaching that level of glory will be difficult for the Lightning to repeat, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expect them to be a force to be reckoned with. They are still the most talented team in hockey, with forwards Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov each contributing 40 goals and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy winning last year’s Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie. With a chip on their shoulder after last year’s letdown, I expect Tampa Bay to put the past behind them on the way to once again being a top team in the league.
The Boston Bruins finished the season at number two in the league when St. Louis knocked them off in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals and they will likely be out for blood after losing in the Finals for the second time since 2012-2013. Their mainstays have admittedly gotten older, with goalie Tuukka Rask, centers David Krejčí and Patrice Bergeron and left wing Brad Marchand all in their thirties, but they have done well in acquiring young talent. Charlie McAvoy has separated himself as the top defenseman at just 21-years-old and 23-year-old David Pastrňák has posted 80 points in the past two seasons, so the Bruins still have plenty left in the tank to make another deep run in the playoffs.
While some recent champions look to reclaim the Stanley Cup, a pair of Canadian teams — the Calgary Flames and the Toronto Maple Leafs — are looking to hoist the Cup for the first time since 1988-1989 and 1966-1967, respectively. Luckily for both fanbases, both teams have the talent to end those losing streaks.
The Flames took first place in the Pacific Division in 2018-2019 after a 107-point campaign that saw three different skaters, left wingers Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk and center Sean Monahan, all compile more than 30 goals. This trio is coupled with Mark Giordano, who is one of the top defensemen in the league, which makes for a solid unit that can make a lot of noise this season.
Fear arises when one looks at the situation in net, with neither David Rittich nor Cam Talbot being overly impressive. Offensively, the Flames should once again be a top team in the league, but they will need either Rittich or Talbot to exceed expectations if they want to end their Stanley Cup drought.
For the Maple Leafs, their goaltending situation faces a different predicament: Their top goalie played too much last year. Of the 82 regular season games that the Maple Leafs played last year, Frederik Andersen was Toronto’s goalie in 60 of those. He performed well, ending with a 36-16-7 record, but played injured during the latter end of the season due to the lackluster performances of the goaltenders behind him. So far, his workload has been spread a bit more, which is good for his health. However, if questions persist, he may be forced into the net more.
Offensively, the Leafs can compete with just about anyone, with guys like centers Auston Matthews and John Tavares and right winger Mitch Marner, but their forward depth falls off a bit after their top two lines. Nonetheless, they’ll put plenty of goals on the board, and I expect them to be one of the top teams in the east, if not in the entire NHL.
One of the many beauties of sports is that they’re almost always unpredictable, and hockey is no exception. Come playoff time, bad teams will make great strides, and good teams will fall off the wagon. If there’s one thing for sure, it’s that this season, like all seasons, will be an exciting one.