The 2018-19 NHL season opens Wednesday, including the Stanley Cup banner raising for Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals. Here’s how our panel stacks up all 31 NHL teams, plus a reason for optimism for every fan base.
Note: These rankings reflect which teams the voters think would win head-to-head matchups. Higher-ranked teams would be favored against lower-ranked teams.
The Jets were a wagon in last season’s playoffs and only seem to be gaining momentum. Patrik Laine, playing for a new contract and reportedly 14 pounds lighter, might just hit the 50-goal mark.
A model of depth, the Lightning boast the best mix-and-match top-nine forwards in the league. They’re coming off three deep playoff runs in the past four springs, so perhaps this is the season it all comes together.
A late-summer drama unfolded in Toronto: Which of the talented forwards gets to play on the first power play? Trust us, Leafs fans. Plenty of teams would beg to have that problem.
Eeli Tolvanen isn’t starting the season with the big club, which is disappointing. The Preds are on rinse-and-repeat mode. A killer defense, top goaltender and flashy first line will carry them through the fall.
Contrary to the popular narrative, the defending Stanley Cup champions didn’t actually spend all summer boozing. GM Brian McLellan spent the summer keeping the band together in hopes it has one more hit.
It seems everyone expects the Knights to take a step back in year two — except Vegas and their fans, that is. GM George McPhee took regression-proof precautions by adding two proven players to the band of misfits: Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty.
Finally getting a summer of rest, the Penguins should be rejuvenated for another long run. We know Matt Murray is better than he played last season (he slipped from a .923 save percentage in 2016-17 to a .907) and should rebound accordingly.
Reports of Tuukka Rask‘s demise always seem exaggerated. The 31-year-old had an underrated season (34-14-5, .917 save percentage). If he does need some help, Boston made a strong summer signing with former Islanders netminder Jaroslav Halak as a backup.
The Blues were nearly a playoff team last season, then added three top-six forwards (Patrick Maroon, Ryan O’Reilly, David Perron) plus third-line center Tyler Bozak. Also, their power play can’t be as dreadful (15.4 percent, second to last in the league) as it was last season, right? Bueller?
(Probably) playing for a hefty free-agency payday, Artemi Panarin should begin the season on a tear. Sergei Bobrovsky might be dissatisfied with his current contract status — he’ll also be an unrestricted free agent next summer — but he’s still one of the top goaltenders in the game.
Orange, fuzzy and slightly terrifying Gritty might have hogged the preseason headlines, but let’s not forget: This team can be scary on the ice, too. James van Riemsdyk is a legit scoring winger who can relieve pressure from young players still finding their way.
They might be old, a bit slow and saddled with bloated contracts. But at least Los Angeles is doubling down on its win-now window. Ilya Kovalchuk should boost a team that had only three skaters with 20-plus goals last season.
New coach, new energy — but there are also (somewhat) new faces. Valeri Nichushkin returns from a short stint in Russia with a two-year, $5.9 million contract, looking to prove he can provide an NHL spark, a la Alexander Radulov.
First-year GM Paul Fenton did not make any drastic, immediate changes, but he didn’t need to. This team is already built to win, even in the ultracompetitive Central Division. They’ll get a boost if Eric Staal proves his 42-goal outburst was not a fluke.
An underrated top six just got better with the addition of Mike Hoffman. The Atlantic Division is top-loaded, but Florida’s top two centers, Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck, are both ascendant and give the Panthers a great 1-2 punch.
The Devils have the league’s reigning MVP, Taylor Hall. That’s enough reason for optimism. Though GM Ray Shero didn’t make any free-agent splashes, his plucky group overachieved last season, so we’re hesitant to count New Jersey out again.
So they’re without Corey Perry for five months (knee surgery). Bummer. The Ducks, however, withstood early injuries last season to Cam Fowler, Patrick Eaves, Ryan Kesler, Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen (who was later traded) — and still made the playoffs.
The Flames made two big additions to their top six: James Neal, a consistent 20-plus goal scorer, and 23-year-old Elias Lindholm, who could be the real coup in the megatrade with the Hurricanes. Calgary wasted no time inking Lindholm to a six-year contract.
GM Joe Sakic has said he still wants the team to get younger, and there might be growing pains. But this team will contend for a playoff spot thanks to a spectacular first line and improved goaltending from offseason acquisition Philipp Grubauer.
Cam Talbot is playing for a new contract. Maybe the 73 games he started in 2016-17 was an unreasonable bar, but here’s to hoping 2017-18 (3.05 goals-against average, .907 save percentage) was an outlier for him — and the team.
The Canes boast one of the most dynamic young defense groups in the league. Goaltending is a big question here, but Carolina must be optimistic about Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen after they put on a great showcase for Team Finland at the World Championships.
The Coyotes have plenty of players with something to prove: Alex Galchenyuk, Michael Grabner, Vinnie Hinostroza, Dylan Strome. If they channel that chip-on-the-shoulder energy, they could be a playoff team. Unfortunately, Galchenyuk begins the season injured.
The Blackhawks are straddled in the gray area before they commit to a rebuild. As they wait it out — and see what they have with goaltending — the early season will be a chance for young talent to shine. Chicago fans, meet Henri Jokiharju and Dominik Kahun.
The Sabres are everybody’s favorite sleeper team after losing Ryan O’Reilly but acquiring so much depth. “I think things are really heading in the right direction,” Jack Eichel told ESPN this summer. “I can confidently say that now.” Oh, and they also have the early favorite for the Calder Trophy in No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin.
While the Islanders were busy signing nearly every available fourth-liner on the market, you might have worried about their defense. Don’t fret. New coach Barry Trotz is known for installing defensive structure — he’ll make something good out of this group.
Unburdened by Alain Vigneault’s tough love, Pavel Buchnevich is a prime breakout candidate for the Rangers. Rebuild or no rebuild, it’s great for fans to see a glimpse of the future, with Filip Chytil taking on a big role, and hopefully Lias Andersson later in the season after some work with the AHL side in Hartford.
Let’s not jinx it, but the Canadiens could look like geniuses for taking Jesperi Kotkaniemi with the No. 3 pick in the 2018 draft. The Finn has looked terrific through the preseason and earned an opening-day roster spot.
The Canucks don’t have a ton of depth — the defense is especially ugly — but they give us at least one young talent to be excited about each season. In 2017-18, it was Brock Boeser. This season, it’s Elias Pettersson.
It’s probably another lost season until the Red Wings can get some of their aged contracts off the books (see: Niklas Kronwall, Jimmy Howard). But Detroit could get a glimpse of the future if Filip Zadina works his way into the NHL lineup.
They are a team! And teams stick together in good times — and what is likely to be some pretty bad times, too.