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MHR Followers NHL Poll & Preview

N.Y. Times Photo

By Scott Lowe - MYHockeyRankings.com

Well, you went and did it. The followers have spoken. My worst fears realized.

Our MYHockeyRankings.com NHL preseason poll is complete, and you have picked the Washington Capitals to win the Stanley Cup over the Colorado Avalanche. The final vote was about 66 percent to 34 percent in favor of the Caps.

I’m sure the fact that I grew up in the DC area and have a hockey website called DMVProspects.com that covers hockey in that part of the world probably skewed the vote a little – or a lot. But don’t think for a second that’s because I wanted the Caps to win.

I’m the most superstitious person in the world, so while it’s nice to see my team appreciated, I don’t want anything jinxed – especially as the team’s window to win a Stanley Cup continues to shrink as longtime team icons Nick Backstrom and Braden Holtby enter contract years.

So, while of course I really want my team to win, that wasn’t the point of the poll.

Since it’s the first week of the NHL season it was just a way to get people thinking and talking about the upcoming campaign, which should prove to be an exciting one as the league gets younger and faster with young future stars like Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko entering the NHL and still-young superstars like Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel not even reaching their primes yet.

But don’t count the older guys out, either. Guys like Ovechkin, Crosby, Pavelski, Thornton, Chara and Kane – yeah, I guess at 30 these days Kane is considered old – all have shown the have enough left in the tank to lead a team deep into the playoffs.

And of course every year there are the newcomers to the dance looking to crash the party, the talented teams that disappoint and the complete surprises. Who will be this year’s Vegas Golden Knights or Carolina Hurricanes? Will a team like Columbus that took a full swing and miss at the Stanley Cup last year fall out of the picture completely? Did the Rangers, Devils and Panthers assemble a group that will truly fast- track their progress? Will San Jose win a Cup before it’s too late – or has the window slammed shut? And can Calgary finally put it together?

Oh, and the Leafs, will they ever? The Oilers? Nevermind.

That’s what makes sports – and the NHL in particular – so great. You just never know. Some things are guaranteed: One or more of the teams that is widely considered a true contender will disappoint. A team that no one is thinking about will not only make the playoffs, but will make some noise. Every fanbase will blame the refs and say the league is out to get them. And Gary Bettman will bet booed when he presents the Stanley Cup.

So, here we go with a recap or our MyHockeyRankings.com NHL Preseason poll and a little 2019-20 preview:

 

Metropolitan Division

Since the voters picked the Caps to win it all and this division is traditionally a dogfight down to the season’s final days, let’s start here with the results from our Metro Division poll:

Capitals – 64%

Penguins – 17%

Devils – 14%

Islanders – 6%

Hurricanes

Flyers

Rangers

Blue Jackets

The Caps won the Cup two years ago and from the outside are probably considered an older team. One thing the franchise has been able to do, however, is filter young drafted talent into the lineup to keep a nice mix of veterans and youth. Evegeny Kuznetsov probably seems like he’s been around forever, but he’s 27. Speedy Jacob Vrana is only 23. Tom Wilson is just 25. The Caps took further steps toward getting younger and more mobile on the back end over the summer with the retirement of Brooks Orpik and by trading 32-year-old Matt Niskanen. They started the season with 19-year-old Martin Fehervary and 22-year-old Jonas Siegenthaler in the lineup. They also promoted 22-year-old Ilya Samsonov, a former first-round pick and the team’s goalie of the future.

For Washington the questions are how quickly will the young defensemen mature and can Ovechkin and Backstrom continue their product into their mid-30s. The good news is that the Caps have proven they can run and gun with anyone and probably can outscore most opponents until the young back-end guys mature. Offensively they’re as deep as any team in the league, Braden Holtby is a top-five goalie when on his game, and they’ve beefed up their fourth line. Their combination of speed, skill and size can be frightening. Will we have at least one more Caps-Pens series for the ages before Crosby and Ovechkin skate off until the sunset?

The Penguins’ key players are also moving toward the twilight of their careers, but any team that can send Malkin, Crosby, Guentzel and Letang out on a given night is going to be dangerous. They aren’t as deep at forward as the Caps, but have a Cup-winning goalie. Like the Caps they will have questions on the blue line, but figure to be able to stay in the hunt until they sure things up on the back end. Pittsburgh isn’t done yet.

If you look at most NHL previews you’ll find that a the majority folks leaning toward the Caps to win the Metro, with the Penguins receiving a few nods and even fewer mentioning the Hurricanes.

The Devils also get some mentions as division-title contenders and certainly have fast-tracked their path back to respectability with the additions of P.K. Subban and Wayne Simmonds and by being able to draft players like Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier the past few years. Throw Taylor Hall into the mix along with new acquisition Nikita Gusev,Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac and you have an interesting mix of youth and experience that might challenge for the playoffs.

Oddly, the Islanders don’t get too many mentions from the pundits after coming within a point of the division winners last season and having one of the league’s most respected coaches behind the bench in Barry Trotz. It’s not a flashy lineup or an offensive juggernaut, but that’s right up Trotz’s alley. Letting Vezina finalist Robin Lehner walk seemed to be an odd move. Up-and-down Semyon Varlomov was brought in to replace him. Thomas Greiss has been very good at times, but never been leaned on too heavily. This team is solid defensively and can play a physical game up and down the lineup, but lacks some skill and scoring punch in the top six. Just the way Trotz likes it. If you think they won’t be a real playoff contender, think again.

The Hurricanes were the league’s darlings last year – or jerks, depending on who you asked – knocking off the defending Stanley Cup champs in the first round. They have a solid young core and some great young players on defense. This team is much stronger defensively than most people think, which will keep them in the hunt. They will miss Justin Williams and Justin Faulk.

The Flyers added Kevin Hayes to beef up the size and skill at forward and Matt Niskanen to mentor an up-and-coming young defensive corps. If Carter Hart proves to be the real deal in net for an entire season, Philly has enough firepower with Jackub Voarcek, Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux to sneak into the playoffs. They need to be more consistent and avoid the roller-coaster of long winning and losing streaks that always seems to plague them.

In New York, Artemi Panarin alone speeds up the Rangers’ rebuilding process. Trading for rookie d-man Adam Fox, a future star, was a great move, too. As was adding stud blueliner Jacob Trouba. Other young players have been eating up ice time and getting much-needed experience. And they still have the King in goal. This team is not far away and should play an exciting brand of hockey worth watching even if they aren’t quite a playoff team yet.

Columbus went for the home run last year and came up short. But, hey, thanks for knocking the Lighting out in the first round for the rest of the conference. Cam Atkinson is a tremendous player. Seth Jones is considered by some to be one of the top three defensemen in the league – and he’s just 25. But losing Sergei Bobrovsky and Panarin might be too much for this team to make the playoffs again. Then again, John Tortorella always seems to find a way, and once he gets in he’s a tough out. Right Tampa?

 

Atlantic Division

Lightning – 50%

Bruins – 24 %

Leafs – 23%

Canadiens – 3%

Sabres

Red Wings

Senators

Panthers

Tampa Bay has had some difficulty getting beyond the Eastern Conference finals in recent years, but no one expected what happened to them last year. After obliterating the competition all year long and tying the NHL-record with 62 wins, the Lighting ran into Tortorella’s Blue Jackets in the first round and couldn’t win again. Still, there’s no way you can look past the Lightning as the Atlantic Division – and Stanley Cup – favorites with the reigning Hart Trophy and Vezina Trophy winners in Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy in the lineup and both in their mid-20s. Oh, and then there’s Steven Samkos and 23-year-old budding superstar Brayden Point up front and perennial Norris-contender Victor Hedman on the back end.

Of course, after the crushing early playoff exit, Tampa refused to stand pad, adding recent Stanley Cup-winner Pat Marron and veteran two-way defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. Tampa seemingly has the right mix to win a Cup – depth, skill and grit up front and six d-men who could probably crack any lineup in the league. They have youth. They have experience. And they have stellar goaltending. This has to be the year they put it together, right?

The Bruins, who morphed into a different team during last season’s playoffs and came within a whisker of capturing the Stanley Cup, along with the young and talented – yet frustrating – Maple Leafs will have something to say about who takes the Atlantic Division regular-season crown and advances to the conference finals.

Boston is the most veteran of the three Atlantic contenders, and that served them well in their playoff run last spring. Essentially, though, as Tuuka goes, so go the Bruins. Not a fan favorite for much of the season, the enigmatic Rask put the B’s on his back and almost brought a cup home to Beantown. He can be spectacular, and he can make you want to pull your hair out. But if Rask can find a consistent middle ground throughout the regular season and turn it up a notch again in the playoffs, the Bruins will be right there in the mix. A very strong top six that includes Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and David Krejci doesn’t hurt either, although only Pastrnak would be considered young among that group. Zdeno Chara isn’t his old Norris-winning self, but certainly is an experienced, steadying influence on the back line, while youngster Charlie McAvoy is the real deal and ready to assume the No. 1 role and Tory Krug may be the most underrated defenseman in the NHL. This is a very good team, but time is running out.

The Maple Leafs are the opposite of the Bruins – youthful and skilled Marner, Matthews, Nylander and Tavares up front, with newly named captain John Tavares being the elder statesman of that group at age 29. Morgan Rielly, Tyson Barrie and Jake Muzzin provide a really strong defensive core, and the addition of Cody Ceci only improves that. In goal, Frederik Andersen eats up minutes and wins and has had a save percentage between .916 and .918 literally every year. With the offensive talent on this team, they don’t need him to make all the saves, just the important ones. If Mike Babcock can use his past Stanley Cup success to rein this group in and eliminate the drama that always seems to plague the Leafs, they should be as good as anyone.

Those three teams make the Atlantic Division top heavy. You won’t find three better teams in any one division, but there is a steep dropoff to the next group. Florida, with the hiring of former Cup-winning coach Joel Queeneville and the addition of consistent Vezina-candidate Sergei Bobrovksky in net, is knocking on the door and possibly ready to compete for a wildcard spot. Aleksander Barkov, Evgeny Dadonov, Mike Hoffman, Jonathan Huberdau and Vincent Trocheck give the Panthers as solid a top-five forward group as just about any team, and they are hoping that adding Brett Connolly, one of the top point-per-minute producers in the league the last couple of years, can round out the top six. Defense is the question mark with this team, making the addition of “Bob” even bigger. Aaron Ekbland hasn’t quite lived up to his rookie-year promise, and other than veteran-addition Anton Stralman, you likely wouldn’t be able to name the other blueliners.

As for the others, Detroit and Ottawa just seem to be in long-term rebuilding mode right now, although the Red Wings have a ton of young talent and may be ready to make a move in the right direction this year. The Sabres have Jack Eichel and some interesting parts. They showed flashes of being a contender early in the season last year, but the constant shuffling of coaches and lack of depth continue to plague them.

 

Eastern Conference Finals

With the Caps and Lighting voted as division winners by our followers, that is the conference finals matchup we proposed, and you picked the Capitals to beat Tampa. These two met in the Eastern finals two years ago, with Washington winning the first two games, dropping three straight and then playing two of the most complete games in its playoff history to win the final two contess and capture the series in seven games. The Caps used their size to pound the Lighting physically in all four wins, and Tampa didn’t seem to like that. Washington inexplicably got away from that formula in the three losses, causing many of us in the DMV to say, “Here we go again.” The Lighting are better now. The Caps have – Guess what? – increased their size and speed this year. What a series this would be - most likely a seven-gamer with goaltenders Holtby and Vasilevskiy deciding it.

 

Central Division

Talk about stacked! This Division rivals the Atlantic in terms of its top two teams being Cup contenders, while Dallas and Nashville are maybe just a half-step behind and the next team Winnipeg, was considered is very talented up front and had been thought of as a contender the past couple years before its defense fell apart. The difference between the Central and Atlantic is that there is not a huge dropoff at the bottom with a Minnesota team that has been a consistent playoff participant over the years and a Blachawks team that can never be counted out bringing up the rear.

Here is a look at the follower voting in the Central:

 

Avalanche – 40%

Blues – 20%

Stars – 18%

Predators – 16%

Jets

Blachawks

Wild

Colorado is the fun and fashionable pick as some of its younger stars mature, and the Avs appear ready to make the jump to contender. There is a ton of speed and skill with this group, but it remains to be seen if it has the grit and fortitude do always do what needs to be done come playoff time. Nathan MacKinnon is a blur of speed and skill on the ice and is coming of his best year (41 goals and 99 points) – and he’s just 24. Sidney Crosby’s training partner seems to have learned a thing or two from the Kid and has emerged as a leader for the Avalanche. Nazem Kadri was brought in to provide some of the missing sandpaper, but still has the skill to keep up with the top guys and can finish. Can he stay of trouble?

Kadri comes at the expense of top defenseman Tyson Barrie, who was shipped to Toronto, but apparently the Avs saw enough out of Hobey Baker-winner Cale Makar in the playoffs to feel good about that move. Captain Gabe Landeskog has been MacKinnon’s wing man for years, and Colorado also has 6-4 manchild Miko Rantanen coming off a 31-goal, 87-point season and talented newcomer Andre Burakovsky. Rantanen is just 22 and has three full years at the NHL level under his belt. Burakovsky had a great postseason to help the Capitals win the Cup two seasons ago and has top-six ability. He just couldn’t consistently crack one of the league’s best top-six groups in D.D. Depth-guy Pierre Edouard Bellemare arrives from Vegas with playoff experience to solidify the bottom six. With its youth and speed, this team shouldn’t wear down, and it’s likely to go as far as goaltender Phillip Grubauer can take it considering the back end is still a bit of a question mark with very few household names in the lineup. Grubauer has never played more than 37 games in a season, but has the experience as a backup during Washington’s Stanley Cup run to draw on and had a spectacular playoffs last year.

What else can you say about the Blues? It’s pretty much the same team – minus Pat Maroon – that went from worst to first in a matter of months last season. Midseason replacement-coach Craig Berube and AHL-journeyman goaltender Jordan Binnington are the two major changes you can point to that turned things around last year. Berube seems to be a player’s coach who commands the respect of the room based on how he played the game, so he be brutally honest with players without making waves. As for Binnington, who knows? Great story. Such a calm presence in big situations on the ice. Is he the real deal? There’s no reason to believe he’s not, but then again he’s never had to carry the load for a full 82-game NHL schedule plus playoffs. Clearly this team is good enough. It can go as far as its goaltender takes it. The late addition of Justin Falk to go along with Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko makes what was arguably the best defensive group in the NHL last year even better.

Similar to the Blues, Dallas was in the midst of a disappointing season before Christmas last year when ownership challenged its stars, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, to be better. The next thing you know it’s Gloria vs. the Lonstar State in an epic playoff series, with the Blues edging the Stars and ultimately winning the cup. Much like Columbus last year, Dallas seems to be swinging for the fences this season. Gone is Jason Spezza, but in his place the Stars added seasoned-veteran scorers Joe Pavelski (38 goals) and Corey Perry. Those two, along with Alexander Radulov, give Dallas a more-than-formidable top six, and they have one of the league’s best goalis in the giant Ben Bishop (1.98 GAA last season). John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen give Dallas two legit No.1-caliber d-men in front of Big Ben. The Stars’ season may come down to how this question plays out: Can Pavelski and Perry provide the leadership, grit and extra scoring Dallas needs to get over the hump?

The window for the Predators, Cup finalists just three years ago, may be closing. P.K. Subban is gone. Matt Duchene arrives. Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson have the potential to score 34 to 45 goals, and Ryan Johansen seems to have settled in as one of the league’s elite set-up guys after a 50-assist season. Nashville’s defense has always been a strong point, and it will be again this year with Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis anchoring that group. But Pekka Rinne, who has been on a steady decline the past two years, is still the man in goal. He’s 37 and can’t carry the full load anymore, but when he’s on his game he’s as good as anyone. Can Peter Laviolette figure out how to manage Rinne and have him peaking for the playoffs? If so, Nashville is solid enough up and down the lineup to make a run.

Winnipeg, which seemed to be a team on the rise that would be a Stanley Cup-contender for the foreseeable future, has taken major steps back with the uncertain future of Dustin Byfuglien and the departure of depth defensemen Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot. Up front the Jets still have Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine, but Laine’s work ethic and commitment have been questioned and Winnipeg didn’t seem all that eager to hand him a new contract this summer. Connor Hellebuyck needs to return to form for this team to have a chance to make the playoffs, but even if he does it seems as though only a wildcard berth is a possibility.

The Wild under formerly high-octane offensive head coach Bruce Boudreau have become one of the more boring teams in the NHL. They are heavily dependent on goalie Devan Dubnyk, who has for stretches shown the ability to be as good as anyone. Consistency is key for him, and this team just needs to score more. Unfortunately, with most of their top players over the age of 32, it’s not apparent where that scoring might come from.

For the Blackhawks, the unthinkable has happened. Chicago has missed the playoffs two straight years and decided to move on from beloved head coach Joel Queeneville. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are still around, and young budding superstar Alex DeBrincat had 41 goals last season. But beyond that there doesn’t seem to be much other than Dylan Strome (57 points). Defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have seen better days. Newcomers Olli Matta and Calvin deHaan will help, but they are more depth guys than top-pairing stalwarts. Bringing in Vezina-finalist Robin Lehner will help, and the return of Andrew Shaw brings grit and leadership. It just doesn’t appear the Hawks will have enough in this stacked division.  

 

Pacific Division

The weakest division in the NHL will get the weakest write-up. Sorry. Call it East Coast bias or tired fingers or whatever you want. There just isn’t much to crow about here beyond Calgary and Vegas. Okay, the Sharks are still solid and Arizona is on the rise. This is how the voting played out:

 

Golden Knights – 42%

Flames – 28%

Sharks – 25%

Coyotoes – 5%

Canucks

Oilers

Kings

Ducks

Vegas continues to be a model organization on and off the ice. The Golden Knights do great things in the community and are well-run from the top down. They proved to be no fluke last year, and may have been one misguided 5-minute third-period playoff penalty away from a second trip to the finals last year. The Golden Knights don’t wow you with star power, but the additions of Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone last season gave this team the scoring depth it needed. Vegas plays a fast, high-pressure game, and although its defensemen aren’t household names, they all can skate and move the puck led by Nate Schmidt and Shea Theodore. And, of course, the ageless wonder Marc Andre Fleury gives Vegas a chance to win every night and doesn’t mind playing 65 games even at age 34. Up front Paul Stastny, William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault add offensive punch to a lineup that has a great mixture of grit, speed and two-way players.

Calgary is a team everyone talks about and loves to watch, but the Flames haven’t gotten over the hump yet. The Flames ran away with the Pacific Division last year, but were knocked out of the playoffs quickly. High-octane young forwards Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk all bring different things to the top six, which makes the team difficult to play against, and Elias Lindholm also is a solid top-six guy. Defensively the Flames have Vezina-winner Mark Giordano, who isn’t getting any younger, but obviously is still as good as just about anyone on the blueline. And they are hoping that replacing Mike Smith with Cam Talbot in goal will help get them over the top.

The poor San Jose Sharks. Maybe this is the year? After the Caps and Blues captured their first Stanley Cups the past two springs, someone has to be next right? Based on history and suffering, that team would logically be the Sharks. Unfortunately, San Jose’s window may have shut after so many heartbreaking playoff exits. The Sharks have made deep runs, and last year’s incredible third-period comeback win against Vegas had many believing that maybe their time had come. But alas it was not to be. The loss of Joe Pavelski will not help their cause. Neither will the losses of Jonas Donskoi and deadline acquisition Gustav Nyquest. Dalton Prout was the only player of any note brought in. Jumbo Joe Thornton is back to assume his third-line center role and to spark the power play. Goaltender Martin Jones, who really stepped up in the playoffs, also returns. Evander Kane and Logan Couture are solid top-six forwards, and Couture is incredible in the playoffs. The defensive group is very strong with Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns as the anchors. This is by no means a bad team. It’s clearly a playoff team. And who knows what a hot goalie and a couple of key deadline deals might do to put San Jose in the mix. Maybe lower expectations will help take some of the pressure off.

Arizona is a team on the rise. The addition of Phil Kessel in terms of talent and postseason experience should help give the Coyotes a shot at the postseason. Often maligned by the media, Kessel is beloved in locker rooms and clearly brings much-needed experience and scoring ability to the desert. Carl Soderberg is an overlooked addition who can play up and down the lineup and provide whatever a coach needs or asks. Teams need guys like that to make the playoffs. Youngster Clayton Keller appears to be poised to step into a key offensive role, and the addition of Kessel should help his development and ensure that Arizona can improve on the2.55 goals per game it scored last season. Antii Raanta also isn’t talked about much, but he brings some solid experience of his own to the net, and Darcy Kuemper had a career year last season. If Nick Schmaltz can return to the 52-point form he displayed in Chicago a few years back, he will solidify the Coyotes’ top six along with Derk Stepan. Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Niklas Hjalmarsson are top-pair-caliber defensemen who anchor one of the leagues top PK units.

At the bottom of the Pacific Division you have the Canucks, Oilers, Kings and Ducks. There is reason to believe that things are on the right track in Vancouver, and it’s not a stretch to think that if things progress rapidly that they might compete for a playoff spot in a weak division. Tyler Myers was added along with Jordie Benn to fill out a defensive group that will be supported by a talented pair of young netminders in Jakob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko. Up front, Micheal Ferland and J.T. Miller were brought in from Carolina and Tampa Bay respectively, providing versatility and the ability to fit in anywhere. That depth should help take some of the offensive pressure off of the team’s most exciting player, Elias Petterson, who had 66 points in his first 71 NHL games as a rookie. Petterson is joined by 22-year-old Brock Boeser and 24-year-old Bo Horvat to give Vancouver the core of a top-six that will be terrorizing the West for years to come.

Edmonton has the dynamic duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisatl. The Oilers are worth the price of admission just because of that, but dysfunction and lack of depth continues to haunt them. Los Angeles got old after its Stanley Cup successes and hasn’t been able to dig out of that hole. The Kings continue to rebuild, and the Ducks basically are in the same boat. Los Angeles still has Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Quick and Drew Doughty, but each is on the downside of his career.

 

Western Conference Finals

Our followers have Vegas falling to Colorado in the Western finals. That would be a fun series to watch, matching up the speed and skill of the Avalanche with the speed and full-attack forecheck of the Golden Knights. It would be an interesting matchup in which proven veteran Marc Andre Fleury would be facing less-experienced Phillip Grubauer in a goaltending matchup that good decide the winner. This would be a punch-counterpunch battle, much like a top international soccer matchup. Last changes, matchups and special teams would loom large for sure. Nothing like a high-speed chess match to decide a place in the Stanley Cup finals.

 

Stanley Cup Finals

According to the votes, it will be Capitals and Avalanche in the finals, which would be another extremely interesting matchup. Avs goalie Phillip Grubauer opened the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs as the Caps’ starter, but was pulled in favor of Braden Holtby as Washington dropped the first two games of round one to Columbus. The rest is history as Holtby was lights out the rest of the way and led the Caps to their first title. Grubauer was a favorite among Washington fans and in the locker room, so much so that Washington moved him to Colorado to give him a shot to become a full-time starter. The Caps also traded Andre Burakovsky to the Avs this past summer. He was a key performer for Washington in the Eastern Conference and Stanley Cup finals two seasons ago. Another well-liked player, he was never going to get a real chance to crack the top six in D.C., so the Caps granted his wish to get that opportunity with another team. He may be poised for a breakout year in Colorado.   

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