The 2018-19 NHL season is just around the corner, so is your team heading to the this years Stanley Cup Playoffs?
The offseason is over, and the preseason mercifully is just about finished. We’re just a few measly days away from kicking off the 2018-19 NHL regular season, and the quest to the Stanley Cup.
The puck drops on Oct. 3, and it’s a long 82-game season from October to April. Nobody knows how a team is really going to look until they step out onto the ice. Who knew that the Vegas Golden Knights would shock the world and walk their way into winning the Pacific division before going all the way to the Stanley Cup Final?
Let’s try the impossible: not just predicting who’s going to make the playoffs, but who will win each individual matchup and move on to Round 2. Who are the powerhouses going to be? Who’s going to just sneak into the playoffs? Will there be any first round upsets? Let’s take a look into the future at where the playoffs will be in late April.
We’ll start in the Eastern Conference, with the Atlantic division.
A1 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. WC2 Columbus Blue Jackets
Even though there’s no rivalry between these two, a first round series between the Lightning and Blue Jackets would be full of tension for plenty of reasons. The pressure is on for this Lightning squad to win a Stanley Cup before a choker label begins to get attached to the franchise, and the Blue Jackets are still searching for their first ever victory in a playoff series. Neither team could afford to lose this series, but only one can move on. Is Tampa just too good to stop, or will Columbus get their first playoff series win in history?
Why Tampa Bay is in
This Lightning team is perhaps the most stacked in the entire NHL. They are host to an incredibly skilled offense, with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov leading the way, which alone would be enough to carry most teams into the playoffs easily. But the Bolts also have players like Brayden Point, Tyler Johnson, Yanni Gourde and J.T. Miller that push them over the top into being the powerhouse that they are. Their young players like Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde are going to keep getting better, and will have to as they enter contract seasons.
Tampa Bay’s defensive depth is no different. Last year’s Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman leads the way, supported by Ryan McDonagh, which alone is already outrageous. Anton Stralman is a solid top four two-way defender, and Mikhail Sergachev adds incredible skill and is on track to turn into another top pairing defender.
With Vezina candidate Andrei Vasilevskiy in net, this team is loaded for another playoff run from top to bottom. They came close last year before falling to the Washington Capitals in seven games, but that had nothing to do with being overmatched. This is the best team in the East until proven other wise.
Why Columbus is in
The Blue Jackets will be an interesting case to watch this season with the contract drama surrounding Artemi Panarin, who reportedly will not sign an extension with the team, and Sergei Bobrovsky, who can walk away this offseason as his contract expires after this season. There are two options here: They can load up and go a for a Stanley Cup this year at the cost of the future, or sell on Panarin now and become stronger contenders down the line.
As the team stands right now, it should be able to get into the postseason, but not much farther than that if it stays the way they are. Standing pat with this roster is the worst thing Columbus can do right now, and the right thing is to fill some of their weaknesses and try to go for the Stanley Cup right now if they don’t intend to trade Panarin. They’re a team that should absolutely be calling Ottawa about Matt Duchene to fix their center depth.
Even if they do nothing to make the team they have stronger, the Lightning still have an inside track to the playoffs. While they lack a true game-changer at the moment, their depth still puts them ahead of several other weaker teams in the Metropolitan division and Eastern Conference. The pairing of Zach Werenski and Seth Jones is among one of the best in the entire league, and Jones could very well be competing for a Norris Trophy this year after coming close to being a nominee (assuming he really is only out 4-6 weeks with his current injury). The forward corps is also incredibly deep and can run four dangerous lines
Who will win
Lightning over Blue Jackets in six games
The Tampa Bay Lightning losing in the first round with this team would be an utter failure in every way, and the best Columbus could do in a match-up like this is make it look respectable. The Lightning quite simply have the advantage everywhere, but that would be the case against just about any other team in the Eastern Conference. Unless Columbus makes the decision to seriously load up, they’ll get slaughtered in this series. Even if they do, it might only bag them an extra win or two. The best hope for Columbus and everyone is to avoid this match-up for as long as they can.