Tier 2: Star-studded teams just below the top
They’re not quite at the level of the top four teams, but these six teams, in all likelihood, will make the postseason, and could content for the Cup.
Washington retained all of the pieces from their championship team, except for backup goalie Philipp Grubauer and fourth-line filler Jay Beagle. They worked hard, for whatever reason, to retain the rights to aging d-man Brooks Orpik, trading him to the Avs along with Grubauer so Colorado would spend the money to buy out Orpik’s ridiculous contract; the Caps then signed their prized, liability d-man to a more reasonable contract.
All the pieces are here. Alex Ovechkin is on a high. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and TJ Oshie could make up a talented second line. Defenseman John Carlson is elite. Braden Holtby is a Playoff Goaltender Extraordinaire. They did lose coach Barry Trotz, of course, but that shouldn’t be too much of a hit.
Tom Wilson was signed to huge deal because he has Grit — exemplified by the constant headhunting hits — and Won a Stanley Cup, which qualifies a lot of players for four year, overpriced deals (see: Carter Rowney). NHL management, even for the Cup winners, remains dumb sometimes.
Toronto Maple Leafs
John Tavares is here, and the Leafs are going to score some goals. It will be fascinating to see how Toronto divide the matchups for Tavares and Auston Matthews, who are officially the second-best center duo in the league. William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Patrick Marleau and Tyler Ennis are among the potential top six wingers.
There’s a lot of offensive talent on this team. Defensive concerns keep them from the championship tier. Ron Hainsey should not be a top pairing defenseman. They should have good enough goaltending from Frederik Anderson, but it will be the offense that will carry them.
Vegas Golden Knights
There was some turnover in Vegas this year. James Neal and David Perron are gone and Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny are in to replace them. It’s suddenly a win-now time for the Golden Knights, who thought they were at least a couple years away from contention coming into last season.
William Karlsson, 40-goal scorer, is on a first line with Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. Stastny and Pacioretty could be an intriguing combination on the second line. The good bet in Vegas is some sort of regression, given the overperformance from numerous contributors (most notably Karlsson) that propelled them to a Cup final. But it’s also possible the culture under George McPhee and Gerard Gallant is just that good.
It’ll be interesting to see if Marc-Andre Fleury can maintain his red-hot form after a lucrative offseason extension, and how the defense adjusts to Nate Schmidt’s ticky-tacky 20-game suspension.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues had a good offseason. They added Ryan O’Reilly, who had 24 goals and 61 points last year for Buffalo, via a blockbuster trade, and put free agent signing Patrick Maroon alongside him on an upgraded second line. They signed capable third-line center Tyler Bozak. They snatched up Perron.
With Vladimir Tarasenko and Alex Pietrangelo still there, St. Louis should make the playoffs after disappointingly missing out last season. There are some intriguing young players in the bottom six that Blues hope can provide depth, including Robby Fabbri and 19-year-old Robert Thomas.
Aging d-man Jay Bouwmeester raises questions about the non-Pietrangelo defensive corps, and Jake Allen may or may not be the answer in goal. Nevertheless, St. Louis quietly look very good.
The Bruins are the Bruins. The Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak first line is irritating and skillful at the same time. Bergeron is still the guy that’s won three decades worth of Selke Trophies. Pastrnak is still 22 and still very good. Marchand, as much as every non-Boston inhabitant seems to hate him, finished with Hart-like numbers: 85 points in 68 games, good for 1.25 points per game.
There’s a suitable mix of young and old down the lineup, seen most obviously in the Zdeno Chara-Charlie McAvoy No. 1 defensive pairing. Boston can already be penciled in for 100-plus wins, at least, especially if everyone stays healthy.
Pittsburgh loaded up on centers this offseason, because coach Mike Sullivan loves centers and GM Jim Rutherford is a wizard. Derick Brassard will run the 3rd-line behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, which is amazing, though Brassard was underwhelming after being acquired from Ottawa at the deadline. Riley Sheahan is still there, 41-year-old Matt Cullen is back, and they added Derek Grant just for good measure.
The top six, as always, is laden with talent. Crosby, Malkin and Phil Kessel all had 89-plus points (Crosby was red hot late in the year, and had been unlucky up to that point), and wingers Patric Hornqvist, Jake Guentzel and Carl Hagelin make up suitable sidekicks for the stars. It will be interesting to see who Brassard most often plays with; it could be 21-year-old top prospect Daniel Sprong. Bryan Rust, penalty-killer and clutch scorer, is underrated.
Kris Letang and Matt Murray have to improve after disappointing campaigns. Murray was subpar late in the season after the death of his father.
The signing of Jack Johnson on defense was controversial, given that five years seems like a lot for a 31-year-old that eventually became a healthy scratch in Columbus last year. Pittsburgh have a history of developing mid-to-late career defenseman. (Justin Schultz is the most notable example.)
As long as the core is intact, the Pens are in contention.