Last season, the National Hockey League story of the year was the Vegas Golden Knights making it to the Stanley Cup Finals in their first season of existence. So far this year, they have come down to earth, hovering around the middle of the pack of the Pacific Division in the Western Conference. So, who are some teams to watch going into the New Year? Here are four teams in each Conference to keep an eye on, in no particular order.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto made a splash in the offseason with the signing of John Tavares, the former first pick overall in the draft by the New York Islanders. Some are calling this the biggest free agency signing in history, and the instant addition of offensive power is sure to help this young team. While some players wilt under the pressure of that intense hockey market, Tavares is the kind of player who should thrive there.
The team has shown that they have remarkable depth, staying hot in the Atlantic Division despite extended losses of time due to injury from William Nylander and Auston Matthews. In fact, before Matthews got hurt, he had 15 goals in 15 games. But the team carried on without him during the rehab of his shoulder injury, and the Leafs look to make a deep run into the playoffs.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa Bay returned in 2018 with a strong team that has made it to the Eastern Conference Finals in three of the last four years, losing last year to eventual champs the Capitals in seven games (despite having home-ice advantage).
In mid-November, star goaltender, Andrei Vasilevskiy, went out for a month with a broken foot, but backup Louis Domingue went 11-2-0 during his absence to keep the Lightning at the top of the Atlantic Division. The future in 2019 is bright for the Bolts.
With Barry Trotz gone, it’s been up to new coach Todd Reirden to get his team focused — and avoid a slow start (and a victory hangover from last year’s Cup win for the ages). One major task on Reirden’s agenda? Finally get through to Tom Wilson that he is too good of a player to keep getting suspended over bad hits. Wilson starts the season with a 20-game suspension for an illegal check to the head on St. Louis’ Oskar Sundqvist in the preseason.
But Wilson or no Wilson, the Caps have returned with no Cup hangover, and the one player who may have celebrated the hardest, 33-year-old Alex Ovechkin, has been on fire. At one point in mid-December, Ovi was the league leader in goals and in the top 10 in points.
Winning back-to-back Cups is difficult, but the Capitals should make a strong play for it again this year.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets were forced to start the season without star defenseman Seth Jones, after he suffered an injury in a preseason game. This means coach John Tortorella had to shuffle things up with Jones’ partner on the blue line, Zach Werenski. When this team was healthy last season, they pack on of the top defensive punches in the league.
When Jones came back in October, he took up where he left off, scoring a goal in his second outing. Still, star players winger Artemi Panarin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky both have expiring contracts after this season, and neither has shown much interest in staying in Columbus. Could the Jackets strong start continue in 2019 be enough to convince them to stay?
Aside from bringing veteran defenseman Dan Hamhuis back into the fold in Nashville, GM David Poile didn’t make any significant off-season personnel moves. So, the Predators returned their core group of players that include what is arguably the best blue line squad in the league, led by Norris Trophy finalist P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm.
December saw the Preds hit with the injury bug, including missed time by Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Subban, and Kyle Turris. Despite these key players being out, the Preds have managed to stay at the top of the Central Division, which bodes well for a solid 2019 and a top spot in the playoffs.
The Jets had a terrific season last year, making it to the Conference Finals where they lost to Vegas in five games. They wanted to come out this year and avenge that poor playoff performance. Why this season, you might ask? Because of several looming contractual issues with key players; Patrick Laine, Blake Wheeler, Tyler Myers, and Kyle Connor are all staring down free agency.
When the timing is right, it’s right. The Jets have been battling for the top spot in the Central Division for most of 2018, and their offense, at times, looks unstoppable. Don’t believe it? They put seven goals up on the Flyers in a December game that was spread out among seven different goal scorers. This offense should continue to deliver in 2019.
Last April, the Flames brought in Bill Peters to be the franchise’s 19th head coach. In order for Peters to get the Flames back to the playoffs, they revamped the offense with the addition of historically high scoring forwards James Neal, Elias Lindholm, and Derek Ryan.
The moves have paid off, and the Flames have had a solid start in 2018. At one point in mid-December, they were tied for most goals in the Western Conference for the year. The offensive push has paid off. Look for them to stay at the top of the Pacific Division with a real shot of winning it.
San Jose Sharks
The rich got richer in San Jose with the addition of star defenseman Erik Karlsson last offseason. Fans went into the season with high hopes for the defensive pairings of Brent Burns with Joakim Ryan, and Karlsson with Marc-Edouard Vlasic, both offensively and defensively.
While getting mixed reactions this year from the fanbase, the fact is the Sharks are playing high-scoring hockey in 2018, and, despite their back end giving up more goals than they would like, they should make another playoff run, potentially with the home-ice advantage throughout.
The blades are sharpened and the season is underway with these strong teams fighting for the win. What are your NHL predictions? Catch all the hockey action on NHL Center Ice on Xfinity. You can watch from anywhere, any time on any device.