The St. Louis Blues are raising their Stanley Cup banner on Wednesday night, as a new NHL season is suddenly, jarringly, upon us. Last year’s chaotic first round of the playoffs proved that success over 82 games can be rendered meaningless in a week, but with a slew of rising contenders and rookie hotshots around the league, this regular season may be less of a chore than in years past. Ringer staffers gathered to predict how the 2019-20 campaign will unfold.
1. Who will be this year’s surprise regular-season juggernaut, à la the Islanders last season?
Katie Baker: This is a take too hot for any podcast, but let’s do this: Edmonton Oilers!!! Playing the long game this whole time, I just know it.
Donnie Kwak: I’ll go with the Arizona Coyotes. I respect Rick Tocchet, I like the Kachina throwbacks, and—now that he’s off the Penguins—I love this guy. I don’t know if the Yotes have enough scoring to make the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons, but I bet they’ll be in the race until the end.
Cory McConnell: Juggernaut is a strong word, but the Devils are due for a big leap. After closing out last season in last place in the Metro, they added no. 1 pick Jack Hughes and P.K. Subban. Even in a stacked division, I could see them contending for a wild-card spot in the East.
Megan Schuster: I don’t know that they’ll get to 103 points, but the Florida Panthers—an 86-point team last year—added goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and Joel Quenneville this offseason to a squad that already had a solid offense. Whether those two can prevent the team from giving up 280 goals this year remains to be seen, but as a Wild fan, I’ve seen Q succeed too many times to ever count him out.
Matt James: Last season the lopsided Panthers scored the ninth-most goals in the league while letting in the fourth-most goals. Having retained all of their most potent offensive weapons, the Panthers will look to new coach Quenneville to pull off an Islanders-esque revival of the team’s defense. Unlike the Islanders of last season, Coach Q’s defensive restructuring will actually be aided by a couple of significant roster additions. It’s hard to imagine recent Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky replicating Florida’s .891 team save percentage from last year and the addition of veteran defenseman Anton Stralman should help stabilize a turnover-prone defensive core. If Quenneville can whip this team into even an average defensive unit, he’ll find himself in the playoffs for the 19th time in his head coaching career.
Michael Baumann: The Vegas Golden Knights were the no. 7 seed in the West last year with just 93 points, but with full seasons of Mark Stone and Nate Schmidt coming up this year, they’ll drop the hammer on a division with maybe two other good teams.
2. The NY/NJ hockey teams are back! The Rangers got Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba, the Devils got Hughes and Subban, and the Islanders are coming off a 103-point season. Rank the three teams in descending order of points.
Andrew Gruttadaro: (1) The New York Islanders; (2) the New Jersey Devils; (3) the New York Rangers.
Schuster: (1) Devils; (2) Islanders; (3) Rangers.
Kwak: With the caveat that I hate all of these teams with a passionate fury: (1) Devils; (2) Islanders; (3) Rangers.
Baker: This feels like a question written by a Philadelphia Flyers disinformation campaign looking to sow chaos, but I’ll bite: (1) Rangers; (2) Devils; (3) Islanders, as determined strictly by the goalie gods.
McConnell: Though I expect the Islanders to drop off after losing goalie Robin Lehner to Chicago, they’re still the NY team to beat. So: (1) Islanders; (2) Devils; (3) Rangers.
James: (1) Devils; (2) Islanders; (3) Rangers. The Devils look like a playoff team again. They made some big offseason additions, Taylor Hall is healthy, and Cory Schneider has looked like his old self all preseason long. I expect the Islanders to regress a little bit this year. They did nothing to address their goal-scoring issues and while they’ve installed a fantastic defensive system, you can’t help but worry when you let a goaltender with a .930 save percentage walk out the door, no matter the system or the replacement. The Rangers offense should see a dramatic boost this year with exciting play from Panarin, no. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko, Pavel Buchnevich, and Mika Zibanejad, but even after adding Trouba and Adam Fox, their defense is worrisome and Henrik Lundqvist is another year older.
Baumann: (1) Islanders. I’m not wild about them, but they were the best team of these three by 25 points last year and that’s a ton of ground to make up. (2) Rangers. The additions not only of Panarin but also Kakko and Trouba will pay off huge, but not for another year or two while they pull out of the tank. (3) Devils. Congratulations, adding Subban and Hughes gives the Devils, what, four good players total? Enjoy another inexplicable draft lottery win.
3. Speaking of New York teams, will the Sabres break their eight-year postseason drought, currently the longest active streak in the NHL?
Baumann: Man, I love Ralph Krueger, but no.
McConnell: I think their season will see some incremental improvement over last year, but as I look at the rest of the East, I don’t see a lot of room for them to sneak into the playoffs.
James: I doubt it. They have some exciting pieces in Jack Eichel, Skinner, and Rasmus Dahlin but they’ve got a new coach who’s only dabbled in coaching hockey in the past few years and some big questions to answer up and down the lineup. I expect progress this year, but also a slow start.
Schuster: Andrew Gruttadaro, don’t read this.
Gruttadaro: This question is bullying (cc: HR).
Baker: YES! (She says for what is almost certainly the eighth straight year.) This is a real put-up-or-shut-up season for Eichel and Skinner, two enormous young talents with zero playoff appearances between them to show for it, and I think both of them can thrive in international-soccer-man-of-mystery Ralph Krueger’s quick, reactive system.
Kwak: No. The hockey gods have decided that Jeff Skinner will end his career having never played a postseason game.
4. How far will the Maple Leafs go?
McConnell: You will never be able to talk me out of this team losing in the first or second round to Boston.
Baumann: First-round loss to the Bruins, as is tradition.
Gruttadaro: It’s not hockey if the Leafs don’t lose in the first round of the playoffs.
Kwak: Part of me wants them to lose to Boston in the first round again, for the schadenfreude; part of me wants them to advance deep into the postseason, because it’s fun to see the Canadian media lose their minds. Let’s split the difference and say a second-round ouster.
Schuster: Judging by the fact that Vegas has the Leafs as the second most likely team to win the Cup I’ll say … the second round? The NHL playoffs rarely provide easy paths to the Final for the best teams, which is part of what makes the hockey postseason one of the best in sports. But the Leafs haven’t proved they can get over the hump yet.
James: They should go deep into the playoffs this year. They’ve got everything they need to have a legit shot at the Cup. And then they’ve also got drama and the pressure of intense media scrutiny too. I wouldn’t be surprised by a Cup win ... or a first-round exit.
Baker: I just got a really clear visual of it being January, and the Leafs being out of the playoffs, and the Raptors coming back down to earth, and all of the Toronto hockeysphere just absolutely melting down, and it was genuinely such a blessed, though probably objectively far-fetched, image. (Feels like I just finished a Bikram yoga class though.)
5. How many goals will Phil Kessel score in the desert?
James: If a Phil scores in the desert and no one is around to watch, does it even sound a goal horn? (I don’t know and I won’t be watching.)
Schuster: First of all: HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO MY HOT DOG–LOVING GUY! Phil turns 32 on Wednesday. How the time flies. Anyhoo, back to your question. As much as I would love to predict that Kessel takes over this team, notches 35 goals, and leads the Coyotes to the postseason, that’s not super likely. First of all, if you take the 2017-18 season out of the equation, Phil hasn’t recorded more than 30 goals in a season since 2013-14. Then you add in the fact that no one on Arizona scored more than 19 goals last season, and things get even more dicey. I’ll go with a solid 25, and genuinely hope that Phil proves me wrong.
Gruttadaro: At least more than he had seats in his home movie theater.
McConnell: I don’t want to talk about it. I’ll be in the movie cave if you need me.
Baker: Desert Phil seems like a no-brainer—this is a guy who loves golf as much as he loves calling his friends “you old goat”—but the man grew up in Wisconsin, went to college in Minnesota, and has played professionally in Boston, Toronto, and Pittsburgh. Is he really ready to find scorpions in his sneakers and bask all day in endless sunlight?! What might happen to Kessel when his lifelong Vitamin D equilibrium gets thrown completely out of whack? There’s almost certainly no middle ground: He’ll either score 40 goals, something he’s yet to do in his career, or he won’t even score half of that. (The last time Kessel scored fewer than 20 goals was his second season as a pro.) I’ll give the legend the benefit of the doubt: 40 Phil, and one hell of a sunburn.
Kwak: Let me go out on a cactus limb and say Phil the Thrill breaks 40 for the first time in his career.
6. Who will be your Center Ice/Reddit stream team to watch this season?
Kwak: Gotta be the Avalanche—they re-signed Mikko Rantanen, added Nazem Kadri and (my beloved) Andre Burakovsky, and have last postseason’s breakout rookie defenseman Cale Makar for a full 82. They are young, deep, and exciting and should contend for the West.
Baker: The Dallas Stars, who now have Jamie Benn AND Tyler Seguin AND Joe Pavelski AND Corey Perry (post–knee surgery and late career, but still!) AND my longtime favorite league-hopping weirdo, Alex Radulov.
McConnell: After years of “I think the Stars are for real,” I think the Stars might be for real. I don’t know what the signings of Perry and Pavelski will translate to on ice, but I’ll be watching for sure.
Gruttadaro: The Devils are full of interesting dudes and could be a low-key fun team to watch (or watch implode).
Schuster: I know we’ve already talked about them a bit at the top, but I’m really excited for this Devils season! First of all, after eight years, Taylor Hall finally got his boating license, so he’s sure to be flying high.
The team also drafted Hughes first overall on June 21, added Subban via trade a day later, and almost overnight (OK, pretty much literally overnight) assembled a very intriguing roster. How the pieces all fit together remains to be seen, but this experiment will certainly be worth monitoring.
James: The Devils and Rangers are both trotting out shiny new top-tier rookies along with some exciting offseason signings and lots of young, high-upside talent. It feels like the start of a new era for both teams, and a rebirth of one of hockey’s greatest rivalries.
Baumann: Toronto, but only because I’m married to a fanatical Leafs fan who rules the remote with an iron fist all winter.
7. Who will be Rookie of the Year: Jack Hughes, Kaapo Kakko, Cale Makar, or someone else?
Schuster: I’m going with Kaapo Kakko, based solely on name.
McConnell: Hughes stands to make the biggest immediate impact, so I’ll go with him.
Baumann: [Takes outrageously long drag of a cigarette.] Alexandre Texier. [Drives off into the sunset in a Citroen DS.]
James: No offense to Makar, who will have a phenomenal season, but the Calder Trophy tends to go to a forward. I’ll give the slight edge to Kakko over Jack Hughes. From the outset, Kakko is a lock for at least the Rangers’ second forward line and should be featured on the first power-play unit. Given the Rangers roster and Kakko’s experience in the Finnish Elite League, I think he’ll be given more of an opportunity to shine at first than Hughes.
Baker: I’ve gone back and forth for five minutes on how to best apply advanced reverse jinxing strategy to this discussion, but life is too short: If Kakko plays as he did during the World Championship, when I was actively nervous that he would convince the Devils to change their minds and select him first overall, he’ll wi—[is interrupted by mirrors shattering as a black cat walks under a ladder].
8. The Canucks, the Kings, and the Blues are among the teams reviving sweaters of yore this season. Which old jersey would you most like to see return?
Baker: I would have said this exact Blues jersey, so instead I’m going to pivot my answer to shining a light on the legitimately sickening probability that the new Seattle team will go with team colors of … red and black. I don’t care if they hired Cammi Granato, this is unforgivable.
I heard many moons ago that Seattle, despite having a spectrum of better color options, was going red and black for a color scheme and this does nothing to dispel that. https://t.co/wc0ffsKXYg— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) September 30, 2019
Kwak: Not for the first time, the Capitals are rocking their original red sweaters as an alternate this season (minus the individual letter stitching). But I’m patiently waiting for them to bring back either the starred eagle or the Capitol dome set from Alexander Ovechkin’s rookie season. Make it happen, Ted.
Gruttadaro: The Ducks’ new third jersey brings us one step closer to a return to the purple and teal, one of the nicest sweaters in NHL history—but more importantly, it takes us one step further away from the Ducks’ era of disastrously ugly unis.
Schuster: I know the Wild don’t have this IP anymore, but please, give me ONE GAME with the old North Stars jerseys. (No, the Alumni Game doesn’t count.) People wear green and gold hats to the Xcel Energy Center to this day—it would only be right to see the sweaters back in the Twin Cities, too.
Baumann: THE MOOTERUS.
James: I’d love to see the Rangers’ Lady Liberty jerseys and the Islanders’ weird Fisherman jerseys. Also, maybe throw Gritty’s face onto a retro Flyers jersey?
9. The NHL announced a new two-year partnership with Green Day, which includes using one of the band’s new songs as the theme for NBC’s Wednesday Night Hockey. Yay or nay on this deal, and if the latter, which musical act would you prefer?
Baker: You know what? I’m fine with it. The important thing is that no NHL partnership will ever be as grandiose and confounding as this one.
Gruttadaro: First of all, how dare the NHL do this to Imagine Dragons? Second of all, I know that the league needs to cater to their, uh, specific fanbase, but really? Green Day? Jack Hughes wasn’t even close to being born when “Time of Your Life” came out. Couldn’t we get, like, Post Malone to do this? He’s extremely white and can’t properly grow facial hair—just like the NHL’s signature player!
Schuster: Can I “meh” this deal? Green Day would have been an inspired choice for this in, like, the early 2000s, but even so, things could have been a lot worse (see: the league’s past choices in All-Star and Stanley Cup Final performers).
Baumann: Nay. Green Day’s washed. Give me a Roundball Rock–style score (cf. NHL on ESPN).
James: I’d rather they just bring back the National Hockey Night theme instead of getting a band involved but kudos to the league for slightly exceeding my expectations and not booking either Imagine Dragons or Kid Rock.
McConnell: It’s a nay. As the Canucks found out several years ago, Japandroids are not only one of the best rock bands of all time, but also the band most suited to be heard in a hockey arena at jet-engine volumes. True Canadian ambassadors, their songs inspire one to yell like hell to the heavens, love with a legendary fire, and tell those that would slow you down to go to hell. Nothing could be more perfect for hockey. In fact, every team should adopt a Japandroids song as their skate-out (or goal) song. Calgary: “Fire’s Highway.” Tampa: “Continuous Thunder.” Whatever team John Tortorella is coaching: “Crazy/Forever.” Give them the Erik Karlsson deal—eight years, $11.5 million per. They’re worth it.
Kwak: Everything that isn’t hockey on a night I want to watch hockey is a distraction from hockey.
10. Who will win the Stanley Cup?
Schuster: The Maple Leafs. (Yes, this is a jinx attempt.)
McConnell: They’re a trendy pick every year, but I’ll go with the Predators. Pekka Rinne is still as good as any goalie in the league, the addition of Matt Duchene will add some veteran forward depth, and their defensive corps is impressive even without the recently departed Subban.
Kwak: What, you thought I wasn’t picking the Capitals?
Baumann: Tampa Bay. It’s gonna happen sooner or later.
James: The best argument against Tampa Bay is either that they’re cursed or that they’re so traumatized from last year that they’ll always panic and implode in the playoffs. I have heard of no corroborated curse stories, nor have I seen any quotes from Lightning players that would indicate that their hockey brains were forever broken by last year’s first-round exit. So I’ll pick the team that scored 128 points in the regular season last year along with a +103 goal differential and I’ll bet that those guys have been particularly eager to get back on the ice for the past few months.
Baker: Joe Thornton, with a team TBD.