Puck Daddy Countdown: 20 bold predictions for the NHL season

Can Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals continue their run of regular-season dominance? (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Can Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals continue their run of regular-season dominance? (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Something a little different this week: Puck Daddy columnist Ryan Lambert offers his 20 “bold” predictions for the 2017-18 NHL season.

1. Caps still linger, but at a lower level

The Capitals had the highest 5-on-5 shooting and save percentages in the league last season, which was a big reason they won the Presidents’ Trophy again. But that can’t last forever, especially with all the talent the Caps shed this summer. So they still have the guns to make a lot of noise in the regular season, but they won’t come close to hitting 118 points again.

They probably clear the century mark, but that doesn’t get them any sort of favorable matchup come playoff time, does it?

2. Jack Eichel finally becomes a superstar

Eichel scored 57 points in 61 games last season at age 20. And that was coming off a nasty ankle injury that cost him nearly two months. He’s healthy now, arguably has a little more help throughout the lineup to take some of the load off him, and a new coach everyone expects will be excellent. Eichel will score a point a game at 21, but it won’t be enough to get the Sabres into the playoffs.

3. Patrick Kane isn’t as dominant, still scores a point a game

Long-discussed issue here: Without Artemi Panarin, it’s going to be a lot harder for Patrick Kane to put the puck in the net. No coincidence here that Kane’s ascent from a 1.0-point-a-game player to a 1.2-point-a-game player began the second Panarin arrived. Even with a dynamic rookie like Alex DeBrincat on his line, that’s where that run of Kane’s ultra-scoring success likely ends.

4. Jaromir Jagr shores up the Flames’ first-line problems

First of all, this might be the best stat of the NHL season:

But second, one of the big issues for Calgary’s talented top line has long been that while they score the goals, the wing opposite Johnny Gaudreau has long been a bit of a black hole, and they haven’t always had the best possession numbers. In theory, if that’s where Jagr ends up for the bulk of the season, that solves two problems at once, and doesn’t hinder their scoring.

Despite his age and NHL teams’ apparent lack of interest, Jagr is still a huge difference-maker. He’ll clear 50 points with Monahan and Gaudreau if everyone stays healthy, and get the Flames to No. 2 in the Pacific.

5. No three-peat for the Pens

Hey, they’re the odds-on favorite to win the Cup again this year and for good reason, but the odds say that even the team with the best chance to win the Cup still has like a 20 percent chance to do it. That means the other 30 teams have a combined 80 percent chance. For the Pens to cash in again is possible, but not probable. I still think they at least make another Conference Finals appearance, though.

6. Connor McDavid clears 110

Connor McDavid was electric in Wednesday’s opener. (Getty)
Connor McDavid was electric in Wednesday’s opener. (Getty)

A thing that is crazy to think about: Connor McDavid hit 100 points last year at 20 years old, and still has five or six more years of expected improvement before he starts declining. What? C’mon man, that’s not fair!

So yeah, McDavid plays the full 82, maybe shoots the puck a little more than he did last year, still exploits every mistake, and hits at least 110 points for his second straight MVP award. One imagines it’ll be hard for literally anyone else to get it over the next few years.

7. Scott Darling makes the Hurricanes competitive

The thing that always hurt the Hurricanes in this long-gestating rebuild is the fact that Cam Ward and Eddie Lack couldn’t stop traffic. There’s plenty of reason to be skeptical that Scott Darling, who’s never been anything close to a No. 1 guy at this level, will be able to go .920 or so over 60-something games, but I think he can do it, especially with that defense in front of him.

And hey, when you get better-than-average goaltending and your team is otherwise pretty good, you’re probably in a position to make the playoffs, even in a division as tough as the Metro. Gimme the ‘Canes for the No. 7 seed.

8. The Leafs won’t take their expected Big Step

No doubt the Maple Leafs are mostly improved this offseason, but if they’re going to be better they need that defense shored up, and better goaltending from both Freddie Anderson and the backups (who were a league-average .915 last year). I’m not sure Andersen is that guy, though, and I think it hinders the Leafs’ coronation as a newly-arrived power in the East.

They’re still going to be real good, though.

9. Turns out having a 40-year-old as your No. 1 defenseman doesn’t always work out

When Nick Lidstrom was 40, he had 62 points and won the Norris for the seventh time in his career. Zdeno Chara won’t be so lucky, and therefore nor will the Bruins. Boston has a shallow forward group (maybe only one line) and D corps (a pairing and a half, but only after Krug comes back), and Tuukka Rask won’t be able to make up the difference. The Bruins will miss the playoffs, but just barely.

10. Matt Duchene won’t be traded until the deadline

You know how it goes in Colorado: All the things that make sense don’t happen. I think Nashville, in search of scoring depth and with more pieces to play with once Ryan Ellis returns around New Year’s, makes a big push.

11. The Kings’ playoff drought continues

Talked about it a few weeks ago, but I just don’t see much there for this team. New coach, new system, etc., but there’s just too much to overcome and just about zero tradeable assets on the roster. Plus, now that Jagr is on the Flames’ roster, I don’t see too many playoff spots available in that division, let alone the West as a whole.

12. Bruce Boudreau finally wins the Jack Adams again

You’d think that consistently knocking down 100-point seasons like it’s no big deal — and folks, it’s a very big deal — would be enough to get a guy some more recognition, but here we are. Boudreau only has one Jack Adams, and he won it almost a decade ago. Winning the division with an improved Wild roster gets him another one. At last.

13. One last chance for the Rangers

Henrik Lundqvist won’t ever be his .920-every-year self again, but the Rangers take a revamped roster and still make the playoffs even with the King looking a little more ordinary. But they won’t be a 100-point team again, and they won’t make it too deep. Those days are over.

14. St. Louis is out

They didn’t really do much to improve this summer, and were only a 99-point team last year despite having an elite coach for most of that time. Losing that coach to a division rival will cost them a playoff spot, and lead to some serious question-asking for Doug Armstrong and Co.

15. Vegas won’t be the worst team in the league

It’s still Colorado. Of course it is.

16. Dallas goes deep

As alluded to above, the addition of Ken Hitchcock is enough to push the Stars back into the playoffs. Man, he can coach, and they have plenty of talent everywhere but in net. Not that goalies ever really suffered in a Hitchcock system, huh?

All of which is to say: The Stars will be in the Western Conference Final. No, I can’t believe I think so, either.

17. Columbus doesn’t go on any big runs, but almost hits 100 points

People forget the Blue Jackets only got to 108 points thanks to streaks where they won — get this — 8 of 10, 16 straight, and 9 of 12. Tough to replicate that, but they do have a lot of talent and an elite goaltender, so they’ll still get into the 98-100 point range. Doesn’t win you the division, but it keeps you in the conversation.

18. Tampa bounces back

Think about this: The Lightning missed the playoffs by a single point last year despite Tyler Johsnon missing 16 games, Steven Stamkos missing 65, several other key players missing 6-10, and becoming sellers at the deadline. Not bad. Assuming everyone stays healthy — which I guess is a big “if” — this is maybe the best team in a division that gets a little tough at the top.

19. Postseason hockey returns to Winnipeg, barely

I really like the Jets’ roster and maybe they can put a new approach into place that cuts down on the penalties and shores up the special teams as a whole. They have so much young talent that it might not matter, but the goaltending is always going to be a question market unless proven otherwise. Nonetheless, this is the last team into the playoffs. Good luck against Minnesota.

20. Some players improve, but things don’t work out so good for Florida

Yeah when you lose this much talent from a non-playoff team, it doesn’t make you a playoff team. Big shocker there. However, Huberdeau and Barkov continue to evolve into dominant players and maybe even a nice kid like Aaron Ekblad becomes what everyone wants him to be. That’d be cool.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All statistics via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)