By Sean Hartnett
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The Pittsburgh Penguins earned back-to-back Stanley Cup championships because of their star power, speed, emerging youth and contributions up and down the roster.
As the 2017-18 season begins, some teams around the league are equipped to go toe-to-toe with the Pens, while others will either play catch-up or remain stuck in a bygone era.
With the way the game is played today, it’s either get with the program or get left in the dust. Before I reveal my playoff picks, I rank all 31 teams:
1. Edmonton Oilers – Lightning-fast and ready to take the next step, the Oilers are a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. Reigning Hart Trophy winner Connor McDavid is only going to get better and he’s backed by a talented and developing supporting cast.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins – See above. The Pens have all the pieces needed to three-peat and young talent growing into key roles, but everything will need to break right in order for them to hoist Lord Stanley once again.
3. Columbus Blue Jackets – The arrival of Artemi Panarin will improve an already potent attack. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are two of the best young defensemen in the business and Sergei Bobrovsky is coming off a Vezina Trophy season.
4. Nashville Predators – Last year’s Western Conference champs are excellent along the blue line, but seem to be lacking secondary scoring now that James Neal is calling Vegas home.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs – Scoring-rich and packed with young stars who will continue to improve, expectations are high in T-Dot. Although Patrick Marleau is 38, he’s still got a lot of goals left in him and is as durable as it gets. The Leafs’ blue line could use some work, but that can be addressed at the trade deadline.
6. Dallas Stars – We all know the Stars’ scoring is electric. The addition of Marc Methot and the return of Ken Hitchcock behind the bench will improve the “D” in “Big D.”
7. New York Rangers – I see the Rangers finishing with less points than they had last season (102), but they’ve been bettered by the incomings and outgoings on the blue line. Built with speed to burn, the Rangers are constructed to go deeper in the playoffs this time around and Henrik Lundqvist is still one of the league’s best in net.
8. Tampa Bay Lightning – The return of healthy captain Steven Stamkos is massive for a team that missed the playoffs by a point without him last season. But the Tampa defensive depth is questionable because it is currently relying on the aging legs of Braydon Coburn and Dan Girardi.
9. Minnesota Wild – Goaltender Devan Dubnyk is an annual Vezina Trophy candidate and the Wild are well-stocked across four lines. Opting to shed Marco Scandella’s $4 million cap hit made financial sense, but could be a tough hole to fill.
10. Washington Capitals — Don’t expect the depth-depleted Capitals to match last season’s 118-point campaign. The salary cap squeeze facilitated the exits of Marcus Johansson, Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt, Justin Williams and short-term rental Kevin Shattenkirk. Braden Holtby is a perennial Vezina Trophy contender, but there is concern that captain Alex Ovechkin’s physical brand of play is catching up to him. Ovechkin logged the lowest minutes per game of his career and only managed 33 goals, one short of his career low.
11. Montreal Canadiens – Jonathan Drouin is an intriguing addition, but the Habs appear top-heavy on their forward lines and on defense. As always, the Canadiens will only go as far as all-world goaltender Carey Price takes them.
12. Anaheim Ducks – Ryan Kesler’s recovery from hip surgery means he’ll be missing from the lineup until about Christmas. His in-your-face game fuels this team, but the Ducks have the depth, the winning pedigree, and a franchise goalie in John Gibson.
13. St. Louis Blues – A lot will ride on Jake Allen’s Jekyll-and-Hyde netminding, but there’s much to like about the Blues’ stout blue line and young scorers. Losing Robby Fabbri for the season was a tough break as is missing out on the Jaromir Jagr sweepstakes.
14. Carolina Hurricanes – A team on the rise, Carolina has the pieces to be stingy on defense and appears ready to end an eight-year playoff drought.
15. Chicago Blackhawks – Every year, the salary cap crunch forces Chicago to part with core players. I think the Hawks will regret dealing away Panarin even if Brandon Saad bolsters their two-way game. They’re looking less potent on offense without Panarin and Marian Hossa. It will be difficult to replace Niklas Hjalmarsson’s contributions on the back end.
16. San Jose Sharks – Losing Marleau is a major blow and general manager Doug Wilson basically stood pat. This is a team with a window that is rapidly closing.
17. Boston Bruins – While Boston did not make any notable additions, rookie defenseman Charlie McAvoy has Beantown buzzing. A lack of secondary scoring could be problem and 40-year-old captain Zdeno Chara’s best years are long behind him.
18. Calgary Flames — Jagr should prove to be an excellent bargain at $1 million and his arrival will take pressure off franchise player Johnny Gaudreau. Travis Hamonic will solidify an already formidable blue line. All that said, Mike Smith isn’t a game-changing upgrade in net.
19. Ottawa Senators – I see the Sens taking a step back. They’re bringing back pretty much the same cast as last season and they’re really going to miss Methot’s steady play.
20. Buffalo Sabres – Buffalo improved this offseason and Robin Lehner is a terrific net minder, but the Sabres don’t have enough scoring punch.
21. Winnipeg Jets – Loaded offensively and strong on the blue line, the Jets will be undone by questionable goaltending.
22. Arizona Coyotes – One of the league’s most improved teams, the Coyotes appear to be on the upward curve, but don’t expect them to knock on the playoff door just yet.
23. Philadelphia Flyers – It comes down to goaltending every year with this team. Raise your hand if you think Brian Elliott is the answer. Didn’t think so.
24. Los Angeles Kings – The once-dominant Kings have been surpassed in the Pacific and did not make the offseason moves to turn things around.
25. New York Islanders — Under Doug Weight’s watch, the young Islanders took flight. Joshua Ho-Sang’s talent is real and he’s a legitimate Calder Trophy candidate. With Jordan Eberle added to the mix, the Isles will have plenty of offense, but will miss Hamonic’s experience on the back end.
26. Florida Panthers – The Panthers appear to be goal shy and are pinning their hopes on Evgeny Dadonov to shine in his second stint with the club. Led by Aaron Ekblad, Florida’s young blue line is blossoming. The Cats possess a solid goaltending tandem in Roberto Luongo and James Reimer, but they’re missing the depth to be a playoff contender and will regret not re-signing Jagr.
27. Vancouver Canucks – How much longer can GM Jim Benning avoid a total rebuild? The Canucks are nowhere near being a playoff team in a tough division and the Sedins deserve a change of scenery.
28. New Jersey Devils – Devils GM Ray Shero is building this team the right way, but the long-term absence of Travis Zajac will hurt a group that is thin on scoring and unconvincing on the blue line. Cory Schneider is an excellent goalie, but he can’t do it all.
29. Detroit Red Wings – Pedestrian offense, goaltending concerns and a very shaky blue line will add up to the Wings having another long season.
30. Vegas Golden Knights – Any expansion team is a work in progress, but the very capable netminding of Marc-Andre Fleury will keep Vegas from finishing last in the West.
31. Colorado Avalanche – Once Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog are dealt, the Avs will recoup assets that will help them down the road. Right now, Colorado has one of the weakest blue lines and finished last in offense last season — and that was with Landeskog and Duchene for a full season.
Predicted order of finish:
METROPOLITAN DIVISION: 1. Penguins, 2. Blue Jackets, 3. Rangers, 4. Capitals, 5. Hurricanes, 6. Flyers, 7. Islanders, 8. Devils
ATLANTIC DIVISION: 1. Maple Leafs, 2. Lightning, 3. Canadiens, 4. Bruins, 5. Senators, 6. Sabres, 7. Panthers, 8. Red Wings
CENTRAL DIVISION: 1. Predators, 2. Stars, 3. Wild, 4. Blues, 5. Blackhawks, 6. Jets, 7. Avalanche
PACIFIC DIVISION: 1. Oilers, 2. Ducks, 3. Sharks, 4. Flames, 5. Coyotes, 6. Kings, 7. Canucks, 8. Golden Knights
CONFERENCE FINALS: Rangers over Maple Leafs, Oilers over Predators
STANLEY CUP FINAL: Oilers over Rangers
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey