In any year it is important for handicappers to get comfortable with what they expect from NHL teams before the season starts. Which teams will be ready to jump out of the gate fast, and which ones are destined for issues? This year, though, this will be even more important than usual. The shortened season, and the preseason that essentially doesn’t exist, means that a strong start is more important than ever. If a team isn’t ready to compete right away then they can get into a hole that can ruin its whole year. Games will come in rapid-fire succession, and each game means more than in a regular season.
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Here’s a look at four teams that are poised to start strong — likely stronger than expected. As well, here are three NHL teams that are poised to struggle early and often this year (Odds to win Stanley Cup are from Bovada):
Edmonton Oilers (18/1)
Edmonton has been building for the future for years, and it’s about time that that investment starts to pay off. They have made a coaching change, but that should be a positive — Ralph Krueger was an assistant, so he knows the team and he is popular with the players. The young, talented core has been playing together — very well — in Oklahoma City of the AHL, so chemistry isn’t an issue. Goalie Devan Dubnyk played very well in the Spengler Cup tournament over Christmas, and that should build confidence. This team won’t win it all, but they are poised to take a big step forward.
Carolina Hurricanes (22/1)
Carolina has had a very good offseason. They traded for Jordan Staal from the Penguins to join his brother Eric — likely as a linemate. Then they added Alexander Semin as a likely linemate for Jeff Skinner. Both have offensive upside and could give the team a big boost. The Hurricanes had horrible luck in one-goal games last year, so better luck plus better offense should add a lot of wins to this young, talented team.
Tampa Bay Lightning (28/1)
Steven Stamkos is the best pure offensive talent in the league, so that’s a lot to work with. The team had brutal luck with injuries — especially on defense — so if they are healthy they will be much better already. The biggest move, though, is that they acquired goalie Anders Lindback from Nashville. He’s a massive upgrade from what they had, and goaltending has been a weakness. Therefore, the change should be positive, and the team should be ready to rock form the outset.
Anaheim Ducks (40/1)
It was a lost season last year for the Ducks. Bruce Boudreau only took over as coach midseason, so what he could do is limited. Now he knows his team and vice versa, though, so they will be much further ahead. He has a talented, veteran core to build around, and should be able to start strong. They started very strong when Boudreau took over last year before running out of gas, so we know they can turn things on quickly under this coach.
Toronto Maple Leafs (25/1)
Forget this lockout — the Leafs haven’t been in the playoffs since the last lockout. They have the longest streak of futility in the league, and I think it will continue. They have real issues in the nets, and it won’t get any better if they pull off the rumored trade for Roberto Luongo. He’s solid, but doesn’t handle pressure well, and the Toronto media will eat him alive. Last year they weren’t able to make the postseason despite career years for Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel. Both guys were playing over their heads and should take a step backwards. The trade of Luke Schenn for James van Riemsdyk was a loss, the front office is incompetent, and coaching is a question. Tough year. Rough team.
Calgary Flames (50/1)
My home-town team is a mess. They are built around Jarome Iginla. He has been great for the team, but he’s old, he’ll be rusty coming off an inactive offseason, and he’s a free agent at the end of the year, so that’s going to be a distraction throughout. Goaltending is a question because of age as well. Beyond that there just isn’t a lot of talent here, and the young players aren’t proven. The playoffs seem, again, like a pipe dream. The biggest asset in their positive column is the addition of Bob Hartley as coach. He’s a strong coach, and he has the potential to get the most out of some players who have consistently underperformed.
Columbus Blue Jackets (100/1)
They had the fewest points in the league, and their goal differential was the worst as well. They got worse during the season by trading Jeff Carter, and worse still in the offseason by trading Rick Nash. They didn’t get good value for either, so I don’t see how they will score better or defend significantly better — unless Jack Johnson finally decides to reach a shadow of his potential. Goaltending is different than last year, but still not good. It could get ugly in Columbus. Wait, it’s already ugly in Columbus.
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