We are right on the verge of the start of the NHL season. Here where I sit in Canada it is like we are on the eve of a national holiday. At this point the fans of almost every team in the league are optimistic. They believe that things will be better than last year - except for in Pittsburgh where they just expect it to be the same as it was. Some of those fans will be right. As many will be desperately wrong, and their souls will be crushed by the fate of the squad.
There are three teams in the league this year that I can share the optimism of the fans. These are not future Stanley Cup winners in all likelihood, but they are good, solid teams that are going to do better than a lot of people probably expect them to (Odds to win the Stanley Cup are from BetOnline):
Montreal Canadiens (+2000): In the long term the shocking trade of P.K. Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber was awful. Subban is younger, more explosive, and generally more productive in ways that matter in the NHL in 2016 and beyond. In the short term, though, the deal could pay dividends. Weber isn't what he once was or what he is perceived to be, but he is still a defensive force. Combine that with a finally-healthy Carey Price coming off a World Cup win in dominating fashion and you have a team that will be tough to score on. They also don't have Subban and his personality around anymore. It's tough from the outside to see why he would be anything but a positive, but it obviously wasn't working there, so perhaps this is addition by subtraction. The team made an excellent addition in Andrew Shaw and took an understandable risk with major upside in signing Alexander Radulov in his return to the NHL - he's a massive talent who is a serious head case but who promises he is more mature and ready to shine. They have decent talent, good prospects coming up, and solid leadership and coaching. They have the capabilities of hosting a first-round playoff series if they play like they should be capable of.
New Jersey Devils (+4000): Last year the Devils just weren't good. They played defense reasonably well, but they just couldn't score - their 184 goals scored was dead last in the whole league. They took giant steps towards solving that, though, by absolutely robbing the Oilers blind. Edmonton needed a defenseman, so they took Adam Larsson - a decent-but-not-exceptional young player - and, unbelievably, gave up Taylor Hall in exchange. Hall is a top-end offensive power, and he has some decent guys to work with in his new home. The team is much better with him on board. They also have a very exciting 19 year old who they drafted sixth overall in 2015 - Pavel Zacha - who is starting the season with the team and has the potential to be a big offensive presence. An offensive improvement - on a scale significant enough to make a difference - is not guaranteed, but it is certainly possible. Cory Schneider, meanwhile, doesn't get nearly enough credit for how good he is in the net. With more offense he'll shine more, and that could have a big impact. The Devils aren't a Stanley Cup contender by any means, but with a bit of luck they could easily be a lower-tier playoff squad - one that can give a top contender headaches.
Winnipeg Jets (+3600): It all starts with Patrik Laine, the second overall pick in this past spring's draft. How good is this young Finn? After getting drafted last year he played for Finland at the World Championships - in a tournament filled with NHL players - and he was named the MVP of the whole thing. He's just that good. And he isn't the only great youngster on this team. Kyle Connor tore up the college ranks last year at Michigan, and now the 2015 15th overall pick is heading to the NHL. Those two are spectacular. They aren't alone, either - Mark Scheifele is a young superstar in the making, and Connor Hellebuyck is a young goaltender who has top-five-in-the-NHL potential. This is a team that had a strong season two years ago but really disappointed last year. They were lousy and took a big step back. That step got them Laine, though, and there are some nice pieces around that could make this team much better. They also have a very good coach in Paul Maurice and are in good hands organizationally in GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. They are more than capable of being a playoff team. In fact, I expect them to be. Last year will be remembered as just an anomaly in the long-term climb of this program.
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