The NHL offseason feels shorter than any of the four major American sports leagues -- and it is by a little over the NBA -- but the chase for the Stanley Cup resumes already next week as the pick drops on the 2016-17 campaign Wednesday.
This will be the last season before expansion as Las Vegas will enter the NHL in the Pacific Division. Thus, each team is going to lose one player next offseason in the expansion draft. I mention this because you might see a few trades during the season -- and I think saw a few this offseason -- that might not make sense on the surface but were made with the expansion draft in mind. You can't protect everyone. Teams can protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender OR eight skaters overall (forwards/defensemen) and one goalie. Some players are exempt (rookies and second-year guys among them), but I won't get into that.
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The big story for this season is whether the Pittsburgh Penguins can repeat as Cup champions. No team has in the NHL since the Detroit Red Wings in 1998. Certainly the implementation of the hard salary cap following the canceled 2004-05 season has played a role in that. But also the Stanley Cup playoffs are the most grueling in sports and a hot goalie can carry an inferior team a long way.
I'd like to tell you I picked the Penguins last offseason to win the Cup, but that's not true. In mid-December last year, that team was just 15-10-3 and was 28th in the league in scoring. But everything clicked soon after coach Mike Johnston was fired and Mike Sullivan was promoted from coaching the team's AHL affiliate. No team played better in the second half of last season, so it was a deserved title. Pittsburgh beat San Jose in six games in the Cup Finals for the franchise's fourth overall title -- it came seven years to the day after the last one. Oddly, all four Penguins titles were won on the road.
Bovada has the Penguins as +1000 second-favorites to win the Cup. I'm a bit surprised they aren't first because the Pens are largely back intact. They also have the best 1-2 punch at goalie in Matt Murray, who did break his hand in the World Cup of Hockey but might be ready for Opening Night, and Marc-Andre Fleury. The latter carried the team in the regular season but suffered his second concussion of the year in late March and then the 21-year-old Murray took over and carried the team to the Cup. He had 15-6 record, 2.08 GAA and .923 save percentage in the playoffs. Having two goalies of that quality is a huge benefit, but keep that in mind for the expansion draft. Pittsburgh raises its Cup banner at home on Thursday night vs. Washington in a rematch of last season's Eastern Conference semifinals. The Caps won the President's Trophy last regular season but again couldn't even reach the conference finals.
Chicago is the +750 Cup favorite, and this might be the last hurrah for this group. I believe the Hawks would have reached last year's Cup Finals if they could have rallied past St. Louis in the first round of the playoffs, but the Blues won a Game 7 at home. As usual, the salary cap gutted the Hawks this offseason as they said goodbye to the likes of Andrew Shaw, Andrew Ladd and Teuvo Teravainen because of money. The Hawks still have a terrific core led by forwards Jonathan Toews and reigning Hart Trophy winner Patrick Kane, defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, and goalie Corey Crawford. The defense is a little deeper this year on paper with the offseason additions of veteran free agent Brian Campbell (a former Blackhawk) and KHL free-agent Michal Kempny. But there's not much on offense after the first two lines. The Hawks open their season Wednesday at home in a playoff rematch vs. the Blues.
My pick to win the Cup is Tampa Bay (+1000) over Anaheim (+1600). The Lightning had the best offseason of any team, in my opinion. You kept hearing that superstar forward Steven Stamkos was going to leave in free agency for at least $10 million a year, but the Lightning got him to re-sign to an eight-year deal worth "only" $8.5 million a season. That's huge. Remember, the Bolts reached the Eastern Conference Finals and had a 3-2 series lead over Pittsburgh despite not having Stamkos in the postseason due to surgery to remove a blood clot. The Lighting lost that Game 6 at home and Stamkos returned for Game 7, but the Penguins won.
Tampa was also able to prevent Victor Hedman, one of the NHL's top defensemen, from becoming a free agent after this season by giving him a huge contract. This team is stacked. The only question is whether you see the team trade goalie Ben Bishop as he's in the final year of his deal and the future in net is Andrei Vasilevskiy, who got his own extension this offseason. The Lightning won't be re-signing Bishop and nearly traded him to Calgary. They might prefer to simply keep him all year, though, and go for it rather than have an inexperienced netminder behind Vasilevskiy. Those two should split time in net this year. Tampa Bay opens at home Thursday vs. Detroit.
Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby is the +350 favorite to win the Hart Trophy and +200 second-favorite to win the Art Ross Trophy (most points). No shocker there as Crosby is always the favorite on those props. Crosby has two Hart Trophies and two Art Ross Trophies to his name, both coming in the 2006-07 and 2013-14 seasons.
Crosby, who helped lead Canada to the World Cup of Hockey title, got off to a really slow start last year but seemed energized by the coaching change and more aggressive style of play. He finished with 36 goals and 49 assists in 80 games. That latter number is the most important because Crosby used to be injury-prone but appears to have shed that by playing at least 77 games three straight seasons.
Chicago's Kane led the NHL with 106 points last year in winning the Hart and Art Ross Trophies, the first American-born player to win either of those. He is the +700 second-favorite for the Hart and +500 for the Art Ross. I'll go with Crosby for the Hart, but Dallas' Jamie Benn (+600) to win his second Art Ross Trophy in three years.
The Rocket Richard Trophy favorite for NHL goals leader is Washington's Alex Ovechkin at +200. He led the league with 50 goals last year in winning this award for a fourth straight year and sixth time overall. There's no reason to bet against him.
For the Vezina as NHL's top goaltender, Montreal's Carey Price is the +350 favorite, followed by last year's winner, Washington's Braden Holtby (+550). The Habs were the NHL's best team early last season before Price got hurt after 12 starts and didn't come back. Montreal collapsed without him. Price was the 2014-15 Vezina and Hart winner. Holtby tied the NHL record for regular-season wins last year. I'm going with Nashville's Pekka Rinne at +850 as the Predators might win the Central Division in 2016-17.
Ottawa's Erik Karlsson is +290 to win the Norris as top defenseman. He has won the award twice and led all defensemen with 66 points (fourth in NHL) last year but was beaten out for the Norris by the Kings' Drew Doughty (+600). I'll go with Montreal's Shea Weber (+850), who was dealt in that shocking offseason blockbuster from Nashville for fellow defenseman P.K. Subban (+700).
And the Calder Trophy for Rookie of the Year has, to no surprise, Toronto's Auston Matthews as the heavy -145 favorite. The Leafs finally have a franchise-type player to build around. Matthews wasn't quite as highly-touted as last year's No. 1 overall pick, Connor McDavid of Edmonton, but wasn't far off. Frankly, if Matthews was Canadian instead of American he probably would have equal hype. McDavid lived up to the billing but didn't win the Calder because he missed a chunk of the season with a broken collarbone. Matthews should win this award. He debuts Wednesday night in Ottawa.
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