2016-17 NHL Season preview: Western Conference
2:16 | NHL
2016-17 NHL Season preview: Western Conference Staff
Wednesday October 12th, 2016

The summer is over, and it's time for a new NHL season. With a clean slate for all 30 NHL teams, we're about to get the answers to all the questions we came up with in the off-season: Can the Blues get over the hump in Ken Hitchcock’s final season? Is Auston Matthews really the real deal? How far can a healthy Carey Price lead the Montreal Canadiens? Will the Pittsburgh Penguins be the first repeat Cup winners since 1997? Will the Detroit Red Wings extend their playoff streak to 26 seasons? Just how long with Joe Thornton’s beard get?

Anything can happen, here's what SI’s crew of NHL hockeyheads think will.

Stanley Cup pick

KLOKE: Capitals over Predators. The Capitals have become something of a safe Stanley Cup pick and one of these seasons, they're bound to follow through. After an impeccable regular season in 2015-16, the Capitals fell victim to Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2nd round. That's a series loss that will have stayed with the Capitals, and in particular Alex Ovechkin, throughout the summer. Crosby would go on to win his second Stanley Cup, firmly cementing him as one of the all-time greats. Ovechkin is certainly one of the most driven competitors in the game and the now 31-year old forward will harness that drive into his first Stanley Cup. After seeing the player he will forever be compared to take home another Cup, nothing will get in Ovechkin's way this season. I predict a man possessed in the playoffs, with a great supporting cast to boot.

The Nashville Predators have all the pieces in place, and an impossibly good defense corps somehow got better over the summer. After jettisoning the oft-immobile Shea Weber, the Preds will become one of the most entertaining teams throughout the playoffs. There will certainly be an upset or two, likely over the Chicago Blackhawks, and a lot of uncharacteristically high scoring games. Pekka Rinne isn't the goalie he once was and their high-flying approach will eventually hit a brick wall in Washington.

FUCHS: In the magazine, we picked Nashville over Tampa Bay. So I’ll go with our chalk. But with good reason. Nashville’s trade for Subban will make them more explosive, and give more minutes to Roman Josi, perhaps the most underrated defenseman in the league. Tampa Bay brings back the same team that just missed out on the Cup Final, but with a full season of Jonathan Drouin, who showed such amazing skill and poise with the puck. His skill level reminds me of Patrick Kane.

The Big Bang: A frenzied 23 minutes in June changed the outlook of the season

But why Nashville for the Cup? There might not be a better match than Subban and Peter Laviolette. Up-tempo, tons of skill, go-go-go. The Preds have enough defensive depth (Josi, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Matt Carle) to make up for Subban’s risk-taking. The only question is whether  Rinne is up to the task. Rinne, who had a 2.48 goals-against average last season, was benched in the World Cup for Tuukka Rask. He turns 34 in November. If he can regain his numbers from a few years ago, Nashville might be unstoppable.

FRIEDMAN: Capitals over Predators. This is the year Washington wins the Stanley Cup. Last year was also the year, but this time, the Caps finally get over the hump. Ovechkin and Co. boast a deep offense, which will be even deeper if Andre Burakovsky busts loose as many pundits expect him to. They've got a balanced defense and a lights-out goaltender in Braden Holtby. They have to win a Cup at some point…right?

Coming out of the West, the Predators will benefit from another year of maturation for Filip Forsberg, the addition of Subban and a full year of Ryan Johansen. Look for  Rinne to rebound and pick up where he left off in the playoffs. I think the Preds will go on a deep run, but the Capitals will be too much, even for Nashville's superb defense corps. 

BLINN: Lightning over the Blackhawks. Stamkos, Kucherov, Hedman, Drouin, Johnson… the whole gang is back and healthy after falling just short of a second straight Cup Final. The Bolts will truly be a team to be reckoned with in the East this season, and they’ll get the better end of a thrilling finale out of the Blackhawks in a 2015 rematch. Nashville is the sexy pick this season, but Corey Crawford found a whole ‘nother level in net last season, and I think that gives Chicago an edge in the West.

Breakthrough team

FUCHS: It’s tough to say this because they don’t have a goalie. But the Winnipeg Jets‘ offense could be dangerous. Mark Scheifele scored 29 goals last season. Blake Wheeler scored 26; Bryan Little scored 17. Nikolaj Ehlers is a second-year player on the rise. And, oh yeah, there’s Patrik Laine, who looks to be the next great sniper. There’s issues—Jacob Trouba wants out, and there’s no established goalie on the roster. But a first line of Laine-Scheifele-Wheeler might be one of the best. And a power play of that line alongside Ehlers and Dustin Byfuglien. Oh boy. Get ready for a lot of goals in the ‘Peg. 

BLINN: They have perhaps the toughest road of any potential breakout team, but I think the Colorado Avalanche, free of Patrick Roy’s outdated coaching, should see a whole lot of improvement under new guy in town Jared Bednar. He brings with him an up-tempo, aggressive style that should really benefit Colorado’s young, speedy talent and help take some of the pressure off a defense that’s much better than they showed last season, as well as Semyon Varlamov in net.

Power Rankings: Eastern Conference | Western Conference

FRIEDMAN: Calgary Flames. The Flames have one of the deepest bluelines in the NHL and a dynamic offense to boot. All they’ve been missing is a goaltender and, with Brian Elliott joining the fold, they now have one. Look for young forward Sam Bennett to break out and establish himself as a legitimate stud. 

KLOKE: The Carolina Hurricanes. The Arizona Coyotes were in the mix here but they're still a little too green. The cap-friendly Canes are one of the better coached teams in the NHL and have mastered the art of mobile defensemen joining the rush. What's more, they missed out on a playoff spot last season and were often written off in large part because of a lack of finish: they were a decent possession team but suffered from poor shooting percentage. As their young defense core matures, they'll eventually start finding the back of the net. Their seven-season playoff drought will end and they'll be in the mix for a playoff spot.

First coach fired

KLOKE: Claude Julien, Boston Bruins. Rumors of Julien's possible termination were rampant after they missed the playoffs for the second season in a row in 2015-16. It's fair to assume that Julien is on a bit of a short leash and if the B's go through any kind of slump in the early months, Don Sweeney won't play with fire that much longer. Julien is of course the longest-serving NHL head coach with his current team but a change in approach will seem like an easy one if he can't win with his current group.

FUCHS: John Tortorella, Columbus Blue Jackets. He didn’t help himself with the hapless appearances in the World Cup. But, outside of Sergei Bobrovsky, the Jackets don’t have much. Yes, there’s Brandon Saad, Seth Jones and Ryan Murray. But that’s about it. A lot of sandpaper players who are great third and fourth liners, but not major scoring talents. The NHL is, more than ever, a fast-paced league. Tortorella’s teams, in the World Cup and in Columbus, are just not built for it. 

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BLINN: Michel Therrien, Montreal Canadiens. Subban is gone, and so is Therrien’s scapegoat. He can only criticize the team’s remaining players for so long before his already-thin layer of Teflon wears off and there’s no one left to blame in Montreal.

FRIEDMAN: Tortorella. Though Therrien will give him a good run for his money, Tortorella will get booted out of Columbus before anyone else is fired. If we learned anything from the World Cup, it’s that Tortorella’s system doesn’t quite work anymore, and the Blue Jackets are building a young team of exciting players whose styles clash with his ideology. I see this ending rather early for Torts. He was a great coach, but hockey has evolved and he hasn’t been able to evolve with the sport. 

Award Picks

Award Fuchs Kloke Blinn Friedman
MVP Jamie Benn Alex Ovechkin Tyler Seguin John Tavares
Art Ross Alex Ovechkin Patrick Kane Connor McDavid Connor McDavid
Norris Victor Hedman Brent Burns Erik Karlsson Oliver Ekman-Larsson
Vezina Carey Price Martin Jones Cory Schneider Carey Price
Calder Auston Matthews Patrik Laine Mitch Marner Patrik Laine
Selke Patrice Bergeron Jonathan Toews Patrice Bergeron Aleksander Barkov
Adams Dave Hakstol Jon Cooper Dan Bylsma Dave Hakstol

Biggest name traded

FRIEDMAN: Kevin Shattenkirk’s contract expires next summer, and it appears the Blues won’t be keeping him around for the long run. With the emergence of Colton Parayko, perhaps he’s now more expendable than he was 365 days ago, and teams will be lining up to get him on trade deadline day if he hasn’t yet been moved. Shattenkirk is this season’s premier rental.

KLOKE: June 29th really upped the ante in terms of big-name moves in the NHL. Any deal this season will seem minuscule compared to the Subban-for-Weber and Hall-for-Larsson deals that shook the hockey world that day. But Jim Benning is not a man to be outdone when it comes to swinging confusing deals and, threatened with yet another basement-dwelling season with little to show for it, the Canucks will part ways with both the Sedin twins. They will have to hold onto some salary and the Sedins will be in demand for a team in a win-now mode. Florida Panthers anyone? There's cap space there as well as the Luongo connection. I can't imagine Benning getting back fair value for Henrik and Daniel Sedin but at 36, the lure of having another crack at the Stanley Cup will be too good to pass up.

FUCHS: This is a bit off-the-wall, but Vladimir Tarasenko. Yes, the Blues just traded for Nail Yakupov. And yes, they made the Conference Finals. But they traded Brian Elliott. And they lost David Backes. And if things go wrong, and they get off to a slow start, I wonder if the talented, yet mercurial, Tarasenko could be traded for a rebuild. 

BLINN: Put me down for Ben Bishop. The Vezina candidate is scheduled for free agency at the end of the season, and when coupled with Andrei Vasilevskiy being ready to be an everyday NHL goalie, not to mention the upcoming expansion draft, the writing is on the wall for a guy who’s probably going to get a sizable raise for 2017-18.

Bold predictions

FUCHS: Let’s get crazy. No one knows much about him, but Jared Bednar has inherited a ton of talent up front in Colorado and a good goalie in Semyon Varlamov. Patrick Roy was a very, very intense coach. A change of pace is needed. The Avalanche will make a deep run in the playoffs. 

KLOKE: Doesn't that Sedin trade count? OK, another team dealing with aging veterans is the Anaheim Ducks. They're usually in the mix to emerge from the Western Conference but after hiring Randy Carlyle this summer, don't expect the Ducks to get that much better anytime soon. Not only will Anaheim miss the playoffs, it'll finish towards the bottom of the conference. Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler were streaky last season, both good and bad, and it'll get worse before it gets better. Many will be left scratching their heads at how it all went wrong for one of the perennial Cup contenders but a hire like Carlyle, a still unproven goaltender and aging core has the writing on the wall.

BLINN: Someone will accidentally use a geo-targeted Snapchat filter and we'll all spend way too many hours pontificating on what, exactly, it means.

FRIEDMAN: The number of fighting majors has been decreasing by about 12-16% every season since 2010-11, and we’ll see a rather significant acceleration of that trend during the 2016-17 campaign. A 20% drop would be quite a shock to the system, and it would pull the number of regular season fights below 300. The last time that occurred was in 1973-74 (267 fights), when there were just 16 teams in the NHL

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