- You already know which category your team will fall into this season, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy the fast-paced hockey fun that 2018-19 is certain to bring NHL fans.
The 2018–19 season is here, and a few things are clear. The tectonic movement during the offseason wasn't that tectonic. It didn't take a terrible team from last season and propel it to contender status. But it did take already good teams and make them better.
You're San Jose—why not add Erik Karlsson to an already stacked blueline? You're Vegas—let's bring on Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny! You're Toronto—let's snag the biggest free agent possibly to ever hit the open market in John Tavares!
There are tiers of teams this season, in ways there haven't been in some time. There's the clearly elite teams—the Haves, if you will—that were all contenders in 2017–18 and have a legitimate shot at winning this time around. They are (in no particular order): Winnipeg, Tampa, Toronto, Nashville, Washington, San Jose, Vegas and Pittsburgh.
There's the next group—the Have-Somes—that are really good, and with a deadline addition or two, could easily move up to the next level. They are (again, in no particular order): St. Louis, Columbus, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Dallas and Minnesota.
Then the third set of teams—the Have-A-Little-But-Not-Nearly-Enough crew—that have talent, will fight for the final playoff spots and most likely will summarily swept in the first round.
This collection of teams includes Florida, New Jersey, Anaheim, Calgary and Colorado.
There are two more groups, which illustrates just how deep a divide there is in the league. We start with the bottom-feeders, the ones that truly Have Nothing, that will just be miserable. This subset includes Ottawa, Detroit, Vancouver and Montreal. These teams might as well tank and start watching Jack Hughes highlight posts. It's going to be that bad.
And lastly, there are teams that have talent, or perhaps an elite piece. There's just not enough around it to contend. And it's this group that makes the NHL so different. There are seven teams who are good enough to challenge for the Cup, but not exactly bad enough to be in the bottom tier. They are merely average, with no shot against the Haves. Call them the Sort-of-Haves. They'll compete with the other tiers and stay competitive, but will inevitably finish toward the bottom in their conferences, even if they sometimes show tantalizing potential. Here, we’re looking at Edmonton, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Chicago, Arizona, Buffalo and Carolina.
This will be an undoubtedly weird season. The level of hockey at the top—Winnipeg at Nashville next Thursday! Toronto at Washington next Saturday!—will be some of the best we've seen in recent years. The playoffs, always amazing, could reach a level previously unseen.
But here's what will be odd to take in: The Sharks start the year with an East Coast swing, with back-to-backs against the Islanders and Flyers; then the Rangers and Devils. It's not necessarily a given that the Sharks will sweep—it's still hockey after all, and even the best teams get shut out once in a while—but there is such a talent disparity on that trip. The new-look San Jose power play against the Islanders' still-weak defense just seems unfair.
This is the new NHL. The Haves vs. the Don’t-Have-Enoughs.
So what to do if your team is not in that top tier? Or, even worse, not in the second tier? Fret not. This is not to say that those teams will be unwatchable—though we can't, in good conscience, recommend a Detroit-Ottawa matchup as must-see TV. It's that, in a weird way, hockey is more watchable than ever. The talent at the top is so good, so evenly matched that even not-yet-meaningful games in November will take on the feel of an early May stretch-run contest. And even if your team isn't in that top tier, it will have plenty of games against its better-off brethren. Maybe your team gets blown out 5-0 by Nashville—but you can at least admire its combo of award-winning defense with electric offense. Or maybe your team has no shot against Patrik Laine ripping bombs from the point—but you can at least appreciate Winnipeg’s depth and high-octane scorers.
If you're a fan of a top-tier team, it's going to be a really, really fun season. There will be blowouts. There will be epic performances. And there will be a playoffs that feature some of the closest matchups in recent memory.
And if you're a fan of a Sort-of-Have, don't despair, there is enough talent to go around! There will be victories! You may even knock off an elite team! Just know that your season will end and your attention will turn to the playoffs—where you can find a highly skilled team to root for.
This is a bifurcated season. We live—and for the foreseeable future, we think—in a tiered hockey world. Depending on your side of the standings, it may be a rough year. But let's look at the bright side. There's going to be some amazing puck played this year. And isn't that why we watch in the first place?