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NHL - Experts bold predictions, trade deadline rentals, teams most deserving of a Stanley Cup, must-watch teams

ESPN.com | Updated: 2018-10-04 00:00:17

Opening night of the 2018-19 NHL season is Oct. 3, including the Washington Capitals' Stanley Cup banner raising prior to their matchup against the Boston Bruins. To get you ready for the season, we gathered a panel of our writers to answer some of the burning questions around the league:

  • What's your bold prediction for the 2018-19 season

  • Which team would you like to see win the Stanley Cup?

  • Which lottery team from last season has the best Cup chances this season?

  • Who is your "must-watch" team this season?

  • ___________ will be dealt by the trade deadline.


What's your bold prediction for the 2018-19 season?

Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: The Edmonton Oilers will make the playoffs. This is partially because I feel Connor McDavid could will it to happen with another MVP season, and partially because I think either Cam Talbot or Mikko Koskinen will play well enough (for next summer's new contract) to stabilize a defense that ballooned to 25th in goals against last season. Failing that, there's always the fire-the-coach/energize-the-team option. Say, I wonder if director of player personnel Duane Sutter knows a Darryl Sutter ...

Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: The Florida Panthers are making the playoffs -- and might just make a run. As I reported this offseason, everyone in the NHL loves the Buffalo Sabres as a sleeper team. They'll improve, thanks to nifty summer maneuvering by GM Jason Botterill, but I think they're still a year off. The Panthers, however, have all the makings to push the elites in the Atlantic Division: Boston, Tampa Bay and Toronto. Florida has the one-two punch at center in Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck that makes them a tough matchup. Plus, their top six is sneakily elite thanks to the addition of Mike Hoffman.

Chris Peters, hockey prospects analyst: The Rocket Richard Trophy race comes down to Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine. That's not to say that the NHL's goal god Alex Ovechkin won't be in the hunt because of course he will, but Matthews and Laine have proven worth contenders for the trophy. Laine fell five goals shy of Ovechkin last season, and Matthews missed 20 games due to injury, but was on pace to match Laine's total of 44. I think with another year of experience under their belts and really good talent around them, both are going to put on a goal-scoring show this year and each flirt with, if not surpass 50.

Ben Arledge, associate editor: Antti Raanta is a Vezina Trophy finalist. In his first season as a starter, Raanta posted a .930 save percentage and 2.24 goals-against average. He was also exceptional while standing in with the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks. The performance of the Arizona Coyotes as a whole hurts Raanta's accolades case, much like the New Jersey Devils' inadequacy hindered Cory Schneider's Vezina hopes for so many years, but the team ought to be at least a little improved this season. The key will be health. He's now 29 years old and missed a good deal of time last season with lower-body injuries. He apparently worked hard on his offseason conditioning, so hopefully the Finn can stay healthy this season. If so, Raanta certainly has the talent to be among the top goalies in the NHL.

Which team would you like to see win the Stanley Cup?

Wyshynski: Oh, the San Jose Sharks, without question. Fortune should favor the bold, and GM Doug Wilson has been one of the boldest in hockey in trying to improve his team. I want to see Erik Karlsson go from hockey hell to hockey heaven. I want to see Logan Couture win a Conn Smythe for winning at all costs. But most of all, I want to see Joe Thornton skate off into the sunset with the Cup raised high above his shoulders for the first time ... before a summer of celebration that will make Alex Ovechkin's revelry look like an Amish tea party by comparison.

Kaplan: I'm all in on these Winnipeg Jets. Perhaps it's because I had so much fun soaking in Winnipeg's unbridled enjoyment during last year's playoffs (heck, even car dealerships committed to the city-wide white out). Or maybe I just love watching this team, which was a wagon during the playoffs with so many game-breaking players: Dustin Byfuglien, Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. Winnipeg is a deserving fan base, and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff built the team the right way. Two things you like to root for.

Peters: I've got to go with the Nashville Predators. First off, the team is fun and likeable, with one of the most talented defense corps in the league led by Roman Josi and P.K. Subban. I think Filip Forsberg is a burgeoning star, and probably needs even more of an audience. GM David Poile has had a remarkable career that is missing that giant piece of silver and I think he's done everything he possibly can to put this team in position to win the Cup. Meanwhile, the big looming question is if Pekka Rinne can still be the guy to take them all the way and if he doesn't, could this be the franchise's last best shot for a little while? Most of all, however, I think we've seen Nashville grow into one of the most exciting markets in the league. The run to the final two years ago showed just how great it can become with a Stanley Cup potentially sparking an even greater explosion in interest. I'm all for growth.

Arledge: Watching Henrik Lundqvist carry the New York Rangers on his back for so many years, I'd love to see the Blueshirts win one for him -- but we all know that isn't happening this season. So instead, I'll say the Toronto Maple Leafs. They haven't won a Cup since 1967 and finally have the goods to get it done. John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander are going to be super fun to watch, and Leafs fans deserve a true Cup contender. Tavares returning home to Toronto to join the next face of American hockey in Matthews to deliver the city's first Stanley Cup in over 50 years is just too great a narrative.

Which lottery team from last season has the best Cup chances this season?

Wyshynski: The Dallas Stars have a new coach in Jim Montgomery; a devastatingly good top with Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alex Radulov; a solid group of defensemen led by John Klingberg; and unlike a couple of other dark-horse options in the division, some solid goaltending in Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin. I'd feel much better about this pick if Valeri Nichushkin returned from the KHL as a better player, and if Martin Hanzal had some semblance of health later in the season. But their flirtation with John Tavares and Erik Karlsson this summer shows they're ready to make a significant move to bolster those chances, so if they're in contention, they could make a splash at the deadline.

Kaplan: The St. Louis Blues have been a good team for some time, but they haven't been great. GM Doug Armstrong was one of the most active GMs this summer because he knew he needed to switch up the formula. The Blues added three top-six forwards plus a third-line center. "They missed the playoffs," one of those additions, Pat Maroon, told me this summer. "But they have veteran players who have been here for years, a couple new faces, and I feel like it's just a different atmosphere. You can feel the energy. I've been on Anaheim, I've been on Edmonton, those two rooms were special rooms. But I come here, and it feels like a bunch of guys ready to take on the challenge." As long as the goaltending is serviceable, there's no reason St. Louis can't make a serious run.

Peters: I'm not putting them as contenders just yet, but if we're talking lottery teams with the best chance, I'll go with the Panthers. They have pretty significant talent in their top six with their top two centers, Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck, coming off of career years with no signs of slowing. Florida also added Mike Hoffman to the mix and should count on another season of big production from the undersung Evgenii Dadonov. I'm also a big believer in top prospect Henrik Borgstrom who I could see providing solid scoring depth. A big concern is the durability of goaltending, though I still think Roberto Luongo has enough in the tank to get them where they need to go. The defense isn't full of world beaters either, but I think that forward group stacks up well with the loaded Atlantic, and Florida might have a chance to sneak up on people this season.

Arledge: I'll agree with Greg. I like the Stars a lot this season. They certainly have the talent to score goals with Seguin and Benn leading the way, but Klingberg really established himself as a top-tier defenseman last season, as well. The key will be Bishop's health. If he is in the net for a full season, Dallas is a contender in 2018-19. That's just a really big 'if.'

Who is your "must-watch" team this season?

Wyshynski: The Jets have three players that are as must-see as they come in Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. They were second in the NHL in goals last season, playing quickly both in tempo and in actual player rapidity. You get some physicality, you get some personality and you get the most electrifying home-ice advantage this side of Vegas. Their games against the Predators last season were appointment television, and you can't make that claim for many regular-season contests.

Kaplan: The Vegas Golden Knights. I was foolish discounting this team for so long last season -- yes, even after they began winning in the playoffs. I won't make that mistake again. It's not just the entertainment factor, though I'm giddy to see how they level up the pregame show in year two. Vegas is still going to buy in to an us-against-the-world mentality. The top line, specifically William Karlsson, wants to prove they were no fluke. Marc-Andre Fleury can still outperform the team that dumped him. Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty come in as reinforcements. They're still the Golden Misfits, but they have actual staying power.

Peters: The Maple Leafs, by a lot. Obviously the arrival of John Tavares plays a large role in that, but I think there are so many unanswered questions about this team that leaves me intrigued and totally enthralled with how it will all play out. How does Mike Babcock use Tavares and Matthews, the latter of whom clearly needs more power-play time and a little extra ice to maximize his production. How long does it take to sign William Nylander and how much will that impact the team's cap space for the forthcoming Matthews and Mitch Marner negotiations? Will the defense hold up? How does new GM Kyle Dubas manage the team in season, especially if they're contending? This is a group that I think can make a run.

Arledge: Again, I like Greg's answer. The Jets are going to be an offensive powerhouse out of the Central. But I'm also going to be tuning in for Tampa Bay Lightning games. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov skating together is must-watch hockey, but this team just runs so deep. Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde have a ton of goal-scoring talent, Victor Hedman is an elite offensive defenseman and Andrei Vasilevskiy is one of the most exciting goalies in the NHL today. Lots of speed, lots of soft hands, lots of excellent shooters and lots of chemistry. The Bolts are going to be very fun. As an honorable mention, the Philadelphia Flyers have a chance to have a really interesting offense. I'll certainly tune in to watch them following the addition of James van Riemsdyk and blueliner Ivan Provorov after another year of development.

___________ will be dealt by the trade deadline.

Wyshynski: Mats Zuccarello. The beloved New York Rangers hobbit is 31, in the last year of his contract and remains a winger that can produce instant offense on his own. The Rangers are one of the few teams in the NHL in an actual, on-the-record rebuild. While Zuc is a character guy and a winger that could play with a young center like Filip Chytil, he's also an asset that could bring a decent return to a team that continues to stockpile for the future.

Kaplan: Artemi Panarin. Though it might happen much sooner than the deadline. It's a cruel situation and I feel for GM Jarmo Kekalainen, who has done understated work building a contender in Columbus. The team landed a superstar, and now he doesn't want to stay. Kekalainen will unemotionally cut ties whenever it makes sense for the team. Depending on the team -- and Panarin's start -- I wouldn't be shocked if he was gone by Christmas.

Peters: Gustav Nyquist. The Red Wings know where they're at and where they're going, especially this season. They're building a nice prospect pool and could potentially bolster that by shopping Nyquist as a rental. The pending unrestricted free agent has a lot of speed and has shown to be productive when put in good situations. A contending team that needs some scoring depth might be willing to pay a premium as the trade deadline nears, while the Red Wings clear the way for some of their youngsters to take more substantial roles late in the season.

Arledge: Semyon Varlamov. By trading for Philipp Grubauer in June, the Avalanche made their future goaltending intentions visible, and Varlamov is on an expiring $5.9 million contract that lacks any no-movement clauses. I think Colorado might regress a little bit this season -- the Central Division is stacked and it doesn't seem to have too much outside of that top line. So, with Grubauer in town, Varlamov could be on his way out. At 30 years old and a .920 save percentage last season, he could certainly help a contender looking for goalie help (even as a backup) down the stretch.

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