B/R NHL Staff Roundtable: Predicting the Winners of Every Division This Season
The two words that excite NHL fans in September: training camp.
We're inching closer to teams reporting for camp starting next week as the latest odyssey for the Stanley Cup will begin in earnest. Can the Colorado Avalanche repeat as Cup winners? Will Johnny Gaudreau be the catalyst to a hockey renaissance in Columbus?
The Bleacher Report NHL staff will answer those questions in due time. This week, we're looking at potential division winners.
Last year, the Avalanche, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers and Calgary Flames won their respective divisions. Can those four repeat their exploits this season? Or will rival teams knock them off their perches?
It's time for another roundtable as the staff got together to pick the winners of each division this season.
Got your pick for a division winner? Submit your opinion in the comments below.
Atlantic Division: Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning never topped their division during a run of three straight Stanley Cup Final appearances and two championships from 2019-20 to 2021-22. Their previous Atlantic Division title was in 2018-19.
Despite the end of their championship run, the Lightning possesses sufficient depth to win their division in 2022-23.
Their core of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, defenseman Victor Hedman and forwards Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point remain intact. They're still in their playing prime and among the league's elite players.
The Bolts still have a solid supporting cast with forwards Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli, Ross Colton, Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel along with defensemen Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak. They also have one of the NHL's best coaches in Jon Cooper.
General manager Julien BriseBois has maintained a solid record for finding suitable replacements for departed players, adding Ian Cole, Philippe Myers and Vladislav Namestnikov to his roster this summer.
Meanwhile, the Lightning's division rivals face serious issues entering this season.
Florida is thin in quality blue-line depth after trading away MacKenzie Weegar and losing Ben Chiarot to free agency. The Toronto Maple Leafs have a questionable goaltending tandem in the oft-injured Matt Murray and the underachieving Ilya Samsonov. The Boston Bruins have an aging core and will start the season with winger Brad Marchand and defenseman Charlie McAvoy recovering from offseason surgeries.
Rebuilding teams like the Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators could become serious playoff contenders but are unlikely to challenge for the division crown. The Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens should improve but will likely finish outside the postseason picture.
The Lightning have had three straight years of long seasons and shortened summers, and some of their key players are getting older. Nevertheless, they still possess enough talent to finish atop the Atlantic.
Metropolitan Division: Carolina Hurricanes
The Metropolitan Division is no joke. It’s been, arguably, the most competitive of the four divisions, and that’s because of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin going to battle for so long. But this race comes down to one of four teams (the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers, Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins), and picking one of them to win the division this year isn’t so easy.
The Carolina Hurricanes have a dynamic offense and a very humbly strong defense that added Brent Burns this summer. Figuring this out means picking out who has more worrying flaws.
The Capitals will start the season without Tom Wilson and Carl Hagelin and may be without Nicklas Backstrom for the season. Pittsburgh’s top players (Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang) are older and not quite as elite as they were. Tristan Jarry was solid last season, but can he do it again? And will the defense hold up? Those worries take both teams out of the equation.
The Rangers' weakness lies with overall depth, particularly on defense. Igor Shesterkin is the best goalie in the NHL, but he’s been under fire constantly. The Hurricanes appear to have depth across the board, but their goaltending in Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta has proved to have injury worries throughout their careers, but they have Pyotr Kochetkov waiting in the wings.
With the amount of overall depth Carolina has and the overwhelming scoring talent throughout the lineup, that’s enough to give the Hurricanes the edge to win the Metropolitan Division.
- Joe Yerdon
Central Division: Colorado Avalanche
The winner of the Central Division will obviously be the Arizona Coyotes.
OK, I'll be serious now. The Colorado Avalanche are still the team to beat in the Central.
This is no slight to the Minnesota Wild, who will push the defending Stanley Cup champions for the division title. Or to the St. Louis Blues, whose season ended at the hands of the Avs. The Nashville Predators will be good but not Colorado-level good.
The Avs have a legitimate chance to defend their title even though they suffered some key salary-cap casualties over the summer. Winger Andre Burakovsky, who scored twice in the Stanley Cup Final and put up eight points in the playoffs last season, went to the Seattle Kraken as a free agent. Darcy Kuemper went to the Washington Capitals as a free agent. Nazem Kadri, one of the club's playoff heroes last year, went to the Calgary Flames.
But the stars remain, two of whom are some of the best in the sport.
Conn Smythe-winning defenseman Cale Makar does absolutely everything on the ice, but he's key in facilitating an offense that scored the fourth-most goals per game last season. He'll also contribute quite a few. Nathan MacKinnon is an elite center, and with a new contract coming up soon, he might end up being the highest-paid player in hockey.
Mikko Rantanen, coming off a career-high 92-point season, brings speed and scoring. Valeri Nichushkin plays up to his "Chu Chu Train" nickname by bringing big hits on the ice in addition to more speed and scoring.
Colorado will need some key young players to emerge like defensemen Bowen Byram, Samuel Girard and 21-year-old center Alex Newhook. But if their postseason performances were any indication of what's to come, they'll be more capable.
The Avs might have a question mark in net. Pavel Francouz played well in Kuemper's absence in the postseason, and when it came to the Cup Final, the organization was split on which goalie to start. Colorado ultimately went with Kuemper, but that line of thinking shows how much trust the club has in Francouz.
Alexandar Georgiev showed flashes of potential with the New York Rangers as Henrik Lundqvist's backup a few years ago, but he appeared to lose confidence in recent seasons playing behind Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin. If he can get back to his pre-pandemic numbers (.912 save percentage in 67 games from 2018-2020), then the tandem should be solid enough to lead the club to a second straight Stanley Cup championship.
- Abbey Mastracco
Pacific Division: Edmonton Oilers
It's been a long time for the Edmonton Oilers.
The residents of the league's northernmost city were five-time Stanley Cup champions from 1984 to 1990 and have experienced an occasional renaissance since, particularly with an unexpected run to the championship round in 2006 before a seven-game loss to Carolina.
These days, the needle is pointing up again.
Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Co. placed second in the Pacific Division last season and handled the Los Angeles Kings and Calgary Flames in the initial two rounds of the playoffs before falling in the Western Conference final to eventual champion Colorado.
The Oilers were seven points behind the Flames in the Pacific last season, but they appear to have made up ground this offseason. They agreed to an extension with rugged winger Evander Kane and brought goalie Jack Campbell over from Toronto on a five-year deal.
Meanwhile, Calgary saw high-profile stars Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk exit to Columbus and Florida, respectively. But general manager Brad Treliving recovered nicely by getting 115-point scorer Jonathan Huberdeau back from the Panthers and luring Avalanche forward Nazem Kadri with a seven-year, $49 million pact in free agency.
It'll likely come down to the Battle of Alberta rivals atop a divisional race that also includes legitimate contenders in the Vegas Golden Knights, who faltered and missed the postseason last year after hanging two Pacific championship banners in their first four seasons.
The Kings are a rising dark-horse commodity thanks to some high-end talent and an influx of young players. The same goes for the Vancouver Canucks, who—like the Oilers with Jay Woodcroft—were a different team after the in-season hiring of Bruce Boudreau. They should compete for the four playoff spots ahead of also-rans in Anaheim, Seattle and San Jose.
It'll likely be a two-horse race leading the pack to the trade deadline, and it'll be up to Treliving and his Edmonton counterpart, Ken Holland, to find the missing piece to the competitive puzzle and make a run at becoming Canada's first Cup winner since 1993.
Flip a coin, roll some dice and, in case of a tie, give it to the world's best player.
- Lyle Fitzsimmons