Washington wasn’t the favorite last year either, but things turned out all right. However, a repeat will be a difficult task.
This year’s projections start with the season point totals released by the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook in September. Those point totals were then used to determine a team’s average wins, losses and overtime wins, which were in turn used to simulate the entire season 1,000 times.
* Denotes projected playoff team
Pittsburgh fields a competitive team, boasting depth at center (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Derick Brassard) with strong wingers (Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel) and a top two-way blue-liner (Kris Letang). If goaltender Matt Murray has a bounce-back season — his save percentage dropped from .925 over the past two years to a below-average .907 in 2017-18 — they have a chance to win the team’s third championship in four years.
Cross-state rival Philadelphia Flyers brought back James van Riemsdyk to complement a group of forwards that includes Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier, in addition to a young collection of defenders led by Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov.
Giroux ranked fifth for even-strength points scored per 60 minutes last season (2.8) and van Riemsdyk led the league in most scoring chances produced per 60 minutes on the power play (minimum 100 minutes played with the man advantage).
And don’t forget about Columbus. Artemi Panarin led the Blue Jackets in scoring last season (82 points in 81 games) and rejoins Pierre-Luc Dubois, Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Alexander Wennberg for another bite at the apple. On defense Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, give Coach John Tortorella plenty of skill to make a play in the division.
The top-heavy Atlantic Division got stronger this offseason when the kid from Mississauga, John Tavares, signed a seven-year, $77 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Tavares will join a solid core of youngsters that includes Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly.
Matthews, who turned 21 in September, has scored 74 goals in 144 NHL games while outscoring opponents 52 to 25 at even strength when sharing the ice with Nylander last season. Tavares didn’t have as much success in New York when skating with Josh Bailey and Anders Lee (32 to 38) but the latter two were outscored 8-0 at even strength without Tavares skating with them in 2017-18.
Toronto should be fighting for the division lead all season with the Lightning. The Lighting acquired Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller from the New York Rangers at the trade deadline and shortly after locked up McDonagh with a seven-year extension worth $47 million and Miller to a five-year contract worth $26.25 million, adding to an already strong nucleus that features center Steven Stamkos and reigning Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman.
Everything that could go wrong for Chicago last season did. The Blackhawks stunk on the power play (16 percent efficiency, fourth worst in the league) thanks in large part to little-to-no puck luck — the team shot 11.4 percent (seventh-lowest rate) with the man advantage in a league in which the average is 13 percent. The goaltending was below average after Corey Crawford’s 54-game absence due to a concussion left Anton Forsberg to mind the net. But Forsberg only provided Chicago a quality start — a game in which he had an above-average save percentage — in just 14 games (47 percent of his starts). The Blackhawks tried to be proactive this season and signed backup goaltender Cam Ward, but he hasn’t been even an average netminder since 2011-12.
Chris Kunitz was also brought in to bolster the forward ranks but the 39-year-old scored just 29 points in 82 games with the Lightning last season, sowing seeds of doubt he can do much to help the Blackhawks' aging core. But that’s all you can afford when you are paying Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane $10.5 million dollars per year.
Chicago should improve in 2018-19 — the Blackhawks had 76 standings points last season and project to have 85 in the upcoming campaign — but not enough to dethrone the Nashville Predators or Winnipeg Jets at the top of the division. The playoffs look to be a stretch as well.
You could argue the Predators have the best defense in the NHL with P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm patrolling the blue line and reigning Vezina Trophy winner Pekka Rinne in net, who saved a league-leading 28 goals above average last season. Up front they ice Filip Forsberg (26 goals in 67 games last season), Viktor Arvidsson (29 goals in 78 games) plus Craig Smith, who ranked 16th for scoring chances created in 2017-18 (10.6 per 60 minutes).
The Jets, meanwhile, will hope Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, Connor Hellebuyck and Jacob Trouba can once again help them get past the Predators in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Vegas Golden Knights, in their first year of existence, won the Pacific Division and steamrolled their way to the Stanley Cup finals. The franchise set the record for most wins by an expansion team in its inaugural season (51), set the record for most points by an expansion team in its first season (109) and became the first team to make the playoffs in Year 1 in 38 years (Edmonton Oilers and Hartford Whalers in 1979-80). That’s a tough act for any team to follow, let alone one that lost James Neal and David Perron in free agency, plus top-line defenseman Nate Schmidt for the first 20 games of the season for violating the NHL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
Missing Schmidt for the start of the season could be huge. He skated more than 22 minutes per night for the team and helped outscore opponents 63 to 48 when skating at even strength. Schmidt also led all the team’s defenders in high-danger chances created (11).
That could open the door for the San Jose Sharks to take command of the division.
San Jose finished third in the Pacific last season but went out and got two-time Norris winner Erik Karlsson, He will join Brent Burns, the 2016-17 Norris winner, and give the Sharks two of the best offensive defensemen in the game. Over the past five years, Karlsson (355 points in 394 games) and Burns (326 points in 397 games) rank 13th and 20th, respectively, for most points scored among all skaters over that span. Tampa Bay’s Hedman is the next highest-scoring defenseman at No. 42 (275 points in 368 games).
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