Let’s Get Ready To Rumble
Ring the bell, the #RoadToTheCup has begin
Are you ready puck heads? The NHL season has dropped the first puck of the season. The road to crowning the next Stanley Cup Champion is under way….and hockey fans are chomping at the bit to have bragging rights. At the start of the season every fan in every city has something to say. “The —- are going all the way this season!” “Last year is in the past, this year our —- are going to surprise everyone!” “We may have sucked for a few seasons but this year I know the —- return to the playoffs and make a deep playoff run!” Let’s be honest, 65% of the people talking will be silenced by the time we reach the All-Star game. But at this moment, on this day, everyone has belief in their team.
The Stanley Cup is one of the most difficult trophies to win in the sports world. The season may not be as long as others (*cough baseball cough*) but the grind of the season sure can take its toll on many players. Football is often said to be the more physical demanding sport, and in some cases 100% it is, but they also play once a week. Hockey players battle on the ice sometimes 3 or 4 games a week, every week. Winning Lord Stanley truly is the Royal Rumble of professional sports. We start with 30 teams, all with big aspirations and dreams of championship glory. One by one every month we slowly elevate a few contenders, define more pretenders and narrow down the field. Ok sure, the WWE Royal Rumble match itself has a new participant enter the ring every 60 seconds and eliminations happen all the time, but I think you are quick and smart enough to catch the analogy I am throwing down here.
For the #TwineTime NHL season preview, I thought we would go Royal Rumble style here. Let’s start with the teams that should be thrown over the glass at the beginning of the match and see which team is left skating around the big ice come Spring.
As the great announcer Michael Buffer would say, “Let’s Get Ready to Ruuummmbbbbllllllleeeeee!!!!”
30. Arizona Coyotes (Last Year Final Ranking: 29) – No surprise here with the Coyotes getting tossed over the glass within the first few minutes of the season. A team in heavy rebuilding with young players bodes well perhaps for the future but not for the present. Stay patient though Coyotes fans, top prospect Auston Matthews, the Scottsdale native, should be staying home come next season.
29. Toronto Maple Leafs (LY:27) – Destined to finally become Canada’s worst team, the Leafs will get tossed by the previous basement dwelling Oilers during their battle November 30. Oh well fans in the 6…at least you have the Jays.
28. New Jersey Devils (LY:25) – This is more a combination of lack of offensive talent and playing in a strong Metropolitan division. I cannot see the Devils being able to stay competitive against divisional foes New York, Pittsburgh and Washington.
27. Colorado Avalanche (LY: 21) – Outside of Nathan McKinnon, there really isn’t much power in the punch of this team. They may stick around for a few eliminations but in the end, they go out Repo Man style.
26. Edmonton Oilers (LY: 28) – The Connor McDavid era is in full effect in Edmonton. Congrats Oilers, you move up the rankings this year and are no longer Canada’s worst team. We have heard this story before in E-town on how this is the year with a fresh new young face joining the team. Get excited I suppose…but this is becoming a bit of a broken record. This team will be closer to a playoff spot than they have in many years and that is reason to be excited. Unfortunately, you are also missing out on the playoffs…again.
25. Buffalo Sabres (LY: 30) – Second overall pick Jack Eichel will be yet another draft pick thorn in the side of Oilers fans (see Tyler vs Taylor debate). Eichel will outperform McDavid and, most importantly, help his team finish ahead of the number one pick’s team in the final standings. The argument will be mute though as both teams miss the playoffs anyways.
24. Philadelphia Flyers (LY: 24) – I expect a similar season from the Flyers as last year. Good at times, awful at others. Golfing come early spring. The top teams in the Metropolitan will closeline this team over the boards once division battles start heating up.
23. Carolina Hurricanes (LY: 26) – I suppose they could surprise and last longer than expected but the talent again will be hard to match up week in and week out against the deeper and more talented teams in the conference. Don’t get me wrong though, this is a Rick Martel-style team that will hang around longer than you expect.
22. Vancouver Canucks (LY: 10) – The first early tragedy of last year’s Top 16. The Pacific division continues to get better and the Canucks have done little to keep up. The Sedin twins are not getting younger. The competition is. Something has to give eventually and this is the year the Canucks take the deep dive back in the ocean.
21. Detroit Red Wings (LY: 11) – This will be a completely new team this season and the question surrounding the Wings is how the players buy into new head coach Jeff Blashill. A staple to always make the playoffs and be around at the end of the Royal Rumble, this may be the surprise shock early elimination. I mean Hulk Hogan cannot win the Rumble every year right? (And yes, I do still think of this team as a 90’s team).
20. Boston Bruins (LY: 17) – Last season the B’s missed the playoff for the first time since 2007. In the preseason, they lose top D-man Zdeno Chara to an upper body injury. Things are not looking bright in Beantown. With having a very young blue line, the more experienced teams should be able to capitalize on them quickly. This team may be in a deep playoff 17. hole before Chara makes it back on the ice.
19. Florida Panthers (LY: 19) – This is my surprise team in the Eastern Conference. Ok, I know when you compare last year’s final ranking to my ranking in the Royal Rumble it is the same. But don’t be fooled. This team almost made the playoffs last year. A few more wins should come their way this year. Why can’t they make a strong playoff push again? The question will be whether Aaron Ekblad sustains his rookie season numbers or suffers a sophomore slump. Plus they have legend Jaromir Jagr now so the old school Penguins fan in me loves them just for that. This team is the Bob Backlund of the season, no expectations really heading into the rumble but somehow will stay around until the final week of the season.
18. Ottawa Senators (LY: 13) – The Senators captured the hearts of many Canadians fans last season in their surprise run to the playoffs. Led by the Hamburglar goalie Andrew Hammond, Senator fans have high expectations again this season. If you are looking for a player to watch, pay attention to Curtis Lazar, also known as #MrSmiles or #LazerLazar. This team should make another playoff push this season given the weaker Atlantic Division.
17. Columbus Blue Jackets (LY: 22) – Finally we start seeing some teams rise up from the ashes of Royal Rumble basement dwelling and become a mid-card contender. The jackets are a trendy pick for a playoff team, I realize that. But for obvious reasons, namely: Nick Foligno, Ryan Johansen, Scott Hartnell, Boone Jenner, Sergei Bobrovsky, Ryan Murray, Brandon Dubinsky. See, you have to be a bit impressed with this team. Combined with the Atlantic Division being the weakest in the league, this team has a high possibility of at least nabbing one of the wild card spots.
16. Winnipeg Jets (LY: 14) – Another Canadian team capturing the hearts of fans in the True North. Making the playoffs was a great thing to see last year and watching playoff games back in Winnipeg vs. Anaheim was memorable. Unfortunately for the Jets, it might be hard to replicate that feat this season. A strong rookie core could elevate this team to success or be their down fall depending how the talent holds up. Nic Petan could be an unexpected breakout star for the team in his rookie campaign and young guns Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba could provide young speed and firepower. The Central Division is just soooo competitive. If this team were in the Eastern Conference, they make the playoffs hands down. Out West….could be a problem.
15. San Jose Sharks (LY: 23) – The Sharks missed the playoffs last year for the first time since 2003. What happened? This team took a hard fall from grace and will want to ensure a repeat performance does not happen this year. Lots of NEW in San Jose though: New Coach (Peter DeBoer), New Goalie (Martin Jones), New Captain (Joe Pavelski). Old results though? Which Sharks team do we see? The one who comes out strong in the regular season and tanks in the post season? Misses the post season all together like last year? Or a completely NEW result in a strong Stanley Cup run? This could be the Bret Hart saga….slowly built expectations, reach strong results, tail off and end your career in WCW oblivion?
14. Calgary Flames (LY: 16) – Speaking of Bret Hart, the next team to go over the boards is Hart’s hometown Calgary Flames. The Flames were the surprise team of the playoffs last season, knocking out favourite Vancouver in the opening round before losing to Anaheim in the second round. The additions of Dougie Hamilton and Michael Frolik should yield strong payoffs for the season. Heading into the season the Flames are going with 3 goaltenders on the opening day roster, not commonly seen. The jury is still out on exactly which 2 goalies will be around for the long haul. The Flames could be hard pressed to replicate the results of last season…at the same time do not underestimate another playoff appearance for the #CofRed.
13. New York Islanders (LY: 9) – No major changes in the offseason could be just what the club needed. The Islanders shot up the standings last season racing to 101 points and losing a very even and hard fought Eastern Quarterfinal to division rival Washington. Expect a similar battle this season amongst all 4 teams in the Metro. John Tavares continues to be the leader on this team. This team could go as far as his shoulders are able to carry them.
12. Washington Capitals (LY: 8) – Ovi always has his team as a threat in any Rumble. He is willing to throw down and go skate for skate with any player and any team in the league. The Capitals will enter the season full of confidence, especially acquiring Justin Williams in the offseason. Williams is a proven Stanley Cup champion and will bring a ton of experience, especially playoff experience, to this team. The Capitals are often known for choking in the postseason…Williams is known to elevate his game come playoffs…which tradition continues?
11. Montreal Canadiens (LY: 2) – Carey Price, Carey Price, Carey Price. No way Price replicates his stone cold performance of last season is there? If we see another Carey “Stone Cold” Price between the pipes this season, the Canadiens once again could finish atop the Atlantic Division and make a run for the Eastern Conference title. Should Price falter though, the door is wide open for Tampa Bay and top contending Metro teams to pass them by.
10. Chicago Blackhawks (LY: 7) – The defending champs will see a fall this season. These guys truly are the sexy team every season…you either love them or are heartbroken because of them. Even in his prime though, the “sexy boy” Shawn Michaels could not go out and dominate the Royal Rumble every year and expect to take home a title shot. The ‘Hawks are dealing with crazy off-season media coverage surrounding Patrick Kane. This could be a major distraction heading into the season. But Kane controversy aside, the team lost Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg and Brandon Saad. The Central Division is ready to take them down and this might be the season it happens.
9. Dallas Stars (LY: 19) – The biggest mover in the league in comparison to last year comes from Dallas. The Stars entered last season with a lot of buzz and being considered a trendy pick to make the playoffs. They wilted under the pressure. Not this year though. This is a team relying on the dual goalie effect to work in their favour. Should Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi provide the one-two punch between the pipes, this team could shock many with a deep post-season run. They have the talent to throw a few more experienced teams over the board and out of the title picture. The question is how long can they stay on the ice for against a few of the big boys?
8. Los Angeles Kings (LY: 18) – So the Kings also shot up 10 spots in the standings, but the Kings were closer to a playoff team last season than the Stars so they do not get the biggest mover award. No hard feelings for them though, they would gladly trade that honour for a stronger chance at a division title…something they should find within their grasps this season. The addition of Milan Lucic should help power this team back into the playoffs and push for the Pacific Division title.
7. New York Rangers (LY: 1) – See Montreal. The Rangers season could live or die on the pads of goalie Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers have also been smart is developing a strong blue line…go figure when you are the Blueshirts. Get it…blueline, Blueshirts? Anywho….the Rangers should be competing for an Eastern Conference crown once again this season. The issue is how long can this team keep going? 4 years, 12 playoff rounds, 0 Stanley Cup titles. You can only stick around towards the final few fighters for so many years before people begin to realize you aren’t a real threat. Call it the Mr. Perfect syndrome. Expected to be near the end of the Royal Rumble every year entered but never a threat to win it all.
6. Nashville Predators (LY: 6) – Oh Nashville, if only you didn’t have to tangle with Chicago all the time. This is your year though Preds fans. This is the year Nashville provides the closeline over the top rope and surpasses the hated Blackhawks in cup consideration. I have faith in Pekka Rinne this season and they are ready to move from mid-card player to championship contender.
5. Minnesota Wild (LY: 12) – This is truly my BOLD prediction for the season: the Wild will finish second in the Central Division and host a playoff round. Look how well they played in their opening round playoff series vs. St. Louis. They played outstanding hockey in eliminatingg the favoured Blues. Of course, they were swept by the ‘Hawks in the next round but still lots to build off of from the playoff run. My concern is the play of goalie Devan Dubnyk of course. Do we get Wild playoff-style Dubnyk or Oilers bad goals allowed Dubnyk? Yes I know this is different as he actually has some defence now but still. Consistency, consistency, consistency are the main factors to success for a starting goalie and his team.
4. St. Louis Blues – (LY: 4) – Quickly becoming the Kane of the Rumble. Completely destroy and dominate during the match, eliminating many championship hopes and looking like a strong contender for the title shot. Then, they get down to it and BOOM…early elimination to a surprise pretender. The Blues are picking up at least 109 points every season for 3 years now. The team has not changed much from the past. Is there any reason not to expect this team to win the hardest division in hockey, the Central? The bigger question will be the same as it is every season, can they win when it matters?
3. Tampa Bay Lightning (LY: 5) – The early preseason pick to win the Eastern Conference. The Lightning are the defending Eastern champions and have assembled a strong team once again to make a long playoff run. Steve Stamkos is hungry for a Stanley Cup and this could be the year. Making back to back Cup finals is always a challenge but it is not unheard of. Considering the East is noticeable weaker still in comparison to the West, Tampa Bay could be in the midst of a short reign of terror.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins (LY: 15) – Dong…Dong….lights go black and here comes the Undertaker…oops I mean the Penguins. Here is a team, on paper at least, nobody wants to see come playoff time. For comparison, this would the biggest jump in rankings but the Penguins were a playoff team last year, have arguably the best player in the league and are consistently at or near the top of the standings. To say the Penguins are a playoff team is not much of a reach. Notwithstanding the playoff issues by goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, the true issue last season was injuries destroyed the Penguins defence. Flower actually played quite well in the playoff loss to the Rangers last season. Should the guys on D stay, relatively, healthy this season the Penguins should shoot back near the top of the Metro. The addition of Phil Kessel cannot be ignored and playing beside a stronger team could only help Kessel’s numbers. They have elite players who make this team a real threat. Similar to the presence the Undertaker had with opponents sometimes star struck looking across the ring at him, teams could have a similar feeling this season when they look across the ice and see the Penguins skating towards them. Black and yellow could reign supreme with a legit shot at being last team standing.
1. Anaheim Ducks (LY: 3) – The early season favourite among many hockey fans. While the Ducks may not be your favourite team, most fans enjoy watching them take the ice. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are entertaining and have incredible skills that make your jaw drop. This team brings back the core from last year’s Western Conference finalist team who gave Chicago all they could handle. I expect bigger and better from them this year. There are no main areas of weakness or concern for the Ducks either. This team has the swagger of a CM Punk and the mentality of being the “Best in the World”. Could this be the year we see the cup head back to California once again? The Ducks have the firepower to throw all 29 other teams over the boards on their own and claim the Stanley Cup.
The 30 teams are prepped. The ice has been freshly cleaned. The fans are chanting. Now is the time. Welcome to the NHL Royal Rumble!
Spark Sports Curling/NHL Analyst