Tampa Bay Times columnist Tom Jones previews the upcoming NHL season.
Best NHL player
Ask most people who the best player in the NHL is and they'll say Edmonton's Connor McDavid. Hard to argue with that pick. He won the scoring title last season and the Hart Trophy the season before that. And he's only 21. If you were starting a team right now, he has to be your first pick. But one last shoutout for the Penguins' Sidney Crosby. When you combine his talent and leadership, as well as his big-game capabilities, he must be considered the game's best player since the Gretzky-Lemieux era. And he still gets our vote (although, McDavid is really, really good).
The Lightning’s best player
Victor Hedman is coming off a Norris Trophy season. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy is the Lightning's most important player. And if we had just a little more conviction, we'd go out on a limb and pick Brayden Point because he is going to have a monster season. But the answer remains Nikita Kucherov and, if all goes as expected, he will post another 100-point season.
Three teams on the rise
New Jersey Devils: The Lightning dusted the Devils in the playoffs, but with MVP Taylor Hall, this team is going places.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Seems odd to say they're a team on the rise because they're already really good. But the addition of John Tavares moves them into elite territory. This team is good enough to win it all.
San Jose Sharks: Also, a really good team, having amassed 100 points last season. Now that they've added defenseman Erik Karlsson, the Sharks are the Western favorites. Maybe Cup favorites, too.
Three teams on the decline
Vegas Golden Knights: Still a solid team, but there's no way they can repeat their inaugural season success, right? Right? (Then again, a year ago in this space I said they would be awful and they had a good season.)
New York Islanders: Losing their best player (John Tavares to the Leafs in free agency) was a gut punch and it might take a while for new president/GM Lou Lamoriello to get things straightened out on Long Island or Brooklyn or wherever they call home these days.
Washington Capitals: These guys have been partying so hard since winning the Stanley Cup they might be drunk until next summer.
Three players you should pay more attention to
1. Oliver Ekman-Larsson (Coyotes). If this guy played in a big hockey market instead of hockey's graveyard of Arizona, he'd be considered a Norris Trophy candidate.
2. Anders Lee (Islanders). Bet you didn't realize he scored 40 goals for the Islanders last season. And 34 the season before that.
3. Johnny Gaudreau (Flames). Gets lost simply because the Flames are rarely on television in this part of the country.
Three teams whose fans are dying for a Cup
1. Lightning. Feels like this team should have won two in the past five years.
2. Predators. Pound-for-pound hockey's best team over past three seasons.
3. Leafs. Toronto hasn't won a Cup since 1967.
Can’t wait to see what happens next with …
Whatever happened to …
NHL’s top three teams by forwards (according to ESPN)
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
2. Toronto Maple Leafs
3. Pittsburgh Penguins
NHL’s top three teams by defense (according to ESPN)
1. San Jose Sharks
2. Nashville Predators
3. Winnipeg Jets
* Lightning ranked sixth
NHL’s top three teams by goalie tandems (according to ESPN)
1. Nashville Predators
2. Anaheim Ducks
3. Columbus Blue Jackets
* Lightning ranked fourth
Three coaches most likely to get fired
1. Guy Boucher (Senators)
2. Joel Quenneville (Blackhawks)
3. Todd McLellan (Oilers)
NHL team predictions
Eastern Conference playoffs: Lightning, Maple Leafs, Bruins, Capitals, Penguins, Blue Jackets, Devils, Flyers.
Western Conference playoffs: Sharks, Flames, Golden Knights, Jets, Predators, Blues, Stars, Wild.
Stanley Cup final: Lightning over Jets.
NHL individual predictions
Hart (MVP): John Tavares (Maple Leafs)
Norris (best defenseman): Erik Karlsson (Sharks)
Vezina (best goalie): Connor Hellebuyck (Jets)
Calder (best rookie): Elias Pettersson (Canucks)
Jack Adams (best coach): Jon Cooper (Lightning)
Three things that popped into my head about the NHL
1. The games between the Lightning and Maple Leafs this season will be among the best games in the NHL.
2. The NHL is always more interesting when the Original Six teams are really good. Unfortunately, for the NHL the Canadiens, Rangers, Red Wings and Blackhawks are falling on hard times — the Habs and Rangers, especially.
3 . It's also not a great time for hockey in Canada. My guess: only two Canadian team (the Leafs and Jets) make the playoffs, although the Flames and Oilers could make runs.
Three things that popped into my head about the Lightning
1. The Lightning will have finalists in four major awards: Jon Cooper for the Jack Adams, Victor Hedman for the Norris, Andrei Vasilevskiy for the Vezina and Nikita Kucherov for the Hart.
2. The Lightning will win the President's Trophy for most points.
3. And finally … this is it. This is the year. The Lightning wins the Stanley Cup.
Contact Tom Jones at email@example.com. Follow @tomwjones.