There’s a crushing irony in a team named the Lightning getting shocked, but that’s exactly what happened last spring when Tampa Bay was swept by Columbus in the first round of the playoffs. The Presidents’ Trophy winners had the Hart Trophy and Vezina Trophy victors in their lineup in Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy, respectively, but the Blue Jackets tore them down. Is it too simplistic to call this season a revenge mission? Maybe not.
Tampa Bay already had a chip on its shoulder after blowing a 3-2 series lead on Washington back in 2017-18, so imagine how focused the Lightning will be now. That, plus the Bolts’ star power– we haven’t even mentioned Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos or Brayden Point – is why we’re picking Tampa Bay to win the Stanley Cup in 2020. Its opponent? Another team with redemption on its mind.
The Vegas Golden Knights should have lived longer in the playoffs last year, but a blown call due to a freak injury to San Jose’s Joe Pavelski opened the door for mayhem in Game 7 of the first round. The Sharks scored four times during a five-minute major to Cody Eakin (one of Vegas’ top penalty-killers) and triumphed 5-4 in overtime. In the aftermath, the Golden Knights fumed at their fate. But with a full season of Mark Stone on their side and a lineup still built to scorch the West in the playoffs, expect Vegas to at least get partial satisfaction as it rolls through its side of the bracket. The Golden Knights have the speed and skill to match anyone, plus heaviness (courtesy of Ryan Reaves and a bruising defense corps) and a stud goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury.
There will be stiff competition at the top of the Pacific Division, however. We believe the Calgary Flames will actually win the regular-season banner thanks to a great returning core and an ascending Matthew Tkachuk. As for the Milan Lucic deal…well, James Neal only had seven goals last season, and he doesn’t even fight, so the bar is low. Otherwise, there’s a steep drop-off after San Jose.
The Central Division, on the other hand, looks lethal once again. That’s why we predict only three playoff teams to come out of the Pacific. As last year proved with the worst-to-champion St. Louis Blues, order is a strange thing in the Central. Any permutation of teams could come out of this group, and it wouldn’t surprise us. But we did have to take a shot at it anyway.
The same can be said over in the Metropolitan Division, where forecasting a scattershot group of teams proved most difficult after Washington. Are the Penguins finally toast? Have the Rangers done enough to be a playoff team right away? Who still plays for Columbus? All good questions with no definitive answer.
Over in the Atlantic, the demarcation is a little more obvious. Tampa Bay is the clear frontrunner again and must now figure out how to get locked in for the playoffs when the final two months of the regular season are meaningless. The Toronto Maple Leafs could do the Lightning a favor by chasing them for the top playoff seed, but the Buds have post-season demons of their own. Speaking of which, the Boston Bruins are still an elite team, ready to give the rest of the East fits once again. After that, it gets interesting. Can the Florida Panthers ride new recruit Sergei Bobrovsky and coach Joel Quenneville into the playoffs? Where do the Montreal Canadiens fit? And should we talk about the Ottawa Senators, or is that just cruel?
In the following pages, we break everything down. For a list of players who were still UFAs as of late July, check out pg. 185. Otherwise, flip to find out what your favorite team’s fate will be this season. – Ryan Kennedy