Finally…it’s…here. Feels like this off-season was extra long, doesn’t it? Maybe that’s because we’re enjoying such an exciting time in the NHL, with an explosion of new, uber-talented young stars, and we can’t wait to see them on the ice again. The time for theorizing and prognosticating is almost over. Almost. Let’s get one last round of predictions in, with a twist: they have to be a little bit out there. Think of these as predictions on steroids.
PATRIK LAINE LEADS THE LEAGUE IN GOALS – BY 10
At just 18 years old, Laine scored 36 goals in 73 games, good for a 0.49 goals per game, an average ranking him fourth in the NHL behind Sidney Crosby, Nikita Kucherov and Evgeni Malkin. Laine led the league with three hat tricks. His 36 snipes were the seventh-most all-time in a player’s age-18 season, and that doesn’t even tell the full story. If we adjust for era using hockey-reference.com’s system, Laine’s total inflates to 40. The six totals above him all occurred in the 1980s, and after we adjust them down, Laine’s 40 ranks second all-time behind only Wayne Gretzky’s 43 adjusted goals in 1979-80. Factoring in that Gretzky only missed one game that year, whereas Laine missed nine, there’s a case to be made Laine just had the greatest goal-scoring season ever by a kid who started the year 18 years old. Wow.
Now let’s consider that Laine finished tied for 54th in the league in shots on goal last year at 204. As he matures and adjusts further to the NHL, that total should climb along with his ice time. Laine also starts the year with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler as linemates. See where I’m going with this? Laine trends toward a gargantuan goal-scoring season. His ability to dart into shooting lines and unleash a remarkably fast and accurate release looks Brett Hull-like. His shot total in his rookie campaign didn’t reflect that of a true goal scorer. His teammates should feed him more this year, and he should get open more, too.
Laine shot the puck 2.79 times per game last season. If he shoots the puck about 20 percent more in 2017-18 and plays 82 games, his shot total will increase to about 275. Multiply that by his shooting percentage of 17.6 (.176) last season and you get 48 goals. Since this blog is all about exaggerated, bold predictions, I’ll give Laine 50 goals. And 40 were enough for second-best in the NHL last season. It wouldn’t take a comically big leap in production for Laine to score 50 as a sophomore and lap the field by a 10-spot.
THE VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS ARE THE WORST TEAM OF THE SALARY CAP ERA
Say what you want about Marc-Andre Fleury keeping the Golden Knights in games, or Jonathan Marchessault being a steal, or Vadim Schipachyov being a sleeper, or that veteran D-corps looking deep. General manager George McPhee and the Golden Knights passed on plenty of better available players and made oodles of side deals with desperate teams to acquire boatloads of draft picks this past summer. The goal seemed to be to tank and amass as many future assets as possible, with building a competitive year-1 squad merely a secondary objective. The Knights’ roster looks like one of the league’s weakest already, and let’s not forget this team has a truckload of pending UFAs, including Neal, Marchessault, David Perron and Jason Garrison. Theoretically, we could see McPhee sell each them off for more picks at the deadline, rendering the Golden Knights even less competitive for the balance of the season.
The Colorado Avalanche had 48 points last season, making them the worst team of the salary cap era and giving them the lowest point total since the Atlanta Thrashers’ inaugural season in 1999-00. That Avs team still had Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Tyson Barrie and Erik Johnson. Who do the Golden Knights have? I’m betting on them to fall short of the 48-point low watermark and set the new standard for cap-era futility. And that’s not a knock on McPhee’s plan, by the way. It’s a perfectly reasonable strategy.
THE LOS ANGELES KINGS TRADE DREW DOUGHTY
Again, we’re talking extreme predictions here. Without beating a dead horse – Doughty got hounded after my interview with him in which he mentioned, “I don’t give a s— where I play. I just want to win Cups, and that’s the bottom line.” It got taken out of context, of course, as he also said the Kings were his childhood team, that he loves playing there and that he’d love nothing more than to stay in L.A. for his whole career. Nevertheless, Doughty did make it clear he wants to play for a winner, and it doesn’t look like the Kings will be one anytime soon.
Because they had many years of sustained success over the past decade, including two Cup victories, the Kings haven’t enjoyed lofty draft positions and thus have one of the NHL’s least-promising farm systems. They are the victims of their own success. Ex-GM Dean Lombardi also rewarded his Cup-winning veterans with some massive contracts that have many years left and look pretty much untradeable, most notably Dustin Brown’s and Marian Gaborik’s. The Kings, then, will have a tough time trimming any dead weight while also lacking few top-end prospects to debut. They seem set to wallow in mediocrity for years to come. Will Doughty want to stay long-term, then? And if the Kings, whose biggest off-season addition was 35-year-old Mike Cammalleri, fall out of contention quickly this season, might GM Rob Blake start assessing which of his assets would yield the best packages of futures? Doughty would be the most sought-after piece in the entire league if he became available, and the return would be much bigger if the Kings shopped him this season, as the contender acquiring him would get 1.5 years of service.
It’s still far less likely than likely to happen, but a Doughty blockbuster suddenly isn’t the most unrealistic idea.
BRAYDEN POINT IS THE BREAKOUT STAR OF 2017-18
Can this little guy motor or what? Point is just 21 and already looks like a rich man’s version of his teammate Tyler Johnson. Point is shifty, creative, hardworking and versatile. He can line up on either wing or function as the Bolts second- or third-line center. He bounced all around Tampa’s lineup during the pre-season, sometimes getting looks on a super line with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. When Stamkos and Johnson were hurt down the stretch last year, Point discovered amazing chemistry with Kucherov and ended the season with nine goals and 16 points over 15 games. That hinted at the type of ceiling Point has, and he’ll move closer to it this season now that he’s earned coach Jon Cooper’s trust. Bet on Point to move all around the lineup as the Bolts find ways to maximize his ability – and for Point to become the league’s surprise star.
THE PITTSBURGH PENGUINS THREE-PEAT AS STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS
Huh? Picking the two-time defending champions to win the Cup is bold? Actually, it is. No team has three-peated in 35 years. The last team to do so was the New York Islanders, who four-peated and won 19 consecutive playoff series during their dynastic years. So, heck yeah, picking the Pens to win three straight Cups is going out on a limb.
How can they do it? The same way they did it last year. They entered 2016-17 with plenty of questions about playoff mileage in a league where no team repeated anymore, let alone three-peated. And yet, the Pens did what no team had done in 19 years and won it all again. They relied on (a) a top-heavy lineup anchored by superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, (b) outstanding goaltending from Matt Murray; (c) speedy, workmanlike forwards arriving from the AHL ready to play in coach Mike Sullivan’s up-tempo, north-south system, and (d) a D-corps that keeps it simple and gets pucks to the quick forwards in a hurry. What’s changed? The Pens definitely need a third-line center, but GM Jim Rutherford isn’t afraid to pursue such an upgrade. The Pens also get top blueliner Kris Letang back after he missed the whole 2016-17 playoff run. His return goes a long way toward offsetting the Pens’ losses. If Pittsburgh could do what wasn’t supposed to be doable last year, it can shock the world again this year.