This is your official spoiler warning for the 2023-24 NHL season. Everything you’re about to read is absolutely going to happen over the next several months.
OK, some of these things will probably happen. We think.
In my first column of the 2023-24 NHL season, I’ve made 32 bold predictions, one for each NHL team. They range from statistical achievements to awards predictions to goalie fights to Stanley Cup playoff prognostications.
Enjoy, and welcome back, hockey!
Boston makes the playoffs
It’s a bit surreal that this counts as a bold prediction. Outside of a two-year hiatus when coach Claude Julien was past his expiration date, the Bruins have had a 16-year run of consistent playoff appearances and success. But the constant in that run was Patrice Bergeron, and the captain hung up his skates in the offseason, prompting many to flee the Bruins’ bandwagon like Brad Marchand on a sinking ship.
While it’s true their forward group is the biggest doughnut this side of a Dunkin old-fashioned thanks to the departures of Bergeron and David Krejci, they still have Marchand, David Pastrnak and Jake DeBrusk on the wings. But the foundation of this team is in the back end: Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm devouring minutes in front of arguably the best goaltending battery in the NHL with Vezina Trophy winner Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman.
I have full faith that Jim Montgomery will find the right lane for this team to journey back to the postseason. And pride is a hell of a motivator: not only proving the doubters wrong post-Bergeron but also soothing their bruised egos after last postseason’s calamitous first-round upset by Florida.
The internet discovers JJ Peterka
John-Jason “JJ” Peterka, 21, had a solid rookie season with 32 points in 77 games, clicking with Jack Quinn and Dylan Cozens on a productive line for the Sabres. He skates well, has good hands and plays physically, which endeared him to Buffalo fans.
He’s also a bit of a goofball, handing out friendship bracelets and making “Samba De Janeiro” his official goal song last season. Every successful team needs its Tomas Hertl. I think JJ could be the guy for the Sabres, who wouldn’t shock me with a playoff appearance this season.
Lucas Raymond has his breakout
How many times have we seen this with a great young offensive player: solid rookie season, slight step back statistically and then BOOM in Year 3? Raymond had 23 goals and 57 points in 82 games as a 19-year-old rookie but saw those numbers fall to 17 and 45, respectively, as a second-year player, with his ice time dipping as well. A lower-body injury was a factor, but so was the sophomore slump.
Dylan Larkin said Raymond had “a chip on his shoulder” after last season, and the young winger had a strong summer of training to add muscle to his frame. To put in Detroit terms: I like the engine in this year’s model.
Patrick Kane joins the Panthers
Kane’s agent, Pat Brisson, recently told me that the winger’s rehab from hip-resurfacing surgery is going well, perhaps even better than expected. They’re both taking time to see how the standings shake out before committing anywhere as a free agent.
That Florida checked in on Kane this summer shouldn’t a surprise, as a lot of teams did. But I think this could be a solid landing spot for Kane on a contending team with opportunities on right wing behind Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart. Oh, and the weather’s not bad, either.
Kirby Dach becomes a solid No. 2 center
Dach played a lot of minutes on the wing last season, partnering with Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki to form a top line with offensive pop and little attention to defense before Caufield’s injury. But where the Habs need him to thrive is in the middle. Dach was drafted No. 3 overall in 2019 as a center by the Blackhawks, who eventually traded him when he couldn’t make the grade as a pivot. He’s matured a bit since then and found his groove in Montreal.
If they can get Dach to anchor his own line behind Suzuki, it’s for the betterment of the lineup. But for Dach to do that, he must stop getting absolutely cratered on faceoffs, with a 35.3% winning percentage (!) for his career.
They make the playoffs
I think the punditry was a year too early on the Senators, who had some people predicting a wild-card spot for them last season. I think this is the year.
Tim Stutzle is ready to level up to stardom, and Brady Tkachuk is as consistent as they come. Claude Giroux and Vladimir Tarasenko still have something to offer. If they can get any semblance of a complete season from Josh Norris, they’ll be in business offensively. Thomas Chabot, Jakob Chychrun and Jake Sanderson can all be anchors on the blue line. But what really has me excited is the goaltending battery. Anton Forsberg is the real deal. While I’m not enamored with Joonas Korpisalo‘s contract, I do like him as a 1A with Forsberg.
Positive vibes, forward momentum with new ownership and a playoff spot for the Senators — whether or not D.J. Smith is ultimately coaching them in the postseason.
They miss the playoffs
Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, Alex Killorn, Blake Coleman, Tyler Johnson, Ross Colton, Barclay Goodrow, Pat Maroon, Jan Rutta and Ryan McDonagh. All of them played on the Lightning’s 2021 Stanley Cup winner. None of them are on the 2023-24 roster. At some point, the attrition catches up with a franchise. We already saw it in the playoffs last season with Tampa Bay. At some point, a former champion becomes a top-heavy team in search of a supporting cast, like the late-day Penguins or Capitals.
I don’t think the Lightning have a solid one now. Reading between the lines, neither does GM Julien BriseBois: “I need to see how the pieces of the puzzle fit this year. I need to see who steps up and is ready to handle a bigger role. I need to see how the team performs,” he said, in reference to the contract negotiations that aren’t happening with captain Steven Stamkos.
Look, I want to be wrong here. I’m not ready to see the Lightning as anything but a Stanley Cup contender under Jon Cooper. Maybe it’s a step back before a leap forward. But if you’re asking me, “Which Atlantic Division team falls out so one of those bubbling under the surface makes the cut?” my answer is the Lightning.
Toronto wins two playoff rounds
I know, I know … dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria. The Leafs haven’t been to the conference final since 2002, losing to Carolina in a series that featured two current general managers (Ron Francis, Kevyn Adams) and one current coach (Rod Brind’Amour). But I think Toronto will have a run in the East for two reasons.
First, the Leafs have really figured themselves out defensively, finishing in the top 10 in 5-on-5 expected goals against last season. That defense is bolstered by what should be a solid goaltending battery of Ilya Samsonov and Joseph Woll (who I assume ascends to become the starter at some point).
The other reason is that the Atlantic is a little choppy: Boston’s diminished, Florida’s run last season could be anomalous, the Leafs beat the Lightning last season and are better than the trio of burgeoning contenders lower in the standings. Although, truth be told, better to just avoid the Spoked “B” in the postseason if we want this prediction to come through.
Brett Pesce isn’t traded
The Hurricanes have five defensemen facing unrestricted free agency next summer. Chief among them is Pesce, the 28-year-old minutes-munching blueliner entering his ninth year with Carolina.
This offseason, his name has bounced around the rumor mill like a ball on a roulette wheel — not only because of his contract status but also because he’s got enough value to bring that goal scorer this lineup needs the other way. But this isn’t the kind of trade the Hurricanes’ front office makes. It deals depth pieces, picks and prospects for veterans. And they aren’t in the business of diminishing their defense corps. So I think Pesce stays put and perhaps even re-signs.
Jarmo Kekalainen is fired before next offseason
The ominous statement from Blue Jackets ownership in the wake of Mike Babcock’s resignation made two things clear: that GM Jarmo Kekalainen might already be updating his LinkedIn if it wouldn’t have just added to the preseason distractions for the team, and that he will be judged on the team’s on-ice performance.
To put it diplomatically, I don’t expect the 2023-24 Columbus Blue Jackets to save his job. He’s signed through 2025, but given the Babcock debacle and the Jackets’ continued also-ran status, it’ll be another general manager overseeing the Adam Fantilli era.
Nico Hischier wins the Selke Trophy
It’s not as simple as “runner-up to Patrice Bergeron finally wins Patrice Bergeron’s award because Patrice Bergeron isn’t there to win it.” Although, yeah, that’s obviously going to help him and every other candidate who bumped their heads against a black-and-gold ceiling.
When Bergeron wasn’t winning, the Selke was usually handed to first-timers, as Anze Kopitar was the only repeat winner outside of Bergeron since 2011. Given how good the Devils should be and given how on-the-radar Hischier has become as an elite defensive center, this Swiss won’t miss at awards time.
Mathew Barzal grows his hair back
I’m SOBBING – a moment of silence because Mat Barzal’s long hair is gone 😭 pic.twitter.com/XM6d1Ljmhp
— hayls 💫 (@beauboesnbarzy) September 18, 2023
Samson was a biblical figure who once defeated a lion with his bare hands and defeated an army using the jawbone of a donkey. Which, if you’ve ever tried it, you know it ain’t easy. His superhuman power came from his long, lustrous hair; power that he lost when that hair was cut in his sleep.
I’m not sure if Barzal is familiar with this tale, having shorn his locks in the offseason. Perhaps he’s just decided to change the vibe or signal a new maturity by going from “generic cover model for a hockey romance novel” to “Sidney Crosby cos-player.” It was only a matter of time before the follicle repression of Lou Lamoriello crushed his flow, I guess. Prediction: Barzal is back to full mane by March. Unfortunately, we don’t think Rangers star Artemi Panarin‘s hair will grow back.
Kaapo Kakko takes flight
The Rangers’ Kid Line has been fun to watch for the past two seasons, but they’re going to be all grown up in new coach Peter Laviolette’s lineup. The new bench boss has indicated that Alexis Lafreniere will play big minutes on right wing, which is his off wing. More importantly, it appears that Kakko is going to see more top-line time with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad.
This is a good thing for the Rangers: Kakko helped that line to its best balance of offense and defense at 5-on-5 last season. This is also a good thing for Kakko, the 22-year-old Finn who finally showed up on the score sheet last season (18 goals, 22 assists in 82 games). He drives play like few Rangers forwards do. What he really needs for his stats to pop is power-play time, as Kakko averaged only 53 seconds per game with the man advantage. He lamented that fact after last season’s elimination by the Devils. Hopefully Laviolette gives him the chance.
Sean Couturier will be comeback player of the year
Let’s go back to the before times to those halcyon days of 2019-20. After being in the conversation for a few seasons, Couturier wins the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward. He follows that season with 41 points in 45 games during the COVID-shortened campaign. But then a back injury fells him in 2021-22 … and then a second back surgery puts him on the shelf for the entire 2022-23 season.
After missing 135 games of a once-dominant NHL career, Couturier is back in Flyers camp and GM Daniel Briere says he’s healthy. In a season that isn’t exactly going to provide many highlights for the commemorative Blu-Ray, Couturier’s return — and return to form — could be one of them.
Erik Karlsson plays “completely”
The last time Karlsson appeared in the Stanley Cup playoffs was 2019 with the Sharks. Since then, he’s toiled on a rebuilding also-ran team, amassing 101 points to win the Norris Trophy last season for the third time. What’s eluded him in his career is a Stanley Cup championship, or even playing for one. He comes to Pittsburgh knowing the Penguins’ window is barely open.
I’ve often wondered what Karlsson looks like in an environment that’s about looking at the playoff standings rather than side-eyeing a lottery machine. I don’t think he’ll break 100 points again, even if the Penguins’ power play might get him close. What I do think happens is that the detractors of Karlsson’s defensive game see someone playing a more complete style than was demanded in San Jose, passing the eye test and the metrics.
In some ways, he’ll be more “Norris-worthy” than he was in winning last season. But that’s seemingly always how that works out, isn’t it?
Alex Ovechkin will score his 850th career goal on Jan. 18, 2024, against the Blues
Hey, you wanted bold predictions, right? Ovechkin has 822 career goals, No. 2 all time and within spitting distance of Wayne Gretzky’s NHL record of 894 goals. His next arbitrary milestone is hitting 850 career goals.
We looked at the past three complete seasons for Ovechkin and averaged out the number of games it took him to score his 28th goal in all of them. Hence, we boldly predict that Ovechkin will score goal No. 850 on Jan. 18, 2024, against Jordan Binnington and the Blues. It’s a home game, so please set your prices on the resale market accordingly.
André Tourigny gets a Jack Adams nomination
“The Coyotes are a fascinating team” is inherent, as no other NHL team can boast that it plays home games in an NCAA rink named “The Mullett” (and has no idea where it might play those games three years from now). But that goes for on the ice as well.
There’s a lot to like here, and the offseason additions that GM Bill Armstrong made — Sean Durzi and Matt Dumba on defense, Jason Zucker up front, lucking out that rookie Logan Cooley got restless about starting in the NHL — were uniformly good. Karel Vejmelka and Connor Ingram both played well above replacement level last season in goal.
All of this is to say that the Coyotes are going to really improve on last season’s point total. If they get a sniff of the playoffs, I wonder whether Tourigny doesn’t get some awards love. He’s well-liked. And he wouldn’t be the first coach to get extra credit for doing well despite the Coyotes being the Coyotes (see: Tocchet, Rick, and Tippett, Dave).
Connor Bedard scores at least 35 goals
I’ve seen Bedard asked a dozen times what his personal expectations are for his rookie season. He usually answers with some variation of “I have to make the team first,” which is as endearing as it is annoying.
So let’s set the bar for him from a goal-scoring perspective. Auston Matthews, to whom Bedard’s incredible shot has been compared, netted 40 goals in 82 games in his rookie season to win the Calder Trophy — although keep in mind that Matthews played a season of pro hockey in Switzerland before reaching the NHL.
One Canadian sportsbook set Bedard’s total at 32.5 goals for wagering purposes. So we’ll set the bar at 35 goals, which would be the sixth-highest total for a rookie in the past 30 years. We might go even higher if the Blackhawks hadn’t stripped their roster down to the foundations in order to, you know, draft Connor Bedard.
Cale Makar scores 102 points
I could have predicted something nice and tidy like Cale Makar winning the Norris Trophy, which I assume he will, being the best defenseman in the league. But what’s the fun in that?
Instead, in my head canon, Makar is motivated by Erik Karlsson posting 101 points and winning the Norris last season, puts the pedal down and flips the nitro switch offensively. His previous high was 86 points in 77 games back in 2021-22, which nets out to around 92 points in an 82-game season. He’s got a Cup, a Conn Smythe and a Norris already. Everyone needs a new hobby.
Jake Oettinger wins the Vezina
There are a few factors pointing to Oettinger as a potential Vezina winner this season.
I expect the Stars would win the Central Division, and typically the Vezina is handed to the backstop of a successful team. While the Stars would be smart not to run him into the ground like they did in the stretch of last season, he’ll get the kind of workload that puts him into the Vezina conversation. With better usage, his numbers could be even better than his .919 save percentage last season.
He’s on the radar, finishing fifth for the award last season and getting another run of postseason heroics to his credit. Plus, the goalies in the East might eat into each other’s votes, leaving Oettinger to be the darling of the West.
Bill Guerin becomes a sneaky seller
The Wild have eight pending unrestricted free agents, including some franchise stalwarts: Mats Zuccarello, Marcus Foligno, Ryan Hartman, Alex Goligoski and Marc-Andre Fleury. All of them save for Hartman are over 30 years old. (He’s 29.) The Wild are one of those teams stuck in hockey purgatory: They haven’t advanced past the first round since 2015; and they remain in a salary-cap pickle of their own making, with $14,743,588 in dead cap space in each of the next two seasons because of the buyouts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
Given their cap situation and their being stuck in a tier below the elite, could we see Guerin get aggressive in trying to reshape his roster? Could he pull a Doug Armstrong, say “not this year,” and become a surprise seller at the deadline? Seeing how the cap crunch has handcuffed him, that’s not out of the question.
Nashville makes the playoffs
This season is going one of two ways for the Predators. The good vibes of new GM Barry Trotz and new head coach Andrew Brunette, combined with a roster that has only eight players over the age of 30, help Nashville find locate some offensive swagger to complement goaltender Juuse Saros and earn a playoff spot.
Or the roster doesn’t generate enough goals, forcing Trotz to do something dramatic like trading Saros at the deadline with one year left on his contract and Yaroslav Askarov ready to become the next great Nashville goalie. I choose to believe the former.
Jordan Binnington gets his first fighting major
Oh, he came close. The fiery netminder earned a match penalty and a two-game suspension for punching Ryan Hartman of the Wild with his blocker during a game last season. Marc-Andre Fleury was already upset with Binnington, having heard from a teammate that the Blues goalie said, “hit them in the nuts, in the nutsack” earlier in the game. After the Hartman incident, Fleury skated over to potentially fight Binnington, only to be intercepted by the linesman. Booooo!
Binnington is still Binnington. He’s still going to yap at opponents, still going to provoke them on the ice, still going to be a vigilante in his own crease. This is the season that it all leads to him dropping his gloves and earning the first fighting major of his career. And let’s go even bolder: It won’t be against another goalie!
Connor Hellebuyck re-signs in Winnipeg
How’s this for a swerve? Connor Hellebuyck and Mark Scheifele were being fan-cast all summer onto different NHL rosters during an anticipated Jets fire sale ahead of the pair’s unrestricted free agency. Instead, they’re both going to start the season in Winnipeg.
It’s still possible Scheifele moves before the deadline — if he doesn’t want to re-sign, a center of his caliber could bring back a whale of a return in trade — but I’m thinking Hellebuyck sticks around. As I like to say, his stuff is there: Hellebuyck has played all eight seasons in Winnipeg. Their cap is set up to increase his salary handsomely on a new deal.
Yeah, it’d be fun to see him become someone else’s franchise goaltender. But why crush expectations when the Jets are having a moment — I mean, look at Aaron Rodgers …
Ducks’ anniversary jersey becomes their primary one
OK, granted, this is a long-range bold prediction — and frankly, maybe more of a hope than anything else, as an vowed hater of the webbed “D” jerseys.
The gorgeous color scheme. The snarly Wild Wing on the middle of the crest. Just drop the small “D” logo for the classic double-sticks Ducks logo and you’ve got yourself a sweater befitting Generation Zegras.
Andrew Mangiapane has a monster rebound year
Mangiapane does not shoot 9.3%. His career shooting percentage is 14.9%. His shooting percentage over the two seasons leading up to 2022-23 was over 18.9%. He netted 35 goals in 82 games in 2021-22, the third straight season his goal total climbed.
Then last season happened: 17 goals, his lowest total in four seasons, with that 9.3% shooting percentage on 182 shots. Turns out there may have been a reason for that: Mangiapane had a shoulder injury dating back to last October. He now claims to be “100% fully healthy and everything like that.”
So, using our incredible powers of deduction, a healthy Mangiapane likely means there won’t be a repeat of that 9.3% performance this season. Get ready for the rebound.
The Oilers will play for the Stanley Cup
I remain convinced that the Oil have a Cup run in them. With a deadline addition or two to bolster what’s already a strong lineup, I’ll be even more convinced. But I’m not quite ready to hand the Cup to McDavid yet. I still have to figure out the East. So with that established: Edmonton wins the West and plays for the Cup. Stay tuned to find out what happens next.
Cam Talbot proves to be the answer
When I spoke to GM Rob Blake this offseason, we discussed how the Golden Knights won the Stanley Cup by throwing as many goalies as they could at their problem until they got the best six weeks of Adin Hill‘s life in the postseason. The Kings are kind of doing the same thing here: running it back with Pheonix Copley, bringing on Cam Talbot, having David Rittich waiting in the wings. Heck, they could do what they did last season and add another netminder at the deadline, too.
But could Talbot become what they need?
He was slightly below replacement over the past two seasons, which were good ones in Minnesota (.911 save percentage) and a horror show in Ottawa (.898) after he was traded there. But he can be average in Los Angeles because the Kings are so good in front of their goalies: second in expected goals against at 5-on-5 last season. That didn’t amount to much in front of their goaltending for most of 2022-23, as the Kings ranked 22nd in team save percentage.
If Talbot can get them some saves, they’ll do the rest at even strength — and then maybe they have their Adin Hill.
The Sharks win the draft lottery
Fun fact: The Sharks have never won an NHL draft lottery. Of course, for most of their existence the Sharks couldn’t win the lottery because they missed the playoffs only four times from 1995 to 2019.
But San Jose hasn’t made the playoffs in four straight seasons, and coming off last year’s .366 points percentage campaign, there’s no reason to expect that trend to reverse. It’s a fallen titan in the West whose popularity has fallen off a cliff with the locals — average attendance at the Shark Tank has dipped under 14,000 in consecutive seasons.
The franchise is in desperate need of some kind of focus, direction or clear selling point. Just the kind of thing Macklin Celebrini could provide as the first overall pick in 2024.
The Kraken take a step back
The Kraken were seventh in the NHL last season in PDO, which is a combined measurement of shooting percentage and save percentage and is often paired with the term “regression.” In the case of the Kraken, they had a .907 save percentage at 5-on-5 last season, good for 23rd in the NHL, and a 10.3% shooting percentage, by far the best in the league. (No other team was in double digits.)
Their goaltending remains in the hands of Philipp Grubauer, Joey Daccord and Chris Driedger. Grubauer was brilliant in the playoffs. He was not in the regular season. Were it not for Martin Jones, now with the Maple Leafs, the Kraken probably don’t make the playoffs. But they got enough goaltending and then got blisteringly good shooting.
Can they do it again? Well, the Blues (10.42) and Wild (10.17) were both in double digits in 2021-22; in the following season, the Blues dropped a bit (9.60) and the Wild dropped like an anvil thrown from on top of the Xcel Energy Center (7.69). I think the Kraken are due for a shooting regression; the question is how much — and how much of a chunk it will take out of their 3.52 goals per game average last season, which was fourth in the league.
The Elias Pettersson contract speculation will loom over everything
GM Patrik Allvin says there’s no rush. Elias Pettersson points out that he’s got a year left on his contract before becoming a restricted free agent, which means the Canucks have him controlled for two more years. Yet his long-term status with the team overshadows everything else happening in Vancouver.
What does he need to see from the Canucks before committing to a big-year deal? What more do the Canucks need to see from him before committing big dollars? Every win, every loss, every move, every decision — what does it mean for Petey? Probably not great for his focus this season but an absolute boon to the Vancouver media industry.
Logan Thompson reclaims the crease
Adin Hill earned three things last June: a Stanley Cup championship ring, a $9.8 million contract extension and the ability to earn appearance fees at Las Vegas-area sports memorabilia shops in perpetuity.
What he didn’t earn was the crease going forward — or if he did, I fully expect that Logan Thompson is going to overtake him like an invading force sieging a fortress (to put it in Knights terms).
Thompson was an All-Star last season. As a rookie! Isn’t that wild? He started the season 12-4-0 and was lights-out for most of it. But his stats declined before two injuries basically cost him his season after Jan. 28. He’d make only two starts after that and was shut down after March 23. He showed enough last season to make his case as a starter. That playoff hero Hill has been complementary goalie throughout his career makes this prediction even more solid.