Mike Harrington's NHL Preview: A hat trick of questions for each division - The Buffalo News

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Mike Harrington's NHL Preview: A hat trick of questions for each division

ATLANTIC

Do the Lightning bounce back with Steven Stamkos?

Tampa Bay closed last season 8-1-1 and finished with 94 points – one shy of the playoffs even though Stamkos was done for the year in mid-November after knee surgery. The Bolts might have made a deep run last year had they just gotten in. Nikita Kucherov was a 40-goal, 85-point man and should continue to flourish. Two X-factors: Rookie defenseman Mikhail Sergachev came in a trade from Montreal and Andrei Vasilevskiy takes over as the No. 1 goaltender with Ben Bishop off to Dallas. Both need to thrive.

Will the Leafs sophomores get jinxed or blow up even more?

Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander combined for 81 goals last year. History says watch for a step back but Marner and especially Matthews are so talented that most observers say the Leafs can buck the odds. Matthews was a 40-goal man as a rookie. You wonder how close he can get to 50. You also wonder how a middling defense and up-and-down goaltender like Frederik Andersen will fare now that there's legitimate expectations on this club for the first time in years. The league's longest Stanley Cup drought has gone past the 50-year mark, and president Brendan Shanahan, GM Lou Lamoriello and coach Mike Babcock are as obsessed as the fans are in ending all the wistful talk of 1967 once and for all.

Are the Senators a threat or was last spring a fluke?

It's still hard to believe Ottawa was a goal from playing for the Stanley Cup, losing at Pittsburgh in double overtime of Game 7 of the East final. Coach Guy Boucher's ice-choking style took hold, Craig Anderson was solid in goal and Erik Karlsson became as impactful on games as Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid. Now the reality check: Karlsson had surgery on his foot in June and won't be ready for the opener, the Senators were 22nd in scoring and had a minus-2 goal differential last season – and the 78-point, Dan Bylsma-led Sabres were 4-0-1 against them. They're a huge step-back candidate.

METROPOLITAN

What will it take for the Penguins to three-peat?

The league's first repeat champions since 1997 are trying for the first three-peat since the Islanders strung four from 1980-83. There's plenty of star power, of course, plus the return of newly minted playoff hero Jake Guentzel. And don't forget they won a Cup without Kris Letang in the playoffs. The real storyline: It's Matt Murray's crease and there's no fallback to Marc-Andre Fleury if an injury or slump crops up. New backup Antti Niemi somehow won a Cup in Chicago but it would be tough to go to him for any length of time. Barring major injuries in the lineup, Murray will be the biggest reason the Pens stay where they are or fall off their perch.

Are the Capitals taking a step back?

Repeating the most incredible stat we've seen when folks say tanking brings automatic success: Washington has never even made it to the East final – let alone play for a Cup – in Alex Ovechkin's 12 seasons. Four of the Caps' last five playoff exits have been in Game 7, including last year's second-round crusher against Pittsburgh that rendered a 118-point season moot. The Caps have averaged 113 points the last three seasons with nothing to show for it. Their defense depth is a question mark with the losses of Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt. They had to dump Marcus Johansson to New Jersey in a cap move. Ovechkin turned 32 on Sept. 17 and is coming off a pedestrian 33-goal, 69-point season. And how are they mentally after another playoff failure? Their window seems to be closing.

Is this it for John Tavares in Brooklyn?

Last week's announcement that the Islanders want to build a mega arena near Belmont Park and be out of the gleaming but not-for-hockey Barclays Center by 2020 certainly gives hope for the future. But it's anybody's guess if the captain sticks around to see it. The longer Tavares goes without a contract extension, the louder the speculation will grow about his pending free agency and what might happen at the trade deadline. Tavares is in the final year of a six-year, $33 million deal but buyer beware: He has averaged only 31 goals and 72 points over the last four years. Tavares-to-Toronto talk certainly won't cool if the hometown boy remains unsigned.

CENTRAL

Can the Predators do it again?

No reason to think otherwise. Nashville was a team that didn't mesh well until about February last year but the Preds really took off, all the way to Game 6 of the Cup final with thousands of gold-clad fans filling Broadway in a show of support the league has never seen. And they got there without the injured Ryan Johansen and Kevin Fiala too. But key defenseman Ryan Ellis is out until January after knee surgery and goaltender Pekka Rinne is 34 and on a quick turnaround from the long grind that went into June. They can't overuse him. Perhaps the biggest subtraction? Phil Housley. P.K. Subban & Co. loved the Sabres' new coach and now have to move on without him.

Is there one more run left for the Blackhawks?

Chicago won its third Stanley Cup in six seasons in 2015 but has been a first-round loser the last two years, with last year's 109-point division champions swept by Nashville. The Hawks felt they were soft in the spring so shipped Artemi Panarin to Columbus to reacquire Brandon Saad. Hmmm. No way Patrick Kane liked seeing the most prolific linemate of his career go. Stalwarts Marian Hossa (equipment allergy) and Niklas Hjalmarsson (free agency) are both gone and blueline workhorses Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith are 32 and 34, respectively. How much mileage do they have left? A big splash from 5-foot-7 former Erie Otters scoring star Alex DeBrincat would really help.

Can Ken Hitchcock go home again to Dallas?

The Stars would love to party like it's 1999 all over again with their old coach now their new coach. Two years ago, they won the Central and led the NHL in goals. Last year, Lindy Ruff was sent packing thanks mostly to injuries and brutal goaltending. The team is healthy now, Alexander Radulov and Martin Hanzal were signed in free agency while defenseman Marc Methot and goalie Ben Bishop were acquired in trades. Ruff has to be shaking his head at the timing of it all. GM Jim Nill torpedoed Ruff with inactivity but has set up Hitchcock, adding all that to a team that already features Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and John Klingberg. The Stars will shine again.

PACIFIC

Will Connor McDavid take the Oilers over the top?

Patrick Kane won a Stanley Cup in year three and Sidney Crosby lost in the Cup final in his third season. Now comes No. 3 for McDavid, which could be quite the encore to his 100-point, Hart Trophy-winning sophomore campaign. Of course, McDavid and Leon Draisaitl now have huge expectations upon them, something that was not the case at the start of last year. But a 103-point season and a Game 7 loss to the Ducks in the second round changes that. Until last spring, the Oilers had an NHL-high 10 straight seasons out of the playoffs. They won't be missing the party again anytime soon.

Will the Ducks ever get back to a Cup final? 

Only the Penguins (33) and Lightning (25) have more playoffs wins over the last three seasons than the Ducks' 24 but Anaheim hasn't represented the West in the season's final showdown since winning it all in 2007. The Ducks have averaged 108 points over the last four years and have won the division for the last five but never get the job done in the spring. The lineup is still super deep but Corey Perry's sudden drop to 19 goals has to be a concern. Old friend Ryan Miller backs up John Gibson and this is easily his best Cup chance since the '07 Sabres.

Does Patrick Marleau's trek to Toronto signal end of an era for the Sharks? 

The run to the 2016 Cup final against Pittsburgh actually muddles the San Jose picture some, when you consider the Sharks haven't won the division since 2011 and have finished no better than third four times in the last five years. But losing a 19-year mainstay like Marleau is a huge blow to a team already aging. Joe Thornton is 38 while Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns are 32 and Marc-Edouard Vlasic is 30.  Bills fan extraordinaire Logan Couture, 28, is coming off a 25-goal, 52-point season and needs to take on an even bigger role. The Sharks were first-round losers to the Oilers last year and might struggle to get in the playoffs at all this time. Coach Peter DeBoer went through a similar Cup-and-bust scenario in New Jersey and will try to stem a similar tide.

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