NHL SEASON PREVIEW

The complete guide to the 2018-19 NHL season

Alex Ovechkin and the Caps are pointing for another title. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

I know there is not a ton of interest in the NHL in Houston, but eventually we will get a team, and there are a few fans out there from other cities who enjoy the sport. So this is for the few of you out there who are interested. If you are looking at teams that might wind up moving here, your best bets are Carolina, Calgary, Arizona and Ottawa.

This should be an interesting season. The Toronto Maple Leafs and San Jose Sharks made the biggest off-season splashes, with the Leafs adding John Tavares in free agency and the Sharks making a megadeal for superstar defensemen Erik Karlsson. 

We are going to break the teams down by tiers: Serious Stanley Cup contenders, potential surprises, long shots and in the hunt for Jack Hughes, the latest "generational talent" who is the consensus No. 1 pick. (He is also American, as the game is really taking off in the states). Without futher ado, here we go:

STANLEY CUP CONTENDERS

Realistically, this tier includes the Big 4 in the West, and six teams in the East -- the Big 3 in the Atlantic Division of Tampa, Toronto and Boston, and the winners of the last three Cups, Washington last year and Pittsburgh the two prior. Plus one surprise. This is in no particular order, and we start with the West:

Nashville Predators, Central Division: The Preds have everything you need to win a Stanley Cup -- solid up the middle, elite defense and elite goaltending. Except there are question marks with the last one. Pekke Rinne won the Vezina as best goaltender in the regular season, but for the second year in a row he was shaky in the playoffs, and it held the Preds back. If regular season Rinne shows up, this team has a huge shot. If not? Perhaps the goaie of the future, Juuse Saaros could step in. The Preds have the deepest defense in the league -- maybe not the best overall anymore after San Jose's trade for Karlsson --  but  they have four legitimate top pairing guys. They will be part of a familiar theme -- they will go as far as Rinne can take them.

Winnipeg Jets, Central Division: Finished right behind the Preds last season and are one of the most exciting young teams in the league. Patrik Laine is already an elite goal scorer in his third year. Perhaps no other team can boast the wing players the Jet have. Besides Laine, underrated Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers give the Jets some of the most explosive players in the league. The big key was the emergence of Connor Hellebuyk as one of the best goalies in the league. If he repeats that, the Jets can win the Cup.

San Jose Sharks, Pacific Division: The Sharks missed out on Tavares, but struck gold with Karlsson, who might be the best defenseman in the NHL. If not, it could be his new teammate, Brent Burns, or the incredibly solid Marc Edouard Vlasic. The Sharks might not be as deep as the Preds on D, but they are more dynamic at the top. The forwards are aging, but this team made a run at the Cup as recently as 2016, and Karlsson carried Ottawa to within one game of the Cup a year later. If Joe Thornton is healthy, this could be an amazing year for the Sharks.

Las Vegas Golden Knights, Pacific Division: What the Knights did last year as an expansion team was simply amazing. They made it to the Cup Finals on the strength of quality defense, strong team hockey and amazing goaltending from Marc-Andre Fluery. They will mis James Neal (25 goals, 19 assists) but upgraded by fleecing Montreal for quality forward Max Pacioretty. The Knights have assets to make more moves, and T Mobile Arena proved to be a terrific home ice advantage. Sure, there could be some regression, but what they did was not smoke and mirrors, and they will be in play for any major trade deadline asset.

Washington Capitals, Metro Division: Has there ever been a more fun Stanley Cup champion than the Caps and Alex Ovechkin? It was cool to see the greatest goal scorer of his era finally life the Cup. It came in a year where the Caps were not expected to do it -- they had lost several key players from the team that had been ousted in back to back years by the Pens, but they pulled together and goalie Braden Holtby was huge in the playoffs. Essentially the same group returns, and if Holtby can play at an elite level -- he struggled late in the regular season and was replaced before getting it together in the playoffs -- they could make another run.

Pittsburgh Penguins, Metro Division: The Pens were unable to make it three Cups in a row last year, but they still have two of the top players in the league in Sydney Crosby and Geno Malkin, giving them as much depth up the middle as any team. Goalie Matt Murray will need to play better, but the Penguins will be a factor as long as Crosby is heathy.

Tampa Bay Lightning, Atlantic Division: Tampa might have the most complete roster in all of hockey. There is forward depth on all four lines, an elite goal scorer in Nikita Kucherov (39 goals, 61 assists), terrific defensemen and a top-notch goalie. There is no excuse for this team not to be in the mix every year. Still, something always seems to be missing. Steven Stamkos might be the most unimpressive superstar in the league. Perhaps it is injuries, but he also has yet to raise his game in the playoffs when it counts.  If he can do that, the Lightning will win the Cup in the next three years, maybe this year.

Boston Bruins, Atlantic Division:  The Bruins might be the most under the radar Cup contender. They were one win away from winning the division last year. They might have the best top line in hockey, plus a talented mix of veterans and young developing stars on the back end. The key for them will be goalie Tukka Rask, who is capable of elite play, but also inconsistent. If he can play his best in the playoffs, this team could easily go the distance.

Toronto Maple Leafs, Atlantic Division: (Disclaimer - HUGE Leafs fan here) One of the most dynamic teams in hockey last year added another dynamic piece in John Tavares, one of the top players in the league. Their forward groups led by young stars Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner with Tavares in the mix gives the Leafs incredible depth and forward talent. Goalie Frederik Andersen is durable and talented. The only question is the same as it has been the last few years - are they good enough on defense? While lacking a true No. 1 D, Morgan Reilley and Jake Gardiner could still develop into that, and young players like Travis Dermott should only get better. Longterm they have a couple Swedish draft picks -- Timothy Lillegren and Rasmus Sandin  -- who could develop into stars. Nylander remains unsigned, but they have enough talent to fade a holdout. Serious contenders.

Florida Panthers, Atlanta Division: Here's your surprise; the Panthers were one of the best teams in hockey over the second half and with a better start this year could be serious contenders. They have terrific forward depth, solid defense and the only real question is ancient goalie Roberto Luongo, who can still play at a high level. The Panthers also have a quality backup in James Reimer. If those two can carry the day, the Panthers could shock the world.

POTENTIAL SURPRISES

Colombus Blue Jackets, Metro Division: The Jackets had the Cup champs down 2-0 in the playoffs last season before falling apart. Strong on defense and in goal, the Jackets are capable of stealing playoff series. They are solid at forward, but lack the depth and explosiveness of the top contenders. Could ride goalie Sergei Bobrovsky a long way and that would be their path to a surprise Cup.

Philadelphia Flyers, Metro Division: The Flyers have almost everything you need to be a Cup contender. A talented and explosive forward group, a stable of young defensemen, and enough talent to make a serious run. The problem? In goal. They simply do not have a goalie on the roster capable of carrying the team. They have one of the best goalie prospects in hockey in Carter Hart, and if he is everything they think and can take over the net at some point this year, this team could make a run.

Calgary Flames, Pacific: This team disappointed last year, which meant trades and a coaching change. They sent stellar defenseman Dougie Hamilton to Carolina in a deal that brought back Noah Hanifan, a younger, more rugged D man who has star potential. They also added former Golden Knight James Neal. This could be the year young star Johnny Gaudreau takes his game to the next level. As with many, the question is in goal. Mike Smith is effective when healthy, but he is rarely that. If he can have a flashback year, this team could not only make the playoffs but make a run.

LA Kings, Pacific: The Kings have not been all that great since their most recent Stanley Cup in 2014. But they still have a top D man in Drew Doughty, goalie in Jonathan Quick and enough forward talent to be competitive. They signed former NHL star and recent KHL monster Ilya Kovalchuk. If he can turn back the clock and add some much-needed scoring punch, the Kings could be back in the mix in the West.

Edmonton Oilers, Central: Edmonton collapsed last year after a run to the playoffs in 2016-17. They have the best player on the planet in Connor McDavid, but for some reason they just did not seem to mesh last year and goalie Cam Talbot regressed. A true wild card; McDavid can win games on his own, and if Talbot finds his game, they could be dangerous. If not, the Oilers could easily miss the playoffs again in a stacked Western Conference.

Chicago Blackhawks, Central: Would not be surprised if the 'Hawks got back in the mix this season. They were rolling right along until they lost goalie Corey Crawford. His health remains a serious question mark. With him, they can compete with the best. Without? They can't keep the puck out of the net. The defense is not as good as it was during the Cup years, so Crawford is needed more than ever. Still, they boast some of the best forwards in the game and it would be hard to see them miss the playoffs again.

 St. Louis Blues, Central: The Blues are always solid, but seem a tick below the top teams. Vladimir Tarasenko is an amazing goal scorer, and the Blues revamped their centers in the offseason. The defense is above average, but goalie Jake Elliot is inconsistent and probably will lose his job at some point and gain it back. Potential to make the playoffs, but without some more moves that appears to be the ceiling.

Anaheim Ducks, Pacific: It was not long ago the Ducks were serious Cup contenders. But they are getting older and forward Corey Perry will be out several months. They have some talented young defensemen and are solid in goal, but without Perry it will be an uphill battle.

LONG SHOTS

Arizona Coyotes, Pacific: The Coyotes played very well over the second half of the season, which you probably did not notice after a rough start. They picked up Alex Galchenyuk as part of the Montreal fire sale, a talented player who should fare better with Arizona. The key down the stretch was solid goalie play from Antti Raanta.  Because of that, they have become a chic playoff pick in the West. The bad news? The conference is stacked. They will be better, but will it be enough to oust another team from the playoffs?

Buffalo Sabres, Atlantic: The Sabres added an all-world defense prospect with the No. 1 pick in Rasmus Dahlen. They also have a budding young star in Jack Eichel and acquired a legitimate scoring winger in Jeff Skinner. Will it be enough? Probably not in terms of the playoffs, at least this year. The biggest question remain in goal, where Carter Hutton becomes the latest saviour. Will be better, but still probably not a playoff team yet.

Carolina Hurricanes, Metro: Always a popular playoff pick, they never seem to put it together, hence a coaching change and some major off-season moves. The result? A still-questionable group of forwards, a nice defensive group, and the same old problem -- questions about goalie, where Scott Darling attempts to bounce back from a rough year. Just never seem to put it together, and now Darling is hurt.

Colorado Avalanche, Central: The Avs went from the worst team in the league to the playoffs last season. Nathan MacKinnon finally evolved into a truly elite player, and the Avs overachieved. They still have questions on the back end, and their goaltending was superb last season and will need a repeat. Former Cap backup Philip Grubauer joins Semyon Varlamov in what should be a strong duo. Still, a lot of it felt like smoke and mirrors last year. Won't regress, but will be hard-pressed to move forward.

Dallas Stars, Central: On the surface, the Stars should be in the mix every year. They have two dynamic forwards in Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn and an elite offensive defensemen in John Klingberg. Still, they are on their third coach in three years, struggle badly on defense and still have not solved goalie, where Ben Bishop was injured and disappointing last year. If Bishop can be elite, they could make the playoffs, but something about this team is just off.

Minnesota Wild, Central: The Wild have a veteran forward crew that is capable of solid play. Zach Parise, however, appears to be a shell of his once-dominant self. They have some good young defense depth, and will go as far as goalie Devyn Dubnyk will take them. He is solid if unspectacular. The Wild have the talent to make the playoffs, but hard to see them making much of an impact.

Detroit Red Wings, Atlantic: Since an amazing streak of making the playoffs every year for more than two decades, the Wings have been stuck between trying to augment aging veterans with young players without a full-on rebuild. They have young forward talent that should be fun to watch, but remain a mess on the back end and goaltending is average at best. Probably still a year and a couple defensemen away from being a playoff contender again.

New York Rangers, Metro: The Rangers began a full rebuild by dealing away many top players at the deadline last season. But they should still have enough on the back end and have an elite goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist, who will have to carry the day. They are working in several new young forwards, and if a couple can develop, this team might be better than expected.

New Jersey Devils, Metro: The Devils made the playoffs last year almost singlehandedly guided by Taylor Hall. The forward group after him is pretty pedestrian, but they have several players who could take a big step, including former No. 1 pick Nico Hishier. They got strong goaltending last season from Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid when Schneider was injured, and will need that again. If they get it and the youngsters develop, they should be in the playoff mix again.

IN THE HUNT FOR JACK HUGHES

Ottawa Senators, Atlantic: Sadly, they won't actually be in the hunt, since Colorado has their pick. They were one goal away from the Stanley Cup in 2016-17, but have imploded since. They traded two of their best players in the off-season including franchise bell cow Erik Karlsson. Not much in the way of forward talent, defense talent and inconsistent goaltending.

Montreal Canadiens, Atlantic: It's almost sad to see the Yankees of hockey relegated to this spot. The decline started when they traded P.K. Subban to Nashville for Shea Webber, who was injured lst year and will miss significant time this year. This offseason they sent Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk packing. Last year they dealt a promising young defensemen to Tampa for Jonathan Drouin, who showed little. They still have Carey Price, and maybe all these moves pay off, but on paper it looks bleak in Montreal.

Vancouver Canucks, Pacific: The Canucks will begin the post-Sedin era with a lot of question marks. They are average on defense, lack dept on offense and the goaltending is basically waiting for prospect Thatcher Demko to develop. There are some explosive young players in Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser, but they don't have a lot of depth. They aren't that far away, especially if they could stumble into a generational talent in the draft...Say, Jack Hughes?

NY Islanders, Metro: The Isles lost Tavares to the Leafs, the went out and signed as many fourth-line grinders as they could find. They do have an upgrade at coach in Barry Trotz and an elite young player in Matthew Barzal, but the forward group lacks scoring ability, the defense is suspect and they are the latest to hope Robin Lehner is the answer in goal. Trotz should get enough out of them to prevent a complete collapse, but still hard to see then doing much.

So there you have it. If you are looking for futures plays, the best value probably lies in San Jose (12-1), Boston (11-1) and Florida (45-1) if you are looking for Cup longshots.

Enjoy the season!

 

 

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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

Photo by Getty Images.

Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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