ch-ch-ch-Changes: 2023-24 NHL Preview

They’re quite aware of what they’re going through

As anticipated, the landscape of the National Hockey League continues to change. With the institution of the salary cap in the aftermath of the 2004-05 lockout, the NHL has seen teams come to prominence and success and subsequently die away with the ebb and flow of their talent and prospects. The first three Stanley Cup champions after the lockout are all in different worlds today: the Carolina Hurricanes have only recently returned to prominence after missing the playoffs in eleven of the twelve seasons after their Cup run in 2005-06; as long as the Hurricanes have returned to relevance, the Anaheim Ducks have been out of it, as after their run of nine postseason appearances in eleven years post-2006-07 has left them at the bottom of the Pacific (Division) since the 2018-19 season; and the Detroit Red Rings have been rebuilding for almost as long as they made the playoffs after 2007-08, and the jury is still out on whether they’ve done enough to get back into the playoff picture this season.

After the Red Wings won the championship in 2008, four teams won the next nine Stanley Cups: Pittsburgh, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. We know the Penguins’ situation very well, of course. Boston won its Cup in 2011 and have been runners-up in two other Stanley Cup Finals, but last season they experienced the highest of highs (a record-breaking regular season) and the lowest of lows (getting reverse swept in the first round by the eventual Eastern Conference champion, the Florida Panthers). The offseason has been no kinder to the Bruins, with the retirements of captain Patrice Bergeron (for whom many think they should rename the Selke trophy for best defensive forward) and David Krejci, and besides that they’ve taken major hits in what personnel remained. Their silver lining will be the same thing that buoyed them to the Stanley Cup Finals: goaltending. As long as their Jennings trophy-winning tandem of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swagman perform on par to how they did last season (or as close to it as possible), you will never truly be able to count out the Boston Bruins.

The Los Angeles Kings will celebrate the ten year anniversary of their second Stanley Cup this season, as they seem poised to take another step forward in their journey back to the Finals. Last season they were quietly very good, having their third-best season in franchise history, but they failed to have an answer for Connor McDavid, Leon Draisatl and the Edmonton Oilers for the second season in a row. They went out and made a big splash this offseason, acquiring Pierre-Luc Dubois from the Winnipeg Jets, and they are hinging the rest of their hopes on the continued maturation of their prospects. The biggest question mark for the Kings is the same one they’ve had since they heyday of Jonathan Quick: how will their goaltending fare? Their current tandem of Phoenix Copley and Cam Talbot will likely not concern many, including their foes in the Pacific Division.

Finally, the Chicago Blackhawks. Winners of three Stanley Cups in six years (and making the Conference Finals one other time), their on-ice product has softly declined even if their public image hasn’t. The sexual assault scandal that surfaced in May of 2021 cast a pall over the organization that many will not forget even if the the vast majority of those involved from their 2010 Cup-winning team (when the sexual assault occurred) are largely gone. That includes longtime captain Jonathan Toews, who is out of a contract and is reportedly planning to sit out the 2023-24 season, but also second-generation owner Rocky Wirtz, whose sudden death in July left the team in the hands of his son, Danny. With the drafting of first overall pick Connor Bedard this summer, it seems that the Blackhawks will be intent to turn the page on this checkered era and move forward.

As time progresses, the champions always regress, and most of the remaining Stanley Cup winners are largely just trying to hang on to their near-term championship hopes. Pittsburgh has seen its fair share of regression after its consecutive Stanley Cup wins, but after narrowly missing the playoffs last season they made many significant changes this offseason and seem poised to get back to the postseason this spring. Tampa Bay seems perennially locked into a playoff spot, but that may change as their core ages and, more importantly, their division foes improve. Washington is headed for a rebuild but is still a couple of years away. Being in a nebulous Central Division, St. Louis could sneak into the playoffs if conditions are favorable. Time will tell how soon any of these teams make it back to the Stanley Cup Finals, but the ongoing theme is that it may be a while.

After a few seasons of transition the dynamics of the Metropolitan Division seem to have mostly stabilized for now. Carolina and New Jersey, the top two seeds in the division last year, will likely stay there if not flip places. One point was the difference between those two teams and between New Jersey’s younger players continuing to mature and their having the fourth-most improve team this past offseason (according to The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn), I figure the Devils will have improved enough to eclipse the Hurricanes and move into first place in the division. The Rangers are still good enough for third but they will have a much-improved and motivated Penguins team to contend with for that spot. The Islanders have supposedly improved quite a bit as well this offseason (especially with the acquisition of Bo Horvat), and they too will contend for a playoff berth. The Capitals are not terribly serious as they head down to the bottom of the division, but in their way are the prospect-stockpiling Blue Jackets and the cratered Flyers.

Big questions abound in the Atlantic Division. After the Bruins’ record-setting regular season last year, the last three months have been almost as painful with the first-round reverse sweep at the hands of the Florida Panthers and the retirements of captain Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. How much damage their offseason (including the key departures of Taylor Hall and Dmitry Orlov) has done will remain to be seen. Boston, Florida, and Toronto were the bottom three teams on Dom Luszczyszyn’s rankings, so it really stands to question exactly where these teams will end up come April. I suspect Toronto will be the division leader with Florida and Tampa Bay lurking behind them. I think it is Buffalo that eclipses Boston in the standings, but only just so. Detroit is still not quite there yet despite being considered the second-most improved team this offseason. The Senators will need their young guys to take another step forward if they’re to prove that they aren’t stuck in the mud. Montreal is in rebuild mode and will probably still be so for another few years.

Moreso than with the Metropolitan Division, the dynamics of the Central Division will likely be largely unchanged from last season. Colorado won the division but surprisingly lost to the Seattle Kraken in a seven-game first round series; Dallas ended up one point behind the Avalanche but made a decent run in the playoffs, ending with a six-game Conference Finals loss against the eventual Stanley Cup champions in Vegas; and Minnesota failed again to get out of the first round, their seventh-straight playoff appearance without winning a series. I think Colorado will sink back behind at least Dallas (who are looking increasingly formidable, especially with their offseason acquisition of Matt Duchene) and maybe Minnesota, if the Wild’s young guys can make a bigger impact this season. Behind them you have Winnipeg, Nashville, and St. Louis, none of which are particularly threatening and really all are in desperate need of a reset. I think Nashville and St. Louis make sense as 4/5 in the division, while Winnipeg is only going to hang around as long as they have Connor Hellebuyck (which may not be long). Arizona is still some years away from getting back to relevancy, but depending on how the previous trio do, it might be sooner rather than later. The Blackhawks, as I mentioned, are just excited to have a shiny new toy in Connor Bedard to keep people coming to games.

The Vegas Golden Knights weren’t much troubled in their quest for the Stanley Cup, taking just six losses en route to their first championship. By way of the typical Cup hangover, and considering that Edmonton seem increasingly poised to get further into the playoffs, I’m going to say the Oilers lead the division and Vegas follows behind. I’m pretty confident that the Kings will once again be third in the division, but that confidence comes with the caveat of how their young guys progress and whether their goaltending can keep them afloat. Seattle’s rebound in its sophomore season perhaps wasn’t as surprising as its first playoff series win over the Avalanche, but a lot of the depth that got them there departed in the offseason, and they didn’t replace it well. Conversely, the Flames did improve a fair bit during the summer and may eclipse the Kraken for fourth in the division, even if Calgary’s playoff hopes are in vain whereas they probably should just prepare to reboot. The Canucks are very much stuck in mediocrity-ville, especially considering that Anaheim and San Jose are blocking their path to last place, and it may be another couple of years before Vancouver gets the chance to start over.

I got this, I got this … right?