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Head-to-head NHL 2015–16 season preview

Jason Herring & David Song, September 29 2015 — 

The 2015–16 NHL season is only days away and both of Alberta’s clubs are looking poised to take a big step forward this year. The Gauntlet’s Jason Herring and David Song give their two cents on how the season will pan out.

Where do you see the Calgary Flames finishing in 2015–16?

David Song: The Flames surprised everyone last season when they reached the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Calgary’s defensive corps will improve significantly this season with the arrival of offseason acquisition Dougie Hamilton — a big, young, well-rounded blueliner with tremendous upside. Barring serious injury to key players, Hamilton should propel his new club to at least the first round of the playoffs. As long as the Flames maintain the never-say-die attitude that head coach Bob Hartley fostered last year, they should once again have a shot at the second round.

Jason Herring: After last year’s surprise playoff run and a few key offseason additions, anything less than a postseason berth will be a disappointment for the Flames. Calgary has one of the best defences in the league, bolstered this season after acquiring star defenceman Hamilton from the Bruins. And don’t count out the signing of a steady third-line penalty-killer Michael Frolik, or a full year of emerging stars like Sam Bennett. Calgary’s not ready to take it all home yet, but they’re in position to make a run for the division title.

Will the Edmonton Oilers make the playoffs this season?

DS: Mired in inferiority since 2006, the Edmonton Oilers received a shot in the arm this offseason when they selected Connor McDavid first overall in the 2015 NHL entry draft. The young centre has been lauded as the second coming of Sidney Crosby, possessing exceptional speed, a tremendous shot and elite offensive awareness. McDavid looks set to become an elite NHL talent, and he joins a class of skilled forwards that includes several other top-tier draft picks as well.

Unfortunately, offence alone can’t bring success, and what the Oilers possess in scoring firepower, they lack in defensive depth. The Oilers’ rebuild has been a slow process, and McDavid’s first pro year is unlikely to set them apart in a Western Conference full of worthy opponents. Edmonton fans have something to be excited for, but they should still get ready for another postseason to pass them by.

JH: Edmonton’s roster is vastly improved this season — winning the draft lottery will do that — but they’re not ready to contend just yet. The Oilers will be scary in a few years, but right now their focus is on having first-overall draft pick Connor McDavid settle into the big leagues while giving other prospects time to develop in the minors. This shouldn’t be a shock, though — even Sidney Crosby couldn’t propel his Pittsburgh Penguins to the postseason in his rookie year. Edmonton is playing in a weak division and new head coach Todd McLellan should make a difference for the club, but expect another year before the Oilers get a chance to play into April.

Who will win the Stanley Cup?

DS: After falling short in the Stanley Cup Finals two years ago and being ousted in the conference finals last season, the New York Rangers are hungry for redemption. The Rangers’ offensive corps remains dangerous, namely due to the presence of top-tier talents in Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider. The club also possesses plenty of youth and some legitimate bottom-six depth.

The Rangers’ defence is their true strength, however. Veteran defenders Dan Boyle and Keith Yandle bring offense from the back end, while Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal can shut down any opposing forward line. Behind them is Henrik Lundqvist, who remains one of the top goaltenders in the sport. The Rangers are well-equipped for the kind of marathon defensive struggles that characterize the NHL’s postseason. The biggest question for them is whether or not their offence can consistently score in the clutch. If they can make that happen, the Rangers should be ready to challenge for the Stanley Cup in 2016.

JH: No team had a smarter offseason than the Washington Capitals — a team with a reputation as a regular season force that can’t seem to win when it counts. The additions of Justin Williams, who established himself as a bona fide game-changer with the Los Angeles Kings, and star winger T.J. Oshie, formerly of the St. Louis Blues, are huge boosts to an already strong lineup. Now that breakout goaltender Braden Holtby has proved he can be the unflappable presence in net the Capitals need, 2016 looks as good a year as any for Alexander Ovechkin to finally get his hands on the Stanley Cup.

Who is your sleeper team?

DS: The Colorado Avalanche missed the playoffs last season, and their subpar performance has made it easy to forget the talent that reside on the their roster. Top-line centre Matt Duchene boasts speed and exceptional scoring ability. Captain Gabriel Landeskog possesses top-tier skill and strength and first-overall draft pick Nathan MacKinnon has an enormous wealth of untapped offensive potential.

But Colorado’s fate this season truly rests on the blue line. Erik Johnson, a prime physical specimen at 6’4” and 232 pounds, has elite potential but must continue to improve his defensive abilities. The key addition is Nikita Zadarov, a 6’5” rearguard with mammoth upside. If the 20 year old rounds into form as soon as 2015–16, he could help his team improve one of their greatest weaknesses — puck possession.

After learning some tough lessons last year, the Avalanche defence should be capable of stepping up and carrying the whole squad into the playoffs.

JH: After a disappointing year plagued by injuries, the Columbus Blue Jackets are geared up for a campaign that will make heads turn. An already strong forward group that includes star forwards Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno was boosted in the offseason with the addition of promising winger Brandon Saad, acquired in a trade from the Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks. Columbus’ goaltending situation is solid, with Vezina Trophy-winning netminder Sergei Bobrovsky serving as the last line of defence. Even though some problems still exist on the blue line, the team’s deep core and prospect pool mean the Blue Jackets are primed to take the next step and establish themselves as one of the league’s elite teams.

Who is your breakout player of the year?

DS: Connor McDavid would be the easy answer, but the youngster is suiting up for a team that has yet to find its identity after a decade of rebuilding.

Instead, consider Calgary Flames forward Joe Colborne. The big-bodied winger has yet to put up significant point totals, but he does have the physical tools and the versatility to become an established top-six NHL forward. Colborne was on a hot streak early last season before he was sidelined by injury, which derailed his scoring even after he returned. If he stays healthy this season, he joins a balanced squad capable of supporting his resurgence. Look out for Colborne to take the next step in 2015–16.

JH: It’s been a tough few years for Tampa Bay’s Jonathan Drouin, but the young winger is ready to prove he can live up to hefty expectations. Drouin was the Lightning’s third-overall selection in the 2013 NHL entry draft, but his first full year in the league was a frustrating one. He put up an underwhelming 32 points before being benched for most of Tampa’s run to the finals. But Drouin still has a lot of legitimate promise — evidenced by his combined 213 points during his final two years of junior hockey — and should be able to excel in a sheltered role on the deep Lightning team.

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