Los Angeles Kings – 12/1
After a disappointing season, which saw them miss the playoffs for the first time since 2009, expect Los Angeles to be a force in the Western Conference. Between international duty and a large number of postseason games, it was probably a blessing in disguise for the Kings not to make the playoffs, in order to give their star players plenty of rest. The Kings will return a formidable core of Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Jonathan Quick,Tyler Toffoli, and Drew Doughty that has seen them win two Stanley Cups in the past four years. Although GM Dean Lombardi will be holding money back in order to sign Toffoli to a long-term contract, this team still has plenty of talent and experience to continue competing at the highest level. Lombardi will likely have to replace 2014 Conn Smythe Trophy winner, Justin Williams, and defensive stalwart Jarret Stoll. The Kings also struggled to find a suitable replacement on the first defensive pair alongside Drew Doughty after Slava Voynov was suspended indefinitely by the league. While Los Angeles has question marks heading into next season, their elite defense and goaltending should make them the early favorite.
Tampa Bay Lightning – 10/1
With most of their meaningful contributors under the age of 25, the Bolts will be a force in the league for at least the next 4-5 seasons. Tampa Bay is currently unmatched across the league in forward depth, and highly-skilled prospect Jonathan Drouin will enter the fold in the immediate future. Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson have to be the best 1-2 center combination in the NHL at the moment. Although he cooled off in the final, Johnson had a superb postseason, leading all players with 13 goals. Stamkos was the league’s second leading goalscorer in the regular season with 43, trailing only Alexander Ovechkin. Defenseman Victor Hedman was one of the stars of these playoffs. Along with his 13 points and +11 rating, Hedman was instrumental in creating many of the Bolts’ scoring chances. His long reach, skating speed, and puck-moving ability were on display for everyone to see, and as a result, has established himself as one of the league’s premier blue-liners. Defensive depth may be a concern, but with the continued development of Andrej Sustr and Nikita Nesterov, as well as a deep minor league system, Tampa Bay should not be short of options. Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy form one of the best goaltending duos in hockey, and aside from a few hiccups by Bishop, both handled themselves well throughout the playoff grind. With Brendan Morrow being the only unrestricted free agent on the team, GM Steve Yzerman can dedicate the summer to tying down Stamkos long-term. Once Stamkos signs, the Bolts should pick up right where they left off.
Anaheim Ducks – 12/1
The Ducks came up just short again, falling to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions in seven games. However, there is plenty of reason for optimism in Southern California. Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Ryan Kesler, the stellar core of forwards that got them to the conference finals for the first time, since they won the cup in 2007, will all be back. The only UFA forwards are Matt Beleskey and Tomas Fleischmann, who was a healthy scratch for the majority of the playoffs. With Beleskey looking for a raise, Anaheim will likely be in the market for a second or third-line wing. On the blue line, UFA d-man Francois Beauchemin will probably depart after spending eight seasons with the club. The Ducks’ d-men are among the most aggressive in the league and create an abundance of scoring chances, but at times they get caught out and give up odd-man rushes the other way. With Beauchemin’s probable departure, Anaheim will be in the market for a defensive d-man. Net-minder Frederik Andersen will also return and will be expected to improve on a stellar season that saw him rank third in goals allowed during the postseason.
Columbus Blue Jackets – 33/1
With over 500 man games lost to injury, nobody’s ambitions were more crippled (pardon the pun) than Columbus. The Jackets have one of the most underrated players in the game in Ryan Johansen, who was the only player to play in every regular season game for the team. Playing without his normal linemates for the majority of the season, Johansen still managed to put up solid numbers with 71 points, which was good enough for 16th in the NHL. With a healthy Boone Jenner and Nick Foligno on the flanks, one would expect those numbers to rise considerably in the coming season. Despite all of the injury problems, Columbus managed to finish in the top half of the NHL in terms of scoring, averaging 2.8 goals per game. However, they were also 25th in team defense, conceding an average of 3 goals per game. In the coming days, Columbus will be expected to be fairly active on the trade front. There is a need to retool the defensive blue line. With a surplus of forwards, the Jackets could have a completely different look defensively coming out of next weekend’s draft. A season in which no.1 goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is entirely healthy, could be the key in what could be a long postseason run.
New York Rangers – 10/1
As long as Henrik Lundqvist is a member of the Blueshirts, expect this team to always make deep postseason runs. The King was fantastic again in the playoffs, finishing in the top four in save percentage and goals against average. The Rangers are a very similar team to the Los Angeles Kings in the respect that their defense and goaltending can carry them deep into the postseason. With a blueline led by Ryan McDonough, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, and Keith Yandle, the Rangers have defensive depth to rival any team in the NHL. They finished the regular season third in goals allowed, making New York a constant threat to challenge anybody. The Blueshirts also finished third in scoring, a figure that dropped in the playoffs. Much of this falls on Rick Nash, who scored a career-high 42 goals this season, but scored a meager 5 during the Rangers’ playoff run. For a team’s leading scorer, this total is nowhere near good enough to win a Stanley Cup. While trade packages with the St. Louis Blues Blues have been mooted, why would the Blues trade a couple of postseason underachievers for another, especially one that carries a $7.8 million cap hit next year? With the likes of Chris Kreider, Derick Brassard, Derek Stephan, and Mats Zuccarello, this team has enough to get it done in the regular season, but New York will still be dogged by questions surrounding their playoff scoring for the time being.
Odds Via Bovada