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NHL preview: Players to watch, predictions for 2017-18's Scott Burnside gives his outlook on what to expect in the new season

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB /

As the NHL's 31 teams begin to look ahead to the dawn of a new season -- or in the case of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, a season of firsts --'s Scott Burnside gives his players to watch and predictions for 2017-18.

Ten players to watch

Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers took a major step back last season after a surprise playoff berth in the spring of 2016, and while the team has an enviable collection of young talent, including No. 2-overall pick from last June's draft, Nolan Patrick, the Flyers will need their captain to rebound mightily if they're going to be a playoff team next spring. Giroux, a natural center who has seen some time playing left wing during training camp, scored just 14 times last season -- half the number he scored in 2013-14. Of his 58 points - 28 fewer than 2013-14 - 31 were power-play points, which means Giroux is going to have to do a lot more at even strength this coming season, if the Flyers are going to return to playoff contention.

Kevin Shattenkirk, New York Rangers

The most sought-after player at the 2017 trade deadline became the most sought-after free agent this summer and despite a bit of a bumpy ride with the Washington Capitals in the playoffs Shattenkirk may yet become the most influential free agent signee of this summer. Poised to skate alongside Ranger captain Ryan McDonagh (although he's bounced around as most players do during training camp) the smooth-skating, puck-moving defenseman should keep the New York Rangers very much in the discussion as the best team in the Eastern Conference after signing a four-year, $26.6 million deal to join his childhood favorite team.

Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning

These have been trying times for the 27-year-old sniper and Tampa Bay Lightning captain as Stamkos missed all but 17 games last season with a knee injury after missing all but one playoff game the previous spring with a blood clotting issue and this after breaking his leg and missing the Sochi Olympics in 2014. And so, one can only hope the dark days are behind the talented forward who, if healthy, will be a catalyst to what should be a bounce back season for the Bolts who missed the playoffs last year after advancing to the Stanley Cup finals in 2015 and to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in '16. Early returns in training camp were excellent for Stamkos.

Derek Stepan, Arizona Coyotes

The Arizona Coyotes may still be lost in the wilderness (literally) without a legitimate option for a home in the desert on the horizon but on the ice, there are signs of a team coming into its own with Antti Raanta, Nicklas Hjalmarsson and former New York Ranger center Derek Stepan coming on board to guide the bevy of young, talented players assembled in Arizona. The question is whether Stepan, 27, and with a $6.5 million cap hit through 2021, is miscast as the team's number one center. Stepan has never scored more than 22 goals in any one season and never topped the 60-point mark. His value to the Rangers and presumably to the 'Yotes will extend beyond the score sheet but for a team crying for offense and looking for its first playoff berth since 2012 the pressure is on Stepan.

Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

At the risk of annoying Charles Dickens fans everywhere it was indeed the best of times and the worst of times for the classy Nashville netminder last spring. Rinne helped backstop the Predators to an improbable sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs and then was instrumental in the team reaching the Stanley Cup final for the first time in franchise history. But in allowing 11 goals in roughly six periods of action in three losses to Pittsburgh in the final, all on the road, his performance was one of the key factors in the Preds dropping a six-game set to Pittsburgh with the Cup on the line. At age 34 Rinne still has much left to give for a Preds team that believes last spring was just the beginning.

Mike Smith, Calgary Flames

There is tremendous excitement in Calgary for a talented Flames team that has qualified for the post-season twice in the last three seasons. But if this team is going to join the ranks of the contenders in the Western Conference much will depend on the health and level of play of veteran netminder Mike Smith, 35, who was acquired by the Flames in the off-season. With all due respect to the Coyotes, Smith hasn't played behind as good a team as the Flames will ice in a long time. Is Smith, who was the catalyst to a surprise trip to the 2012 Western Conference final for the Coyotes, a demonstrable upgrade over Brian Elliott who was last year's goaltending flavor but who melted in the playoffs during a four-game sweep at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks? Discuss amongst yourselves.

Jordan Eberle, New York Islanders

It wasn't much of a surprise that the former 22nd overall pick in the 2008 draft was dispatched by the Edmonton Oilers this off-season, the only mystery was where he'd end up. That Eberle, 27, ended up with the New York Islanders has the makings of a terrific fit for a team with a boatload of questions facing it not the least of which is what is to become of captain John Tavares as Tavares enters the final year of his current contract. The thinking is that head coach Doug Weight, entering his first full season behind the Islander bench, will use Eberle on the wing with Tavares. If Eberle can get back to the level that saw him collect 128 points between 2013 and 2015 the move will be judged a success.

Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings

In the three seasons since winning the Stanley Cup in 2014 the Los Angeles Kings have played in exactly five post-season games. And if there is to be a renaissance in Tinsel Town this season it will because captain Anze Kopitar has put behind him a miserable 2016-17 season that saw him score just 12 times in 76 regular season games as the Kings missed the playoffs for the second time in three years. Lingering physical issues, fatigue at having played in an Olympic qualifying tournament and then the World Cup of Hockey before starting last season or perhaps the pressure of playing under a monster new contract extension that will pay him $80 million over eight years, whatever factors contributed to Kopitar's precipitous drop-off in production his return to form is crucial to the Kings' chances of returning to contention.

Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers

Hey, it was a miserable season for the Florida Panthers for everyone from ownership who authorized a misguided early-season firing of Gerard Gallant to Gallant's replacement Tom Rowe who curiously moved from GM to head coach to most of the Panthers who were either injured or underachieved or both. But no one turned in a more disappointing campaign than former rookie of the year Aaron Ekblad the first overall pick in the 2014 draft. Ekblad went from 15 goals and 36 points in his sophomore season during which the Cats won the Atlantic Division to 10 goals and 21 points and a numbing minus-23 plus/minus rating. Plain and simple Ekblad needs to work harder and set an example for a Panthers team that needs to prove last year was a bump in the road and not just the same disappointing narrative in South Florida. To that end, Ekblad told reporters in training camp he'd lost weight and had embraced a healthier lifestyle.

Corey Perry, Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks have been to the Western Conference final twice in the last three years, and boast one of the top young defensive corps in the league. But with veteran leaders like captain Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler and Corey Perry advancing in age, the Stanley Cup opening is becoming increasingly narrow. For Perry, 32, this season looms large after a 19-goal regular season -- his lowest full-season total in a decade. More concerning is that Perry has just four goals in his last 23 postseason games. The Ducks are also dealing with injuries that will see them start the season without defensemen Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm, and Kesler is going to miss significant time with a hip injury. When healthy, the Ducks are as good a team as there is in the tightly-compacted Western Conference. But they can't get to the Promised Land without Perry returning to form.


Hart Trophy

Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

We thought that it was all too much to expect from Connor McDavid last year; coming off a shoulder injury in his rookie year. Being named captain. Ha. Ha. We were wrong. McDavid outdueled Sidney Crosby and the rest for a scoring title and a well-earned Hart Trophy. Crosby's not going anywhere, but McDavid is just going to get better.

Others in the discussion: Sidney Crosby, Jamie Benn, Nikita Kucherov, Auston Matthews


Art Ross Trophy

Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

Okay, not really going out on a limb here, but we're guessing that after eclipsing Crosby and Patrick Kane by 11 points last season, that this year's scoring race is tighter -- maybe down-to-the-last-weekend tight -- and we're looking for multiple players north of 100 points.

Others in the discussion: Sidney Crosby, Tyler Seguin, Evgeni Malkin, Nikita Kucherov


Rocket Richard Trophy

Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

He may not be 'The Kid' anymore, but he's still the man, and looking for Sidney Crosby to get back to the magical 50-goal mark.

Others in the discussion: Alexander Ovechkin (yeah, him), Steven Stamkos, Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews


Norris Trophy

Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning

Was a bit surprised that Hedman ended up on the final ballot for the Norris last season, given the fact the Bolts missed the playoffs although he was a beast with 72 points -- second only to eventual Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns. We see big things coming for the Lightning this season, and that means big things from Victor Hedman.

Others in the discussion: Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, Seth Jones, Duncan Keith


Calder Trophy

Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes

Last year's run-off between Auston Matthews (first-overall pick in '16) and Patrik Laine (second-overall pick in '16) was pretty good, although by the end it wasn't really a race at all as Matthews ran away with the voting taking 164 of 167 first-place votes in the Rookie of the Year voting. We're banking on a much tighter race, with a much broader field this season. Looks like the top two picks in June's draft -- Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick -- will stick with New Jersey and Philadelphia, respectively, but we're going with diminutive but highly-skilled Clayton Keller, the seventh-overall pick in 2016, who hopes to lead a renaissance in the dessert with new head coach Rick Tocchet.

Others in the discussion: Charlie McAvoy, Josh Ho-Sang, Brock Boeser and Kyle Connor


Vezina Trophy

Cam Talbot, Edmonton Oilers

Last season was a coming out party for the former New York Rangers backup, as Talbot established himself as the kind of netminder who can instill confidence and calmness for an emerging young team. The defense should be even better in front of him, and the Oilers are thinking Stanley Cup, and Talbot's a guy who could get them there.

Others in the discussion: Braden Holtby, Pekka Rinne, Sergei Bobrovsky, Ben Bishop


Jack Adams

Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning

The expectations are sky-high in Tampa after last year's sideways turn, but Cooper's got the coaching chops to meet those expectations. The Lightning scrambled and clawed right to the end of last season, trying to sneak into the playoffs in spite of injuries and the trades of veterans, including Ben Bishop. Didn't happen, but their resolve is a reflection of the coaching staff, so they should be primed this season.

Others in the discussion: Ken Hitchcock, Mike Babcock, Peter Laviolette, Rick Tocchet.

Division Champion predictions

Metropolitan: Columbus Blue Jackets

Atlantic: Tampa Bay Lightning

Pacific: Edmonton Oilers

Central: Nashville Predators


Eastern Conference Final

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Columbus Blue Jackets


Western Conference Final

Dallas Stars vs. Edmonton Oilers


Stanley Cup Final

Edmonton Oilers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning


Stanley Cup Champion

Tampa Bay Lightning


This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott Burnside on Twitter @OvertimeScottB and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.

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