The pressure for the Toronto Maple Leafs to win this season is going to be immense. They were already a really good team with an embarrassment of riches at forward, and then they went out and signed John Tavares in one of the biggest free-agent moves in recent NHL history. For any team in any other NHL city, this would be pressure. In Toronto, where the Maple Leafs have not won a championship in the post-Original Six era and have not advanced beyond the first round since 2004, the expectation to do something is going to be sky-high. There will be no excuses to be had, either. They have a team willing to spend to the cap, with a couple of superstars, and the highest paid, highest regarded coach in hockey.
This team is absolutely loaded on paper with a couple of Art Ross Trophy contenders (Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos) at forward, a Norris Trophy contender (Victor Hedman) on defense and a Vezina Trophy contender (Andrei Vasilevskiy) in goal, with a strong supporting cast around all of them. J.T. Miller, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point, Ryan McDonagh, Anton Stralman, so on and so on. On paper this is one of the best teams in the league and has been in at least the Eastern Conference Final in three of the past four years. It is not a stretch to think the Lightening could be there again.
They lost Paul Stastny to the team that beat them in the Western Conference Final, which is not ideal, but Stastny was always a luxury on this team. The Jets have one of the best collections of young forward talent in the league, and Patrik Laine could be on the verge of taking yet another step forward this season (50 goals?). The key to their success will be whether or not starting goalie, Connor Hellebuyck, repeats what he did a year ago for them.
No team in the NHL has a defense that can match Nashville’s. The Predators also are incredibly deep at forward, and they have two goalies capable of starting and playing at a high level. There is no real, clear-cut weakness on this team, and even better, the entire core is locked in place on long-term, salary cap-friendly contracts. The Predators fell a little short in their quest to repeat as Western Conference champions, but they are not going away as Stanley Cup contenders anytime soon.