Thursday, May 30

An all-Canada Stanley Cup? 80 points for Connor Bedard? Patrick Kane in Florida? LeBrun’s NHL predictions

The Athletic has live coverage of Connor Bedard’s debut and the Blackhawks vs. Penguins matchup

It’s prediction season.

Despite being a die-hard Cowboys fan, I predicted a Bills-49ers Super Bowl before the NFL season began, and I’m sticking with it, hoping the Cowboys prove me wrong. It’s actually the third year in a row I’ve picked a San Fran-Buffalo Super Bowl. Surely I’ll be right eventually.

Oh wait, I cover hockey for a living. All kidding aside, here are some 2023-24 NHL predictions, most of which you as readers will be able to throw in my face in several months.

Stanley Cup pick

Give me a Toronto-Edmonton Stanley Cup Final with the Oilers winning Game 7 on the road. It’s actually the same Cup final prediction I had last April before the playoffs.

I like the Stars and Hurricanes to complete the Final Four picture, and either one of those teams could easily end up in the Final.

This isn’t click-bait on the Leafs. I just think that with Tampa Bay and Florida fighting key injuries to start the season and Boston losing its heart-and-soul captain, it opens a path for the Leafs to run away with the Atlantic Division. I really like the Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi additions, too. The second-round loss to Florida exposed the Leafs’ necessity to add a little sandpaper — but sandpaper in the form of skill, too.

I remember when a lot of people finally quit on picking the Capitals after they lost out yet again to the Penguins in the second round of the 2016-17 playoffs. Their Cup-contending years seemed over. Then they finally broke through in 2017-18.

Read more: NHL 2023-24 awards predictions: McDavid’s top Hart Trophy challenger? Plus the big Hellebuyck trade question

I can be sold on that kind of journey for the Leafs this season.

My Hockey Hall of Fame colleague Eric Duhatschek had more guts than me, actually picking the Leafs to actually win it all.

I’m picking Connor McDavid’s Oilers to top them, though, bringing Canada its first Cup win since 1993. The Oilers are ready after losing to the eventual Cup winners each of the past two seasons, Vegas in 2023 and Colorado in 2022. And this preseason, the Oilers’ top players sound a lot to me like the Avalanche’s players did before they finally won two years ago.

Is this the year Connor McDavid wins his first Stanley Cup championship? (Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

It is a tall order at 18, to be sure, but put me down for 80 points for Connor Bedard in his rookie NHL season. No 18-year-old has been more ready for this stage since McDavid.

He’s answered the bell at every challenge so far in his young career. I think he’s more than ready for this.

“I don’t want to put words into his mouth, but he seems like he was born for it,” Blackhawks linemate Taylor Hall said on our Got Yer Back podcast recently. “He seems like a guy that doesn’t shy away from the spotlight. He wants it. And he wants to be the best player on the ice.”

Bedard training with McDavid this past summer and spending time with Sidney Crosby at the Biosteel camp isn’t by accident.

“He wants to be one of these guys,” Hall said. “He wants to be mentioned in that category. And I think watching him for the first few days of camp, he’s got the game to do it.”

Miro Heiskanen hasn’t even been nominated yet for the Norris Trophy let alone won one.

And I get it that there’s reason to believe that streak continues. For my money, Cale Makar is the best defenseman in the world, and let’s be real: He’s the best bet to win the Norris this season, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he were one of the three Hart Trophy finalists.

Erik Karlsson had a ridiculous offensive season in 2022-23 and has better teammates to work with now, former winner Adam Fox is always in the conversation, and Roman Josi is far from done.

But I’m going to go out on a limb and predict Heiskanen delivers the kind of all-around season on a Cup-contending team that gives Makar a run for his money in a close vote. Heiskanen would be the first-ever Stars player to win the Norris.

Kraken miss the playoffs

The Kraken not only surprised in making the playoffs last season, but they also knocked out the defending Stanley Cup champs for good measure. So why am I being an idiot and saying they’re going to miss out this season?

For one, it’s about looking around them in the West, and I see a team like the Flames, for example, bouncing back. I also think a lot of things went right for Seattle last season, including getting such deep, committee scoring throughout the lineup. I’m not convinced that’s there again. I like where the Kraken are headed long-term — being built smartly for longer-term sustainability — but I could see this season being a minor step back and missing out by a point or two.

Senators make it

And we get the Battle of Ontario in the first round! How much fun would that be?

But yes, the time has arrived for the Senators to punch their ticket to the postseason for the first time since reaching the conference final in 2017. It was a long rebuild, but Brady Tkachuk will lead the Senators to the promised land. I’m not 100 percent sold on Joonas Korpisalo, but he doesn’t need to steal that many games. Just give the Senators average goaltending, and that should be fine.

Can Brady Tkachuk lead the Senators to their first playoff appearance since 2017? (Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

Quinn Hughes tops defensemen in scoring

It begins with Karlsson coming back down to earth after a ridiculous 101-point 2022-23 season in San Jose. With the games mattering more in Pittsburgh this season some offense could be sacrificed.

But I also think Hughes, who finished tied for second in D scoring last season with 76 points, will push his own totals higher this season. For one, I see the Canucks’ 11th-ranked PP from last season ending up top five this year, so that in itself will boost Hughes’ numbers.

Word of caution, though, colleague Thomas Drance, who covers the Canucks for The Athletic, recently wrote about Vancouver’s power play having a drastically new approach, and there’s always risk in betting on a new system or look.

But I’m sticking with it.

Peter DeBoer wins the Jack Adams

Not only has veteran coach Peter DeBoer never won the Jack Adams, but he’s never even been a finalist since entering the league in 2008-09 — which is surprising given all the contenders he’s guided, especially in San Jose and Vegas.

And maybe this is a bad pick because people expect the Stars to be very good, and most often voters lean toward coaches whose teams surprised or surpassed expectations.

But I think the Stars are going to have the kind of wire-to-wire, first-place season that will finally get DeBoer recognized. I’m picking him for the Jack Adams outright.

Kane signs in … Florida?

Going to his hometown Sabres makes a lot of sense, but my prediction is that Patrick Kane ends up with the Panthers.

One would think Florida would be more worried about its blue line, my sense is that the Panthers feel they can hang in until Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour return. Panthers general manager Bill Zito had Kane at a world hockey championship, where Zito made him captain.

Can you imagine Kane playing on a line with Aleksander Barkov? I certainly can.

The key for Florida is not to lose too much ground early in the season. The plan for Kane and agent Pat Brisson is to look at the landscape one month into the season and start making a shortlist. The Panthers must stay in it to make that list.

(Top photo of Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews: Kevin Sousa / NHLI via Getty Images)