Top 5 NHL Teams to Watch This Year NOT Named the Boston Bruins

The sports fan’s relationship with their team is complex. We follow the highlights, read the news stories, cheer and scream at our televisions, and agonize over every move. We love our team, despite the pain they cause us when they let us down. At the end of every year, win or lose, we vow to return because maybe next year is the one they will win it all. 


I certainly live through the curse and the joy of being a fan. I have been a diehard Bruins fan since my early childhood, and I often lose interest in what’s going on in the hockey world once the Bruins have been eliminated from championship contention. This year, however, I’m aiming my sights a little broader on the NHL and keeping an eye on more teams than I have in the past. 


I’m going to outline five teams that I think will be interesting to follow around the NHL this year– whether you like the team or not– and none of them are named the Boston Bruins. 


1. Toronto Maple Leafs


Ah, sometimes the answer to a question like: “Which team will be under a microscope this year?” is elusive. Other times, it stares you right in the face. 

The Maple Leafs saw their postseason ambitions end early last year with a first-round loss to the Montreal Canadiens. That the Canadiens would go on to be Stanley Cup-runners up wouldn’t make the loss any less bitter for the Leafs, whose postseason series win drought is now sixteen seasons and counting. 


(Photo of Mitch Marner) Nickbarden via Creative Commons License

Toronto fans are exhausted with this team, and understandably so. The team has so much elite-level talent that it’s hard to understand why they can’t just win a playoff series. From the NHL’s leading goalscorer last year in Auston Matthews, to their surprise number-one goaltender in Jack Campbell– who managed to set a league record in consecutive wins to start the season last year– to their stalwart defensive core headlined by Jake Muzzin, TJ Brodie, and Morgan Rielly, it seemed impossible that the Leafs could lose to the Canadiens, and yet they did. 


Some fans blamed the series loss on the injury to team captain John Tavares. Others pointed to Mitch Marner and Matthews, the team’s two premier forwards, who failed to score consistently in the postseason (and have for some time now). Ultimately, the facts are the facts. The Leafs failed to deliver on another season that appeared to have genuine Stanley Cup promise. Which is why this season– to quote the title of the recent Amazon Prime series– really may be all-or-nothing for the Leafs. 


With the team’s core in question, this year will be the club’s last chance to win before upper management is forced to start making some changes. 


Leafs Nation will be watching this season very closely, and I will too. Win or lose, this season may be one of the most tumultuous and entertaining years in the history of the Leafs organization.


2. Tampa Bay Lightning


The back-to-back Stanley Cup champions are also on my list for seemingly obvious reasons. The first– and most glaring– is their opportunity for a historic three-peat. Don’t be mistaken: just because the reigning champs lost one of the most effective third lines in all of hockey, as well as a few other pieces of their championship puzzle, doesn’t mean they aren’t contenders again. Any team with the depth and salary-cap savviness that Tampa Bay has has a shot at the Cup. 


Andrei Vasilevskiy
(Photo of Andrei Vasilevskiy) Lisa Gansky via Creative Commons License

Even with the departures of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, Tyler Johnson, and David Savard, the Lightning have an impressive forward and defense corps, driven by top-end talents like Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, and Brayden Point. This is before mentioning that they have the best goalie in the world with Andrei Vasilevskiy tending between the pipes. 


For many fans, the concern for this team, for many, has been that losing some of their depth players will lead to a weaker roster overall. That said, Tampa has done much to remedy that this offseason. With a few shrewd signings in Corey Perry and Pierre-Eduoard Bellemare and the introduction of young players like Cal Foote and Ross Colton, the Lightning will return to contending form. It will be interesting to see how those young players and offseason acquisitions factor into Tampa’s push for another championship. 


Another exciting component of the Lightning’s upcoming season is how they will play– will they be relaxed throughout the season, confident in their postseason chances, or will they play with a little more anxiety with so many new faces on the roster? In 2019, the Lightning tied the NHL record for most wins in a season but were promptly swept in the first round by the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets. Will Tampa surpass their regular-season record in 2021-22, or simply coast to a playoff spot?


The Lightning will most certainly be securing a berth to the postseason come April; the only question is how close they will come to a third consecutive championship. Whether they complete the three-peat or not, it should be a fascinating season to watch for the Tampa Bay Lightning. 


3. Chicago Blackhawks


Have you ever been in the car with an older relative who doesn’t understand what the GPS is trying to tell them? No matter how loud you turn the volume up, or how insistently you remind them that their turn is coming up, they don’t seem to comprehend what’s going on until it’s too late. Then, upon a sudden realization that they’ve missed their turn, they slam on the brakes, sending the car spinning through traffic to make a U-turn. That was the Chicago Blackhawks’ offseason in a nutshell.


(Photo of Patrick Kane) Lisa Gansky via Creative Commons License

Last year, the Hawks struggled, finishing sixth in the Central Division and twenty-first in the league. Even with Patrick Kane scoring at a 97-point-pace and young players across the board stepping up, the Hawks had another mediocre season while more players from their championship core stepped away from the team and the game. 


It seemed like Blackhawks management would no longer be able to support their stars with enough talent to compete for another championship, and thus would sell off their most valuable pieces to embrace the inevitable rebuild. Instead, the Blackhawks slammed on the brakes and made a complete U-turn, spending big to trade and re-sign Seth Jones and then trading for last year’s Vezina Trophy winner, Marc-Andre Fleury. At the same time, they let a young talented player in Pius Suter walk away in free agency. 


Ownership is gearing up for what seemed impossible just a few months ago: one more attempt at a championship before the franchise collapses. Management obviously feels that the fanbase and the longest-tenured players deserve one more chance at capturing the Stanley Cup. But the question remains whether or not the Hawks’ new acquisitions can make as big a difference as the club hopes. Fleury won the Vezina last year as the league’s best goalie, but he’s also about to turn 37. Jones has long been touted as an elite number-one defenseman, but after a tough last season in Columbus, it remains to be seen whether he can rebound. 


The Hawks enter this season as the team with the most question marks in the NHL. It will be intriguing to see whether or not they can return to championship form. 


4. New Jersey Devils


The Devils, too, had an entertaining offseason, getting in on the Dougie Hamilton sweepstakes and winning big, signing the defenseman to a seven-year, $63 million deal. Not only did they sign Hamilton, but they also added Tomas Tatar and Jonathan Bernier through free agency and acquired Ryan Graves and Christian Jaros through trade. It seems clear that New Jersey, a team that has been dwelling in the league’s basement for several seasons, is intent on improving now. 


Adding so many talented players during the offseason should help New Jersey progress a little bit faster through their rebuild, but I’m even more interested to see the progress from within. The Devils have become one of my favorite non-Bruins teams over the past several years because of the electric young talent they have within their system. 


(Photo of Pavel Zacha) Lisa Gansky via Creative Commons License

Their top dogs are Jack Hughes–who seems poised for a breakout season–and Nico Hischier–who should recover after an injury-riddled campaign last year– but those top players are strengthened by a young supporting cast that includes Yegor Sharangovich, Jesper Bratt, Janne Kuokkanen, Pavel Zacha, Micheal McLeod, and Ty Smith.  


The energizing youth group already in the big leagues was only augmented with New Jersey’s selection in the NHL entry draft this past July, Jack Hughes’ brother Luke, selected with the fourth overall pick. The prospect of the Hughes brothers playing on the same team in just a few years is exciting, to say the least. 


I don’t expect the Devils to make the playoffs this year, especially looking at the talented groups with whom they will have to compete within the Eastern conference over the regular season. However, I expect the Devils to take a step forward, and I’m curious to see how far forward that step will be. 


5. Seattle Kraken


I saved perhaps the most exciting team for last– the NHL’s newest team with (in my opinion) the most unique logo and name in the league: the Seattle Kraken. 


The Vegas Golden Knights lit the league on fire in their inaugural season, advancing to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. To say they set expectations high for the Kraken would be an understatement. Before I proceed, I should let it be known that I don’t expect the Kraken to be competing against the Eastern Conference Champions this June, though it’s not totally out of the question. I think the Kraken are certainly in contention for a playoff spot, especially in the league’s weakest division, but they are by no means a lock for the postseason.\


(Phillipp Grubauer with the Capitals in 2016) Michael Miller via Creative Commons License

Part of the reason the Golden Knights made it so far in the playoffs in 2018 is how they handled the expansion draft, capitalizing on the financial and time constraints teams around the league were under to acquire talented players immediately. This was not a strategy the Kraken employed, opting instead to chase bigger fish in free agency, like Phillipp Grubauer. Whether or not this strategy is more effective than Vegas’ remains to be seen, but looking at Seattle’s roster, there aren’t any clear superstars at any position. 


Still, the Kraken do have two advantages over the rest of the league: superior depth and players with real potential. The Kraken’s depth is almost unparalleled in the NHL– though there are no true superstars, every position has a strong group of quality players and no actual weak links. On top of that, the expansion franchise offers opportunities to some talented players who were not given opportunities on their prior teams, which could lead to a breakout for these players in new environments. Vegas had William Karlsson and Shea Theadore– could Seattle have a sleeper star in the lineup too? 


The NHL’s newest team will be thrilling to watch this season, even if it’s just seeing their new uniforms on the ice, but if they can find postseason success, it will be all the more engaging for fans and viewers alike. 




Those are my picks for the most noteworthy NHL teams to watch this year (besides the Bruins), but I didn’t get to every team I’m curious about this season. I certainly have questions about Carolina’s very dubious offseason and whether Alex Ovechkin can lead the Capitals back to Stanley Cup contention at 36. 


Keep an eye on those teams, and let me know what you think in the comments below.