Bold NHL predictions for 2024: A Canadian team makes the Stanley Cup Final

By Ryan Dixon, Sportsnet

What was the wildest hockey thing that happened in 2023?

Was it a seemingly cursed franchise making the Stanley Cup Final from the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference? Maybe it was having the first 100-point showing by a defenceman in over 30 years and the first 150-point campaign by anybody in nearly the same amount of time occurring in the same season?

How about a team widely believed to be a Cup contender falling flat out of the gate and getting its coach fired? Or an all-time great hitting a goal-scoring wall and making us wonder if we’ll be denied a historic chase?

From the Florida Panthers’ great run, to stunning seasons from Erik Karlsson and Connor McDavid, to No. 97’s Oilers beginning this year 2-9-1 to Alex Ovechkin’s sudden goal-scoring drought, the past 12 months have given us no shortage of shockers.

Which brings us to the next 12.

Surely 2024 — with some great storylines already percolating this year and more than a little off-season intrigue to follow — will bring us some incredible happenings.

We obviously don’t know what’s in store yet, but guessing is more than half the fun. With that in mind, here’s a six-pack of spicy predictions for the new hockey year ahead.

Stamkos dons a new sweater

Last time, in 2016, it came down to the wire before Steven Stamkos re-upped with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Eight years, two Cups and a cemented legacy later, the Lightning captain will opt to ink with another squad as a UFA this summer when — after another early playoff exit for the Bolts — it becomes clear both he and the Lightning are ready to head down different paths.

Of course, the twist will be Stammer signing with his old GM Steve Yzerman in Detroit when, after just failing to make the post-season, the Red Wings once again go hard in the summer to try and accelerate their rebuild.

Ovi resumes his pursuit of history

Alex Ovechkin might be on pace for 16 goals right now, but he’s shooting five per cent after firing no worse than 13.2 per cent in the past six years and 12.8 per cent for his career. Also, the horrendous Caps power play will find its groove under new coach (and power-play guru) Spencer Carbery in the new year, resulting in more one-time crushers by Ovechkin.

Washington’s No. 8 will score 23 times between now and the end of the season, opening 2024-25 just 43 goals away from tying Wayne Gretzky’s all-time mark of 894.

Yes, the Flyers make the playoffs. And when Pittsburgh doesn’t …

The Keystone State will very much be part of the 2024 hockey conversation.

The Philadelphia Flyers — supposedly in the midst of a ground-up rebuild — will not only hang onto an Eastern Conference playoff spot, but they’ll give a division winner all it can handle in the first round. And the accelerated timeline is just fine for Philly because it sort of drafted the equivalent of a first-overall talent last June when Matvei Mitchkov fell to the Flyers at No. 7. It’s the best of both worlds for GM Daniel Brière and Co.

Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Penguins will fall short of the post-season for the second straight spring, kicking off all kinds of hand-wringing about the team’s future. With no reason to believe things will be much better in 2024-25, we’ll hear the first whispers about whether the club and its crew of mid-30s players — including Sidney Crosby — need to sit down and have a heart-to-heart about how everyone sees the next few years playing out.

Columbus wins the draft lottery … a few weeks after cleaning house

The Columbus Blue Jackets had the second-best odds to win the pick that would lead to Connor Bedard last May, but were leapfrogged by the Chicago Blackhawks. This time out — even with longer odds — the balls will fall Columbus’ way, and they’ll be able to pair Adam Fantilli with Macklin Celebrini for a 1-2 combo down the middle that’ll soon be the envy of the league.

Of course, after two awful seasons and the Mike Babcock fiasco, Jackets ownership will be throwing the keys to a new regime that immediately benefits from what’s already in place and the opportunity to take Celebrini.

Speaking of No. 1 picks …

Bedard finishes with 83 points

We all came into this season raving about what a shooter Bedard is and the Blackhawks rookie — on pace to net over 30 goals — has certainly done nothing to dispel the notion he’s a future Rocket Richard winner. But the 18-year-old’s playmaking has been equally impressive and by picking up the pace just a little in the second half, Bedard is going to join Peter Forsberg, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Connor McDavid and Mathew Barzal as the only point-per-game freshman since the mid-1990s.

(Didn’t see Barzal coming, did you?)

A Canadian team makes the Stanley Cup Final

Yes, we had that wild Habs run in the pandemic-shortened 2021 year, but a Canadian team has not advanced to the showcase series after an 82-game schedule since Vancouver lost Game 7 of the final on home ice to Boston in 2011.

That changes this year when the Toronto Maple Leafs finally find the right post-season mix, backed by Joseph Woll’s goaltending. Or when the Vancouver Canucks validate their incredible regular season by winning the West. If not that, then maybe the Winnipeg Jets — perpetually under the radar — do it thanks to a great top-six forward mix and a  couple blueline reinforcements at the deadline.

Or maybe the Edmonton Oilers go all Panthers this year, snag the last playoff spot in the West in the final days of the season and storm to the final under first-year coach Kris Knoblauch.

We’d like to call the first Cup win for a Canadian club since 1993, but these are bold — not reckless — predictions.

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