Panthers, Red Wings, MVP candidates are on fans' minds

Roberto Luongo and Dylan Larkin are key cogs for their teams this season. USA TODAY Sports

Happy new year!

With college football over and NFL teams getting eliminated every weekend, a few more eyeballs will be making their way to hockey in America, both the NCAA and NHL. The momentum slowly starts to build toward the NCAA Frozen Four (held this year in Tampa, Florida) and the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Let's get back into things in 2016 with a #TwitterBagSkate. Now, on to our top NHL story:

The numbers say yes. They are tied for the league lead with an average of 2.12 goals against per game (when backup goalies have gaudy statistics, that is the sign of a good defensive team), and on the other end are tied for 13th in scoring at 2.62 goals per game. They are scoring by using the entire roster, but to make a playoff run I think they are probably going to need some help, primarily on the wings.

Jaromir Jagr is a great story, arguably the most popular player in the NHL in terms of how fans react to him, especially when he's scoring. How Jagr, 44, has matured into a likeable, committed player has been a fascinating story. His relationship with hockey has turned into maniacal, unconditional love. I wonder whether he's also kinder to team staff and employees than in the past, and whether he tips well. As great of a story as Jagr is, a 44-year-old leading your team in goals is not a good sign. Come playoff time, it will be more difficult to score, and Jagr's batteries will likely be emptier.

Dale Tallon is a fearless GM, and I'm sure he will try to do something bold if he can, but the Florida Panthers are set up well. Aleksander Barkov, as we said here earlier this season, took a leap forward this year. He's is a stout, 20-year-old, 200-pound beast. He's got a big Finnish head and saucy hands around the net. He's an absolute No. 1 center who will likely end up finishing as the Panthers goals leader. He is quickly emerging as one of the best all-around centers in the Eastern Conference.

Add in another No. 1 positional player in defenseman Aaron Ekblad and you have pillars for success. The Panthers' recent 12-game win streak has given them the cushion they should need to make the playoffs, which is huge. Florida has made the playoffs once since 2000. They haven't won a playoff series since the 1996 Eastern Conference finals. With that kind of record, wow, can one possibly blame the hockey fans of South Florida for turning out ... in low numbers?

Yes, I think that works out perfectly. Current captain Henrik Zetterberg is making $7.5 million this season, but he has five more years on a cap-friendly contract ($1 million per year in the final two years) that takes him to age 40. He'll retire at that point, assuming he's stayed healthy enough to make it that far. Teammates say fellow Red Wing Justin Abdelkader is captain material.

If Zetterberg finishes his contract as the captain, Abdelkader will be 34 by then. Dylan Larkin will be 25. That would be a perfect time to pass the torch, assuming it doesn't happen before then. The Wings view Larkin as their Jonathan Toews-like centerpiece for the next dozen years, as one of their elite pillars. They need to find more, though.

I haven't seen everyone play, but I would think these guys will be among the initial list of top 10 finalists:

1. Michael Garteig, G, Quinnipiac (19-1-3, .940 save percentage)

2. Drake Caggiula, F, North Dakota (productive and entertaining)

3. Kyle Connor, F, Michigan (Winnipeg Jets first-rounder, electric player)

4. Andrew Poturalski, New Hampshire (leads nation in scoring, is fast, skilled)

5. Jimmy Vesey, F, Harvard (third in nation at 1.64 points per game)

6. Colin White, F, Boston College (coming on strong, well-rounded player, Ottawa Senators first-rounder)

We still have two solid months of #cawlidgehawkey to go, so the race for the Hobey Baker Award as the nation's top college player is still wide-open.

1. Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

2. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

3. Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars

I usually wait until after the trade deadline to give the undefeated, definitive Stanley Cup list. But for now, I would say the Stanley Cup will come from one of the following teams: Blackhawks, Stars, Capitals, Montreal Canadiens, Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers or Los Angeles Kings.

Keep an eye on these teams if they make a big trade that ends up working: Boston Bruins, St. Louis Blues, Minnesota Wild, San Jose Sharks.

Remember, there are some changes to the draft lottery this year. There will now be three separate draws for the first three picks, which means the team with the fewest regular-season points is no longer guaranteed at least the second overall pick. The league's worst team could fall as low as fourth in the draft order. The odds to get the first pick of the draft by finishing last are 20 percent -- the 29th-place team has a 13.5 percent chance, 28th place is 11.5, and so on.

I think the bottom five will probably end up including the Jets, Columbus Blue Jackets, Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs. The fifth team is difficult to project. If Connor McDavid comes back in early February, the Edmonton Oilers could finish strong. The Pacific Division is interesting because there is such variance. The team that gets scorching hot in the last 30 games of the season could make the playoffs. Or the Oilers could be brutal and be in the bottom five. It will be fun to watch.