Over the course of the 2013-14 NHL regular season, I was able to watch more hockey than I had in a long time – thanks, mostly, to the nature of my job.
I say that only to point out that I was exposed to more teams around the NHL than those I would normally pay attention to, and came to appreciate and get excited about a few of them.
As the playoffs begin wind down and in advance of the draft, free agency and training camp (!), here are three NHL teams that I’ll be keeping a close eye on moving forward.
The Dallas Stars were one of the most entertaining teams in the NHL this season, mainly due to the killer combination of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, as well as the dynamic offensive talent of rookie Valeri Nichushkin.
While many believed the team would be improved with Seguin in the mix, few anticipated a playoff appearance backed by a fourth-place finish in total points for the 22-year-old. Benn finished five points behind his new center, and became even more of a household name after a breakout international performance as a member of Team Canada at the Winter Olympics.
Throw in a near-elite level goalie in Kari Lehtonen (who cracked the top ten in terms of even strength save percentage), exciting young players such as Alex Chiasson and Cody Eakin, and prospects like Brett Ritchie, Jason Dickinson and Jamie Oleksiak, and the Stars should continue to shine for years to come.
Columbus Blue Jackets
It was very hard not to root for CBJ in the playoffs, but if you were paying attention all season, you would have noticed that a win over the Pittsburgh Penguins might not have been as big of an upset as it would have seemed.
Ryan Johansen busted out in a big way, to the tune of 33 goals and 30 assists, while Sergei Bobrovsky cam very near to maintaining his Vezina-worthy pace of 2013 (.931 5-on-5 Sv% as compared to .941 in 2013). The Blue Jackets boast a roster full of hard-working players at both ends of the ice, typified by rookie Boone Jenner, who will only continue to endear himself to hockey fans with his mix of offensive and physical talents.
With Kerby Rychel on the horizon and a healthy Nathan Horton on deck, Columbus will continue to be a fun team to watch.
New York Islanders
Stick with me here, folks.
Despite a poor 2013-14, it wasn’t that long ago that the Islanders were pushing the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs. And while John Tavares missed a good portion of the season due to an injury suffered in Sochi, Kyle Okposo demonstrated why he was drafted seventh overall in 2006 with 27 goals and 42 assists in 71 games. That kind of production alongside a healthy JT, and the Islanders have as good a duo as any to build around.
The Islanders now have a legitimate number one goalie in Jaroslav Halak, a potential Selke nominee in Frans Nielsen and a force on the blue line in Travis Hamonic, with Ryan Strome, Griffin Reinhart, Calvin de Haan and the fifth overall pick all on the way. Make no mistake about it: the Islanders are a team on the rise.
There you have it: three NHL teams that, in my estimation, will be pretty fun to watch next season and beyond.
Who did I miss?