Training camps don’t start until mid-September.
At least 30 serviceable free agents are still available — enough for one per team.
However, by and large, the off-season work in terms of roster building is already complete.
That means, on paper, pundits can start predicting the future and the direction each of the NHL’s 31 franchises are trending for the 2017-18 season — be it up, down or staying the course.
This is the first of a three-part series, focusing on 10 teams that appear to be trending up:
1) Dallas Stars
From best in the West in 2016 to missing the playoffs in 2017 — largely because of a rash of injuries — the Stars have made several moves since the end of the season to ensure a post-season berth in 2018 and perhaps another Central Division title or even a Stanley Cup championship.
Yes, Dallas could be the league’s most improved team this coming season. The Stars are almost certain to bounce back with Ken Hitchcock as coach, Ben Bishop between the pipes, Alex Radulov flanking Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn on the top line, Martin Hanzal providing impressive depth down the middle, and Marc Methot stabilizing the defence.
Gone are veteran underachievers like Patrick Sharp, Ales Hemsky and Jiri Hudler, plus Cody Eakin, who also had an ‘off’ year before getting plucked in the expansion draft. Those losses shouldn’t hurt — especially since the first three were hurt for much of last season — and Hanzal may be an upgrade on Eakin. It also helps that both Seguin and Benn are healthy and not recovering from surgeries this summer, so they should hit the ground running again.
John Klingberg should benefit from Methot’s presence — much like Erik Karlsson thrived as his partner in Ottawa — and the Stars can anticipate continued development from the likes of Radek Faksa, Brett Ritchie, Devin Shore, Esa Lindell, Stephen Johns and Jamie Oleksiak. Mattias Janmark and Tyler Pitlick could also provide a boost up front, Dan Hamhuis should be better on the back end, and Kari Lehtonen is a very capable backup behind Bishop.
Add it all up and the stars are aligning for Dallas. Barring injuries again, the sky is the limit for 2017-18.
2) Carolina Hurricanes
Over in the Eastern Conference, the Hurricanes have the potential to be the biggest riser. Many people had pegged Carolina for a breakout last season, making the Hurricanes a popular pick to surprise and squeak into the playoffs, but that proved to be a bit premature.
Now, with Scott Darling getting his chance to be a No. 1 goaltender, and general manager Ron Francis subtly adding significant championship experience with the return of Justin Williams and the acquisitions of Marcus Kruger and Trevor van Riemsdyk, the Hurricanes should climb the standings in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division.
Worth noting, Carolina is barely at the cap floor and thus has loads of salary space to further bolster this promising roster. Time will tell whether Francis (and ownership) is serious about constructing an immediate contender, or if the Hurricanes will continue to rely heavily on internal growth from their young core.
Bill Peters has already been pressing the right buttons and getting the most out of a mediocre lineup over the past couple seasons, so his coaching ability shouldn’t be underestimated. Carolina’s roster still isn’t overly sexy and lacks star power, but it is solid from top to bottom with plenty of room for improvement.
That is, providing the youth keeps progressing, with Sebastian Aho avoiding a sophomore slump, Elias Lindholm and Teuvo Teravainen becoming more consistent forces, and Noah Hanifin blossoming into an elite defender. Fellow blueliners Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce need to keep making a name for themselves too but, ultimately, Justin Faulk and Jeff Skinner, along with Darling, need to power this team into the playoffs.
3) Buffalo Sabres
Don’t sleep on the Sabres — you heard it here first. The Hurricanes may be the more popular pick again, but Buffalo could take an even bigger leap and land in the playoffs over (or with) Carolina.
I’m a fan, and the hiring of Phil Housley as an offensive-minded, defence-grooming coach convinced me that the Sabres will be a team on the rise. Jason Botterill is already doing a bang-up job as Buffalo’s new GM, bolstering the defence with the low-cost acquisitions of Marco Scandella and Nathan Beaulieu, plus the signing of coveted Russian free agent Viktor Antipin.
Housley will do wonders for Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe, while Zach Bogosian and Josh Gorges are still quality depth defenders when healthy too. Buffalo’s defence has gone from obvious bottom 10 to arguably top 15 this offseason and that should translate to more wins.
The biggest key to Buffalo’s success, though, is the health of Jack Eichel and Robin Lehner. Both were hurt at crucial times last season — the latter has been injury-prone in recent years — and their absences sunk for the Sabres. Johan Larsson is an underrated talent whose campaign was cut short by injury, so he could help the team take a step forward too once he’s back up to speed.
Sam Reinhart still has plenty of upside — especially as Eichel’s wingman, considering their chemistry — and so does Zemgus Girgensons, who could be another beneficiary of Housley replacing Dan Bylsma behind the bench. The Sabres are also betting on Benoit Pouliot bouncing back from a buyout in Edmonton and Jason Pominville returning to form in his return to Buffalo — both calculated risks that could be rewarding.
Alex Nylander is another wild-card here, a possible Calder candidate despite his AHL struggles last season as a rookie pro. Regardless, the future is bright for Buffalo and likely getting brighter with Ryan Jankowski now overseeing the Sabres’ amateur scouting. But, in the present, the puck stops with Lehner, and if he holds up, this is a playoff team in my opinion.
4) Calgary Flames
If Buffalo’s defence is top 15, Calgary’s is absolutely top five and likely top three now, right up there with Nashville and Anaheim. The trade acquisition of Travis Hamonic and re-signing of Michael Stone gave the Flames a formidable group, along with Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton. Credit GM Brad Treliving with building one of the league’s best blue lines, having previously acquired Hamilton during the 2015 offseason.
Treliving has also overhauled Calgary’s goaltending since last season, bringing in Mike Smith and Eddie Lack (both via trades) to replace outgoing free agents Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson. Some will argue there were better options available than Smith, but he’s a proven starter and a workhorse, which should make him an upgrade on Elliott.
The Flames managed to retain Kris Versteeg ahead of free agency and signed college standout Spencer Foo for added forward depth. Treliving might still be in the market for another top-nine winger, but all these moves have been made as a means of keeping up with Calgary’s northern neighbour in Edmonton. The Flames were swept by the Oilers in last season’s Battle of Alberta but most of those results came before Christmas when Calgary was struggling out of the gate under new coach Glen Gulutzan. Calgary eventually hit its stride and, with better goaltending, should be a force to be reckoned with in the Pacific Division this coming season — especially if Sam Bennett finally breaks out.
5) Toronto Maple Leafs
Let’s face it, the Leafs overachieved or, rather, exceeded expectations last season. Toronto not only made the playoffs but pushed the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals harder than anybody anticipated in a first-round defeat. That experience bodes well for the future and the Leafs are now looking like a legit playoff team for 2017-18.
Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander will have to avoid the sophomore jinx, but if they can repeat their rookie performances, and Frederik Andersen can stay healthy in goal, the Leafs should continue their climb up the regular-season standings.
Patrick Marleau and Ron Hainsey add more valuable experience and leadership, and Nikita Zaitsev should also be better in his second season in North America. The growth from within should extend to the Connors, Brown and Carrick, while Kasperi Kapanen could crack the lineup full-time and become another impactful rookie.
The future is very bright for Toronto and the present should be too, with Mike Babcock calling the shots.
6) Edmonton Oilers
As much as Calgary has improved this offseason — yes, more so than Edmonton — the Oilers are looking like the team to beat in the Pacific Division going forward.
With Connor McDavid locked up as a $100-million-dollar man and Leon Draisaitl seemingly sure to be signed, Edmonton will have one of the league’s best one-two punches for the next eight years — a dynamic duo that not even Calgary’s defence will be able to contain.
Like Toronto, a lot of things went right for Edmonton last season, and the Oilers already came close to winning a division title while settling for home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Cam Talbot and Adam Larsson both silenced their critics and cemented themselves as key cogs for Edmonton’s future success. McDavid and Oscar Klefbom stayed healthy, which was huge, and the Oilers got crucial contributions from Patrick Maroon, Mark Letestu and Zack Kassian up front, while Kris Russell and Matt Benning were worth their weight in gold on the back end.
Milan Lucic left a little to be desired in his first season with Edmonton and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had a down year offensively, so both have room for improvement. Jordan Eberle, the longest-serving Oiler, was shipped out for Ryan Strome, a cheaper, less established, but more versatile talent who should be mighty motivated in a contract year.
Edmonton is also hoping the signing of Jussi Jokinen can help launch Jesse Puljujarvi’s career towards stardom — as a Finnish mentor, already familiar with the prized prospect. Expect continued growth from Drake Caggiula and Anton Slepyshev, while this could be Darnell Nurse’s breakout season.
Andrej Sekera’s absence — until at least November and possibly February — is going to hurt to some degree, depending on the ability of Benning and Nurse to log top-four minutes. The Oilers also have decent depth on defence, with Eric Gryba, Yohann Auvitu, Ryan Stanton and Mark Fayne battling for NHL roster spots in training camp. Auvitu could be a sneaky good signing, as could Ty Rattie up front.
Peter Chiarelli and Todd McLellan were finalists for the GM and coach of the year awards this past season, so this team is in good hands on and off the ice as the Oilers attempt to start another dynasty in Edmonton.
7) Nashville Predators
Yes, the Preds are coming off a run to the Stanley Cup final, but this team underachieved in the regular season, making the playoffs as the 16th-and-final seed before peaking at the perfect time. Expect Nashville to now pick up where it left off and compete with Dallas for that Central crown.
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise since many were pegging the Predators as contenders prior to last season after they swapped former captain Shea Weber for P.K. Subban in the biggest blockbuster from the summer of 2016.
If defence wins championships, Nashville should be considered a perennial contender going forward as long as Subban is complementing Roman Josi, the emerging Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm to form the league’s best top-four. The Preds also acquired Alexei Emelin from Vegas, an awfully expensive No. 5 rearguard, prompting speculation that one of the other four (most likely Ekholm) could still be moved before the season starts — possibly to Colorado in a package for forward Matt Duchene.
Nashville’s offence did take a bit of a hit this offseason, with Vegas selecting James Neal in the expansion draft and Colin Wilson getting dealt to Colorado for futures. They were replaced by Nick Bonino, from Cup champion Pittsburgh, and Scott Hartnell, returning to Nashville after being bought out by Columbus. Statistically, those four essentially cancel each other out — Neal and Wilson combined to produce four more goals and two more points than Bonino and Hartnell this past season — but the incoming players do seem like downgrades.
Still, the Predators boast one of the league’s budding top lines with Ryan Johansen centering 30-goal scorers Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, and the likes of Colton Sissons, Pontus Aberg and Frederick Gaudreau showed flashes of upside throughout the postseason. Calle Jarnkrok has more to offer too, as does Kevin Fiala once he recovers from a badly broken leg.
Johansen’s health is something of a concern too, but he’s on track to be ready for training camp and will be pivotal to Nashville’s success, especially if the Preds don’t land Duchene.
8) Tampa Bay Lightning
Much like Nashville, this team should have been better last season — Tampa Bay certainly should have been a playoff team and realistically a Cup contender again. However, the Lightning lost their captain in November when Steven Stamkos suffered a serious knee injury and that derailed another promising campaign.
On paper, the current roster isn’t as strong — without Bishop and Jonathan Drouin (traded to Montreal) — but a healthy Stamkos should be able to will the Lightning back into the playoffs and into the mix for an Atlantic Division title.
This is Andrei Vasilevskiy’s time to shine, taking the goaltending torch from Bishop and trying to establish himself as a Vezina candidate in 2017-18. Tampa’s defence has been tweaked with Dan Girardi signed to replace Jason Garrison (lost in expansion draft), while Mikhail Sergachev could make an immediate impact in the top four as the return for Drouin.
Up front, the subtle addition of four-time Cup champion Chris Kunitz provides more depth and he could end up playing on a gritty line with Ryan Callahan, who is apparently healthy again (finally). At the opposite end of the experience spectrum, look for Brayden Point and Vladislav Namestnikov to continue their development into top-six regulars, while Yanni Gourde could emerge as a breakout sensation.
There are a handful of other prospects knocking on the door too, and coach Jon Cooper has done a tremendous job with young talents over the years, so expect Tampa Bay to be a fun team to watch — and a team that wins more often than not.
9) Arizona Coyotes
Out with the old, in with the new. Dave Tippett, Shane Doan and Mike Smith are out. Rick Tocchet, Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta are in, along with defensive stalwart Niklas Hjalmarsson.
Despite swapping out some established talents, the Coyotes are going to be another young, fun-to-watch team with the likelihood of both Clayton Keller and Dylan Strome playing prominent roles as rookies. Arizona needs Anthony Duclair and Max Domi to bounce back as third-year pros, while sophomores such as Christian Dvorak, Brendan Perlini and Jakob Chychrun also need to take another step in their development.
It’s an exciting lineup on paper, with plenty of potential, but Tocchet is tasked with turning this bottom-feeder into a playoff contender. That will be easier said than done in the ever-improving Pacific Division, but the Coyotes should be another team on the rise, with a prospect pipeline to sustain success into the future.
General manager John Chayka may look to add more experience before the offseason is over, but there has already been a significant changing of the guard and Oliver Ekman-Larsson is now the face of Arizona’s franchise going forward. He’ll be the new captain and, paired with Hjalmarsson, could take his game to another level too.
Can Ekman-Larsson carry the Coyotes to a playoff berth the way fellow Swede Erik Karlsson has taken the Ottawa Senators on his shoulders? Time will tell, but there appears to be upward momentum in Arizona amidst all the turnover.
10) New Jersey Devils
The defence is a concern, no doubt — after missing out on Kevin Shattenkirk — but the Devils’ offence should finally be able to outscore the opposition on occasion and provide poor Cory Schneider with some run support this coming season.
The playoffs are still a long-shot, but New Jersey shouldn’t be a lottery team again. Technically, the Devils weren’t even a lottery team last season, but they got lucky in landing the first overall pick and selecting Nico Hischier, whose skill-set should complement last year’s big summer acquisition, Taylor Hall. Fellow newcomer Marcus Johansson adds another weapon up front and sophomore Pavel Zacha could make massive strides, while the likes of Adam Henrique, Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac are more proven types within the top nine. Free-agent signing Brian Boyle is another vet who can help show the way for New Jersey’s kids.
Schneider will be better than last season — a down year by his career standards — but GM Ray Shero should still be shopping for defensive help in front of his elite goalie. Vegas has a couple bodies to move, not that Luca Sbisa or Clayton Stoner would be substantial upgrades, but the Devils should be able to land a couple free agents with the likes of Andrei Markov, Mark Streit and Brian Campbell as veterans on their last legs or Cody Franson, Francois Beauchemin and John-Michael Liles as veterans with a little more left in the tank.
New Jersey has tons of cap space and signing any two of those defenders would be affordable, with another option being KHL standout Chris Lee, who played for Canada at the world championship but will turn 37 years old before the start of the season. As of now, the Devils would be icing a defence of Andy Greene, John Moore, Damon Severson and Ben Lovejoy, plus two of Steven Santini, Mirco Mueller, Josh Jacobs, Brian Strait and Viktor Loov.
That is, for lack of a better word, f-ugly, but Shero is known for building teams from the blue line, so he’s likely not done wheeling and dealing this offseason. I expect Shero’s next move (or moves) will address the defence and better justify New Jersey’s place on this list as a team trending up.
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.