Will Connor McDavid catapult Edmonton back into the postseason? Can the newly acquired Brian Elliot stop enough pucks to get the Flames into the playoffs? Could the Maple Leafs surprise everyone and make the playoffs under the tutelage of Mike Babcock?
So many questions, so few answers.
Everyone is at least a little bit optimistic at this time of the year. Even teams with dauntingly dim playoff hopes can envision a scenario where they make the postseason.
As someone who covers the Canucks for THW, it is safe to say that the Canucks have one of the worst — if not the worst — chance of making the postseason. That being said, if absolutely everything goes right for the Canucks then yes, they could challenge for a playoff spot. If the Sedins stay healthy and some of their young players take a step forward, they will score more goals. If the young defence gels together quickly, they will prevent more scoring chances. If Ryan Miller and Jacob Markstrom play as well as they did last year, then the Canucks have a fighting chance.
To put it bluntly, it’s a long shot.
I’m not optimistic enough to think the Canucks will make the playoffs, but I do believe these five teams have a solid chance of returning to the playoff fold in 2016-17.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils were missing offence last year, in a big way. Kyle Palmieri was a great story after breaking out with 30 goals in a career year, but the Devils still scored less than any other team in the NHL.
It wasn’t because of bad puck luck either. The Devils deserved to finish dead last in goals scored. They directed the puck towards the net less than any other team last season, and they finished with the second-lowest amount of scoring chances as well.
Enter, Taylor Hall.
The first overall pick from 2010 injects some much-needed life into the Devils offence. Whichever centre he plays with, he will make them better. Many think that will be his junior teammate Adam Henrique, but don’t rule out Travis Zajac or rookie Pavel Zacha. Just look at how good Leon Draisaitl played with Hall on his wing last season.
The Devils lost Adam Larsson on defence, leaving their club with a hole on the blueline. However, this team already has an extremely underrated defence. The Devils allowed the fourth-fewest shots against, despite lacking a true top pairing or a number one defencemen. John Hynes might have been one of the most underrated coaches in the league last season for helping the Devils subpar defence overachieve.
Losing Adam Larsson hurts, but their defence shouldn’t fall apart without him. When the Devils do let shots get through to the net, they have one of the best goaltenders in the world to bail them out. With Cory Schneider stealing games, and Hall injecting some offence, this underrated team could return to the playoffs.
After the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning, there will be a dogfight between the following five teams in the Atlantic Division.
The Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators could be fighting for their playoff lives right up until the end of the season. At least one of those teams will secure a playoff spot.
With their young core emerging along with some key offseason additions, the Buffalo Sabres are a good bet to return to the postseason for the first time since 2010-11.
Despite finishing with 81 points en route to a seventh-place finish in their division, the Sabres played at a 94-point pace over the second half of their season. During that time, they watched Rasmus Ristolainen flourish into a top-pairing defenceman. At 21-years-old, he is only going to get better.
The Sabres also watched rookie sensation Jack Eichel form chemistry with Sam Reinhart. Both players are potential stars if they aren’t already. Ryan O’Reilly came as advertised, as a first-line centre. Their offence also got better with the signing of Kyle Okposo.
Their biggest question mark remains in net. Robin Lehner has played well while healthy, but his first year in Buffalo was a rough one. He only made it into 21 games after being injured in the first game of the season. However, he still finished the year with a .924 save percentage. If Lehner can hold down the fort, Buffalo should return to the postseason.
Carey Price. Is that enough to convince you that Montreal is returning to the playoffs?
The Canadiens clearly proved to everyone how valuable Price is to their organization. Montreal had one of the worst records in the league during the second half of last season. Among other reasons, it was a factor in the trade of P.K. Subban. No one on the roster, other than Price, was untouchable after last season’s debacle.
With a healthy Price in net, the Canadiens should be good enough to return to the playoffs. Despite coming off as losers in the swap for Shea Weber, they still boast a bonafide number one defenceman on their roster. The rest of their defence remains solid with Andrei Markov, Jeff Petry, Nathan Beaulieu and Alexi Emelin.
Up front, youngsters Alex Galchenyuk and Brenden Gallagher are still improving, and Max Pacioretty is a first-line sniper. Weber will also help a powerplay that was dismal last season. The former Predator had 14 powerplay goals last season, compared to Subban’s two.
However, this is all about Price. If he stays healthy, there is no reason why this team doesn’t make the playoffs. It’s either that or head coach Michel Therrien doesn’t last through the season.
The Flames were a prime candidate for regression after they made a surprising playoff appearance in 2014-15. Their poor possession metrics were bound to lead to their downfall.
Well, that was part of the problem. The main issue was that their goaltending was putrid. General manager Brad Treliving solved that issue by replacing the underachieving trio of Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo and Joni Ortio with veterans Brian Elliot and Chad Johnson.
Another reason for Calgary’s poor possession was former coach Bob Hartley’s knack for making his team collapse around the net. Calgary allowed the fourth most shot attempts last season, but the 11th-fewest unblocked shot attempts against. Calgary might have blocked a ton of shots, but the ones that were getting through weren’t being stopped. The Flames regression was due in large part to Hartley’s coaching style, which is why it wasn’t surprising to see him fired, despite winning the Jack Adams trophy in 2014-15.
Calgary still boasts one of the best defensive units in the league, with a top-three of Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie, and Dougie Hamilton. They have two of the best starts in the game up front in Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. They also added some grit and experience with the acquisitions of Troy Brouwer and Alex Chiasson.
The changes in Calgary during the offseason should push them back into the postseason, as long as they lock up Johnny Gaudreau.
Similar to the Flames, the Jets took a step back after a solid 2014-15 season. With the amount of talent they have on their roster, they should return to the playoff fold.
Mark Scheifele was one of the hottest players in the league in the latter half of last season, with 32 points in his last 25 games. Newly appointed captain Blake Wheeler was also an offensive dynamo, tying for sixth overall in NHL scoring last season.
They headline a top-six that also includes Bryan Little and Nikolaj Ehlers. Rookies Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine should also help propel this emerging Jets offence. Add the always-dangerous Dustin Byfuglien to the mix and it is clear that the Jets shouldn’t have a problem scoring goals. However, they do need to figure out how to score more on the power play, which finished dead last in the NHL.
Winnipeg’s defence looks solid on paper as well, with Byfuglien, Tyler Myers, Tobias Enstrom, and the unsigned Jacob Trouba rounding out the top four. Preventing shots was not an issue for the Jets, but keeping the puck out of their own net was.
Despite allowing the eighth-fewest shots against at even-strength, the Jets had the seventh worst save percentage last season. Similarly to Buffalo, the biggest question mark regarding the Jets is what happens in the crease?
For the Jets, the answer is simple. Connor Hellebuyck needs to start for this team. Winnipeg surely has seen enough of Ondrej Pavelec and his subpar goaltending over the years to realize that he is not the answer. Neither is backup Michael Hutchinson.
Hellebuyck had a goals-against average of 2.18 last season to go along with a .918 save percentage and two shutouts in 26 games. He has not been pulled once in any of his 26 NHL starts. In contrast, Pavelec and Hutchinson combined last season had a 2.81 goals-against-average with a .905 save percentage.
If Hellebuyck starts and plays like he did last season, there is no reason why the Jets shouldn’t push for a playoff spot, even in the ultra-competitive Central Division.