Another regular season in the NHL has come and gone, and while the 16 teams who were good and/or fortunate enough to qualify for the postseason are in the midst of battling it out for league supremacy, there are 14 other teams in this league who deserve some attention as well.
Each year, we consistently see a few teams qualify for the playoffs who would have come as complete and total surprises to the vast majority of fans had you told them they would pull off such a feat in the previous offseason. This year, the Western Conference was ripe with surprise teams to make the playoffs. With usual playoff fixtures such as Los Angeles and San Jose failing to qualify and last year’s playoff teams Colorado an Dallas failing to repeat, the door was wide open for fresh blood in the Western Conference playoff picture. The benefactors of this were the Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets, and Nashville Predators, all of whom were put on the outside looking in by most experts heading into the season.
That being said, there are sure to be some similar stories next season as well. Some teams on this list we may be able to see coming, but some may come almost entirely out of nowhere to shock the entire hockey world. Without further ado, here are my top five candidates to reverse their fortunes next season and find themselves in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
5. Carolina Hurricanes
This will probably be the most controversial selection on this list, but while many look at the Carolina Hurricanes and see a team without direction, I see lots of reason for optimism in the Tarheel State. Rookie head coach Bill Peters doesn’t get much press, but the turnaround in the fundamentals of the Hurricanes’ game this season when compared to last year was astounding.
In my viewings this year, I’m hard pressed to think of many teams who did a better job on the forecheck than Carolina did. They made it hell on earth for opposing teams to move the puck out of their own zone, and the result was a team who ranked near the top of the league in possession metrics.
Quick, list the teams who were better even strength, score close possession teams than Carolina from January 1st, 2015 on. If you guessed that there were only three such teams in the league, and that they were Pittsburgh, Winnipeg, and Los Angeles, congratulations! You’re right.
Plagued by early injuries to Jordan Staal, Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner, and Andrej Sekera, Carolina got off to a miserable start and found themselves virtually out of the playoff picture in November. But the injuries to their veterans allowed for opportunities for the youth of the franchise to step up, and that’s exactly what they did.
Whether you knew it or not, Justin Faulk was one of the ten or so best defensemen in the NHL this season. Elias Lindholm, the fifth overall pick from 2013, put up an impressive 39 points in 81 games, and he appears to be poised for a huge breakout next season. Swedish center Victor Rask was also a revelation for the Hurricanes this season
With Elias Lindholm, Jeff Skinner, Victor Rask, Riley Nash, Andrej Nestrasil, Justin Faulk, Ryan Murphy, and whoever they select at 5th overall this season already in place, there’s a lot to like about the core group of youth this Carolina team has, and they already have the Staal brothers in place to provide guidance and veteran leadership.
With a bounce-back season from Alex Semin, some improved goaltending, and the expected continued development of their youth, it’s not all that hard to imagine the Carolina Hurricanes as a surprise 2016 playoff team.
4. Dallas Stars
Similar to the Carolina Hurricanes, there is a lot to like about the youth group in Dallas. However, the Stars boast one advantage over their fellow Sun Belt franchise that causes them to be ranked ahead of the ‘Canes on this list: top end talent. Jamie Benn casually won the Art Ross Trophy this season as the league leader in points. Oh, and that Tyler Seguin guy? Yeah, he’s pretty good too, I guess.
John Klingberg broke out in a huge way this season, establishing himself as a legitimate top-end offensive defenseman in this league as a rookie. Cody Eakin, Colton Sceviour, Patrick Eaves, Ryan Garbutt, and Antoine Roussel provide solid depth options at forward. The defense, led by Klingberg, Alex Goligoski, and Trevor Daley, is better than it’s given credit for, though another legitimate top four option certainly wouldn’t hurt.
But it doesn’t stop there with the Dallas Stars. Jason Spezza is still an excellent hockey player, and he should continue to excel on a team where he isn’t relied upon as the main guy to drive the offense.
Many pegged the Stars as a team that had vastly improved their roster from one that was already a playoff team in 2014, and as such they were perceived as close to a lock to qualify for the playoffs this year. It didn’t quite work out that way, however, as they were plagued by goaltending issues and injuries throughout the year.
If they can find a reliable goalie on the free agent market on the cheap (or perhaps just keep Jhonas Enroth) who could steal some starts away from Kari Lehtonen and possibly even challenge him for the starter’s spot, that would go a long way in the process to return the Big D to the Big Dance.
3. Edmonton Oilers
Talk about a team that appeared to be left for dead just a little over a month ago. Then, on a fateful night in mid-April, four little ping pong balls changed the course of this franchise forever. That’s right. The Edmonton Oilers won the Connor McDavid sweepstakes, and now they’re poised to make a run to lay claim to the title of Canada’s best NHL team.
When the Oilers won the lottery, it was almost as if a voice popped into owner Daryl Katz’s voice that said, “You know, maybe I should start running this franchise in a competent fashion.” And that’s exactly what he’s done ever since. After years and years of failure, Kevin Lowe was finally removed from his role in the team’s Hockey Operations department.
Then, all of a sudden, Peter Chiarelli was willing to come on as the team’s general manager. Quickly following suit in the role of head coach was Todd McLellan. Suddenly, not only did the Oilers have a competent leadership group, they had an excellent one with championship pedigree.
With the addition of Connor McDavid, the roster’s forward group is pretty much the definition of the word “set”. McDavid, Hall, Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins, Draisaitl, and Yakupov? Yeah, I would say that’s a pretty good looking top six down the road.
There is still work to be done in this offseason though. If the Oilers recent past has taught us anything, it’s that a good group at the top is worthless without capable depth and defense to support it. The Oilers would do well to find a few more NHL-caliber defensemen to add to Justin Schultz (who I think will explode with proper usage), and Mark Fayne. Some of this could come organically with the development of prospects like Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, and Martin Marincin, but wise free agent signings would go a long way to fixing the defense group.
As far as depth forwards, I think they’re in a pretty good spot already. Benoit Pouliot and Teddy Purcell as third line wingers is just fine, but I think they would stand to benefit from adding some bottom six forwards who both have size and are capable of driving play and chipping in occasional offense.
The good news for the Oilers is that they are no longer the forgotten wasteland of the NHL that they once were. Players will WANT to play for them now, and that phenomenon could make all the difference in getting the team over the hump.
2. Los Angeles Kings
In many ways, it almost feels like cheating to include the Los Angeles Kings in this list. I mean, of course the Kings are going to make the playoffs next year, right? There’s no way they could possibly miss the playoffs two years in a row, right? My answer to that question would be “well probably, but maybe not.”
As always, there’s a lot to love about this Kings roster. Jake Muzzin and Norris Trophy Candidate Drew Doughty form what is for my money, the best top pairing in the NHL. Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli, Marian Gaborik, Tanner Pearson, and Dustin Brown make up an excellent forward group, but there is reason to be concerned about the Kings’ chances again going into next season.
For starters, it seems possible that they will lose both Justin Williams and Andrej Sekera to free agency this offseason. Both of those guys are huge to this team as depth skaters that drive play and do pretty much everything right. Jonathan Quick’s performance over a full season can range anywhere from “slightly below average” to “Vezina candidate” with “reasonably above average” seeming to be a happy medium and a solid bet. If he falters next year though, the Kings could again find themselves out of the playoffs, but I don’t think he will.
One motivational factor that the Kings’ front office will have to maximize this roster’s effectiveness is the absence of a 2016 first round pick as a result of the Andrej Sekera deal with Carolina. A lottery ticket is not an asset that Los Angeles will want to let get away, and the best way to avoid that is simply to put a playoff team on the ice.
With a solid core, solid depth, and solid goaltending, there’s very little reason to expect the Los Angeles Kings to miss the playoffs again. I expect them to finish in the top three of their division next year and return to their usual status as Stanley Cup contenders.
1. Columbus Blue Jackets
The fact that the Columbus Blue Jackets sit atop my list of teams who were out of the NHL playoffs this year, but could easily find their way in next year should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who paid any attention to them this season.
With the success of the 2013-2014 season being seen as a huge building block for this franchise to bigger things, expectations for the group were sky high heading into the 2014-2015 NHL season. But as luck would have it, it just wasn’t meant to be for the Jackets this year.
They were absolutely ravaged by injuries all season long. In an 82 game season, it is exceedingly difficult for a team to get going when they never have the team that needs to get going to begin with, if that makes sense.
So with injuries basically causing the team to fall out of the playoff picture very early in the season, the focus shifted to trying to build toward this coming season with some positive energy and momentum, and they sure did deliver on that front. The Blue Jackets finished the season on an absurdly high note, as from March 10th to the end of the season, the team finished off with an astonishing 15-1-1 mark over its last 17 games.
They’ve just named Nick Foligno as the team’s captain, the first in what is sure to be a few steps to getting this team back to the playoffs next year. Up front, the Jackets are loaded with size, skill, and defensive acumen. Ryan Johansen, Nick Foligno, Boone Jenner, Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, Cam Atkinson, Matt Calvert, and others comprise a forward group that is just as talented as it is difficult to play against.
Sergei Bobrovsky is firmly entrenched as the franchise’s number one goalie, and he looks to turn in another excellent season to help guide them to a playoff spot. The one weak point of this roster lies in its defensive unit. For this team to be successful, Ryan Murray needs to stay healthy. He’s been fantastic when he’s been in the lineup, but the problem is that injuries have made it so that he rarely finds himself on the ice. The former #2 overall pick has massive upside and certainly top pairing potential, and a full season of health for him could transform the Columbus Blue Jackets into legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
So there you have it. Those are just five teams that I could see turning it around next season and finding themselves in the NHL playoffs. There were a few teams who just narrowly missed the cut, so if you feel like sticking up for them, be sure to let me know in the comments how wrong I was to exclude your favorite team. Thanks for reading.