A lot can happen between today and training camp or opening night, but now that my offseason standings predictions are out there, it’s time to take a look at 10 NHL teams that are trending down for 2018-19.
Some of these teams lost key players or made blatantly bad moves this summer, while others overachieved to varying degrees last season or appear bound to take a step back for a variety of reasons.
Not all these teams will miss the playoffs this season, but all of them are candidates to regress and to struggle in finishing as high or going as far as last season.
Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments below.
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1) Ottawa Senators
Erik Karlsson is still on Ottawa’s roster for the time being, but it’s a foregone conclusion that he’s getting traded and it’s hard to fathom just how far the Senators have fallen since coming within an overtime goal of reaching the Stanley Cup Final two seasons ago.
Now Ottawa is on the verge of losing its franchise player, which could prompt a mass exodus and should trigger a full rebuild. Problem is, the Senators already traded their 2019 first-round pick to Colorado — as part of the package for Matt Duchene — and it’s looking more and more like that pick could turn into Jack Hughes, the projected first overall pick and a potential superstar.
Making matters worse, Duchene is entering the final year of his contract and could walk away as a free agent next summer if he’s not traded (or extended) in the meantime. Duchene infamously stated he was happy to leave Colorado for Ottawa because he wanted to play in the playoffs, but if that’s still his goal, it’ll have to happen somewhere else again.
Mark Stone is slated for arbitration and could also be gone within a year or two, if not a matter of months. Craig Anderson has two seasons left on his contract, but his name has also surfaced in the rumour mill as somebody looking to get out of Ottawa sooner than later. Guy Boucher is going to be a lame-duck coach this season as well, with this the final year of his current contract, so expect wholesale changes in the Canadian capital.
Poor Pierre Dorion, he might be the only person left from the current regime and from that improbable 2017 playoff run. That is, as long as he keeps doing as Eugene Melnyk demands. It’s a disaster in Ottawa right now and it’s bound to get worse before it gets better again.
2) New York Islanders
The outlook isn’t looking much better for the Islanders, who already lost the face of their franchise when John Tavares headed home to Toronto. Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle are entering the final season of their contracts before free agency and could become trade bait if not extended soon.
Lou Lamoriello was successful in recruiting Stanley Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz to Brooklyn but failed in retaining Tavares and in replacing his presence in the aftermath. Aside from last month’s draft, which was an overwhelming success for the scouting staff, the Islanders have had a miserable offseason. Lamoriello has been retooling with toughness, but he’s been unable to fill the scoring void left by Tavares.
That means putting more pressure on Mathew Barzal to light it up as a sophomore — while getting much more attention from the opposition as the Islanders’ go-to guy now — and relying on Robin Lehner to keep the goals-against down at the other end.
It’s not a recipe for success and Trotz won’t be able to work wonders with what’s left of the Islanders’ roster. This is a lottery team, as of today.
3) Vancouver Canucks
The Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, will be missed. They were still very capable and contributing top-six forwards in their final season before retirement, and the Canucks haven’t signed, nor acquired any top-six talents in the offseason.
Instead, Vancouver is turning the team over to its youth movement — led by likely new captain Bo Horvat, sophomore sniper Brock Boeser and uber-talented Swedish rookie Elias Pettersson. Quinn Hughes, this year’s seventh overall pick, is still deciding whether to turn pro or return to college, but he could also be a big part of the Canucks’ attack from the blue line as a rookie.
That group will grow together under Travis Green, but there will almost certainly be growing pains. Expectations will be low and a high draft pick will be welcomed with Vancouver hosting the 2019 draft next June. The future could be bright for the Canucks, but Jim Benning, Trevor Linden and specifically Francesco Aquilini will need to take a patient approach to the next couple seasons. So far, so good on that front.
4) New Jersey Devils
Taylor Hall is the reigning league MVP, taking the Devils on his back in the second half en route to winning the Hart Trophy and, more importantly, earning a playoff berth. Normally, Cory Schneider has the Devils on his back and that will likely need to be the case for a repeat performance since Ray Shero hasn’t been active in improving New Jersey this offseason.
The Devils are worse on paper than where they left off and most would agree that they were overachievers last season. New Jersey might not be a one-year wonder, but this is a team that may go backwards before it can go forward again. Nobody should be surprised if the Devils miss the playoffs in 2019. That is, unless Shero gets back to work before the puck drops in October.
5) Minnesota Wild
Ryan Suter’s recovery from a badly broken ankle is the main factor for Minnesota’s anticipated decline or demise, and Paul Fenton — knowing Suter’s importance from their time together in Nashville — should have been more proactive in plugging that hole. Sure, Suter might be back for the season opener and shouldn’t be sidelined as long as his former Predators partner Shea Weber in Montreal, but Suter will likely be a shell of his former self for some time upon returning. See Andrej Sekera in Edmonton, who never fully got up to speed last season following a serious knee surgery that is taking at least a full year to recover from.
Greg Pateryn, a journeyman now on a three-year contract, isn’t going to pick up that slack and the Wild will surely fall back to the pack if their minute-munching, all-situation blueliner is missing for any length of time. Devan Dubnyk’s stats would also take a hit without Suter, and Minnesota has never been a team known for outscoring the opposition.
Bruce Boudreau deserves a ton of credit for already getting the most out of Minnesota’s offence — especially from Eric Staal and Mikko Koivu, who should be past their prime and tailing off in terms of production — but the Wild’s forward group isn’t going to be any better with the fourth-line additions of Eric Fehr, Matt Hendricks and J.T. Brown. Fenton missed the mark with those signings too, perhaps losing more by buying out Tyler Ennis than he gained in those three combined. We shall see based on this season’s results.
However, losing Suter — or the Suter of old, assuming he’s hobbled or slowed to some degree — is the real issue for Minnesota and the reason the Wild wound up on this list. It’s also why the Wild won’t likely make the playoffs in 2019.
6) Colorado Avalanche
The Avs are somewhat similar to the Devils, with Nathan MacKinnon doing much of the heavy lifting for Colorado in finishing as a Hart runner-up to Hall. Joe Sakic dipped into free agency for depth players like Ian Cole and Matt Calvert, but Colorado’s core hasn’t changed.
The Avs are staying the course with their young roster, hoping continued development from the likes of Mikko Rantanen, Tyson Jost, Alex Kerfoot and J.T. Compher up front, plus Samuel Girard and Nikita Zadorov on the back end, will be enough to stay in the playoff picture.
That’s asking a lot in a much-improved division where St. Louis and Dallas are clearly trending up, even if Minnesota is trending down. Colorado will need more heroics from MacKinnon and consistently stellar goaltending from the tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Philipp Grubauer to grab a wild-card berth again.
Consider the Avalanche a bubble team, a definite maybe — dependent on the maturation of those youngsters and Jared Bednar’s ability to bottle up last season’s magic.
7) Vegas Golden Knights
Ditto for Vegas, in terms of bottling up that magic from its miraculous expansion season, but the Golden Knights should have some staying power based on their playoff performance. It would be foolish to bet against them again, even if some of the underlying numbers suggest a regression is inevitable.
That inaugural success may not be sustainable, having rode a non-stop wave of momentum all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, but Vegas was no fluke and the Golden Knights weren’t just lucky. From William Karlsson to Alex Tuch and Colin Miller to Shea Theodore, this team landed a lot of legit talent and Marc-Andre Fleury is still a top-10 starting goaltender, so any drop off will likely be modest. Don’t expect Karlsson to score 40-plus goals again, but don’t expect a freefall in the standings either.
Vegas lost James Neal and David Perron to free agency but signed Paul Stastny and will be getting a full season of trade-deadline acquisition Tomas Tatar. That should be a wash and thus the Golden Knights have to be considered the favourites to top the Pacific Division again, even if it’s by a much slimmer margin. Vegas probably won’t be in the mix for the Presidents’ Trophy this time around but still seems like a lock for a playoff spot.
8) Los Angeles Kings
These last three teams are debatable for belonging on this list, with the Kings being a club that could go either way. On one hand, they added Ilya Kovalchuk from the KHL and will be getting a full season of Dion Phaneuf and hopefully a healthy campaign from Jeff Carter. On the other hand, Los Angeles has several players coming off a high with captain Anze Kopitar emerging as a Hart finalist and Dustin Brown enjoying a shocking resurgence. Jonathan Quick has become injury-prone in recent years and he’s another integral part of the Kings’ success.
L.A. also suffered an under-the-radar loss when Pierre Turgeon stepped down as the team’s offensive coordinator after helping produce some impressive results that could now regress without his tactical insight — both at even strength and on the power play.
Yet, the Kings could also go up instead of down if That 70s Line can rekindle its chemistry — with Carter between Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson — and if Kovalchuk can turn back time or make up for lost time in flanking Kopitar and Brown. Gabe Vilardi could be an X-factor as a rookie, but the Kings don’t have as much forward depth outside of their top six as some of their division rivals and that could be the difference in determining which teams are playoff bound.
9) Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks finished second in their division despite a down year from Corey Perry and a lengthy stretch without Ryan Kesler. The latter could again be sidelined for some or all of this season, which is an ongoing concern for Anaheim, though it managed to get by without him for much of last season. The Ducks are expecting to have Patrick Eaves back in the fold — returning from a season-long illness — so that’s good news.
The bad news is Perry and Ryan Getzlaf aren’t getting any younger, and Kesler could be closer to retiring than contending for another Selke Trophy as one of the league’s top two-way forwards. Kesler would be sorely missed in Anaheim’s depth chart, as a middle-six centre, but the Ducks might be able to overcome his absence for the second year in a row.
It’s tough to say how Anaheim will fare, or whether Randy Carlyle will be able to push the right buttons at the right times to keep this team in the playoff picture. One thing is for certain, the Alberta teams — Edmonton and Calgary — will be pushing up and the California clubs — Anaheim, Los Angeles and even San Jose — will have a hard time holding them down. When the dust settles, the Ducks could end up being grounded and humbled below the cut line. In that case, Bob Murray would have to blow it up in Anaheim.
10) Boston Bruins
Following the opening day of free agency, on July 2, Boston was boasting the third-best Stanley Cup odds for 2019 — behind only Atlantic foes Toronto and Tampa Bay. The Leafs and Lightning are understandably ranked 1-2, but the Bruins looked a little out of place at No. 3 — ahead of the reigning champion Washington Capitals and the two-time Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins, among other strong contenders like Winnipeg, Nashville and even Vegas.
Expect those odds to get longer for Boston as the season progresses, with Toronto and Tampa Bay pulling away from the Bruins, and with the Florida Panthers and potentially the Buffalo Sabres gaining ground in that division. Third place in the Atlantic is no sure thing for Boston, let alone third place overall.
The Bruins still have one of the best lines in hockey — comprised of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak — along with a solid defence corps and good goaltending, but Boston is being overrated by the bookies. Playoff team? Yes, most likely. Cup contender? Not in this author’s eyes, but I’ve been wrong before!
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.