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 up for 2018-19.
Some were big buyers and landed key players this summer, while others are primed to rebound from a down year or continue a steady rise thanks to internal growth.
Not all these teams are destined to make the playoffs this season, but all of them are progressing in the right direction and should take a step forward.
Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments below.
1) Toronto Maple Leafs
John Tavares, Auston Matthews and Nazem Kardi, that is as deep as it gets down the middle and centre is a position of power in today’s NHL.
The addition of John Tavares has made the Maple Leafs betting favourites to win the Stanley Cup…https://t.co/3EzZ4WfiZ8
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) July 1, 2018
Granted Toronto lost James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak, among other bit pieces, in making room for Tavares’ mega-deal, but the Leafs also have one of the league’s best feeder systems in the AHL champion Marlies, which allows for replacements from within such as Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen.
Toronto’s top-10 forwards are dynamite and shouldn’t skip a beat in outscoring the opposition on most nights. There is some hope for the signings of Par Lindholm and Tyler Ennis too, but if they don’t pan out, the Leafs still have Josh Leivo, Josh Jooris, Adam Cracknell and prospects like Carl Grundstrom and Frederik Gauthier, so there are no worries up front.
The defence is more worrisome, especially if Morgan Rielly or Jake Gardiner were to get hurt for an extended time, but the hope is for Nikita Zaitsev to bounce back and for Travis Dermott to take another step. Ron Hainsey is the veteran anchor and there will be competition between Connor Carrick, Justin Holl, Andreas Borgman, Calle Rosen, KHL signing Igor Ozhiganov and Martin Marincin to round out that group, with Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin representing the future.
Frederik Andersen has been stellar as Toronto’s last line of defence and he thrives when facing a high shot volume, so goaltending shouldn’t be a concern either.
All in all, Toronto is suddenly built to win now with the addition of Tavares — many bookies have the Leafs as the betting favourites for the 2019 Stanley Cup — and Toronto is sure to push Tampa Bay for top spot in the Atlantic in the lead-up to a second-round playoff showdown.
2) St. Louis Blues
It’s still only July, but Doug Armstrong might be the frontrunner for GM of the Year after signing an entire forward line in free agency — Bozak, David Perron and Patrick Maroon — before swinging a trade for versatile centre Ryan O’Reilly from Buffalo.
O’Reilly and Bozak join Brayden Schenn down the middle — not on Toronto’s level, but three deep nevertheless — and the Blues have plenty of firepower on the wings as well. Vladmir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, Alex Steen and a healthy Robby Fabbri, Perron and Maroon, that has the makings of a terrific top-nine group. If Fabbri isn’t ready, top prospects Jordan Kyrou, Robert Thomas and Samuel Blais could become factors, and a fourth line of Ivan Barbashev between Nikita Soshnikov and Dmitrij Jaskin also has promise.
St. Louis will now be one of the teams fortunate to roll four scoring lines, which should make the Blues tougher to match-up against on a nightly basis — home or away — and thus more competitive in the always tough Central.
St. Louis is returning the same defence, hoping for more miles out of vets Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson combined with continued development from Joel Edmundson and Vince Dunn alongside Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko.
Jake Allen will now be backed up by Chad Johnson, but the crease once again belongs to Allen and he needs to run with it this season. Consistency is key for Allen, with Ville Husso marinating in the minors and eyeing that No. 1 job in the not-too-distant future.
Looking up and down and all around that roster, it’s hard to argue against St. Louis making a return to the playoffs in 2019 and it’s easy to envision the Blues making a fair bit of noise.
3) Calgary Flames
There is a new sheriff in Cowtown with Bill Peters taking the coaching reins in hopes of leading a team to the playoffs for the first time in his NHL head-coaching career. This could be the year for the Alberta boy coming home from Carolina.
Peters’ teams with the Hurricanes often had strong possession numbers and underlying data but couldn’t get over the hump because of bad goaltending. Mike Smith is marginally better than Cam Ward, so that is still something of a concern, but Peters is inheriting a better overall roster in Calgary.
There will be a bit of familiarity, with the Flames acquiring Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm and also signing Derek Ryan as a free agent — three former Hurricanes from last season. James Neal was the other big addition, a proven scorer to solidify Calgary’s forward group that now stacks up well within the Pacific and across the league.
Hanifin will be tasked with replacing Dougie Hamilton on defence in a shakeup that will likely reunite T.J. Brodie with captain Mark Giordano on the top pairing, while Hanifin partners with last summer’s acquisition, Travis Hamonic. Mark Stone makes that blue line five deep, but the Flames’ back end didn’t perform up to expectations last season and Giordano isn’t getting any younger.
Still, top to bottom, the Flames appear better on paper and really look like a playoff team again after missing the cut last season.
4) Edmonton Oilers
The other side of the Battle of Alberta hasn’t seen nearly as much change, mainly because Peter Chiarelli’s hands have been tied by the salary cap. Chiarelli will claim confidence in the current group and a belief in their bounce-back ability but, reality is, he had limited wiggle room and would have been dealing from a position of weakness in most trade scenarios.
So the Oilers are staying the course and sticking with Todd McLellan, opting to swap out his assistants in hopes of improving their special teams. The low-level signings of Tobias Rieder and Kyle Brodziak should help the penalty kill and free up Edmonton’s best players to focus on the power play, which essentially went from best to worst in the league last season.
The other hope is for better efforts from Cam Talbot, in a contract year, and Milan Lucic, who still has five years at $6 million left. Those two can’t be muchany worse, and the Oilers’ even-strength numbers still tilted the ice in their favour last season, so if the special teams — particularly the power play — can become average or better, Edmonton is a strong candidate to return to the playoffs and could even challenge for the division title despite returning much the same roster.
5) Florida Panthers
The Panthers enjoyed a second-half surge — becoming the second-best team after the All-Star break, behind Nashville — but missed the playoffs by a single point in Bob Boughner’s first season as Florida’s coach. There was an adjustment process, but once the Panthers settled into their systems and hit their stride, they made enough noise down the stretch to be taken seriously this season.
Dale Tallon acquired Mike Hoffman to replace some of the scoring off the wing that he lost in handing Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to Vegas in last summer’s expansion draft. The Panthers will also be bolstered by Henrik Borgstrom, a rookie who was in the running for the Hobey Baker last season and could be in the mix for the Calder this season. Together, Hoffman and Borgstrom should ensure the Panthers have three solid scoring lines.
Florida’s defence is a top-10 group in the league — arguably top five, assuming Aaron Ekblad and Michael Matheson keep getting better under Boughner — and the goaltending remains in good hands with Roberto Luongo and James Reimer.
The Panthers aren’t a playoff lock, not with how strong the Metro is and the possibility of claiming both wild-card berths again, but Florida will absolutely be in the mix. From start to finish this time.
6) Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers didn’t do a whole lot, but getting back James van Riemsdyk was big. If only there was a way of getting a better goalie — without rushing Carter Hart — Philadelphia could be a real force to be reckoned with.
Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth have been a bottom-10 tandem, so the Flyers are going to have to outscore the opposition again this season. They are well equipped to do so, with JVR rejoining the fold and Nolan Patrick taking another step as a sophomore. Philadelphia’s forward group is impressive and the Flyers will get their share of offence from the defence with Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov and perhaps Travis Sanheim.
When things tighten up in the playoffs, Philadelphia is going to need those timely saves but, by then, the Flyers might be getting them from Hart if Ron Hextall doesn’t make a move for a more established starter. Hextall, a former goaltending legend in Philly, can’t let another season go to waste because of bad netminding — and he knows that.
7) Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres are sure to be trending up because they can’t go down as the league’s last-place team. Winning the Rasmus Dahlin lottery to land a franchise defenceman, if not a generational talent, will bump Buffalo up the standings to some degree.
Phil Housley will be more prepared for his second season as a head coach and he’ll have Steve Smith to help him groom Dahlin and turn that defence corps into a strength. They have lots of bodies on the back end and should be able to find the right fits this season.
Up front, scoring could be an issue for the Sabres. Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart should stay together since they have established chemistry. Casey Mittelstadt could be another Calder candidate, but he needs a running mate and Alex Nylander hasn’t developed as hoped to this point. Buffalo will miss O’Reilly and will need others to step up offensively for the Sabres to make a substantial leap.
Goaltending could also continue to hold this team back, with Carter Hutton signed to partner with Linus Ullmark as Robin Lehner’s replacement. That’s another bottom-10 tandem on paper, so the defence will have to be much improved for Buffalo to make any marked progress in the standings.
Don’t underestimate Dahlin, he’s legit and his impact at both ends, even as a rookie, could have the Sabres soaring into the playoff race. This team has starpower for the years to come and should show signs of a future contender this season.
8) Carolina Hurricanes
The Hurricanes remain a work in progress, under Don Waddell and Rick Dudley, but there are reasons for optimism with the additions of Dougie Hamilton and Calvin de Haan on defence, while highly touted rookies Martin Necas and Andrei Svechnikov are pencilled into prominent roles up front — perhaps even as linemates.
Youth will be served in Carolina, with Rod Brind’Amour overseeing that development, but goaltending will make or break this season for the Hurricanes, who are taking a chance on Petr Mrazek and hoping Scott Darling can rebound as well. That might be wishful thinking, but if that tandem can produce a league-average save percentage, the Hurricanes could surprise and sneak into the playoffs. It’s the same story as years past on that front, with Carolina’s other metrics translating to a playoff-calibre team.
Yet, there’s lots of uncertainty surrounding the Hurricanes as the season approaches, with Justin Faulk and Jeff Skinner reportedly still being shopped. New owner Tom Dundon has ruffled some feathers internally and externally, and there’s no telling what trade-happy Waddell and Dudley will do next. That next move will shed more light on the direction of this team going forward, but there’s optimism abound in Raleigh.
9) Arizona Coyotes
Much like Florida, Arizona came on strong in the second half once Antti Raanta was healthy and the team had adapted to Rick Tocchet’s systems. Raanta will have to prove himself all over again in more meaningful games to start this season, but the Coyotes believe their goaltending is in good shape, their defence is playoff calibre and their forwards have plenty of potential.
That’s all true, and if Arizona’s forwards play up to their potential — particularly Alex Galchenyuk and Dylan Strome — the Coyotes could hang around in the playoff race and make things even more interesting in the Pacific. They probably won’t make the postseason, but Arizona should take another step in that direction this season and build enough momentum to be a popular playoff pick for 2020.
Had the Coyotes taken Filip Zadina, or even Quinn Hughes, instead of Barrett Hayton at fifth overall in last month’s draft, they would have been a more popular pick for 2019.
10) Dallas Stars
No offence to Ken Hitchcock, a coaching legend, but this new staff headed up by Jim Montgomery and Todd Nelson might be able to get more out of Jason Spezza, Julius Honka and the rest of Dallas’ depth players beyond the big four of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Alex Radulov and John Klingberg.
The Stars were top heavy last season, but they really shouldn’t have been. On paper, this a deep team that should be getting contributions throughout the lineup. Of course, a healthy Mattias Janmark, the return of Valeri Nichushkin from the KHL, and the arrival of stud defence prospect Miro Heiskanen from Finland should make a sizeable difference. If Martin Hanzal and Marc Methot are also healthy, the Stars will be significantly better as long as Ben Bishop doesn’t get hurt again.
If Jim Nill makes another buyer’s move before the season — which is entirely possible, if not probable — then Dallas will likely get back into the playoff picture. That doesn’t necessarily have to be Erik Karlsson, though he’s the biggest fish that Nill is attempting to reel in. There are several other targets of interest, mostly scoring wingers, and Nill typically does his best work in the offseason, so it’s safe to assume he’s not done yet. Stay tuned!
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.