It’s that time of year again, when hockey fans start looking forward to the upcoming season and begin to ponder the big questions. Who will make the playoffs? Who will be the surprise breakout team? And, of course, the biggest question of them all: Who will win the Stanley Cup?
At the same time, it seems like every media outlet and prognosticating puck-head already has a ready-made response for these queries. Predictions are rampant. Opinions are everywhere. Yet, nobody’s asking the hard question.
Who will miss the playoffs in 2017-18?
Here are the 15 teams that are (much) more likely to win the draft lottery than the league title:
1. Vegas Golden Knights
Vegas loves a long shot, but the expansion Golden Knights will be wandering around the desert for at least a few years before they can contemplate the possibility of the post-season. Their No. 1 center (Vadim Shipachoyov) is a 30-year-old who has never played in the NHL, their next-best forwards are Jonathan Marchessault, James Neal and David Perron , and then it falls off pretty quickly after that. Probably the best thing you can say about the defense corps is that it’s experienced. Marc-Andre Fleury, you’re not in Pittsburgh anymore…
2. Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks without the Sedins would seem like Henrik without Daniel, but everybody’s clamoring for Vancouver to trade the twins out of town – and everybody’s right. In fact, they should throw Loui Eriksson, the other member of the team’s top line, into the deal as well. Vancouver is going to be bad for a year or three, but they do have some enviable building blocks in the likes of Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser, as well as prospects Olli Juolevi (drafted fifth overall in 2016) and Elias Pettersson (drafted fifth overall in 2017).
3. New Jersey Devils
They were already thin up front, and now they’ve lost No. 1 center Travis Zajac for the first four months of the season. Suddenly, their top two pivots are 18-year-old Nico Hischier and 20-year-old Pavel Zacha, backed up by veteran fourth-liner Brian Boyle and 23-year-old Joseph Blandisi. Their blueline doesn’t scare anybody except perhaps Cory Schneider, who’s surely terrified.
4. Colorado Avalanche
The poor Avs, they can’t even do losing right. Despite a core that features prodigious young talents such as Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene, Colorado finished with the worst-ever record in the NHL’s salary cap era last season, and then they failed to win the draft lottery and ended up with the fourth overall pick instead of No. 1. They don’t look much better heading into 2017-18, but you have to believe their young guns will improve – or get traded to help address the team’s jarring lack of depth and scoring support.
5. Arizona Coyotes
They’ve got some fine young players such as Max Domi and Calder Trophy candidate Clayton Keller, and they brought in some help in No. 1 center Derek Stepan, top-pairing defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and starting goalie Antti Raanta. Nevertheless, they’re still far too young and need much more help.
6. Detroit Red Wings
The playoff streak looks good to continue, except now it’s about missing the post-season rather than making it. Even if Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom came back, this team would be in trouble.
7. Buffalo Sabres
Unlike the Red Wings, at least the Sabres look like they’re trending in the right direction. Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly make for a great 1-2 punch down the middle, Rasmus Ristolainen has some help on the blueline, and Robin Lehner will either prove he’s a No. 1 goalie or Buffalo will bring in somebody else. The Sabres are the first team on this list that maybe, just maybe, has a shot at the playoffs if everything goes right.
8. Florida Panthers
They’ve been treading water in Florida this summer, parting with three of their top six highest-scoring forwards from last season (Jaromir Jagr, Marchessault and Reilly Smith) and replacing them with Radim Vrbata and KHLer Evgeny Dadonov. Otherwise, the Panthers didn’t do much of anything to bolster the roster. Instead, they focused on management, returning Dale Tallon to the GM chair and giving Bob Boughner his first chance at an NHL head-coaching job. If Florida regains its form of 2015-16 and returns to the playoffs, it’ll be because of top-liners Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, linchpin defenseman Aaron Ekblad and the goalie tandem of Roberto Luongo and James Reimer. To this point in their careers, however, none of those players have a particularly good track record when it comes to staying healthy – save, perhaps, for Luongo, who will be 39 when the 2018 playoffs begin.
9. New York Islanders
Hey, it’s hard to make the playoffs when you trade John Tavares at the deadline. All eyes will be on the Isles superstar this season, until he either re-signs a long-term extension or gets shipped out of town for, perhaps, a handful of magic beans and a box of widgets. Islanders fans, obviously, are hoping the team does the right thing and keeps ‘JT’ in Brooklyn (or wherever the team ends up playing).
10. Philadelphia Flyers
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Flyers have a solid group of forwards, but there are questions on defense and in goal. If the back end holds up, it wouldn’t be any surprise to see Philadelphia in the post-season. But that’s asking a lot of a mostly young blueline and a net tandem of Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth.
11. Boston Bruins
They have a great first line in Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. They have a great goalie in Tuukka Rask. And they have a great (big) defenseman in Zdeno Chara. But then it thins out quickly. Perhaps David Krejci and David Backes can form a solid second line. Perhaps Chara defies time and turns in another ‘Big Z’-worthy season as he hits 40. Perhaps Torey Krug scores 60 points from the back end. Perhaps Charlie McAvoy wins the Calder Trophy. If so, perhaps the B’s make the payoffs. But that’s a lot of perhapses. Perhaps too many.
12. Winnipeg Jets
The Jets have a premier first line, a solid second line, and some upside on the bottom two units. The defense corps features a sturdy top-six, led by Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba. The problem areas are in goal, where incoming Steve Mason has been tasked with mentoring up-and-down goalie-of-the-future Connor Hellebuyck, and the team’s inability – to this point – to become a sum of its parts. It also doesn’t help matters that Winnipeg plays in the West, where there appears to be 11 bona fide playoff teams vying for eight spots.
13. Toronto Maple Leafs
You’ve got to love how the Leafs exceeded expectations last season, with the rookies pressing fast-forward on the rebuild and thrusting the team into the playoffs. Then they went out and added veterans Patrick Marleau and newly minted Cup champion Ron Hainsey in the off-season. But so much went so right for Toronto in 2016-17 – the team remained remarkably healthy throughout the season, several players turned in career-best years, Frederik Andersen was a force in net – that it leads you to think there might be a speed bump or two on the road in 2017-18.
14. Los Angeles Kings
The Kings’ grinding style of play under Darryl Sutter wasn’t working, so L.A. fired its two-time Cup-winning coach – as well as GM Dean Lombardi – in the hopes new bench boss John Stevens would take the leash off of Drew Doughty & Co. It might work. After all, Los Angeles still has the core that captured league titles in 2012 and 2014. Problem is, those guys are in the early 30s now and the Kings don’t have the same kind of depth behind them.
15. San Jose Sharks
A year ago, the Sharks were coming off a berth in the Stanley Cup final. And now they’re gonna miss the playoffs entirely?! That’s crazy. Then again, the West is crazy-tough, so there you go.