This NHL season hasn’t been short on surprises, some pleasant and others not so much. Here are four playoff-bound teams that weren’t expected to be there.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Columbus leaps out as the slam-dunk pick for me. Oddly enough, I’d liked the Blue Jackets’ team for several years only to see them disappoint. Finally, when I gave up on them, they got really, really good. For one, the players bonded much better with John Tortorella this season, as Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky told me a few months ago. Secondly, of course, ‘Bob’ has been the game’s best goaltender this season, staying healthy and avoiding groin injuries thanks to a change in workout regimen and diet that shaved almost 20 pounds off his frame. Lastly, D-man Zach Weresnki has changed this team with a rookie season for the ages, as has a full season of Seth Jones. Those factors, combined with a deep and versatile forward group, have transformed the Jackets in a legit Stanley Cup contender. If only the playoff format didn’t conspire to eliminate them in Round 1. (Matt Larkin)
Even with the Oilers looking primed to take a step forward this season, the summer had some second-guessing what this group could accomplish. After all, at the time of the trade, it was hard to see the Taylor Hall-for-Adam Larsson swap with the New Jersey Devils as a win for Edmonton. The Oilers have more than proven naysayers wrong, however. This isn’t as much a team building toward post-season contention as it is one with potential to make some noise in a hurry.
For obvious reasons, Connor McDavid is a big part of Edmonton’s success and the Oilers’ ability to reach a level few believed possible this season has a lot to do with McDavid exceeding expectations. To say it has been all McDavid, though, would be misguided. Leon Draisaitl’s development has been remarkable, off-season acquisition Milan Lucic has provided 19 goals, the defense with Larsson has been more solid than years prior and Cam Talbot has arguably been the best goaltender in the Pacific Division. In THN’s Yearbook, Edmonton was predicted to come close but ultimately miss the post-season. Instead, they’re in position to win the division, and are a definite dark horse in the West. (Jared Clinton)
Toronto Maple Leafs
Coming into the season, The Hockey News predicted that Toronto would finish dead-last in the Atlantic Division. In fact, our Yearbook’s Stanley Cup odds put them at 90-1, worst in the entire NHL. Yet here we sit, with just a few games left in the regular season and the Maple Leafs in a playoff position. Heck, in a bad division, they might even get home-ice advantage in the first round. How did it happen? Better-than-expected goaltending from Frederik Andersen and incredible play from the rookies. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander will all get Calder votes and Matthews will likely win the trophy outright. Nikita Zaitsev has been a top-four defenseman right off the hop and several other rookies have made key contributions. Coach Mike Babcock’s lessons and structure have led to a drastic special teams turnaround, with the power play jumping from 29th overall last year to second this year. The penalty-kill also jumped into the top-10.
We all thought the Leafs’ rebuild would take a couple years, even with all their rookie talent. But this year it went into overdrive. (Ryan Kennedy)
There were two things we figured were shoo-ins prior to this season. The first was that the Calgary Flames would miss the playoffs. The second was that Matthew Tkachuk would be playing for the London Knights. Swing and a miss on both counts. And the latter being wrong has more than a little to do with the former also being wrong. Tkachuk has been much more than a first-year player learning the ropes, he has helped give this team an identity. And the Flames, well, they’ve proved to be every bit as resilient as their freshman teammate. On Jan. 24, the Flames went into the Bell Centre and were taken to the woodshed to the tune of 5-1. That was a night after losing 4-0 in Toronto and marked a span in which they had lost six of their previous seven. Their season was in peril and their coach described them as “pathetic” against the Canadiens. Since then, the Flames are 20-7-1 and a team that nobody would like to face in the first round of the playoffs. Qualify as a surprise? Yeah, we’d say so. (Ken Campbell)