Who will be parity’s victims in the 2015-16 NHL season? Which playoff teams from 2014-15 will slide out, and who will replace them?
Parity in the modern-day NHL creates such a delicate balance between teams that one year’s powerhouse is the next year’s dud, and vice versa. Just ask the Colorado Avalanche, who went from Central Division champs to out of the playoffs, or the Calgary Flames, who went from rebuilding team to round 2 of the post-season.
In all, 2014-15 swapped Calgary, Nashville, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Washington, the New York Islanders and Ottawa into the playoffs, with Colorado, Los Angeles, Dallas, San Jose, Boston, Columbus, and Philadelphia falling out. That’s seven new teams out of 16, or 43.75 percent.
With that crazy stat in mind, which 2014-15 post-season qualifiers might slide out in 2015-16? And which teams might take their places? I’ve chosen three candidates in each category.
MADE PLAYOFFS IN 2014-15, COULD MISS IN 2015-16
1. Vancouver Canucks (My projection: sixth in Pacific, 12th in West)
As I’ve said before in this space, the Canucks’ key veterans – Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, Radim Vrbata and Ryan Miller – are 34 years old. We don’t know that age-related regression will kick in this coming season, as the Sedins and Vrbata had solid resurgences in 2014-15. But even if that group pulls it off again, the Canucks’ problems are less about what they have and more about what they lack. One such piece, pun intended, is Eddie Lack, steady backup to Miller, traded to Carolina. The Canucks have placed their eggs in the Jacob Markstrom basket to spell Miller. Markstrom has long been an elite goaltending prospect but has struggled repeatedly at the NHL level. What if he’s doomed to be a quad-A player?
On top of Lack the Canucks lost Shawn Matthias, Brad Richardson and Zack Kassian from their forward corps and Kevin Bieksa from their blueline. The most prominent replacements: Brandon Prust, acquired for Kassian, and blueliner Matt Bartkowski. The Canucks have undoubtedly gotten worse on paper, and they have little cap space to remedy the problem. Worse yet, Pacific Division rivals Calgary, Edmonton, San Jose and Los Angeles made aggressive moves to improve. In what scenario does Vancouver not take a significant step backward in 2015-16?
2. Pittsburgh Penguins (My projection: fifth in Metropolitan, ninth in East)
No disrespect to Phil Kessel. I for one expect him to excel with the Penguins and set a career high in goals alongside Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. The Pens, however, remain top-heavy as ever. They need Pascal Dupuis to prove he’s fully over his life-threatening blood clots and for Chris Kunitz, 36 in September, to reverse time if they hope to have forward depth outside their top four or five.
On top of the shaky forward corps, take a team that made the playoffs on the final day of the regular season and remove two of its top four blueliners: Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff, who averaged 22:47 and 21:46 in ice time, respectively. The Pens must depend more than ever on the oft-injured Kris Letang to be a superstar and hope high-end prospect Derrick Pouliot proves ready for a top-four role. The Pens won’t be a bad team by any means, but too much has to go right for them to make the big dance, and their division looks stronger than it has in many years.
3. Minnesota Wild (My projection: fifth in Central, eighth in West)
Note that I still have the Wild making the playoffs. Life in the deadly Central, however, will make the path difficult. Chicago is Chicago. The Blues are a perennial regular season behemoth. Winnipeg and Nashville showed marked improvement in 2014-15 and both were great puck-possession teams. How does Minnesota fit into the puzzle? The Wild have been awfully quiet this off-season, even if signing college free agent D-man Mike Reilly will pay nice long-term dividends. A team must perpetually evolve to keep up with the juggernauts of the Central, and the Wild have chosen status quo, largely because they’ve almost maxed out their salary cap space.
MISSED PLAYOFFS IN 2014-15, COULD MAKE IT IN 2015-16
1. Los Angeles Kings (My projection: third in Pacific, sixth in West)
The Kings will be a popular bounce-back pick everywhere. Their hang-back-in-the-regular-season strategy finally backfired in 2014-15. Expect them to play with playoff-like intensity and make a statement now. Milan Lucic augments the first line with Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik, and perhaps starting the seasons sans Jarret Stoll, Mike Richards and (probably) Slava Voynov is a positive thing, as it removes what must have been dressing-room distractions. Analytics tell us the Kings were still dominant in possession last season. They ranked third in Corsi Close behind Winnipeg and Cup-champ Chicago. It’s a strong bet we’ll see them back in the post-season, especially after they only missed by two points.
2. Columbus Blue Jackets (My projection: fourth in Metropolitan, seventh in East)
Book it. The Columbus Blue Jackets will grab the NHL by the throat this season and exact their revenge after the hockey gods stabbed them with voodoo pins in 2014-15. They lost a league-high 393 man games to injury. They ended the season on a 12-0-1 rampage. Their victims included Detroit, Vancouver, Calgary, Anaheim, Chicago, St. Louis, the Islanders (twice) and Pittsburgh, so it’s not like all those meaningless wins came against teams with nothing to play for. A healthy Jackets team is a scary one, and the Brandon Saad trade further bolsters an already-strong top six with Ryan Johansen, Nick Foligno, Brandon Dubinsky, Scott Hartnell and Cam Atkinson. Emerging youngsters Boone Jenner and Alexander Wennberg are only getting better, too. And Sergei Bobrovsky is steady as ever in net.
Sure, the Jackets could use another defenseman, but this looks like a playoff team even without one. Adding one would make them even more dangerous.
3. Dallas Stars (My projection: sixth in Central, ninth in West)
The Stars had a top-three offense that could be even better going forward with Patrick Sharp joining the top six forwards and Valeri Nichushkin healthy. Their biggest woes involved the back half of the ice, and whether you believe they addressed them probably decides if you have them in the playoffs or not for 2015-16. Antti Niemi comes in at a whopping $4.5 million to split time with Kari Lehtonen. The very fact Niemi had to join a timeshare tells you about how the Sharks felt about him during his final season as their starter, however. Aside from “fresher” goaltending, does Dallas actually have better goaltending? And Johnny Oduya makes a nice addition to the top four defensemen but replaces another top-four guy in Trevor Daley. Once again, it’s an upgrade, but it seems marginal.
The Stars are a 92-point team that appears to have improved by, say, five points on paper. Whether that leapfrogs them over another Central team into the playoffs is anyone’s guess. They’re absolutely in the hunt, though.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin