Which 2015-16 post-season qualifiers might miss the big dance this coming season? Which teams might replace them?
Playoff turnover is a hallmark of the NHL’s salary cap era. It’s rare to see a single franchise entrenched in a contending position for decades at a time. The Detroit Red Wings are the remarkable exception. Typically, we see plenty of playoff squads slide out of the picture from one season to the next, while several also-rans sneak back into the big dance.
Five Canadian teams qualified for the playoffs in 2014-15, and all five missed in 2015-16. The Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets slipped out, replaced by the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars. The 2015-16 playoff picture consisted of 31.25 percent “new” teams. That’s down from 43.75 percent the year prior but still constitutes significant turnover.
Chances are, it’ll happen again in 2016-17. Which recent qualifiers might slip out of the post-season and which might claw their way back in?
MADE PLAYOFFS IN 2015-16, COULD MISS IN 2016-17
1. Philadelphia Flyers (My projection: seventh in Metropolitan, 13th in East)
I just don’t… see it. The Flyers clicked in the second half of 2015-16 under coach Dave Hakstol, no doubt, going 26-12-7 over their final 45 games after a pedestrian 15-15-7 start. Shayne Gostisbehere was a revelation as a rookie D-man. The Flyers still made the post-season despite a horrific year from Jakub Voracek, who should easily be better in 2016-17. Brayden Schenn had a monster second half, Wayne Simmonds remains one of the game’s best power forwards and Claude Giroux is still Claude Giroux. Between Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth, one Flyer goalie always seemed to be hot at various points of the season.
But…that blueline. ‘Ghost Bear’ is one of the game’s most exciting young players but isn’t guaranteed to perfectly duplicate that success, and behind him we get the likes of: Mark Streit, age 38; Michael Del Zotto, a one-way blueliner coming off wrist surgery; and Andrew MacDonald, whom the Flyers buried in the AHL last year because of his $5-million cap hit but had no choice but to recall later to replace Del Zotto. Radko Gudas is a rugged customer but best suited to a bottom pair. The Flyers have an outstanding crop of defense prospects, from Ivan Provorov to Travis Sanheim to Samuel Morin, but we can’t assume any is NHL ready right now. Provorov is by far the best bet of the group but is just 19 and hasn’t played one minute of pro hockey, even at the AHL level. We can’t merely project immediate success for him – if he makes the team at all.
The Flyers’ current NHL D-corps is a major weakness. They don’t ooze depth at forward after their top six, either. Their top off-season acquisitions: Dale Weise and Boyd Gordon up front and T.J. Brennan on defense. They made the playoffs with pretty much this roster last season but squeaked in as a No. 8 seed. Their lack of depth and their defensive shortcomings might expose them in 2016-17.
2. Minnesota Wild (My projection: sixth in Central Division, 10th in West)
Life was tough enough for the Wild in hockey’s toughest division last season. They axed coach Mike Yeo partway though and slipped into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference under interim bench boss John Torchetti. New coach Bruce Boudreau should inspire some optimism, as he has an excellent history of turning bad teams into contenders, but he’s never been in a situation like this one. He inherited a Washington Capitals team that boasted Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green in his prime. Boudreau arrived to an Anaheim Ducks squad that boasted Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
Boudreau has nothing of the sort in Minnesota save for stalwart D-man Ryan Suter. Zach Parise’s health has continuously eroded in recent years. The Wild’s best vets – Parise, Jason Pominville, Mikko Koivu, and even new addition Eric Staal – are in their 30s. And their best young players – Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba – are solid contributors but aren’t blossoming into superstars. The Wild were also a poor possession team before and after their mid-season coaching swap in 2015-16, albeit Boudreau should help there. Still, too many Western Conference teams improved this off-season while the Wild mostly stood pat with a team that barely made the playoffs. I’m bearish.
3. Detroit Red Wings (My projection: fourth in Atlantic Division, eighth in East)
I have the Wings squeaking into the playoffs for a 26th straight year in 2016-17 but, once again, it stands to be oh-so close. Pavel Datsyuk is 38 but remained one of the NHL’s best two-way forwards last season. Losing the future Hall of Famer creates a big void, though free agent acquisition Frans Nielsen, a good 200-foot center in his own right, helps a bit.
With Niklas Kronwall’s body starting to break down, Detroit arguably lacks any top-pair blueliners. Even freshly re-signed Danny DeKeyser makes for a better second-pair guy. There’s no guarantee the Thomas Vanek gamble works, or that Anthony Mantha breaks out as an NHLer, or that Petr Mrazek avoids another cold spell. The Wings still probably have enough talent to reach the playoffs again, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if they missed. And, honestly, that wouldn’t be a bad thing for a franchise mired in mediocrity right now. The playoff streak has become an anchor.
MISSED PLAYOFFS IN 2015-16, COULD MAKE IT IN 2016-17
1. Montreal Canadiens (My projection: second in Atlantic Division, fourth in East)
The argument for putting Montreal back in the playoff picture obviously starts with a healthy Carey Price. He’s a year removed from being the best player, not just goalie, in the world, and while each injury makes his long-term outlook murkier, he’s young enough to recover nicely from his MCL sprain at 28.
On top of a healed Price backstopping the Habs, they’ve added Andrew Shaw and Alexander Radulov to their top nine forwards. Even if neither guy turns out to be a world beater, both improve Montreal’s forward depth. And if Radulov truly has “grown up,” the ceiling remains nice and high. Alex Galchenyuk finally broke out as a 30-goal man last season, when coach Michel Therrien shifted him to center for good. And while Shea Weber isn’t as effective of a player as P.K. Subban at this stage of Weber’s career, he should still be an above-average defenseman and strong leader for a few more seasons.
Better yet for the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge: they play in hockey’s weakest division. It won’t take a massive surge to vault into the top half of the Atlantic. Montreal actually improved as a possession team last year, suggesting that, if Price is ready to rock, we could see an even better team than the one that captured the division crown in 2014-15. I see the Habs back in the playoffs for 2016-17, and I don’t think it’ll even be much of a struggle.
2. Winnipeg Jets (My projection: fifth in Central Division, eighth in West)
The Jets’ only noteworthy off-season addition was Shawn Matthias, and he profiles as a bottom-six forward. So why do I have the Jets emerging out of the vicious Central to grab a wild-card berth?
Two words: youth movement. Mark Scheifele exploded for 32 points in his final 25 games last season, realizing his potential as the team’s No. 1 center. He should open 2016-17 entrenched in the role, rendering Bryan Little a solid No. 2. Nikolaj Ehlers has star-caliber skill and showed flashes of it as a rookie, while the equally speedy Kyle Connor was college hockey’s most dominant player in 2015-16 (sorry, Jimmy Vesey) and has a chance to make the team.
And then, of course, there’s the No. 2 overall draft pick of 2016, Mr. Patrik Laine, a brash, powerful goal scorer whose style of play mirrors that of Alex Ovechkin’s. Can Laine have an Ovie-like impact right away? That’s a big ask considering Ovie is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but Laine’s pure goal-scoring ability makes him the type of prospect who can transform a team right away. He’s arguably the Calder Trophy frontrunner.
One thing must happen for Winnipeg to return to the post-season: goalie Ondrej Pavelec must go, whether he’s traded or buried in the AHL for the final year of his contract. Somehow, some way, the Jets have to start Connor Hellebuyck in net. He’s an elite prospect with potential to be next season’s Matt Murray, and Hellebuyck acquitted himself quite well in his first NHL duty this past season. He, not Michael Hutchinson, is already the team’s top netminder. Hellebuyck gives Winnipeg the best chance to win.
The Jets didn’t do anything to bolster their disappointing blueline this off-season. Jacob Trouba in particular must be better, assuming he isn’t dealt in the next couple months. And his partner, Mark Stuart, became a liability according to the possession numbers. Still, even if the Jets’ D-corps stagnates, their gains at forward and in net should get them into the playoff hunt.
3. Calgary Flames (My projection: fourth in Pacific Division, ninth in West)
The 2015-16 Flames went as the 2014-15 Colorado Avalanche and 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs did. Those teams flopped one year after a great regular season and, in each case, faulty possession numbers foreshadowed the decline. Calgary was so bad at generating and preventing shot attempts again last season that the playoffs seem far away right now.
But maybe, just maybe, GM Brad Treliving’s off-season work will put the Flames back in contention. The best remedy for bad possession is good goaltending, and the Flames ranked dead last in save percentage last season. Freshly acquired Brian Elliott has a much tougher assignment than he did in his years with defensively savvy St. Louis, and his own numbers should dip, but he’s a big upgrade over what Calgary deployed in its crease last season. Free agent signee Troy Brouwer brings size and big-game experience to the top-six forward group and, most importantly, Calgary has a new coach. Perhaps Glen Gulutzan’s system will change the way this team plays and improve it defensively. There’s nowhere to go but up after Bob Hartley. The Flames were exciting under his watch but had a devil of a time limiting shots, albeit they improved slightly from 2014-15 to 2015-16.
Add in a great young forward corps led by Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett and a deep blueline featuring Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton and it’s not impossible to picture the Flames flirting with a playoff berth in 2016-17.
Matt Larkin is a writer and 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