The playoff musical chairs exercise is fun to try every summer, because the NHL’s extreme parity produces surprises every season. Our Stanley Cup final picks a year ago, the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning, missed the post-season. Ugh. Let’s never speak of that again. But the stunners didn’t end there in 2016-17. After every Canadian team missed the big dance in 2015-16, five got in this past season, giving brackets an exciting refresh.
We saw seven new teams join the playoff fray in 2017: Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Boston, Columbus, Edmonton and Calgary, pushing Tampa Bay, Florida, Detroit, the New York Islanders, Philadelphia, Dallas and Los Angeles out. Wow. Which teams might swap in and swap out this coming season?
MADE PLAYOFFFS IN 2016-17, COULD MISS IN 2017-18
1. Boston Bruins (My projection: fifth in Atlantic Division, 10th in East)
Two words: Paul Postma. That’s the extent of GM Don Sweeney’s off-season movin’ and shakin’ so far, which is alarming considering the Bruins squeaked into the post-season by one point over Tampa Bay. The Lightning lost Jonathan Drouin but add Chris Kunitz, possibly Mikhail Sergachev and a healthy Steven Stamkos, while the Leafs picked up Patrick Marleau, Ron Hainsey and, from the Bruins, Dominic Moore. The Bruins have stood pat thus far.
They absolutely became a different team under mid-season replacement coach Bruce Cassidy last season, going 18-8-1, and they remain a force in the possession game thanks to the dominant play of Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. But depth is a real concern all over Boston’s lineup. It’s a nice thing to have prospects like Zach Senyshyn and Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson knocking on the door of NHL duty, but you want them pushing established veterans for roster spots, not winning playing time by default. The latter might happen because Boston lacks quality forward options, especially on the wings. Frank Vatrano might end up a second-liner at this point.
On defense, Charlie McAvoy is a Calder-Trophy candidate and looked great in his playoff debut. He’s an elite prospect. But, again, it’s worrisome when a playoff team must bank on a youngster to succeed in a high-leverage role, and that’s the case with McAvoy, who appears ticketed for top-four duty. Zdeno Chara is 40. The only sure thing on that blueline is Torey Krug.
If you’re optimistic about the Bruins in 2017-18, you’re doing a lot of projection on young guys who haven’t proven much in the NHL just yet. This team could take a step back.
2. San Jose Sharks (My projection: fourth in Pacific Division, ninth in West)
The Sharks, like the Bruins, have done next to nothing this off-season, and they lost Marleau. Many of their impact players are long in the tooth now. Joe Thornton, re-signed for $8 million, is 38 and recovering from ACL and MCL tears. Joe Pavelski just turned 33. Brent Burns is 32. Paul Martin and Joel Ward are 36. Many of the Sharks’ core pieces are exiting their primes or, in the case of Pavelski and Burns, don’t have many years left before an inevitable decline begins.
That’s a problem when the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers have emerged as rising powers in the Pacific Division. The Anaheim Ducks, armed with a great young D-corps and a dominant No. 1 center in Ryan Getzlaf, won’t relinquish a top-three spot in that division any time soon. The Sharks likely need a crossover berth to snag a playoff spot in 2017-18, which won’t be easy given how deadly the Central Division is. Can you see Nashville, Minnesota, St. Louis or Chicago dropping out? And the Dallas Stars improved as much as any team in hockey this summer. More on them later. The Sharks, at least on paper, look like the odd team out in the West. They project as the NHL’s third-oldest team right now and they’ve made zero roster improvements.
3. Ottawa Senators (My projection: fourth in Atlantic Division, ninth in East)
I entered the summer determined to finally start believing in the Senators. They pushed the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins to double overtime of Game 7 in the Eastern Conference final. Erik Karlsson is a top-three player in the world and makes Ottawa dangerous singlehandedly. Craig Anderson remains an above-average netminder despite his advanced age. The Sens have a pretty deep forward corps, too, led by outstanding two-way force Mark Stone. Ottawa also has two mega-prospects who could make an impact this year and change the seasonal outlook: defenseman Thomas Chabot and center Colin White.
I thus expect Ottawa to remain competitive again even though it’ll probably continue posting subpar possession numbers after finishing 22nd in 5-on-5 Corsi For percentage last season. The problem: it’s very difficult to imagine Tampa Bay not returning to the playoffs. The Bolts missed by one point last year. The Carolina Hurricanes also look vastly improved over in the Metropolitan division and could steal a wild-card spot from that side.
The Sens are fresh off a gruelling, overachieving post-season run, and the teams around them improved, while they aren’t guaranteed to do the same unless their rookies blow expectations out of the water. They could play close to as well as last year and simply get passed by Tampa, forcing the Sens to scratch and claw for the No. 8 seed.
Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn.
MISSED PLAYOFFS IN 2016-17, COULD MAKE IT IN 2017-18
1. Tampa Bay Lightning (My projection: second in Atlantic Division, third in East)
It’s a no-brainer, right? I interviewed blueliner Victor Hedman a couple weeks ago, and he put it best: “We had one point less than we did the year before, and we were second in our division that year.” Touché. The Lightning were almost as productive a club as they were the year prior, and that was despite losing Steven Stamkos to a torn meniscus in November when he was enjoying his most productive season in years.
Stamkos is still just 27, so he should return to big-time offensive production as long as he stays on the ice. The Bolts, even without Drouin, have one of the NHL’s most stacked forward corps, led by Nikita Kucherov, who isn’t yet world-famous but is a borderline top-five player on the planet. He’s that good. With Stamkos back, that means one of Tyler Johnson or rising star Brayden Point will be Tampa’s third-line center. That’s luxurious depth.
The Bolts’ blueline still looks thin, and we must be careful about anointing Sergachev a 25-minute-a-night starter when he has four games of pro hockey to his name. He’ll be a beast, but it’s not a slam-dunk to happen this year. Regardless, the Bolts should be vastly improved, enough to even fight for first in the Atlantic. It’ll come down to them and the Leafs, in my opinion.
2. Dallas Stars (My projection: second in Central Division, fifth in West)
The Central Division winner and NHL’s highest scoring team from 2015-16 loses half its forward group to injury and, forced to rely on a young defense and poor goaltending, misses the playoffs in 2016-17. Take that same team, restore its health, then add Alexander Radulov, Ben Bishop, Martin Hanzal and Marc Methot. C’mon. We don’t have to overthink this one. The Stars look good now.
No team made splashier improvements this off-season. The Stars could ice the NHL’s best line with Tyler Seguin between Jamie Benn and Radulov. Martin Hanzal is an ideal third-line pivot. Even if Methot was buoyed by Erik Karlsson in Ottawa, we know Methot has experience playing with a high-end, right-shot puck-mover, so he’s a natural fit to play with John Klingberg. And while Bishop is fresh off a down year and has battled injuries in the past, he’s a big upgrade over Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi in goal.
Add Ken Hitchcock as a new coach and you have a winning formula. The Stars should easily vault back into the playoff picture.
3. Carolina Hurricanes (My projection: fifth in Metropolitan Division, eighth in East)
The Canes were already trending up entering the summer. They have one of the NHL’s best young defense groups. Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce emerged as a premier shutdown pair, and Justin Faulk and Noah Hanifin round out a powerhouse top four with an average age of 22.5. Haydn Fleury, the seventh overall pick in 2014, could make the team this year, and puck-mover Jake Bean is marinating, too.
Carolina improved from 27th in goals to 20th last year, largely because rookie Sebastian Aho arrived on the scene and sniped 24. So we know this team’s offense and blueline were on the rise, and then GM Ron Francis added right winger Justin Williams, center Marcus Kruger, D-man Trevor van Riemsdyk and goalie Scott Darling this summer. An 87-point team with strong possession numbers looks set to improve on paper. Don’t be surprised if Carolina helps the Metro Division produce five playoff teams next spring.
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