A hallmark of the NHL’s salary cap era: turnover in the standings. Without fail, we see shocking success stories and unexpected bomb-outs every season. In 2017-18, the Colorado Avalanche, Los Angeles Kings, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, Winnipeg Jets and Tampa Bay Lightning reached the playoffs after failing to qualify the year before. Add the expansion Vegas Golden Knights and we saw seven new entries in a 16-team fold, meaning 43.8 percent turnover. The Calgary Flames, Chicago Blackhawks, Edmonton Oilers, New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and St. Louis Blues slipped out of the post-season after making it in 2016-17.
It’s thus always relevant to ask in the off-season: which non-playoff teams have the best chance to get back in? Which playoff teams might slide out? It’s time for my annual ‘Three In, Three Out’ forecast.
MADE PLAYOFFS IN 2017-18, COULD MISS IN 2018-19
1. Minnesota Wild (My projection: sixth in Central Division, 11th in West)
New Wild GM Paul Fenton inherited a difficult job. He has a competitive roster but also an aging one with so much money tied up in big veteran contracts that there’s barely enough money to re-sign crucial RFAs Jason Zucker and Matt Dumba, let alone chase major free agent upgrades. They count rugged defenseman Greg Pateryn as their biggest splash so far. His deal looks like a steal given his underrated shutdown ability, but his signing isn’t a needle-mover overall.
The Wild’s roster is mostly stagnant. It will be difficult for Eric Staal to match his franchise-record 42-goal campaign at 33. Captain Mikko Koivu is 35. Defenseman Ryan Suter, the team’s minute-munching backbone, is 33 and coming off a fractured ankle. Skill erosion has to happen at some point, just as we’ve started seeing in Chicago with Duncan Keith. In the ever-competitive Central Division, teams face pressure to constantly improve if they want to stay afloat, and the Wild have not done that. Given several of their most important players are approaching their decline years, it seems this team has more downside than upside entering 2018-19 barring a surprise blockbuster trade from Fenton.
2. Los Angeles Kings (My projection: fifth in Pacific Division, 10th in West)
The Kings had a relatively successful first season under new coach John Stevens, promoted from his associate coach role after Darryl Sutter’s ousting. They continued their stingy ways, allowing the fewest goals in the NHL, and slipped into the playoffs as the West’s No. 7 overall seed.
Just four points separated the Kings from ninth-seeded St. Louis, however, and while I still see the Kings being competitive – it’s impossible not to be with Anze Kopitar as your No. 1 center and Drew Doughty as your top blueliner – I worry the teams chasing the Kings have improved far more than they have this summer. The Calgary Flames have added multiple high-impact players, as have the Blues and even the Arizona Coyotes. L.A. did make a noteworthy acquisition with the Ilya Kovalchuk signing, but that move arguably doubled down on what the Kings already had in spades: size and strength up front. He should be good for at least 25 goals, even at 35 years old, but he doesn’t solve the Kings’ speed problem. Their competition might skate past them, literally and in the standings.
3. New Jersey Devils (my projection: fifth in Metropolitan Division, ninth in East)
Devils fans: I know our relationship is fragile right now. Please don’t take this projection the wrong way. Please remember I voted Taylor Hall first place for the Hart Trophy and that I even met your mascot NJ Devil and shared an embrace with him at the All-Star Game this past winter. I don’t hate the Devils, I promise.
Better yet – I really like what GM Ray Shero is doing. He’s taking his time building a winner, infusing his roster with young talent, from Nico Hischier to Will Butcher to Jesper Bratt. Also to Shero’s credit: he understands his team was ahead of schedule in its rebuild, that a team doesn’t have to make the playoffs the season after winning the draft lottery and that, if the team does make it, that shouldn’t change the long-term trajectory. And that’s why Shero has been conservative in free agency so far. He’s not forcing the issue. And while that’s the right strategy for a team that is still trying to build a critical mass of high-end prospects for long-term contention, it does set the Devils back a little bit in the short term. The Philadelphia Flyers, who finished one point ahead of the Devils, added James van Riemsdyk. The Florida Panthers, who missed the post-season by a single point, added Mike Hoffman.
The Devils still look like a 90- or 95-point team in my mind, but when their fellow bubble teams make major splashes, it’s only natural to nudge the Devils down ever so slightly in my standings projections. So I predict a slight step backward in 2018-19 – even though the Devils’ future still looks promising.
MISSED PLAYOFFS IN 2017-18, COULD MAKE IN 2018-19
1. Calgary Flames (My projection: second in Pacific Division, fourth in West)
An aggressive prediction, yes. Even if the Flames had kept their exact roster from this past season, I would’ve been bullish on their chances at a rebound in 2018-19. They endured horrible injury luck this past season. Mike Smith was probably the team’s MVP before he got hurt, 23-16-6, with a .921 save percentage, and was terrible upon returning, going 2-6-0 with an .880 SP. T.J. Brodie and Matthew Tkachuk sustained concussions. Sean Monahan needed four surgeries this off-season to repair his battered body. Better health alone would thus make me optimistic about the Flames getting back to the playoffs. With Monahan, Tkachuk, Johnny Gaudreau, Mikael Backlund and Mark Giordano leading the way, the Flames don’t hurt for talent when they’re healthy.
And now they’ve significantly increased the overall talent on their roster – yes, even though they surrendered the best player in the Dougie Hamilton trade. Noah Hanifin isn’t as good as Hamilton right now, but Hanifin is still only 21 and has plenty of time to grow into a top-pair blueliner. Elias Lindholm, also coming over in the blockbuster deal with Carolina, has a much higher ceiling than the departed Micheal Ferland. James Neal, signed as a UFA, brings 25 goals or more to the fray. The Flames now have their best options ever to play with Gaudreau and Monahan, whether Neal, Lindholm or even Tkachuk gets tabbed for the job. To top it off, the Flames signed underrated two-way pivot Derek Ryan to center their third line – and they have a new coach in Bill Peters.
No team has improved itself more this off-season in my opinion. I don’t merely like the Flames to get back in the playoffs – I like them to compete for the Pacific Division crown.
2. St. Louis Blues (My projection: third in Central Division, sixth in West)
Sure, GM Doug Armstrong overpaid to get Ryan O’Reilly from the Buffalo Sabres, but the massive trade improved the Blues nonetheless. They have a strong tandem down the middle in Brayden Schenn and O’Reilly now, with Tyler Bozak signed to bring scoring punch in a third-line role. They’ve added David Perron, brought back on a four-year deal after Vegas stole him away in the 2017 expansion draft. Robby Fabbri, still young enough to possess big upside, returns from his torn ACL. The Blues, who finished 24th in offense, have added a ton of scoring to their roster on paper – and that doesn’t even factor in Robert Thomas likely making the team as a rookie, with Jordan Kyrou and Klim Kostin battling for jobs, too.
The Blues’ D-corps remains above average, and their forward group looks much better than last year’s. The real question for them is, of course, whether Jake Allen can give them a consistent effort in net, But given last year’s Blues missed the playoffs by one point before adding so many pieces, it’s difficult to imagine them not getting in this time around.
3. Florida Panthers (My projection: fourth in Atlantic Division, eighth in East)
The Panthers battled to the last weekend of the regular season before being eliminated. They were so close. They possess a high ceiling, with Aleksander Barkov slowly rising toward superstardom, Vincent Trocheck establishing himself as a high-end No. 2 pivot and Aaron Ekblad having room to grow further on defense. They struck real balance with their lines in the second half last year when they moved Huberdeau to the Trocheck line and tried Evgenii Dadonov and Nick Bjugstad with Barkov, and they add Hoffman to the mix, with prospects Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett knocking on the door.
The Panthers don’t get enough credit for their collection of young talent. It’s really strong, especially at forward, while their D-corps is rock solid, led by Ekblad, Keith Yandle and Mike Matheson. The Panthers have the right combination of (a) almost making the playoffs last year, (b) possessing a youth crop not finished ascending and (c) making a significant roster upgrade year over year. That makes them capable of springing themselves back to the playoffs. They were 27-14-3 after Jan. 1.