You’re last place in January. You win the Stanley Cup. The St. Louis Blues’ turnaround in 2018-19 was astounding, but was it shocking? Not particularly. Not in a world where a No. 8 seed sweeps a team that ties the single-season record for wins. In today’s NHL, parity rules, and every team has a chance every year.
It would thus be foolish of us to expect this past season’s 16-team playoff field to return intact next spring. Instead, bet on turnover. From 2017-18 to 2018-19, five teams got replaced in the post-season tournament. The Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and Minnesota Wild tumbled out, replaced by the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Islanders, Calgary Flames, Dallas Stars and, of course, the Blues.
Chances are, some 2019 playoff squads will miss the big dance in 2020. It’s time for my annual ‘Three In, Three Out’ blog. Last season, I pegged five of six correctly, whiffing only on the perennially disappointing Florida Panthers. Time to double down…
MADE PLAYOFFS IN 2018-19, COULD MISS IN 2019-20
1. Pittsburgh Penguins (My projection: sixth in Metropolitan Division, 11th in East)
The math equation of last season’s result + Pittsburgh’s off-season so far is concerning. The Penguins, seemingly nearing the end of a contention era, get swept by the New York Islanders in the playoffs; a blueline already weighed down by Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson loses Olli Maatta in a trade for a forward; and Phil Kessel goes to Arizona in a trade for Alex Galchenyuk and Pierre-Olivier Joseph.
Long-term, the Kessel deal makes plenty of sense for Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford. The Penguins hope to tap into Galchenyuk’s considerable talent and revive his career the same way the Chicago Blackhawks did Dylan Strome’s last season after plucking him from Arizona. Blueliner Joseph immediately becomes one of the top two prospects in a system desperate for blue-chippers. The Pens needed more youth and upside, and Rutherford found that. But the purpose of my exercise is to project the short term, and the Pens undoubtedly got worse for 2019-20 with that trade. Joseph hasn’t played a second of pro hockey yet and will likely require a year of AHL seasoning. And even if Kessel didn’t jive with coach Mike Sullivan, Kessel averaged 27.5 goals and 75.8 points in four seasons with Pittsburgh while never missing a game. Galchenyuk has never topped 56 points. Even if he blows up playing with his best linemates ever, his ceiling is arguably Kessel’s floor.
So the Penguins make the playoffs by four points, lose their third-best forward, lose a top-six defenseman and look like a weaker team on paper. Even with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang around, this team could finally slide out of the playoffs. It happened to Chicago with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith, after all. Every empire crumbles eventually.
2. Columbus Blue Jackets (My projection: fifth in Metropolitan Division, ninth in East)
It feels cruel to kick the Blue Jackets while they’re down, having lost their star goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky, and top forwards Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene to unrestricted free agency. But with all due respect to solid veteran signing Gustav Nyquist, the Jackets have not come close to replacing their departures this off-season. They had to scratch and claw to make the playoffs as a bottom seed with Bobrovsky, Panarin and Duchene. Meanwhile, divisional neighbors Philadelphia, New Jersey and the New York Rangers have been particularly active making improvements this summer.
The Blue Jackets won’t be a pushover by any means. They still have the dynamite tandem of Zach Werenski and Seth Jones anchoring their D-corps every night. They have Pierre-Luc Dubois as a foundational center, Cam Atkinson to contribute goals and a tenacious collection of forwards in the Josh Anderson/Boone Jenner/Nick Foligno mold. But the highest-ceiling talent is gone from the forward group, and the Jackets are also rolling the dice on a goaltending tandem of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins, the latter of whom has never played a game at a level higher than the Swiss League, let alone the NHL. If a team that snatches the lowest playoff seed takes a step back, that first step puts it out of the post-season.
3. Winnipeg Jets (My projection: fifth in Central Division, eighth in West)
Don’t fly off the handle, Jets fans. Take a breath. Re-read the above header. I have the Jets in the post-season. I do have them just squeaking in as the fifth-place team in their own division, however.
We all know how difficult life is in the Central Division. The Dallas Stars pushed the Blues to double overtime of Game 7 in the second round. The gaps between the Central teams are as thin as dental floss. That’s why I always say status quo doesn’t cut it in the Central. The Blues won the Cup following a 2018 off-season bonanza that brought in Conn Smythe and Selke Trophy winner Ryan O’Reilly, No. 3 center Tyler Bozak, top-six winger David Perron and hometown power forward Patrick Maroon. General manager Doug Armstrong understood he had to be aggressive to keep up in hockey’s most viciously competitive division.
This summer: the Colorado Avalanche land Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky and Joonas Donskoi. The Nashville Predators get Matt Duchene. The Stars sign Joe Pavelski, Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera. Heck, even the projected bottom-two teams, the Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild, land Robin Lehner and Mats Zuccarello, respectively.
The Blues have been stagnant but get a pass as the reigning champs. Meanwhile, the Jets can only wish they were stagnant. Not only have they made zero noteworthy additions thus far, but they’ve also bled important players. Shutdown blueliner Jacob Trouba is now a New York Ranger, Tyler Myers is a Vancouver Canuck, and Ben Chiarot is a Montreal Canadien. That’s half Winnipeg’s blueline gone, while rental No. 2 center Kevin Hayes went to Philadelphia, and checking winger Brandon Tanev signed with Pittsburgh.
The Jets remain an extremely talented team with the ceiling to go all the way. But they’ve gotten much weaker on paper, which is scary news for any Central team. They’ll have to battle their way to a post-season berth and will need big steps forward from youngsters like Jack Roslovic to make up for their losses.
MISSED PLAYOFFS IN 2018-19, COULD MAKE IN 2019-20
1. Philadelphia Flyers (My projection: second in Metropolitan Division, 5th in East)
It all starts with Carter Hart. The 20-year-old phenom posted a .917 save percentage as a rookie with a 16-13-1 record. That extrapolates to a .550 points percentage, which would give a team 90 points across an 82-game schedule. Hart obviously won’t start 82 games for the Flyers, but that stat does suggest they were a different team once he took over the starting job. Given his age, he’s going to get a lot better, too.
Meanwhile, the Flyers signed center Kevin Hayes, who, overpay or not, makes them a lot better and takes serious pressure off 2017 No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick. They’ve added the experienced Alain Vigneault as coach and fortified their blueline with veterans Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun. Neither is a world-beater at this stage of his career, but neither has to be. They’ll provide depth and guidance for promising young D-men Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Shayne Gostisbehere. The Flyers still have an exciting forward group, too, led by Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, Travis Konecny and James van Riemsdyk. This team looks too deep and too improved not to make a big run up the standings. And if creative young pivot Morgan Frost makes the team, too? Look out.
2. Florida Panthers (My projection: 4th in Atlantic Division, 8th in East)
The Panthers and GM Dale Tallon vowed to be aggressive spenders this summer. Even though they whiffed on Panarin, they mostly delivered on the pledge and have clearly upgraded their roster. Signing Bobrovsky was a coup for a team that finished 30th in 5-on-5 SP last season. Goaltending alone was arguably the difference between making and missing the playoffs. ‘Bob’ should be good for an extra five wins.
The Panthers may have overspent a bit on their other veteran additions, but right wingers Brett Connolly and Noel Acciari and defenseman Anton Stralman make the team better regardless. In the top-heavy Atlantic Division, The Big Three of Tampa, Boston and Toronto still feel locked in, but the No. 4 spot is very much in flux, and no team in the division has made as many augmentations as the Panthers. Did I mention they hired Joel Quenneville as coach, too? Something tells me ‘Q,’ a three-time Cup champ who ranks second all-time in wins, can work with a core of Bobrovsky, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, Mike Hoffman, Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle and Michael Matheson. Bet on the Panthers returning to the post-season.
3. Vancouver Canucks (My projection: 4th in Pacific Division, 9th in West)
Just as runs of dominance end for any team eventually, so do rebuilds. Virtually every season, some young team reaches a critical mass of ascending youth and matures into a legitimately competitive squad. Last year, that was Carolina, led by breakout stars Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen and goaltender Petr Mrazek finally coming into his own with a torrid second half.
Is it Vancouver’s turn to be that team? The Canucks boast reigning rookie of the year Elias Pettersson at center and the Calder Trophy runner-up from the previous season in sniping right winger Brock Boeser. Center and leader Bo Horvat has matured into a two-way maven who can handle the tough matchups. On defense, gifted puck-mover Quinn Hughes is ready to challenge for a Calder Trophy of his own, while top goaltending prospect Thatcher Demko will stick in the NHL all season with the intention of pushing Jacob Markstrom for the starting job. The Canucks’ veteran additions of J.T. Miller up front and Tyler Myers on defense weren’t necessarily the wisest long-term decisions, but, again, we’re simply projecting which teams have improved the most right now, and the Canucks are better with Miller and Myers than without.
The Pacific Division remains the most wide open in the sport. The well-coached Canucks boast some high-end skill players and have added some veterans to support that group. While I project them to narrowly miss the playoffs, they should compete for a berth until the bitter end.
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