The kickoff for NHL training camps is about a month away, but the grand majority of teams made notable changes to their roster weeks ago, leaving analysis of their growth – on paper, at least – to hockey observers now.
There will be teams that underachieve, of course, but there are also going to be teams that make a jump up the standings. And those are the teams we’re looking to identify in this column.
Here are the four NHL teams best-prepared to make a leap in the standings:
The Hawks are going to be followed around by the investigation into allegations of abuse by a former coach until the investigation ends and someone/some people are made to be responsible for the alleged wrongdoing. But on the hockey side, the team has made solid inroads toward improving on last season’s sixth-place finish in the Central Division.
With the Central now reset into its normal collection of teams, Chicago will still be in tough to secure a playoff spot – you have to think the Colorado Avalanche is a lock to earn a Stanley Cup playoff berth, and after that, the Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues, Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild will be fighting it out for one of the three remaining post-season slots – but the changes made by Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman this off-season has positioned his team to jump into that mix and be competitive with those teams. The additions of star goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and star defenseman Seth Jones, and the return of star center Jonathan Toews, undoubtedly will give the Hawks a boost, and Chicago will be a much tougher team to play against this season. They may ultimately not rise high enough to make the playoffs, but the Blackhawks should be playing much more meaningful hockey all season long.
Los Angeles Kings
The Kings finished 14 points out of a playoff spot this past season, and GM Rob Blake did not sit back this summer and allow his group to remain the same. He dealt for former Predators forward Viktor Arvidsson and signed unrestricted free agent veterans Philip Danault and Alex Edler to help bolster the team’s second line of forwards and defense corps. Los Angeles also has a potentially promising third line of center Gabriel Vilardi and wingers Trevor Moore and Andreas Athanasiou; all three of those players each finished the 2021 campaign with 10 goals and 23 points, and if they can provide similar numbers over a longer schedule, there will be lessened pressure on their top line of Anze Kopitar and wingers Alex Iafallo and Dustin Brown to generate offense every game.
Similarly, while the Kings’ defense isn’t the class of the league, but they are somewhat underrated; with star blueliner Drew Doughty and Edler helping to lead the way, and vets Olli Määttä and Matt Roy quietly backing them up, life is likely going to be easier for L.A. goalies Jonathan Quick and Cal Petersen. The Kings now operate in a Pacific Division where Vegas and Edmonton are presumptive locks for a post-season spot, and L.A. has a tremendous opportunity to vault over one or both of the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames – as well as the expansion Seattle Kraken – to earn its first playoff berth since the 2017-18 campaign. Don’t be shocked if that’s precisely what they do.
They’re now back in a Metropolitan Division that has four teams that made the playoffs last season – that would be the New York Islanders, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes – so the Flyers have their work cut out for them in attempting to get back to the post-season. However, under massive pressure, Philadelphia GM Chuck Fletcher made major moves this summer, remaking his defense corps (with the additions of former Predators mainstay Ryan Ellis, ex-Sabres D-man Rasmus Ristolainen, and veteran Keith Yandle) and adding a heart-and-soul competitor in former Blue Jackets cornerstone Cam Atkinson.
Those moves, along with the development of youngsters such as wingers Joel Farabee and Wade Allison, should push the Flyers into the same strata as the aforementioned four playoff teams from last year. They may ultimately fall short of that playoff goal – and goalie Carter Hart will be on the hot seat all season long – but Philly will be at least as competitive as they were last year, and likely more competitive under the capable coaching of Alain Vigneault.
Granted, it’s hard to improve on a second-place-in-their division the way they played last season, but the Panthers have improved their lineup this summer with the addition of former Sabres winger Sam Reinhart, and they’ll have a full season from former Flames center Sam Bennett and rookie pivot Anton Lundell. That gives Florida three above-average lines, and healthy competition for their fourth line of forwards.
The Panthers will have no problems putting up points, and they’ve got a defense corps that, led by star Aaron Ekblad – who played only 35 games last season before he was injured – will provide goalies Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight with ample support. And now that they’re back in the Atlantic Division, along with defending Cup champions Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto, the Panthers have a solid shot at finishing first in the Atlantic and wrapping up home-ice advantage for the playoffs. GM Bill Zito and head coach Joel Quenneville gives Florida excellent management, and now it’s on the players to back them up with first-rate play.