For a dozen teams, the rest of the 2017-18 regular season is nothing more than a formality. There are no playoff races to be won, no last-ditch efforts to make it to the dance and the only thing that can really be achieved in their final couple of games is playing the role of spoiler. And, quite frankly, that’s not all that much to get excited about.
But just because this season is effectively over doesn’t mean there isn’t hope for the future. Here’s a team-by-team listing of reasons for fans of non-playoff teams to keep the faith that better days lie ahead:
BUFFALO SABRES: Technically, Buffalo will make history by becoming the first team in NHL history to finish 31st. So, that’s cool? Honestly, though, finishing last gives the Sabres the best odds to win the draft lottery and the right to select Swedish defense prodigy Rasmus Dahlin. And Buffalo should be excited about Jack Eichel’s continued growth, the arrival of Casey Mittelstadt and the fact Sam Reinhart, who had five goals and 11 points at the end of December, has scored 19 goals and 37 points in his past 41 games.
OTTAWA SENATORS: A much earlier summer for the Senators this year and that really makes this disastrous season sting that much more. And amidst all the Erik Karlsson trade talk and whispers about Mark Stone’s future, there has been one major positive for Ottawa over the back half of the campaign: the play of Matt Duchene. He’s nearly a point-per-game player since the start of January, scoring 20 goals and 42 points in 43 games. If that’s what the Senators can expect from him next season, the offense could see a big boost come 2018-19.
MONTREAL CANADIENS: Sure, this season has been dreadful for the bleu, blanc et rouge, but the Canadiens have been forced to play all but 26 games without Shea Weber and Carey Price was absent for 24 outings due to injury. Those are significant losses and, if both are healthy next season, Montreal should expect much better results. Also worth keeping an eye on is the fact that the Canadiens’ top three scorers are all 25 or younger, with Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk and Jonathan Drouin leading the way. Add in the play of Victor Mete and Charles Hudon and there’s some youth to look forward to next season.
ARIZONA COYOTES: That abysmal 11-loss start put the Coyotes behind the eight ball early, but Arizona’s play over the past few months has been promising. Since January, the Coyotes are 20-13-6 with a middle-of-the-pack attack and one of the league’s stingiest defenses. Antti Raanta has been a big part of the latter as he’s been among the NHL’s hottest netminders in the second half of the season. If he re-signs in Arizona, and all signs point to him sticking around, he could be part of a great turnaround for the Coyotes.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS: Another year outside the post-season was bad enough, but having to say goodbye to the Sedins makes 2017-18 all the more difficult for Vancouver. There’s no replacing Daniel or Henrik, of course, but the good news for the Canucks is that they appear to have built a quality stable of young talent. Brock Boeser was one of the league’s most exciting young scorers before he was felled by injury, Bo Horvat has developed into a top-line center and Vancouver has hot-shot prospects Elias Pettersson, Olli Juolevi, Jonathan Dahlen and Thatcher Demko on the way.
DETROIT RED WINGS: The old guard is almost entirely gone, with Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall as the only true vestiges of better days. Detroit still hasn’t gotten used to these seasons that end after Game 82, and they may not have to for all that long if they continue to find young talent. Dylan Larkin is the standout, of course, but Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, Tyler Bertuzzi, Martin Frk and Evgeny Svechnikov make for two lines of talented forwards, and they’re all 24 or younger. There’s a foundation there. Now all they need is a defense.
EDMONTON OILERS: How bleak can things really be for the team that has Connor McDavid? He has almost singlehandedly changed this season from an unmitigated disaster to one that is merely embarrassing. There’s no sign he’s about to slow down, either. What Edmonton should most look forward to, however, is the inevitable bounce-back for Cam Talbot. He’s a better goaltender than what he’s shown this season, and even average netminding could have put the Oilers much closer to the playoff bubble. Plus, Kailer Yamamoto is coming. He could be a stud next season.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS: Without a doubt, the obvious hope is that next season is one in which John Tavares is playing under a new contract. Even if he leaves, though, how can Islanders fans not be excited for the future when they’ve seen what Mathew Barzal can do? He’s the first rookie since Evgeni Malkin to score 80 points in a season, and if he finishes this campaign with 86 points — and that’s entirely possible — he’ll be the third-highest scoring freshman in the post-lockout behind two guys named Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Not bad.
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: There’s a lot of disappointment in Chicago as the Blackhawks have seen their nine-season playoff streak come to an end. That said, a healthy Corey Crawford, a half-decent shooting percentage for Duncan Keith and a better performance out of Brandon Saad could have changed things significantly in Chicago. There’s reason to believe all three players can have better fortunes next season, too. If there’s another reason for some hope, it’s that the Blackhawks have clearly found something in Nick Schmaltz and Alex DeBrincat. Both have 20-plus goals and 50-plus points, yet neither has celebrated their 22nd birthday.
NEW YORK RANGERS: A disappointing result, to be sure, but if you’re the Rangers, you like the way Mika Zibanejad has played this season. New York should also be impressed with Pavel Buchnevich’s sophomore season and the ability young defenders Brady Skjei and Neal Pionk have shown. The Rangers are in a rebuild, plain and simple, but there are some potential cornerstone pieces on the roster already, and Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil, who has one goal and three points in his seven games with the Rangers, could very well be full-timers next season.
CAROLINA HURRICANES: One of these years, the Hurricanes are going to get halfway decent goaltending and shock everyone by winning a division crown or something. That season didn’t come in 2017-18, however. And while the crease is still cause for consternation in Carolina, consider the play of three players when you think about the Hurricanes’ future. Jeff Skinner scored 24 goals and 48 points in a down year. A good year for him sees him improve that to 30 and 60, easily. Teuvo Teravainen is a 20-goal scorer for the first time in his career and has eclipsed the 60-point plateau. And the only sophomores with more points than Sebastian Aho are Brayden Point, Mitch Marner and Patrik Laine. That’s a solid core up front.
CALGARY FLAMES: Calgary was a legitimate wild-card contender until they hit an untimely slump and the Flames might still be in the race were it not for an injury to Mike Smith earlier in the campaign. Calgary is only a few depth pieces away from being a playoff team. The offense was too top-heavy this season — Johnny Gaudreau has gone off for a career-high 82 points, Sean Monahan has 31 goals and 64 points, but no other player has 50 points — and that can be addressed in the off-season. The defense, though, was tremendous. Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton were brilliant.
DALLAS STARS: An ill-timed losing streak cost the Stars their season, but there are several bright spots. Tyler Seguin has scored 40 goals and could finish with 80 points. Jamie Benn has 32 goals and has exceeded the 70-point plateau once again. Off-season UFA signing Alexander Radulov has set new career highs with 27 goals and 68 points. Add in the improvement of John Klingberg at both ends of the ice and there’s a nice core to work off of next season. Count Mattias Janmark’s season as a silver lining, too, because after a lost season, he’s flirting with a 20-goal, 35-point campaign. If he continues to develop as he has, Janmark could be a 50-point player next season.
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