In an ideal world, this season would have seen the Devils build on last season’s success, which was powered by Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall’s offensive brilliance and saw New Jersey reach the post-season for the first time in six seasons. But this isn’t an ideal world and that’s not at all what happened.
No, instead of matching last season’s 97-point total, instead of hitting the 40-win plateau in back-to-back seasons, instead of watching Hall shred the opposition for another 82 games, the Devils fell flat. New Jersey finished the campaign with the third-lowest point total in the NHL, second-lowest in the Eastern Conference, barely hit the 30-win mark, and finished fifth from last in the league in both goals for and goals against. That’s not to mention that the reason for the former, the dip in offense in what was an up-year throughout the NHL, is due in large part to the absence of Hall, who played only 33 games this season. Despite missing more than half the campaign, Hall’s 37 points ranked fifth on the team. Never a good sign.
Turns out, though, that there’s quite the bright side to the Devils’ failure this season: the first-overall pick. On Tuesday, at the NHL’s annual draft lottery drawing, New Jersey won not just a top-three selection but the first-overall pick for the second time in three seasons, and with that comes the opportunity to select top draft prize Jack Hughes, who has long been considered the top prize. A dynamic, high-scoring center, Hughes is a blue-chip talent, and while New Jersey would have taken another berth in the post-season, the Devils are likely far better off in the near and distant future with Hughes likely coming aboard.
Only one non-playoff club was able to celebrate a draft lottery victory, of course, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t silver linings and bright sides for other franchises in the season that was. As the post-season begins for 16 teams, the other 15 are left looking ahead, and here’s something for each franchise to hang its hat on as it prepares for an all-too-long spring and summer vacation:
Anaheim Ducks: You can have all the offensive punch, all the defensive support, but if you don’t have a goaltender, there’s a good chance that none of it will matter. Well, the Ducks have a goaltender, and John Gibson used the past season to prove that regardless of what happens in front of him, Anaheim’s last line of defense is as good or better than any other in the NHL. With Gibson, the Ducks have the ability to go from bottom feeder to playoff contender by next season. Now, get some new blood in the lineup and a fresh face behind the bench and let’s see if Anaheim can’t go from draft lottery to wild-card competitor in one year’s time.
Arizona Coyotes: Just look at the standings. Look at how close the Coyotes came to making the post-season despite a litany of injuries. Look at the way Darcy Kuemper played in the absence of presumed starter Antti Raanta, suddenly turning a no-goaltender club into one that has a budding crease controversy with the 2019-20 campaign in the offing. The bright sides are plentiful in Arizona. Finally, the Coyotes look prepared to come out the other side after years spent as a Western Conference also-ran.
Buffalo Sabres: Rasmus Dahlin’s rookie campaign was remarkable. Not only did Buffalo have enough faith in his play to skate him 21-plus minutes per contest, but the 2018 first-overall pick went out and posted 44 points – the fourth-most of any Sabre – in 82 games, which is one of the best totals for an 18-year-old rearguard in NHL history. Changes are coming in Buffalo with coach Phil Housley out and roster moves likely in the offing, but the Sabres have their centerpiece up front in Jack Eichel and clearly have their blueline anchor installed with Dahlin proving his value in an instant.
Chicago Blackhawks: Maybe it was just a case of catching lightning in a bottle, but it sure felt like Dylan Strome was every bit the top talent he was projected to be back during his draft year once he was acquired by the Blackhawks. In 58 games with Chicago, the 2015 third-overall pick registered 17 goals and 51 points, and with him the Blackhawks can ice a top six that includes Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Alex DeBrincat and Strome. Not bad. (And, hey, moving up nine spots in the draft order certainly doesn’t hurt, either.)
Detroit Red Wings: Dylan Larkin is ready to take over as the face of the franchise, and he made that crystal clear with his performance this season. His 32-goal, 73-point campaign was far and away the best of his career, and his top-line minutes, rock-solid faceoff percentage and excellent underlying statistics cemented his status as Detroit’s first-line center. Wrapping up his fourth campaign and heading into his fifth next season, Larkin is going to lead this team into the future. It’s only a matter of time.
Edmonton Oilers: Connor McDavid’s x-rays came back negative, which means the Oilers’ phenom and the world’s most talented offensive player isn’t going to spend the next several months in a cast. Also good news? Despite conjecture about McDavid’s desire to stay in Edmonton, he assuaged those concerns by stating clearly that he wants to be part of the solution for the Oilers.
Florida Panthers: Bob Boughner wasn’t part of the problem, but Joel Quenneville can definitely be part of the solution. Hiring the three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach is a boon for the franchise. Quenneville is sure to get a lot more out of a roster that vastly underperformed this season. Also worth noting is that the Panthers prepare to enter the off-season with significant cap space and a willingness to spend big. Their targets are clear: Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Landing one? Good. Landing both? Great.
Los Angeles Kings: This season was so dreadful that Drew Doughty openly wished for it to end. So, maybe the bright side is that the campaign is finally through? More likely, though, the bright side is that the coaching change seems imminent and all signs point to the new hire being Todd McLellan, who is a great pick for the job. McLellan did wonderfully when with the San Jose Sharks and the failures in Edmonton are hard to pin on the bench boss. The front office staff around the Oilers shoulder as much, if not more, of that blame. Some stability behind the bench and a clear vision are the best things possible for the Kings, who seek direction.
Minnesota Wild: It’s not what the Wild did but what they didn’t do: fire Bruce Boudreau. It’s easy – really easy – for GMs to lay the blame at the feet of the bench boss, but Boudreau wasn’t the issue in Minnesota. His roster was, and that roster is going to be shaken up this summer. You can bet on that. On ice, the big win for the Wild this season was that a 34-year-old Zach Parise, who battled injuries that cost him half of last season, flirted with 30 goals this season and proved he can still be a key offensive contributor. Given the six seasons and $7.54 million per season left on Parise’s deal, the reassurance that he can still stuff the scoresheet goes a long way.
Montreal Canadiens: This 2018-19 campaign was a real return to form for Carey Price, who struggled last season, posting the worst numbers of his career. Much of Montreal’s success is predicated on Price’s play, and the Canadiens are at their best when Price is the all-world keeper that he can be. It’s not all about Price, though. Max Domi’s acquisition was a home run for the Canadiens, as was the selection of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who proved his usefulness in his rookie campaign. GM Marc Bergevin also stuck to his guns at the deadline, and that will prove to be the right decision down the road.
New York Rangers: In the past 20 years, the Rangers’ highest draft pick was fourth overall, used to select Pavel Brendl. That was a pick that went bust. This time, though, New York is primed to have a top-two selection and with it the chance to get one of Hughes or (more likely) Kaapo Kakko. For a Rangers team that is all-in on the rebuild, Tuesday’s draft lottery was a massive victory. Add in the promising campaigns from Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich, Brady Skjei, Neal Pionk and second-string goaltender Alexander Georgiev and there’s a foundation there on which New York can build, and the second-overall pick is a major building block.
Ottawa Senators: GM Pierre Dorion said the worst is behind the Senators, and that’s probably (hopefully?) true. Ottawa got contributions from its rookie skaters, including top freshmen Brady Tkachuk and Colin White. Thomas Chabot took a step forward in his development. Drake Batherson looks ready to make the jump. Free agent college signing Max Veronneau even made his mark in a brief stay. And the additional bright spot? At least the pick the Senators sent to the Avalanche wasn’t the first-overall selection. Take the wins where you can get ‘em.
Philadelphia Flyers: Are we finally able to put the goaltending concerns to rest? Carter Hart wasn’t supposed to be thrust into the spotlight, but the kid has got game and .917 save percentage and 2.83 goals-against average were the best marks of any Flyers keeper. Philadelphia really started to make a push heading towards the deadline, but too little, too late and they ended up on the outside looking in. Not sure most would expect that to continue going forward.
Vancouver Canucks: Elias Pettersson and it’s not even close. What an inspired performance this season. He’s a lock to win the Calder Trophy, his 28-goal, 66-point output led the Canucks in both categories and he already appears to have everything it takes to become the next offensive leader in Vancouver. The only question now is what he does for a follow-up performance. A close second to Pettersson is the addition of Quinn Hughes, the top prospect who showed up late in the season, played in five games, picked up three assists and could be a power play quarterback for the Canucks by early next season. Good young talent is going to make Vancouver fun to watch, if nothing else.