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Which three teams could be this season’s Devils or Avalanche?

The New Jersey Devils and Colorado Avalanche surprised onlookers last season with single-season turnarounds that took them from lottery-pick pretenders to post-season contenders. Here are three teams that could follow suit this coming season.

To say expectations were low for the New Jersey Devils and Colorado Avalanche last season would have been an understatement. When The Hockey News rolled out its 2017-18 season preview issue, only one team had longer odds to win the Stanley Cup. And while true that neither the Devils nor Avalanche came all that close to hoisting the sport’s greatest prize, the fact that both teams made the playoffs was considered a near-Herculean feat considering they were considered by most to be lottery teams, at best.

But on a season-to-season level, no two teams experienced single-season turnarounds quite like New Jersey and Colorado. The Devils, a 70-point team the season prior, were dragged by eventual Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall to a 27-point increase that earned New Jersey a surprising spot in the post-season. Likewise, the Avalanche were paced by their own star and Hart Trophy finalist, Nathan MacKinnon, to a monster year-over-year about-face. Colorado nearly doubled its point total from one season prior, improving from 48 points in 2016-17 to 95 points in 2017-18. Were it not for the expansion Vegas Golden Knights and coach Gerard Gallant, Avalanche bench boss Jared Bednar would've been a shoo-in to win the Jack Adams Award.

However, despite last season’s successes, you won’t find many willing to put their life savings down on New Jersey or Colorado to repeat as playoff teams this season. Rather, the natural ebb and flow of franchise’s building towards consistent contention sees both franchises on the cusp of predicted playoff returns this year. So, which teams could take their places this season and piece together a single-season improvement that makes the rest of the league sit up and take notice? Here are three teams worth keeping an eye on:

You could chalk the Oilers’ chances of reversing their fortunes up to the Connor McDavid factor alone. Without a doubt, McDavid is the single-most dominant offensive force in the NHL today and arguably the player best equipped to single-handedly drive an attack in the post-lockout era. He’s the back-to-back Art Ross Trophy winner and chances are he’s the odds-on favorite to make it a three-peat by the time the 2018-19 campaign closes. But it’s not solely McDavid who would be responsible for the Oilers seeing a 20-plus point turnaround.

Though he’s had his statistical breakouts, Edmonton has been waiting — and expecting — for the time to come that Leon Draisaitl will drive his own line for the Oilers. The thought heading into last season was the time had come, but Draisaitl wound up spending the bulk of his campaign skating alongside McDavid. If the Oilers can get the one-two punch of McDavid and Draisaitl, though, they’ll have added depth down the middle and formidable pivots to guide their top two lines, and we saw just how effective that can be during Edmonton’s 2016-17 post-season run.

And while that does little to improve the Oilers’ defensive depth, added offensive punch paired with a bounce-back season from netminder Cam Talbot would put Edmonton in line to push for a wild-card spot, at the very least, in a wide-open Pacific Division. Talbot was in the Vezina Trophy conversation just two short seasons ago, and if he can rediscover that form, the Oilers should have no problem getting into the playoff hunt.

Few teams have done as much off-season tinkering as the Sabres. In the space of one summer, Buffalo GM Jason Botterill has essentially turned over one-third of his offense, one-third of his defense and put a new starting netminder in place.

In Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and Tage Thompson, all acquired as part of the Ryan O’Reilly deal with the St. Louis Blues, the Sabres improved the depth of their offense overnight. Better yet, Buffalo also went out and added Conor Sheary to give an added bit of punch to the middle-six of the lineup, and then made a major acquisition in the form of three-time 30-goal scorer Jeff Skinner, who could be in line for a career year playing alongside Sabres star center Jack Eichel. Add in the offensive acumen of existing pieces such as Sam Reinhart, Casey Mittelstadt and Kyle Okposo and Buffalo’s offense promises to be far more lethal this season.

The Sabres’ defense also stands to be much improved, too, beginning with the addition of No. 1 draft pick Rasmus Dahlin, who some consider the pre-season frontrunner for the Calder Trophy. His addition helps round out the defense, to be sure, but the addition of Matt Hunwick and development of Brendan Guhle certainly doesn’t hurt a blueline in need.

The one concern might be the readiness of Carter Hutton, a career backup who is set to take on starting duty for the Sabres. He led the league in save percentage and goals-against average last season among netminders with 30 games played, but being a No. 1 is a different story altogether. The good news is there’s a reasonable amount of confidence in Linus Ullmark as a second-stringer and Scott Wedgewood offers some additional depth support in the crease.

It begins in goal with Antti Raanta. The backup-turned-starter got his first shot at taking the top job last season after being acquired by Arizona and excelled despite battling through injury. Among netminders with at least 41 games played, Raanta topped the league in SP and GAA, and there’s no reason to believe the netminder won’t be capable of putting up similar numbers this coming campaign. And given the Coyotes have a nice group of defenders in place, what Raanta will need to be successful is goal support. The belief in Arizona is that the offense is on its way.

This summer, the Coyotes added three notable pieces up front in top-six forward Alex Galchenyuk and depth scorers Michael Grabner and Vinnie Hinostroza. Together, the trio combined for 53 goals last season, and given what left the lineup throughout the off-season, that adds up to a net offensive addition somewhere in the 25- to 30-goal range. That’s to say nothing, either, of potential offensive increases that come with the development of bright young talents Clayton Keller, Brendan Perlini, Christian Fischer and Christian Dvorak. And if he cracks the lineup this season, Dylan Strome could be the kind of pure scorer that is a difference-maker on the power play.

Given how the Coyotes have failed to meet expectations despite a promising lineup in the past, this feels as though it should all be followed with “just kidding!” The reality, though, is Arizona looks to have more pieces in place than ever to drive forward, and if Raanta plays up to his ability and the additions of Galchenyuk, Grabner and Hinostroza pay off, the attack could be deeper and defense better than any Coyotes team we’ve experienced in several seasons.


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