Posted in: NHL
Free agency is well in the rearview and the NHL season is still two months from kicking into gear.
But it’s never too early to start discussing the teams who will surge ahead of or fall behind their 2017-18 campaigns.
The Capitals, Predators, Lightning, Sharks, and Penguins will all have their go at the Stanley Cup this season. They’ll likely move a spot or two in the final standings.
But this group of 10 teams I’ll discuss today represent those who will see the greatest improvement or deterioration. The number one teams in each category won’t necessarily be the worst or best team, just the one with the biggest difference in their records.
These are cup contenders and pretenders, teams rising from the depths of the standings and those preparing for life in the basement.
There are a lot of other teams who could go here.
New Jersey did little this offseason. They should drop from the playoffs this year with Carolina and Florida coming on strong. Boston will likely fall back a spot, and Pittsburgh’s awful contract to Jack Johnson hurts them way more than helping.
And then there’s Ottawa, who will become the East’s cellar-dweller. And how about that dumpster-fire in Montreal?
But Winnipeg did itself no favors this offseason, even if they’re still in the running for Lord Stanley.
The Jets failure to sign Paul Stastny was a gut-punch. Losing him to the team (Vegas) that beat them in Western Conference Finals makes things even worse.
His veteran presence, faceoff capabilities, and 50-point-plus production will be missed. He ended up nothing more than a rental player for them.
Losing Joel Armia before his prime doesn’t help them either.
But they don’t have much to show at all for free agency. They swung and missed on Stastny, while St. Louis and Colorado only got better. And Nashville will once again be a threat to go all the way.
The only consolation for the Jets is that now they can use that money next year for re-signing Blake Wheeler and 24-year-old Defenseman Jacob Trouba.
Once again, there were other options here. Colorado is a young team that will continue to get stronger on top of adding an underrated goalie, Philipp Grubauer.
The Kings and Panthers also got big pieces that will fill what used to be weaknesses.
But I decided to go with Carolina in this spot, primarily for the trade steal they pulled off.
Grabbing Dougie Hamilton from Calgary is huge for them. It gives them a top-15 defenseman and one that has three more years on a very affordable contract. And the biggest piece they gave up for him was their 6th-best scorer, Elias Lindholm. And Hamilton is only two years older (25).
Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen at 21 and 23 respectively, are only going to get better. And the Hurricanes have plenty of money to pay significant raises when they’re restricted free agents next season.
2018 second-overall pick Andrei Svechnikov is a physical specimen at right wing, and he’s only 18. He’ll give the Hurricanes yet another talented youngster.
There may or may not be significant roster overhauls in store next offseason. But either way, Carolina has the opportunity to make up the 14-point gap between them and New Jersey and challenge for a playoff spot.
The Flames still have two of the more talented young players in the game: 24-year-old winger Johnny Gaudreau and center Sean Monahan (23). Possibly Putting signee James Neal on that line with them will produce great things.
But no one should be giving them any pats on the back for Dougie Hamilton trade. No matter the discourse that was there between him and the organization, and still isn’t a good trade numbers-wise.
Losing another reliable scorer in Micheal Ferland and a potential playmaker in Adam Fox makes the deal even worse for the Flames.
The bottom dropped out of Calgary’s season last year. Some of it likely had to do with the gelling the team lacked. Getting Neal and ridding itself of a potential internal problem in Hamilton makes this pick a little risky.
But in terms of sheer talent, Hanifin isn’t Ferland and Lindholm certainly isn’t Hamilton.
Besides that, this team still has a lot of growing up to do and a lot of competition to test them.
They play in a division where Vegas just went to the Stanley Cup. The best player in the league, Connor McDavid, is in their division as well. The Sharks are major contenders to get back to Finals, and the Kings and Ducks have improved if anything. Even Arizona will be better this season.
It’s going to be a lot for Calgary to overcome.
No need to adjust your monitor. Arizona really has made strides and could have a considerably better record in 2018-19.
That’s not saying much considering they were dead-last in the Western Conference last season. But they did finish 17-9-3 over the final two months of the season and got a quality offensive upgrade thanks to Montreal.
And they desperately needed a scorer like Alex Galchenyuk (19 goals, 51 points). While his plus/minus (-31) is cause for some concern, he’ll be providing a boost to what was the second-worst offensive team in hockey last season. Oh, and he’s only 23.
They gave up the physical LW Max Domi to get him, but Galchenyuk is the same age and has a far better track record and ceiling. And Arizona got him one-for-one.
The addition of 24-year-old center Vinnie Hinostroza will also bring capable depth and youth to an already young squad.
This is by no means a playoff team yet. But they will undoubtedly skip over Vancouver in their division this year, and maybe another team too.
The amount of talent on the Vegas roster hasn’t been depleted much.
But losing some of the leadership from their magical season and the natural hangover that can come from such a Cinderella run is inevitable.
Waving bye to James Neal is big from a production standpoint, but much larger considering he was a heart-and-soul guy on their inaugural squad. Left winger David Perron is a major loss too, considering he was nearly averaging a point-per-game (66 in 70 games).
And adding Paul Statsny takes some of the sting away from losing Neal’s guidance and Perron’s offensive abilities.
But it doesn’t fill those shoes completely. Combining that with the fact most of the Vegas players undoubtedly hit their ceiling last year, and you’re left with an expected decline.
Toronto will get all the praise for landing John Tavares. But they had to get rid of the next-best free agent, James van Riemsdyk, to do so.
Philadelphia swooped in and brought back the 36 goal-scorer, who will be starting with the Flyers at the height of his career. Between him, Claude Giroux (102 points) and Jakub Voracek (85 points), you’re looking at three top-line forwards in their prime.
And that’s before adding Sean Couturier (76 points, +34) to the mix.
They need better play in net from Brian Elliott and his fellow goaltenders. It will be the make-or-break difference for this season.
But this team is built offensively to win big now. They stepped up their game this offseason when Washington and Pittsburgh didn’t. Columbus, even with Riley Nash coming aboard, doesn’t look to have the scoring threats to beat the Flyers. The Devils and Islanders will fade as well.
The Capitals are still the team to beat in the Metropolitan Division. But it would not surprise me in the least if Philly made a run to 110 points and a divisional title.
Whatever Stanley Cup window Minnesota was supposed to have a couple years ago looks to be razor-thin now.
They have very little cap space, so they couldn’t add much to the fold. The only improvement of note is Greg Pateryn, but he’s no more than a third-pair defenseman.
St. Louis has a better-looking roster now and so does Colorado. Whether Dallas brings up prized prospect Miro Heiskanen or trades him for Erik Karlsson, they’ll probably be in a position to pass the Wild as well.
The Wild’s Zach Parise is 34 now with a fat, unmovable contract and injury concerns.
Ryan Suter is their top defenseman and has had stable offensive production. But he’s still 33 and counting with a long way to go on his contract.
Eric Staal had a bit of a renaissance last year, but that isn’t likely to continue at 33 either. Mikko Koivu is another forward they rely on who is declining at 35.
This is just a very average team now, one that seemingly has peaked. Matt Dumba (24) has been one massive spark for the defense, but there’s not enough fresh blood to really liven this squad.
They’ve unfortunately topped out.
This is no surprise. John Tavares signing with the hometown Maple Leafs was the biggest signing of the NHL offseason. Toronto improving this season is a given.
The only question is, how much better will they be?
Their core forwards Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, and William Nylander will have another year under their belt. So will young top-line defenseman Morgan Reilly.
This team had their first taste of playoff experience in a seven-game series against some cagey Boston veterans. That experience is invaluable.
The Leafs had to let go of van Riemsdyk and a few other contributors to the 2017 campaign. But they’re now easily the deepest team up the middle of their offense.
They might not be Stanley Cup favorites. But Toronto should surpass Boston and could challenge Tampa for the division and conference crowns.
I apologize in the case that an Islanders fan is reading this. Not only did I just mention Tavares and Toronto, but now must talk about how the Isles will be free-falling through the standings.
Once Tavares left New York, the little hope the Isles had of pulling together a contender left with him.
Having Stanley Cup champion coach Barry Trotz at the helm is worth celebrating. But that’s about it.
Losing Tavares was the big blow, but bidding farewell to Calvin de Haan is rough too. He was one of two bright spots (the other Tom Hickey) the defense had when he was healthy. Now he’s gone, and the Islanders are stuck with what’s left of a unit that gave up nearly 50 goals more than the league average.
It’s unfortunate for NYI considering they have a few younger players who will fill out a pretty good roster in the near-future.
But Tavares was the guy who put them over the top. And he decided he wanted to win now.
So the Isles are stuck wasting the early years of budding star Mathew Barzal and the prime of Josh Bailey.
And the best skater they got in place of Tavares is Val Filppula, whose age (34) is higher than his point output (33).
St. Louis really took missing the playoffs for the first time since 2011 seriously.
It’s a little early to be considering the Blues major Stanley Cup Contenders. But they’re certainly close on paper.
Getting Ryan O’Reilly from Buffalo is the most underrated move of the offseason. The center is solid on both ends of the ice and amazing in the face-off circle.
Taking David Perron away from Vegas gives them another prime scoring threat to put in a top-six that features O’Reilly, Brayden Schenn (70 points), Vladimir Tarasenko (33 goals), and Jaden Schwartz (59 points in 62 games).
Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon should also provide depth at forward. And through all these moves, St. Louis still didn’t lose a top-six scorer that was on their roster at the end of last year.
If they can get a full year out of Schwartz, they should be sitting pretty. They’re in the toughest division in hockey but could move up two spots in the Central.
The only concern will be goalie Jake Allen. If he doesn’t stabilize his game, this team is a first-round loser in the playoffs again. If he does show progress, it’ll be hard to find limitations for this Blues team.