Last week in our Season Preview Part I we explored the bottom dwellers in the National Hockey League. Today we take a look at the middle part of the NHL were we find a majority of teams.
These are teams that would be considered able to make playoffs, but not guaranteed.
No Man’s Land
These teams are on the edge of “good enough to make the playoffs” but could potentially slide down into a high lottery pick. In a league of parity, No Man's Land hosts the most teams.
The Islanders are an interesting team. They have a superstar center, John Tavares, entering into a contract year after an offseason when teams spent millions to keep stars from leaving. Exchanging Strome for Jordan Eberle should finally give Tavares the scoring winger he has always needed, but is it enough? The Islanders just seem short of another postseason birth with below average goaltending, depth, and defense. I expect Tavares to hit the open market come July 1st, 2018.
21. San Jose Sharks
The Sharks are primed for a step back. The veteran team just has not done enough the past two offseasons to catch up with the current pace of the NHL game, and this year I think it will bite them. Sure, Couture and Pavelski will still score, Brent Burns is still a monster on defense, and Martin Jones is steady in goal. But the depth behind them is lacking and the roster overall is old and slow, which sets up for a step back.
20. Minnesota Wild
Much like the Sharks, the Wild are set up for a step back after a monster regular season and ugly playoff finish. When four of your core players are over 30 (Suter, Staal, Koivu, Parise) it is tough to keep sustaining success in a young talent, speed driven NHL. Goalie Devan Dubnyk will keep them in games, and blossoming talents such as Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter will keep them close to the playoffs, but do not be surprised to see them miss out this season.
19. LA Kings
LA should enjoy a marginal bounce back after a horrendous 16-17 campaign. Still what plagued the Kings last season will surely surface again this season: depth. Simply put the bottom six in LA is about as weak as it gets. However, a bounce back campaign from Anze Kopitar should help numb the pain. Get a healthy Johnathan Quick in net, and add some scoring from the underrated Mike Cammalleri, and LA should be in the wildcard conversation.
18. St Louis Blues
Jake Allen is the most underrated goalie prospect in the league right now. After the Blues brought on Martin Brodeur to mentor Allen, he exploded in the second half of the season, and almost beat the Predators himself in Round 2. St Louis is still missing that elite scoring option to pair with Tarasenko at Center, but they are a well rounded team overall with good coaching that should push them into a wild card.
Columbus much like Minnesota last year was on fire for most of the regular season, then faded down the stretch. Unlike Minnesota however, Columbus is built for the future, with a roster stacked with young talent. But we have seen this story before in the NHL. A young team breaks into the top of the league, only to take a step back the following year. Give the Blue Jackets another season or two, and I honestly think they can contend for a Stanley Cup.
16. Ottawa Senators
Ottawa should certainly see a step back when you glance at advanced stats which show perhaps the luckiest team of the 16-17 campaign. But I am not willing yet to drop them completely out of the playoffs, and they should rest around where they finished last season. We all know Erik Karlsson, but it is about time wingers Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone became household names. Also Craig Anderson, who just keeps turning out solid season after solid season in net.
The Young Stars Division
These are younger teams that have been out of the playoffs for some time, but could join the postseason tournament next season with solid goaltending.
15. Winnipeg Jets
Finally, Winnipeg breaks through this season and joins postseason play after years of hype around the team. One of the best young cores on offense will see another step in improvement, and this season the talk will be of new guys such as Kyle Connor and Marko Dano. Jacob Trouba is on the verge of stardom on defense, and if Steve Mason can just hold opponents to one goal less each game on most nights than his predecessor, the Jets should snag a postseason birth.
Offseason darlings, Carolina is set up for a big year. Led by a plethora of young scoring talent, the Hurricanes are 3 lines deep. Jeff Skinner, a Predator killer, is one of the most underrated players in the game today, and could enjoy postseason honors next season if he takes another step. Jordan Staal has been steady at center, posting great possession numbers, and the addition of Justin Williams will give them the veteran presence they need. Mix that with perhaps the best young defensive core (other than Nashville) in the league and you have something special brewing. The season will come down to new goaltender Scott Darling, former Chicago Blackhawks backup.
The Claude Julien Division
These teams should enjoy the postseason, but one or two wrong turns and they could be out.
Boston is one of the few teams where you would not be surprised too see them in the Conference Finals or picking 8th in the lottery. I still think they have a solid enough group for postseason play. Their first line is still the best in the league (David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand), Zdeno Chara is still a force on the back end, and Tuukka Rask is still a top 10 goalie who should bring better effort this season. It might hinge on the development of younger players like Charlie McAvoy.
Once again like Boston, Montreal is teetering that line of “could be very good, could be bad” depending on what path they take. Losses of Radulov and Markov were ones that should have been avoided. But I am a big Johnathan Drouin believer who thinks he will be a star in Montreal. Carey Price is still Carey Price, Shea Weber is still blasting goals from the point, and maybe Alex Galychenyuk plays to his potential with his contract situation secured. Montreal is closer than most people think to greatness, but lack the depth to take it to the next level.