Oh, hey, look at that. It’s hockey season again. The West is incredible, the East is mediocre, a few teams already have their eye on the draft lottery and we probably won’t have a Canadian Stanley Cup Champion. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The good news is that parity is alive and well. There’s realistically 10 or more teams that have a chance at winning their respective conference and 21-25 with at least a mild shot at the postseason. As always, there are teams due for regression, teams that should get better and teams that will disappoint. Attempting to accurately predict which teams will do what is a fool’s errand… so I’m just the guy for the job.
Here’s the Week One power rankings (this will be a biweekly thing). Commence the shouting.
The Draft Dodgers
30. Buffalo Sabres: New GM Tim Murray made enough decent moves in an effort to the salary cap floor to ensure this won’t be the 52-point dumpster fire it was last season. Brian Gionta, Andrej Meszaros and Josh Gorges are all solid, if unspectacular additions. The loss of Ryan Miller could hurt a little less if the Jhonas Enroth/Michal Neuvirth platoon plays well. Christian Ehrhoff is a huge loss, there’s no way around that. The team has a hell of a future, but just doesn’t have enough talent right now.
29. Calgary Flames: Mikael Backlund and Mark Giordano are very good. Sam Bennett and Sean Monahan are on the path to greatness. There’s not much else to say about this team. Like the Sabres, they’re aiming for Connor McDavid/ Jack Eichel at the top of the draft.
28: Carolina Hurricanes: The ‘Canes were among the worst teams in the East last season and didn’t address goaltending issues that have plagued them for two seasons. The forward depth is weak (hence: Nathan Gerbe, top-six guy) as is the defense in general.
27. Winnipeg Jets: The Jets finished last in the ultra-competitive Central Division last year and didn’t do anything in the offseason to improve their roster. Seems they’re all in on the draft as well.
26. Florida Panthers: The Panthers posted solid possession numbers last season, but finished 29th overall. That nabbed them first overall pick Aaron Ekblad to go along with fellow top-five picks Alex Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. Goaltending was an issue last year so the team is relying on 35-year-old Roberto Luongo to provide consistent quality play. Of all the bad teams, they have the best chance to make a jump.
Probably not, but maybe
25. Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs late-season collapse in 2013-14 has been hashed and rehashed. The stat guys were right and your uncle who posts angry meme about Obama on Facebook was wrong. The Leafs hiring of Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas suggest they’re ready to step into the 21st century. But right now, the roster is too dependent on goaltending and full of one-way forwards and question marks on defense to compete this year.
24. Arizona Coyotes: The Coyotes weren’t terrible last year and really aren’t that bad this year. We’re getting to the point where parity sets in. There’s really not much difference in talent among the 17-25 teams. The good news is Arizona has three very good defensemen in Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Zbynek Michalek and Keith Yandle. The bad news is Radim Vrbata and Mike Ribeiro are both gone and it’s not clear whether they can replace the production.
23. Nashville Predators: The Preds traded for James Neal and signed Derek Roy and Mike Ribeiro to low-risk deals in an effort to generate more offense. Even with the additions and a healthy Pekka Rinne, they probably still won’t be able to compete in the West.
22. Edmonton Oilers: There are quite a few questions surrounding the Oilers. What if the team plays the way it did down the stretch last year? After a 4-15-2 start, the team played at nearly a point per game pace. What if Nail Yakupov comes around finally? What if Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth are solid goalies? What if the defense isn’t terrible? One of these years, the Oilers have to break through, right?
21. Vancouver Canucks: the Canucks are in a strange position. They’re not contenders as they traded possibly their best player in Ryan Kesler over the summer. They’re not rebuilding, it would seem, as they signed Ryan Miller to a decent contract this offseason. Where will that land them? Probably outside the top eight in the West.
Low Seed Contenders:
20. Ottawa Senators: The Senators essentially had a season from hell last season, culminating in losing Jason Spezza in the offseason. Erik Karlsson is elite, Kyle Turris is ready to take on a larger role and the goaltending should be solid. The Senators aren’t great, but they’re capable of sneaking into the East playoffs.
19. Washington Capitals: The team followed up missing the playoffs by slightly overpaying Matt Niskanen and throwing bricks of money at the over-the-hill Brooks Orpik. Alex Ovechkin is still the world’s most dangerous goal scorer. Youngins Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky will both join the team this year as possible rookie of the year candidates. Still not enough defense to really compete.
18. Detroit Red Wings: The Wings suffered a litany of injuries last year to keep them near the bottom of the playoff teams, eventually culminating in a five-game, first-round defeat to Boston. But when your best forwards are in their mid-30’s, injuries are probably unavoidable. A 24th consecutive trip to the playoffs might not be in the cards.
17. Philadelphia Flyers: In a salary cap crunch, the Flyers traded Scott Hartnell. He essentially wasn’t replaced, which could lead to a decrease in scoring despite the presence of Claude Giroux. Steve Mason is a shaky option at goaltender and the defensive corps either old, bad or both.
Playoff, but maybe not Cup contenders
16. Colorado Avalanche: The Avalanche are certainly due for some regression, but maybe not as much as some might think. The team posted awful possession numbers last year but thrived with a high shooting percentage and fantastic goaltending courtesy of Seymon Varlamov. He’s due to regress a bit and the team will miss Paul Stastny and P.A. Parenteau, who were replaced with Jarome Iginla and Danny Briere. But the young corps will only get better. The Avs probably won’t win the Central again but they’ll fight for a playoff spot.
15: New York Islanders: Despite the wishes of Sabres fans (Buffalo owns the Islanders first-round pick), the Islanders are not in the McDavid sweepstakes. The team acquired the underrated trio of Mikhail Grabovski, goalie Jaroslav Halak and Nikolai Kulemin before trading for defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy this week. John Tavares has returned from injury with the opportunity to lead the Islanders to their first playoff series win since 1993.
14: New Jersey Devils: The Devils are old. This much is true. They got a little less old in the offseason by letting future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur walk in free agency (he hasn’t signed anywhere as of yet). Coery Schneider will take over as full-time starter in his absence. If Adam Larsson and Adam Henrique continue to improve, Jagr and Pat Elias continue to defy age and the free agent signings pan out, this should be a playoff team.
13: Columbus Blue Jackets: Sergei Bobrovsky is Vezina winner, recently-extended Ryan Johansen is a budding star, Scott Hartnell was a solid addition and the roster is at least solid in a very unsolid conference. They have the potential to win the first playoff series in franchise history.
12. Montreal Canadians: The Canadians lost some depth players in captain Brian Gionta and defenseman Josh Gorges (also rental Thomas Vanek and aging Danny Briere. Sabres!) but kept the most talented players around, which is all that matters. Montreal might not be as talented as their conference final appearance might indicate but they match up well against the conference’s only elite team (Boston).
11. Minnesota Wild: The Wild are almost there, but not quite. They might never get there. They don’t have the top-end talent or depth to stack up to Western Conference competition. Vanek is a solid addition and Mikael Granlund is an intriguing prospect, but this team would need a hell of a performance to make it out of the second round of the playoffs.
10. New York Rangers: The team will be without Brian Boyle, Anton Stralman and Brad Richards this season. Ryan McDonough is a top-end D-man, but that’s about it as far as top-tier talent goes on the blue line. They didn’t do much to replace them aside from signing Lee Stempniak. Henrik Lunqvist is the World’s best goalie, but he’s into his 30’s, as are Martin St. Louis (39), Dan Boyle (38), Rick Nash (30) and Ryan Malone (34). The window might be closing fast.
9. Tampa Bay Lightning: Ben Bishop will not be as good as he was last season. Everyone else might be better. It’s unclear how good Bishop is, but he’s not like to post a save percentage in .930’s every year. Steven Stamkos should play a full season, the team added Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle and Jason Garrison and the young corps led by Jonathan Drouin should make for an exciting team. Whether or not they can contend for a Cup remains to be seen.
[caption id=”attachment_1095” align=”alignnone” width=”300”] When you win the Stanley Cup, you enter the following season with the largest target on your back. I’m sure Kings fans love every second of it.
(Photo by David Jones)[/caption]
Stanley Cup Contenders
8. Dallas Stars: The Stars went all in this summer, adding Jason Spezza and Alex Hemsky to an already deadly offense. There are questions on the blue line and a lot of pressure will be on goalie Kari Lehtonen, but the Stars will have no issue scoring. Whether or not they’ll be on the right side of high scoring games in May remains to be seen.
7. Pittsburgh Penguins: The good news: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The bad news: most other things. The Penguins still don’t have the depth or goaltending that most playoff teams do. They lost Matt Niskanen and swapped James Neal for Patric Hornqvist this offseason in an effort to save money. Christian Ehrhoff was an excellent value signing. Plus, depth and goaltending aren’t as important when you have the two best forwards in the league.
6. San Jose Sharks: The Sharks had an, um, interesting offseason. They’re placed at six and in the Cup contenders’ category because of their sheer top-end talent. But they’re attempts to trade Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton and then stripping them of their captain’s letters was too peculiar to ignore. It’s entirely possible that the locker room situation is toxic enough to ruin the season. It’s also possible they make a deep playoff run. We shall see.
5. St. Louis Blues: The Blues have had the extreme misfortune of playing in the same conference as the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks the past three seasons. One of the teams has knocked them out each of the last three seasons. The Blues are deep and more talented than one would think. The only question is whether Brian Elliot is still as good as his 2011-12 form. The Blues should be very good this year. They just better pray they don’t run into Los Angeles or Chicago too early.
4. Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks were very good last year and added supremely-talented two-way forward Ryan Kesler. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry might be the best forward duo in hockey and they’re surrounded by solid depth forwards. The only question mark is young goalie John Gibson. He’s a highly-touted prospect, but isn’t proven at the NHL level.
3. Boston Bruins: The Bruins minus Jarome Iginla and Johnny Boychuk are still the class of the Eastern Conference. Despite their stubborn refusal to stop giving minutes to useless enforcers, they dominate possession from top to bottom and have excellent goalie Tuukka Rask to rely on when they don’t. They’re the favorites to make the Cup out of the East, even if they’re worse than last season.
2. Chicago Blackhawks: Chicago has mostly the same team as last year, minus Brandon Bollig and Nick Leddy and with the addition of Brad Richards. I’d call that a win, even if Richards is well over the hill. They’re deep, they can score with anyone and shut down anyone. Corey Crawford is just average but that rarely matters. The only thing that stands between Chicago and a third Stanley Cup in six years is…
1. Los Angeles Kings: They lost no one of note and were able to resign playoff star Marion Gaborik. They roll four lines and wear opponents down with their diverse styles of attack. Anze Kopitar has a “better than any forward but Crosby” argument and he plays perfectly with Gaborik. Drew Doughty is an elite defenseman and the rest of the blue line is solid. The Kings are certainly favorites to win their third Stanley Cup in four years. But they’ll have to fight like hell to get out of the Western Conference playoffs.