Despite the alternating mini dynasties of the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks, the National Hockey League, in its modern incarnation, prides itself on being one great, big parity party.
Wanna get involved in a playoff race? Well, gather up those overtime/shootout-loss points, take advantage of someone else’s salary cap issues and come aboard!
In 2014-15, a scant 16 points separated the No. 1 playoff seed (New York Rangers) from the No. 16 seed (Calgary Flames), the tightest margin since the Stanley Cup tournament moved to a seeding system.
In stark contrast, the NBA’s top playoff seed, and eventual champion Golden State Warriors, entered the post-season with 29 more wins than the 16th-seed Boston Celtics.
The most recent Stanley Cup playoffs also saw record turnover. Seven teams that whiffed on the 2013-14 playoffs rebounded to qualify for the 2014-15 dance in the largest year-to-year change in league history.
And while we’d be surprised to see another seven-team turnover next spring — let’s place the over/under on that at 4.5 — change is a-brewing.
Here are eight teams that have the best shot to return to the playoffs in 2015-16, ranked in order from most to least likely.
Columbus Blue Jackets
2014-15 record: 38-29-5
Points out of playoff spot: 9
No team had to overcome the nearly comical string of injuries that besieged the Blue Jackets’ lineup in 2014-15—the year this young squad on the rise hosted the All-Star Game and was supposed to build on their best-ever playoff showing. Even with the setbacks, Columbus finished 2014-15 as one of the NHL’s hottest teams, winning 12 of their final 13 contests. And that with with virtually nothing left on the line but pride.
Add Cup champion Brandon Saad, 22, to the Jackets’ top nine, and their forward core is sneaky good, and should only be better with another year of experience under their belts. With a legitimate No. 1 goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky between the pipes, Columbus should canon its way back into the post-season.
2014-15 record: 41-31-10, 92 points
Points out of playoff spot: 7
Dallas finds itself in the unfortunate position of playing in the sport’s toughest division. The Central iced five playoff teams versus the Pacific’s three last year, and its worst team, Colorado, still mustered 90 points. As with Columbus, key injuries hampered the Stars run last year. A big undoing was goalie Kari Lehtonen turning in his worst year as a starter.
So general manager Jim Nill, as he always does about this time of year, went to work, acquiring the best available winger (Patrick Sharp in a trade with Chicago); one of the best stay-at-home defencemen on the the market (UFA Johnny Oduya); and proven—if expensive—support for Lehtonen in Antti Niemi.
Nill also locked up young D-man John Klingberg, whom Oduya compared to Norris winner Erik Karlsson, and he acquired blueline prospect Stephen Johns.
Dallas, on paper, improved in all three areas. The second-best offence in the NHL will now deploy a top six of Sharp, Jamie Benn (your reigning scoring champ), Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky and Valeri Nichushkin (healthy again).
Los Angeles Kings
2014-15 record: 40-27-15, 95 points
Points out of playoff spot: 4
Drew Doughty says he was rooting for the Blackhawks to win the Cup this spring because he figures the championship pattern of L.A.-Chicago-L.A.-Chicago will flip back to L.A. again in 2016.
If so, the Kings will have to win without Justin Williams, Jarret Stoll, Andrei Sekera, Mike Richards, Martin Jones and possibly Slava Voynov. The good news: We like the Milan Lucic pickup. He’s a nasty winger that plays a brand hockey that should please Darryl Sutter.
It’s not unreasonable to think forwards Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, both 23 on opening night, can take another step forward. And replacing Jones with an affordable Jhonas Enroth is basically a wash for next season.
One more proven defenceman would be nice, but the well-rested, possession-hungry Kings play in the softer Western division and have a track record of responding to disappointment with fury.
San Jose Sharks
2014-15 record: 40-33-9, 89 points
Points out of playoff spot: 8
When former head coach Todd McLellan (now with Edmonton) left earlier this spring he figured San Jose was taking a step back from contention. GM Doug Wilson still sees his club as a playoff team, and the idea is not so farfetched — especially in the Pacific Division.
Yes, Calgary looks to be even stronger this season, but can the Flames reach the 97-point mark again? Any chance Vancouver, a team in decline, gets 101 points again?
New Sharks coach Peter DeBoer has an opportunity to revitalize a core that has been playing under a cloud of controversy and disappointment for two seasons. Plus, Wilson’s additions of Paul Martin, Joel Ward and Martin Jones were all smart ones.
“When you miss the playoffs you want to get back. The guys want to win, want to be competitive,” says Brent Burns, Martin’s likely partner on the team’s first blueline unit.
“With Pete we’re getting someone that’s really approachable but he knows the details of the game and he can control guys. I think you need that in today’s game.”
2014-15 record: 41-27-14, 96 points
Points out of playoff spot: 2
The jury is still out on new GM Don Sweeney – thumbs up on the Lucic return and shedding Marc Savard’s contract, but thumbs down on the Dougie Hamilton deal. Still, no one can argue that the new GM hasn’t made an impact.
Yes, the Bruins are older, declining and look worse on paper, but of all of the East’s non-playoff teams, Boston had far and away the highest ROW (37), the best goal differential, and they staved off elimination until the bitter end.
Boston’s 10 shootout losses ranked among the league’s worst. With the new three-on-three rule, the B’s will have fewer shootouts to lose. A bounce-back is doable.
2014-15 record: 38-29-15, 91 points
Points out of playoff spot: 7
Florida has the dubious distinction of owning the longest playoff drought of any club on this list, but the Panthers have an excellent shot at snuffing their skid at three years.
After flirting with a wild-card spot for the majority of 2014-15, the Panthers are poised to take a step forward in the weaker conference. Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Reilly Smith, Brandon Pirri, Dmitry Kulikov and Aaron Ekblad are all under the age of 25. Why can’t they all improve this coming season?
And though he may not play in the NHL right away, Florida also scored the best winger in the 2015 draft, Lawson Crouse.
Florida’s goaltending is solid with Roberto Luongo, their anemic offence should take another step forward, and if GM Dale Tallon can add a decent defenceman (hey, Christian Ehrhoff is out there), a wild-card berth could await.
2014-15 record: 33-31-18, 84 points
Points out of playoff spot: 14
Owner Ed Snider is ready to win now, and the last time Philadelphia made a coaching change, the players responded with a post-season appearance. Word is, new bench boss Dave Hakstol is giving disgruntled veteran Vincent Lecavalier a fresh slate and is open to letting a wicked offence run wild.
Captain Claude Giroux and winger Jakub Voracek (contract year, hey!) represent one of the NHL’s most dangerous duos up front. Steve Mason was arguably the league’s most underrated goalie last year, and Michal Neuvirth should be a slight upgrade from the older Ray Emery as his backup.
Philly is prone to streaks and notoriously thin on the blueline, but if the planets align and their stars stay healthy, it could make some noise in a tight Metropolitan Division.
2014-15 record: 39-31-12, 90 points
Points out of playoff spot: 9
Now we’re getting into the long shots to return. The Avs’ success in 2013-14 was widely dismissed as a statistical anomaly. And while fewer shootouts should work in the Bruins’ favour, it will likely hurt nifty Colorado — which led the NHL with a 10-4 record in the skills competition.
Again, the strength of competition in the Central Division is a significant roadblock here, and the loss of two-way pivot Ryan O’Reilly is no small setback.
But the Avs did pick up minutes-muncher Francois Beauchemin, who will be partnered with No. 1 blueliner Erik Johnson in an effort to improve a 21st-ranked defence.
And with all that firepower up front — Nathan MacKinnon, Jarome Iginla, Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog — we can’t imagine the Avs finishing with the second-worst power play again.