Depending on which team you root for, this can be a great time to be an NHL fan. Obviously if your team is still alive, you’re on the edge of your seat, wondering if they can keep their run going and win the Stanley Cup. But even if your team was eliminated in one of the first few rounds, you’ve probably built up enough hatred for whoever knocked them out that you’ve still got something to cheer for — or at least against.
But what about the teams that didn’t make the playoffs at all? These days, that’s almost half the league. And it can be a tough time of year for those fans. It’s already been a month since you last saw your team play, but any off-season fireworks are still weeks away. The lottery has come and gone and you know where your team’s first-round pick will be, but there’s still nearly two months before they get to actually use it. And on top of all that, you have to sit around watching the contenders remind you of how much better they are than your team.
So today, let’s help out those fans by offering up a dose of encouragement. We’ll go through all 15 of this year’s non-playoff teams and pick out one or more problems they’re struggling with. Then we’ll see if we can find a team that was recently facing the same issue, or at least something close, and still made the 2018 playoffs.
If these teams could do it, maybe yours can to. Know hope, fans of non-playoff also-rans. Or at least, a lack of crippling despair.
The issue: They just hired a new head coach. But while Bill Peters has NHL experience, his track record isn’t exactly stellar.
But just look at: The Bruins. It’s true that Peters may seem like an odd choice to replace Glen Gulutzan; guys who’ve missed the playoffs for four straight years and have managed to post a sub-.500 record in the loser point era aren’t usually the candidates you rush to snap up as soon as they hit the market.
But records and resumes aren’t everything, as Bruce Cassidy has shown in Boston. Before he was handed the Bruins’ job, Cassidy’s only head-coaching experience had been a stint in Washington in which he hadn’t even made it through two seasons. That was followed by one year as an assistant in Chicago, which also went poorly. But he’s back in the NHL, and so far he’s done a fantastic job. Sometimes the right guy is the right guy, no matter what the numbers say.
The issue: They’re terrible. They finished dead last in the entire league, and while they have some good young pieces and should improve, a return to the playoffs feels a million miles away right now.
But just look at: The Maple Leafs and the Devils, two teams that picked first overall and then went to the playoffs the very next year.
We’ll give the Sabres a two-for here, since their fans probably need all the optimism they can get. Winning the draft lottery certainly helped, and Rasmus Dahlin should be a star. That may not happen right away, of course, and the Sabres will be thinking long-term when it comes to their new blueliner. But as the Maple Leafs and Devils have proven over the last two years, the gap between dead last and a playoff spot isn’t as big as it looks in today’s NHL.
The issue: They’re a good young team that seems to be everyone’s pick to break out before every season. Then the goaltending stinks, the young roster doesn’t live up to expectations, and they miss the playoffs yet again.
But just look at: The Jets. It’s hard to remember it now, but it wasn’t that long ago that it looked like the Jets might be doomed to hover around the playoff bubble without ever making the leap. The Jets and Hurricanes each finished the 2016–17 season with 87 points, and the previous year saw Carolina finish well ahead of Winnipeg in the standings. But the Jets stuck with the plan, and it paid off. Today, their rise to the top of the league feels like it was inevitable all along, but there were plenty of times when it felt like they’d never get there, just like it does for Carolina right now.
That doesn’t mean the Hurricanes ever get there – the Jets had Connor Hellebuyck and far more stability in the organization. But even in today’s NHL, it’s still possible to make big strides fairly quickly if a young roster clicks.
The issue: Oh god, they really are going to find a way to blow the Connor McDavid era, aren’t they?
But just look at: The Penguins. We won’t belabour any comparisons here, since the Oilers obviously have a long way to go to get anywhere near Pittsburgh’s level. But McDavid is a generational franchise player, and history is clear: Teams that get those players win Stanley Cups. Sometimes it happens quickly, like it did for Sidney Crosby. Sometimes it takes longer than you’d think, as it did for Mario Lemieux. But assuming McDavid becomes a centre in the Crosby/Lemieux/Wayne Gretzky category – and there’s every indication that he will – then he’s going to bring a Cup to Edmonton. It’s basically a sure thing.
You know, unless they really screw it up. But they probably won’t.
The issue: They may be about to lose their franchise player after nine seasons of failing to build a winner around him. John Tavares has done just about everything you could have asked of him in New York. But with free agency looming and no outward sign of progress in contract talks, it’s looking more and more like he may have played his last game as an Islander.
But just look at: The Blue Jackets. A few years ago, they were in the same situation with Rick Nash – a franchise player, nine years into his career, who decided he wanted out. That seemed like a huge step back for the franchise. But instead, they were back in the playoffs a year after the move, and eventually built a legitimate contender.
The two situations aren’t exactly the same, and it’s important that the Blue Jackets traded Nash, while the Islanders seem like they’ll lose Tavares for nothing. But Columbus can still serve as a reminder that one player never makes a team, and the future can be brighter than you think.
The issue: After looking like a Cup contender early on, they hit a prolonged slump, saw their top-line centre get hurt, suffered through shaky goaltending, sold at the deadline and then missed the playoffs by one point. Now they’re not quite sure what comes next.
But just look at: The Lightning. Tampa’s 2016–17 season sure reads a lot like the Blues 2017–18, doesn’t it? Both teams even feature a star Russian right winger, have a former GM of the Year winner in charge, and finished with exactly 94 points. Clearly, the Blues can rebound to be their conference’s best team next year.
OK, maybe not. There are a few differences between the two teams, not least of which is that Jake Allen isn’t reminding anyone of Andrei Vasilevskiy these days. But not all playoff misses are created equal, and the road back can be shorter for some teams than others.
The issue: One year after a disastrous first-round exit in which they lost four straight, they missed the playoffs altogether. And now everyone assumes their days as top contenders are done.
But just look at: The Sharks. In 2014, they suffered through the humiliation of coughing up a 3–0 series lead to the Kings. In 2015, they didn’t make the playoffs at all. By then, Doug Wilson was hearing many of the same things Stan Bowman is hearing now — it’s over, the window is closed, and it’s time to tear it down. He even sounded like he believed it himself.
But instead of going back to the drawing board, the Sharks went back to the playoffs, making it all the way to the final in 2016, and they haven’t missed since. Is it really that far-fetched to think the Hawks could do the same?
The issue: They’re a bad team that just suffered some tough lottery luck, they may have to trade one of their best players, and there doesn’t seem to be any good reason to think they’ll magically get better next year.
But just look at: The Avalanche. Last year’s Avs were far worse than this year’s Coyotes, then dropped three spots in the lottery and eventually traded Matt Duchene for picks and prospects. Then they finished with 95 points and made the playoffs. Could the Coyotes do the same, even if they had to move Oliver Ekman-Larsson? On paper, they might be in a better spot than last year’s Avalanche, with higher-ceiling goaltending and a younger core. Now, they just need a guy to have a breakout year and emerge as the Hart Trophy favourite. Look, we didn’t say it would be easy.
The issue: Their Vezina-winning goalie with the long-term contract has been looking kind of dicey lately.
But just look at: The Capitals. Braden Holtby isn’t in the same situation as Carey Price — Holtby is younger, and his contract doesn’t have anywhere near as long to run. But he also won his Vezina more recently, so in that sense his shaky 2017–18 was more surprising. But the Capitals still survived, because goaltending is voodoo and sometimes your backup turns out to be almost as good as your star (and maybe even better). The Habs don’t necessarily have a Philip Grubauer waiting in the wings, but these days you never know. The point is that they don’t have to be Price-or-bust, any more than the Capitals had to live or die with Holtby.
The issue: They had a good run, and were one of the league’s most successful teams over the last seven years or so. But nothing lasts forever, and their window has all but shut. With a new coach on the way, it’s time to take a step back and absorb some short-term pain for long-term gain.
But just look at: The Kings. If the Rangers want a dose of optimism, they don’t have to look much further than the team that beat them for the Stanley Cup in 2014. Like the Rangers, the Kings feature an older core and a window that sure seemed to be closing. But after firing Dean Lombardi and Darryl Sutter last summer, the Kings climbed directly back into the playoffs.
It’s possible that the Rangers don’t want to follow the Kings’ plan; it looks like Jeff Gorton has his eye on the sort of bigger rebuild that the Kings are avoiding. But they’ve still got Henrik Lundqvist, at least for now, and the Kings have shown us that a star goalie and a solid team can equal a playoff spot. (Maybe not any actual playoff wins, but at least a spot.)
The issue: The core is old and locked into long-term contracts. But they can’t do a full rebuild, partly because management doesn’t want to and partly because they’re never bad enough to end up with a top draft pick.
But just look at: The Wild. Neither team has had a top-five pick in the cap era. Both teams have a challenging long-term cap situation. Both teams have a questionable path to contention. But the Wild have managed to be consistently good for years. Not great, but good. Maybe we’re damning with faint praise here, since most teams aspire to be more than first-round fodder for the real contenders. But if the Red Wings don’t want to bottom out, maybe that’s the best they can hope for.
The issue: They really set themselves back with the way they handled the expansion draft.
But just look at: The Ducks. Everyone agrees that the Panthers made a bigger mess of the expansion draft than anybody. And the worst part is that they really didn’t have to. The Ducks weren’t in that situation — as soon as we saw the rules, everyone knew that Anaheim was going to have a tough time. Bob Murray made the best of a bad situation, which is why he doesn’t take anywhere near the heat that Dale Tallon does. But the Ducks still lost a very useful young player in Shea Theodore, then made the playoffs anyway.
See? Losing one good player to an expansion team isn’t the end of the world.
Wait, the Panthers managed to lose two good players? Really? Ouch.
The issue: They may have to trade the best defenceman in the history of the franchise because of his contract situation, and nobody ever wins a deal like that.
But just look at: The Predators, who traded Shea Weber two years ago and have been one of the best teams in the league ever since.
Sure, there’s the small detail of David Poile finding a team that was willing to give him an even better defenceman in return. That option probably won’t be available to Pierre Dorion this summer. But it does highlight a fact about trading that’s often overlooked: It really is possible to trade a star and get another good player or two back, instead of settling for future picks and prospects. Those sorts of deals are called “hockey trades,” and they used to happen all the time. Sometimes, as the Predators demonstrated, you can even win one.
Of course, first you need to be willing to make one, and that won’t always be the right move for a franchise. You could make a strong case that the Senators should be looking firmly towards the future, and that any Erik Karlsson deal should feature a payoff that’s years away from being realized. That might be the best way. But it’s not the only way, and trading away a stud doesn’t necessarily have to mean throwing in the towel on the next few years.
The issue: They have questionable goaltending, star forwards whose numbers are declining, and a rookie college coach who may struggle to adjust to the pro ranks.
But just look at: The Flyers. Dave Hakstol is still getting decidedly mixed reviews in Philadelphia, and he couldn’t fix the goaltending. But he did manage to get the Flyers back into the playoffs in his second season behind the bench, and his decision to shift Claude Giroux to the wing seems to have sparked the top line back to its old heights. Jim Montgomery isn’t likely to try a position change on Tyler Seguin or Jamie Benn, but if he can get the Stars back into the top half of the league in scoring it will go a long way towards a playoff return.
The issue: They’ve been the worst team in the league over the last three years, they never get to draft in the top three, they only have one blue-chip prospect, the goaltending is a huge question mark, two of their best players just retired, and there’s still a non-zero chance that their management group doesn’t know what it’s doing.
In short, there is no logical or rational reason to think this team will be good again for years to come.
But just look at: The Golden Knights. Nothing in this league makes sense anymore, so let’s just go ahead and pencil the Canucks in for the 2019 Stanley Cup.