Parity in the NHL is undeniable, and turnover in the Stanley Cup playoff picture has been a constant since the league adopted the salary cap in 2005.
But going into the 2016-17 season, we’re dealing with a different version of parity than what we’ve witnessed over the last 10 years. The separation between top- and bottom-tier playoff teams in each conference hasn’t been as apparent throughout the cap era as it is now.
It was in 2012 that the Los Angeles Kings, who qualified for the post-season with a win in their final game of the season, became the first team in North American professional sports history to win a championship as the lowest seed in their conference. They were shut out 10 times during the regular season, and yet no one would’ve doubted their ability to knock off a top seed with the roster they had.
The same could not have been said last year. Not even the sunniest optimist would’ve bet on the Minnesota Wild and their 87 regular-season points to beat the 109-point-getting Dallas Stars in Round 1. Ditto for the Philadelphia Flyers, who lost to a Washington Capitals team that managed 24 more points than they did in the standings.
Looking at the top teams in each conference, it seems unfathomable any of them will drop out of the 2017 playoff picture. But we might just surprise you with one or two of our picks.
Here are five teams—ranked from least to most likely—that we believe might have longer summer vacations in 2017 than they’re hoping for.
5. St. Louis Blues
2015-16 record: 49-24-9
We know what you’re thinking. This team had the third-best record in the NHL last season and finally made some noise by knocking off perennial contenders in the Chicago Blackhawks before besting the Stars to make their first conference final appearance in 15 years. They can’t possibly miss the playoffs.
We admit, it’s a long shot. But there are plenty of questions surrounding the club right now.
What if head coach Ken Hitchcock, who has committed to leaving St. Louis’ bench after the upcoming season, turns in a disappointing final campaign?
Hitchcock may be one of the best coaches in NHL history, but he’s reputed as one of the toughest ones to play for. Don’t believe us? Ask Blues leading scorer Vladimir Tarasenko.
Having a “good cop” like Kirk Muller as an associate coach provided the balance to keep the players focused on Hitchcock’s message. But Muller’s gone to Montreal and there are no guarantees that Steve Thomas, who left the Tampa Bay Lightning to assume a role on Hitchcock’s staff, will fit in as well.
What if the loss of David Backes and veteran Troy Brouwer, who were two of the team’s most productive players in both the regular season and the playoffs, is too much to overcome? The former was the captain and the latter assumed a significant role on and off the ice. Replacing them with David Perron, who’s never worn a letter and is unlikely to score at the same pace as either of them did, doesn’t quite seem adequate.
How will the team replace defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk if they pull the trigger on a much-rumoured trade? Shattenkirk might fetch a top scorer to help fill the holes left by Backes and Brouwer, but moving him would thin out the back end.
Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko can handle a heavy load, but if any one of them gets hurt, asking Carl Gunnarson, Robert Bortuzzo or Joel Edmundson to fill Top-3 roles is a recipe for regression.
Can goaltender Jake Allen be successful starting 60-70 games when he’s never played more than 47 in an NHL season? Allen is coming off a great season behind that defence, but for the first time in his NHL career the responsibility of backstopping the Blues falls squarely on his shoulders. Maintaining a .920 save percentage over 60-plus games is a considerable challenge. Only four goalies managed to do so in 2015-16.
It’s hard to imagine the Blues dropping 12 to 15 points from where they finished last season, but since they play in the NHL’s toughest division, we can’t count out the possibility.
4. New York Rangers
2015-16 record: 46-27-9
You can see it, can’t you? A fading defence core in front of 34-year-old Henrik Lundqvist, a system that doesn’t quite maximize puck possession, question marks up the middle of the roster… The Rangers are far from guaranteeing their place in the 2017 post-season.
Beyond captain Ryan McDonagh, who is going to eat up minutes against top quality opposition on this team? Kevin Klein has proven to be a steady defenceman, but neither Marc Staal nor Dan Girardi appears poised to accept the challenge and both are likely to be heavily relied upon again. Gone is Keith Yandle, who drove play from the back end and paced all Rangers players with 42 assists. Nick Holden can be a serviceable depth piece, but Dylan McIlrath provides little offence and Brady Skjei has limited experience.
The Rangers were a bottom-tier possession team last season, and we don’t see that improving with play-drivers like Yandle and Dan Boyle (to a lesser extent) gone from the team.
It’s hard to view trading centre Derick Brassard, who had the best season of his career in 2015-16, for Mika Zibanejad as anything more than a wash in the short-term. Brassard is the better defensive player, which is worth noting considering the issues on this team’s blue line.
We don’t see Lundqvist falling short of expectations, but his health is more paramount to New York’s success than it’s ever been before.
3. New York Islanders
2015-16 record: 45-27-10
The team appeared to be on the upswing after getting past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 1993. But two of its best players, Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen, opted for unrestricted free agency and signed with conference rivals Buffalo and Detroit, respectively.
Enter Andrew Ladd on a seven-year, $38.5-million deal (yikes!). Coming off a respectable 25-goal, 21-assist campaign with the Winnipeg Jets and Chicago Blackhawks last season, it’s hard to imagine him providing everything Okposo did.
P.A. Parenteau was signed to a cap-friendly one-year, $1.25-million contract, but he can’t do Nielsen’s job at centre.
Jason Chimera brings some grit and speed up front, but this team needs top-end scoring. Ryan Strome can help in that department, but he and the team are currently at an impasse on a new contract.
The Islanders also have three goaltenders on one-way contracts in Jaroslav Halak, Thomas Greiss and Jean-Francois Berube, but none of them are bona fide starters.
John Tavares and a solid top-four on the back end with Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, Travis Hamonic and Thomas Hickey can keep this team in the 2017 post-season hunt, but there are no guarantees.
2. Minnesota Wild
2015-16 record: 38-33-11
Hey, if the Wild can make it in under Mike Yeo and John Torchetti, then surely they can make it in under new head coach Bruce Boudreau, right?
The issue here is that the offence and goaltending are questionable.
The team lost Thomas Vanek and added Eric Staal, which at this point has to be considered a positive.
“Let’s be honest, when you’re 32 years old, you’re not the same player you were when you were 25 or 26,” said general manager Chuck Fletcher about signing Staal.
And he’s right. Staal hasn’t been anywhere near the player he was at 25 or 26, scoring just 54 and 39 points in the past two seasons.
Devan Dubnyk and Darcy Kuemper have career-average save percentages that hover around .915. That’s pretty decent, but you have to wonder if it’ll be good enough to keep Minnesota in the playoff picture among very difficult competition in the Central Division.
1. Detroit Red Wings
2015-16 record: 41-30-11
Guess who played 66 games last season and finished second in team scoring?
But now Datsyuk is gone, so excuse us for suggesting that there’s a decent chance Detroit doesn’t extend its playoff streak to 26 seasons.
Beyond Dylan Larkin, who’s clearly a player, Tomas Jurco and Andreas Athanasiou are going to have to take on a lot of responsibility behind Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist and Nielsen. They have the talent, but do they have the maturity?
In net, Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek will have to be much better than they showed in last year’s first-round loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Wings qualified with the lowest point total in the East last season and they made it on a tiebreaker over the Boston Bruins.
Other Atlantic Division teams have gotten better. That should make for tougher sledding this season.