The first round of the playoffs is a roller coaster for fans of the 16 teams involved, one filled with drama, tension and (hopefully) exhilaration. Sometimes, it can even be fun – at least as far as feeling like you’re going to vomit for two straight weeks can ever be considered fun.
But the first round can be a tough time for fans of the 14 teams that didn’t qualify for the post-season. Maybe you’re left agonizing over how close your favorite team came to making it. Or maybe you’re watching the league’s best go head-to-head and realizing how far away your team really is. In either case, it can make for a frustrating time.
So today, let’s offer up something that can be hard to come by at this time of year: Hope. Let’s go through all 14 of the teams who are sitting at home right now, identify one of their (in some cases many) areas of concern, and match them to a playoff team that can offer them a reason for optimism.
The issue: They can’t – or won’t – spend to the cap.
But just look at: The Ducks. Ottawa owner Eugene Melnyk has long made it clear that he doesn’t feel the team needs to spend to the cap to be competitive, even going so far as to infamously claim that cost-per-point is the only stat he’s worried about. But while there are certainly examples of high-spending teams that don’t get value for their money, the recent history is fairly clear – you need to spend to contend.
That’s disheartening news for Ottawa fans dreaming of a Cup but they can draw some inspiration from a handful of teams that have had success despite a lack of spending. And no low-spending team has been better than the one that finished right behind the Senators on this year’s cap list: the Anaheim Ducks. (If the Ducks happen to fall victims to a stunning first round upset, remember that the Predators spent even less.)
The issue: They need a major upgrade to their goaltending. Without a top prospect on the way or much to get excited about on the free agent market, they’ll probably have to hit the trade market to do it.
But just look at: The Wild. Granted, this may not be all that comforting to Hurricanes fans, since the Wild were the worst team to make this year’s playoffs and look like they’ll be easy fodder for the top-seeded Dallas Stars. But the Wild are a reminder that it is possible to find goaltending at a reasonable price, having added Devan Dubnyk last year for just a third round pick. So are the Flyers (Steve Mason) and Lightning (Ben Bishop). Those were all mid-season deals; you’d assume the Hurricanes will want a new starter in place by training camp, and prices for goaltenders tend to be higher during the off-season. Still, history suggests there will be good goaltending available at a reasonable cost. You’ve just got to find it.
The issue: Everyone expected them to fire their coach. But then they didn’t.
But just look at: The Blues. Ken Hitchcock is one of the league’s best coaches. So is Claude Julien. Yet the rumor mill had both so close to being fired that it seemed like the pink slip had already been printed up – Hitchcock last year, and Julien just a week ago. Both times, their GM surprised many by electing not to pull the trigger, and so far it certainly seems like the right call in St. Louis. The Bruins can take solace in knowing that they look a lot like the Blues behind the bench. (The roster, on the other hand…)
The issue: They’ve done everything right on their rebuild. But now they have to make the long transition back to contenders.
But just look at: The Blackhawks. You never know how long a rebuild will take. Some teams flip the switch fairly quickly. Some need season after season of baby steps. Some never get there at all. But if you’re a Sabres fan looking for optimism, you’re going to skip those last two groups and focus on one of the teams that made a quick jump. That would the Blackhawks, who had back-to-back top three picks in 2006 and 2007, just like the Sabres in 2014 and 2015. Chicago made enough strides to crack the 80-point mark in 2008, just like the Sabres did this year. And then it was off to the races – or to the conference finals, more specifically, followed by three Cups in six years. Is that a realistic possibility for the Sabres? Well… remember, we said we were all about hope today, so let’s call it the best case scenario.
The issue: They’ve got plenty of young talent, but it hasn’t translated into a winning team yet.
But just look at: The Panthers. Both teams have to go back a long way to find their last playoff series win – to 2008 for the Avs, and all the way to 1996 for the Panthers. Both have a beloved veteran winger to lead a roster full of young talent. But occasional fluke regular seasons aside, both teams have had to wait for it to all add up. Sometimes, that big breakthrough never comes. But the Panthers took a big step in that direction this season, and it’s one that the Avalanche could hope to mimic in the near future.
The issue: They can’t seem to figure out this established-veteran-goalie vs. young up-and-comer thing.
But just look at: The Red Wings. We tend to assume that a goaltending transition has to be decisive – the young guy earns the job, and the veteran he’s replacing is discarded. That can be a tough move for some teams to make, and it’s a scenario the Jets have been facing for years with Ondrej Pavelec, Michael Hutchinson, and now Connor Hellebuyck.
But the Red Wings have shown that an established veteran and his heir apparent can work well together. They handed the starter’s job to Petr Mrazek for last year’s playoffs and he spent the first half of this year looking like a Vezina candidate. But when he faltered down the stretch, Jimmy Howard was still there to take over the reins. Now they’ve gone back to Mrazek against the Lightning. Is it ideal? Not exactly. But it offers some hope for the Jets that they can upgrade in goal without having to necessarily run Pavelec out of town.
The issue: The lottery balls gifted them with Connor McDavid but he couldn’t turn the team around in year one.
But just look at: The Penguins and Capitals. The two best first overall picks to enter the league before McDavid were Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. Both looked like superstars in their rookie year, just like McDavid did. But both had to suffer through another lost year or two in the standings before the breakthrough finally came. Eventually it did, and both teams have been Cup contenders ever since. History says that the Oilers will be too, even if McDavid’s rookie year didn’t prove much.
The issue: They made a coaching change after a terrible start but it didn’t turn their season around.
But just look at: The Islanders. Bringing in John Tortorella did boost the Blue Jackets’ winning percentage, although it would have been difficult not to given that at the time the move was made, that percentage was zero. But Tortorella went a pedestrian 34-33-8 the rest of the way, which was somewhat disappointing in an era where mid-season coaching changes have been known to turn a team’s fortunes around almost instantly. So was the switch a bust? Not necessarily.
The Islanders made a similar early season move after a long losing streak back in 2010, bringing on Capuano to replace Scott Gordon. It didn’t immediately pay off, either that season or even during the next one. But the Islanders stayed the course, and years later, Capuano is the division’s longest serving coach and has made the playoffs in three out of four years. Columbus would probably like to aim a little higher – the Islanders still haven’t won a playoff round under Capuano – but there’s at least a small lesson here about patience.
The issue: They’re really bad and it could take years before they’re ready to contend.
But just look at: Take your pick. Most of the league’s best teams had to hit rock bottom first to find success, which is why the Leafs are following the path of being strategically terrible. But let’s go with the Lightning, who’ve shown a knack for making the transition from the basement to contender status fairly quickly. Twice in recent years, they’ve gone from the league’s bottom three to the conference final in just two seasons. Maple Leafs management may be preaching patience but that doesn’t mean their fans can’t daydream about hitting fast forward.
(As an added bonus, these days the Lightning are showing that you can win without Steven Stamkos even though you assumed you’d have him in the lineup, which will be a nice lesson for the Leafs after he hits free agency and signs with the Rangers.)
The issue: While the young Devils surpassed expectations this year, there are still all sorts of holes in the lineup, and the team only has one player that you could really call a star.
But just look at: The Rangers. That one certified star on the Devils is goaltender Cory Schneider, and if you’re going to build around one sure-thing player, that’s the position you want. Goaltending is voodoo, and it’s virtually impossible to predict who’ll be good in any given year. But a small handful of guys really do have the resumes to label them as locks, or close to it. Henrik Lundqvist is one of those guys in that club, which is a big part of the reason that the Rangers have been to the playoffs every year of his career save one. Schneider seems set to join him, and while the Devils have a long way to go to match the Rangers’ supporting talent, they can at least feel confident that they’ve already got the toughest piece of the puzzle nailed down.
The issue: After making the playoffs last season, they missed out in the Pacific Division race this year.
But just look at: The Sharks and Kings. Both teams had disappointing years last season that saw them miss the playoffs but both recovered in time to make sure they only suffered through a one-year absence. And thanks to a first round matchup, one will even be moving on to the second round. Are the Flames as good as the Sharks or Kings? Let’s not get silly. But at least they can point to them as examples of how one bad year in today’s Pacific Division doesn’t have to turn into a trend.
The issue: Their star goaltender got hurt, and it torpedoed their whole season.
But just look at: The Predators. OK, we’re cheating a bit here since this is more about last year’s Predators. Still, the comparison works – Pekka Rinne hadn’t won a Hart, but he’d been a Vezina finalist in back-to-back years. He was considered one of the game’s very best goaltenders before hip problems slowed him during the lockout-shortened 2013 season and complications caused him to miss most of the 2013-14 campaign. The Predators missed the playoffs both years and looked like a team on the way down. But Rinne returned to full health last year, had a fantastic season, the Predators re-emerged as a 100+ point team and weren’t far off from hitting that mark again this year.
See, Habs fans? Everything will be fine once Carey Price is back. (Just, uh, don’t look at Rinne’s numbers from this season.)
The issue: They sunk a whole lot of money into their starting goaltender andnow it looks like a bad deal.
But just look at: The Stars. This time last year, the Stars were left wondering whether Kari Lehtonen was good enough to lead them back to the playoffs after a multi-year absence. He had a big contract, one that carried a $5.9-million cap hit through 2018, and it had been a while since he’d put up the numbers to justify it. That may sound familiar to Coyotes fans who have Mike Smith at $5.6 million through 2019 even though he’s now four years removed from his last .920 season.
Still, the Stars found a way to thrive despite Lehtonen’s deal, bringing in some veteran competition in Antti Niemi and embracing a run-and-gun style that the young Coyotes might be able to emulate someday soon. Granted, that’s been an expensive proposition, and it helps when you have an Art Ross winner anchoring your first line. But one bad contract in the crease isn’t insurmountable. Heck, as the Stars are showing these days, you can even get by with two.
The issue: Let’s look back at their history during the cap era. They made the playoffs shortly after the 2005 lockout but it was just a one-and-done appearance, as they missed out again the year after. But then they got back to the playoffs and stayed there, making the postseason in five straight years, including a loss in the Stanley Cup Final in year three. That streak eventually ended with another miss, then a disappointing first-round exit, then yet another absence. Everyone agrees that they desperately need a patient rebuild and they eventually brought back a beloved former star to lead it.
But just look at: The Flyers. Try this: go back and re-read that last paragraph. Every single thing that happened also applies to the Flyers, just with the timeline shifted one year earlier. It’s almost eerie how similar the scripts are. That’s good news for the Canucks because the Flyers’ rebuild is on track, even if they lose to the Caps this year. The Canucks seem like they’ve got a long way to go to turn things around and they’re not going to fix this quickly. But it can be done, and their Eastern Conference doppelgangers are proving it.
(But seriously, the Flyers/Canucks thing is weird, right?)