With the playoffs in full swing, it’s easy to forget about the 14 teams who’ve already cleared out their lockers and headed out to the cottage for summer vacation. That’s the nature of the NHL — once the playoffs arrive, you’re either still alive or you barely matter.
But today, let’s offer up some encouragement to those 14 teams who weren’t invited to the post-season dance. And we’ll do it using the 16 who were. For each of the outsiders, let’s pick out one problem the team is facing – in some cases we’ll have plenty to choose from – and then see if we can find some hope in one of this year’s playoff teams.
The issue: They’re not sure if they can trust their young goaltender. Connor Hellebuyck was supposed to be the real deal. He had the pedigree, the resumé and a decent rookie season in 2015–16. But this year, his first as a starter, he wasn’t very good, and now the Jets may be wondering how much faith they should have in the 23-year-old.
But just look at: The St. Louis Blues. Hellebuyck may have struggled this year, but things never got as bad as they did for Jake Allen, whose struggles were bad enough to get his coach fired and who was even left at home during a road trip. Was he able to rebound? Ask the Wild.
Goaltending is voodoo and you never really know what you have in anyone, especially younger players. But Allen is a good reminder for Hellebuyck fans that a shaky few months aren’t necessarily anything to panic over.
The issue: They tore it all down. They followed all the steps in the rebuild recipe. But so far, the results just haven’t been there, and patience is starting to wear thin.
But just look at: The Edmonton Oilers. No rebuilding team has spun their wheels for longer than the Oilers. But this was the year that the big step forward finally, mercifully arrived. It could happen in Buffalo, too.
Sure, a lot of Edmonton’s success has to do with winning the Connor McDavid lottery, and we know that’s still a bit of a sore spot in Buffalo. But while the Sabres may not have a McDavid, they do have Jack Eichel, and like McDavid was this year, he’ll head into camp looking to rebound from a season disrupted by injury. The Sabres really do look a lot like the Oilers did at this time last year – a great young core up front, good if somewhat unproven goaltending, questions on the blue line. They’ve got a way to go and there are no guarantees, but an Oiler-like turnaround doesn’t seem out of the question.
Update: On Thursday Buffalo fired GM Tim Murray and head coach Dan Blysma.
The issue: A disappointing season cost a well-respected coach his job. But instead of a fresh voice, they just brought back somebody who’d already coached them years ago. Sure, that guy won the franchise’s only Stanley Cup, but can you really get anywhere by chasing past glories?
But just look at: The Anaheim Ducks. There’s a bit bigger gap between Ken Hitchcock’s championship in Dallas and Randy Carlyle’s in Anaheim, but otherwise the similarities are hard to ignore. And while Carlyle’s hiring raised a few eyebrows last summer, so far it’s led to a division title and a trip to the second round.
Right now, the Stars would probably take that. (Now about that goaltending…)
The issue: They’ve been bad for years, missing the playoffs for an NHL-high eight straight seasons. But they’ve never been that bad — at least not bad enough to draft a McDavid or Auston Matthews. Since the 2005 lockout, the Hurricanes haven’t picked higher than fifth overall. In a league where elite talent drives turnarounds and where elite talent is typically only available at the very top of the draft, the Hurricanes haven’t fallen far enough.
But just look at: The Calgary Flames. Sure, a McDavid or Matthews can change everything. But that’s not the only way to build a winner, as the Flames have shown. Calgary hasn’t had a top-three choice since, well, ever. But they’ve still put together a good young playoff team by hitting on high picks like Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk, making smart trades for guys like Dougie Hamilton, and finding late-round gems like Johnny Gaudreau. It’s not easy, but it can be done.
The issue: They’re terrible. They just finished dead last in the entire league, so a return to the playoffs feels like it must be years away.
But just look at: The Toronto Maple Leafs, who were dead last in 2016 and didn’t just make it back to the playoffs in one year, but are currently giving the Capitals all they can handle.
The similarities between the two teams don’t go all that much further; the Leafs had already torn down most of the roster by last year, while the Avalanche are still kicking that can down the road. And even winning this year’s lottery wouldn’t help Colorado as much as it did Toronto, given this year’s weaker draft class. But at the very least, the Leafs are proof that the progress portion of a rebuild doesn’t always have to mean three or four years of baby steps.
The issue: Goaltending. Right now, the Flyers don’t really seem to have any. And it’s not like there are any game-changing options on the UFA market, or expected to be available via trade.
But just look at: The Minnesota Wild. Two seasons ago, the Wild didn’t have any goaltending either, and it was about to torpedo their season. Then they went out and picked up Devan Dubnyk out of the bargain bin, and they haven’t had to worry about the position ever since.
The Wild aren’t a typical case – to this day, Dubnyk’s transformation from adequate starter to almost out of the league to Vezina candidate doesn’t really make any rationale sense. But remember, we’re just looking for hope here. If you’re a Flyers fan wishing for a star goaltender to somehow drop out of the sky, well, it has actually happened.
The issue: After yet another miserable season, the Coyotes are in danger of becoming a permanent punchline, the team that nobody takes seriously because they’re just never any good.
But just look at: The Columbus Blue Jackets, who were in the same boat heading into this season and turned out to be one of the league’s better teams.
It’s certainly not a perfect comparison – the Coyotes don’t have a Vezina-winning goalie, to start with. But Arizona probably has more young talent than the Blue Jackets ever did. And the bigger point is that being written off by nearly all of the so-called experts is hardly a reason to lose hope. As much as we can pretend that everything makes sense through the filter of hindsight, much of what happens in this league is completely unpredictable. The Coyotes could be our next reminder.
The issue: They’re in salary-cap hell. With Anze Kopitar hitting the end of his prime years and Drew Doughty two years away from UFA status, the Kings’ window may be closing. But bringing in reinforcements for one more swing is going to be tough given their awful cap situation.
But just look at: The Chicago Blackhawks, who are supposed to be on the verge of cap-inflicted implosion every year and always seem to find a way to escape. Expecting rookie GM Rob Blake to be able to pull off a Stan Bowman-style save here may be setting the bar too high, and you could argue that the Kings would be better served by hitting the reset button. But if Blake decides to try to dig his way out of this mess, he could start by investing in a “What Would Bowman Do?” bracelet.
The issue: With their playoff streak over, they really need a rebuild. But the front office doesn’t seem convinced.
But just look at: The San Jose Sharks. Three years ago, the Sharks were talking rebuild after their disastrous first-round loss to the Kings. The next year, they had a long post-season streak of their own snapped. So that sealed it – time to start over.
But they didn’t. Other than shuffling the captaincy around, the Sharks didn’t really make much in the way of big changes. That was partly because Doug Wilson’s hands were tied by no-trade clauses, but it was still a surprise. Things eventually got ugly, with Joe Thornton publicly telling his own GM to “stop lying” and “shut his mouth”. Please, the hockey world begged, somebody step in and detonate this mess.
Nobody did, and one year later, the Sharks were in the Stanley Cup final. Wilson’s lack of action, criticized at the time, now looks like a smart bit of patience.
Maybe Holland can stickhandle his way to the same sort of outcome. After all, at least none of his players have told him to shut up yet.
The issue: Last year, they were the best team in the Atlantic. But this year everything went wrong, including their franchise player getting hurt and missing most of the season. Now they’re left wondering if the window may have closed.
But just look at: The Montreal Canadiens, who were in the same situation this time a year ago. The Habs didn’t just sit on their hands, making some aggressive off-season changes, not to mention a coaching switch during the season. But between those moves, a return to health from Carey Price and some rebound seasons for key players, they shot back up the standings and back into the league’s top tier. The Lightning will hope that some smart moves of their own and a healthy Steven Stamkos can get them back there, too.
The issue: Their franchise goaltender with the long-term contract is looking a little shaky these days.
But just look at: The Boston Bruins. Tuukka Rask is a year younger than Cory Schneider, but their careers have followed similar paths, right down to their backup duties behind entrenched veterans in the 2011 Cup final. But Schneider just finished a rough year, and Devils fans may be worried that his peak has already come and gone.
The good news is that Rask had a similar rough spot last season, and this year he… well, he didn’t really rebound, at least as far as his overall numbers. Rask put together an up-and-down season that had him looking like a Vezina candidate some weeks and had fans calling for his head in others. But in the end, Rask was good enough to get his team back to the playoffs, and for now the Bruins seem reasonably set in goal. A Devils team with plenty of holes in other areas will hope they can say the same.
The issue: With the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals cemented at the top of the division and the Blue Jackets seemingly on the rise, the Islanders may already be starting next season with a wild card looking like a best-case scenario.
But just look at: The Nashville Predators and New York Rangers, both of whom are proving that you can do some damage from the wild-card spot. Mix in the Maple Leafs, and it’s been a decent first round for the league’s wild-card teams.
Obviously, the Islanders would like to aim higher, and maybe Doug Weight can get them there. But in a league where parity is apparently everything, there’s something to be said for just focusing on getting into the playoffs and then hoping for the best. That’s good news for all of the Metro’s also-rans, the Islanders included.
The issue: After a disappointing season and with a front office in transition, they need a new coach.
But just look at: The Ottawa Senators. True, the Senators’ GM switch from Bryan Murray to Pierre Dorion wasn’t as heavy on the self-inflicted drama as Florida’s move from Dale Tallon to, uh, Dale Tallon. But the Panthers can find some coaching-related optimism in their division rivals; Guy Boucher’s first year in Ottawa saw the Senators not only make it back to the playoffs, but do it with home ice to boot. The Panthers will be looking for a similar boost.
The issue: After years of stalling, excuses and half-measures, the Canucks finally seem like they’re ready to take the plunge and try a real rebuild. But wait – would that be fair to the Sedins?
But just look at: The Capitals and Penguins. Both teams started down the classic “hit rock bottom and start over” rebuild path over a decade ago, and both have been reaping the rewards ever since. Sure, there was some lottery luck involved, and the Capitals haven’t won a Cup yet. But if you’re making the case for a full-scale rebuild, the Pens and Caps (along with the Blackhawks) are your case studies of what a best-case scenario looks like.
But what about the Sedins? Well, when the Caps were bottoming out in 2003–04, they had a few longtime veterans of their own on the roster. That included Peter Bondra, who’d been with the team 14 years without winning a championship. Meanwhile, the Penguins of that era had a pretty good veteran of their own coming up to the end of his career – some guy named Mario Lemieux.
Did the Pens and Caps hem and haw about owing it to their longtime franchise players to delay the inevitable in search of a long-shot championship? Nope. They did what they had to do. In the Capitals’ case that meant trading Bondra, while the Penguins let Lemieux’s legendary career end without a single playoff appearance over his final four seasons.
Was it painful? Sure. But it paid off, and there’s not a single Pittsburgh or Washington fan out there wishing the teams had postponed the tough decisions just to chase feel-good endings.