We’re roughly a month into the off-season, and by now there a few teams we can feel pretty confident about projecting. The Lightning will be good, especially if they get Erik Karlsson. The Capitals, Predators, Jets and Leafs should also be contenders. At the other end of the standings, we’re all pretty sure that teams like the Senators, Canucks and Sabres will struggle. There are even a few teams we can comfortably predict will be just OK – we could call that the Minnesota Wild zone.
There’s nothing especially controversial in any of those calls; just about every set of pre-season predictions will say pretty much the same thing when it comes to those teams.
And, of course, we’ll almost certainly be wrong about at least a few of them. Like, super wrong. As in not even close.
Look at last year, when obvious bottom-feeders like the Devils and Avalanche and Golden Knights all made the playoffs, while legitimate Cup contenders like the Blackhawks and Oilers crashed and burned. Few of us saw any of those stories coming. None of us saw them all. Everybody was dead wrong about something, just like we’ll be wrong this year too.
And here’s the thing: That’s just the teams we feel confident about. If we already know we’re going to screw a few of those up, imagine what’s going to happen with the teams we can’t figure out.
So today, let’s look through a half-dozen teams that I’m still not sure about. I’ve gone back and forth on all six, and I’m not any closer to feeling confident about where they’ll wind up. Maybe you’re on steadier ground when it comes to these teams, and if so please let me know why. Seriously, I could use the help.
We’ll start with one of those 2017-18 surprises…
They’ll be good because: They have Connor McDavid, and if he isn’t already the unanimous choice for “best player on the planet” honours, he will be soon. The NHL isn’t the NBA, where one superstar can singlehandedly drag a team to the playoffs. But it’s still a league that runs on elite talent, and there isn’t any more elite than what the Oilers can toss out there for 22 minutes a night.
They’ll be bad because: McDavid was great last year, and it didn’t get the Oilers anything other than weaker lottery odds. And as you’ve probably noticed, they’ve barely done anything this off-season. They haven’t made any major trades or signed any top-tier free agents. Right now, it looks like they might be content to roll out pretty much the same lineup that they featured last year. You know, the one that missed the playoffs by 17 points.
But they’ll probably be fine because: A big part of last season’s disaster was due to a rough year from Cam Talbot. No team leans on its starter as heavily as the Oilers, and in 2016-17 it paid off. Last year, it didn’t. But Talbot has played five NHL seasons and over 250 games, and the bulk of his resume tells us that he’s a very good goaltender, maybe even a great one.
Goaltending is voodoo, but when your starter has a bad year it’s almost always going to torpedo your chances. Let’s not overthink it with Edmonton – if Talbot is better, they’ll be fine. And history tells us he’ll be better.
Unless they’re not because: Most nights, a goaltender is only as good as the defence in front of him. The Oilers blue line continues to be a weak point, and according to the rumour mill their plan for fixing it is to trade their best defenceman. That’s not how this works.
The verdict: The Pacific was the league’s weakest division last year, and could be again. With the three California teams getting older and the Knights presumably coming back to reality, it won’t take a monster season to make the playoffs. The Oilers should manage it fairly easily. I think.
They’ll be good because: They have to be someday. We’ve been waiting on the Hurricanes to break through for years now, so they’re more than due. It should have happened last year, but Scott Darling‘s implosion scuttled that. This year they’ve added Petr Mrazek, so between him and Darling someone should produce a rebound year.
You know what other team was a constant breakout pick that always disappointed until they finally solved their goaltending? Last year’s Jets. Now they’re considered one of the best teams in the league, and we all act like it was inevitable all along. Maybe it was, but it didn’t feel that way this time last summer. The Hurricanes have that same sort of vibe.
They’ll be bad because: Seriously? Are we really doing this again?
The Hurricanes have missed the playoffs for a league-high nine straight years. There’s talent here, but at some point we probably need to see a pulse before we start slotting them into any playoff projections. And as for the Jets comparison, they had a top prospect in Connor Hellebuyck. The Hurricanes, again, have Darling and Mrazek. No thanks.
But they’ll probably be fine because: New owner Tom Dundon has already shaken things up. The Hurricanes made a big trade, are rumoured to be on the verge of a few more, and have a new coach and GM. Sometimes the best thing that can happen to a team stuck in neutral is for a new pair of eyes to look over everything. Dundon doesn’t seem like an owner who wants to fade into the background, and he might be just the kind of disruptor that this franchise needs.
Unless they’re not because: So far, Dundon’s big disruptions have involved failing in his hunt for a new GM before settling on an uninspired choice in Don Waddell, offering up a bunch of clichés about heart and culture change, and deciding that the best possible coach on the market just happened to be the franchise’s former star player. In other words, all the things that every other team in the league already does. Some big thinker.
The verdict: Hockey gods help me, I’m picking the Hurricanes to make the playoffs again. This might be the 10th year in a row, I’m afraid to go back and check.
They’ll be good because: They barely missed the playoffs last year, and they’re young enough that they you’d expect them to improve just based on players continuing to develop. The roster is stacked with guys 25 or under, including the top three scorers and former top pick Aaron Ekblad, and this feels like the year that Aleksander Barkov finally makes the leap from under-appreciated star to just plain star. Even the coach is still learning – Bob Boughner won 44 games in his first year behind an NHL bench, so you’d figure he’ll be even better in Year 2.
They’ll be bad because: The goaltending is at least a little bit of a question mark. Roberto Luongo was fantastic last year, but he’s 39 years old and has been battling through injuries. James Reimer is an excellent backup who can step in as a decent starter, but in the likely scenario where Luongo is hurt or his game declines, this won’t be a strength.
But they’ll probably be fine because: The Atlantic looks like a train wreck. The top three teams are all strong, but that leaves four more that could all be varying degrees of disaster. That should mean a lot of easy wins for the Panthers, and not much pressure in the rearview mirror.
Unless they’re not because: They’re the Panthers. This team always seems to find a way to sabotage itself, whether it’s through that disastrous 2016-17 shakeup or the expansion draft debacle. I know Florida fans are sick of hearing about mistakes made in the past, but at some point you have to wonder whether something is fundamentally broken when it comes to the decision-making process in this organization. And if so, what self-inflicted crisis are they going to pull off next?
The verdict: The Atlantic is basically three good teams, four bad ones, and then the Panthers trying to figure out which group they’re in. I’m pretty sure they’re a lot closer to the good group than the bad one, and it wouldn’t even be that big a shock to see them jump up and catch someone like Boston or Toronto. But the most likely outcome looks a lot like last year – an easy fourth-place finish and a wild-card fight with the Metro to get into the playoffs.
They’ll be good because: In this case, some of the uncertainty is tied directly to a potential Karlsson trade. But even if we assume that deal doesn’t end up happening, the fact that the Stars were right in on both the best player on the trade market and the best player in free agency (John Tavares) suggests that Jim Nill thinks this team is ready to make some noise. He seems like a smart guy, so let’s believe him.
They’ll be bad because: Does Nill really think they’re close, or does he just think he needs a big move to save his job? Either way, you don’t get a participation trophy for coming close on landing big-name players. The Stars missed the playoffs two years in a row, and as of right now they don’t seem to be all that much better. That’s not good news when you’re stuck in the league’s toughest division.
But they’ll probably be fine because: The pieces are all there, even if the results haven’t been. The offence can be dynamic when it’s unleashed, and even a year under Ken Hitchcock still produced some decent numbers. Meanwhile, a healthy Ben Bishop (and the absence of Kari Lehtonen) should solve any lingering goaltending concerns. Some of their forwards are getting up there, but the blue line is young and talented. That should be enough to at least let them sneak by the Avalanche for a wild-card spot.
Unless they’re not because: New coach Jim Montgomery comes from the college ranks and doesn’t have any experience coaching professionals. He’s highly regarded – he was reportedly the Rangers’ top pick – but there will be some growing pains, and the track record of college coaches jumping to the NHL isn’t exactly great.
The verdict: The Central is strong but could be top heavy with the Jets and Predators, so a wild-card spot or even third place should be available. But the Blues got better, the Blackhawks have earned the right not to be counted out, and the Wild and Avalanche were better teams last year. If the Stars land Karlsson then sure, let’s push them up the standings. But right now, I’m not sure what separates them from anyone else in the Central traffic jam.
Columbus Blue Jackets
They’ll be good because: They’re already good. The Blue Jackets took a step back from their 108-point breakout in 2016-17, but still finished with a respectable 97 points last year, the most of any team on this list. They’ve had a quiet off-season so far; the only key piece they’ve lost is Jack Johnson, which might actually make them better. And let’s not forget, they were one overtime goal away from going up 3-0 on the eventual champions last year. If they finish off the Caps, we’re all probably already sold. They were one lucky bounce away from doing that.
They’ll be bad because: That off-season may have been quiet in terms of transactions, but it hasn’t been good. There’s been no new deal for Sergei Bobrovsky, the team’s most important player. And their other big star, Artemi Panarin, sure sounds like he wants out. This is a team that’s never won so much as a playoff round, in part because star players like Rick Nash and Jeff Carter didn’t want to stick around. If either Bobrovsky or Panarin is on the way out, they’re doomed.
But they’ll probably be fine because: If one of the two stars bolts next summer, that will be bad news for the future. But we’re talking about next season, and having one or two stars in the final year of their contract should provide some nice motivation. And if they end up trading Panarin, they should get a pretty decent return, so it could work out either way. Besides, you know who’s not going anywhere? Seth Jones or Zach Werenski. They’re just going to keep getting better.
Unless they’re not because: It’s a young-ish team that will be under pressure to win right now and could be facing dressing room distractions, and their coach is a guy who flips out over off-season soundbites. What could go wrong?
The verdict: Seriously, I have no idea. I’m not sure there’s a team in the league with a wider range of plausible outcomes. We’ll probably get some clarity on Panarin and Bobrovsky before the season starts, but right now anything between a Cup win and a total disaster of a season seems in play here.
They’ll be good because: They’ve got a ton of skill up front, most of it young, and on paper the blue line should be a strength. Mix in the addition of James Neal, and there’s more than enough talent here to at least make the playoffs in a weak Pacific, if not contend for top spot.
They’ll be bad because: Most of that talent was here last year, when they couldn’t score and only managed 84 points while fading down the stretch. Worse, it all happened amidst rumours that they weren’t mentally tough enough to fight through a challenging season. Brad Treliving said he’d shake things up and he has, with the Dougie Hamilton trade being the biggest roster move. But we’re still not sure exactly what went wrong last year, and that means we can’t be sure it’s been fixed.
But they’ll probably be fine because: If attitude was an issue last season, then at least some of that falls on the coaching staff. And the Flames have made changes there, bringing in Bill Peters to right the ship. Hearing a new voice should help, and Peters has been known to be willing to crack the whip when he needs to.
Unless they’re not because: That’s the same Bill Peters who never made the playoffs in four years in Carolina, right? Who took a Hurricanes team everyone kept expecting to be good and led them nowhere? Whose current lifetime coaching record has him under .500 in league where the loser point makes finishing under .500 really difficult? That’s the guy we’re counting on to turn this around? OK, just checking.
The verdict: There are a ton of warning lights on this dashboard – we haven’t even mentioned Mike Smith being 36 and coming off a year in which he missed a key chunk of the season. But it’s July and nobody will remember this in a few months, so let’s get bold and finish back where we started. Go ahead and book your reservation for Round 2: It’s Flames versus Oilers in the Pacific Division final.