This is our favourite time of year.
Half of the league is gearing up for games that matter, and the other half is about to start shaping a group that will give them a better chance next time.
Firings and hirings. Retirements and lottery picks. Trades and signings. Joyful victories and crushing losses. Giddy up.
In our final installment of the 2017-18 NHL regular-season ratings, we wonder where your favourite teams goes from here, be it their greatest playoff concern, an off-season dilemma, or into the abyss.
It’s our season-wrapping NHL Power Rankings: What Do We Do Now? Edition.
As per tradition, all 31 clubs are ranked in order of their awesomeness right now.
The write-ups focus on the next item on the agenda.
The first 50-win edition of the Jets franchise is wisely using the week leading up to the White Out to rest its stars — six core players sat out Tuesday’s walk over the Canadiens — and trying not to think sweep against a ravaged Minnesota D-core that will limp into Manitoba without Ryan Suter and possibly Jared Spurgeon.
After having a last-minute tying goal wiped off the board in Florida on Tuesday, the Predators must focus all their efforts toward calming their famous fan base, who could be watching a lot of debatable calls in four rounds of hockey.
The Bruins can’t waste time lamenting Brandon Carlo’s season-ending ankle fracture or Tuesday’s no-show in Tampa. They must get healthy and get a couple more wins in order to avoid the Maple Leafs in Round 1 and host the weakest wild card team.
After clinching yet another Metropolitan Division crown, Barry Trotz has a week to commit to the right starting goalie: Philipp Grubauer or Braden Holtby? Choose wisely, Coach. Only your job and the Capitals Curse may depend on it.
— Tarik El-Bashir (@TarikNBCS) April 4, 2018
Of all the Eastern Conference playoff clubs, none has fewer wins over its past 11 games than mighty Tampa. Encouraged by Tuesday’s 4-0 blanking of rival Boston, the Lightning have a back-to-back against softies Buffalo and Carolina to hop on a little run, get captain Steven “I’ll Never Be 100 Per Cent” Stamkos as healthy as humanly possible, and feel confident heading into the dance.
Vegas has earned the right to play with house money this spring, so even if the Knights crap out early against one of the more seasoned California teams, everyone gets a pass and George McPhee will have a chance to shock the hockey world all over again this summer. With $27.55 million in free cap space, the Knights could chase whoever they want: John Tavares, Erik Karlsson, John Carlson…
After two months of trying to manufacture urgency, the Maple Leafs will suddenly find themselves in a game that actually matters next Thursday. If Toronto fails to battle through a nasty Round 1 draw (Tampa or Boston), the pressure to upgrade its blue line via trade or free agency will be massive this off-season. No more free passes.
John Tortorella doesn’t want to hear your congratulations until he sees an “X” beside his club’s name in the standings, but Columbus is the hottest team east of Winnipeg and peaking at the perfect time. Since Pittsburgh has been just OK, the Jackets need to keep pushing. Two more W’s could give them home ice in Round 1, and they’ve had seven more victories at Nationwide than away from it this season.
Not yet locked into the Pacific’s second seed, the suddenly skidding Sharks (they’ve caught three straight L’s) can’t get carried away with prepping that John Tavares PowerPoint presentation just yet. They’re looking for a low-travel, first-round match with either Anaheim or L.A. Live through that, and San Jose’s path back to the Western Conference final should be more manageable than surviving the Central. Winnipeg and Nashville could beat the snot out of each other.
10. Anaheim Ducks
Winners of seven of their past 10, the Ducks keep pushing despite injuries to starter John Gibson and defenceman Cam Fowler. (Hey, that’s why they signed Ryan Miller). Maintaining a position above the second wild-card seed will be critical; they don’t want to draw Nashville off the hop.
As goes Taylor Hall, so go the Devils. The stud winger’s four-point showing Tuesday pushed his point streak to nine and his name to the front of Hart Trophy voters’ minds. New Jersey is in that nothing-to-lose stage, but the goal now should be finishing ahead of Philly to avoid Tampa or Boston in Round 1.
Where do the Penguins go from here? Into history. “The last two years gave us so much confidence. We understand we’re a great team,” Evgeni Malkin told reporters this week. “It’s time to win and time to [make] history. It’s, like, amazing. It’s a great chance to win.”
Considering Jeff Carter is healthy, Anze Kopitar is wrapping the best regular season of his life, and Drew Doughty is a good bet to be on the Norris ballot, the Kings have the makings of that team you dread facing in April. This feels like this core’s best shot at reaching the top of the mountain one more time.
14. Minnesota Wild
With Bruce Boudreau’s playoff record and a season-ending injury to the Wild’s most important skater (Ryan Suter), no one will pick the Wild to upset Winnipeg. It’s either shock the NHL or risk serious off-season changes that could begin with GM Chuck Fletcher, who does not have a contract for 2018-19.
15. St. Louis Blues
The Blues shed a top-six centre (Paul Stastny) to a divisional rival at the deadline, have watched a steady stream of core players hit IR (Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson are done for the season), lost two in a row down the stretch here, and yet … they still control their own destiny. Why not squeak into the playoffs and retool in the summer by adding a scoring punch with their cap flexibility?
Led by Claude Giroux’s Hart-calibre bounce back, the Flyers appear destined to steal a playoff berth and an opening-round matchup where 100 per cent of the pressure will fall on the other guys. Nothing to lose. Enjoy this ride in a magical year for Philadelphia sports.
17. Florida Panthers
We admit we were bullish on Florida’s playoff bid a couple of weeks ago. But consecutive wins over Boston to end the season is just too tall a task. The young Cats can go into the summer confident they shouldn’t have to claw their way into the post-season next year. Bob Boughner can coach, Roberto Luongo can still stop pucks (please don’t follow the Sedins into that good night just yet), Aleksander Barkov is one of the world’s best hockey players full-stop, and there should be enough internal improvement for optimism here. Heck, they may even revisit that Max Pacioretty trade.
The Avalanche’s playoff hopes aren’t buried yet, but with Semyon Varlamov and Erik Johnson done, even if Colorado makes the cut, it has first-round fodder written all over it. Still, this bright season is one to build on, and $25.3 million in cap space — with no pressing extension negotiations or trade requests to stress Joe Sakic — means Colorado could get even better.
The NHL’s longest playoff drought will continue, but will head coach Bill Peters? Peters is the favourite to coach Team Canada at the world championship in May, and it says here there’s a strong chance he’ll find a new seat during this summer’s inevitable coaching carousel. The Hurricanes’ new GM, whoever he may be, will be tasked with balancing his owner’s push for profitability and constructing a team with a Grade-A goalie and a few more snipers. Godspeed.
20. Dallas Stars
Is it just me, or does it feel hot in Texas? The flip side of feel-good stories like Colorado and Vegas are disasters like Dallas. Jim Nill swung for the fences and flew out to centre. Does ownership give this group a break because of its injury trouble, or do Nill, coach Ken Hitchcock and the 10 pending free agents all risk unemployment? Do you buy out Jason Spezza or retain a chunk of his silly $7.5 million salary in a trade? And what of MVP Tyler Seguin, who deserves a raise and could get one as early as July 1 but may not wish to re-sign with such a top-heavy roster?
After the salutes and tears and the classy exit, the Canucks will start a new era in earnest with a big summer. Slap a ‘C’ on Bo Horvat’s chest, hope their lottery luck spins, hit the negotiating table with RFAs Jake Virtanen and Sven Baertschi, draft well, and — most importantly — spend that $21 million in cap space wisely. No more Loui Erikssons, Mr. Benning.
22. Arizona Coyotes
The Coyotes owned spot 31 in the NHL standings for so much of the year that the fact they’ve been playing decent hockey of late has flown under the radar. Arizona must re-sign starting goalie Antti Raanta and make a decision on Luke Schenn (both UFA), but the biggie is Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who is eligible for an eight-year extension on July 1. GM John Chayka will have $28.7 million in cap space to get creative, and the man loves to deal (see: Nicklas Hjalmarsson, Derek Stepan, Jason Demers). Max Domi (RFA) is a compelling trade chip. The Coyotes could be one of the big movers and shakers at the draft.
23. Calgary Flames
Yikes. The Flames pushed all-in on a flush draw that never turned. Calgary doesn’t have a pick until Round 3 of the draft. Does Brad Treliving’s failure to lottery-protect his first-rounder in the Travis Hamonic deal cost him his job, or does he make coach Glen Gulutzan fall on the sword? A member of the over-hyped D core — Dougie Hamilton? Hamonic? T.J. Brodie? — could be dealt in a bid to add secondary scoring and character.
24. Edmonton Oilers
Everyone who didn’t score 100 points this season, raise your hand. If your hand is up, your job is not safe.
This one is fascinating. When a team dips from disappointing to awful, gives out a crippling extension (see: Seabrook, Brent) and some brutal trades were made (turns out, Artemi Panarin doesn’t need Patrick Kane to look awesome), the GM is usually under fire. But Stan Bowman has never used his fire-the-coach card and three Cups will earn you good credit. Is Joel Quenneville out? Maybe, but he’s owed a ton of dough and this isn’t his fault. Corey Crawford’s absence is difficult to overstate.
A significant summer in Motown. Ken Holland needs to either be extended or bid adieu so we know which Red Wings GM will interview the big-name free agents. Dylan Larkin needs a juicy new contract. Mike Green might walk to a contender for free. RFA forwards Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, Martin Frk and Tyler Bertuzzi will all be trying to get their slice of the pie. And at age 37 but with three more years on his contract, Henrik Zetterberg needs to start considering his appetite for losing.
27. New York Rangers
Since ravaging his roster at the deadline, we’ll soon learn if GM Jeff Gorton is opting for a slow rebuild or a rapid reset. Does he scoop Ilya Kovalchuk from the KHL? Try to bring back Rick Nash and/or Michael Grabner? Or — wait for it — do the cash-flush Rangers win the draft lottery after seven years of avoiding it?
It’s getting simple now. Pray that John Tavares doesn’t interview well and, like Steven Stamkos, decides to do the hockey thing and re-signs. If not, there’s no choice but to salvage some scraps from a sign-and-trade, fire Garth Snow, fire all the goalies and hope that Mathew Barzal is immune to the sophomore slump.
Word is Marc Bergevin will have the opportunity to fix his own mess, which means scrambling around the draft floor to Max-imize a return for Pacioretty, wooing John Tavares with the finest bowl of poutine money can buy (unicorn gravy, perhaps?), and somehow spinning his assets (four second-round picks gives him options) into a real centreman. In saying all that, if Carey Price and Shea Weber don’t arrive and stay healthy and inspired, this team doesn’t have a chance.
30. Ottawa Senators
Is that a puck in your pants, Erik Karlsson, or are you just happy to see which Cup contender you’re going to win the Norris with in 2018-19?
31. Buffalo Sabres
Recognizing the Sabres need a culture change is one thing; establishing that is another. The defence requires a dramatic overhaul, and goalies need to be hired. If tanking doesn’t yield Rasmus Dahlin, GM Jason Botterill’s trading skills will be tested. Everyone except Jack Eichel and Casey Mittelstadt should be in play. Buffalo’s patience is getting tested.