On TNT’S Inside the NBA they do a segment featuring Charles Barkley called “Who he play for?”, where they dial up the name and picture of some lesser-known NBAer, and ask Chuck the question: “Who he play for?”
He, um, he doesn’t do so great.
It’s for a laugh, but in fairness, the man watches NBA basketball every day of the season, and keeping track of the depths of the rosters can be a challenge, even in a league where benches are only 12 players deep. Those at the bottom of the roster don’t play a ton, and so they don’t get talked about that often, particularly those on the worst teams.
It’s even harder to keep track of players on NHL rosters with nearly double the bodies per team, and right now it may be harder than ever. Free agency and the draft were absolute mayhem with everyone mashed up against the salary cap, and players changing colours like chameleons.
Predicting this coming season is like predicting magic eight-ball outcomes, but we can at least go over some teams who appear to have made positive and negative strides. With the Blue Jays on an absolute tear here in Toronto, it feels fitting to give it the baseball theme of three up, three down.
Los Angeles Kings
The thing about doing a full rebuild is that the literal rebuilding is hard. Like, give me the time and some tools and I can demolish just about anything, and GMs seem pretty good at doing that, too. But I struggle to build a children’s fort, let alone a structure of consequence.
The Oilers tore it down and have struggled to reach meaningful heights. The Leafs are stuck in the first round after their fresh start. And there are far more dire examples. The Sabres are on rebuild number…god I don’t even know. I wrote about this a week ago.
The Kings are trying to head the other direction though, and I think they’re ready to make strides. Quinton Byfield should get into the lineup regularly and be impactful, and they made a trade for a player I really like in Viktor Arvidsson. He may not be the guy who scored around 30 goals three straight years anymore, but he’s only 28 and a healthy Arvidsson is surely good for 20-plus.
They also signed Danault, who has cemented his reputation as one of the NHL’s elite defensive centres. There are still holes, namely at D, where they’re hoping a 35-year-old Alex Edler can help solidify things. But if Cal Petersen looks like he did last year, and the division is as soft as expected, the Kings should be closer to the wild card race than the league’s basement.
New Jersey Devils
Last season the Devils had more points than only two teams in the NHL: the Buffalo Sabres and the Anaheim Ducks. They were among a cluster of struggling teams with a goal differential around minus-50, and they’re still in a tough division. But they’re almost certainly going to be better.
New Jersey's D got a massive boost from the signing of Dougie Hamilton, a rare player in the league with size and offensive ability and, now, experience. Ryan Graves was an underrated defender on the Colorado Avalanche blue line, and he brings a solid defensive element to a group that was maybe a little offence-heavy with PK Subban and Damon Severson. With Jonas Siegenthaler and Ty Smith on the back end, they’ll be able to roll out a talented six.
Given the youth of their forwards, a meaningful step from any of their big dogs should make the Devils annoying each and every night. Jack Hughes will be better, Nico Hischier should join the league’s elite centres and Yegor Sharangovich looks to be a quality contributor. The addition of Tomas Tatar should help, too.
Vancouver Canucks (assuming they get their RFAs signed)
Of the seven Canadian teams in last year’s North Division, the Canucks finished … seventh. Behind the rebuilding Ottawa Senators. That was not the plan.
They’re in the midst of contract negotiations with their best two players in Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, but I have to believe they'll get them signed. And when they do, it’s tough to look at Vancouver's roster and see a last place team. It’s easy to see a playoff team, though. Whether you like what happened to their long-term cap sheet with the Arizona trade or not, in the immediate future there’s just so much talent there.
Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, J.T. Miller, Conor Garland, Tanner Pearson and Nils Hoglander make an extremely good top six (seven, I guess). They’ve got high quality depth players. Tyler Motte is effective, Jason Dickinson is a contributor, Brandon Sutter is back on a cheap deal.
Vancouver's D should be adept at moving the puck between Hughes and Ekman-Larsson. They’ve got a number of capable D-men who need to have good years (guys like Travis Hamonic and Tyler Myers), and they’ve added depth defenders like Tucker Poolman and Luke Schenn.
There’s also this:
Thatcher Demko could end up being one of the NHL’s best goalies in the years to come. I have no doubt the Canucks will be able to score, so if Demko is good, they’ll win games.
Shocker: the team that’s trying to be bad might be worse than when they were trying to be good.
Maybe the elements will combine perfectly and they’ll surprise. Or maybe they’ll lose, and get to draft a franchise-altering star, as per the plan. I’m guessing it’s gonna be that one.
San Jose Sharks
If you look at the NHL 30 years ago, you’d never question if it’s gotten better since, at least not in talent and speed and the depth of the league. Same for 20 years ago, and 10. The league gets better every year by some small percentage, whatever you think that number is. And so, you have to improve by that much each off-season to even keep pace.
How are the Sharks going to be better this year, exactly? The bulk of their cap hit goes to their aging defence corps in Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Their mileage hasn’t gone down. Their captain, Logan Couture, is 32 and unlikely to get better. Up front they’ve added very little (Andrew Cogliano will be on the fourth line now), and they may well lose their leading scorer in the Evander Kane, almost certainly for nothing. They tagged in James Reimer to play net, which, OK, sure. I just can’t see how this team is better this season, and maybe that’s become the plan here?
Tampa Bay Lightning
Let’s not do the thing where we take a reasonable point and twist it into something that wasn’t said. When I say “Tampa Bay isn’t going to be as good as they were last year,” I am not saying “Tampa Bay will not be good.” They’ve been the best team in hockey for the past couple seasons, and I think now they’ll be among the best few.
The Lightning lost everyone from an unbelievably effective unit for them in Blake Coleman-Yanni Gourde-Barclay Goodrow, a group who was essential in ensuring their second straight Stanley Cup. Those guys became coveted players and salary cap/expansion draft casualties, so the Lightning are worse off having lost them.
A few random notes
• Digging through NHL rosters I was left with a few questions, and one was about how established teams will hold up to aging. Will the Capitals remain as effective as they’ve been for years as their core gets older? How about the Bruins? Oh, and don’t look now, but the offensive producers on the Golden Knights aren’t getting younger, and I’m not sure I expect career years out of guys like Reilly Smith and William Karlsson, or really anyone in their top six. We’ll see if they can score enough, I suppose.
• There are a few teams that are utter wild cards to me. You can talk me into the Edmonton Oilers this season (I love how Zach Hyman fits with their group), but I wouldn’t be surprised if that D-corps simply can’t hold up and they struggle. What the heck are the Blackhawks, aside from a team caught between cores (age-wise), desperately trying to make it work while they’re still paying Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews big dollars. If those guys are good, it’s possible Chicago is improved, too -- there’s lots of talent there.
• What are the Columbus Blue Jackets going to be? Their top-seven forwards by pay include a hodgepodge of guys who didn’t exactly choose to be there, but were snapped up as talented players who had issues somewhere else.
Image via CapFriendly
There’s enough talent there that they could be good, but plenty of reason to believe those players didn’t work somewhere else for a reason.
It’s going to be a fascinating NHL season, with rosters around the league heavily turned over. I feel pretty good about my selections for three up and three down, but anything can happen. What team would you have added, and where?