With free agency and roster moves slowing down, the dog days of summer in the NHL return and drag along at a snail’s pace. Even with nothing much in the way of breaking news, it’s still fun to look back at the previous season.
More specifically, we’re going to take a quick look at each of the non-playoff teams in the West in 2016-17. And we’ll rank each of their chances of making a return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Towards the end of last season, the Western Conference playoff race took shape much sooner than the East. The highest non-playoff squad out west finished seven points out of the last playoff spot. A couple of non-playoff teams turned out to be bottom-dwellers, as expected. Two more remained in the running down the stretch, but faded over the final six weeks. One team found themselves decimated by injuries and bad goaltending, while one team suffered a historically bad season in the salary cap era.
I’ll rank each of last season’s non-playoff teams from least likely to return to the playoffs to most likely. Tomorrow, we’ll shift our focus over to the Eastern Conference non-playoff teams’ chances to return to the postseason.
To say the 2016-17 Colorado Avalanche were bad is an insult to the word. There’s no other way to put it: this team was atrocious, and historically so. The Avs finished with a record of 22-56-4, good for just 48 points, the fewest in the NHL by a 21-point margin and the fewest since the salary cap was instituted in 2005-06. Their 56 regulation losses were also the most in the NHL since the Atlanta Thrashers lost 57 games in regulation in 1999-00. At least Atlanta had an excuse: they were an expansion team.
Looking at Colorado’s lineup, there’s plenty of skill and youth up front. Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen (led the team with 20 goals as a rookie), and Tyson Jost lead the way up front, while new arrival Colin Wilson from Nashville gives them depth down the middle. The biggest question from the forwards is whether or not Matt Duchene returns. The 26-year-old center, who has spent his first eight seasons in Colorado, has been the subject of trade rumors for months. General manager Joe Sakic hasn’t received an offer that he likes, but Duchene’s status remains worth watching over the next couple of months heading into training camp.
The Avs are a mess on the blue line, as Tyson Barrie, Erik Johnson, and Mark Barberio are the only returning veterans, with Nikita Zadorov still unsigned as a RFA. Barrie would fetch quite a return on the trade market, as dealing Barrie or Duchene would give this team a chance to properly start a complete rebuild. Colorado lost backup goalie Calvin Pickard to Vegas in the expansion draft, signing Jonathan Bernier from Anaheim to take his place. The Avs are keeping their fingers crossed that starter Semyon Varlamov can stay healthy and regain his past form as he struggled before being shut down due to injury. This figures to be another long season in the Rockies in 2017-18.
For the third time in four seasons, the Canucks missed out on the postseason party, finishing last season 29th out of 30 teams. They scored the second-fewest goals in the league while also sporting a blue line with a lot of holes. In addition, the goaltending was also quite mediocre. Over the last few years, it has become more apparent that this is a team in desperate need of a complete rebuild. Towards the end of the season, they looked like they finally got the memo. Vancouver shipped out Jannik Hansen to San Jose and Alexandre Burrows to Ottawa in separate trades. In return, they received prospects Nikolay Goldobin and Jonathan Dahlen, who could be potential building blocks going forward.
During the offseason, the Canucks added goalie Anders Nilsson to replace Ryan Miller, brought in defensemen Michael Del Zotto and Patrick Wiercioch, while also signing forwards Alexander Burmistrov and Sam Gagner. Vancouver made these moves to provide veteran depth for a team in transition. However, they’re not difference-making transactions. What they’ll provide is help for youngsters Bo Horvat, Sven Baertschi, and Markus Granlund, part of this team’s core moving forward. The Canucks hold a few prospects ready to make the leap within the next couple of years, like Brock Boeser, Olli Juolevi, and Thatcher Demko.
Unfortunately for the Canucks, they’re still a few years away from getting back into contention. The Sedin twins have had outstanding careers, but they’re 36 an have one year left on their contracts with a $7 million cap hits. They wasted a lot of money on Loui Eriksson in free agency last year, and they lack any stars on their blue line, although Alexander Edler and Chris Tanev are solid top-four guys who could fetch a good return at the trade deadline. Both the Canucks and Avalanche figure to battle the expansion Vegas Golden Knights for the bottom spot out west next year.
Over the previous three seasons, the Arizona Coyotes have embarked on a lengthy rebuild. Having not made the playoffs since 2012, the Coyotes have seen their prospect pool built up as one of the most highly regarded in the league. Unfortunately for them, the wins haven’t followed, as the team has lacked talented veteran leaders. That changed this offseason, when they acquired center Derek Stepan and goaltender Antti Raanta from the New York Rangers and Niklas Hjalmarsson from the Chicago Blackhawks.
Those moves, combined with the departure of former head coach Dave Tippett and the hiring of Rick Tocchet in his place, display a far more aggressive approach from Arizona. Quite the departure for the team infamous for acquiring the rights to Pavel Datsyuk, Chris Pronger, and Dave Bolland just to get to the cap floor. Raanta replaces Mike Smith in goal, earning his first starting gig in the NHL after backing up Henrik Lundqvist in New York. If he can have a similar impact as former backups-turned-starters like Cam Talbot and Martin Jones, Arizona could make a move up the standings.
However, that’s easier said than done, especially for a team that finished with the third-worst record in the NHL. At some point, youngsters like Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Jakob Chychrun, Christian Dvorak, and Lawson Crouse are going to have to find ways to win more games. Highly-touted prospects like Clayton Keller and Dylan Strome should make the leap next season, with longtime former captain Shane Doan no longer around. This is a team on an upward trajectory, as the additions of Raanta, Stepan, and especially Hjalmarsson should provide much-needed veterans on this team. Expecting a playoff spot this year might be a bit of a stretch, though.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
For the second time in three seasons, the Kings failed to reach the postseason. All despite ranking at the top of the league in puck possession metrics. The reason for their failure to make the postseason? They couldn’t put the puck in the net. Los Angeles ranked tied with Buffalo for 25th in goals scored with 201. They finished tied in last place with Colorado in 5-on-5 shooting percentage at 6.3%. As a result, head coach Darryl Sutter was fired, as was general manager Dean Lombardi. Lombardi and Sutter lost their jobs despite helping build the Kings into Stanley Cup winners in 2012 and 2014. They were replaced by Rob Blake and John Stevens, respectively.
While their heavy, physical, methodical style of hockey worked then, that’s no longer the case. The league is trending towards speed and skill, and the Kings often looked a step behind speedier division rivals like Calgary and Edmonton. The signing of 35-year-old Mike Cammalleri to a one-year, $1 million deal is a low-risk, high-reward move. He brings much-needed goal-scoring ability. The Kings also had to make room to sign RFA’s Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson to new contracts. Per capfriendly.com, they now own $5.9 million in cap space. At this point, that’s not enough to obtain more of the scoring help they need. The contracts of Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik continue to be boat anchors for this franchise. Los Angeles needs Toffoli to bounce back from injury and for captain Anze Kopitar to regain his scoring touch after a down year.
The Kings will also need Jonathan Quick to stay healthy if they’re to make a return to the playoffs. The 31-year-old netminder suffered an injury on opening night and didn’t return for four months. While Peter Budaj had an excellent season in relief, he was dealt to Tampa Bay for Ben Bishop in February. If Quick can regain his form, the Kings could find themselves back in the playoffs. More importantly, this team has to find a way to put the puck in the back of the net more often, or it won’t matter who’s in goal.
While the Kings couldn’t score goals, the Winnipeg Jets had no problem filling the back of the net. Finishing tied for sixth in the league in goals, it was keeping the puck out of their own net that was the Jets’ problem. They allowed the fourth-most goals in the league and didn’t get consistent goaltending from either Connor Hellebuyck or Michael Hutchinson. While Winnipeg’s puck possession numbers were below average, that lack of timely saves from their goaltenders cost them.
As a result, they brought in 29-year-old Steve Mason as a free agent from Philadelphia and signed him to a two-year deal with a $4.1 million AAV. Mason didn’t have a particularly good season with the Flyers, but he’s also capable of providing solid goaltending for a team that doesn’t need its goalie to be great. Whoever is between the pipes just needs to be slightly above average. Hutchinson has one more year on his deal, while Hellebuyck is a RFA and is still considered this team’s goalie of the future.
This team’s strength lies in its forwards, as center Mark Schiefele blossomed into this team’s number-one center and continues to grow into a star. Winger Patrik Laine, the second overall pick in 2016’s draft, looks like a superstar in the making, scoring 36 goals as an 18-year-old rookie. Nikolaj Ehlers is also an up-and-coming star, while Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little help round out the forwards. The defensive corps continues to be led by Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, and Toby Enstrom, while Tyler Myers looks to bounce back from injury. They probably gave too much money and term to UFA Dimitry Kulikov after he had a rough season in Buffalo. As long as the Jets can get some timely saves from either Mason or Hellebuyck, this is a team that could find itself back in the playoffs.
Just a year after finishing in first place in the Western Conference, the Stars tumbled to 11th in the West due to a rash of injuries and poor goaltending from the duo Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen. The highest-scoring team in the league in 2015-16, Dallas fell to a tie for 17th in that department last season. In addition, they gave up the second-most goals in the NHL as well. As a result, Niemi’s contract was bought out and Lehtonen was kept around to be Ben Bishop’s backup. Dallas acquired Bishop in a trade with Los Angeles and then signed the pending UFA to a six-year deal worth a $4.9 million AAV. Bishop, a Vezina finalist in two out of three seasons before 2016-17, should solidify the Stars’ situation in the crease.
The Bishop signing turned out to be just the beginning of a busy offseason. They brought in UFA winger Alexander Radulov from Montreal, signing him to a five-year deal worth $6.25 million a season. Radulov was a force for the Canadiens last season and will bring more offensive firepower to a team already loaded with it. Martin Hanzal inked a three-year deal worth $4.75 million AAV to be the team’s third line center. In addition, they traded for defenseman Marc Methot, who Vegas chose from Ottawa in the expansion draft. The Stars only had to give up a 2020 second round pick and goalie prospect Dylan Ferguson to the Golden Knights. The 31-year-old Methot had been Erik Karlsson’s defense partner in Ottawa, and should fit in nicely alongside Jon Klingberg.
Combine all of those moves to a team featuring Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Jason Spezza up front, and there’s really no reason why the Dallas Stars shouldn’t make a return to the playoffs. It’s safe to say that they’re in a “win now” mode.