When Ken Hitchcock looks at the NHL, he doesn’t see much separation between the best teams and the worst.
“I don’t think there’s going to be much of a difference between first and last in each division,” the St. Louis Blues’ head coach said today, per NHL.com’s Nick Cotsonika.
He may have a point. Unlike the last two seasons, when certain clubs were clearly positioning themselves to draft franchise centers Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, and Auston Matthews, there is no such jockeying for the bottom this season.
Take the Toronto Maple Leafs, the NHL’s worst team in 2015-16. Head coach Mike Babcock expects his group to be “way better” with young forwards Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner in the lineup, not to mention Frederik Andersen in goal.
The Edmonton Oilers are coming off a 29th-place finish, but McDavid probably won’t get hurt and miss half the season again. The Oilers also improved their defense with the addition of Adam Larsson, and while it cost them Taylor Hall to do it, they signed Milan Lucic and drafted Jesse Puljujarvi to help stem the loss.
The Columbus Blue Jackets were arguably the most disappointing team last season, but if Sergei Bobrovsky can stay healthy, there’s reason to believe they could fare better. The Jackets have a promising young defense that head coach John Tortorella has called his team’s “engine.”
The Arizona Coyotes, Winnipeg Jets, and Calgary Flames finished 24th, 25th, and 26th, respectively, last year. But all three of those teams have a ton of young talent. There is more hope than dread in those markets.
Even the Vancouver Canucks are optimistic. Their general manager, Jim Benning, has said he can’t wait for the season to start in order to prove the doubters wrong. He believes it was injuries that cost his team last year. Vancouver’s goal is to get back into the playoffs, not draft Nolan Patrick.
“There’s that sense there’s something to prove,” said Canucks goalie Ryan Miller. “I hope we can take energy from the different points of motivation and do something really fun, really special.”
Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking on Miller’s part. That kind of thinking has been known to happen at this time of the year, before any games have actually been played.
But Hitchcock isn’t counting on any easy games.
“I just think it’s going to be so hard this year to get in the playoffs,” said Hitchcock, whose team plays in arguably the toughest division in the league.
While it would be a surprise if the Blues missed the postseason the year after reaching the conference finals, they did lose David Backes and Troy Brouwer to free agency, and they don’t have Brian Elliott anymore, so you never know.
In today’s NHL, there are no guarantees.