It is the summer and with no games being played at the moment it is awfully difficult to rank the NHL’s 31 teams on a weekly basis. So the PHT Power Rankings will spend the next month taking a look back at some of the best (and worst) developments in the NHL, both past and present. Best trades. Worst trades. Best all-time teams. Any other random things we feel like ranking. This week we look at which of the NHL’s non-playoff teams from this past season that are most likely to make a return to the playoffs.
There were 15 teams in the NHL that missed the playoffs during the 2017-18 NHL season and you can guarantee that at least one or two from that group will bounce back and make the postseason this year. There were five such teams a year ago with the Colorado Avalanche, New Jersey Devils, Los Angeles Kings, Philadelphia Flyers, and Winnipeg Jets all making a return to the playoffs, with the Jets going all the way to the Western Conference Final.
In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we rank all 15 non-playoff teams from a year ago in order of which one of them is most likely to see a similar turnaround.
1. St. Louis Blues — The Blues were right there in 2017-18, falling just one point short of the second wild card spot in the Western Conference even after trading Paul Stastny at the deadline. They bolstered their lineup this offseason by trading for a great two-way center in Ryan O'Reilly, bringing back David Perron off a career year in Vegas for yet another stint, and signing Tyler Bozak in free agency. That is suddenly a pretty good looking offensive lineup to go with a team that was sixth in the league in goals against last season. Honestly, it would probably be a surprise if this team did not make the playoffs in 2018-19.
2. Florida Panthers –– The Panthers were one of the best teams in the league over the second half of last season, finishing on a 25-8-2 run over their final 35 games, and like the Blues, ended up falling just a single point short of the second wild card spot in their conference. With Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, and Aaron Ekblad, they have a really good young core in place, while Evgenii Dadonov proved to be an outstanding pickup last summer. They added another top-six winger to the mix with the trade for Mike Hoffman. Whether that is enough to close the gap on the top-three in the Atlantic Division remains to be seen (all of Tampa Bay, Toronto, and Boston were at least nine points ahead of Florida in the standings last year), but they should be right in the thick of the wild card chase. They’re not going to maintain the pace they played at over the second half of the season, but they’re also probably not as bad as they were in the first half.
3. Carolina Hurricanes — Trading Jeff Skinner is going to hurt the offense, but they have high hopes for 19-year-old Martin Necas and No. 2 overall draft pick Andrei Svechnikov. The real hope for optimism here though is on defense, a unit that looks to be absolutely loaded on paper after the offseason additions of Dougie Hamilton and Calvin de Haan, while still (for now) holding on to Justin Faulk. The Hurricanes were already one of the best shot suppression teams in the league and just need to figure out a way to get respectable goaltending (and let’s be honest, Scott Darling can not possibly struggle more than he did a year ago). Yes, we say this stuff about them every year, but one of these years it finally has to happen.
4. Dallas Stars — Even though the Stars did not make a big splash move during the offseason (they are, however, one of the teams rumored to have had interest in Erik Karlsson) they still made a pretty significant change to the team when they brought in Jim Montgomery to replace Ken Hitchcock behind the bench. The Stars have been one of the league’s most consistently disappointing teams given the high-end talent they have at the top of the roster (currently with Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, John Klingberg, and Alexander Radulov) and the blockbuster moves they make every offseason. Yet every year they always seem to just settle in around the playoff bubble as a 90-92 point team. They are always so close, yet seemingly so far.
5. Chicago Blackhawks — The success or failure of the 2018-19 Chicago Blackhawks likely hinges on whether or not starting goalie Corey Crawford is healthy and able to play. When he was in the lineup last season, the Blackhawks were pretty good. When he went out of the lineup with a still mysterious upper-body injury they were of the worst teams in the league. Given the decline of the Blackhawks’ defense and their forward depth they are going to have to rely on goaltending quite a bit to carry them. A healthy Crawford might be able to do that. Their Plan B in net may not be able to.
6. Edmonton Oilers — It is stunning that the team with the most dominant offensive player in the world missed the playoffs by nearly 20 points last season. Also stunning that we are still not sure if they are good enough to be a playoff team this season. While it was the special teams units that mostly sunk the Oilers’ chances in 2017-18, this was still a pretty mediocre 5-on-5 team and they really didn’t make any significant changes to that roster. Given what has happened in previous years when they tried to make significant changes (Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson; signing Milan Lucic; Jordan Eberle for Ryan Strome) maybe that is a good thing. Flawed as this team is, they do still have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl at the top of the lineup and there is always a chance they could go off and carry the team back to the playoffs.
7. Calgary Flames — The 2017-18 season was a giant disappointment for the Flames after there were such high preseason hopes. They were bringing back a really good young core with Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk, and spent a ton of money and assets to bring in Travis Hamonic and Mike Smith to shore up the back end. Even though the three young forwards all played well (and Gaudreau was fantastic) everything else just kind of fell flat. James Neal is a nice addition up front, but trading Hamilton is a big blow to the defense even with Noan Hanifin and Elias Lindholm coming back in return. Smith was okay in his first year as their starting goaltender, but he is entering his age 36 season and just being “okay” may not be good enough.
8. Arizona Coyotes — The Coyotes finished with the worst record in the Western Conference and the third worst record overall, but they finished really strong, beat a lot of really good teams, and have a ton of young talent in place. When healthy, Antti Raanta was as good as any goalie in the NHL last season and if he can come close to duplicating that performance over a full year he could be a game-changer for the Coyotes. Another potential game-changer: Dylan Strome, the third overall pick from 2015. After dominating the OHL and AHL the past couple of years he showed some of that ability at the NHL level down the stretch run of the regular season. He is still a big-time talent. They also have what should be a strong 1-2 punch down the middle with Derek Stepan and Alex Galchenyuk. They are not all the way there yet, but if a few things break their way (Raanta being as good as he showed last year; Strome taking a big step forward) they could be a big surprise team in the Western Conference.
9. Buffalo Sabres — A lot was made over their return for O’Reilly, but other than Tage Thompson, that was very much a quantity over quality deal and is not something that is likely to change for the fortunes of the team anytime soon. If anything, it made them a little worse. Fortunately, that was not the only trade they made over the summer. Conor Sheary will not have Sidney Crosby next to him in Buffalo so he remains sort of a mystery, but they ended up getting Skinner from Carolina for a really good price. In the end, they lost one big-time player, picked up another, and have a bunch of question marks including Carter Hutton, their new starting goalie. Jack Eichel will still be great, though. So, honestly, probably expect more of the same.
10. New York Rangers — The rebuild is well underway and it is very likely that even more veterans will get moved before the trade deadline this season (Mats Zuccarello? Kevin Hayes?). Playing in a division that is absolutely loaded at the top it just seems like the playoffs are a real long shot, even with Henrik Lundqvist in net.
11. Montreal Canadiens — Their best and probably only hope is that Carey Price plays like the 2014-15 version Carey Price. Since that is still always a possibility that probably puts them ahead of a few other teams in the league that do not have Carey Price.
12. Vancouver Canucks — Vancouver spent the offseason acting like a team that is a playoff contender by spending big money on its bottom-six. This is not a playoff contender. Brock Boeser looks great, Bo Horvat is pretty good, they have some intriguing prospects, but it is still not a very good team overall. And something that seems to get overlooked is that Henrik and Daniel Sedin were still pretty solid last season (two of their top-three scorers), and they are not coming back.
13. Detroit Red Wings — They got a gift in the draft when Filip Zadina fell to them at No. 6 overall, but this situation is still very bleak as they are spending a ton of money on a team that is just not very good. They accumulated a lot of draft picks, but this is going to be a long, painful rebuild.
14. New York Islanders — They lost their best player (John Tavares) in free agency to the Toronto Maple Leafs and spent the entire offseason replacing him with fourth-liners to go with all of the other fourth-liners they already had. Mathew Barzal is a worthy franchise cornerstone, but he will not be able to do it all by himself.
15. Ottawa Senators — There is absolutely nothing to be excited about here This was one of the worst teams in the league a year ago, has already lost one of its top scorers this offseason, and it only seems to be a matter of when, and not if, Erik Karlsson gets traded. Matt Duchene and Mark Stone are also entering the final year of their contracts so they, too, could be on the move at some point. This looks like a lottery team.