We should start all of this off with a prediction.
As the 2018-19 NHL season is set to begin, I am fairly confident in saying the following playoff teams from this past season are going to once again find themselves in the playoffs again this year: Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators, and San Jose Sharks. Those seem like the safest bets. They have the best rosters, they have the best talent, they are at the top of the league and should be the biggest contenders for the Stanley Cup.
It is also a given that a couple of teams that missed the playoffs a season ago are going to make enough improvements and take a couple of the remaining spots. A few weeks ago we looked at the best possibilities to do that, with the St. Louis Blues and Florida Panthers leading the way (you can read about all of them). Obviously if a couple of them make it, that has to mean that a couple of other teams are going to fall back out.
So which 2018 playoff team is at most risk for having that happen? Assuming the eight teams mentioned above return, that leaves eight on the bubble that need a closer look. We start with the teams at most risk of missing and working our way up to the teams that should be able to return to the postseason.
1. New Jersey Devils
Usually when one player single handedly carries a mediocre team to the playoffs it is a goalie doing the heavy lifting. For the 2017-18 New Jersey Devils it was winger Taylor Hall as he put together the best season of his career, won the Hart Trophy as league MVP, and did everything in his power to lift the Devils to a playoff spot. Independent of Hall (and even with Hall, actually) this was a remarkably average hockey team.
They weren’t bad. They weren’t great. They were just … average. In every possible category.
Goals for: 15th
Goals against: 15th
Power play: 10th
Penalty kill: 8th
Shot Attempt Percentage: 21st
Team save percentage: 18th
Overall record: 14th
It would be nearly impossible to be more average than that. They ended up making the playoffs as a wild card by just a single point. The team right behind them, Florida, is coming back even stronger this season and if Hall regresses even a little bit it could spell doom for the Devils’ playoff chances.
What can keep them in? Taylor Hall goes superman again, and/or Marcus Johansson is healthy and productive while 2017 top pick Nico Hischier builds on a strong rookie season and has a breakout performance.
2. Colorado Avalanche
The Western Conference version of the Devils.
The Avalanche were another mediocre team that came out of nowhere to make the playoffs thanks to an incredible season from their franchise player. In this case, it was Nathan MacKinnon (with some help from Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog).
It was a truly stunning one-year turnaround because the Avalanche in 2016-17 were one of the worst teams in recent NHL history. They stunk. So to go through that big of a turnaround in one year was truly remarkable and unexpected, especially when they traded one of their best players (Matt Duchene) at the start of the year. That trade, for what it is worth, is probably going to work out in the long-run and look like a genius move because Samuel Girard looks like he might be a player for them on the blue line and they now own one of the most valuable assets in the NHL this season as a result of it — the Ottawa Senators’ 2019 first-round draft pick.
Having said all of that, like the Devils, the Avalanche are what is basically a one-line team that needed an MVP-caliber season from its best player to just barely, by the slimmest of margins, be good enough to make the playoffs and lose in the first round.
3. Philadelphia Flyers
I actually like this Flyers team a lot, but they also have a lot of boom-or-bust potential.
If everything breaks right for them this could be a team that not only makes the playoffs again, but potentially even makes some noise. Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek can be great, and their young talent is captivating, particularly second-year forward Nolan Patrick who at times was one of their most dangerous forwards in the playoffs.
If Giroux and Voracek repeat what they did a year ago, and the young players like Patrick, Travis Konecny, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Ivan Provorov take big steps forward they are going to an exciting team. That is the boom potential.
The bust potential is that if the young players (especially on defense) don’t take a step forward, and/or if the goaltending implodes on them. Given the franchise history of the Philadelphia Flyers and its goaltenders, especially the goaltenders they are currently employing, that bust potential is certainly possible. Likely? Maybe not. Possible? For sure.
4. Los Angeles Kings
It was not that long ago that the Kings were one of the NHL’s elite teams, in a yearly battle with the Chicago Blackhawks for Western Conference supremacy and the Stanley Cup. Not really the case anymore either team.
The Kings, to their credit, are still a ferocious defensive team that will suck the life out of every game they play and keep everything close. That gives them a chance every night. The problem is they just lack the offense to be any kind of a serious threat, and even last season with Anze Kopitar having a career year and Dustin Brown somehow reviving his career offensively for one season they were still only slightly below average offensively.
Ilya Kovalchuk could be a nice addition, but it is very likely that Brown, and yes, maybe even Kopitar are not as productive as they were a year ago. As I wrote in the Pacific Division preview on Thursday, the Kings have been a bubble playoff team for four years now and will continue to be one as currently constructed. They are teetering closer and closer to needing an organizational overhaul.
5. Minnesota Wild
I mean this in the most respectful way possible — I have no opinion on the Minnesota Wild.
None. No positive opinion. No negative opinion. No emotion of any kind toward them. There is nothing about them that makes me passionate in any way. This, I think, is the only attitude to take toward the Minnesota Wild if you are not actually a Minnesota Wild fan because this is the only attitude they deserve.
They are just a hockey team that exists.
If you were to ask someone to construct the most bland, run-of-the-mill NHL franchise imaginable, this would be it because that is what they are, what they have been, and what they will continue to be.
They have enough talent to make the playoffs. They have enough talent to be kind of relevant but not really relevant.
They do not have enough talent to get out of the first or do anything of significance once they get there. What they are now is probably what their ceiling is. They just … exist.
Minnesota Wild: hockey team.
6. Anaheim Ducks
Losing Corey Perry for most of the season definitely hurts, especially when this isn’t a great offensive team to begin with. But we also have to remember they are losing 2018 Corey Perry and not 2010 Corey Perry. There is a difference. He is still a very good top-six player, but he also has not topped 20 goals or 60 points in two years.
Ryan Getzlaf is still there, they have a really good defense, and their goaltending duo with John Gibson and Ryan Miller is still one of the league’s best at the position. They also play in a division that, outside of the top two teams, isn’t overly difficult.
7. Vegas Golden Knights
Anyone that can say certain what they expect from the Vegas Golden Knights this season is lying, because nobody really does. There is every reason to believe that a lot of players that shined in their debut season are going to regress. They also made some significant additions (Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny) that can make up for it.
8. Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets have some problems. They play in a division with Pittsburgh and Washington. Their two best players — Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky — are free agents after the season and management may have to make a big decision on what to do with them before they risk losing them for nothing in free agency. Seth Jones is starting the season injured. They still have not made it out of the first round of the playoffs in their existence. Those are the problems.
The positives are the fact that for right now they still do have Panarin and Bobrovsky on the roster, and they are great players.
Jones will be back at some point and along with Zach Werenski will form what should be one of the league’s best defensive pairings. They also have Pierre-Luc Dubois who, I think, could be on the verge of a monster season. They play in a tough division, but it is a top-heavy division. Once you get beyond Pittsburgh and Washington at the top everything is wide open. They will keep their two stars throughout the season, make one more run at something with them, and see where things go after that.