Every season there is at least one team in the NHL that comes out of nowhere as a surprise playoff team. Sometimes that team ends up going far into the playoffs and making a serious run at the Stanley Cup. Three years ago nobody expected Carolina to be playing in the Eastern Conference Final. Nobody expected Dallas to be in the Stanley Cup Final two years ago. And this past season there is not a person on the planet that would have picked Montreal as a Stanley Cup Finalist.
That, of course, can lead to some dangerous thinking among front offices. It is not always as simple as “just get in the playoffs and anything can happen,” because there are a lot of variables that have gone into some of those surprising runs. Sometimes it is a case of the team being better than anybody realized, or a hot goalie carrying it, or simply a combination of those two things and some added luck in terms of good health and the right matchups.
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But it is still is a given that somebody that missed the playoffs a year ago is going to be in the playoffs this season, and maybe even make a little bit of noise.
Let’s look at some of those potential surprise teams.
Los Angeles Kings
The Kings have what might be one of the best farm systems in the NHL, so the long-term future looks very bright. But I am not going to write off the short-term outlook either, even though they have missed the playoffs for a few years now.
For starters, they still have a No. 1 center in Anze Kopitar who can play at an extremely high level. They also made two significant additions this offseason in Viktor Arvidsson and Phillip Danault to strengthen their forward depth.
But here is what makes me put them on this list: They play in a lousy division where at least one (maybe two) playoff spots could be up for grabs. And that is a dramatic change from the division they played in a year ago when they had to deal with Vegas, Colorado, St. Louis, and Minnesota at the top and play the bulk of their schedule against those top-four teams.
This year? they play in a division where only Vegas looks to be a slam dunk playoff team. Yeah, Edmonton has the two MVPs at the top of the lineup, but the rest of the lineup is lousy. Calgary and Vancouver are extremely flawed. Seattle is an expansion team, Anaheim and San Jose are both stuck in neutral. There is a window there for somebody to surprise. It could be the Kings, especially if they stick with Cal Petersen in goal and get some contributions from a young player or two from their system.
New York Rangers
They would not be a surprise along the same lines as Montreal this season because there is an expectation that they should be good by now. But it has still been a couple of years since they made the playoffs.
The Rangers have high end talent at every level of the roster, including an MVP contender (Artemi Panarin), a literal Norris Trophy winner (Adam Fox — just this past season), and a young franchise goalie (Igor Shesterkin). Not to mention a great collection of young talent and a couple of other high-end players as complementary pieces.
I will quibble with some of their offseason moves (trading Pavel Buchnevich and bringing in Ryan Reaves and hired muscle to deal with Tom Wilson is probably not the path they needed to take) but Barclay Goodrow is a fine player and there is enough talent here to make this a playoff team. Maybe a good playoff team.
I do not like every move they made this offseason. Seth Jones and everything about his acquisition (the trade, the contract, the salary cap number) is a major gamble. They probably overpaid Jake McCabe for what he is. Tyler Johnson has a pretty significant contract and declining production. They also still lack a lot of depth at forward and on defense.
Those are two major additions. If Fleury played like he did this past season and Toews is able to return to his usual form that is going to make the Blackhawks lineup a lot more formidable than it has been in recent years.
Fleury is the player that will make-or-break this though. If he is good, they will be good. If he is not, they will struggle.
The wild card here is Carter Hart.
He was lousy this past season and it really helped sabotage the Flyers’ season. But it is way too early to give up on him and if he can return to the form he showed in his first two seasons that will be a game-changer for the Flyers, and perhaps even help put them back into playoff contention.
New Jersey Devils
Going to add the Devils in here for two reasons: 1) They could have the goaltending with Mackenzie Blackwood and Jonathan Bernier to give them a chance. And I love the additions of Dougie Hamilton, Tomas Tatar, and Ryan Graves to a lineup that already has a couple of young cornerstones in place with Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Yegor Sharangovich. Hughes in particular could be in line for a breakout season that takes him from good young player to superstar. He has shown signs of making that jump over his first two seasons and it might be time for it.