Flyers, Rangers, Kings among potential surprise teams in NHL this season

NHL Surprise Teams
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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.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

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.

Chicago Blackhawks

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.

But they did manage to get Marc-Andre Fleury to play for them and they should be getting their top center, Jonathan Toews, back in the lineup.

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.

Philadelphia Flyers

The Rasmus Ristolainen move is a head scratcher, but Ryan Ellis is a significant addition to the defense and Cam Atkinson is an outstanding pickup at forward.

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.

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    Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

    The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

    Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

    Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

    Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

    The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

    Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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    ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

    Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

    These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

    In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

    “Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

    Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

    “He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

    Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

    “I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

    Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

    “I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

    Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

    “I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

    Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

    The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

    One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

    “It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

    Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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    SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

    Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

    “Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

    The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

    Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

    Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.