Now we’re beginning to inch towards the contenders. These are playoff teams. Well, they should be, so long as everything goes according to plan. These are teams with the upside to do some damage in the playoffs, but they’re far enough from sure things that it’s just as easy to visualize them on the outside looking in. These are teams 15-11 on the NHLN power rankings.
15. New York Rangers
By Pat Keogh (@katpeogh)
Last year’s stats:
5v5 GF%: 55.82% (3rd)
5v5 CF%: 47.36% (26th)
5v5 PDO: 102.44 (1st)
GF: 163 (3rd)
GA: 129 (7th)
101 points (9th overall. 3rd Metropolitan)
The Rangers started with a bang and ended with a whimper, as the team’s long developing and oft-denied defensive woes eventually caught up to them. The Rangers began the season with an impressive win streak but were fairly ho-hum the rest of the season, as the Broadway Blueshirts’ inability to get the puck out of their own zone caused disappointment on the back end of the season. Henrik Lundqvist bailed the team out night after night and helped them make it to the playoffs, but the Rangers were dealt an early exit by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins (although one wonders if they’d have fared any better against a lesser opponent).
Rumors began to fly soon after the Rangers’ playoff departure about there being major changes made to the team, but as far as trades go new GM Jeff Gorton only made two: the acquisition of defenseman Nick Holden from Colorado, and the trade for Mika Zibanejad in exchange for Derick Brassard from the Ottawa Senators. Aside from that, the Rangers also picked up approximately a thousand forwards through free agency, including but not limited to Michael Grabner, Josh Jooris, and Brandon Pirri. Lastly, the Rangers received a much needed injection of youth this offseason, with the highly touted Pavel Buchnevich coming over from Russia and the reigning Hobey Baker Award winner Jimmy Vesey spurning the Nashville Predators and a bevy of other suitors for the opportunity to play on Broadway. The team also re-signed key RFA Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, and JT Miller, the former to a long-term extension, and the latter two to two-year bridge deals.
Reasons for optimism:
The first almost goes without saying: the Rangers have a generational talent between the pipes in Henrik Lundqvist. With Hank at the helm the team has made it to the playoffs more often than not, and there’s a decent chance he could get them there again this year (more on that later). The Rangers also have something of a youth movement going with Pavel Buchnevich, Jimmy Vesey, and Mika Zibanejad joining an already young group of forwards in Chris Kreider, JT Miller, and Kevin Hayes. Thinking more long-term, new General Manager Jeff Gorton seems to have his
head screwed on straight, making a series of shrewd forward signings and clearing some cap room with the deal that saw Brassard go to Ottawa. All of this means that while the window is getting narrower for the Rangers, and the defensive corps is a mess, Gorton has begun sowing the seeds for further success in New York.
Reasons for negativity:
It starts and ends with the blue line. The Ranges lost Keith Yandle to Florida in the offseason, and he was the only player on the team to finish the season with a 5v5 CF% above 50 (just barely too, at 50.35). Dan Girardi and Marc Staal remain on the roster despite rumours that Gorton was looking to move them at the draft, and aside from their massive contracts weighing down the team’s salary cap situation they’re also two of the worst defensemen in the league. Girardi had the worst CF% in the league among defensemen who played more than 500 minutes at 41.70%, putting him somewhere between the 2014-15 Buffalo Sabres and Colorado Avalanche in terms of possession (apples and oranges though, I know). Henrik Lundqvist can only bail the team out so much, and if the Rangers struggled to get the puck out off their own end last year this season it might simply never leave, putting a playoff birth for the Blueshirts in doubt.
Will the Rangers make a trade to improve their blue line, and if so when? With news of Jacob Trouba being on the market, Hampus Lindholm still without a contract, and the Rangers defensive group being what it is, the Rangers must know that there’s opportunity out there to patch things up defensively. There’s a sea of forwards at the Rangers’ disposal for making trades, with the Jimmy Vesey signing in particular adding roster flexibility should the team decide to trade a player like JT Miller for example. As of right now the Rangers are projected to have around $2-2.6 million in cap space at the start of the season, which if they maintain until the trade deadline could allow them to add more than $10 million in cap hit in February (per Rangers twitter’s resident cap geek, https://twitter.com/HockeyStatMiner). Even if the Rangers choose not to make any huge defensive moves, a series of more low-key maneuvers a la last season’s Pittsburgh Penguins and some rearranged pairings could make the team’s blue line at least somewhat manageable, with the young, deep forward corps handling the rest. What exactly will transpire remains to be seen, but given Jeff Gorton’s self-aware signings this summer, my money’s on the Rangers making the right deal at the right time for some defensive help and turning this team around.
14. Minnesota Wild
By Scott Maxwell (@scottmaxw)
Last year’s stats:
5v5 GF%: 52.06% (9th)
5v5 CF%: 47.86% (23rd)
5v5 PDO: 100.7 (7th)
GF: 216 (19th)
GA: 206 (8th)
87 points (17th overall, 5th in Central)
The Minnesota Wild were the definition of an average team in the West. As competitive as that conference is, the Wild squeaked in despite mediocre play, and then lost in six games to the Dallas Stars. They had a bit of a threat for some of the season, as the Avalanche were creeping up on them while the Wild decided to stop winning for a bit, but eventually Minnesota rallied back, and sneaked in.
Actually, that’s giving them too much credit. They were average, going 5-5-0 down the stretch, while Colorado went 2-8-0. So, they got lucky that they’re competition sucked this year.
The Wild didn’t do a whole lot this offseason in terms of player transactions. They resigned Jason Zucker and Darcy Kuemper, bought out Thomas Vanek, and let go of Jarret Stoll, They also signed Alex Stalock, Eric Staal, and Chris Stewart.
Their biggest addition was the hiring of Bruce Boudreau. It came as a bit of a surprise to some, since other teams that were hiring like Calgary and Ottawa seemed like a better fit for him. However, he’s with the Wild now, and he has a track record of success wherever he goes, so it bodes well for Minnesota.
However, the Wild’s biggest problem seems to be the playoffs, something that Boudreau’s teams have always struggled with. Perhaps they can both help each other, but this season will be telling of whether both teams are doomed for playoff failure.
Reasons for optimism:
This was a playoff team last year, and their offseason moves have a chance to improve the team. Boudreau’s teams always seem to win the division, and Eric Staal, while on a decline, has usually been very good at possessing the puck, so these moves certainly gives the team a chance to improve.
Reasons for negativity:
However, this is also almost the same team from last year, so if these improvements don’t work, and at least one of Colorado or Winnipeg, or even Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, and Arizona, and this team is on the outside looking in. Considering the age of the team’s star players, this isn’t a good thing for them either.
Boudreau has seen success wherever he goes. In his nine seasons of coaching, there was just one season where his team didn’t finish first in the division, and that season with the Ducks involved Randy Carlyle at the start of the season, which is like being told you have to give everyone a five second head start in a 100m dash. During his tenure with Washington, they were second only to Detroit in possession, and they were a positive possession team in Anaheim as well during his tenure. If anyone can help this team make the next big step, it’s Boudreau.
13. Philadelphia Flyers
By Chris Beardy (@chris_beardy)
Last year’s stats:
5v5 GF%: 50.8% (14th)
5v5 CF%: 50.6% (16th)
5v5: PDO: 100.4 (11th)
GF: 214 (22nd)
GA: 218 (15th)
96 points (13th overall, 5th Metropolitan)
The Flyers’ 2015-16 season featured an appreciable rebound from the year before. While Jakub Voracek disappointed many with a 26 point drop after signing a large extension, there were many reasons to be happy with the on-ice product. Shayne Gostisbehere was called up early and earned a spot on the second pairing with a 15-game point streak, setting an NHL record for rookie defensemen. Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier had career years while Steve Mason and Michael Neuvirth both looked like legitimate starters. The Flyers were also able to unload both Luke Schenn and Vincent Lecavalier to the Los Angeles Kings, freeing up both cap and roster space.
The Flyers earned a playoff berth on the second to last day of the regular season. A 3-1 victory over the Penguins secured their spot over the Bruins and granted them sole access to the second Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. They did not make it through the Washington Capitals in the first round of the playoffs. While they pushed their opponent to a six-game series, their playoff performance is most remembered by their first home game. It started with a touching tribute to their long-time owner Ed Snyder, who had passed away days before the playoffs started. The Flyers, however, were trounced by a score of 6-1 in that game, which caused a few unsavory fans to hurl trash and memorial bracelets on the ice and boo the team.
The Flyers made relatively few moves during the off season, instead focusing on the talent they already had in their system. The only unrestricted free agents they signed were Dale Weise (4 years) and Boyd Gordan (1 year), both of whom will be used to improve their bottom-six.
Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier, Michael Raffl, and Radko Gudas signed medium- to long-term deals with the Flyers this off season, joining a core with Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds.
Nick Cousins, Jordan Weal, and Brandon Manning were given bridge deals off of their entry-level contracts so that they could challenge for a longer term role on the team.
The most exciting development for the Flyers this offseason has been signing top defensive prospect Ivan Provorov to an entry-level contract. There are expectations that he will become an impact player on their blue line despite only being 19 years old.
Reasons for optimism:
The Flyers feature a young core that has continued to get better year-in and year-out. Their center depth is among the best in the Eastern Conference with Giroux, Schenn, and Couturier rounding out their top-three. Their defense will continue to improve thanks to a prospect pool that still includes many top end prospects. Travis Konecny looked like a man on fire in the preseason so it wouldn’t be surprising if the Flyers thought he was ready to be a top-six winger (and were right). Lastly, both Mason and Neuvirth are in contract years so they’ll have a light under their seat to really perform this year, with each of them hoping to earn a raise next summer.
Reasons for negativity:
This team still has over $10m tied up in Andrew MacDonald and Mark Streit. And while Streit’s contract is up at the end of this year, MacDonald still has four years remaining. Perhaps more worrying is Voracek’s performance this year. If last year does not prove to be just a small blip on the radar, then the Flyers will be paying him $8.25m for 7 years without getting $8.25m worth of production for him.
The penalty kill could also prove to be a problem for the Flyers. They were 19th in the league last year at 80.5%. A team that features players physical like Wayne Simmonds and Radko Gudas should be more attentive to the penalty kill given how many times they will be skating shorthanded.
X-Factor: Young talent
The Flyers’ prospect pool is going to set the Flyers up for a lot of success in the next few years. Their blue line has been slowly transitioning from one of the worst in the league to one of the better ones. Under the direction of GM Ron Hextall, they have removed Nick Grossman, Luke Schenn, Brayden Coburn, and Andrej Meszaros either by letting contracts expire or trading them away. Mark Streit is due to leave after this year, leaving only Andrew MacDonald as a blue line challenge for Hextall.
In the place of all these individuals are upgrades like Michael Del Zotto, Shayne Gostisbehere, Radko Gudas, and Ivan Provorov. However, any of those players are liable to be challenged by Travis Sanheim, Sam Morin, Robert Hagg, Mark Alt, and Philippe Myers. It’s very likely that at least three of those players will be high end NHL defensemen.
Their pool of forwards isn’t nearly as deep, but Travis Konecny already looks like a bona fide top-six winger while Pascal Laberge will make a good case that he belongs on an NHL roster as a skill player. But given the young center depth that the Flyers already possess, it’s possible that Laberge is a trade chip that can be used to ship out the last of Holgren’s best contracts, such as the one he gave Andrew MacDonald.
Ultimately, GM Ron Hextall has given a lot of hope to this franchise after many years of bad management. And he is creating this hope through actions and results.
12. Anaheim Ducks
By Case Corey (@CCorey_36)
Last year’s stats:
5v5 CF%: 52.5% (5th)
5v5 GF%: 49.0% (17th)
5v5 PDO: 98.9 (27th)
GF: 213 (18th)
GA: 188 (1st)
After the worst start in franchise history that featured an epic scoring drought, the Ducks stormed back to capture their fourth consecutive Pacific Division title. They received exceptional goaltending from both Frederik Andersen (now with Toronto) and phenom John Gibson, both of whom were on the receiving end of the Jennings Trophy.
In the first round of the playoffs, they matched up against the #7 seed Nashville Predators. After falling down 0-2 in the series, Anaheim stormed back to even the series and eventually take a 3-2 lead. However, the resurgence was short-lived, as Nashville won game six at home and won game seven at Honda Center.
The Ducks had one of the least active offseason’s in team history. It began with the firing of head coach Bruce Boudreau and the re-hiring of old friend Randy Carlyle. Some notable losses include wingers David Perron (STL) and Jamie McGinn (AZ), as well as starting goaltender Frederik Andersen (TOR via trade).
Like usual, GM Bob Murray refrained from getting caught up in the July 1st free agent frenzy and instead opted for only minor signings. They include Mason Raymond, Jared Boll, Jeff Schultz, Nate Guenin, and perhaps most notably Antoine Vermette.
They still have question marks. Hampus Lindholm and Rickard Rakell are still without contracts, and there is speculation that they may not be re-signed without a corresponding trade. Cam Fowler has been linked to several teams, including Detroit and Boston. With just single digit days until Opening Night, it will be interesting to see how Bob Murray maneuvers both of the Swedes into his list of lineup.
Reason for optimism:
The defense is one of the best in the NHL. Anaheim has a surplus of NHL calibre defensemen, and can lean on them when the offensive production dips. Led by analytical beast Hampus Lindholm and recently re-signed Sami Vatanen, there should be no problem icing one of the better d-corps in the league. Shea Theodore, Brandon Montour, and 19 year-old Jacob Larsson are all turning heads in camp and have a chance to make the NHL team.
Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf are still elite. Even after a historically poor October, they both got back on track. If the World Cup of Hockey is any indication, they are both ready and in prime shape to begin the 2016-17 campaign.
Reason for negativity:
Randy Carlyle. His tenure with the Leafs ended on a sour note, and his teams were notoriously bad when it came to puck possession. Anaheim is hoping that he can pull a rabbit out of the hat and lead the team to a fifth straight division title. However, with seemingly every other team in the division improving, it will be extremely difficult.
The forward core is also weak when it comes to depth. As of today, Jared Boll and Mason Raymond could find their way into the starting lineup. I suggest throwing caution to the wind here and waiting a week or so to see if a defenseman is traded in exchange for another forward or two. For now, however, it doesn’t look too promising.
X-Factor: Coaching and special teams
The team will only go as far as Perry and Getzlaf will take them, as evident by the dreadful October of 2015. If they aren’t on their game from the get go, the Ducks could suffer yet another poor start, which wouldn’t be that surprising under a Carlyle-coached team.
In addition, the special teams will need to remain elite. Anaheim had the best PK and PP in 2015-16 under Paul MacLean, who was a candidate for the head coaching position. If the Ducks want to make the playoffs, they will need to sustain the effectiveness of the special teams from last season.
11. New York Islanders
By Chris Beardy (@chris_beardy)
Last years’ stats:
5v5 GF%: 51.3 (11th)
5v5 CF%: 49.5 (18th)
5v5 PDO: 100.7 (8th)
GF: 232 (10th)
GA: 216 (13th)
100 points (10th overall, 4th Metropolitan)
The Islanders were a competitive team through the entire 2015-16 regular season, ultimately finishing 10th in the league standings. However, due to some good opponents in the Metropolitan division, they were pushed down to the top Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. There was concern in March when starter Jaroslav Halak went down with a goalie, but Thomas Greiss stepped up and delivered a great string of performances to keep their playoff dream alive.
They faced the Florida Panthers in the first round. They won the series with two consecutive double overtime wins in games 5 and 6, with Alan Quine and John Tavares serving as the each game’s heroes. After a win to start their next series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, they lost four straight games and were bounced from the playoffs in the second round.
The Islanders made some significant changes to their roster this past summer. They let Frans Nielsen walk and brought in Andrew Ladd. Nielsen was arguably the best two-way forward on the Islanders as well as a consistent 45+ point scorer. Ladd brings some extra offense to the lineup but without the same level of two way play. The Isles are expecting Casey Cizikas to take on a bigger shutdown role after re-signing him to a $3.35m contract for the next 5 years.
New contracts were also given to Ryan Strome, Shane Prince, and Alan Quine. Strome was given a bridge deal after his production fell from 50 points to 28 this past year. He will have the opportunity to show that last year was a lone down year before contract talks start again for him in 2018. Prince and Quine were given small bridge deals after impressive displays at the end of last season. Prince and a 7th round pick were acquired from the Senators for the Isles’ 3rd round pick at the 2016 trade deadline. Quine has been a leading scorer with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (AHL affiliate of the Islanders) for the last two years.
The Islanders also picked up three unrestricted free agents to shore up parts of their roster. Jason Chimera and PA Parenteau were both signed to short deals. Both are expected to provide some extra depth in the bottom-nine throughout the season. Due to an injury to Johnny Boychuk, the Isles also signed Dennis Seidenberg to a one year deal after a strong display at the World Cup of Hockey with Team Europe. Seidenberg was bought out by the Bruins earlier in the summer.
Lastly, the Islanders are likely to start the year with two new defenders from their prospect pool. Ryan Pulock, the 15th overall pick by the Islanders in 2013, is expected to have a high ceiling and will be watched very closely by the team and its fans. He had a good audition last year, including great games in the playoffs against tough competition. Adam Pelech will come up to help the Islanders in a middle or bottom pairing role. He looked good in his 9 games with the Islanders last year before it was cut short by an injury that required surgery.
Reasons for optimism:
The Islanders have an enormous game changer as their captain. John Tavares can be an absolutely controlling player at time who wills his team to win. He is surrounded by a good cast of forwards like Andrew Ladd, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, and Ryan Strome.
This is also one of a few teams in the league who could protect four defensemen for the 2017 expansion draft and still likely lose a defensemen. The core of Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, and Travis Hamonic is one of the better defensive groups in this league. Then it’s augmented by capable defenders like Thomas Hickey, Calvin de Haan, Ryan Pulock, and Adam Pelech. They are so deep that they won’t be effected much by losing their 4th/5th defensemen at the expansion draft.
Reasons for negativity:
When Halak and Greiss are not running hot, you get okay to substandard goaltending that can throw a game for you. This issue is only exacerbated by Boychuk’s injury. While the Islanders have depth to cope with his absence, it’s undeniable that missing your top defensemen will have an adverse effect on games. Losing Nielsen further weakens them in the defense department.
The forward group has seen a lot of changes this past year and it’s possible that things never quite click this year. Matt Martin was allowed to walk while Casey Cizikas was moved into a more significant role. The days of arguing that the Islanders have the best 4th line in the NHL are gone. And it’s not known whether a new 3rd line anchored by Cizikas will thrive or if they can even put together a decent 4th line. Strome has cast doubts on his abilities with last year’s performances and there’s questions about how well Ladd will fit into this new roster. Overall, there’s enough disruption to the forward group that it might fall short
X-Factor: Special teams
Special teams will need to be watched closely with the Islanders. They had a middling 17th-best power play to go with an excellent 4th-best penalty kill. They have some great power play specialists who, if used right, can boost their offensive numbers throughout the season. Likewise, they need to continue their penalty kill strategies from last year and deny their opponents an opportunity to win through the man advantage.
The departure of Frans Nielsen will impact both their power play and penalty kill. He was part of the top unit for both special teams. However, Andrew Ladd is also accustomed to playing in all situations. The Islanders will need to see if he can play the same role that Nielsen did. If he can, then they just need to make sure they build up the same chemistry they had last year. If not, then the Isles will need to determine how to reconfigure their PP and PK units to recapture and build on the success they had last year.
Previously in this series:
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