Starting next week it’s going to be playoffs, playoffs, playoffs. But it’s not next week yet, so let’s talk about the teams that won’t be there while we still reasonably can. Here are five teams that are going to be forgotten for the next couple of months, that could be making major post-season noise in future years:
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
They’re not technically eliminated yet, but they only have a 13.4% chance of making it in as of the writing of this article.
The Lightning are an obvious bounce-back candidate. For one, they’ll likely only miss the playoffs by 2-4 points. Secondly, they have a track record of success, having made the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016 and the Stanley Cup Finals in 2015. Thirdly, Steven Stamkos missed three quarters of the season this year. If he can stay healthy next year, the Lightning have the foundation of a great team, with Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevski, and Jon Cooper providing the basis of a team that will have a lot to prove in 2017-2018.
Last year’s Atlantic Division champions were pegged as contenders before the season started, so the fact that they’re not making the playoffs is a huge disappointment. But a foundation of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle, and one or both of Roberto Luongo and James Reimer should be enough to propel the Panthers back up the standings next season.
Up front, the fact that Patrick Sharp had a sharp decline and missed much of the year hurt their offensive depth. On defense, the team’s depth was derailed with the losses of Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers. In goal, Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi were terrible, posting a .904 and .892 save percentage respectively. They had a mediocre puck possession game as well.
Dallas could stand to add a couple of depth forwards to their lineup, but what they really need is to reshape their backend. They need to add a couple of legitimate top-four defensemen to their group, and they also need to find a capable starting goalie. Realistically, they won’t add all that in one off-season, so this process will probably take multiple seasons for Dallas. Luckily, with Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and John Klingberg already in place, Dallas already has the foundation to become an elite team.
Mark Schiefele, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler, and Bryan Little is one of the most potent young forwards cores in the league. And Dustin Byfuglien is a tremendous defenseman. But Winnipeg still had yet another disappointing season at the hands of a defense that gave up too many shots, and a couple of goalies that struggled mightily at keeping those shots out of the net. But if the Jets can add a defenseman in the off-season, if Josh Morrissey can continue to develop, and/or if the Jets can get even average goaltending next year from Michael Hutchinson, Connor Hellebyuck, or someone else, the Jets could fly up the standings and finally reach their potential.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
The Kings have really struggled since their recent run of dominance that saw them win Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014. They have one of the best coaches in the league (for now) in Darryl Sutter. They have a defense led by Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin, and Alec Martinez. Jonathan Quick and Ben Bishop is, if nothing else, a goaltending duo ripe with name value.
But what this team just can’t do is score goals. They’ve lacked depth for a long time, even since their Cup-winning days. But that depth has gotten especially poor, thanks in large part to rapid declines from former top-six forwards like Dustin Brown and Mike Richards.
But perhaps the single biggest problem for the team is Anze Kopitar. He’s still a good player that had a good season. But he needs to produce more offense for the team for them to have any shot at returning to Cup contention, because teams without a first-line center don’t win the Cup. So if Kopitar can become a 70+ point player again, and the Kings can add a couple of depth forwards in the off-season, maybe Los Angeles can find their form once again.