Chris O'Reilly The Hockey Writers
Hope on the Horizon for Hockey’s Hapless: Western Conference
In the first edition of this article, I discussed the eight non-playoff qualifiers in the East. My goal was to highlight a few of their positives and focus on the improvements they can (and need to) make for the 2017-18 season. Now we will begin with the Western Conference portion.
The West was a bit more difficult than the East for one key reason. The teams at the bottom of the Western Conference have a much larger mountain ahead of them than those in the East. For instance, pandemonium has broken out within the Buffalo Sabres organization since their last-place finish in the Atlantic.
But the Sabres have a talented enough young core in place that if they take a step forward next season it should not come as much of a surprise. I’m not sure we can say the same about teams like the Vancouver Canucks or the Arizona Coyotes. There are simply more teams knocking on the door in the East than in the West.
This, of course, means that the distant future may be brighter than the immediate one for some Western Conference fan bases. Regardless, I began this with the intention of giving those fan bases hope. And whether that hope lies directly ahead or off in the distance somewhere, that’s what I’m going to do.
In the East, I broke the teams down by division, but we’re going to do things a little differently this time around.
Nowhere to Go but Up
The Vancouver Canucks will win the 2018 draft lottery.
I understand that right off the bat, Canucks fans will probably be angry with me for this one. “That’s what we’re supposed to look forward to?”
But let’s just be realistic and admit that there’s no way anyone can, in good conscience, project this team to go on a tear next season. Their leading scorer, Bo Horvat, totaled 52 points. The Sedin twins are 36 years old. Ryan Miller is also 36, and his contract is up. If there’s a template for what a team should look like as they enter full-fledged rebuilding mode, the Canucks are it.
Step one is locking down the 22-year-old Horvat, who is a restricted free agent. He can bridge the gap between this version of the Canucks to the next. Vancouver was one notable victim of a wacky draft lottery Saturday night, dropping from a possible second overall pick to fifth. While this is surely disappointing, the glass-half-full perspective says this virtually guarantees the Canucks will have the worst roster in the NHL, thus strengthening their chances at the number-one pick in 2018.
Additionally, the Sedins’ contracts both expire after the 2017-18 season, which is $14 million in salary off the books. A top-five pick in 2017, the (possible) first pick in 2018, and some much-needed cap space could help Vancouver launch itself into the next generation of Canucks hockey.
Dylan Strome will earn his place on the Arizona Coyotes.
The Coyotes struggled similarly to the Canucks in 2016-17, but the marked difference between the two lies in Arizona’s youth. Some of that youth, including players like Christian Dvorak and Jakob Chychrun, saw significant time in the NHL this season. Others like Max Domi and Anthony Duclair had the opportunity to build on previous seasons as well.
But then there’s Dylan Strome, a highly-touted center who was afforded a whopping seven games at the NHL level before spending the remainder of the season in the minors. Strome’s performance in those seven games was disappointing to say the least, but with the way the season went as a whole for the Coyotes, it’s equally disappointing that he was not given another chance.
What is Arizona’s big plan down the middle? Alexander Burmistrov and his 95 points in 324 career games? The 20-year-old Strome may have some growing to do, but on potential alone he is more valuable to the Coyotes than any of their other options at center.
The Coyotes don’t have to deal with the pressure of high expectations in 2017-18, which means they can afford to insert developing players into their lineup and give them a chance to grow. If management allows Strome an honest shot at finding himself in the NHL, it could breathe new life into the rest of the team. Or maybe it goes south, and they’re left with a once-promising prospect whose trade value has diminished. Either way, at least they’ll know, which is better than sitting on their hands.
Or, they could re-sign 35-year-old Radim Vrbata and see if his team-high 20 goals are enough to make a playoff run.
A Wealth of Stars Who Want to Be Kings
The Los Angeles Kings will make one last run.
The Kings have one of the oldest teams in the NHL, with an exorbitant amount of money tied up in some of their aging players to boot. Forwards Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik, Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown all carry a cap hit north of $4.8 million, and not one of them will be on the south side of 30 when the 2017-18 season starts. Add in the salaries of Drew Doughty ($7.6 million), Jonathan Quick ($7 million), Alec Martinez and Jake Muzzin ($4 million each), and there is not a ton of room for the Kings to maneuver.
Additionally, all those contracts will make it difficult (if not impossible) for Los Angeles to bring back RFAs Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, both of whom will be 25 at the start of the season. There is, of course, the possibility of trading one or two veterans in order to free up some cap space, but the return for a 32-year-old Brown or 35-year-old Gaborik would be minimal.
This all adds up to one reality for the Kings, which is that 2017-18 may well be their last real shot at a Cup run. In a Pacific Division that has fallen victim to a hostile takeover by the young Edmonton Oilers, the idea of an aged Kings squad returning to its once-dominant form is a stretch, but not out of the realm of possibility.
What’s standing in their way is an inability to score goals. Los Angeles ranked sixth in the NHL in goals against, and all nine of the other top 10 teams made the playoffs. What separated the Kings from those teams was that they ranked 25th in goals scored. The physical defensive game that won Los Angeles two Stanley Cups is rapidly becoming a thing of the past as the league shifts toward a style based on speed. One way or another, the Kings need to address this in the offseason.
Anze Kopitar and company will not go quietly into the night. Like Rocky Balboa, they still have “stuff in the basement.” They will supplant one of the 2017 playoff teams next season, and they will take their shot.
The Dallas Stars will win the offseason.
It has to be beyond frustrating for Stars fans to watch a team with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin struggle to the extent that they have. The two superstars combined for 159 games played and 141 points, yet Dallas finished with the same number of points as the rebuilding Detroit Red Wings.
The Stars’ disappointing 2016-17 campaign was due in large part to unreliable goaltending from Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi, both of whom are still on the books for next season with cap hits of $5.9 million and $4.5 million, respectively. It will be tough for Dallas to rid itself of both goalies due to their modified no-trade clauses, but the Stars need to put in the work to wash their hands of the second-worst goals against average in the NHL.
If the Stars are able to offload at least one of those contracts, they can then begin building a supporting cast around Benn and Seguin, starting with finally putting a number-one goalie in net. The most obvious target for that need is UFA Ben Bishop, but the expansion draft may have a lot to say about how that pans out.
The 2017 RFA class is stacked with talent, and that is where the Stars can really improve their roster. As I mentioned above, Toffoli and Pearson will be difficult for the Kings to re-sign, and either one could strengthen the Stars’ lineup. Some other marquee names among RFAs include Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tomas Tatar, and Tyler Johnson. Of course, there is always the matter of whether or not these players’ current teams extend qualifying offers, but the opportunities should be there for Dallas to make a splash.
Another valuable commodity that has just become available to the Stars is the third overall pick in this summer’s entry draft. This puts them in the driver’s seat of the trade-mobile with a number of NHL teams, should they choose to shop the pick. Or maybe they hold on to it with the future in mind. But at the very least, their luck at the draft lottery puts them in a position they certainly were not anticipating.
Whatever they choose to do with the pick and however they approach free agency or the trade market, the time is now for the Stars’ front office to give their two superstars something to work with. Every year this team fails to compete for a Stanley Cup is one step closer to squandering the prime of two of the NHL’s better players. I believe the Dallas Stars will have the loudest offseason of any team in the league.
One Small Step for Colorado, One Giant Leap for Winnipeg
The Colorado Avalanche will total 84 points.
How do you put a positive spin on a team that just lost 60 games? It’s difficult, I admit. To be honest, I’m not sure what I find harder to believe: that the Avalanche finished first in the Central Division in 2013-14, or that they’ve spiraled so wildly out of control since.
In any case, I think it would be one of the biggest travesties in sports over the last decade to see a roster that once held as much promise as Colorado’s torn down. They’ve still got Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, Tyson Barrie and Erik Johnson. You could do much worse than that, and I vehemently disagree with the sentiment that Colorado should have a liquidation sale.
Yes, the Avs just had an absolutely embarrassing season (almost like it was on purpose or something), but I believe their front office made the right decision in holding on to coveted trade deadline targets like Duchene and Landeskog two months ago. After all, which version of Matt Duchene do we believe to be the real one? The one who scored 41 points this season, or the one who averaged 61 in the previous three? You can ask the same question of Landeskog, who posted just 33 points in 2016-17 after averaging 59 in his previous three seasons, and I’ll give you the same answer: this season was the mirage, not the others.
The Avalanche are not a 48-point team. They are indeed in some form of rebuilding mode, but I would not compare their situation to that of Vancouver or New Jersey. Colorado fans will no doubt be fuming for months to come over The Great 2017 Lottery Heist, in which the Avalanche dropped from first to fourth in the draft order, but again: the Avs are not your garden-variety last-place team. They can bounce back from the lottery debacle, and they can bounce back from their abysmal season.
This team is going to surprise people in 2017-18, and they will reward the patience of their front office for not blowing it all up at the deadline. I’m setting the over/under for wins at 37.5, and taking the over. Colorado’s young players deserve one more year to get it right. If they fail, then they can have their firesale.
The Winnipeg Jets will finish second in the Central Division.
Had I written this three weeks ago, I’d have picked the Jets to finish first in the Central. Call me a prisoner of the moment, but right now it looks like Nashville is the team most deserving of those increased expectations. Either way, we’re about to see a shift in the landscape of the Western Conference as yet another upstart Canadian franchise joins the postseason party.
Let’s start with the Jets’ one major question mark, which is their goaltending situation. Is Winnipeg satisfied enough with Connor Hellebuyck to re-sign him? He’s only 23, so I’m betting the Jets are more likely to take their chances on him than to make a trade or spend big on Ben Bishop. But Hellebuyck needs to be better, because it doesn’t do you any good to be the seventh-highest scoring team in the NHL if you give up the fourth-most goals.
That said, Winnipeg is the one team in the league I believe to be ready to take the biggest step forward in 2017-18. We’ve seen Connor McDavid lead the Edmonton Oilers back to the top of the NHL, and next season it will be Patrik Laine’s turn to do the same on a Jets team with just as much talent.
The Jets had four players with 60-plus points in 2016-17. Some of the other teams we’ve discussed in this writing didn’t have one. Laine scored 36 goals in 73 games; had he played in all 82, he likely would have joined fellow rookie Auston Matthews in the 40-goal club.
Along with the Finnish sensation, Winnipeg has players like Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers and Jacob Trouba rounding out their incredibly talented core of blossoming stars under the age of 25. Throw in veteran players like Dustin Byfuglien, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little, and the Jets have all the makings of a powerhouse on the rise. The sky is the limit for this team, and Jets fans have every reason to be excited for next season.
The Central Division will provide no small challenge for Winnipeg, but I believe this team will win 48 games in 2017-18, and will be very much in the hunt for the division’s regular-season title.
As I mentioned in part one, a lot will change over the course of the summer as we head into next season. I look forward to revisiting these predictions once the dust settles on the offseason, but for now, take them as they are.
A few final points I’d like to make to keep things in perspective: of the 16 teams who made the playoffs in 2016, only nine of them returned this year. The Columbus Blue Jackets and Edmonton Oilers both finished last in their respective divisions in 2016. Both also stormed their way into the postseason in 2017 in convincing fashion.
Don’t lose hope. Every season is different. If your team stayed home when the regular season ended, I’d say a 7/16 chance for next year is a heck of a lot better than nothing.
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