Dark horses and underdogs are some of the most exciting aspects of sports, and the NHL is no different. From upstarts on the upswing to scrappy squads pundits didn’t expect much fight from, there always seems to be one or two teams each season which catch people off guard and surpass expectations.
In this post, we’ll examine which dark horses have the best chance of making the playoffs from each division. For the sake of clarity and conversation, a dark horse, for the purposes of this column, is a team that failed to make the postseason in 2016-17.
Metropolitan Division – Carolina Hurricanes
We’re giving the Carolina Hurricanes the nod to emerge from arguably the toughest division in the NHL. They’ll have to contend with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and resurgent Columbus Blue Jackets on a nightly basis, so a trip to the playoffs won’t come easily.
Still, last year we saw what a strong defensive core could do when the Nashville Predators charged to the Stanley Cup Final. Carolina is building in that same mold.
Justin Faulk, Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce rounded out a strong top-four on the blue line last season, plus the Hurricanes still have Haydn Fleury (N0. 7 pick in 2014) and Jake Bean (No. 13 pick in 2016) coming down the pipe as well.
If Scott Darling can provide steady goaltending — or even just league-average netminding — the Hurricanes could push into the playoffs for the first time since 2009. They typically have had great underlying numbers but couldn’t get the netminding they needed to move ahead.
That shouldn’t be an issue in 2017-18.
Atlantic Division – Florida Panthers
We’re bending our own rules here and picking the Florida Panthers to surprise people in the Atlantic Division, mostly because no one is sleeping on the Tampa Bay Lightning heading into this season. They are closer to being an Eastern Conference powerhouse than a dark horse of any sort, so we’re rolling with the Panthers.
The 2016-17 campaign didn’t go according to plan in Florida, where the team was defending a surprise division title while dealing with all kinds of internal changes. Those shifts didn’t equate to wins on the ice, but the real culprit for those struggles was an injury bug that kept most of the team’s top players on the shelf for varying lengths of time.
If the Panthers can stay healthy this season (and it’s tough to imagine them getting torn down two years in a row), they should be able to compete with the Atlantic Division’s tougher opponents while challenging for a spot in the postseason.
They’ll need strong seasons from Evgeny Dadonov — essentially Jaromir Jagr’s replacement on the top line — and Henrik Haapala, but the playoffs aren’t out of the question for Florida.
Central Division – Winnipeg Jets
This could be the season when the Winnipeg Jets finally put it all together and go on a postseason run worth remembering. Mark Scheifele has emerged as one of the best centers in the league, while Patrik Laine could challenge for his first goal-scoring title this year.
Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little round out one of the most underrated forward groups in the NHL. The Jets appear to be a team that could score a lot of goals in 2017-18.
Their defense looks big and mobile as well, and they’re going to be a handful on a nightly basis for whomever they play. The biggest question mark is Connor Hellebuyck, who had an up-and-down campaign a year ago. Steve Mason is a decent insurance policy, but if anything prevents Winnipeg from making the dance, it’ll be goaltending.
The Dallas Stars are nipping at Winnipeg’s heels in terms of dark horses trying to emerge from the Central Division, so don’t be surprised if the team from Texas ends up making a lot of noise, too.
Pacific Division – L.A. Kings
The days of the Los Angeles Kings being an unflinching force might be over, and some feel that their particular brand of hockey has been passed over by quicker, more skill-oriented teams. This is still a proud and talented group, though, one that nearly made the playoffs despite missing Jonathan Quick for a majority of the season.
Getting their No. 1 goalie back will undoubtedly make a huge impact for the Kings. It sounds like they’re going to try to get their high-end defenders more involved on offense this season. That could lead to a Norris Trophy-worthy season from Drew Doughty.
Anze Kopitar will also aim to recover from a so-so season. If he does — and Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli continue to evolve as scoring threats — the Kings could force their way into a playoff spot in the rough-and-tumble Pacific Division.