Preseason NHL predictions are awash with optimism. With one month before training camps open, who are we to crush those hopes? Despite the advent and honing of advanced statistics, unexpected outcomes are still, and will always be, a part of the beauty of hockey.
Columbus won 50 games last season and John Tortorella won the Jack Adams Award. Ottawa advanced within a game of the Stanley Cup Final and Nashville advanced to the Cup Final, proving that if you just get into the postseason, much is possible.
Most of 2017’s 14 non-playoff teams, plus Vegas, will miss the 2018 playoffs. But in the spirit of the preseason, we have outlined three things that must happen for those clubs to qualify for the greatest postseason in pro sports.
We didn’t go it alone in this venture. We reached out to writers across the country for their thoughts. Thanks to Joe Smith (Lightning), Jon Rosen (Kings), Carolyn Wilke (Stars), Ken Wiebe (Jets), Sam Carchidi (Flyers), Joe Yerdon (Sabres), Chip Alexander (Hurricanes), Andrew Gross (Devils), Ansar Khan (Red Wings), Jason Brough (Canucks), Mike Chambers (Avalanche) and Steve Carp (Golden Knights) for their input.
Tampa Bay Lightning
1. Good health for Steven Stamkos (and Ryan Callahan): The Bolts star and captain is overdue for a good break. The Lightning missed him last season, and they missed Callahan, an alternate captain, too.
2. Better production from Palat and Johnson: Two seasons ago, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson were dynamic. Last season, not so much. Having the two aforementioned leaders back in the lineup would likely alleviate some of the defensive attention on them.
3. Andrei Vasilevskiy proves he’s a No. 1 goalie: In his first season of extended play, Vasilevskiy was uneven, posting a middling .917 save percentage. He must be a little better, but the Bolts need to tighten up the defense in front of him, too. Last season, they allowed too many grade-A chances. Mikhail Sergachev, 19, who came over in the Jonathan Drouin trade, will have a chance to join a defensive corps in need of a boost.
1. Just stay healthy: The offseason acquisitions of Ben Bishop, Alex Radulov, Martin Hanzal and Marc Methot make the Stars a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, not just a playoff team. Health, on the other hand, has been an issue for Dallas lately.
2. Tighten the defensive screws: Dallas’ defensive woes the past two seasons have been well chronicled (they allowed 260 goals last season; the second-worst mark in the league). Can new (and old) coach Ken Hitchcock implement his trademark structure without stifling the Stars’ creativity?
3. Better special teams: Dallas had the NHL’s 30th-ranked penalty-killing unit at 73.9 percent. The power play, surprisingly, was 20th (17.9 percent).
Los Angeles Kings
1. Find more offense: Anze Kopitar and Tyler Toffoli have to hit or approach their previous marks for L.A.’s offense to improve significantly, and for the Kings to get back to the postseason they have missed two of the past three years.
2. Get good minutes from their young, mobile defensemen: Derek Forbort (25), Paul LaDue (24) and Kevin Gravel (25) can all skate. Can this team still make the playoffs if they play 75-plus games?
3. Transition smoothly to coach John Stevens: The Kings played with renowned structure under Darryl Sutter until the bottom dropped out in the second half last year. To make the playoffs, L.A. must retain that airtight system and possession game while finding more offense through better zone entries.
1. Better goaltending … much better: If Winnipeg can get league average or better goaltending from Steve Mason, who pushes Connor Hellebuyck into the backup role, this team’s potential cold be realized. The Jets have posted better than league average goaltending just once in six seasons (.920 for Ondrej Pavelec during the playoff season of 2015).
2. More discipline: The Jets took the fourth-most penalties in the NHL last season (350), too many of them stick infractions.
3. Better special teams: A better penalty kill starts by staying out of the box and getting good goaltending, but Winnipeg’s special teams both ranked in the bottom half of the league. The power play was 18th at 18 percent; the PK was 26th at 77.5 percent.
New York Islanders
1. Re-sign John Tavares: The team’s franchise player is entering the final year of his contract and still, nothing. The Islanders can’t lose Tavares from a team short on fans and playing on the NHL’s worst ice surface. This could be a major distraction.
2. Find a No. 2 center: New York misses Frans Nielsen. New York was rumored to be in the mix for Colorado center Matt Duchene, but Duchene remains with the Avalanche.
3. A path to an arena solution: This is not to suggest that Barclays Center is responsible for the Islanders missing the playoffs by one point last season, but when your own players (and everyone else) acknowledge that your ice is the worst in the league, when your arena is one-third empty all the time and when that arena’s owners say they want you out … well, we all know what it’s like to come to a lousy work environment.
1. Awaken Claude Giroux: He carries an $8.275 million cap hit for the next five years. His 67 points two years ago were OK; his 14 goals and 58 points last season were unacceptable. He had four straight 70-plus point seasons earlier in his career, but his production has declined every year since signing that eight-year deal in 2014. He needs to be an elite star, more so than Jakub Voracek, who Philly mistakenly paid off one elite season.
2. A Brian Elliott renaissance: Elliott’s brief Calgary stay was dreadful, much like his stops in Ottawa and Colorado. Was he simply a product of St. Louis’ stingy system or can he rebound?
3. Manage the blue line: Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov need to play a lot, while rookies Sam Morin and Robert Hagg must enjoy a smooth transition.
1. A healthy Jonathan Huberdeau: The wing went down with a leg injury at the start of the season and missed all but 31 games. The Panthers need their highest-paid forward in the lineup.
2. More offense: Sasha Barkov and Vincent Trocheck must take another step forward at center and free-agent signing Radim Vrbata must be used properly to get 20-plus goals. Even so, the Panthers could use more scoring punch up front after losing Reilly Smith and, inexplicably, Jonathan Marchessault to Vegas in the offseason.
3. Do right by Jaromir Jagr: This won’t do a thing for their playoff chances, unless you believe in karma, but it was a shame to see the ageless wonder kicked to the curb. Jagr can still play and it’s not like the Panthers are overflowing with offensive options.
1. Unleash the talents of their centers: Jack Eichel was unhappy with coach Dan Bylsma. Dan Bylsma got fired. Can new coach Phil Housley play to the strengths of Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly and Zemgus Girgensons, one of the best center trios in the league?
2. Cut down shots against: Buffalo allowed a league-high average of 34.3 shots against last season. Reducing that number means playing better defense, but also possessing the puck more. Buffalo’s 47.23 Corsi For percentage was the second-worst in the league.
3. More offense from the defense: Sabres defensemen scored a meager 17 goals last season, led by Rasmus Ristolainen’s six.
1. Scott Darling plays like a No. 1: The Hurricanes took a gamble on a 28-year-old who has never been an NHL starter. Darling was terrific for Chicago last season (.924 save percentage). Can he handle the additional load?
2. Earn more points in extra time: Carolina was 5-9 in overtime; 3-6 in shootouts. Four more wins would have meant eight more points. They missed the playoffs by nine.
3. Another step for the youth: Victor Rask, Teuvo Teravainen, Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin need to push their production up another notch. Beginning with Rask, Carolina needs much more from its centers.
New Jersey Devils
1. Cory Schneider plays like Cory Schneider: The Devils need Schneider to be a Vezina Trophy candidate again or they have no chance. His .908 save percentage last season was well below his five-year average of .927.
2. Find a top-four defenseman, or two: New Jersey’s blue line is one of the worst in the NHL. The forward group has some pieces but if the team ever wants to get the puck, this deficiency must be remedied.
3. Production from the young’uns: Top pick Nico Hischier, Pavel Zacha, John Quenneville, Miles Wood, Blake Speers, Blake Pietila, etc.) have to make an impact and supplement the production of Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique and Marcus Johansson. The Devils had an Eastern Conference-low 183 goals last season.
Detroit Red Wings
1. Petr Mrazek returns to form: Detroit’s future in goal sparkled through the first four months of the 2015-16 season, but signs of his 2016-17 plummet (.901 save percentage) were evident late in the previous season when he struggled in February and March.
2. A better power play: The Red Wings’ power play finished 27th in the league. Teams need personnel for an effective power play and Detroit is certainly missing Pavel Datsyuk’s magic, but there is enough skill here for better.
3. Youthful progression: Too many key Wings regressed last season under second-year coach Jeff Blashill, including Dylan Larkin, Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan, Luke Glendening, Justin Abdelkader, Danny DeKeyser and Mrazek. That trend must be reversed.
1. Quantum leaps for Strome and Dvorak: The Coyotes need Dylan Strome to become an elite playmaker and they need Christian Dvorak to take another step. Derek Stepan’s presence will ease some pressure, but the team’s long-term prospects are heavily reliant on this pair.
2. A return to form by Oliver Ekman-Larsson: His mother’s illness and eventual death weighed heavily on him all season and that is understandable. The Coyotes need their franchise player to lead, however, as he will do as their new captain.
3. Antti Raanta proves he’s a No. 1 goalie: He is only under contract for one year so the Coyotes are not committed to him if he can’t make the leap from successful backup to successful starter. It’s encouraging that he is a Benoit Allaire pupil.
1. A bounce-back from the Sedins: Daniel and Henrik turn 37 in September and are headed into the final year of their contracts. Is it fair to ask them to carry this team any more?
2. Great goaltending: It’s a lot to ask from two guys — Jacob Markstrom and Anders Nilsson — who’ve never been full-time starters in the NHL, especially behind this team.
3. Way better special teams: Vancouver’s power play finished 29th at 14.1 percent; its penalty kill was 28th at 76.7 percent. Former Coyotes assistant Newell Brown was brought in to fix the power play.
1. A full complement of NHL defensemen would help: The Avalanche has three experienced D-men under contract, RFA Nikita Zadorov might return to the KHL, and the prospect depth chart is shallow. So, there’s this new team two states over with a glut of guys. You want me to make a call?
2. A motivated Matt Duchene: There have ben whispers about Duchene’s attitude that may have impacted his trade value, then Duchene said he was burned out last by January because the situation in Colorado was so bad. Either general manager Joe Sakic should work things out with Duchene or trade him. And Sakic is a GM on the hot seat. Colorado is a mess.
3. A healthy Semyon Varlamov: The Avs are the kid of team that needs top-tier goaltending (and so much more). Hip surgery limited Varlamov to just 24 games last season.
Vegas Golden Knights
1. Get great goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury: You don’t really expect the Knights to score much, do you?
2. Play it close to the vest: Nothing will sell hockey in Vegas like an offensively-challenged, highly structured defensive team, right? Well, that’s the only way the Knights are going to win on most nights.
3. Hope like hell opponents are partying: It’s Vegas, after all. Many teams will likely stay in casino hotels. What could go wrong?