In hockey, it’s hard to go from the outhouse to the penthouse, because playoff contenders refuse to move out.
Of the 16 teams that made the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs, 12 of them were in the midst of multiyear postseason appearance streaks. If you include the COVID-19 bubble qualification series in 2020 — when the NHL allowed 24 teams to advance to the postseason — the Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t missed the playoffs since the 2005-06 season, when Sidney Crosby was a rookie. The Washington Capitals and Nashville Predators have eight-season streaks. The Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs have qualified in six straight seasons.
The Colorado Avalanche (5), Tampa Bay Lightning (5), Carolina Hurricanes (4), St. Louis Blues (4), Edmonton Oilers (3), Florida Panthers (3) and Minnesota Wild (3) all have streaks going. The only postseason newbies last year: the Calgary Flames, Dallas Stars, Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers. And the Stars played for the Stanley Cup in 2020!
Meanwhile, take a look at the 10 worst teams at the end of the 2019-20 season. Only two have qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs since then: the Montreal Canadiens, who emerged from the all-Canadian North Division to play for the Cup in 2021 before spiraling into a rebuild; and the Kings, who made the playoffs last season for the first time since 2017-18.
Yet every year, there’s hope — that one of the “sure things” falls down the standings to open up a playoff spot for an upstart. That one of the lottery teams is suddenly ahead of schedule on its rebuild and surprises with a playoff berth.
Here’s a look at the most likely candidates to miss the playoffs — and the most likely to leap into those open spots — in each division for the 2022-23 season.
In their past two seasons, the Maple Leafs posted their two best regular-season points percentages in franchise history, including last season’s .701 to earn them second in the Atlantic. Auston Matthews scored 60 goals and won his first Hart Trophy. Mitchell Marner had career bests in goals (35) and points (97). So did William Nylander, who scored 34 goals and 80 points. Their top four on defense remain solid. Their supporting cast at forward might be better year over year. GM Kyle Dubas, who doesn’t have a contract beyond this season, has the Leafs’ roster loaded, even if their heads are slamming against the salary-cap ceiling.
Except in goal.
The Maple Leafs amassed 115 points last season despite the 21st-best team save percentage in the NHL (.900), which would have been much worse than that were it not for Jack Campbell‘s .914 save percentage in 49 games. He’s now a member of the Edmonton Oilers. Lacking other options, Dubas reshaped his goaltending battery into former Capitals goalie Ilya Samsonov, whom Washington let leave as a restricted free agent, and former Senators goalie Matt Murray, whose relationship with Dubas dates back to their junior hockey days with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
Over the past three seasons, Samsonov and Murray have combined for 7.4 goals saved above average. For comparison’s sake, Boston netminders Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark combined for 45.7 goals saved above average in that span. Even last season’s Leafs battery of Campbell and Petr Mrazek combined for 31.2.
Toronto is a team with Stanley Cup aspirations that is playing a hunch in goal. Even with Florida coming back to the pack and Boston nearing the closure of its contention window, that goaltending might have the Leafs on the shakiest ground. They’ve shown they can win despite their goaltending. But can they win despite this goaltending?
The Ottawa Senators were like a child banging on the kitchen pots with a wooden spoon this offseason, demanding attention as they acquired Claude Giroux and Alex DeBrincat. Hence, they’ve gotten the lion’s share of the attention among the division’s cellar dwellers and have become the hipster pick to challenge for a playoff seed.
Detroit GM Steve Yzerman doesn’t roll like that. He’s not out to make splashes. He wants to bide his time until it’s time to strike. Last season saw Moritz Seider win the Calder Trophy and Lucas Raymond produce as a rookie forward. The offseason saw the Red Wings add a slew of veterans — Andrew Copp, Ben Chiarot, Dominik Kubalik, Olli Maatta and most intriguingly David Perron — as well as goalie Ville Husso to pair with Alex Nedeljkovic. He brought on Jon Cooper’s assistant Derek Lalonde from the Lightning as the new head coach.
Perhaps this was all an attempt to push the Red Wings up the standings before they’re ready. Or, perhaps, this was Yzerman sticking his finger in the air to sense where the wind was blowing for his team, and getting accordingly aggressive in the offseason.
I’m going with the latter, and looking for Detroit to motor up the standings this season, potentially even to a playoff seed.
The best thing to happen to the Capitals last season: the implosion of the New York Islanders and the existence of the bottom four teams in the Atlantic Division.
Washington posted a .610 points percentage in the standings, its lowest since missing the playoffs under then-head coach Adam Oates in 2013-14. But without any competition for the final playoff spot, the Capitals tallied up 100 points and gave the Panthers a scare before bowing out in the first round for the fourth consecutive season.
The worst aspect of that team was its goaltending. Washington posted a .898 team save percentage, the lowest for any playoff team. The Capitals sought to remedy their goaltending problem in the most spectacular way imaginable: by walking away from Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek and signing Cup-winning free agent Darcy Kuemper to a five-year contract. He’s an upgrade, although how much of one will be determined by the team in front of him.
We don’t want to say the Capitals are a veteran team, but they should be relieved there aren’t term limits in Washington. Alex Ovechkin is 37 years old and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. T.J. Oshie is 36 and posted his worst offensive numbers in seven seasons. Nicklas Backstrom is 35 and will start the season on injured reserve after major hip surgery — the Capitals brought on Dylan Strome and Connor Brown to help in the absence of Backstrom and forward Tom Wilson, who’s out for the first several weeks of the season after knee surgery. John Carlson and Lars Eller are both 33. And so on.
With the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers both cemented at the top of the division, the Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins are once again dueling for the third playoff seed. Father Time is coming for both. But we think he reaches D.C. before Western Pennsylvania, leaving the Capitals the more vulnerable of the two.
One of the most prevalent questions around NHL rinks last season was about the Devils, who were otherwise a 63-point calamity: “What happens if they’re healthy and actually got some saves?”
GM Tom Fitzgerald certainly hopes to find out this season. For the third straight offseason, he acquired a veteran goalie to pair with Mackenzie Blackwood to stabilize their net. Corey Crawford and Jonathan Bernier didn’t work out so well; now it’s former Capitals goalie Vitek Vanecek‘s turn. He has 20.7 goals saved above average over the past two seasons. Of course, what they really need is for Blackwood to show anything close to the form he had in his 2019-20 breakout season. A restricted free agent next summer, it’s a critical campaign for Blackwood.
Then there’s the health aspect. Remember when the Devils “won” the offseason of 2021 by signing former Carolina defenseman Dougie Hamilton? There are people in the witness protection program who had a higher profile in New Jersey last year than Hamilton did, after being limited to 62 games because of injury. He should make a larger impact in Year 2. But the biggest health question concerns Jack Hughes. He was limited to 49 games, but he played at a 94-point pace when he was in the lineup. As his health goes, so go the Devils.
The Devils were already loaded with talent up front — including a budding star in winger Jesper Bratt — before adding Lightning forward Ondrej Palat over the summer. They had solid defensive depth before swapping out Ty Smith for John Marino of the Penguins.
New Jersey is on the precipice of … something. With good goaltending and better health, it’s a playoff spot. If it struggles again, it could be a regime change.
Regression is defined as “a return to a former or less developed state.” It’s also the greatest concern for Predators fans after watching their team’s offense explode last season to earn them a first-round playoff series date with Colorado, which was …. brief.
The Predators averaged 3.20 goals per game, which is half a goal more than in the previous 56-game season (2.70) and ahead of their 2019-20 average (3.07). Their 5-on-5 shooting percentage was 8.79%, well ahead of their 7.73% in 2020-21 and better than the 8.56% they posted in 2019-20. Center Ryan Johansen saw his shooting percentage jump 11.6 percentage points year over year. Teammate Matt Duchene, who led the team with a career-high 43 goals last season, had his shooting percentage jump by 10.7 points. Forward Tanner Jeannot shot 19.4% last season, second among all rookies. And so on.
There are some things we can count on with the Predators. Defenseman Roman Josi is playing the best hockey of his career. Goalie Juuse Saros earned his Vezina Trophy nomination last season by playing a career-high 67 games. The offseason additions of defenseman Ryan McDonagh and forward Nino Niederreiter make this team deeper and better. There’s a lot of good here.
A lot of teams saw offensive booms last season, when COVID-19 interruptions and a number of other factors raised league scoring levels to the highest they’ve been since the mid-1990s. Few teams benefited more from that than the Predators. The goal scoring that nudged them ahead of teams like Vegas and Vancouver into a wild-card spot could be hard to replicate.
Now that we’ve defined “regression,” let’s define the phrase “by default.” I believe it means “selecting one of three remaining teams in the Central Division as a playoff contender when the other two teams are the Chicago Blackhawks and Arizona Coyotes.” At last glance, the Jets have not taken a wrecking ball to their roster in the hopes of drafting Connor Bedard next summer, so they’re the obvious choice — if not exactly a playoff lock.
There are virtues to this Jets team. Kyle Connor remains one of the NHL’s most consistent goal scorers. Mark Scheifele still produces at a point-per-game rate offensively. Pierre-Luc Dubois and Nikolaj Ehlers are scratching the surface of their NHL production. Blake Wheeler has slowed at age 35 but still had 60 points in 65 games last season. With Connor Hellebuyck in goal, who had a .910 save percentage in a down campaign, Winnipeg has a chance in every game.
The Jets could contend for a playoff spot if new coach Rick Bowness does two things. The first is tactical: Winnipeg was atrocious defensively last season, with an expected goals against at 5-on-5 of 2.75 per 60 minutes. That has to improve dramatically, as Hellebuyck can’t do it alone. The second is something Bowness is already attempting to do, which is to shatter the team’s power structure and drain the negativity from its locker room. He stripped Wheeler of the captaincy in an effort to destabilize the veteran core, for example.
There’s been more talk about the players potentially leaving Winnipeg than where the Jets are headed this season. But there’s enough talent here that a wild card could be possible. At least we know they won’t be last or second to last in the Central.
The Kings’ playoff berth last season was a surprise on several levels.
They managed it without Drew Doughty, who last played on March 7 and missed the rest of the season with an upper-body injury. They managed it without their impressive collection of prospects pulling them ahead — Adrian Kempe was the only player 25 or under who ranked among their top eight scorers. They managed it with Jonathan Quick leading in the net, after Cal Petersen took a step back in effectiveness. They scratched and clawed and won the points they needed down the stretch to place third in the Pacific Division.
It’s possible the Kings continue to level up this season. Players such as Quinton Byfield and Arthur Kaliyev are a year older. They added Kevin Fiala and his goal-scoring prowess to their top line, joining a veteran collection of forwards who carried L.A. to the postseason. Last season could be the NHL getting a taste of what’s ahead for this franchise.
But there’s also a chance that some of the things that went right for L.A. last season go wrong in 2022-23. Was the season that the 36-year-old Quick had a renaissance or an anomaly? If it’s the latter, what happens if Petersen struggles again? Do the prospects need a little more time to cook? Does the defensive corps look better on paper than on the ice?
The biggest challenge for the Kings: that the Flames and Oilers are likely to finish ahead of them and that other teams that finished behind them could catch up.
Robin Lehner‘s season-ending injury has many writing off the Knights. But consider that Logan Thompson, Laurent Brossoit and Adin Hill could combine to give Vegas league-average goaltending this season. Frankly, given how good they are in almost every other area, that might be all the Knights need.
With due respect to the Kings and Predators, the Golden Knights were going to be a playoff team last season were it not for a mess of injuries that occurred at the wrong time. Mark Stone didn’t play for Vegas from Feb. 9 through April 11. The Knights went 12-13-1 without him. They lost Lehner at the end of the season for what amounted to play-in games. Reilly Smith missed the last month and a half of the season. While it’s true the Knights were never the team they were expected to be last season, they were still a few close losses away from a playoff berth, instead of missing the cut for the first time in their short history.
Things will be different this time. They’ll hopefully have a full season of a healthy (and happy) Jack Eichel on the top line, potentially with Phil Kessel trying to fill the goal gap left behind when the Knights traded Max Pacioretty to the Hurricanes. Stone is back and healthy. They brought back Smith on a new deal, and still have the potent offense of his sometimes linemates Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson. Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore hold down the blue line.
The key to the season might be new coach Bruce Cassidy. There was something off about Vegas last season. A new voice and set of eyes on that locker room could make the difference. If he’s the right fit, the Knights remain healthy and the goaltending isn’t a disaster, Vegas could be back in the money this postseason.