The NHL is the most unpredictable professional sports league in the world, though recent Stanley Cup dominance by the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings would have you think otherwise. But it's true. This is a league where an eight-seed, Dwayne Roloson-led Edmonton Oilers made the Stanley Cup Final. Hell, the surprising (but very good) Tampa Bay Lightning beat another surprise finalist - the Calgary Flames - in the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals.
Every year there seems to be five or six true contenders, yet it's not always the case one of those teams come out on top in June. Last season's true contenders consisted of the Chicago Blackhawks, Washington Capitals, Anaheim Ducks and eventual winners Pittsburgh Penguins. Yet, the Penguins were thought of as a borderline playoff team in December, while the aforementioned teams failed to advance beyond the conference semifinals.
At this point in the 2016-17 season, there hasn't been one team that has separated itself from the pack like the Capitals did last season. When Carey Price is between the pipes, the Montreal Canadiens are near unbeatable, but without him, they're an average team. Yet, this list will work under the presumption that the four division leaders as of Dec. 1 - the Canadiens, New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks, and San Jose Sharks - are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. We can't tell those teams what to fix, but we have an idea where upgrades are needed for these 15 potential playoff teams.
15 Toronto Maple Leafs - Shutdown Defenseman
We're not saying the Toronto Maple Leafs will make their second playoff appearance in more than a decade, but as of December 1st, they are just three points out of a wildcard sport. Few expected much out of a team in the second year of a rebuild, but number one pick Auston Matthews has been every bit as advertised and Mitch Marner has proven himself as one of the game's most skilled young players. In fact, only the Rangers, Penguins, Lightning and Flyers have scored more goals than the Leafs in the East through 23 games.
The problem, however, is that the Leafs have also surrendered the fifth most goals league-wide. Some of that can be attributed to a slow start from goaltender Frederik Andersson, but he has since turned his game around. His play could further improve if Toronto had acquired a stud defenseman or two, meaning one or both of Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak would be pushed out of the lineup. If they can acquire someone like Dougie Hamilton from Calgary, as rumored, they might turn some heads in the Eastern Conference.
14 St. Louis Blues: Grit and Physicality
We've all got the St. Louis Blues figured out. If there's one team ready to take over the San Jose Sharks title as perennial underachievers, it's the Blues, who lost to the Sharks in last year's Western Conference Finals. The franchise once had a 25-year streak of making the playoffs, but has failed to win the Stanley Cup. This year's version of the Blues boasts a strong, veteran defensive core and capable scorers spread throughout the lineup, but is missing its usual grit and grind.
In recent years, the Blues were characterized by their speed and tenacity. They played an in-your-face style with strong, physical wingers on every line. Yet, the team was not able to re-sign captain David Backes or Troy Brouwer in the offseason, two players known for disturbing opposition players. The top three lines on this year's version of the Blues is loaded with skill, but will it hold up in the playoffs?
13 Philadelphia Flyers: Goaltending
Surprise, surprise, surprise. The Philadelphia Flyers have been looking for goaltending since Ron Hextall left in 1999. We won't drudge up terrible memories by recalling the goalies the team has employed since, but it's quite clear that Steve Mason isn't going to help get the Flyers to the next level. A borderline playoff team at the moment, Philadelphia has allowed a near league-worst 82 goals through 25 games.
The Flyers have a young blueline core that has the potential to be elite in a couple of years, but right now guys like Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov are still learning, so we can't place the blame solely on Mason. In fact, he's actually been the team's best option thus far. Mason owns a 2.91 goals against average and .899 save percentage through 19 appearances, which is much better than Michal Neuvirth's 3.54 goals against average and .859 save percentage in nine appearances. Mason has put up respectable percentages in the past three seasons and he'll need to at least replicate those if the Flyers are going to contend this season.
12 Edmonton Oilers: A Healthy Connor McDavid
Okay, this isn't so much a glaring hole as an obvious statement - if the Edmonton Oilers make the playoffs it's because Connor McDavid avoided injury. Even with McDavid healthy, it's far from a guarantee the Oilers can finally climb out of the Western Conference basement, but it's clear the second-year Superstar is on a mission this season. McDavid leads the NHL in scoring with 34 points in 25 games and has 14 more points than the team's second leading scorer, Leon Draisaitl.
As of now, the Oilers hold down the third seed in the Pacific Division, which would put them in the playoffs if they started today. They'll likely have to battle closely with the Los Angeles Kings throughout the season, but generational players like McDavid can't be stopped from winning Stanley Cups - look at Gretzky, Lemieux, and Crosby.
11 Columbus Blue Jackets: Experience and a Happy John Tortorella
The Columbus Blue Jackets concocted their own recipe for disaster entering the 2016-17 season: the youngest roster in the league and a notoriously impatient head coach in John Tortorella. And things didn't look good after the Jackets lost their first game of the season 6-3 against the Boston Bruins. The former Lightning, Rangers, and Canucks bench boss went vintage Tortorella, lambasting his team's effort after just one game, stating that, "We're not even close."
Well, apparently, they might be. Instead of kickstarting the campaign to have Tortorella fired, the coach's words seemed to have sparked the Jackets players; the team is 13-4-4 since then and sits tied for third in the tough Metropolitan Division. They're a well-balanced team that owns the second best goals for and against differential in the league, which has kept Tortorella quiet for the most part. When things aren't going well, Torts has a habit for making them worse, as evidenced by his time in Vancouver. If he understands he isn't bigger than the team and continues to focus on systems and development, the young Blue Jackets will be better for it. They could also use an experienced blueliner or two.
10 Anaheim Ducks: Time and Chemistry
We've seen this before - last year, in fact. The Anaheim Ducks appear to be on the decline, but then put together an incredible stretch to not only make the playoffs, but become Stanley Cup favorites. This year's Ducks have gotten off to a better start than last year's team, but there is still plenty more to give. One of the biggest issues is two of the team's key contributors - defenseman Hampus Lindholm and center Rickard Rakell - sat out the first month of the season while negotiating a contract.
Rakell returned to the Ducks on November 2nd against the Penguins, while Lindholm signed a week later. The Ducks, meanwhile, have posted a 7-4-2 record since Rakell's return. Though Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf aren't getting any younger, the Ducks still have the pieces to contend for a Stanley Cup. They just need time to work out the kinks.
9 Ottawa Senators: Number One Center
Only Arizona, Vancouver, Colorado, Carolina and Buffalo have scored fewer goals than the Ottawa Senators, yet the Canadian team is currently second in the Atlantic Division. Behind stellar goaltending from Craig Anderson, the often outshot Ottawa Senators own a 14-8-2 record. While fortunate enough to have the league's premier offensive defenseman in Erik Karlsson, the Senators have very few forwards with above average offensive capabilities. Kyle Turris is the team's leading goal scorer and number one center, but the 27-year-old is best suited as a second line center on a contending team.
Turris had a career high 40 assists in the 2014-15 season, but has struggled with inconsistencies and injuries since. He was ranked as the 44th best fantasy center by NHL.com prior to the start of this season, behind players like Eric Staal, Derek Stepan, and Leon Draisaitl, none of whom are considered Cup-calibre centers. Unfortunately for the Senators, first-line centers aren't easy to come by. They acquired Derick Brassard to potentially fill in this role, but he's been subpar so far.
8 Minnesota Wild: An Elite Scorer
The Minnesota Wild have never been a team known for their offensive firepower, but this year's version of the team isn't particularly lighting it up front. Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise led last year's team in scoring with just 56 and 53 points respectively, and both players appear to be on the decline of their careers - they're seventh and tenth in team scoring this season.
Yet, the Wild have been competitive thanks to the play of goaltender Devan Dubnyk, who has a 1.66 goals against average and .946 save percentage, second to only Carey Price. Minnesota has an above average defensive core as well, but will struggle to score as the season progresses. Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter appear poised for career seasons, but the Wild need an upgrade on the wing.
7 Tampa Bay Lightning: Steven Stamkos
The Lightning might not necessarily need Steven Stamkos to do damage in the playoffs; they proved that last year by making the Eastern Conference Finals while Stamkos missed time with blood clots. General Manager Steve Yzerman has built a core of players that are all hovering around 25-and-under, led by Nikita Kucherov, who is having a career year up front, and Victor Hedman, who might be the league's best overall defenseman. But the teams the Lightning are trying to compete with are also improving and Stamkos could be the x-factor in a return trip to the playoffs.
Coming off of signing an eight-year extension with the Lightning in the summer, Stamkos was playing the best hockey of his career to start the 2016-17 season, having recorded 20 points in 17 games. The Lightning could get by without their franchise center, but they'll have a hard time winning a championship without him. Fortunately, he's due to return in March, so it might not be another lost season for the Superstar.
6 Dallas Stars: Structure
It's no secret Lindy Ruff's Dallas Stars lack the defensive structure to make a run at the Stanley Cup. The team took St. Louis to seven games in the second round of last year's playoffs, but has struggled to a 9-10-6 start through 25 games this season. And despite giving up 85 goals, which is worst in the league, goaltending hasn't been the only problem for the Stars. Sure, the duo of Antii Niemi and Kari Lehtonen hasn't proven to be beneficial for the team, but they haven't been helped much.
The Stars have some intriguing young defensemen in John Klingberg, Esa Lindell, and Stephen Johns, among others, but their lack of commitment to overall team defense has been a detriment to the club. The Stars allow 30-plus shots per game and have one of the league's worst penalty kill percentages. They've also allowed four shorthanded goals while on the power-play. They'd be better with another stud defenseman, but the overall problem won't be solved until Ruff is fired or figures out how to get his team to play defense.
5 Pittsburgh Penguins: No Distractions
It's not easy to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, but given how Sidney Crosby and the Penguins have started their season, it seems like Pittsburgh might have an opportunity. Crosby currently leads the NHL in goals, Phil Kessel still has some energy left in those meaty legs, and Evgeni Malkin is producing at a good rate. The team's collection of no-name defensemen earned a reputation for blocking shots during last year's Stanley Cup run and they'll have to keep it up if the Pens stick with Marc-Andre Fleury in net.
As of December 1st, Pittsburgh had given up 72 goals in 24 games, which was second worst in their division. However, with rookie Matt Murray between the pipes, the Penguins have allowed just 17 goals and own a 7-2 record in nine games. The team is 7-5-3 in the games played by Fleury, who has a 3.29 goals against average and .904 save percentage. They'll be fine if the play or status of Fleury doesn't become a distraction throughout the year.
4 Los Angeles Kings: Jonathan Quick
When it was announced that Jonathan Quick would miss the majority of the 2016-17 season due to injury, few gave the Los Angeles Kings a fighting chance in the Western Conference. Yet, they have managed to stay in the hunt through 24 games, posting a 13-10-1 record, while proving to be one of the league's best teams at keeping the puck out of their net. They're still a top-fifteen team in goals against and that's with the combination of Peter Budaj and Jeff Zatkoff guarding the net.
The Kings are regarded as a physical, defensive-minded team with a few game-breakers at forward. They have two Stanley Cups with their current core group of players, so it's not as though they need to add much to compete - they just need a healthy Quick. The American netminder posted a 1.41 and 2.58 goals against average respectively in their two Stanley Cup playoff runs, numbers that neither Budaj or Zatkoff are capable of posting.
3 Washington Capitals: Scoring Depth
Scoring depth was never an issue in years past for the Washington Capitals. Last year, Alex Ovechkin scored 50 goals for the seventh time in his career and the Capitals had seven other forwards score at least 15 goals. The team was simply dominant throughout last year's regular season, but that hasn't been the case this year. Ovechkin has 12 goals in 22 games and his longtime center Nicklas Backstrom has six goals. Marcus Johansson and T.J. Oshie have nine and eight respectively. But aside those four, Capitals players have only scored 22 goals.
Goaltending hasn't and won't be an issue for the team. Braden Holtby has become one of the league's premier netminders and the Capitals 51 goals allowed is the fifth best mark in the league. They could, however, use an established top-six scoring winger to put them over the top.
2 Nashville Predators: Scoring Winger
The Nashville Predators made an earth-shattering trade last June when they traded captain Shea Weber to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for P.K. Subban. It was a monumental move for many reasons, but it signified a shift for the Predators; traditionally a defense-first team, Nashville has bolstered its forward core in recent years and Subban is considered a free-skating defender who can get the puck to those forwards with a lot more ease than Weber.
Weber has arguably been the league's best defenseman this season in Montreal, but Subban has done well in Nashville and the team has one of the best goal differentials in the league after overcoming a slow start. Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and James Neal have all gotten off to decent starts offensively, but have combined for just 17 goals. The Predators acquired all three of those players in recent years and, factoring in the recent Subban deal, they might be willing to acquire another game-changing forward.
1 Boston Bruins: Find the Patrice Bergeron of Old
Going into this season, it appeared the Bruins needed only one thing to ensure they would compete in the Eastern Conference: Tuukka Rask to return to form. He has done one better, playing the best hockey of his career through 17 starts (1.64 goals against average and .938 save percentage), yet the Bruins have been a mediocre club through the first quarter of the season.
Offseason acquisition David Backes hasn't quite been as advertised yet, but he's hardly the most under-performing Bruins forward; that title belongs to Patrice Bergeron. Lauded for his defensive acumen and faceoff wizardry, Bergeron was always a capable scorer, though the longtime Bruin has just three goals and three assists through his first 21 games, putting him on pace for a career-low 23 points (his previous worst was a 39-point rookie campaign in 2003-04). Bergeron is just 31, so it might not be the beginning of his decline, as he has put a lot of miles in those legs over the last few years. Bruins will definitely hope this isn't the case.