The 2016 NHL Playoffs weren't what you would call "unpredictable."
No Canadian teams made the playoffs while five teams from 2015 who qualified in the Western Conference returned to the playoffs. Only the Dallas Stars, Los Angeles Kings, and San Jose Sharks were newbies. In the Eastern Conference, only the Florida Panthers and Philadelphia Flyers were new playoff squads.
So 11 of the 16 playoff teams from 2015 returned and there's not a lot of indication early on to believe that'll change this upcoming season. Most of the playoff teams kept their core players in tact to make another run, while many non-playoff teams failed to address their primary weaknesses.
For one thing, most Canadian teams probably won't be back. Only the Montreal Canadians should be considered a "shoe-in" provided Carey Price is healthy. But Canadian NHL fans can only hope that this year's playoff teams all falter. Otherwise, it'll be another disappointing year where Rogers' playoff ratings decline again.
Here's an early look at how 2016's playoff teams will fare in 2016-17.
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16 Anaheim Ducks - Win Pacific Division
The Ducks core is aging fast, but not fast enough for them to lose their grip on the Pacific Division. All signs point to them capturing the title for the fifth-straight year in 2016-17.
John Gibson mans the crease, while Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler, Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen, and Hampus Lindholm will be enough to sustain their success. The Ducks had yet another disappointing first-round exit, falling to the Nashville Predators. Randy Carlyle is coming back to replace the fired Bruce Boudreau, so we'll see if he can inject the magic that helped them win it all in 2007.
The Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks are the only squads who'll realistically challenge Anaheim for the division. The Kings usually don't bring their best hockey until the playoffs and one figures the Sharks will take a step back with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau now 37, and Joe Pavelski 32.
The Ducks will win their division next season and qualify for the playoffs five years in a row.
15 Chicago Blackhawks - Win the Central
Yes, they didn't bring back Andrew Ladd and had to trade Andrew Shaw due to cap constraints, but this team has kept the same group in tact that has led them to a trio of Stanley Cup championships.
Hart Trophy winner Patrick Kane is still in his prime, as is Captain Jonathan Toews. Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith remain the best defensive pairing in the NHL, while Corey Crawford will man the pipes again next season. Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov will provide much-needed secondary scoring.
Chicago plays in the NHL's toughest division, but there's a reason they've won three Cups and appeared in five Western Conference Finals since 2009. They save their best hockey for when it matters most. Maybe in a few years when the Blackhawks core players are in their 30s, we can re-visit the idea of them declining.
But Chicago is locked and loaded to be an elite team in the West next season. There's zero reason to believe they'll miss it. If anything else, they should be considered the favourites to capture the Central Division this upcoming season.
14 Dallas Stars - Make the Playoffs (Barely)
The Stars defensive and goaltending woes were badly exposed by the St. Louis Blues in the second-round of this year's playofs. Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Jason Spezza will score in bunches during the regular season. It's a totally different story in the playoffs.
Dallas did sign veteran rearguard and 2014 Olympic Gold Medal winner Dan Hamhuis, but they lost Alex Goligoski and, as of this writing, haven't brought back shutdown blueliner Kris Russell. Basically, their ultimate weakness has gotten worse. You'll see how the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup instead of going home early like most years because they played sound defence instead of relying on their top three stars to supply all the scoring.
Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen are both decent goalies, but none of them appear to be good enough to carry this team anymore. Cap constraints prevented Dallas from upgrading their goaltending situation. You can expect Big D to make the playoffs next season, but it'll be as a Wild-Card team, not as the Central Division champions for the second-straight year.
13 Detroit Red Wings - The Streak Ends
The Red Wings have made the playoffs for 25-straight seasons, but that impressive streak will come to an end next season.
They lost franchise heart-and-soul icon Pavel Datsyuk. Asking a declining Thomas Vanek and overpaid centre in Frans Nielsen to step up is easier said than done. Detroit would have missed the playoffs by a mile if the Boston Bruins didn't unravel entirely in the second half of the season.
2016's playoff teams all remain dangerous and can easily punch their postseason tickets again - except Detroit of course. The Canadiens will be much better with Carey Price and the Ottawa Senators should also improve with a fresh new coaching staff.
Henrik Zetterberg has seen better days and the Red Wings don't have any bonafide superstars on their roster. Dylan Larkin, Gustav Nyquist, and Tomas Tatar are talented players, but they're not good enough to carry Detroit on their own. A lack of starpower and a tougher conference in 2016-17 will relegate the Wings to the bottom seven in the East. In other words, no playoffs.
12 Florida Panthers - Make the Playoffs
A terrific season by the Panthers ended early. Roberto Luongo once again underachieved in the playoffs and the inferior New York Islanders dispatched the Atlantic Division champions in six games.
Florida has undergone massive changes on their blue line: In come Jason Demers and Keith Yandle. Out go Erik Gudbranson, Brian Campbell, Willie Mitchell, and Dmitry Kulikov. Aaron Ekblad was locked up on an eight-year deal. You be the judge of how the defensive makeover will play out, but the offence remains in tact.
Jaromir Jagr will probably score more points than his age (45 in February) again. Vincent Trocheck, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Jussi Jokinen, and Reilly Smith will once again be too much for teams to deal with most nights.
I'm not expecting Florida to outlast Montreal or Tampa Bay in the standings this year, but they should claim the third spot in the Atlantic Division. Their young core is only going to get better and it should be enough to punch the Panthers their second-straight postseason ticket.
11 Los Angeles Kings - Make the Playoffs
The Kings' putrid performance against the San Jose Sharks in this year's playoffs suggest that maybe this team really doesn't have as big of a championship window as you think. Anze Kopitar (29), Jonathan Quick (30), Marian Gaborik (34), and Jeff Carter (31) won't be getting better.
The Sharks speed and talents exhausted the Kings, whose once-great defence was widely exposed. The problem for the Kings is they really don't have the cap space to make the necessary improvement. What hurts more is they couldn't keep 20-goal power forward Milan Lucic, and Vincent Lecavalier retired after a resurgent tenure with the Kings.
However, you can debate all you want if the Kings will win another Cup with this core, but they certainly are going to make the playoffs. No way are Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton or Arizona better than them at this point. Maybe the Kings won't blow us away like recent years, but they're easily a top-three team in the Pacific Division.
10 Minnesota Wild - Miss the Playoffs
The Wild always seem to find a way to sneak in, but it's going to be different this year.
Their lone "big move" was adding washed-up centre Eric Staal. Zach Parise (32) is still good, but not a sure bet for 30 goals any more. Losing Thomas Vanek's 18 goals for an offensive-starving team won't help, either. Then again, the Wild were glad to buy him out. Doesn't mean they'll benefit on the ice from getting rid of him.
Devan Dubnyk slightly regressed after a historic-like run in 2014-15. Minnesota's defence will give them chances to win every game, but hockey games are won by who scores more goals and the Wild can't seem to do that often enough.
The reason I have Minnesota missing out is because Calgary and/or Winnipeg are better teams now. The Wild are not even close to competing with Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas or Nashville. Minny will have to fight for a Wild-Card spot, but the Flames and Jets have much more balance at both ends of the ice, and that'll break the Wild's four-year streak of making the playoffs.
9 Nashville Predators - Make the Playoffs
Boy, things are about to get real exciting in The Music City.
The Preds were one game away from upsetting the San Jose Sharks and punching their first ticket to the Western Conference Finals...as a Wild-Card team. With P.K. Subban replacing Shea Weber, the Preds upgraded their defence with a younger and faster blueliner.
Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis will also help Vezina-calibre netminder Pekka Rinne shut down the opposition. Nashville's offence will remain dangerous with Filip Forsberg, Colin Wilson, and Ryan Johansen up front. With the Preds' top players younger than the 'Hawks and Blues core, you know that they'll be the team to beat in the coming years.
However, that time isn't just yet for Nashville. They'll be one of the top-three teams in the Central Division next season. They should be considered a Stanley Cup contender, but this team hasn't shown enough consistency yet to outlast the other Central powers in an 82-game season.
But the playoffs will come to Nashville for a third-straight year.
8 New York Islanders - Make the Playoffs
On paper, replacing Kyle Okposo with Andrew Ladd seems like an even deal. Then again, Okposo is a couple of years younger than Ladd, so maybe not. But for the Isles, their decade-long rebuild is out of the way. They're a playoff team that's built to win now and Ladd gives them the better chance to win now.
The two-time Stanley Cup champion is a pure leader, consistent 20-goal scorer, and can be effective at both ends of the ice. Ladd is the perfect fit for a team full of young stars in John Tavares, Travis Hamonic, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, and Ryan Strome.
New York managed to get to the second-round without Jaroslav Halak, so you can expect them to be much more lethal in the playoffs if he can stay healthy. The Isles dominated the Florida Panthers in Round One, so they're a team not to be taken lightly.
With the Penguins due for regression and the New York Rangers championship window likely shut, the opportunity is there for the Isles to take a run at the Metropolitan Division crown. New York should lock up the second or third seed in the Metro and there's a real possibility of a deep run here.
7 New York Rangers - Make the Playoffs (Barely)
The Rangers have seen their Stanley Cup championship window slam shut, but they're still good enough to make the playoffs.
Pittsburgh badly exposed this team during the first round. They skated circles around a Rangers team that seemed to have too much mileage from lengthy playoff runs over the years. Though Henrik Lundqvist remains one of the NHL's elite goaltenders, the fact remains that the overall play in front of him has steadily declined since they reached the Cup Finals in 2014.
Dan Boyle is likely retiring and 32-year-old Rick Nash is playing into his twilights years. Chris Kreider, Marc Staal, Derek Stepan, and Dan Girardi remain key cogs on the team, but it won't be enough to out last the top dogs in the Eastern Conference. The Isles, Pens, and Capitals are miles better at this point. It's not even a contest.
The Rangers will take one of the Wild Card spots, but they'll likely be out by the first round. Should that happen, you can expect this team to tear it all down and begin a long rebuild.
6 Philadelphia Flyers - Miss the Playoffs
The Flyers had a phenomenal second half of the season, yet they didn't qualify for the playoffs until the second last day of regular play. They needed plenty to go their way and asking the same group to do it again may be asking for too much.
Yes, Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, Jakub Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds are still great players, but Philly's going to have their work cut out in 2016-17. The Canadiens and Senators are going to vastly improve, and so will the Buffalo Sabres. That gives them plenty more competition to win one of the playoff spots.
Recent history is intriguing: The Flyers made the playoffs in 2012, 2014, and 2016, but figuratively missed it in 2013 and 2015. The trend of missing it every odd year will continue next season. Their defense and goaltending woes remain a concern that won't be addressed in time when the playoffs roll around next April.
5 Pittsburgh Penguins - Make the Playoffs
The Penguins core players remain in tact and they're the early favourites to win the Stanley Cup next season. Nobody will be surprised if they pull it off...except me. They'll make the playoffs, but here's why a repeat is hard.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were shut down for much of the final two series' these past playoffs. Luckily for them, some little-known bottom-six forwards and Phil Kessel carried the load and helped them win. You think that's good enough to get through Washington and Tampa Bay, with Steven Stamkos healthy again?
Also, asking 22-year-old Matt Murray to go on another hot run is asking for too much. The Pens hot run was reminiscent of the Ottawa Senators last year, only the Pens won the Cup. Ottawa was one of the league's worst teams this year.
There, my rant is over. Pittsburgh's going to make the playoffs like they have every year since 2007 and they'll finish second in the Metro. However, I'm expecting the Isles or Capitals to finish them off by Round Two.
4 San Jose Sharks - Make the Playoffs
Though asking the Sharks aging core of Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, and Patrick Marleau to carry this team may be a bit steep, they'll still qualify for the playoffs like they have all but one year since the 2003-04 season.
Martin Jones carried them through the playoffs and will carry them throughout the regular season. Thornton, Marleau, and Pavelski remain dangerous. As does Logan Couture, Joel Ward, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Brent Burns. Adding speedster Mikkel Boedker should make their offence more scary.
San Jose's run to the Final was a little too impressive last year to think they'll do it again, but there's no reason to believe they'll miss the playoffs. The Pacific Division got somewhat better, but not by significant margins. The Sharks enjoyed a resurgent 2015-16 season after a miserable campaign the year prior. Playoff hockey will be back in San Jose, but they probably won't get out of the first round.
3 St. Louis Blues - Make the Playoffs
The Blues finally got past the second round, but they had a rather unspectacular effort in a six-game series loss to the Sharks in the Western Conference Finals. Unfortunately, their path to getting back there and beyond is even harder.
They lost heart-and-soul player David Backes in free agency to the Boston Bruins. Furthermore, playoff performer Troy Brouwer took a nice pay from the Calgary Flames. The Blues lost two of their top players, and replacing those 39 goals, 94 points, and plus-six rating is easier said than done.
That being said, they surprisingly didn't trade standout blueliner Kevin Shattenkirk. That keeps him and Alex Pietrangelo in tact for another year together. Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, Robby Fabbri, Alex Steen, and Paul Stastny round out the offence.
Trading away Brian Elliot means it's now Jake Allen's team and he has not performed well in the playoffs. St. Louis will finish as a top-three seed in the Central, but their chances of being a final four team again are much harder than you may think.
2 Tampa Bay Lightning - Win the Atlantic
The Lightning managed to get all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals without Steven Stamkos until he returned for Game Seven in a 2-1 loss to the eventual Cup champion, Penguins.
That's all you really need to know to understand why they're a serious threat to winning the Stanley Cup next season. Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killon, Ryan Callahan, Victor Hedman, Ondre Palat, and rising star Jonathan Drouin give them one of the most talent-filled rosters in the NHL.
Everything worked out for Tampa this offseason. Stamkos decided to spend his long-term future with the team and Drouin withdrew his trade request following his 14-point campaign in the playoffs. With a healthy Stamkos, they should be considered the Washington Capitals' biggest threat in the East, not Pittsburgh. Ben Bishop remains between the pipes and should carry them far once again.
The Lightning will win the Atlantic Division, barely outlasting Montreal.
1 Washington Capitals - Win the Metropolitan
If the Capitals faced any other team besides the Penguins, they would have won the Stanley Cup. Unfortunately for them, Pittsburgh matched their talent in net, on defence, and up front. That led to the Caps bowing out in a close six-game series.
Well, everything is in store for the Caps to make another run at the Stanley Cup. Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, Brooks Orpik, and Matt Niskanen give Vezina winner Braden Holtby all he needs. It's now-or-never for the Capitals in 2016-17.
They don't need to worry about Pittsburgh repeating last season's strong finish. Only Tampa Bay should be considered their ultimate threat, but the Caps are better on the back-end. As such, they should be considered the front runners in the East.
No other team in the division will be able to dominate through 82 games like the Capitals, so expect Washington to take the division crown once again.
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