The 2015-16 NHL season is well behind us and we're now focused on what 2016-17 will have to bring. Rest assured, things will be different. There's no way all seven Canadian teams finish in the bottom-11. In fact, I'll tell you right now that at least four teams from The Great White North will be in the playoffs next season. You heard it here first.
Auston Matthews, the potential new face of the NHL, will join the Toronto Maple Leafs, but he likely won't be enough in his first year to change their fortunes. It'll take more time. Other teams like the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres, who missed the playoffs, went all-in during free agency to make a run at the postseason.
And we all know that a good amount of last year's non-playoff teams will once again watch the postseason from their couches. But how about some of the other teams from last year?
Here, we rank all 2016 non-playoff teams based on the likeliness of them punching a playoff ticket.
14 Toronto Maple Leafs
The new Maple Leafs regime of Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello, and Mike Babcock warned fans ahead of time there would be some long-term pain. And they're right.
After three straight seasons of being one of the NHL's worst teams, great things are on the horizon for Toronto. Drafting Matthews first overall is a good starting point. He, along with Morgan Rielly, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Jake Gardiner, James van Riemsdyk, and new franchise goaltender Frederik Anderson give them a star-studded core going forward.
There's no better person to coach this team than Babcock, but this team needs plenty of time to grow. The Leafs have another chance of winning the draft lottery next year, stockpiling even more and more talent in the long-run.
The Leafs will more realistically fight for a playoff spot in two to four years, but 2016-17 will be another one of those years under the "pain" category.
13 Vancouver Canucks
It feels odd placing the Canucks so low. After all, the Canucks did finish second in a brutal Pacific Division last year, after a disastrous season that spelled the end for GM Mike Gillis and coach John Tortorella in Vancouver.
But just because they had a bounce-back year in 2014-15, doesn't mean they'll do it again. Signing Loui Eriksson and trading for stay-at-home defenceman Erik Gudbranson are good starting points for a rebuild. However, Vancouver failed to add more scoring, so Eriksson and the Sedins will be asked to do all of the work. Bo Horvat and Jake Virtanen aren't ready for top-six minutes yet.
It doesn't bode well that the Pacific Division features the three California mega powers and rising teams in Arizona, Calgary, and Edmonton. All of those teams have much more young talent to win now and the Canucks lack veteran leadership to get them over the top.
The Canucks will once again learn how they should have just started a full-on rebuild years ago. Once again, ownership is investing in a year of fighting for the playoffs. It's better off for them to earn a top-five pick than a playoff ticket, anyway. They can't possibly think they have much hope in winning a series in 2017.
12 New Jersey Devils
Most fans will say the Devils robbed the Oilers in the Taylor Hall-Adam Larsson swap. But either way, Hall isn't a Sidney Crosby-type player that will turn the Devils from a perennial loser to a playoff team.
New Jersey has Vezina-calibre goaltender Cory Schneider, but the support in front of him is very limited. Hall hasn't stayed healthy and isn't showing flashes of being the consistent 30-40 goal man the Oilers hoped for when he went first-overall in 2011.
Hall will boost the Devils offence, but not significantly enough. New Jersey also play in a brutal Metropolitan Division, so don't tell me that Hall's enough to outlast the Capitals, Penguins, Rangers or Islanders. It's not happening. New Jersey may show flashes here and there, but once again, a lack of direction, elite prospects, and willingness to recruit big-named free agents will keep them out of the playoffs for the fifth-straight season.
11 Carolina Hurricanes
With Eric Staal long gone and the team making a questionable call to re-up Cam Ward for a couple more years, it'll be another non-playoff year in Carolina.
Jeff Skinner continues to produce as the team's top forward while Victor Rask, Jordan Staal, Elias Lindholm, Justin Faulk, and Noah Hanifin are a nice core going forward, but most of those are youngsters who are years away from hitting their primes. The goaltending situation, as earlier mentioned, is a mess.
Like New Jersey, Carolina plays in one of the toughest divisions in hockey. There just isn't a strong direction or good amount of star power here to take them to the playoffs. Maybe in a couple of years, when they've loaded up on draft picks. But again, that's a while away from taking place.
When all is said and done, the Hurricanes will have missed the playoffs for the 10th time in 11 seasons since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006. Hey, at least a ton of teams are still waiting to win their first Cup.
10 Colorado Avalanche
It may seem strange putting the Avalanche this low, after finishing just five points behind Minnesota for the final playoff spot. But Colorado will have their work cut out for them in 2016-17. It's been two straight years of a disappointing season and once again management didn't do enough to upgrade the roster.
There were rumours about Tyson Barrie or Gabriel Landeskog getting traded, and the Avs were reportedly kicking the tires on a Ryan Nugent-Hopkins trade with Edmonton. Unless something drastic happens on the trade front, The Mile High City's faithful will once again see major disappointment.
Nathan MacKinnon has come as advertised after going first-overall in 2013, but Landeskog and Matt Duchene have failed to reach the full superstardom expected of them. Jarome Iginla isn't getting any younger and the blueline is still their weak link. Again, they didn't address that despite a strong free agent market of defenceman.
Playing in the Central Division with Minnesota, Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas, and Nashville doesn't help. It'll be yet another year of no playoff hockey in Colorado.
9 Edmonton Oilers
The Hall-for-Larsson swap will instantly improve Edmonton's blue line. Signing power forward Milan Lucic to a seven-year deal could end up being the most impactful transaction from the 2016 offseason.
He gives Edmonton plenty of size and will protect their undersized forwards, including franchise star Connor McDavid. Drafting Jesse Puljujärvi is simply unfair. Imagine him, McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Jordan Eberle, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins together. There's no way defenses will be prepared for that.
Despite the huge moves made by GM Peter Chiarelli, the Oilers once again need more time to improve before making the playoffs. Unfortunately, the only improvement has seen them finish no worse than second in the standings after being the NHL's worst squad in 2010 and 2011.
The Oilers need basically all of their young players and newcomers to play well over their heads. In a stacked Western Conference? Not quite yet. It's more realistic to talk about their playoff chances in two years, not in 2017.
8 Columbus Blue Jackets
You may not have noticed it, given the ugly state the Jackets got themselves into early, but John Tortorella did a great job with a dysfunctional Columbus squad once he took over. And there is reason for optimism next season.
They have a franchise cornerstone defenceman in Seth Jones after trading away disgruntled star Ryan Johansen. They also drafted talented centre Pierre-Luc Dubois with the third pick, giving them Johansen's replacement and a player to build around. Sergei Bobrovsky will remain one of the NHL's top netminders.
Cam Atkinson and Brandon Saad enjoyed breakout seasons, as each guy managed 53 points. They've finally hit their primes and those numbers will grow. Boone Jenner's 30 goals and other talented forwards Scott Hartnell, Brandon Dubinsky, and Nick Foligno will balance out the rest of their scoring.
Torts is one of the best defensive-minded coaches in the league. If he can be a little more relaxed and let his forwards do what their best suited for (scoring, not blocking shots), the Jackets could make some noise in the Eastern Conference. The playoffs are unlikely, but not impossible in 2017.
7 Arizona Coyotes
The Coyotes were right in the playoff hunt until the All-Star break. Anthony Duclair, Max Domi, Shane Doan, Antoine Vermette, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson give them some dangerous playmakers. However, goalie Mike Smith has seen better days. They'll need more from their starter if they want to fight for the playoffs. 2016 first-round selections Clayton Keller and Jacob Chychrun might be able to contribute a little bit, too.
Arizona has a great foundation going and there definitely is a lot to be excited about for the hockey fans in the desert. However, like most teams on this list, their core players are not yet in their prime. Furthermore, the Pacific Division has the three elite California teams and an even better team that will appear on this list.
And like most years, the Coyotes didn't address their problems in free agency, being a budget-conscious team. You need to spend to win in hockey and Arizona failed to do that once again. They'll contend hard for a playoff spot in 2018 and beyond, but not this upcoming season.
6 Buffalo Sabres
After five straight years with no playoffs, the Sabres are actually closer to winning a Stanley Cup than they are to finishing as a bottom-three team. The painful years are gone and progress shall be made. They will prosper and make the Sabres great again.
Pardon my stupid Donald Trump impression. I was writing this while watching the goofy Republican Convention speech.
The Sabres core starts with Ryan O'Reilly and his 60-point campaign in 2015-16. Right behind him is rising star Jack Eichel, who managed an incredible 24 goals and 56 points in his rookie season on a pretty below-average team. Sam Reinhart, Evander Kane, and newly-signed Kyle Okposo will take care of the secondary scoring. The defence is loaded with breakout 2016 player Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian and trade pickup Dmitry Kulikov.
However, the goaltending situation is still a giant question mark. Can the oft-injured Robin Lehner finally reach the level he never did in Ottawa? If so, they should be a playoff team next year. But that's not likely to happen. Yet.
5 Boston Bruins
The Bruins have let easy playoff spots slip away during the final week in each of the last two seasons. Saying they're likely to miss it again may seem foolish at first, but one just needs to have an outlook on this roster as a whole.
GM Don Sweeney once again failed to address their main issue - defence. Zdeno Chara is long past his Norris-calibre play and they haven't been able to replace Johnny Boychuk. Dennis Seidenberg's buyout was questionable in the fact they're now without a veteran shutdown blueliner other than Chara.
Furthermore, this team essentially swapped two-way star Loui Eriksson for David Backes. The latter is a nice fit for Boston's two-way system, but Eriksson is a better scorer, and Backes won't come close to being a 30-goal man like Eriksson was in Beantown. Also, you can't ask Brad Marchand to score over 35 goals again. That's likely a once-in-a-lifetime achievement for him.
Boston has the talent to make a run for a Wild-Card spot, but they've gotten worse while most Atlantic teams got better.
4 Ottawa Senators
Everything is officially set for the Ottawa Senators. There are no excuses to fail again in 2016-17.
Kyle Turris, Mark Stone, Derick Brassard, Mike Hoffman, Zack Smith, Erik Karlsson, and Bobby Ryan give Ottawa one of the deepest scoring offences in hockey. The top-four of Karlsson, Dion Phaneuf, Marc Methot, and rising star Cody Ceci are lethal and will surely improve their defence.
In goal, proven veteran Craig Anderson and above-average netminder Andrew Hammond should be able to handle the pipes, while promising Matt O'Connor could come in as a decent backup if asked upon. On paper, there aren't any huge holes on Ottawa's roster. They're blessed with speed, snipers, and skills - much like the Cup-winning Penguins.
With new head coach Guy Boucher and an assistant genius in Marc Crawford, the Senators should be able to thrive with a fresh staff behind the bench. The Atlantic is dangerous, but Boston and Detroit figure to be mediocre teams, and Ottawa should be able to take advantage of that. Expect them to make the playoffs in 2017.
3 Winnipeg Jets
The Jets have the NHL's best prospect pool, but the wait should be considered over.
There's enough talent (young and veteran) on both ends of the ice for them to make some serious noise in the Central Division. Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, Dustin Byfuglien, Drew Stafford, Mark Scheifele, and Nikolaj Ehlers were a great group to start with. Then they drafted Patrik Laine, and 2015 first-rounder Kyle Connor has a shot of making the roster and contributing significantly.
Furthermore, their goaltending issues should be solved with Connor Hellebuyck having one year of NHL experience under his belt. The Jets have the speed and skill to match up with Chicago, St. Louis, Nashville, and Dallas. They have more size than those squads, which could prove to be a huge advantage. Winnipeg is just a year removed from the playoffs in 2014-15 and their best players are only going to get better.
Winnipeg has rebuilt for five years since moving back to The Great White North, but patience will pay off for the Jets faithful. They'll take a playoff spot next season.
2 Calgary Flames
Is it just me or is it scary that Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett, Dougie Hamilton, and Matthew Tkachuk are 23 years old or younger? Yeah, that Flames core full of young stars and speedsters will exhaust other opponents, but that's not even close to being the only reason they're scary.
Veteran Stanley Cup winner Troy Brouwer was signed in free agency to provide more grit up front. Michael Frolik is another nice top-six forward for this team to work with, so Calgary's scoring will not be a problem.
The defence is due for a bounce-back year. Do you really think Hamilton, Mark Giordano, Dennis Wideman, and T.J. Brodie will have another inconsistent season together? We didn't think so. More importantly, goalie Brian Elliot was added and that could be the most significant move made by any team in the offseason.
Calgary looks dangerous in all three phases of the game and new head coach Glen Gulutzan figures to get the most out of this team. The Flames may not take a top-three spot in the Pacific Division, but they'll make the playoffs by snatching at least a Wild-Card spot.
1 Montreal Canadiens
If the Canadiens had Carey Price for all of 2015-16, they would have made the playoffs. They were comfortably the top team in the Atlantic Division before his injury in late November ended up sidelining him for the rest of the season.
With Price in goal, Montreal is automatically a playoff team. Talk about the advanced stats that show they overachieved in 2014-15 all you want, but three playoff series' wins in the last three seasons suggest they're an elite team with him in goal. His good health guarantees a top-two spot in the Pacific next year.
But that's not the only reason Montreal will bounce back. GM Marc Bergevin wasted no time addressing weaknesses. He swapped P.K. Subban for Shea Weber, and the latter has more toughness and consistency than the former. It's a great trade for Montreal at the moment which puts them in better position to win now.
And remember those scoring woes? Gritty winger Andrew Shaw figures to be a 20-25 goal man and Alex Galchenyuk's move to centre finally showcased the breakout season we waited for. If Michel Therrien keeps him there, he'll continue to flourish.
Meanwhile, KHL star Alexander Radulov came over on a one-year deal, and the Russian sniper should be able to provide more scoring. Montreal's bound for a huge bounce-back season, and they should be considered a Stanley Cup contender. No questions asked. They'll win the Atlantic next season. You heard it here first.
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