In a one-year span, the Anaheim Ducks improved their final winning percentage by a full .200 (.488 to .688) and jumped 11 seeds to from 13th to second in the Western Conference. Out east, the Montreal Canadiens likewise finished second after finishing dead last in the conference in 2011-12 while improving from a .476 to a .656 win percentage.
Joining those teams in the top three in terms of elevated stature in the standings were the Toronto Maple Leafs, who went from No. 13 to No. 5 in the Eastern Conference. On the entire 30-team leaderboard, the Leafs jumped 15 seeds, the Ducks 23 and the Habs a whopping 24.
In terms of point-getting rate, the juggernaut Chicago Blackhawks went from .612 to .802, enough for a solid five-seed improvement in the Western Conference playoff bracket. In other words, they went from lacking home-ice advantage in the first round to having it for the balance of the tournament.
Which team will have its turn improving or enhancing its fortunes the most in 2013-14? Whether it shows in the form of winning percentage or final seeding, the four prime candidates are as follows.
Edmonton’s youthful stockpile of offense still has yet to snap a playoff drought of seven years going on eight. The front office wasted little time in this summer’s free-agency spree trying to address the reasons why and acquire the missing elements.
On the trade front, the more recent acquisition of six-year veteran David Perron from St. Louis equals a can’t-hurt extra splash of offensive depth.
These three newcomers will join a blossoming core comprised most prominently of forwards Jordan Eberle, Sam Gagner, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov plus two-way defenseman Justin Schultz.
With all of these new tangibles and intangibles—plus the notion that Smyth is running out of opportunities for any sort of on-ice fulfillment—the Oilers cannot help but elevate their status in 2013-14. They will all but certainly be better than No. 19 in team defense or No. 29 in opposing shots per game and should, at a bare minimum, contend for an end to their eight-year postseason hiatus.
That will not be easy with Vancouver and the three California franchises in the new seven-team division with four postseason passports available. But the Oilers are the best bet to dethrone one of those reigning 2013 playoff participants.
Technically, this team already had a noticeable turnaround last year, going from a .494 to a .573 winning percentage. But the Minnesota Wild have a chance to make another giant stride in 2013-14 and should surprise no one if they end up posting at least their second-best record in team history.
The defensive tandem of Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin finished their first season strong after a less-than-thrilling start to their respective tenures with the Wild. Forward Zach Parise, too, ought to be poised for a solid start-to-finish run through his first full-length campaign in Minnesota.
The coming season will also be the Wild’s first full-length ride with Jason Pominville, who like Parise was the captain of his previous team. The veteran leadership of those two—not to mention that of Mikko Koivu—ought to help bring sophomores Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund up to another level.
Consistent health for the likes of Dany Heatley, whose 2012-13 season ended prematurely due to injury, will go a long way for Minnesota’s cause as well. Beneath that, returning forward Kyle Brodziak and new faces Matt Cooke and Nino Niederreiter (with a much-needed change of scenery) should be poised to lend the Wild the depth they need to make significant ripples.
If everything falls into place, home-ice advantage in the Central Division semifinals is not out of the question for this team.
As it is in Minnesota with Suter and Brodin, the second season of the Shea Weber-Roman Josi defensive pairing should be much better than the first. That will be the mere starting point in bringing the Nashville Predators back up from No. 20 on the league’s defensive leaderboard and closer to 2011-12 form.
More urgent, though, is the task of percolating a more formidable offense than the one that tied Florida for worst in the league in 2012-13 with 2.27 goals per game.
The dependability of Weber and goaltender Pekka Rinne is all but a given, but it will not amount to much without gratifying offensive support. Nashville’s plummet from fourth to 14th in the Western Conference over a one-year span says as much, especially since the team was actually eighth in offense in the 2011-12 season.
Free-agent acquisitions such as Viktor Stalberg and Matt Cullen mark a sharp stop and pivot back in the right direction on that front. Both men bring in a slick skill set and a Stanley Cup championship ring, which means they have the materials and the know-how to fill Nashville’s most immediate need.
As for the returnees up front, season-long health for the likes of Colin Wilson and Patric Hornqvist, the latter of whom recently signed a lengthy contract extension, will be another indubitable boost.
Having both transferred from the aforementioned Wild, new New York Islanders Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Cal Clutterbuck will be entering a familiar situation. They are on a team that is coming off an eighth-place finish that cathartically ended an extended hiatus from the playoffs and now seeks to build on its long-awaited foundation.
With his seasoning from 11 seasons in the pros, it is hard to believe that Bouchard still will not be 30 until the next playoffs. Meanwhile, in a feature on the team’s website, Isles coach Jack Capuano and general manager Garth Snow underscored the way Clutterbuck will fit into their ideal mold.
Both acquisitions should lend tangible depth and intangible energy to a blossoming core.
While John Tavares has exponentially elevated his game in each of his first four NHL seasons, fellow forwards Matt Moulson and Kyle Okposo are in better-late-than-never mode. Rookie Ryan Strome should be coming into the equation after a prolific major junior career, and the best should be yet to come for defenseman Travis Hamonic.
With Carolina, Columbus, New Jersey, the New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington, the newfangled Metropolitan Division will likely be the most difficult sector to compete in this season. The Pens and Caps are a perpetual regular-season force, the Blue Jackets look to be on the rise and everyone else is perfectly capable of a bounce-back campaign.
But do not be surprised if the Isles finish as high as second among those eight teams. That is how well-equipped they are.