NHL Teams Most Likely to Improve in 2017

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 2, 2017

NHL Teams Most Likely to Improve in 2017

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    Entering 2017, several NHL teams are in need of improvement. Potential playoff contenders, such as the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning, find themselves outside the postseason bracket.

    Some, such as the Boston Bruins, are barely clinging to a playoff berth. Others, such as the Winnipeg Jets, hope to vault into the postseason picture. 

    This slideshow lists eight NHL teams most likely to improve over the remainder of 2016-17. We'll examine their current record, position in the standings, problem areas and why they'll overcome them. 

    You can express your views on this topic in the comments section below. 

Carolina Hurricanes

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    Current status

    The rebuilding Carolina Hurricanes remain in pursuit of their first playoff appearance since 2009. After 36 games, the Hurricanes have a record of 16 wins, 13 losses and seven overtime losses. With 39 points, they're sixth in the Metropolitan Division.


    Problem areas

    The Hurricanes lack a true scoring star. Their leading scorers include oft-injured veteran Jeff Skinner (27 points) and young forwards Victor Rask (26 points), Sebastian Aho (20 points) and Teuvo Teravainen (19 points). The latter three are promising, but they've yet to reach their playing prime. 

    That lack of scoring punch is why the Hurricanes average only 2.56 goals per game. They're near the league's bottom third in that department. 

    The Hurricanes are dominant at home (11 wins in 15 games). It's a different story on the road, winning only five of 21 games. 


    Why they'll improve

    Veteran starting goalie Cam Ward is looking good so far. With a 2.29 goals-against average and .916 save percentage, he's given his teammates a chance to win most nights. Ward's play is one reason why the Hurricanes sit near the top 10 in goals against per game (2.61). 

    Led by Justin Faulk, Jaccob Slavin, Noah Hanifin and Brett Pesce, the Hurricanes possess considerable depth in good young defensemen. They've given up only 27.4 shots against per game.

    The Hurricanes' special teams are performing well. They have the league's top penalty-killing percentage (88.8) and among the top 15 in power-play percentage (19.4).

Winnipeg Jets

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    Current status

    The Jets are sitting outside the playoff picture in the Western Conference. After 39 games, they have a record of 17 wins, 19 losses and three overtime losses. The Jets are sixth in the Central Division


    Problem areas

    Goaltending remains a weakness. The Jets put their faith this season in young goalies Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson. Their combined 2.97 goals against per game is among the worst in the NHL. 

    The Jets' special teams are struggling. Their power-play percentage is only 16.7, putting them near the league's bottom third. Their penalty kill (76.5 percent) is the fourth worst, behind only Buffalo, Arizona and Chicago. 

    The Jets could use more secondary scoring from their forwards. Their production drops sharply beyond Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Blake Wheeler. 

    Their road record needs improvement. They've managed only seven wins in 20 road games thus far. 


    Why they'll improve

    Center Bryan Little recently returned from injury, putting up 12 points in 16 games. Defenseman Tyler Myers could return later this month from a lower-body injury. Both should play a significant factor in improving the Jets' scoring and special teams.

    Top forwards Scheifele, Laine, Ehlers and Wheeler are playing well. Should they maintain their strong offensive play over the remainder of this season, the Jets should remain in playoff contention.

    Hellebuyck still has considerable potential as a starting goaltender. His performance could improve over the second half. If necessary, they can also recall veteran Ondrej Pavelec from the minors. 

Florida Panthers

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    Current status

    After topping the Atlantic Division in 2015-16, expectations were high for the Florida Panthers this season. But after 38 games, they sport a record of 16 wins, 14 losses and eight overtime losses for 40 points. They sit sixth in the division and outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture.  


    Problem areas

    Injuries decimated the Panthers' scoring lines. Top-line left wing Jonathan Huberdeau has yet to make his season debut. Forwards Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Marchessault, Jussi Jokinen and Nick Bjugstad have also missed playing time.  

    Replacing defensemen Brian Campbell, Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov last summer with Keith Yandle, Jason Demers and Mark Pysyk appeared to affect their blue-line chemistry earlier this season.

    Those factors also had an impact upon the Panthers' offensive production. They're among the bottom third in goals per game (2.34) and power-play percentage (16.1).

    Their slow start led to popular head coach Gerard Gallant's firing in November. General manager Tom Rowe took over as bench boss, but he's had no better luck than Gallant thus far.


    Why they'll improve

    Huberdeau's return later in January should bring a welcome boost to the Panthers' scoring lines. If their other forwards remain reasonably healthy, their offensive numbers should improve.

    The Panthers remains within striking distance of a playoff berth. A better effort over the second half could send them rising in the Atlantic Division standings.

    They're getting solid goaltending from Roberto Luongo. Their penalty-killing percentage (84.2) ranks among the top 10. 

Nashville Predators

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    Current status

    Having reached the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, the Nashville Predators are currently sitting outside the Western Conference playoff picture. After 36 games, the Predators have a record of 16 wins, 14 losses and six overtime losses for 38 points. They're fifth in the Central Division.


    Problem areas

    Once-dominant starting goaltender Pekka Rinne is struggling with only 13 wins in 28 starts, a 2.53 goals-against average and .915 save percentage. As a result, the Predators' 2.69 goals against per game is uncomfortably close to the league's bottom third

    Having swapped former captain Shea Weber to the Montreal Canadiens for P.K. Subban last summer, the Preds seem to be missing Weber's leadership and grit on the blue line. Subban's played well, but he's currently sidelined with an upper-body injury. 

    The Predators haven't improved on the penalty kill. In 2015-16, they were 16th with a percentage of 81.2. This season, they're 16th again (81.3).

    Consistency is an issue. In October, the Preds won only two of eight games. They rebounded well in November with nine victories in 14 games but struggled through December with only five wins in 14 outings.


    Why they'll improve

    Rinne had a difficult first-half performance in 2015-16 but bounced back with a strong second half. He could do it again. 

    The Preds possess the blue-line depth (Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis) to improve as this season progresses.

    A stronger, consistent effort from Rinne and the defense corps will bolster their penalty kill. That should also lead to a better all-around team effort in the second half.

    After a slow start to this season, young scorers Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen have improved in recent weeks. That bodes well for strong second-half performances from these two. 

Los Angeles Kings

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    Current status

    The Los Angeles Kings entered this season as a playoff contender, but they've got their hands full trying to hang onto a wild-card berth. With a record of 18 wins, 15 losses and four overtime losses, they have 40 points in 37 games. The Kings sit fifth in the Pacific Division


    Problem areas

    Starting goaltender Jonathan Quick was sidelined in the season opener by a groin injury. On Dec. 14, Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times reported general manager Dean Lombardi speculated Quick could return as early as mid-February. The Kings are making do with backups Peter Budaj and Jeff Zatkoff, but they're not as talented as Quick. 

    Injuries also sidelined scoring forwards Marian Gaborik and Tyler Toffoli. Captain Anze Kopitar has only 16 points in 32 games. As a result, the Kings are in the bottom third in goals per game (2.46) and power-play percentage (15.6). 

    The Kings' offensive struggles are also due in part to Lombardi's inability to find a suitable replacement for departed power forward Milan Lucic. Playing a tighter defensive game to compensate for Quick's absence could also be a factor.


    Why they'll improve

    Despite the absence of Quick, Budaj has been solid in goal. He's also helped by the Kings' strong defense. They've given up the fewest shots against per game (25.9), while their penalty kill (83.2) ranks among the top 10.

    Should Quick return in February as expected and regain his form, it will provide a significant boost in goal. His return could also see the Kings shift their game plan and put more focus on offense. 

    Kopitar had a slow start last season but rallied with a strong second half to finish as the Kings' leading scorer. Don't rule out the possibility of another surge. Gaborik could also return to form in the second half. Toffoli (lower-body injury) should return later this month.

Boston Bruins

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    Current status

    After missing the postseason in the last two years, the pressure's on the Bruins to reach the playoffs in 2016-17. After 39 games, they have 20 wins, 15 losses and four overtime losses for 44 points. They sit third in the Atlantic Division but are struggling to maintain their hold on a playoff spot.


    Problem areas

    While the Bruins are among the league leaders in shots per game (33.8), they're having trouble finding the back of the net. Averaging only 2.38 goals per game, they're among the bottom third in that category. 

    Lack of secondary scoring is a problem for the Bruins. There's simply not much of it beyond forwards Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and David Krejci. Center Patrick Bergeron has only 12 points in 36 games.

    That's also why their power-play percentage is a woeful 14.3. They're among the league's worst in that category.

    The Bruins defense remains anchored by aging captain Zdeno Chara. The 39-year-old is past his prime and could decline further as the season progresses. 


    Why they'll improve

    Goaltender Tuukka Rask is playing very well. He's won 19 of 29 starts with a 1.92 goals-against average, .929 save percentage and four shutouts. He's among his season's top NHL goalies

    Despite Chara's decline, the defense has exceeded expectations. Torey Krug has 21 points in 39 games, and rookie Brandon Carlo's been a welcome addition. The Bruins average 27.2 shots against per game. Only the Los Angeles Kings (25.0) and San Jose Sharks (26.4) have given up fewer. 

    Marchand could exceed last season's career-best performance of 37 goals and 61 points. Pastrnak, 20, is emerging as a scoring star in his own right. After a slow start to this season, Krejci has regained his offensive form. 

Dallas Stars

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    Current status

    Having finished atop the Western Conference standings in 2015-16, big things were expected this season for the Stars. But after 38 games, they're fourth in the Central Division and outside the playoff picture. With 16 wins, 15 losses and seven overtime losses, it's been a disappointing follow-up campaign so far for the Stars.


    Problem areas

    Goaltending remains their Achilles' heel. Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi have one of the worst combined goals-against-per-game averages (2.97) in the league. 

    Last summer's departures of veteran defensemen Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers adversely affected the Stars blue line. It's also affected their defensive play. In 2015-16, the Stars gave up 28.9 shots against per game and their penalty-killing percentage was 82.3. They're giving up 30.1 shots-against this season and their penalty kill is a woeful 77.2.

    Injuries to forwards Patrick Sharp, Ales Hemsky, Jiri Hudler and Mattias Janmark have hurt their forward depth. After leading the league in goals per game (3.23) in 2015-16, they've tumbled to 19th this season (2.55). 


    Why they'll improve

    The Stars possess two of the NHL's most talented scorers in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. They cannot be taken lightly and will continue to carry the offensive load. 

    Hemsky and Janmark are out of the season, but Hudler recently made his season debut, while Sharp (concussion) could return to the lineup in January. Those additions could provide a much-needed boost to their forward depth. 

    Young defensemen Esa Lindell has emerged as a skilled defenseman. He's now skating alongside John Klingberg on their top blue-line pairing. The Stars defense also improved in December, giving up 2.3 goals against per game.

Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Current status

    The Lightning entered this season as a potential Stanley Cup contender. After 38 games, the Bolts have a record of 19 wins, 15 losses and four overtime losses. With 42 points, they're fourth in the Atlantic Division and sit outside the playoff picture. 


    Problem areas

    Injuries have sidelined such notables as forwards Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Drouin, Ondrej Palat and Ryan Callahan, defenseman Anton Stralman and goaltender Ben Bishop. 

    A Vezina Trophy finalist last season, Bishop is struggling in 2016-17. Prior to suffering a lower-body injury, the 30-year-old goalie posted only nine wins in 22 games played with a 2.79 goals-against average and .907 save percentage.

    With a penalty-kill percentage of 79.8, the Lightning are among the league's worst in that category. 

    The Lightning rely heavily on Stralman and Victor Hedman. They could use another top-four defenseman. 


    Why they'll improve

    Most of their injured stars have returned to action. Stamkos (knee injury) could return in March. With a healthier lineup, they should rise in the standings.  

    Promising Andrei Vasilevskiy is expected to take over the role of full-time starting goalie once Bishop departs via free agency in July. Bishop's injury opens the door for the 22-year-old to fully establish himself in that role. 

    Management could pursue a top-four rental defenseman by the March 1 trade deadline. That move could provide a boost to their penalty kill. 

    The Lightning have considerable depth in talent and experience in staging second-half rallies. At this point a year ago, the Bolts sat sixth in the Atlantic Division. They went on to clinch a playoff spot and march to within a game of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. 


    Player and teams stats (as of Jan. 1, 2017) via NHL.com. Additional info via Hockey-Reference.com.