Way-Too-Early Predictions for 7 Sleeper NHL Teams Next Season
When it comes to the NHL these days, Colorado and Tampa are the places to be.
The Avalanche and Lightning will begin what could be a seven-game duel for the right to hoist the Stanley Cup this week, starting off in Denver on Wednesday and Saturday before heading to Florida's Gulf Coast on June 20 and 22.
Given that the former won the Presidents' Trophy last season and the latter is a two-time defending Cup champ, neither Colorado nor Tampa Bay is a particularly surprising entrant to the championship round this spring.
But it isn't always that way.
Seeing teams make a prodigious leap from also-ran to title contender is hardly unique in the NHL, and it wouldn't be too shocking if one of the teams on the outside looking in at this postseason finds its way to prolonged playoff relevance next time around.
The B/R hockey team seized upon that notion and gazed into the crystal ball to compile a list of seven sleeper teams from 2021-22 and forecast what they'll do come 2022-23.
Scroll through to see what we came up with and drop a forward-focused guess or two of your own in the comments section.
The Anaheim Ducks probably won't win the Stanley Cup next season.
They haven't been in the playoffs since the spring of 2018 and haven't won a series since the year before, so suggesting an imminent parade past Disneyland would be foolish.
But they can be better than this year. By a lot.
Lest anyone forget, the Ducks were among the league's top teams through the first half of the season thanks in no small way to the dynamism of Trevor Zegras, Troy Terry and Sonny Milano and the opportunistic presence of defensemen like Cam Fowler on the periphery.
The second half of the season, well...not so much.
Anaheim plummeted to the Western Conference's lower echelons from January to May and wound up seventh in the Pacific Division, 21 points from the nearest playoff berth.
Another year of experience and maturity can't help but benefit the youngsters up front, and the brass has more than $39 million in cap room to add another weapon and address the need for an elite goaltender—or to provide some blue-line help for John Gibson if it decides he's the long-term starter.
Given their first-half performance, their youth and the cap difficulties sure to hamstring some of the teams ahead of them in the Western Conference, it'd be no shock to see the Ducks grab one of the eight playoff spots next season and then give a big scare to a higher-seeded foe.
Remember where you heard it first.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Columbus burst from the gate with 12 wins in 18 games but leveled out soon after and wound up sixth in a top-heavy Metropolitan Division and 19 points from the second wild-card spot.
The team must improve its defense and goaltending. Its goals-against average of 3.62 was fifth-worst in the league, and its shots-allowed average of 35.2 was better than that of only one team.
Elvis Merzlikins got his first extended look at the starting goaltender and had 27 wins in 56 starts, but the 2014 third-round pick's goals-against average (3.22) and save percentage (.907) were well off his career numbers and well below the league average as well.
More than $22 million in cap space will allow the Blue Jackets to think about pursuing an option alongside the 28-year-old Latvian. Or, like Anaheim, they can consider boosting his fortunes by adding additional size and strength on the blue line, where only Zach Werenski and Vladislav Gavrikov weighed in at 200 pounds or more.
Remember, too, that 2021-22 was Brad Larsen's first year as head coach, so general manager Jarmo Kekalainen is expecting a natural progression from him as well.
“We never had any doubts about his work ethic and the passion for the game, and those were big reasons why we hired him," he said. "There’s no doubt that that was going to be just like we projected. But it’s a different job obviously having all the responsibility and pressure, if you want to call it, on your shoulders. Think he’s handled it very well."
We agree. They'll be much closer to the mix than 19 points next time, and if older, salary-shedding teams ahead of them stumble (cough...Pittsburgh...cough), clear them a spot.
Forecasting the Montreal Canadiens is not for the faint of heart.
The hockey kings of Quebec finished fourth in the all-Canadian North Division in 2020-21 before an unlikely run to the Stanley Cup Final against eventual champion Tampa Bay.
Then, with a host of players who had gained experience from that Cinderella stretch, they face-planted in 2021-22, firing their coach and GM on the way to finishing last overall.
So, go ahead...make a guess as to where they'll be next season.
And good luck.
We think fortunes for 2022-23 depend largely on actions this summer by GM Kent Hughes, a former player agent who arrived after Marc Bergevin was let go. Hughes showed zero hesitation in triggering a rebuild when he let Ben Chiarot and Tyler Toffoli, who'd each played in the Cup Final run, go in deals to Florida and Calgary prior to the trade deadline.
Next on the au revoir block could be goalie Carey Price, a veteran of 700 NHL starts who was limited to just five last season after rehabbing from knee surgery and spending time in the league's player-assistance program due to substance abuse.
He's due $10.5 million for each of the next four seasons but has a Vezina Trophy and an MVP and would make an attractive target if Hughes took on salary from a trade partner.
Elliotte Friedman suggested in April that a deal could happen, and it'd certainly give the team a new vibe going forward.
Considering the Canadiens already have emerging talents in Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki and the No. 1 overall pick this summer, the 32nd overall finish could quickly turn into season-long relevance and maybe a late miss for next spring's tournament.
Not an ideal finish, but certainly a positive move forward.
New Jersey Devils
The New Jersey Devils were 28th in a 32-team league last season.
They won't be next season.
That doesn't mean anyone should reserve corner space for a parade through downtown Newark anytime soon. But it wouldn't hurt those on the city's perimeter—the 973 crowd in West Orange, perhaps—to consider buying in while the bandwagon price is low.
GM Tom Fitzgerald tried to improve things last summer when he brought in free-agent defenseman Dougie Hamilton and inked backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier to take some heat off Mackenzie Blackwood.
Hamilton's gaudy stats plummeted and he played just 62 of 82. And Bernier played all of 10 games behind Blackwood, who was also injured and made just 24 starts—leaving the rest of the load to Nico Daws, Jon Gillies, Andrew Hammond, Scott Wedgewood and Akira Schmid.
So Fitzgerald clearly has some more time due at the drawing board, and it wouldn't hurt if he addressed a power play that was fifth-worst in the league, too.
But there's good news.
The Devils have more than $25 million in cap space and should benefit next season assuming Jack Hughes can stay healthy for something near 82 games. The No. 1 draft pick from 2019 reached point-per-game status for the first time in 2021-22, but he only played 49 games (56 points).
Twenty-three-year-old winger Jesper Bratt was good for 73 points in 76 games, and another No. 1 overall pick, Nico Hischier (2017), also just 23, posted career bests across the board with 21 goals and 39 assists for 60 points in 70 games.
Hughes for a full year is worth a few standings points, and assuming Fitzgerald uses the cash for a reliable goalie and a power-play quarterback, look for the Devils to leap a few spots in the Metropolitan Division, perhaps to as high as fifth.
New York Islanders
Let's face it. The New York Islanders never had a chance last season.
They started the year on a 13-game road trip while UBS Arena was being finished, and they were as ravaged by COVID-19 as any team in the league.
They were 29th overall on December 31 before climbing incrementally by the end of each subsequent month and winding up 20th overall and fifth in the Metropolitan Division—16 points out of a playoff spot. They were seven points better than the Washington Capitals, the team that got that final berth, across the final four months of the season.
So if they can avoid the roller-coaster dip in 2022-23, it's easy to imagine them getting closer to where they'd been the previous two seasons—in the league's playoff final four.
GM Lou Lamoriello is an executive unafraid to make big moves to make things better, though the season-ending firing of Barry Trotz was a head-scratcher.
Nevertheless, it remains an attractive job, and Trotz assistant Lane Lambert takes over in Long Island with a roster with proven talents like Mathew Barzal, Anders Lee and Brock Nelson up front and a capable goalie in 26-year-old Ilya Sorokin, who posted stellar numbers (.925 save percentage, 2.40 goals-against average) across 52 games.
Winger Josh Bailey and goalie Semyon Varlamov are each due $5 million in 2022-23 and could be moved to create cap space beyond the $12 million now available. Doing that and going after one of the elite offensive talents who'll presumably be on the market—Johnny Gaudreau, Evander Kane, etc.—would quickly change perceptions after 2021-22's trials.
They'll be a playoff team next year, and it'd be no shock to see them in the final eight.
Vegas Golden Knights
Speaking of precipitous falls, how about the Vegas Golden Knights?
The gold standard of recent expansion teams had never missed the playoffs since arriving to the NHL and was considered among a small group of favorites to win the Stanley Cup as the 2021-22 regular season got underway.
And then they added Jack Eichel, who was picked second behind Connor McDavid in 2015 and had been a three-time All-Star Game participant with the Buffalo Sabres.
Still, it all went wrong. And the Golden Knights missed the playoffs.
Coach Peter DeBoer took the fall and lost his job, but it remains an attractive position that's sure to attract high-profile job-seekers thanks to the presence of Eichel (25 points in 34 games) and the healthy return of players like Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty and Robin Lehner—who played 120 of a possible 246 games.
There's not much cap space and decisions to be made on potential free agents Reilly Smith, Nicolas Roy and Brett Howden, so a trade in the offseason is a certainty. Still, no matter who is retained on the periphery, the star power of Eichel, Stone, Pacioretty and Alex Pietrangelo puts the Golden Knights on the short list of would-be Western powerhouses.
Give them a year of even relatively good fortune health-wise and they'll be back to contending for the conference's top seed.
Speaking of underperforming Western teams, we give you the 2021-22 Winnipeg Jets.
The Jets were a second-round playoff team in 2020-21 and entered the subsequent season with a star in goal, capable personnel on defense and as deep and talented a forward unit as existed anywhere in the conference.
Fans were ready for an even deeper playoff run. Forecasters followed suit, too.
But it's hardly a spoiler here, given the theme of this piece, to tell you that it didn't work out.
Winnipeg floundered at the start, lost its veteran head coach in a surprise resignation just before Christmas and never put together the sort of late-season run that resulted in serious contention for a playoff spot. They finished 19th overall, sixth in the Pacific Division and eight points behind Nashville for the final Western wild-card spot.
Still, as with the Golden Knights, plenty of the news remains good.
The Jets have a deep prospect pool on the blue line and figure to bring one or more of the youngsters, Dylan Samberg perhaps, up from the AHL for a full-time look next season.
Goalie Connor Hellebuyck's numbers were slightly off his career standards, but he still won 29 games and had four shutouts and is only 29 years old.
The forward group includes a 47-goal scorer in Kyle Connor, a point-per-game man in Mark Scheifele (70 points, 67 games) and three others—Pierre-Luc Dubois, Nikolaj Ehlers and Paul Stastny—who scored at least 20 goals.
Stastny's future is uncertain given imminent free agency and restricted free agent Dubois needs a deal as well, but there's a lot to work with no matter what the final mix looks like.
So if they convince Manitoba native and Stanley Cup winner Barry Trotz to replace Paul Maurice as the full-time coach, or even if they don't, go ahead and pencil in the Jets as a playoff team for 2022-23.
And if it's Trotz, lay some early money down on them as a title-winning long shot.
You can thank us later.
Salary-cap information via CapFriendly.