Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios for Every NHL Team in 2015-16
A fresh season represents a fresh opportunity for NHL teams. For the best of them, it represents the possibility of being immortalized on the Stanley Cup. For others, it's a potential stepping stone on the road to a championship further down the line. For the worst teams, it's still a chance to develop young players and add a top prospect at the draft.
With free agency slowing to a near-halt, this is a good time for us to look at the league's 30 teams and honestly assess their reasonable upper and lower limits for next season. The best- and worst-case scenarios that follow generally assume some breaks—for good or for bad—and allow for a wide range in between, where most teams will finish.
Read on for our take on the possibilities in front of each team this coming season.
Best Case: Anaheim came within a game of knocking off the Chicago Blackhawks in the most recent playoffs and must be considered a Stanley Cup threat once again, particularly since their playoff path goes through the relatively mild Pacific Division. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are as an intimidating a tandem as exists in the NHL.
Worst Case: The Ducks have been a top-five team during the regular season for three consecutive years now. A first-round loss might potentially be in the cards but a playoff spot is close to a sure thing.
Best Case: Arizona had a relatively busy offseason, bringing in a bunch of second-tier veterans, including some who had left the club at last year's trade deadline. But it's a combination of internal growth and the play of goalie Mike Smith that will determine the franchise's fortunes.
In 2013-14, the Coyotes finished just two points out of the playoffs with a strong performance from Smith, and a playoff spot this coming season is an outside possibility if the team's young players excel and Smith recovers.
Worst Case: The Coyotes could be the worst team in the NHL.
The roster has received only modest improvements, which leaves the team hoping its young talent can carry the day and that either the 33-year-old Smith can bounce back in a massive way or that journeyman backup Anders Lindback can supplant him.
Best Case: General manager Don Sweeney's reconstructed Bruins roster is weaker than most recent versions of the club, but the team underachieved last year, and the injection of some size and youth up front isn't likely to hurt. A playoff spot is certainly within the realms of possibility; home ice in the first round isn't unfeasible.
Worst Case: Boston got weaker in a lot of ways over the summer. The loss of Dougie Hamilton for picks was a massive blow, and the addition of Matt Irwin doesn't come close to making up for it. The combination of Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes likely won't cover for Milan Lucic and Reilly Smith, either.
Still, the most critical element here is the aging curve of Zdeno Chara. If his performance drops off further or he gets hurt, the Bruins could find themselves in the bottom third of the league.
Best Case: Buffalo should be better, but how good can they get?
Up front, the additions of Jack Eichel, Ryan O'Reilly, Evander Kane, David Legwand and Jamie McGinn should make a massive difference for a team that lacked firepower and defensive depth last season. The defence and goaltending situations are less impressive, but the talent here is enough that the Sabres could potentially be in the race for a playoff spot until late in the season.
Worst Case: Last in the NHL is still a possibility for the league's incumbent worst team despite that long list of offseason changes. The primary reason is in net, where both Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson are coming off difficult seasons; if both are in the 0.900 save-percentage range again, the Sabres are toast.
And for all the changes, it can't be forgotten that Buffalo is starting from a minus-113 base. That is a lot of ground to make up.
Best Case: The Calgary Flames are an improved team from last season's surprisingly successful squad. Dougie Hamilton further solidifies an already highly competent defence, while Michael Frolik is exactly what needed to be added up front. Combine those additions with further development from players such as Sam Bennett, Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau, and this team could be much better.
The Flames might even end up as the second-best team in the Pacific.
Worst Case: While the Flames are improved, a lot had to go right for the team to squeak into the playoffs last year, something it did by all of two points. Just one season earlier, the Flames finished 27th in the NHL, and while they certainly shouldn't fall that far, a drop down to the league's bottom third wouldn't be shocking.
Best Case: One of the worst teams in the NHL seems to be gambling that Vancouver's old 1B goalie and a playoff healthy scratch can turn its fortunes around. Eddie Lack may well be the reliable starter that Carolina has been looking for since the decline and fall of Cam Ward, and James Wisniewski will go a long way toward shoring up the defence, but it just isn't enough.
Instead, the Hurricanes will rely on better health. This wasn't a playoff-caliber team in the back half of last season, but it was much improved once people started getting healthy. There's a chance the club could be competing for a playoff spot until the final days of the season.
Worst Case: The Hurricanes could be really bad, potentially the worst team in the league, if the goaltending doesn't work out.
Best Case: Obviously, the best-case scenario is another Stanley Cup win. The Blackhawks have proved to be resilient over the last few seasons, and even with some significant salary-cap sacrifices this summer, the team's formidable core remains largely intact.
Worst Case: The losses of Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya and especially Brandon Saad have left the Blackhawks weakened, and the impact of multiple deep runs could well manifest in fatigue next season. Still, Chicago has to be close to a lock for a playoff berth, even if they do fall to the fourth seed in the Central Division.
Best Case: Colorado has a lot of good young players, and it added a bunch more in the Ryan O'Reilly trade while simultaneously replacing much of O'Reilly's lost production by signing Carl Soderberg. Francois Beauchemin should be an upgrade on Jan Hejda, but it's clear the primary place for growth here will be from developing players taking the next step.
Even in the tough Central Division, a playoff spot is a possibility.
Worst Case: Last year didn't represent a total low for the Avs. It's worth remembering Colorado went 10-4 in the shootout and that Semyon Varlamov had a pretty good season. A truly bad season might see the Avalanche slip a few spots in the NHL standings, though likely not into the bottom five.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Best Case: The Blue Jackets, crippled by injury early in 2014-15 and then red hot late in the season, were already a team to watch in the East. Then they added Brandon Saad in trade from Chicago.
The forward group is talented at the top end, four lines deep, and for the most part it is big, young and physical. The defensive group is largely built on talented and improving youngsters. While it could still use some help, it's good enough to make noise, particularly given that Sergei Bobrovsky has shown himself to be one of the NHL's better stoppers.
If all goes well, this team might start the postseason on home ice.
Worst Case: We saw a reasonably good example of the worst-case scenario for the Blue Jackets in 2014-15. Injuries decimated the team early, and only a superb run late in the year allowed the team to end the season with a somewhat respectable record.
Best Case: It's important to remember an incredibly disappointing 2014-15 season doesn't come close to representing the upper limit for the Stars. Just a year earlier, Dallas claimed a playoff spot in the Central Division. With a young and improving defence corps and the addition some significant veterans, notably Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya, the Stars are probably a better team this year than that season.
It's going to be tough to climb high in the Central—St. Louis, Nashville and Chicago all finished in the top-seven NHL slots last year—but the playoffs are very possible, and home ice in the first round isn't out of the question.
Worst Case: A 92-point season that saw the Stars finish with a plus-one rating as a team isn't quite the worst possible result for Dallas, but its close to it. Even if 2015-16 is another tough year, the team should be competitive for a playoff spot until the bitter end.
Detroit Red Wings
Best Case: The Red Wings came within a game of unseating the Eastern champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round, and the goal this year will be to better that. The club wouldn't have to be much better to climb into the NHL's top 10 and even go on a bit of a postseason run. With some key veteran additions, that small improvement is entirely possible.
Worst Case: Detroit's incredible run of participating in the postseason is in jeopardy once again. The loss of Mike Babcock hurts, and the performance of rookie NHL coach Jeff Blashill is going to be crucial to keeping the team in the hunt. So too will the health of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
If they suffer injuries, and particularly if Blashill faces a steep learning curve in his first year, the Red Wings could fall as many as 10 spots in the NHL standings.
Best Case: The best the Oilers can realistically hope for is to be in the race for a playoff spot until late in 2015-16. Edmonton finished with a minus-85 goal differential last year, which isn't the kind of problem that just goes away overnight.
Still, the potential is there for a big jump, particularly if Cam Talbot performs well in net and Connor McDavid delivers on the hype surrounding him.
Worst Case: For a lot of teams, the possibility of ending up with a high draft pick isn't really so terrible. For the Oilers, it's starting to feel routine, which is a problem. This isn't a team that needs to add more top young players; it is a team that needs success.
The worst-case scenario here is that Edmonton once again finds itself in the NHL basement, having failed to make real progress despite a large quantity of changes. And the worst-case scenario isn't impossible; with bad goaltending and some injuries, 30th overall could happen.
Best Case: The Panthers finished just seven points out of the playoffs in 2014-15, which isn't an insurmountable deficit for the team to overcome. With some very solid young forwards and defencemen in the system, internal growth alone might be able to push the team into the postseason.
Worst Case: Roberto Luongo turned 36 in April, and while he's delivering brilliant seasons (he went 28-19-12 with a 0.921 save percentage in 2014-15) a decline is inevitable, and there really isn't a solid fallback option in Florida. If the goaltending gives out, a repeat of something similar to 2013-14—when the Panthers finished 29th overall and drafted Aaron Ekblad—isn't out of the question.
Los Angeles Kings
Best Case: Another Stanley Cup championship isn't outside the realms of possibility for the Kings. Los Angeles has never been a particularly good regular-season team—last year's lousy regular season was almost an exact match for 2012, when L.A. won the Cup. Despite some losses, the core is still largely intact.
Worst Case: There's too much talent on the roster for the Kings to fall too far off the pace from 2014-15, when they finished 18th in the NHL; something in the 20th-overall range is probably the team's floor as currently constructed.
Best Case: The Wild are a deep and capable team, and for the first time in years, they should have reliable goaltending from opening night. A top-five finish in the NHL is possible, particularly if some of the team's younger skaters continue to develop.
Worst Case: Devan Dubnyk has had a pretty good major-league career on the whole, but he's also had some valleys. The Wild needed a miraculous late-season run to climb into the playoffs, and if Dubnyk falters in his first full season with the team, they could quickly find themselves in the NHL's bottom 10.
Best Case: Montreal has perhaps the best goaltender in the game of hockey in Carey Price and a deep and talented defence corps. That combination is one a lot of teams will envy, and in the right circumstances, it just might be enough to guide the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup.
The Habs have some history of winning hockey's highest prize with great goaltending and middling forwards, so such a win would not exactly be unprecedented.
Worst Case: Price and the Montreal defence should be enough to guarantee the team a playoff spot, but it is by no means certain Price can replicate the brilliant year he just had. It wouldn't be a major shock to see the Canadiens start the playoffs on the road next season.
Best Case: The sky is the limit for the Predators. Nashville's forward group isn't anything to write home about, but it isn't bad. Behind it resides perhaps the best combination of defence and goaltending in the entire league. Both the Presidents' Trophy and the Stanley Cup are plausible goals for the club.
Worst Case: The Predators finished just nine goals ahead of Los Angeles last season, and the Kings ended up missing the postseason entirely. It's hard to imagine Nashville falling any further than just outside the playoffs, and even that would require some uniquely unfortunate circumstances.
New Jersey Devils
Best Case: The great hope of the Devils is on the back end. New Jersey boasts a rather good collection of young NHL defencemen, in addition to veteran Andy Greene and reclamation project John Moore. Behind that defence is one of the league's better goalies.
If all goes perfectly, the Devils might be able to parlay Katy-bar-the-door hockey into a slightly below-average season.
Worst Case: No matter how impressive the back end, a moribund forward group signed long term really limits New Jersey's options. Adam Henrique led the team with 43 points last season, and Mike Cammalleri (who turned 33 in June) was the only other player on the team to top 35. There have been no impact-young or capable-veteran additions to this group.
If that young defence buckles, 30th in the NHL is possible.
New York Islanders
Best Case: It sounds almost silly to say, but the New York Islanders could be the NHL's 2016 Stanley Cup champions. The team's young group of forwards is, for the most part, just entering its prime, and it is bolstered by some quality veterans. The defence corps isn't half bad, either, and Jaroslav Halak is a proven postseason performer.
Worst Case: Just five points separated New York from playoff-less Boston last season, and in this age of parity, almost any good team can find itself relegated to the outside of the postseason. At their worst, the Isles should be competitive for a playoff position until the bitter end, much like 2014-15's Bruins and Kings.
New York Rangers
Best Case: After two consecutive deep postseason runs, the Rangers are clearly a playoff contender. If New York were just a little bit better next year, it might succeed in capturing that prize that has eluded it since 1994: the Stanley Cup.
An all-world goalie, a formidable defence corps and a deep forward group with plenty of youth are a formidable combination for opponents to try and overcome.
Worst Case: There's too much going for the Rangers for the team to take a deep dive. After posting a plus-60 goal differential in 2014-15, the team could lose 40 goals year-over-year and still make the playoffs with comfort.
Best Case: The Senators finished just three points behind Chicago in the NHL standings last season, and a top-10 finish this year isn't out of the question. They have a franchise defenceman and some young-and-improving support players at that position, two good goalies and a reasonably deep forward group.
Worst Case: A late-season miracle run propelled the Sens into the postseason, and in this age of parity, it's not hard to imagine them finishing in the NHL's bottom third than at the top end of its middle third.
Best Case: Despite the doom and gloom surrounding the Flyers' salary-cap situation, a low-end playoff spot is a possibility.
Michal Neuvirth is an upgrade on Ray Emery, whose struggles cost the team badly last year. He should be able to step in if Steve Mason has health issues once again. Sam Gagner and Yevgeny Medvedev are both uncertain additions but have the potential to be important depth elements up front and on defence.
Worst Case: If not for the superb play of Mason, the Flyers would have been in a world of hurt last season. As it was, even with the best performance of the goalie's career, Philadelphia finished with a minus-35 rating.
Neuvirth gives the team some insurance in net, but a slump or long-term injury to Mason—or Claude Giroux for that matter—could sink the Flyers to the NHL basement.
Best Case: A high-powered Penguins offence got even more frightening with the addition of Toronto's Phil Kessel, a top-flight goal scorer who has never played with a centre as good as either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. If all goes as hoped, Pittsburgh could once again be a top-five NHL team.
Worst Case: The success or failure of the Penguins is going to rest heavily on a young and, in many ways, unimpressive defence. The team's late-season slump coincided with the loss of several veterans to injury, yet management somehow came away from the ordeal thinkin Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff were superfluous.
If young defenders Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot, Brian Dumoulin can't carry the load, the club will be in trouble. If Kris Letang misses significant time, the results could be devastating. A bottom-10 finish isn't out of the question.
San Jose Sharks
Best Case: It's easy to forget the San Jose Sharks finished fifth overall in the NHL just two seasons ago. Most of the core of that team is still in place, and while older, it's still a capable group. Offseason additions such as Joel Ward and Paul Martin have gone a long way to shoring up areas of weakness.
With good goaltending, not only could the Sharks qualify for the playoffs in a weak division, but could conceivably start the postseason on home ice.
Worst Case: Last year's 22nd-overall finish may turn out to not be an aberration but rather the start of a trend, particularly if goalie Martin Jones turns out to be a bad bet. The highly touted ex-Kings backup went 4-5-2 with a 0.906 save percentage last season, and if he's in the same range this coming campaign, the Sharks are toast.
Worst of all, the team traded its first-round pick in the deal to land Jones, so a finish in the bottom third and no reward on draft day is possible.
St. Louis Blues
Best Case: The Blues have been a Stanley Cup contender for several seasons now, but despite strong regular-season work, they have yet to get the job done in the playoffs. The hope is that a mostly young defence can improve enough in tandem with some of St. Louis' emerging forwards to change all that this coming season.
Worst Case: St. Louis is a solidly built team that has too much going for it to fall too far down the NHL standings. A dip in the tough Central Division is possible, but it would be a major surprise if the Blues missed the playoffs.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Best Case: The Lightning went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, and this coming season is going to be all about winning just that one series more. The forward group is highly capable and, for the most part, still improving. The defence is deep and has a veteran feel to it, along with a superlative top pairing. The goaltending position is solid.
Tampa Bay is a Cup contender and should be that way for years to come.
Worst Case: It's tough to imagine a set of circumstances that would put the Bolts on the outside of the playoffs. Perhaps the combination of an injury to Ben Bishop and a total implosion from young 'tender Andrei Vasilevskiy would do it, but we're pushing the boundaries of probability pretty far there.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Best Case: The Leafs made a lot of good moves over the summer, bringing in quality supporting players at all positions. This is a team that was a playoff contender just a year-and-a-half ago, and a bounce-back season is possible, though it's a bit of a stretch to peg them for a playoff spot, even with Mike Babcock behind the bench.
Worst Case: All those quality additions will be members of the supporting cast, and the Leafs made a pretty big subtraction when they shipped Phil Kessel, their only 60-point man, off to Pittsburgh. Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk will be worse in his absence, and scoring goals is going to be a struggle all season long.
The Leafs may well be in the running for last place in the NHL, though at this point in the team's rebuild, the degree to which that is a bad thing is debatable.
Best Case: The Canucks finished eighth in the NHL last season, just one point behind eventual Stanley Cup winner Chicago. With the right combination of circumstances and strong performances from the team's emerging young talent, Vancouver could win the Pacific Division.
Worst Case: The key cast members of the team keep getting older, and general manager Jim Benning persists with axing supporting players and not adequately replacing them. The goaltending situation is uncertain following the departure of Eddie Lack, the defence is down another important piece with the trade of Kevin Bieksa and nobody outside the top line cracked the 40-point mark last season.
San Jose showed last season that a strong club could fall into the league's bottom 10 overnight; it's not impossible the Canucks will follow the same path.
Best Case: The Capitals are another team with Stanley Cup aspirations, and under the right circumstances, it could happen. The additions of T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams up front certainly help. Combined with last season's changes on defence, those players give the club a significantly different look.
Worst Case: Five points separated Washington from Boston last season, and in this era of the NHL, virtually any team can find itself on the outside looking in. Some injuries and bad bounces could see a preseason Stanley Cup contender finish with more than 90 points but fewer than 100 and miss out on the postseason entirely.
Best Case: The Winnipeg Jets are well-coached and reasonably strong and deep at all positions. They play in the NHL's toughest division, but a return to the playoffs is entirely possible. As little as a three-point improvement last season would have seen them in the league's top 10. That's probably the outer marker this time around.
Worst Case: The Jets lost forward depth in the offseason, and there's no guarantee Ondrej Pavelec's career season will carry over for a second consecutive year. Winnipeg finished 22nd overall in 2013-14, which is a fairly reasonable projection for the team's floor.