Ranking the NHL Teams with the Most Depth for the 2015-16 Season

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistSeptember 13, 2015

Ranking the NHL Teams with the Most Depth for the 2015-16 Season

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    Assembling team depth in today's National Hockey League is a tricky balancing act. General managers must juggle short- and long-term priorities—spending enough to keep star players happy while maintaining enough salary-cap flexibility to bring in the right support players and reward prospects who evolve into bona fide NHL talents.

    More than a decade after the salary cap was first introduced, there's still no proven formula.

    One irony of the situation is that the GMs who are best at managing the salary cap are often the ones who are most tightly bound by it. Stanley Cup successes such as we've seen with the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings and Boston Bruins lead to bigger contracts that eventually lead to lots of player movement—and a lot less team depth.

    Drafting and player development have become crucial for restocking the cupboards as key players become too valuable to re-sign.

    Heading into 2015-16, here's a look at the teams that have struck the healthiest balance between icing a competitive club and bringing along fresh young talent to the NHL level.

Most Improved

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    These teams have some issues to work out but have recently taken solid steps to improve their depth.

    Buffalo Sabres

    It's unlikely the Buffalo Sabres will jump all the way from worst in the league back to playoff contention, but the team will be much improved at all positions this season. GM Tim Murray has been busy: His standout acquisitions include power forward Evander Kane, two-way center Ryan O'Reilly, emerging goaltender Robin Lehner and this year's other draft prodigy, Jack Eichel.

    The question now is whether all the new personalities will be able to jell into a cohesive team.

    Edmonton Oilers

    Yep, a team's depth can improve in a hurry when it wins the draft lottery to acquire Connor McDavid. But that's not the only move the Edmonton Oilers made this summer.

    The Oilers pumped up their organizational depth from top to bottom with adjustments on the management and coaching sides, as well as some strong trades and free-agent signings. Prospects Darnell Nurse and Leon Draisaitl also look like they're ready to stick at the NHL level.

    This isn't the first time in the last decade the Oilers have looked like they're full of promise and ready to be competitive, only to leave their fans disappointed. As with Buffalo, the playoffs will be a reach.

    Dallas Stars

    Boasting Art Ross Trophy winner Jamie Benn and sniper Tyler Seguin, the Dallas Stars are an exciting young team that had a hard time keeping the puck out of their net in 2014-15.

    General manager Jim Nill hopes he has solved the problem by adding several Stanley Cup winners to his roster. Antti Niemi will join the goaltending rotation, Johnny Oduya will steady a young blue line and Patrick Sharp will bring his game-breaking know-how to the wing.

    The young defense will be a year older, and talented Valeri Nichushkin will be back in the mix after playing just eight NHL games in 2014-15 because of groin and hip issues.

    Defensively, Dallas might not yet be all the way there, but if the season goes well, the Stars could find themselves back in the Western Conference playoff picture.

Most Depleted

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    These teams have boasted impressive depth in the past, but their success has caught up to them over the past year. 

    Chicago Blackhawks

    The Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup win in 2010 ushered in the era in which general managers are forced to part with important members of the roster in the name of staying salary-cap compliant. That year, cap casualties included Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien and Antti Niemi.

    The situation has amplified even further with Chicago's most recent victory. After Kris Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom were dealt to the Carolina Hurricanes on September 11, per NHL.com, the Blackhawks have now lost 11 of the 23 skaters who suited up for them during the 2015 playoffs—not counting Patrick Kane, whose status with the team remains uncertain.

    Los Angeles Kings

    The Los Angeles Kings are among the best in the NHL at drafting and developing young players. Their AHL affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs, enjoyed a dominant Calder Cup victory last June.

    But the Kings' success has pushed them up tight against the salary cap, and the on-ice loss of Slava Voynov because of his legal issues hurt them badly last season.

    Voynov's return remains in doubt, while longtime Kings Willie Mitchell, Justin Williams, Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards have all left the team since the 2014 Cup victory and no assets have arrived in return.

    General manager Dean Lombardi lost a big gamble when he gave up Ronald McKeown and a 2016 first-round draft pick to acquire defenseman Andrej Sekera for a grand total of 16 games at the 2015 trade deadline. Lombardi has put himself in another risky spot by giving up both Martin Jones and a first-rounder to bring in power forward Milan Lucic, who's a free agent at the end of this season.

    It's tough to keep developing young players when a team doesn't have the quality draft picks to acquire those players in the first place.

    Boston Bruins

    Yes, the Boston Bruins dominated the first round of the 2015 draft with three consecutive picks. The current dent in their depth has come at the NHL level.

    When they went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2013, Boston was considered a model of defensive depth thanks to a crop of young blueliners who looked ready to take the next step.

    Two years later, only four of the nine defensemen who appeared in the 2013 playoffs remain with the team—Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Torey Krug and Adam McQuaid. Dougie Hamilton, Johnny Boychuk, Andrew Ference, Matt Bartkowski and Wade Redden have all moved on.

    A Boston rebuild could take hold down the road, but as the team stands, the current roster will be hard-pressed to get back into the playoff picture after a year away.

6. San Jose Sharks

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    Lineup Strengths

    After a disappointing 2015-16 campaign that saw the San Jose Sharks miss the playoffs for the first time since 2003 and part ways with coach Todd McLellan, general manager Doug Wilson boosted his team's lineup during the offseason by acquiring some veteran help: power forward Joel Ward, slick defenseman Paul Martin and upstart goaltender Martin Jones. 

      

    Top Prospects

    Acquired from the Dallas Stars last November, 24-year-old Brenden Dillon is a bit old to be considered a prospect but looks like he'll be a key part of the Sharks' defensive core going forward. So too will rookies Mirco Mueller and Matt Tennyson.

    Up front, Melker Karlsson, Matt Nieto, Chris Tierney and Barclay Goodrow all provided youthful enthusiasm to the San Jose lineup in 2014-15 and should take another step forward this season.

    Potential Trouble Spots

    Leadership remains an issue for the captainless Sharks. Can old-school vets Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau truly get on board with mentoring a group of young teammates?

5. Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Lineup Strengths

    The Columbus Blue Jackets' 2014-15 performance suffered badly as a result of a rash of early injuries. As the players got healthier, the team took big strides in the second half of the year, ending the season on a stunning 15-1-1 run.

    Columbus should be even better up front in 2015-16 after acquiring two-time Stanley Cup winner Brandon Saad from Chicago in an offseason trade.

    Top Prospects

    The Blue Jackets gave up promising sniper Marko Dano in the Saad deal, but hung onto young forwards Alexander Wennberg and Kerby Rychel, who both saw some action last season.

    Sonny Milano is a super-skilled winger, but at 19, he's probably a year away from turning pro.

    Drafted second overall in 2012, Ryan Murray played just 12 games last season. A full season from him would offer a boost to the Columbus blue line. 

    Potential Trouble Spots

    David Savard's emergence has filled a hole on the Jackets' back end, but the team is lacking any real blue-chip talent coming up on defense. Like last year, a couple of key early injuries to defensemen could put a quick end to Columbus' playoff aspirations in 2015-16.

4. Ottawa Senators

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    Lineup Strengths

    A great example of how to successfully integrate minor-leaguers, the Ottawa Senators rode a great second half straight into the playoffs in 2014-15 thanks to a strong play by a group of rookies including forwards Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman and, of course, goaltender Andrew "the Hamburglar" Hammond.

    Ottawa's blue line is in good shape too, as Patrick Wiercioch and Mark Borowiecki have successfully assumed NHL responsibilities.

    Top Prospects

    The Sens are patiently bringing along high draft picks such as Curtis Lazar and Cody Ceci, but their game-changing stars seemed to emerge from nowhere last season—a pattern in Ottawa that dates all the way back to Daniel Alfredsson's humble beginnings as a sixth-round draft pick in 1994.

    This season, 22-year-old left winger Matt Puempel should be the latest AHL veteran to challenge for a roster spot.

    The Sens also scored in net during the summer by adding standout college hockey goaltender Matt O'Connor to their system as a free agent.

    Potential Trouble Spots

    Ottawa doesn't appear to be brimming with defensive depth, and stalwart Chris Phillips is nearing the end of a long career. Chances are, though, the Sens can tap another no-name to step in on the blue line if necessary.

3. Detroit Red Wings

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    Lineup Strengths

    The Detroit Red Wings boast a strong core of young forwards stepping into significant roles under elder statesmen Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.

    Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist and Riley Sheahan all delivered for Detroit in 2014-15, while free-agent signee Brad Richards brings veteran leadership and a new Stanley Cup ring from his season with Chicago.

    Veteran Johan Franzen is expected back in the lineup following the head injury he suffered in early January, according to Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press, and the Red Wings may have uncovered a goaltending gem last season in rookie Petr Mrazek.

    Top Prospects

    Two more highly skilled forwards, Dylan Larkin and Teemu Pulkkinen, are doing their best to seize roster spots with the Red Wings this season. Junior scoring sensation Anthony Mantha will try to get back on track after his broken leg and disappointing 33-point pro debut with the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins in 2014-15.

    Potential Trouble Spots

    Mike Green's addition should help boost production from the back end, but the Red Wings are still a little thin defensively. Xavier Ouellet and Alexey Marchenko both saw spot duty with Detroit last season. They could be asked to play bigger roles if injuries become an issue.

2. Winnipeg Jets

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    Lineup Strengths

    After acquiring Tyler Myers back in February, the Winnipeg Jets are now enviably deep on the blue line. Game-changer Dustin Byfuglien joins steady workhorses Toby Enstrom and Mark Stuart while emerging star Jacob Trouba continues to hone his game.

    Winnipeg general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff likes the progress of his tough team, which broke into the playoff picture for the first time last season, so he hasn't made many changes over the summer. Alex Burmistrov will be welcomed back at center after spending two seasons in the KHL.

    Top Prospects

    The Jets boast two of the best goaltending prospects around: Canadian World Junior gold-medalist Eric Comrie and 22-year-old American Connor Hellebuyck, a one-time college goaltender who took a giant step forward during his first AHL campaign in 2014-15.

    If he can stick in Winnipeg this season, undersized 19-year-old Danish sniper Nikolaj Ehlers would add a dose of speed and skill to the Jets' forward ranks. Brendan Lemieux and Nic Petan are also talented forwards who should get big-league looks in the not-too-distant future.

    On defense, Josh Morrissey is a dynamic skater with a natural offensive touch.

    Potential Trouble Spots

    Captain Andrew Ladd and anchor Byfuglien are both in their last seasons with the Jets before reaching unrestricted free agency. Their uncertain status could prove to be a distraction in the dressing room, especially if they remain unsigned as the 2016 trade deadline draws near.

1. Anaheim Ducks

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    Lineup Strengths

    Beyond the one-two punch of Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler down the middle, the Anaheim Ducks have added veteran forward depth after their third-round playoff defeat last season. Carl Hagelin brings speed and skill while Shawn Horcoff, Chris Stewart and Mike Santorelli are all value signings who could pay big dividends.

    Kevin Bieksa will add grit to a talented blue-line group that's anchored by up-and-comers Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm.

    General manager Bob Murray also acquired trustworthy Anton Khudobin as a backup to the backup, if you will, in case of an injury in the goal crease.

    Top Prospects

    A November groin injury prevented goaltender John Gibson from establishing himself as a full-time NHL player in 2014-15. He'll get another chance to make the jump this season.

    The Ducks have high hopes for defenseman Shea Theodore and forward Nick Ritchie. Both will move from junior to the pro ranks and will likely spend most of the year developing in the AHL but could get a look at some point in Anaheim.

    Potential Trouble Spots

    Nothing glaring. After last spring's playoff loss, Murray has shored up his existing cast with speed, size, skill and grit—all without breaking the bank. If his plan comes to fruition, the Ducks will live up to expectations as one of the NHL's top teams in 2015-16.