3. New Jersey Devils
The New Jersey Devils appeared to have a lot of work to do after they finished last in the eastern conference in 2016. However, the Devils quickly turned into a playoff team as they improved by 27 points in 2017 to clinch the final playoff spot in the east. The main reason that the Devils had a terrific year was because of the efforts of left wing Taylor Hall. He led New Jersey with 39 goals and 93 points this season while basically carrying the offense on his own. Rookie Nico Hischier also had a very good season for the Devils as he finished 2nd on the team with 52 points and he made a major difference for the team. Goaltender Cory Schneider had a disappointing season as he only had a 2.93 GAA in 40 games and he struggled to stay healthy. However, backup goalie Keith Kinkaid was a major key to New Jersey’s success as he had a 2.77 GAA in 41 games played. Kinkaid has now basically taken over the number 1 goalie role for the Devils and the team probably wouldn’t be in the playoffs without him. New Jersey still needs to find some more scoring depth, but they surprised basically everyone by making the playoffs this season.
2. Colorado Avalanche
The Colorado Avalanche were one of the worst NHL teams that I have ever seen in 2016 as they were by far the worst team in the NHL. However, the Avalanche made a major improvement in 2017 as they went from the worst team in the NHL to clinching the final playoff spot in the west. The main reason for Colorado’s success was due to the terrific offensive production from Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. MacKinnon played at an MVP level as he had 39 goals and 97 points to carry the Avalanche. However, Rantanen came out of nowhere to basically become an elite NHL scorer as he was 2nd on the team with 84 points. Colorado also had plenty of scoring from other players like Gabriel Landeskog, Tyson Barrie, Alexander Kerfoot, and Carl Soderberg. Semyon Varlamov struggled to stay healthy as he only played in 51 games this season. However, Jonathan Bernier stepped up in a major way as he had a 2.85 GAA in 37 games for the Avalanche this season. Colorado probably wouldn’t be nearly as good without MacKinnon and Bernier, but it is very surprising that they are a playoff team this soon.
1. Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights are in their first year as an NHL franchise, so not much was expected of them since they were a team building from scratch. However, the Golden Knights not only surprisingly became a respectable team, but they became one of the top teams in the NHL. The Golden Knights have a potent offense as they finished 5th in the NHL in scoring this season. Players like William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, David Perron, Reilly Smith, Erik Haula, and James Neal were known to be just average NHL players throughout their careers. However, those players were drafted by the Knights in the expansion draft and they ended up being dynamic scorers for the Knights this year. The Knights have a good young core moving forward and they proved that they already have tons of depth scoring. Also, the Golden Knights received terrific production from all-star goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury as he had a 2.24 GAA in 46 games. The Golden Knights weren’t even supposed to be a respectable team in 2017 due to the fact that they are an expansion team. However, the Knights far exceeded everyone’s expectations as they now are shockingly competing for a Stanley Cup title in their first season.
3. Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers seemed to be heading in the right direction after they made the playoffs during the 2016-17 season. However, Edmonton regressed in a major way as they were one of the worst teams in the western conference. Superstar Connor McDavid was pretty much the only bright spot for the Oilers as he led the NHL with 108 points this season. McDavid certainly did everything that he could to make the Oilers a competitive team, but the issue is nobody really stepped up around him. Edmonton’s power play was the worst in the NHL and the team just struggled to score goals in general. That is surprising considering the talented young forwards that they have on their roster. However, the biggest issue for the Oilers was that they just didn’t get good production out of their goaltenders. Cam Talbot was clearly the number 1 goaltender for Edmonton, but he had the worst season of his career as he had a 3.02 GAA in 67 games. Talbot is still the best goaltender that the Oilers have by far, yet he will need to play much better next year if the Oilers want to be playoff contenders. Either way, it was a very disappointing season for a team that was supposed to compete. However, if they can get better production from their goaltenders and some more depth scoring then this could be a good team next year.
2. Chicago Blackhawks
The Chicago Blackhawks have a good team, but injuries really cost the Blackhawks especially with Corey Crawford missing most of the season. Crawford only played 28 games and he played well, but the issue is that the team doesn’t have much depth at the goaltender position. Goaltending was a revolving door for the Blackhawks as they dealt with plenty of injuries and a lack of production from the position. They even had to call upon accountant Scott Foster as an emergency goalie for one game. Anton Forsberg was basically Chicago’s number 1 goalie while Crawford was out and Forsberg only had a 2.97 GAA. However, goaltending wasn’t the only issue for the Blackhawks this season. Another issue was that Chicago’s star players just didn’t step up to carry the team while Crawford was out. Patrick Kane still had a good year as he led Chicago with 76 points, but that is actually a down year by his standards. However, the players that they have relied upon in recent years like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook just didn’t have good years. Chicago will hope that Corey Crawford can stay healthy next year, but the biggest concern for Chicago was the lack of production that they received from their star players.
1. Arizona Coyotes
Many people didn’t expect much from the Coyotes as they have been an irrelevant franchise in the NHL for several years. However, it is still extremely disappointing that they were one of the worst teams in the NHL once again. In fact, Arizona was the worst team in the NHL this season as they only had 70 points. Clayton Keller was pretty much the lone bright spot for Arizona this season as he led the team with 23 goals and 65 points in his first full NHL season. Keller is only 19 years old as well, so he has an extremely bright future ahead of him. Overall, the Coyotes have a really young roster, but they just don’t have any players besides Keller that have proven that they will be franchise cornerstones for years to come. The Coyotes had a very difficult time scoring goals as Keller was the only player to have 20 goals or more this season. Arizona finished 30th in the NHL with 2.51 goals per game. The goaltending for Arizona wasn’t terrible as Antti Raanta had a very good year with a 2.24 GAA in 47 games this season. However, the backup goaltenders were a complete disaster this season and that is something Arizona must seriously address this offseason. Either way, Arizona is basically the laughingstock of the NHL right now and their young players need to finally step up if this team is ever going to be respectable.
The Toronto Maple Leafs made a major free agent addition as they signed 37-year old left winger Patrick Marleau to a 3-year/$18.75 million contract. Marleau had been with the San Jose Sharks ever since the team drafted him in 1997 and I was absolutely shocked that he didn’t stay with the Sharks for the rest of his career. Marleau decided to instead take the big offer from Toronto in order to likely finish his career with the Maple Leafs. Marleau isn’t the player that he was during his prime with the Sharks, but he is still a very productive 2nd line player as he had 27 goals for San Jose last season. The Maple Leafs had a very young roster heading into next season, so the veteran leadership of Marleau is a perfect fit for Toronto. Marleau is still a productive player, but he will be even more valuable to the team as a mentor to the talented young players on the roster like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. It is really sad to see Marleau leave San Jose considering the impact that he had on that team over the years. However, the Maple Leafs just offered him a ton of money that he couldn’t refuse at this point in his career. Toronto definitely overpaid for Marleau, but this is is a good signing for the team overall and he will be a perfect fit on the 2nd line for the Maple Leafs.
The Montreal Canadiens bolstered their defense in free agency as they signed former Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner to a 5-year/$23.125 million deal. Alzner won’t provide much offensively as his career high for points in a season is 21. However, Alzner is a good defensive player and he always has an outstanding plus/minus every season including last year when he had a career high plus 23. Alzner will likely be on the top defensive pairing along with elite defenseman Shea Weber. Alzner will be a good complement to Weber since Weber is a great offensive performer and Alzner is known as a defensive specialist. The Canadiens now have much more quality depth on defense with the addition of Alzner and it makes this team a playoff competitor for several years. If Alzner can contribute more offensively then this would be a great signing, but this at least will improve Montreal defensively and it is still a solid signing for the Canadiens.
Kevin Shattenkirk has proven himself as a top defenseman in the NHL and he is now paid like one as he signed a 4-year/$26.6 million deal with the New York Rangers. Shattenkirk is still in the prime of his career since he is only 28 years old and he will make an immediate impact on defense for the Rangers. New York really needed a good 2nd defenseman to go along with Ryan McDonagh and Shattenkirk gives the team a very good top defensive pairing. The Rangers already had enough goaltender and forward depth to be a solid playoff team, but they lacked the defense to be able to make a deep playoff run. Shattenkirk is an impact player both offensively and defensively as he had 56 points last season which is really good for a defenseman. The Rangers did pay a lot of money to sign Shattenkirk, but it is definitely worth it as he still has many years left of quality play left in him and he was probably the best free agent available this year. This is a terrific signing for the Rangers and it is another step to helping them become a more competitive team in the eastern conference.
The Dallas Stars made the biggest signing of the NHL free agency by signing right winger Alexander Radulov to a 5-year/$31.25 million contract. Radulov was considered one of the top players available in an extremely weak NHL free agent class this offseason. Radulov had a good year for Montreal as he had 18 goals and 36 assists for the Canadiens last season. However, Radulov is 31 years old and he hadn’t even played at the NHL level since 2011 until playing for Montreal last season. Dallas did have a major need for a right winger this offseason, but this signing just feels like a major reach since Radulov had been out of the NHL for so long and this contract will likely take him to the end of his career. The Stars should have just traded for a right winger or found a temporary solution in free agency rather than making a commitment to an aging player that isn’t even very good. Radulov will be an upgrade for the Stars on their first line to go along with star players Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. However, the Stars shouldn’t have overpaid for Radulov and they certainly should have given him a shorter-term deal. Radulov could make a big impact for the Stars, but this is just a really risky signing for a player that is 31 years old and still hasn’t proven himself at the NHL level.
- Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews changed the fortunes for the Toronto Maple Leafs last season as he turned Toronto from one of the worst teams in the league into a playoff team. Matthews is remarkably only 19 years old and I would be shocked if he isn’t an NHL MVP very soon. Mitch Marner also made an incredible impact for the Maple Leafs as a rookie in 2016 as he had 42 assists and he is still only 20 years old. There is no doubting that the Maple Leafs have a very capable offense for many years to come. However, for this team to become a Stanley Cup contender then they will definitely need to find a better starting goaltender. Frederik Andersen is a very good backup goalie, but the Maple Leafs need to somehow acquire a true number 1 contender in order to continue to get better. Toronto could also improve their depth at defense, but if they can find a way to find a better goaltender then this team could be tough to beat. It is amazing how good this team has become after being one of the worst teams in the NHL just a couple of years ago.
2. Edmonton Oilers
It has been awhile since Edmonton was even close to being a contender, but last year the Oilers finally made it back to the playoffs. Connor McDavid has led the Oilers resurgence as he had a remarkable 100 points last season in order to win the Hart trophy as the NHL MVP. The best part for the Oilers is that McDavid is only 20 years old and the Oilers also have another really good center Leon Draisaitl who had 77 points for Edmonton last season despite being only 21 years old. Don’t forget about Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins either as both of those players are tremendous offensive players as well. Edmonton is stacked with young talent especially on offense and that is what will carry this team probably to a championship sometime soon. Goaltender Cam Talbot had a very good year for the Oilers as well as he had a 2.39 GAA in 73 games. However, the Oilers need to find a good backup goaltender this offseason in order to take a lot of pressure off of Talbot. Also, the Oilers need to find some much more quality defenseman this offseason and if they can do so then this team will be even better next season and for many years to come.
3. Winnipeg Jets
The Winnipeg Jets came close to being a playoff team last season after having a very good rookie season from 19-year old right winger Patrik Laine who had 64 points in 2016. I expect Laine to get even better next season and add him to Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Bryan Little and suddenly the Jets have a very potent offense for the future. Winnipeg also has two good defenseman with Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba. However, for the Jets to continue to improve then they will need to add some more depth at the defense position this offseason. The thing that is really holding Winnipeg back from being a playoff team is their goaltending. Connor Hellebuyck is a decent backup goalie, but he is certainly not a good number 1 goaltender as he had a terrible 2.89 GAA last season for the Jets. Winnipeg needs to find a new number 1 goalie somehow and if they can upgrade at that position then there is no doubt that this team could make the playoffs easily.