It's far too early to predict 2016 playoff spots at this stage of the summer -- plus what would we do when training camps actually start in a little less than two months? -- but it’s not too early to look at some teams that finished outside the playoff bubble last spring but look ready to knock on the postseason door next spring.
Columbus Blue Jackets
We would have had the Columbus Blue Jackets at or near the top of this list without the surprise acquisition of winger Brandon Saad from the Chicago Blackhawks this offseason. The Blue Jackets looked ready for a steady ascension after making the playoffs in 2014 and pushing the Pittsburgh Penguins to six games in the first round. But a horrific series of injuries last season -- they endured a mind-boggling 508 man games lost to injury -- pushed the Blue Jackets out of the playoff picture early in the going. What remains impressive was that, in spite of a long, daunting road back to playoff contention, the Blue Jackets were one of the top teams down the stretch, finishing 16-4-1 from March 1 on -- second in the league behind the Ottawa Senators over that stretch in winning percentage, with their 16 wins tied with the Senators for most in the league over that period. While the young, hard-working Blue Jackets looked to be back in the top eight in the Eastern Conference this season anyway, the addition of a legitimate top-line winger like Saad to play with Ryan Johansen means the Blue Jackets should be even further along the evolutionary spectrum. The loss of defensive prospect Mike Reilly to Minnesota is a blow, and there’s some work to be done in terms of the team’s defensive depth, but the accursed Civil War replica cannon should be firing aplenty this season at Nationwide Arena.
The Dallas Stars were the sexy pick last summer to make a case as a Central Division power after a surprise playoff berth in 2014. It didn’t happen, as the team couldn’t keep pace defensively or in net and missed the playoffs by seven points. Once again, though, the Stars are making noise as general manager Jim Nill continued his overhaul of the Stars roster by adding three-time Stanley Cup winner Patrick Sharp and two-time Cup-winner Johnny Oduya from the defending champion Blackhawks. The two will join newcomer Antti Niemi, who was the goalie of record in 2010 when Chicago won its first of three Cups in the past six years before signing with the San Jose Sharks that fall. The theory is that Oduya will help coalesce the defensive lineup, while Niemi will stabilize the shaky goaltending situation by pushing if not supplanting incumbent Kari Lehtonen. Those are nice theories, and adding three Cup winners is never a bad thing -- in theory. But the Central is as tough a place to play as anywhere in the NHL, so there’s still lots of work ahead for the Stars, sexy pick or not.
Los Angeles Kings
In the days leading up to the end of the regular season last April, handicapping potential Cup contenders was always qualified by whether the Los Angeles Kings made the playoffs. The Cup winners in 2012 and 2014 went from contenders to bystanders, though, missing the postseason by two points. The disappointing finish was followed by more off-ice issues for a Kings team that had been without one of their top defensemen, Slava Voynov, for most of the season after he was charged in October with domestic battery. Jarret Stoll was arrested on drug charges at a Las Vegas resort pool. And then the team moved to terminate center Mike Richards' contract after an incident at the Canada/U.S. border. It’s hard to imagine circumstances that would see any of the three returning to the team next season, and with free agent (and three-time Cup winner) Justin Williams signing with the Washington Capitals, there is a definite change afoot for the Kings. But they did add former Cup winner Milan Lucic from the Boston Bruins, and there is a strong core remaining under the direction of coach Darryl Sutter. In short, no reason the Kings shouldn’t be back in the mix, and, given their propensity for dialing it in come playoff time, no reason to think they won't be considered a top contender in the Western Conference again next spring.
San Jose Sharks
Team Trainwreck over the past 17 months since blowing a 3-0 series lead against Los Angeles in the first round of the 2014 playoffs looks to have found the rails once again. The Sharks parted ways with longtime coach Todd McLellan (now at the helm of the renaissance thinking Edmonton Oilers) and brought in Pete DeBoer, who was the head coach of a surprising New Jersey Devils team that advanced to the 2012 Stanley Cup finals before being fired midway through last season. And then general manager Doug Wilson added three key pieces in the hopes of returning the Sharks to the playoffs after missing last spring for the first time since 2003. Joel Ward, a proven playoff performer, was signed away from Washington, and Paul Martin adds veteran poise and a wide skill set to the San Jose blue line. But the biggest addition -- or at least the most important -- was the acquisition of netminder Martin Jones, who was dealt to Boston by Los Angeles in the Lucic deal and then sent back to the Pacific Division for a first-round pick. Not much of a body of work to judge Jones by, but the scouting reports are excellent and, if he can deliver on the promise as the new San Jose starter, the Sharks will definitely be back on track for a return to the postseason.
I actually started with the Florida Panthers in the fifth spot on our list but then remembered the Bruins stunning fall from grace last season. This was followed by an offseason of turmoil, including the firing of general manager Peter Chiarelli and the off-loading of regulars Dougie Hamilton, Carl Soderberg and Milan Lucic. New GM Don Sweeney was put through the meat grinder for his handling of the Hamilton trade to Calgary, and it should be a black mark on any organization when you can’t keep your own top prospects in the fold. But the Bruins aren’t as bad off as people would have you believe. We don’t mind the Matt Beleskey addition and, while he’s obviously a different player than Lucic, Beleskey showed he can play a strong two-way game in Anaheim, playing mostly with Ryan Kesler. Beleskey has 25-goal potential, maybe 30 if the streaky winger gets, well, streaky at the right time. Zdeno Chara is slowing but maybe the extra recuperative time thanks to missing the playoffs gives him more oomph this season, and there are lots of good young players on this team to go with a playoff-proven core, including David Pastrnak, Torey Krug, 6-foot-6 hometown boy Jimmy Hayes (acquired from Florida) and Brett Connolly (who was hurt after being acquired by Chiarelli at the trade deadline). This team may not be as Cup-worthy as they were when they went to the 2013 finals, but the Bruins should once again be back in the top eight in the East.