We took a look recently at five teams that could jump into the playoff fray in the coming season.
Well, none of those teams will get into the tournament in April without another team falling out. So, who are the most likely candidates to take a seat in 2016? Here's our take.
As activity swirled in the Western Conference this offseason, it seemed to more or less bypass the Canucks. And after bowing out in the first round to the Calgary Flames, this was hardly a team that seemed in a position to stand pat and assume a return trip to the postseason is in the cards.
Sure, general manager Jim Benning sent forward Nick Bonino and defenseman Adam Clendening to the Pittsburgh Penguins for useful two-way center Brandon Sutter, but if the expectation is that Sutter will jump into a No. 2 center role and produce 50-60 points, that seems like more than a bit of a stretch. Sutter had 21 goals in Pittsburgh a year ago, tying his career best, but has never topped the 40-point mark and frankly seems better suited to a third-line role.
The defense is missing Kevin Bieksa, who was dealt to Anaheim, and overall this lineup does not inspire much of anything other than "meh." That’s not going to cut it in the West.
Was there a better regular-season story than the Senators’ wild run to the postseason after appearing dead in the water at Christmas? The kids -- including Calder Trophy finalist Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman, who combined for 53 goals -- were superlative. And, of course, there was netminder Andrew Hammond, who arrived unheralded from the American Hockey League and saved the Sens’ season.
Hammond signed a three-year deal, with GM Bryan Murray deciding on a tandem of Hammond and veteran Craig Anderson, who took over for Hammond in the Sens’ first-round playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens. Odd man out Robin Lehner was shipped to the Buffalo Sabres. What gives us pause about the Sens is that they are extremely young, and two years ago when expectations were on the rise after two straight playoff berths, they took a decided step back and missed the playoffs in 2014.
Is it possible a similar regression might be in store with expectations again rising, especially if Hammond can’t produce quality starts over the long haul and Anderson continues to fight the injury bug? Yes. Not a definitive yes, but a yes nonetheless.
We view the Jets in much the same way as we do the Senators, except the Jets have no playoff experience other than this season from which to draw. There is no doubt GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has patiently and painstakingly built a big, fast, talented team that has a bright future. The Jets’ offseason was relatively quiet, though, and that means returning to the postseason in 2016 is contingent solely on talented young players taking another step forward.
That means more from Jacob Trouba, Adam Lowry, Mark Scheifele and top prospect Nikolaj Ehlers. Are they up for the challenge? We admit to wildly misjudging the Jets’ chances last season, when they ended up fifth in the Central Division and earned a wild-card spot, just the second playoff berth in franchise history dating back to the team’s time in Atlanta.
So maybe we’re fretting needlessly about a step back, but given the challenge that awaits any team in the Central in terms of finding a spot in the postseason, it’s fair to wonder if the Jets have it in them for a repeat. It’s also worth noting that the last time an NHL team in Winnipeg qualified for the playoffs in back-to-back seasons was 1992 and 1993. Just saying.
It comes down to this when it assessing the Islanders: Do you believe that the Islanders’ hard-fought, seven-game loss to the Washington Capitals in the first round is a character builder, or are they just not ready for prime time? The Isles made the playoffs in 2013 and lost to the Penguins in the first round, then took a step back by missing the playoffs in 2014, before rebounding last season.
GM Garth Snow did the bulk of his heavy lifting last fall, picking up Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk before the start of the season, but he has done little to alter his lineup this offseason. Maybe he doesn’t need to, but is goalie Jaroslav Halak -- who was rock-solid against Washington -- really the guy to get the Isles into contention? With Thomas Greiss as a backup, he’d better be.
With Columbus knocking on the door and the rest of Metropolitan Division playoff teams looking good for another return to the postseason, what gives? Is it the Islanders? Not suggesting a precipitous fall-off, but this is a team that finished only five points out of ninth place last season, and it won’t take much of a slide to for this team to find itself on the outside looking in.
Yeah, we know GM Ken Holland nabbed defenseman Mike Green during the summer. But did anyone happen to watch the tapes of the final three games of the Capitals’ second-round loss to the New York Rangers, when Green was regularly exposed by the Rangers? Enough said.
And while we like the addition of Brad Richards, who was a key part of Chicago’s run to a Stanley Cup last spring, the 35-year-old Richards joins a forward group that also includes the aging Johan Franzen (a battered 35), Henrik Zetterberg (34) and Pavel Datsyuk (37).
With Datsyuk coming off injury and perhaps not available until after the start of the season, with the goaltending situation still in a state of flux and this all under rookie head coach Jeff Blashill, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the Wings' improbable run stops at 24 straight playoff appearances.