It happens so often, people should start expecting it. Every year, a couple, or at least one team in the NHL rises from the ashes of their previous season and claim a playoff spot, sometimes even to the top of their division. The past few seasons, we’ve seen teams like the Florida Panthers, New York Islanders, Montreal Canadiens and this year the Colorado Avalanche all make runs to the playoffs.
This year, the Avalanche went from 15th in the Western Conference to first in the NHL’s Central Division and just four points behind the Anaheim Ducks for the top seed in the West. A few more wins even would’ve given them the President’s Trophy. Though they lost in Game 7 against Minnesota in the first round, it was still a remarkable turnaround for the Colorado Avalanche. A new head coach in Patrick Roy and adding Nathan MacKinnon with the first overall pick went a long way for them.
The Tampa Bay Lightning also enjoyed a great step forward with rookie head coach Jon Cooper and the spectacular goaltending of Ben Bishop. They finished second in the Atlantic Division with 101 points. The fact they were swept by the Habs doesn’t diminish the tremendous progress they made.
A key offseason trade for Tyler Seguin and hiring of GM Jim Nill and coach Lindy Ruff helped the Dallas Stars return to the postseason.
The question is, which team can enjoy a similar turnaround in the NHL next season? Is there a team in a good position to do that? Here are five possible teams. The important elements for a turnaround from these teams will include finding the right head coach, some key depth moves in free agency and breakout seasons from a rookie or just a young player in general.
5) Edmonton Oilers (29-44-9 in 2013-14)
It’s got to happen at some point, right? We ask ourselves this same question about the Edmonton Oilers year after year, and the passionate fans of Edmonton keep getting disappointed.
Management seems inept, the team is comprised of too many similar players, providing little balance and goaltending remains an issue.
Still, sometimes talent just has a knack for taking over. Currently, the Oilers have a projected $28.5 million in cap space to work with, meaning they could sign a couple of defencemen if they so choose and once again have a high draft pick, this time third overall.
Perhaps they could trade their pick for immediate help, perhaps they trade one of their current young stars to address other needs in their lineup.
All we know in Edmonton is that things cannot simply continue the way they’re going. There are only so many years you can say you’re in a rebuild. After five years or so, it just becomes a lame excuse for ineptitude. The Oilers haven’t made the playoffs since their run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006 and you can only jerk the fans around for so long.
Still, Edmonton’s young core still makes crazy things possible. Maybe Nail Yakupov bounces back. Maybe Viktor Fasth or Ben Scrivens have a spectacular season. Maybe Dallas Eakins gets more out of his team in a second year of coaching.
Based on their talent level, the Oilers should be higher on this list, but there are just too many uncertainties to bump them higher.
4) Washington Capitals (38-30-14 in 2013-14)
The Washington Capitals only missed the playoffs by three points, so it may be a bit of a stretch to say a playoff appearance next season would be a dramatic turnaround. However, the Washington Capitals have consistently been underachievers in their recent history.
They’ve assembled one of the most naturally talented teams in the NHL, yet haven’t made it past the second round since 1998.
Some have argued it’s time for the Capitals to trade Alexander Ovechkin, because while he consistently is among the league’s leading scorers, it hasn’t translated into team success in the playoffs.
It’s unfair to simply blame Ovechkin for Washington’s playoff failures, but sometimes an organization needs a major shakeup to turn things around.
The Capitals have made it to the playoffs in six of the last seven seasons, advancing to the second round three times, and bouncing in the first round three times.
They’ve switched coaches several times going from Bruce Boudreau, to Dale Hunter to Adam Oates. They’re all gone and so is longtime general manager George McPhee.
Whoever the new GM is, it’s still unlikely they trade their superstar in Alex Ovechkin. A trade like that would likely have to come with owner Ted Leonsis’s blessing and it’s a hard sell.
Something rather drastic must be done though, because their goal shouldn’t be simply to make the playoffs. They should be aiming for deep runs.
Their talent level makes it possible to happen rather quickly if the next GM makes the right moves, including finding the right coach and shaping the roster the right way.
3) Carolina Hurricanes (36-35-11 in 2013-14)
The Carolina Hurricanes have very quietly missed the playoffs for five straight seasons. When they make they playoffs, they always seem to go far; finals appearance in 2002, cup win in 2006 and surprise run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2009.
Ron Francis is now running the show in Carolina and Kirk Muller is out as head coach. Muller’s work was admirable with a below average team, but the organization wanted a fresh start. The next coaching hire is crucial, as it will be Francis’s first big move.
Cam Ward hasn’t quite elevated his game, and has been injury prone, and the team seems to lack the depth necessary to go far. They have great top-line talent in Eric and Jordan Staal, plus Jeff Skinner. Alexander Semin, while overpaid, is a good talent.
The Canes need help on defence badly. Anton Khudobin was actually good while Ward was hurt, playing 36 games and sporting a 2.30 GAA and .926 SV%. If Kudobin improves further, maybe he can have a breakout year and help the Canes back to the playoffs. We’ve certainly seen great goaltending carry a team further than they should go before. A great goaltender is usually the reason for a team overachieving.
Who’s to say Khudobin can’t be that guy? We saw Semyon Varlamov, Ben Bishop and Sergei Bobrovsky do it.
2) New Jersey Devils (35-29-18 in 2013-14)
We mustn’t forget that the New Jersey Devils are just two years removed from a run to the Stanley Cup Final. Since then, they’ve lost Ilya Kovalchuk to the KHL, have traded for Corey Schneider and lost Zach Parise in free agency.
Some tough breaks for the Devils, yet they weren’t all that bad in 2013-14. They finished five points behind the Detroit Red Wings for the final playoff spot.
Their terrible start of the season, (0-4-3) came back to haunt them, as those points proved too valuable to lose.
They had some bright spots, including the play of the ageless Jaromir Jagr, who led the team in scoring with 67 points. The downside? You shouldn’t be counting on guys over 40 years old to carry the scoring.
Their goaltending stats were pretty good, as Cory Schneider in 45 games had a 1.97 GAA and .921 SV% while Martin Brodeur had a 2.51 GAA but a mediore .901 SV%. Is there room for both goalies? Would the Devils let their legendary goaltender walk and build the rest of their lineup?
They led the league in penalty killing and allowed the sixth fewest goals. However, they were 27th in goals scored and need some firepower. As it stands now, the Devils have $17 million in cap room for next season, so they could add a scorer.
The organization never seems to stay down for long, so a climb back up the Metropolitan division should not be discounted.
1) Florida Panthers (29-45-8 in 2013-14)
Based on their resources, talent level and commitment from ownership, the Florida Panthers are in a good spot to turn things around quicker than people think.
They have a lot of young talent in Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad.
Brian Campbell is still a productive player and their goaltending issue is solved for now, with Roberto Luongo set to return for his first full season back in Florida.
Bad contract aside, Luongo is still a great upgrade from what Florida had and solves their problem for now.
The Panthers also won the draft lottery, despite finishing with more points than the last-place Buffalo Sabres. A range of possibilities exist for the Panthers with the no.1 pick. There’s no clear cut top prospect like a Nathan MacKinnon, Steven Stamkos or Sidney Crosby in years past. Maybe the Panthers use the pick, maybe they trade it.
Having only made the playoffs once in the past 13 years, maybe the Panthers see urgency to win now. General manager Dave Tallon likely won’t get many more chances.
New owner Vinnie Viola appears to be set to foot the bill to help the Panthers improve quickly. They have $30 million in cap space to work with this offseason.
If I were the Panthers, I’d be calling the San Jose Sharks, who, after yet another disappointing playoff series loss may be looking to reshape the identity of their team, a team loaded with talent but unable to find playoff success. It’s just a thought.
A new head coach is coming in, as Peter Horacheck was let go, to take over a team at the bottom in every statistical category you could think of. They were 29th in goals scored and goals allowed and dead last in both categories of special teams. Your leading scorer can’t be a guy with just 38 points (Bjugstad).
However, as bleak as it’s looked for the Panthers, they have all the ingredients for a quick turnaround. A big trade, a few key UFA signings and getting it right with the first pick would go a long way for them next season.