One of the cruelties of the Stanley Cup playoffs — and really all of sports — is that the best team doesn’t always win, just the team that is playing the best at the time, has the bounces go its way, and puts together a run of 16 victories over a grueling two months of hockey.
The Capitals, after years of being the best team in the regular season before collapsing come playoff time, flipped the script in June. After 40 years of waiting, the Capitals finally climbed the mountain, and won four playoff series, capturing their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
But practically speaking, even in the midst of an offseason that has seen general manager Brian MacLellan maneuver into keeping the club’s most important pieces, Washington isn’t the best team. Neither are the Golden Knights, the Capitals’ surprise Stanley Cup opponent that tore through the NHL during their inaugural expansion season.
WINNERS LOSERS: Maple Leafs take Cup leap; Islanders left in dust
The best team in the NHL resides in the Western Conference, and didn’t even make it out of the second round of the 2018 playoffs.
Margins for error come playoff time are incredibly slim. The Predators lost in a Game 7 against the Jets, one of the other best teams in all of hockey that happens to play in Nashville’s division, another cruel reality for teams in the divisional playoff format.
While the Predators haven’t done much of note this offseason (translation: they’ve done absolutely nothing), they didn’t need to. Nashville finished with a franchise-record and President’s Trophy-winning 117 points last season. They’re not losing any of their current firepower, and could incorporate rookie Eeli Tolvanen to add depth scoring. Pekka Rinne is coming off one of the best seasons of his career and, even if he’s due for a regression in the crease, should still provide Nashville with good enough goaltending to get them to where they need to be.
Rewind to 2016, when the Capitals were coming off a torrid 120-point regular season that ended yet again with a second-round playoff defeat at the hands of the Penguins. In the coming months, Washington didn’t do much of anything, instead opting to give it another go with its current cast of characters. Lo and behold, their encore performance grooved to the tune of 118 points.
And yes, that team was met with a familiar fate of the second-round exit meeting with the Penguins, but there’s not a whole lot more it could have done. In a seven-game, coin-flip series, a bounce or two can make all the difference. The Capitals learned that all too well in 2018 when they eked out a seven-game Eastern Conference final against the Lightning, undoubtedly the better team.
Less can be more in terms of offseason personnel decisions for teams at the extreme ends of the NHL spectrum. It can be frustrating to watch from a fan perspective but, fear not, the regular season is right around the corner, when wins a plenty will be back in the cards.
1. Nashville Predators
Sounds a lot like Nashville will (eventually) get a contract extension done with Ryan Ellis, with him being scheduled for free agency in the summer of 2019. Between Ellis, P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm and Roman Josi, the Predators ice a top four on defense that makes them incredibly difficult to play against. It’s probably tops in the NHL, unless the team that comes next in the power rankings makes a big splash …
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
Completely reserve the right to have Tampa leapfrog to No. 1 if they acquire Erik Karlsson from the Senators (the argument can still be made, sans Karlsson). But here’s where the Lightning stand. Even without the services of Karlsson, they still run out defending Norris-winner Victor Hedman along with Ryan McDonagh and Anton Stralman. They got Nikita Kucherov to re-sign for eight years under one of those Steve Yzerman voodoo contracts, taking an ostensible discount that will help keep the band together. They bring back Yanni Gourde and Brayden Point on their ridiculously cheap entry-level deals, unless of course one of them is included in a potential Karlsson trade.
The funny thing about that, too, is that it’s likely the Lightning will offload one of their bad contracts (like Ryan Callahan or Braydon Coburn) to free up money for Karlsson, even if that costs an additional prospect (like a Cal Foote). They’ll still be better for it.
3. Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto formed up part of the Atlantic Division’s three-headed monster along with Tampa and Boston this past season and, oh yeah, they signed free agent mega-star John Tavares (in case you didn’t hear). Not many teams (exactly zero) have the center depth Toronto boasts, with Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri filling out the depth chart. Interested to see if defensive usage changes with Kyle Dubas installed as the new GM. A little bit of addition by subtraction with Roman Polak headed to Dallas. Need to move away from 20-plus minutes a night for Nikita Zaitsev and Ron Hainsey.
4. Winnipeg Jets
If the Jets retained everyone on the roster that made the Western Conference finals, there’s a real argument to have them at No. 1. But as it stands, Winnipeg moved out Joel Armia to create cap space for Paul Stastny, only to see the latter bolt for more money in Vegas. That’s a tough pill to swallow, even if it helps Kevin Cheveldayoff sign some of his pending free agents — Jacob Trouba (RFA) this summer, and Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor in 2019. They finished second in the NHL last season, though and that included six weeks without Mark Scheifele.
5. Washington Capitals
Impressive to see how MacLellan has finessed this offseason, trading Philipp Grubauer to dump Brooks Orpik’s contract to extend John Carlson, while also fitting in new deals for Michal Kempny and Devante Smith-Pelly. It’s like your friend at the lunch table who starts out with an eraser and somehow makes like seven trades to end with a Snack Pack. Biggest questions for the Capitals as they enter the season as defending champions: 1.) Will Alex Ovechkin have sobered up yet, and 2.) How sore will his arms be from holding the Stanley Cup over his head for approximately two months straight?
6. Boston Bruins
One of those teams that tried to make a few impact additions this summer but missed on them all. They were in on both Ilya Kovalchuk and John Tavares but came up empty. There’s also the question of Rick Nash’s status, and even if Nash decides to return to hockey, there’s no guarantee it’s in Boston. Have to really like the youth the Bruins are returning, remembering they also played the postseason without defenseman Brandon Carlo.
7. Pittsburgh Penguins
They still have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel (no, he didn’t get traded). The Jack Johnson signing seems bad, but if they can find the right role for him (sheltered, third-pairing minutes and maybe some special teams time) he should be fine (it’s just, you don’t give those guys five-year contracts). Also intrigued by Mike Sullivan having Derick Brassard for a full year, and how he can re-jig the lineup to get the most out of the forward group.
8. Vegas Golden Knights
The Stastny signing gives them some really nice depth down the middle, with the option to drop Erik Haula to the third line. They’re also still one of the teams reportedly in on Erik Karlsson, so that could change the outlook of this team pretty quickly. Really interesting arbitration hearing upcoming with William Karlsson (if it gets there). He’s 25 years old, just scored 43 goals over 82 games after scoring 18 in his first 183, and also shot 23.4 percent. He shouldn’t be paid like a 40-goal scorer, even for a team swimming in cap space.
9. St. Louis Blues
There are a bunch of reasons to be high on St. Louis. After losing a postseason play-in game against the Avalanche in game No. 82, the Blues essentially flip Ryan O’Reilly into the spot Paul Stastny occupied for most of the season (definite upgrade). Even in overpaying to add Tyler Bozak as the 3C, it’s still going to help shore up that line. They’ll get a fully healthy Jaden Schwartz, and possibly re-incorporate both Robby Fabbri and Zach Sanford, who both missed all of 2017-18 with injuries. If the Blues can get some goaltending and figure out the defensive deployment, they’re clearly the third-best team in the Central — and maybe the conference.
10. Columbus Blue Jackets
Funny to think that the Blue Jackets had Washington down 2-0, heading back to Columbus and on the ropes in the first round. Still don’t love Columbus’ center depth but you can do worse than building around players like Seth Jones and Zach Werenski on defense. This Artemi Panarin situation is going to hang over them until there’s a resolution, and if he is traded in-season, do you look for a package of future assets, or try to get guys who can jump in and contribute right away?
11. Los Angeles Kings
For a team that couldn’t score goals, bringing in Ilya Kovalchuk makes a ton of sense, even if three years is too long. The Kings’ biggest problem is that they’ve committed long-term dollars to a bunch of older players, but that doesn’t hurt them in a here-and-now power rankings. A healthy Jeff Carter and Kovalchuk’s addition should go a long way in correcting some of Los Angeles’ offensive woes.
12. Philadelphia Flyers
The James van Riesmdyk signing gives them another bona fide scorer in the top six, and they obviously had to open up the wallet a bit on that one. Wayne Simmonds had been rumored to be on the trade block, and he’s on one of the best contracts in all of hockey (entering the final season of a six-year deal that paid him $3.975 million annually). If Simmonds is moved, you’d like to get a pretty decent return, even for an expiring contract. Still only going to go as far as the goaltending can carry them (ie: likely eliminated in the first round of the playoffs).
13. San Jose Sharks
Another team that swung for the fences in the offseason but hasn’t connected. They’re not finished, a source told Sporting News, and have shifted their interest to the Hurricanes’ Jeff Skinner. Otherwise, it’s largely the same group as a year ago that looked really good, returning a 39-year-old Joe Thornton, who is a bit of a wildcard given his recent injury history. Adding another forward in the top six would certainly help San Jose’s cause.
14. Minnesota Wild
A quiet offseason for a club that’s firmly a playoff contender but, beyond that? There were rumors they might try to shake things up, moving one of their established, younger assets like a Charlie Coyle or a Nino Niederreiter. With new general manager Paul Fenton leading the charge, now seems like a logical time for change for a group that’s qualified for the postseason each of the past six seasons, but has only two series victories to show for it.
15. Dallas Stars
The good news: If it wasn’t for a late-season collapse — one that saw the Stars go 1-7-2 from March 11-29 — the Stars were firmly a playoff team. The bad news? Dallas was another one of those teams that had its name attached to “the big guys” this summer, but hasn’t made progress on any of those fronts. Jim Nill and Co. got a meeting with Tavares, but not a signature. They remain firmly in the conversation on Karlsson, and it’s kind of puzzling why Nill is so reluctant (given what the public knows) to include prospect Miro Heiskanen in a package going back to Ottawa. Heiskanen could be a really solid NHL defenseman. Karlsson is already the best defenseman on the planet.
16. Anaheim Ducks
It would be nearly impossible for Anaheim to have to deal with the same injury nightmares come 2018-19 it did a season ago. With the group fully healthy, the Ducks emerge with probably the most center depth in the division, their top-three pivots reading Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler and Adam Henrique. Early spoiler: John Gibson will be the 2019 Vezina winner. Seems like the teams atop the Pacific are pretty even, and the Ducks are firmly in this group.
17. Colorado Avalanche
The Avalanche jumped a few steps ahead of where many expected them to be at this point of their rebuild (re-tool?) by qualifying for the playoffs a year ago. That being said, it took an MVP-worthy season from Nathan MacKinnon, and lots of guys playing at the top of their game. The blue line still needs some work, though Samuel Girard looks like a bona fide player, and Cale Makar, heading back to play another season at UMass-Amherst, could be another great piece. Maybe the best news entering this season for Colorado? They own the Senators’ 2019 first-round pick, which enters as the clubhouse favorite for the coveted No. 1 overall pick.
18. Florida Panthers
While adding Mike Hoffman helps infuse a bit more scoring into a group that needs some, one can’t help but scratch his or her head and wonder how different this team would look with the services of Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, whom the Panthers handed to Vegas in the expansion draft. Florida is going to be a popular pick to rebound and make the playoffs. They nearly pushed into them in 2018, falling a single point short of that goal after tearing off a 25-8-2 stretch to finish the regular season, the best record in the NHL from Jan. 30 on. The biggest issue facing the Panthers? There’s a pretty wide gap between the top three in the division (Tampa, Toronto, Boston) and Florida. That means likely tussling with a few Metro teams for those final wild card spots.
19. New Jersey Devils
Another team that defied 2018 expectations by getting back to the playoffs. The two major concerns in New Jersey have to be: 1.) The lack of secondary scoring behind 2018 Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall, and 2.) New Jersey did nothing to fix it this offseason. That they’ve been rumored to be one of the teams willing to eat a bad contract in a potential three-team Karlsson trade may tell you a bit about where the front office thinks the franchise is at. The Devils started last season 21-9-5 but went 22-20-4 the rest of the way — an 82-game pace of 85 points.
20. Calgary Flames
Really curious how the Flames line up on opening night for a number of reasons. Looks a lot like T.J. Brodie will be back with Mark Giordano on defense — great news for the former, coming off a down year; bad news perhaps for new acquisition Noah Hanifin, who may be paired with Travis Hamonic. Up front, it seems like a really bad idea for Calgary to break up its dominant second line of Matthew Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik, but the top six is getting a bit crowded after the additions of James Neal and Elias Lindholm. Calgary certainly should improve its bottom six in that regard, but it came at the cost of Dougie Hamilton, one of those trades you just scratch your head at.
21. Chicago Blackhawks
It’s valid to point out where the Blackhawks were pre-Corey Crawford injury versus post injury, but it’s never a great recipe to put so many eggs in your crease. There’s still so much cap tied up with all that money tied up in players who produce commensurately. Maybe they help makes the teams overall deficiencies, but again, those will eventually get exposed.
22. Carolina Hurricanes
Another team whose offseason feels like it isn’t over. They’ve long been rumored to be considering trading Jeff Skinner, and there aren’t generally many 26-year-old wingers who are six-time 20-plus goal scorers available on the trade market. The goaltender remains potentially problematic, barring a big bounce back from Scott Darling. The defense is still spectacular, highlighted by them somehow stealing Dougie Hamilton from Calgary.
23. Edmonton Oilers
On the one hand, a lot went wrong in Edmonton last season, and taking a year-over-year approach, it seems like some things are bound to regress in Edmonton come this season. The team shot 7.44 percent at 5-on-5, compared to 8.29 in 2017, when they reached the playoffs. Will Todd McLellan continue to play Leon Draisaitl with Connor McDavid? Draisaitl is obviously the best version of himself when playing with No. 97, but if the Oilers can’t get any production outside of their top line, they’re not going anywhere.
24. Arizona Coyotes
You get the feeling Alex Galchenyuk is going to be good for an easy 25 goals playing with Clayton Keller (if the Coyotes go that route). Either way, it was a good example of buying really low on an asset. It’s a young group that is only going to mature and ease into the next phases of its rebuild. If Antti Raanta gives them another strong year in goal (with a bit more usage) they might be able to make things interesting for longer than most expect.
25. New York Islanders
If we’re being honest, the Islanders should really tear it the hell down. Trade Anders Lee, embrace failure, and please, stop giving fourth-line forwards term. Obviously, the Tavares decision was a giant fork-in-the-road moment for the franchise. Yes, it has a new regime in Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz, but these early personnel moves by the former (not even talking about Tavares) really shouldn’t inspire much confidence. He re-acquired Matt Martin after signing him to a bad contract in Toronto, and has brought in Valtteri Filppula and Leo Komarov. Just a strange series of moves.
Here’s a look at which teams have added the most this off-season through signings and trades.
*Fun note: all of NYI’s additions have carried negative values (i.e. below replacement level)* pic.twitter.com/cD2hKfVi6o
— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) July 6, 2018
26. New York Rangers
They’re not good, but they’re trying to not be good, which will eventually be rewarded, just not in a power rankings. Look for the Rangers to continue to push to be the third team in the Karlsson sweepstakes filling the role of “we’ll take your bad contract and B-level prospect.”
27. Detroit Red Wings
Filip Zadina at No. 6 in the NHL Draft really was a steal, and gives the Red Wings the dynamic scorer they’ve been lacking. Still feels like they need a definitive direction, though. Great haul at the draft, but bringing back Mike Green on a two-year deal and keeping them close to the cap ceiling doesn’t fit the script (though they could just turn around and actually trade him at this year’s deadline).
28. Buffalo Sabres
Rasmus Dahlin makes them better, just still not really competitive. It’s likely they’ll end up right back in the draft lottery, and that’s totally fine, because Buffalo’s main objective should be just accruing young, promising talent. Is this the year Alex Nylander finally becomes an NHL regular?
29. Vancouver Canucks
We’ve now entered the tragically Canadian portion of the power rankings. Vancouver has a few really nice pieces to build around up front, namely Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson. Quinn Hughes could also pan out very nicely and be a cornerstone defenseman for years to come. Those things are great! What’s not so great is going out and giving terms to guys like Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel screams “identity crisis.” Until Vancouver can truly figure out the philosophical nature of a rebuild, they’re going to be mired in this corner of the league.
30. Montreal Canadiens
Unfathomable to think the Canadiens could go a three-year stretch in which they trade away P.K.Subban, Mikhail Sergachev (who could end up being the centerpiece of a Karlsson trade), Alex Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty. The recent Shea Weber injury news is pretty emblematic of the state of things in Montreal. Weber underwent this knee procedure June 19, but the team waited until July 5 — a full 16 days — to disclose the information to the public. The reasoning in that announcement was, “Due to the complexity of the situation from a medical standpoint, and to avoid any distractions, it has been decided in the best interest of the Canadiens’ organization, to proceed with this announcement following the NHL Draft and the free-agency period.” Sure!
31. Ottawa Senators
Really not much to be said that already hasn’t. Trade away Mike Hoffman due to an off-ice issue to an out-of-division team only for them to in turn flip him to an in-division team for more. Assistant general manager is currently facing two counts of harassment for an incident with a 19-year-old shuttle driver. About to trade their generational, all-world captain because he won’t extend (or they won’t pay) and have had trouble getting good enough offers, in the midst of trying to dump another bad contract (Bobby Ryan’s) in the trade. And while they played the percentages in keeping their 2018 first-round pick, which they used to select Brady Tkachuk, you just know this chapter of Senators ineptitude will end with the Avalanche selecting Jack Hughes with the No. 1 pick in 2019. You just know it.