With much of the heavy lifting done for the summer, it’s time to take stock of the 14 teams that failed to make the NHL playoffs to determine which ones have put themselves in the best position to return to the dance in 2016.
Today we’ll take a look at the Western Conference also-rans. Tomorrow, the East’s leftovers.
Los Angeles Kings (95 points, 9th)
When they fell short of a berth this season, the Kings became only the fifth team in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup and then miss the playoffs the following year. An inconsistent offense (19thin the league at 2.64 goals per game), a brutal 3-15 mark in OT and the shootout, the injury to Tanner Pearson and the loss of top-four defender Slava Voynov conspired to derail the defending champs.
The Voynov situation continues to hang over the team, and with the loss of Andrej Sekera to free agency, the defense looks shakier than it did down the stretch. Jamie McBain won’t solve that problem.
Pearson will be back to solidify the second line, but there will be plenty of new faces up front. Mike Richards, Justin Williams and Jarret Stoll are out. Milan Lucic, acquired in a trade from Boston, is in. The obstreperous winger seems like an ideal fit for the Kings, but there are reasons for concern. His points per 60 minutes numbers have declined each of the past three seasons and there are a lot of hard miles on his 27-year-old frame. It’s possible that he’ll be rejuvenated in a new setting—especially if he skates on the top line with Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik—but GM Dean Lombardi may have invested in damaged goods.
This team will be in the mix, but that defensive situation needs to be addressed before anyone makes playoff plans.
Dallas Stars (92 points, 10th)
GM Jim Nill went big with the acquisition of veteran winger Patrick Sharp and highly rated prospect Stephen Johns from Chicago in exchange for Trevor Daley and Ryan Garbutt, then addressed the newly created hole on his back end by signing Blackhawks UFA defenseman Johnny Oduya. On an in/out basis, it’s clear that these deals make the Stars a better team now than when the season ended.
Sharp is more than just a massive talent upgrade over spare-part winger Garbutt. The 33-year-old brings some Stanley Cup swagger to a roster that largely lacks big-game experience. He also adds versatility to a group that finished second in the NHL in scoring last season, averaging 3.13 goals per game.
Oduya isn’t the top pairing blueliner the Stars needed, let alone the true No. 1. He’s not especially effective at moving the puck in transition, and he won’t generate anything near what Daley could offensively. What he does bring is a stabilizing defensive presence that should help reduce the amount of time that this team spends trapped in its own zone. He’s more effective man-on-man than the smaller Daley and is less likely to crack under intense pressure. He’s also a player who can handle heavy penalty kill minutes. Those are valuable attributes that the coaching staff will love.
Oduya joins a likely top-four of Alex Goligoski, John Klingberg and Jason Demers. Not the sort of blueline that puts a scare into opponents, but it should be better than the group that ranked 19th in shots allowed (29.9 per game) this season.
With Antti Niemi battling the streaky Kari Lehtonen for playing time, and new goalie whisperer Jeff Reese on hand to keep them both on track, the Stars are primed to grab the seventh or eighth seed.
Colorado Avalanche (90 points, 11th)
Playing in the Central Division makes the Avs a longshot to get back into the hunt this time around. So does the loss of elite, two-way center Ryan O'Reilly, who was shipped off to Buffalo. He’ll be sorely missed on a penalty kill that ranked fifth in the league last season. Free-agent signing Blake Comeau will try to fill that void, but the upside isn’t there. Mikhail Grigorenko could provide some of that missing offense, but an inconsistent defensive game makes him a total wild card.
The defense was buttressed with the additions of Francois Beauchemin and Nikita Zadorov, but neither player is a sure-fire upgrade. Beauchemin can handle 20-plus minutes a night but at 35 he’s on the downside of his career. Zadorov is just the opposite. At 20, his best years are all ahead of him ... but probably a bit too far ahead for him to be a real difference maker this season. All things considered the defensive unit that ranked 21st last season should improve, but nowhere near enough to leapfrog the Kings or Stars.
San Jose Sharks (89 points, 12th)
Underperforming veterans, sophomore slumps, brutal goaltending and a fractured core combined to make the Sharks last season’s most disappointing team. It would be nice to paint 2014-15 as an aberration but even after a summer of shakeups this group is more likely to replicate its 15th-place finish in goals-for (2.73) and 24th in goals-against (2.76) than match it top-four results of both categories in 2013-14.
GM Doug Wilson brought in a new voice behind the bench in Peter DeBoer and moved on from Antti Niemi by investing in Martin Jones, an unproven starting goalie. There’s potential for improvement with this swap, but the 25-year-old is a work-in-progress. There’s also risk with the addition of defenseman Paul Martin as well. The veteran blueliner is a solid puck mover and reliable minutes muncher, but lacks the physical game to be ideally suited for the rough-and-tumble Western Conference. He should, though, make an impact on a penalty kill that was a miserable 25th last year (78.5%).
Joel Ward brings that missing physical presence and despite being 34 has relatively low mileage. He can elevate up and down the roster as needed and should be a nice add to the top-nine.
It’s tough to rule anyone out in the Pacific, especially with the Canucks looking ready to slide, but the Sharks will need to make their own breaks to earn a spot.
Edmonton Oilers (62 points, 13th)
A new GM (Peter Chiarelli). A new coach (Todd McLellan). A new superstar (Connor McDavid). A new starting goalie (Cam Talbot). A new top-pair defender (Andrej Sekera). And depth up-and-down the roster (Mark Letestu, Griffin Reinhart, Eric Gryba, Anders Nilsson, Lauri Korpikoski). It’s hard to imagine any team has had a better off-season than the Oilers, but don’t think for a minute that they’ll get a sniff of the playoffs next year, not in this stacked conference.
Arizona Coyotes (56 points, 14th)
The 'Yotes ranked 29th in goals scored (2.01) and 28th in goals allowed (3.26) last season. That’s an awful lot of ground to make up. Adding Boyd Gordon and Brad Richardson (along with repatriating Antoine Vermette and Zbynek Michalek) gives them some veteran glue but won’t solve the overlying talent deficit. Neither will the signings of Steve Downie and John Scott. This team isn’t thinking playoffs. It’s gearing up for a run at local boy Auston Mathews in the draft.
• Ten years ago today, everything changed for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
• After four seasons, Semyon Varlamov will finally have some company in Colorado.
• If it is indeed real, this tribute to the Blackhawks proves that someone has made much better use of their time this summer than the rest of us.
• The Bruins, Penguins and Sabres are said to be in talks with free agent defenseman Cody Franson. Tough financial fit for the B’s, but they clearly need him the most. Could a trade involving Torey Krug open up the cap space?
• Always nice to hear about a former player giving back to the game. Big stick tap to Brent Sopel.
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