Ducks perched atop NHL 2015-16 Preseason Power Rankings
With the regular season at hand, here's how we see the league's 30 teams stacking up as they come out of the gate. SI.com's Sam Page contributed to these sage appraisals. Previous position refers to a team’s final league standing at the end of the 2014-15 campaign.
NOTE: These rankings were created using our patented algorithm derived from Ancient Tibetan accounting principles and calibrated according their mean affect on your blood pressure and tooth enamel. All torch and pitchfork bearing readers are kindly advised to gather outside the loading dock at the Time-Life Building in New York City. A representative will be down shortly to answer for our sins. While you wait, why not try the SI.com NHL Power Rankings drinking game? Each time you see "Watch some hockey, you idiots!" in the comments section below or entertain that very thought, take a hearty swig. If you imbibe a consciousness-altering elixir be sure to have a designated driver or experienced EMT available. Thank you.
After raising the Stanley Cup, Chicago captain Jonathan Toews praised the Ducks at the toughest challenge his team faced along the way to the title. A gracious sentiment to be sure, but after three consecutive Pacific Division titles Anaheim aspires to be something more than another team’s most memorable speed bump. Looking to change the pattern, GM Bob Murray used a glut of cap space to shore up his team’s depth at every position. He brought in Carl Hagelin and Chris Stewart to add some punch to an offense that ranked a middling 11th (2.78 goals per game), Kevin Bieksa to lend some belligerence to the blueline and goaltender Anton Khudobin to provide a steadying presence in support of Frederik Andersen. The end result is a team that’s loaded up and down the roster and hungry to return the compliment to Toews next spring.
The Lightning’s biggest weakness entering 2015-16 may be their own recent success. Opponents now know they have to plan for The Triplets (forwards Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat) as well as captain Steven Stamkos, who should benefit from playing alongside playmaking wizard Jonathan Drouin. Netminder Ben Bishop built upon his breakout 2013-14, but his .916 save percentage last year was buoyed by a strong penalty kill (83.7%). If he regresses, Tampa Bay may have to turn to 21-year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy sooner than it would like, though he will miss the first three months of the season after surgery to remove a blood clot in near his left collarbone.
Any other year and the defending Stanley Cup champs would be an automatic for the top spot ... but this isn’t any other year, is it? Cap issues forced a significant roster overhaul in the wake of that victory, with key performers like Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya replaced by budget-friendly newcomers Artem Anisimov, Artemi Panarin and Trevor Daley. And there’s no escaping the lingering cloud of Patrick Kane and the sexual assault allegations he’s been facing. Sure, this team still has elite talent and enviable depth, but all things considered this ranking may be too generous.
The Capitals always seem to be something less than the sum of their parts, a dangerous team on paper that lacks the intangibles to play up to their potential. So why do we think this is the year that all changes? The additions of Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie up front add depth and clutch scoring, but the reasons for optimism are internal. Braden Holtby is an excellent netminder on the verge of establishing himself as elite. Evgeny Kuznetsov is primed for a breakout season as Washington’s second-line center. And after a year of playing Barry Trotz hockey, Alex Ovechkin is set to turn in his best all-around season yet. Believe it, Caps fans: With the help of a bounce or two going their way, this could be the year.
The mighty Blues morph into the Washington Generals every spring, but even after years of epic playoff underachievement, there’s no denying that this is an excellent regular-season side. There’s depth at every position from the net on out, and a game-breaking superstar in the sublimely gifted Vladimir Tarasenko. If defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk can stay healthy (he missed 26 games last season) and captain David Backes can keep his contract situation on the backburner, the Blues should challenge for the Presidents’ Trophy.
The key pieces are in place. MVP candidate John Tavares leads a deep and talented group of forwards. Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy headline a defense that allowed just 28.3 shots per game, sixth-best in the league. And goaltender Jaroslav Halak proved himself capable of backstopping a contender with a club record-smashing season. But to take the next step, the Isles need a big season from their kids. Ryan Strome, 22, and Brock Nelson, 23, ranked third (with 50 points) and fifth (42 points), respectively, on the league’s fourth-highest-scoring team in 2014-15. In the salary-cap era, scoring depth is a function of teams aggressively promoting inexperienced skill players. And after drafting high so often (five top five picks since 2009), the Islanders boast a nonpareil stable of forward prospects.
Full marks to GM Jim Rutherford. He identified his team’s most pressing need—depth up front—and then he went out and got it. Phil Kessel is far from a perfect player, but his arrival gives Sidney Crosby an elite finisher for the first time in his career. And after posting an uncharacteristically low shooting percentage last season (8.9%) Kessel is due for a big rebound. Evgeni Malkin will have a new winger, too, in 25-year-old KHL vet Sergei Plotnikov. Eric Fehr and Nick Bonino will add some skill and experience to the bottom-six. There are legitimate concerns about a defense corps that has struggled mightily in the preseason, but a healthy Kris Letang and Olli Maatta should make an impact.
Not to overlook a defense that appears to be a bit overmatched, especially a top pairing that apparently will feature David Savard and Jack Johnson, but this team could challenge for the Metro Division title. Brandon Saad adds another layer of menace to an already big, deep and scary good group of forwards, and Sergei Bobrovsky has Vezina-worthy tools. If promising d-man Ryan Murray can stay healthy, Columbus will take a big step towards contention in 2015-16.
The Preds held a share of the top spot in the league as late as March 15 before stumbling to the finish line with just six wins in their final 20 games. So, which of those teams shows up this season? With goalie Pekka Rinne healthy and Roman Josi poised to challenge for the Norris Trophy, they'll be fearsome in their own end. But the offense leans too heavily on Mike Ribeiro and Mike Fisher, a pair of diminishing 35-year-old assets, for this team to be taken as a serious contender.
Don’t buy forecasts of regression from the #fancystats crowd. After stealing Dougie Hamilton from Boston in a draft day trade, the Flames might dress the best defense in the game. They lack similar depth up front, but Calder runner-up Johnny Gaudreau (24-40-64), dynamic center Sean Monahan (31 goals) and promising winger Sam Bennett have them poised to take another step forward.
The best defensive effort in franchise history powered the Jets to their first playoff berth since the franchise’s move to Winnipeg. Can the offense move the chains this time around? Winnipeg relies on a scoring-by-committee approach, led by Andrew Ladd (62 points) and Blake Wheeler (26 goals), but 22-year-old center Mark Schiefele is poised for a breakthrough season. Keep an eye on big backliner Tyler Myers, who scored 15 points in 24 games after joining the Jets. If he comes close to that pace, he could make Dustin Byfuglien expendable.
Can the Stars live up to all their preseason hype? The most potent offense in the Western Conference added two intriguing weapons over the summer in Patrick Sharp (trade) and Valeri Nichushkin (return from season-long injury). And the defense looks much more sure-footed with Johnny Oduya (free agency) and Patrik Nemeth (injury) in place to clear up their own end. But to take a step forward Dallas requires a return to form from goalie Kari Lehtonen or newcomer Antti Niemi, and neither of those aging veterans is a safe bet after a very rocky preseason.
After reaching the playoffs for the 24th straight season, the Red Wings go for 25 without longtime coach Mike Babcock. His replacement, Jeff Blashill, already knows Detroit’s pattern of success, having won the Calder Cup with AHL affiliate Grand Rapids in 2013. They Wings will be without Pavel Datsyuk (ankle), Darren Helm (concussion, separated shoulder) and Danny DeKeyser (foot ligaments) early on, but a pair of free agent signings—center Brad Richards and defenseman Mike Green—and top prospect Dylan Larkin should help get them off to a solid start.
Stanley Cup champs in 2014. Playoff DNQ in 2015. Add in a tumultuous off-season and the Kings reign as the West’s ultimate wild card. The trade for Milan Lucic adds a physical presence with 30-goal potential to their top-six forwards. Attrition issues on the back end, though, highlighted by Slava Voynov's return to Russia after serving his sentence for domestic assault, suggest it’ll be touch-and-go for this team.
Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist will keep New York in the mix even as the offense copes with the losses of speedy winger Carl Hagelin (to Anaheim) and veteran forward Martin St. Louis (retired). Alain Vigneault is one of hockey’s best bench bosses, but with $11.2 million of New York’s cap space devoted to overrated defensemen Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, Vigneault is too often stuck coaching around his roster’s limitations.
Remember last season when Ottawa rode an unbeatable rookie netminder and a pair of freshmen scoring sensations to a 23-4-4 finish and a berth in the Eastern Conference playoffs? Yeah, you won’t get that this time around. Best case scenario? After a relatively quiet summer, the young Sens deliver a more consistent game that won’t require a miraculous finishing kick to get them into the dance. The pressure’s clearly on Andrew Hammond, who’ll miss the first two weeks with a groin injury, to demonstrate that he can be a reliable No. 1 or 1A during the course of an entire 82-game campaign.
The Panthers went 12-7-2 after acquiring Jaromir Jagr at the deadline, a pace that would put them near the 100-point mark if they could maintain it over a full schedule. And why wouldn’t they? While Jagr’s essentially a blown gasket away from being towed to the junkyard, the rest of this club is young enough to have cared about that Zac Efron EDM movie. The Panthers are loaded with potential breakthrough players, including Nick Bjugstad, Sasha Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Brandon Pirri and Vincent Trochek. This could be a big year for the Cats.
What will netminder Devan Dubnyk offer as an encore to his MVP-worthy 2014-15 campaign? The 29-year-old journeyman singlehandedly salvaged a season that was on the brink when he arrived from Arizona in January, backstopping the league’s top penalty kill and its sixth-best defense. It’s unfair to expect him to equal that performance, but that’s exactly what this team needs. Anything less and Minnesota is out in the cold.
A team that set the record in 2014-15 for most points accrued by a playoff non-qualifier (96) is a lock to be in the hunt for a spot this season, especially if Zdeno Chara and David Krejci are back to full health. But questions about Boston’s depth, especially on a defense that will need big contributions from Zach Trotman, Joe Morrow and Colin Miller, and a failure to address scoring woes (no, Matt Beleskey is not the answer) leaves them with no margin for error. If they’re to get back on the happy side of the ledger, they’ll need big seasons from the kids.
A coaching shake-up—Pete DeBoer replacing Todd McLellan—won’t be enough to reverse the descent into obsolescence for the Sharks. The decision to buttress an aging core (Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau both are 36) with free agents Joel Ward and Paul Martin (both 34) highlights problems with the team’s talent development. And after San Jose ranked 24th in goals allowed last season, GM Doug Wilson gambled on Martin Jones (career mark: 16-11-2) as his No. 1 netminder. The playoffs have never felt more out of reach.
A playoff team last season, the Canucks are probably a bit worse for wear as they head into 2015-16. The problem: not much tread left on the tires of key players like goalie Ryan Miller (35) and forwards Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, Radim Vrbata and Alex Burrows (all 34). With several teams in the West (Dallas, Los Angeles) pushing to for a playoff spot, it could be the threadbare Canucks who are shoved aside.
This won’t be the year everything changes for the Oilers, but it’s certainly the year when everything starts to change. The rookie season of top pick Connor McDavid—a player Wayne Gretzky called the best prospect since Sidney Crosby—will be a thing to behold, but even Gretzky in his prime couldn’t compensate for a defense that allowed a league-worst 276 goals. Though new GM Peter Chiarelli imported defensemen Andrej Sekera, Eric Gryba and Griffin Reinhart, the pressure falls squarely on former Rangers backup Cam Talbot to slow the bleeding.
Oddball fact: The Avs acquired three recent first-round picks over the summer (Brandon Gormley, Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko) without giving up one in return. On paper, that sounds like a serious influx of talent, but it also begs two questions: Why did their original teams give up on them and can any of these guys make the Avs better? Zadorov has the most potential, but Grigorenko is the most intriguing given his association with coach Patrick Roy back in juniors. There’s potential here, but playing in the tough Central Division doesn’t help Colorado’s chances.
Tough to generate much enthusiasm for this bunch. Despite an excellent top two of Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek (signed to a massive, and well-deserved, eight-year, $66 million extension), the Flyers are dogged by the same depth problems that sabotaged them last season. That back end is a disaster, with the expected top pair of Mark Streit and Andrew McDonald ranking as perhaps the worst in the league. It’s going to take another superb season from netminder Steve Mason just to keep this team competitive.
You could make a good case that these Sabres will be a playoff team in 2015-16 ... and an equally good case that they’ll challenge for the first pick in the 2016 draft. At this point, it’s impossible to tell what this drastically retooled roster is capable of. Safe to say this much though: With top pick Jack Eichel along with Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly up front, a new goaltender in Robin Lehner, and a fresh approach from coach Dan Bylsma, they’ll certainly will be more entertaining.
Devils goalie Cory Schneider finally emerged from Martin Brodeur’s shadow, averaging a .925 save percentage that earned him a spot among the league’s elite. But the Devils’ offense was putrid and remains unimproved ... unless you’re a big believer in the gamebreaking talents of Lee Stempniak and Tyler Kennedy.
Too many of Carolina’s talented forwards underperformed last season, so improvement in 2015-16 is expected. But until the Canes’ poor goaltending (conference-worst .902 save percentage) improves, this bunch isn’t going anywhere. This is a bad hockey team, top to bottom, with looming contract issues and too many questions to be answered in one season. Watching young defenseman Noah Hanifin should be fun, though.
Hoping to break from the past, the rebuilding Maple Leafs have a promising foundation. Morgan Rielly, 21, and Jake Gardiner, 25, two of the NHL’s best young offensive defensemen, should benefit from the influence of new coach Mike Babcock, who has a long and positive track record with puck-moving blueliners. What he doesn’t have though is the sort of veteran talent that he relied on for a decade in Detroit. These Leafs will be bad, but with Babs behind the bench they’ll be interesting.
The young talent that’s percolating in the system, most notably Max Domi, the Coyotes’ first-round pick from 2013, promises better days ahead. But a team that desperately needed an influx of NHL-ready talent settled for repatriating Antoine Vermette and Zbynek Michalek, a pair of players who couldn’t dig them out of their hole last season. Maybe it’s all just as well, what with Scottsdale, Ariz., native Auston Matthews there for the taking with the first pick in next summer’s draft.