NHL playoff hockey has one absolute, and it’s this: There are none. At least when it comes to teams populating the postseason field.
Every new season inevitably produces teams putting the league on notice (we’ve arrived!) while simultaneously issuing eviction notices (you’re out!) to previous postseason incumbents.
Who doesn’t love a little parity? And maybe a little hope: Could this season end a franchise’s long playoff drought, or generate the Cinderella-like story of the eighth-seeded Florida Panthers careening their way to the Stanley Cup Final?
Let’s break it down: Five teams reached the playoffs in 2023 who missed out in 2022. Those newcomers were the Seattle Kraken, Vegas Golden Knights, Winnipeg Jets, New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders.
(Yes, Vegas went from outhouse to penthouse in less than a calendar year. That’s the power of sports, baby).
Since the NHL introduced its wild-card format in 2013-14, playoff team turnover has been fairly habitual, too. In the last nine full seasons (excluding that “bubble experience” from the COVID-19 shortened 2020-21 campaign) there has been at least four fresh clubs entering the playoff picture.
As a result, certain teams fall out of the equation — even ones we’d never expect. Like when Pittsburgh failed to reach the postseason last year for the first time since Sidney Crosby was a rookie in 2005-06. Will that be the Penguins’ fate again this season? Or will they push a previous Eastern Conference contender out of the way?
Before that time comes, here’s a look at teams most likely to sit outside the playoff mix — and ones with an inside track to take over those vacant spots — broken down by division.
Tampa Bay has had an incredible run. From 2020-22, the Lightning made three consecutive appearances in the Stanley Cup Final (a feat not accomplished since the mid-1980s New York Islanders did it) and winning two titles in the process. Tampa Bay has made six straight postseason trips overall, and missed only once (in 2016-17) since Jon Cooper took over the bench full time in 2013-14.
All that success takes a toll.
The Lightning started well in 2022-23 with a 32-15-1 record (seventh best in the league) through Feb. 1. Then the cracks began to show: Tampa Bay finished the regular season at 13-14-5, sitting third in the Atlantic, and were quickly jettisoned by Toronto in the first round.
The team has undergone roster changes since then, with the notable departures of Alex Killorn, Pat Maroon, Ross Colton, Corey Perry and Ian Cole (among others). Those alterations were practically inevitable given the Lightning remain barricaded into a salary cap nightmare with scant space available for general manager Julien BriseBois to leverage. Tampa Bay has been smart about replacing lost players, and BriseBois brought on Conor Sheary, Tyler Motte and Luke Glendening for Cooper to patch the holes up front.
That’s all well and good. But what about the state of Tampa Bay’s defense — helmed by the brilliant-but-aging Victor Hedman — and the status of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy? It’s Vasilevskiy who’s been the Lightning backbone throughout their Cup runs, and no one has handled more impactful minutes on the ice in every situation than Hedman.
Vasilevskiy wasn’t his best in last year’s playoffs (with a .875 save percentage and 3.56 goals-against average), and Hedman struggled with injuries down the stretch. The Lightning announced Thursday that Vasilevskiy underwent back surgery, and will miss up to the first two months of the season. That leaves the crease to the likes of Jonas Johansson, Matt Tomkins and Brian Elliott.
Given the amount of hockey Tampa Bay’s top players have taken on in the last few years, it’s natural they would eventually slow down. With the number of Atlantic rivals attempting to break their way into contender mode, it’s hard not to wonder if it’s the Lightning’s time to slip out of that stage.
Rasmus Dahlin was 11 years old when Buffalo last made the playoffs. Now he’s a star defenseman in the Sabres’ young core, which is poised to take Buffalo back to the postseason in 2023-24.
Doing so would end the NHL’s longest active playoff drought at 12 seasons (tying Buffalo with the New York Jets for the longest active drought among the four major men’s pro sports leagues).
The Sabres were achingly close to halting that dubious run last spring. After a brutal mid-March punctuated by winning just one of nine games, Buffalo bounced back with a 7-1-1 push to the finish line that ended in an unceremonious 6-2 loss to New Jersey on Apr. 11.
At the time Dahlin lamented an “empty” feeling left behind in Buffalo after coming within spitting distance of their goal. If anything, that letdown could be a perfect springboard for the Sabres to launch this new era as an Atlantic Division contender.
Dahlin rightly earned Norris Trophy buzz for his excellent season (15 goals and 73 points in 78 games). Tage Thompson announced himself with a breakout 47-goal, 94-point performance of his own. And Buffalo’s roster is loaded from there, with more rising talents from Dylan Cozens to Owen Power to Mattias Samuelsson. Plus, Buffalo has a sturdy foundation of veterans led by Jeff Skinner, Alex Tuch, Kyle Okposo and more.
Add to that the excitement around young goaltenders Devon Levi and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and a head coach in Don Granato with a true pulse on his team. There’s nothing (on paper) that should prevent Buffalo from punching their ticket to the playoffs and finally slamming that door on an extended rebuild.
The Islanders squeaked their way into the playoffs last season, with a 42-31-9 record.
Frankly, New York hasn’t done enough since losing in the first round to suggest they’ll make it back again — especially when other Eastern Conference teams have improved around them.
GM Lou Lamoriello didn’t bolster the Islanders’ depth in free agency; he focused mainly on re-signing current players like Pierre Engvall and Ilya Sorokin. Sorokin (after agreeing to an eight-year extension) is the real key for New York’s postseason aspirations, but the netminder can’t shoulder that burden alone (even with a seasoned goalie partner in Semyon Varlamov behind him).
No, it’s the Islanders’ skaters in front of Sorokin and Varlamov who will likely determine the club’s outcome. But who will be a standout performer? Bo Horvat, Anders Lee and Brock Nelson are New York’s only consistent 20-plus goal scorers. Engvall was a strong add for the Islanders at the trade deadline (with nine points in 18 games) and of course Mathew Barzal (51 points in 58 games) can have his game-changing moments. The concern is whether more of the same recipe can achieve better results for New York.
Which leads us to the Islanders’ power play. New York had the third worst man-advantage unit in 2022-23 (15.8%) and there’s been no influx of talent to make an improvement. Again, the Islanders’ margin for error was wafer-thin to make playoffs before; what does a lack of roster turnover do for their prospects in this area now?
Maybe Oliver Wahlstrom — the club’s first-round pick in 2018 — has a breakthrough season. Perhaps Horvat settling in translates to major gains on the scoresheet. It’s possible the suffocating defense New York has produced before — thanks to the terrific Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock — is enough to cover for the Islanders’ otherwise low-scoring thresholds.
It just feels like one too many “ifs” to re-activate the Islanders’ playoff aspirations.
Remember how Buffalo is riding that historically long playoff drought?
Well, when Pittsburgh didn’t qualify for the postseason in 2022-23, they ended the longest active streak of playoff appearances among those four major men’s leagues, at 16 seasons.
The Penguins controlled their destiny the whole way, and the final nail in their coffin was a shocking pair of back-to-back losses against Chicago and Columbus to end the regular season (and their hopes of a playoff berth).
Pittsburgh made swift, sweeping changes in the aftermath of that debacle. GM Ron Hextall and president of hockey operations Brian Burke were fired, and subsequently replaced by Kyle Dubas, formerly the GM of the Maple Leafs. Dubas upgraded the roster via a trade for reigning Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson. That big swing snuffed out a significant amount of chatter around the Penguins’ so-called aging core of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.
Karlsson is still chasing his Stanley Cup dream. Pittsburgh’s veterans — all part of three previous championship teams — know opportunities to reach that pinnacle again are running out. This is when to push the envelope.
The potential red flag for Pittsburgh is in the net. Despite Tristan Jarry‘s struggles last season battling injuries and inconsistency, Dubas signed him to a five-year extension on July 1. The Penguins’ investment justifies expecting more out of Jarry this season. If Dubas was right to bet on him, then a healthy Pittsburgh team should be capable of re-entering the postseason chat.
Winnipeg narrowly made the playoffs in 2022-23, while barely avoiding an unflattering designation.
Had the Jets missed they would have been the first club in NHL history to go from atop their conference standings at midseason to being a non-playoff team.
That’s right: On Jan. 22, Winnipeg’s 31-16-1 record put them first overall in the West. The Jets spiraled from there to earn the conference’s final playoff spot in their penultimate game of the regular season.
Winnipeg can’t count on such luck again.
The Jets’ offseason has been shrouded by questions about the future of pending unrestricted free agents Connor Hellebuyck and Mark Scheifele. Top-line center Pierre-Luc Dubois and former captain Blake Wheeler are gone. Nikolaj Ehlers is dealing with an injury in the preseason (never a good omen).
The Jets feel like they are in flux. The not-so-good kind.
Winnipeg has new options on the roster from the Dubois trade, with Alex Iafallo and Gabriel Vilardi now in the lineup. Josh Morrissey has emerged as a top-tier defenseman. And Hellebuyck — assuming he’s not traded — is a true No. 1 netminder capable of carrying a heavy load for Winnipeg in net. It’s the team’s depth in front of him that’s worrisome.
How many of the Jets’ young stars like Morgan Barron are truly ready to contribute? Will Cole Perfetti be able to fill Dubois’ vacant second-line center slot? Where will the majority of Winnipeg’s secondary scoring come from?
On top of that, how will the team handle distractions surrounding Hellebuyck and Scheifele’s contract status? The potential distresses keep piling up. Many of the answers for them aren’t particularly satisfying.
The Predators are drawn to drama. Nashville has produced some surprising runs — and stunning falls — in recent seasons that have subsequently exceeded or fallen below expectations set for them out of the gate.
It’s added up to the Predators’ perennial positioning on that playoff bubble, leaving us to guess whether they’ll bust through.
Nashville just missed doing that in 2022-23. This season could tell a different story.
New GM Barry Trotz got to work with an offseason makeover: There was a buyout of Matt Duchene‘s contract, a trade of Ryan Johansen to Colorado, the hire of new coach Andrew Brunette, and an influx of veteran faces led by Ryan O’Reilly, Luke Schenn and Tyson Barrie.
Now there’s room for internal growth. Cody Glass, Philip Tomasino and Juuso Parssinen are primed to take on bigger roles for Nashville. Juuse Saros remains one of the NHL’s most underappreciated high-level goaltenders. And if Dante Fabbro can get in a flow on the blue line, that’s a huge boost, too.
Part of Nashville’s problem last season was health. Filip Forsberg and Roman Josi — two key elements to any level of success — were sidelined by long-term ailments that helped sink Nashville’s season. When Forsberg and Josi are rolling, they can still be two of the most effective players in the division — and even the league.
There’s a sense of renewal around the Predators that can’t be quantified. Nashville’s gone through obvious changes, but instead of unsettling the team, those could be what grounds them into what’s next — and that’s going back to the playoffs.
It’s not always easy choosing the odd man out. In this case, taking L.A. was especially tough.
The Kings had a Lightning-like run earlier in the 2010s; that team to expect to be competing for a Cup year after year.
The last few seasons have been less kind to the Kings. L.A. hasn’t made it out of a first-round playoff series since winning it all in 2014. In fact, the Kings have punched a postseason ticket only four times in the nine years since that achievement.
And there are issues surrounding their current roster to suggest the Kings might be on the outside looking in come spring.
Talbot had a rough go last season in Ottawa (.898 SV%, 2.93 GAA). Copley was a wonderful story for the Kings in 2022-23, taking over for Jonathan Quick midway through to finish the season with a respectable .903 SV% and 2.64 GAA. But it was trade deadline addition Korpisalo who the team tapped as playoff starter. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement for Copley. And how Talbot projects to perform is anyone’s guess.
Beyond goaltending there’s a question of how the newly acquired Dubois fits into the Kings’ offense. After two unsatisfying stops for the center in Columbus and Winnipeg, Dubois is dropped into another new situation, and this time his output is tied to the high expectations of an eight-year contract and $8.5 million annual salary. Is Dubois up to the task?
Speaking of new deals, how does the lack of one for head coach Todd McLellan possibly affect the Kings? McLellan is in the final year of his contract, and there’s always potential for any uncertainties to manifest negative narratives — especially during times of struggle.
There’s plenty that could go right for the Kings, and keep them on track for a third consecutive playoff appearance. Having Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty on your side helps in that respect. But the Kings may also have to overcome some potential obstacles initially if the chemistry — and goaltending prowess — aren’t there. How they reckon with adversity may ultimately tell the tale of their season.
It’s impossible Calgary will endure another nightmare like the 2022-23 season, right?
Basically, anything that could have gone wrong, did.
Jacob Markstrom went from Vezina Trophy contender to a career-worst season (.892 SV%, 2.92 GAA). Jonathan Huberdeau fell flat in his Calgary debut with a 55-point season (well off the mark from his previous 115-point effort in Florida in 2021-22). Nazem Kadri dropped 21 points fewer than he did with Colorado before coming to the Flames as a free agent. That was a trend among almost all Calgary’s forwards, with offense increasingly hard to come by until it snuffed out the Flames playoff hopes.
Something had to give for Calgary to rebound. And so it has.
Head coach Darryl Sutter appeared to lose his team’s ear and never recovered. He was fired early in the offseason and replaced by Ryan Huska. GM Brad Treliving is gone too, with Craig Conroy bringing fresh eyes to the operation. He’s overhauled the lineup in a short time too. Gone are Tyler Toffoli, Milan Lucic and others. Coming in have been Yegor Sharangovich and Jordan Oesterle, among others.
But those additions and subtractions aren’t why Calgary can be postseason-bound again.
Huberdeau, Kadri, Andrew Mangiapane and Elias Lindholm are all poised to have better years. Same for Markstrom in net. MacKenzie Weegar had a strong first season in Calgary (having come over with Huberdeau in the trade from Florida) and will build on that with the likes of Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson nearby.
There was an understandable dip in Calgary’s emotional state last season after the letdown of losing both Johnny Gaudreau (to free agency) and Matthew Tkachuk (in a trade he brokered by refusing to re-sign). That disappointment is long past now. And Sutter being ousted was a necessary decision to move the Flames forward with a young coach who will give Calgary a chance to reinvent itself.
The resulting efforts from Calgary’s collective can push the Flames past their Pacific Division competition and into contending status again.