If only the puck bounced this way or that way. If only Wade Dubielewicz hadn’t stood on his head in a random shootout performance on the last day of the season. Making or missing the playoffs often comes down to a few chance occurrences. It’s thus reasonable to forecast a few teams falling on the reverse side of the coin a year later. Toronto, Ottawa, Washington, Vancouver and the Islanders swapped spots with Philadelphia, Columbus, Tampa Bay, Dallas, and Colorado this past season.
Here are three 2014-15 candidates to slide from in the big dance to out – and three to slide from out to in.
MADE PLAYOFFS IN 2013-14, COULD MISS IN 2014-15
1. Detroit Red Wings (My projection: 9th in East)
All good things come to an end, and maybe the epic playoff streak stops at 23 years. Detroit was shockingly inactive during the flurry of early off-season activity, whiffing on free agents like Matt Niskanen and Dan Boyle. This team has added next to nothing, its goaltending was suspect last season and, even though Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are slated to return healthy, each is having an increasingly difficult time doing so.
Detroit’s blueline lacks elite puck-moving ability and, while Anthony Mantha is a promising prospect up front, the franchise’s history of patience suggests he’ll take another year to reach the NHL. Detroit still has an encouraging youth movement, as Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar have shown. But the teams it edged for a playoff spot (see the second section) have improved, while it has not.
2. New York Rangers (My projection: 7th in East)
It’s not a question of if the Rangers regress after a trip to the Stanley Cup final. The question is how much, and the slide could be significant if this team can’t generate offense. As Martin St-Louis ages and Rick Nash struggles to rediscover his scoring touch, the Blueshirts’ best forwards look more like second-liners than first liners to me. Depth was always their strength up front, but gone are Brad Richards, Brian Boyle and Benoit Pouliot. The Richards buyout made sense, of course, but New York hasn’t replaced his production.
Henrik Lundqvist’s goaltending and the Rangers’ top four defensemen, Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Dan Boyle, should carry them to the playoff bubble, but an injury to any one of them could have this team golfing in mid-April.
3. Colorado Avalanche (My projection: 8th in West)
And here…come…the pretzels! Back me up on this one, advanced stats crowd. The Colorado Avalanche were one of the NHL’s worst possession teams in 2013-14, relying heavily on Semyon Varlamov’s oustanding season in goal. Remember when Toronto made the playoffs in 2012-13 with the league’s worst Corsi Close rating? And remember what happened the season after that? The Avs don’t have the puck on their sticks enough to repeat a 112-point season.
I do think they’ll remain a competitive team on the strength of Varlamov, who I believe is for real, not to mention outstanding young forwards Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene. But the Avs lost Paul Stastny and could lose Ryan O’Reilly to a contract dispute, too. With all due respect to Brad Stuart, they didn’t acquire enough help for a ‘D’ corps that plays a No. 3 and No. 4, Erik Johnson and Jan Hejda, as its No. 1 and No. 2. More importantly, look at Colorado’s competition. Can it win the Central again playing bad possession hockey against Chicago, St. Louis, Minnesota and Dallas? Add Anaheim, San Jose and Los Angeles from the Pacific and I suddenly don’t feel so crazy ranking the Avs eighth in the West for 2014-15.
(As an aside: I know the Habs were a bad possession team this past season, too. I forecast them for a slight regression, but still have them in the playoffs comfortably because of the Conference they play in.)
MISSED PLAYOFFS IN 2013-14, COULD MAKE IT IN 2014-15
1. Washington Capitals (My projection: 8th in East)
Brian MacLellan and the Caps took heat for their rash spending on blueliners Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen July 1. Those contracts are scary long-term, but even if Orpik and Niskanen struggle, they make Washington significantly better in the short term, forming a strong top four with John Carlson and Mike Green. The Caps also have Barry Trotz in from Nashville as coach, and he brought along goaltending guru Mitch Korn, who will work with Braden Holby and has turned less into more before. The Caps missed the post-season by three points and the team that beat them, Detroit, did little to improve. How can Washington not have a better outlook for 2014-15?
2. Nashville Predators (My projection: 9th in West)
The obvious reasons to expect improvement in Music City: the inevitable new-coach spike from Peter Laviolette, the James Neal trade, the Anton Volchenkov acquisition, Pekka Rinne being fully recovered from his hip infection. My favorite reason to like Nashville in 2014-15, though: most of its best contributors are young and ascending. Seth Jones and Roman Josi should continue developing as well-rounded defensemen, and an offense-minded Laviolette regime means the shackles should be off for young forwards Filip Forsberg and Calle Jarnkrok, especially the latter since Mike Fisher is injured. The Central competition will probably keep the Preds on the outside looking in, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Nashville, well, surprised.
3. New Jersey Devils (My projection: 10th in East)
The Devils went an unprecedented 0-13 in shootouts and still finished just five points out of eighth. They could’ve made the playoffs winning six of those – less than half. They were the anti-Avalanche, finishing fourth in Corsi Close behind Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston, a.k.a. the only teams to hoist the Cup in the last five years. No more Martin Brodeur also means no more .901 save percentage forced into the lineup and a lot more Cory Schneider, who gives New Jersey a much better chance to win at this stage of his career. An patchwork forward corps and Jaromir Jagr’s inevitable age cliff keep the Devils a long shot, but hey, this is the East, where a glorified beer league team has a puncher’s chance.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin