The NHL offseason was filled with tons of player movement, blockbuster trades, and a ton of excitement that we haven’t had in a while. And with training camps starting within the next couple of days, the NHL is preparing to go back into full swing. So many teams have overhauled and upgraded their rosters. Each team is getting ready to take on the challenge of the rigorous 82 game season. While also establishing the groundwork for the chance at the playoffs to win Lord Stanley’s Cup. With all of this in mind I decided to pick four teams, one from each division, for contenders of who could be the most exciting teams headed into this season. These are all personal choices, yet everything from roster upgrades to analytics have guided my decisions for these picks. Without further ado, let’s get into it.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets caught the biggest fish in the pond as they managed to sign Johnny Gaudreau in free agency. Adding a phenomenal winger of that caliber both adds major upside to the team offensively, but also adds some reputation to a smaller market team. The Blue Jackets finished with 81 standings points for 6th in the division. A team with budding young talent coming off of a stellar draft, the Jackets will for sure have a chip on their shoulder as they look to make it back to playoff contention.
Outside of the Hurricanes and the Rangers, the Metropolitan Division is ever so slowly becoming a more open playing field. The Metro is still one of the toughest divisions in the league. But with how old teams like the Capitals, Islanders, and Penguins are becoming it leaves a huge opening for a lot of the rebuilding and re-tooling teams to step up. For the most part, every team in the division is fielding an extremely competitive roster. But the Jackets have a nice mix of high-end talent with youthful rejuvenation to make a run this year.
Although guys they drafted this year like David Jiříček and Denton Mateychuk won’t be in the league very soon, they still have exciting players. The Jackets have Kent Johnson, who just came off of a great year at the University of Michigan and a phenomenal season Gold Medal winning run at the U-20 World Junior Championship in Edmonton. Johnson is going to be an important piece for Columbus. A young center with extremely savvy playmaking ability, Kent has a gifted mind that sees the ice at an extremely high level. His exceptional IQ allows him to make plays with precision, make great decisions with the puck on his stick, and put his teammates in positions to score and succeed. Add young sniper Cole Sillinger to the mix for his sophomore season, and now the Jackets are cooking with gas. Sillinger scored 16 goals and 31 points through 79 games in his rookie season, and has the potential to become a 25 goal scorer next year. He knows when and where to be to receive pucks and create avenues to score. Whether driving to the net or pin-pointing a wrist shot off a clean pass, Sillinger is a potent shooter who still has a ton more to showcase at the NHL level.
These young guys, partnered with their elite talent, are going to make them a sneaky team to p[lay against this season. They have playmaking on all four forward lines from Johnny Gaudreau, Jakub Voráček, and Kent Johnson. Their offense and power-play have potential to be potent, especially with Patrik Laine on the team. But a lot remains to be seen with this young roster. Outside of development from their two major prospects, the Blue Jackets don’t have the solution they need yet at the center position. They also still have a ton of work to do on the backend, as their still needs to be some major talent added to their D-corps.
Adding Gaudreau is a huge addition but it probably doesn’t have the magnitude alone to send Columbus up the division standings. Still, the Gaudreau Effect may be enough to elevate the rest of this squad to make some noise in the Metropolitan Division, even if they ultimately don’t reach the postseason. This move alone could propel guys like Laine and Werenski to reach their ceiling as players and elevate their play. There’s a lot more hope and intrigue surrounding this franchise, even if the one player that brought much of it isn’t enough to push them into the playoff picture just yet. There is a reason to be excited about Columbus and I’m excited to see what they can do this season and in the years to come.
Detroit Red Wings
Detroit has been slowly becoming a product of the Yzer-plan for a couple years now. After years of mediocrity post-championship in 2008, the Red Wings under General Manager Steve Yzerman are starting to see the bright light creeping at the end of the tunnel. Detroit has really needed to see some potential from their hockey club for a long time now. And the team in its current direction has been great to say the least. Great drafting and development of talent, roster construction has remained stable, and the team is actively looking to make improvements year-in and year-out slowly but surely.
This off-season proved that. Detroit signed six likely NHLers in the first 24 hours of free agency, while also adding goaltender Ville Husso via trade. The depth chart already looks a lot different, with upgrades at multiple key positions for the Wings. All of these additions, including what the team was already working with, has fielded one of the deepest teams Detroit has seen in some time. This off-season alone they added Andrew Copp, Ben Chiarot, David Perron, Dominik Kubalik, Mark Pysyk, Olli Maata, Robert Hagg, and Ville Husso. Ultimately, that speaks to the theme here: Yzerman and the Red Wings have now ensured a highly competitive dynamic to the team headed into this year.
The Red Wings have tons of potential going into this year. I’ve been hammering this point all off-season that the Atlantic (just like the Metro) will soon be up for grabs. The Atlantic has always been top-heavy with the Bruins, Leafs, and Lightning running the show. Now the Panthers have entered the fold, the Leafs have a ticking clock on Kyle Dubas’ tenure as General Manager depending on how this season goes, and the Bruins are aging away. Whether it be the wildcard spot this year or a high spot in the division next year, the Red Wings could steal a place in the show.
The Red Wings have a lot to prove and still have plenty of time to grow. Their prospect pool is off the charts and they keep compiling younger talent to improve their core group in the Motor City. In my 32 Teams in 31 Days series I mentioned the optimism that comes for the team after this off-season, so figured I would leave this team’s recap with that same message here.
Red Wings fans should love the moves the Red Wings made trying to improve. What fan doesn’t want a better product than the ones the Red Wings have put out in recent years? The mantra all these years of the rebuild, has been to come out of the rebuild as a true solid cup contender. The team is going to be better but still aren’t quite a contender yet. Realistically, there’s not going to be a switch that flips overnight, turning Detroit from a rebuilder into a contender. But there’s a ton of development the team will continue. They’re going to be fun to watch, partly because of those ups and downs. But sooner than not, Steve Yzerman and his “Yzerplan” are going to bring Detroit back to the promised land and make them a scary club to face once again.