Every season it happens — those woebegone teams who have struggled for seasons on end once again get left behind in the dust of discussions about “contenders.” But every season, it also happens that some of them get good and mad and surprise us all . . . or some of us at least.
This season, let’s look at just a few that will bring enough shock and awe to make the post-season or at least come close enough to smell it.
In order of surprise by season’s end, let’s go:
#1 – Buffalo Sabres
People talk about Rasmus Dahlin and Jack Eichel, maybe even mentioning Sam Reinhart or Rasmus Ristolainen. The problem is they talk about these guys as if they are the entire roster — and as if maybe nobody will even be tending the net. But look for forwards, Patrik Berglund and Zemgus Girgensons to make a difference and Kyle Okposo to return to form. And — don’t forget — Jeff Skinner with something to prove.
#2 – Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks needed to get faster and younger, and they may have gotten both through a series of bad breaks that might turn into good ones. Some would argue addition by subtraction, a stroke of good luck by losing Corey Perry to injury. If they could have similar luck with Luke Schenn, they’d be even better off.
Before Perry’s injury news, Ryan Kesler’s persistent injuries made him a question mark, unlikely to be at his best even if he does return. With Nick Ritchie still in contract dispute and Ondrej Kase out with a concussion, the Ducks should have been easy pickings for a Sharks team that had just swept them in the previous playoffs.
But we all know what the hockey gods do when we put expectations out there, and the Ducks came out flying. Despite being hugely outshot, the Ducks won the game in front of a hot John Gibson, beating a cold Martin Jones and a disorganized Sharks squad.
With many teams, the focus in on the forwards; with the Ducks, the defense takes top billing and it’s no exaggeration to say that the they are only bested in this department by perhaps the Predators or Sharks — and that’s not certain.
Think, Fowler, Manson, Montour, and you’ve got your work cut out against Anaheim, but even if you beat them, you’re likely to get shut down by one of the most dominant but least talked-about d-men in the league, a top-tier skater, passer, and skilled puck handler, Hampus Lindholm. Sure, they lost Shea Theodore, a great skating stalwart on the blue line, and the reliable veteran, Sami Vatanen, but this group has more than enough to win games on the strength of defense alone.
In goal, I’ve never been a big believer in John Gibson, seeing him as injury-prone and fragile; and then he goes and destroys the Sharks, looking solid and engaged for the full 60. Ryan Miller in back-up has always been a bit from that mold as well, though admittedly he’s one of my favorite goalies and I hated seeing him leave Buffalo. It might take both staying healthy in Anaheim.
Many have written the Ducks off this season, relegated them to the bottom of the division — either just above or below L.A., maybe finishing above Arizona or Vancouver, maybe not — but nowhere near the Oilers, Flames, Sharks or Golden Knights.
But here’s the thing: the Ducks always find a way. And with Getzlaf still in beast-mode and players like Rickard Rakell, Jakob Silfverberg, the up-and-coming Troy Terry, and Kase (once he returns), don’t be surprised if you hear the Pond still quacking in late May.
#3 – Florida Panthers
Contrary to what many people opined, snagging Mike Hoffman was a brilliant move and he will fit in well with this dynamic forward corps. The forward group is downright scary: Aleksander Barkov, perhaps one of the most underrated elite forwards in the NHL, accompanied by the likes of Bjugstad, Huberdeau, and Trocheck. No team is going to enjoy an easy time in Florida, to say nothing of facing this squad in the post-season.
On the back end, of course there’s Ekblad, but also look for Pterovic and Pysyk to assert a larger presence this year.
In goal, they welcome back Roberto Luongo and James Reimer. Everyone knows that Luongo can do the job, ideally with a lighter load, and the last time Reimer was relied on for significant back-up games was in San Jose, and he was outstanding. He played there in front of a solid D-corps, yes, but Florida’s is no worse than San Jose’s at that time. Reimer is regularly dismissed but he is more than capable of carrying the load.
Look for the Panthers to get past the first round of the post-season this year.
#4 – Arizona Coyotes
Will the Coyotes ever get any respect? Does nobody remember when hockey ruled the desert in the 2011-12 conference finals?
The Yotes’ forward group boasts a bevy of young talent beyond Clayton Keller, notably Lawson Crouse and Christian Dvorak. But GM John Chayka made some sharp moves picking up Michael Grabner and Alex Galchenyuk, who has got to be as highly motivated as he’s ever going to be. Their biggest get, however, could well be last season’s pick-up, winger Richard Panik, who Chicago was loath to surrender — a big man who plays big and reminds me a bit of Eric Lindros.
One could argue their defense is even better than their offense, with elite skaters like Alex Goligoski and Niklas Hjalmarsson, who coaches and players alike consider one of the most consistent and difficult defensemen to play against — and then there’s still the captain, Oliver Ekman-Larsson. This d-corps can stack up against any other, in my opinion.
In goal, the Coyotes are set fairly well, but this is where many think it all comes down to in the desert: Antti Raanta and back-up Darcy Kuemper. Specifically, can Raanta be what he’s capable of being?
If Raanta has a strong season and guys like Galchenyuk work out, the Desert Dogs might push some contenders out of the Pacific Division race. It’s a long shot but don’t count out this roster and a determined coach, Rick Tocchet.