With the Stanley Cup handed out — and now dented after the Tampa Bay Lightning’s boat parade — the 2021 NHL season has officially come to a close. But for many of the league’s teams, the offseason is already a few months old.
Sixteen teams made the playoffs and had a chance to vie for the best trophy in sports. Some of those postseason runs were long and grueling — just look at Tampa Bay’s laundry list of reported injuries — and some ended before they even really began. (\ahem\ … looking at you, St. Louis.)
That means 15 teams were left out of the playoff picture entirely. They were forced to examine where things went wrong throughout the course of the regular season and what they can do to get back into contention. For some of those non-playoff teams, their path of course-correction may be short. A few new players, some improved performances and a bit more luck could help them get into the postseason next year.
But for others, the road to a playoff spot may be a longer journey. Teams on the decline or in the midst of a rebuild could realistically be years away from being postseason hopefuls. It often takes several years for clubs to assemble and develop a team that’s capable of finishing in the top half of the league.
A lot can happen to shift a team’s outlook in between seasons, and this summer promises to be an eventful whirlwind of an NHL offseason. We’re going to do our best to rank the 15 non-playoff teams in terms of which are best positioned to finish on the right side of the postseason cut line next year.
Let’s start with the most likely to get in.
1. New York Rangers. Their rebuild was ahead of schedule before things went a bit sideways last season. Still, they finished one place out of a playoff spot in arguably the most competitive division, and they’ve got a great core to build around with Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox, Artemi Panarin, Kaapo Kakko, Alexis Lafreniere and company. They’ve also got a young star in net with Igor Shesterkin. The Rangers have installed new leadership at the front-office level (Chris Drury) and on the bench (Gerard Gallant), and they should be aggressive in filling in the personnel gaps this offseason. The future is now.
2. Calgary Flames. It’s somewhat hard to figure out where the Flames stand at this point. They always seem to be perennial disappointments whether they make the playoffs or not, and they’ve been trending in the wrong direction over the past few years. If there’s optimism to be found, it lies in the fact that the Pacific Division looks to be very weak next year, and Calgary still has a good amount of talent. Much of that top talent performed below expectations last season, and if the Flames can get a few bounce-back seasons (they need more from Sean Monahan and Jacob Markstrom, among others), then there’s a good chance they can insert themselves back in the hunt.
3. Philadelphia Flyers. All things considered, the Flyers were one of the most disappointing teams in the league last season. They finished with just 58 points in 56 games after looking like one of the better teams in the East the year prior. But here’s the good news: They’ve still got a good roster with upside and their issues from last year seem largely correctable. Carter Hart had an awful season, and Philly finished with the worst team save percentage in the league. That doesn’t seem likely to repeat. The Flyers also struggled defensively but have the flexibility to address the blue line this summer, including making a possible run at Seth Jones. Additionally, they’ve got some nice prospects in the pipeline (namely Cam York and Morgan Frost) who should make the jump and contribute next season.
4. Dallas Stars. The Stars’ window feels like it might be closing a bit because they’ve got several aging pieces and missed the cut last year. That being said, they only finished four points out of a playoff spot and were missing their best offensive player (Tyler Seguin) for nearly the entire season (they also got hit pretty hard by COVID-19). Remember, this is a team that is a year removed from making a run to the Stanley Cup Final. Dallas is still a competitive team that plays strong defense. It had the league’s third-best expected goals rate last season and saw a late-season emergence from Jason Robertson. With some better luck and more stability this year, the Stars could be right back in the mix.
5. Vancouver Canucks. There may not have been a single team hit harder by COVID last season, but that’s not the only reason why the Canucks were major disappointments after a promising breakthrough campaign in 2019. Elias Pettersson only played 26 games, and the defense was a complete disaster. Vancouver gave up the second-most high-danger chances and had the second-worst expected goals rate in the NHL last season. Jim Benning has committed to revamping the blue line, and that’s a good start to turn things around. Whether you want to trust his decisions to do so ... that’s a different story. However, at the very least, Pettersson, their most important player, is due for a major rebound, and there’s going to be more emphasis and resources poured into tightening up the back end. In a relatively weak division, the Canucks have a real shot of bouncing back.
6. Los Angeles Kings. The Kings’ timeline for contention hinges on two big factors. First, how aggressive (and productive) they are this offseason. They’ve already traded for Viktor Arvidsson, who should come in and immediately help them offensively. They’ve also been among the most talked-about pursuers of Jack Eichel. Acquiring a player like Eichel could launch them ahead in these rankings. Secondly, the Kings’ chances also largely align with the contributions they get from young players. L.A. has one of the league’s best prospect pools, with a number of talented offensive players (Quinton Byfield, Arthur Kaliyev, Alex Turcotte, Samuel Fagemo) who should make the jump relatively soon. If the Kings can start getting some of those returns this season, that would help their cause.
7. Arizona Coyotes. It’s tough to know what Arizona’s roster is going to look like as we head into next season. The Coyotes have a (relatively) new GM in Bill Armstrong and a new coach in Andre Tourigny, who will have a say in personnel decisions. They’ve got a bunch of cap space and are seemingly making every player on their roster available via trade, so this team could have a much different makeup (for better or for worse) in a few months.
8. Chicago Blackhawks. We’ll have a better idea of the Blackhawks’ chances toward the end of this offseason, but there’s a lot of work to be done. Chicago had the league’s worst defense last season, and it still has some depth issues up front as well. The Blackhawks don’t have a ton of flexibility on the cap, especially with Jonathan Toews figuring to come off LTIR, but they’re going to try to fix the blue line and hope the rest takes care of itself from there.
9. Ottawa Senators. For as easy as it’s been to laugh at the Sens over the past few years, their rebuild is starting to take shape. They’ve come into some nice young players and were often tough to play against last season. They’ve got cap space and draft capital to work with if they want to make a splash this offseason, so don’t rule out a step forward. Still, the playoffs seem like a stretch when the division/conference is that competitive.
10. San Jose Sharks. The Sharks still have talent, but much of it comes via an old, overpaid core that is likely going to hamstring the club for years to come. On top of that, their prospect pool is lacking and their ELC contributions are likely going to be minimal. Also, Martin Jones is still between the pipes. Old, overpaid stars, a lack of depth and bad goaltending is not typically a recipe for success.
11. Anaheim Ducks. With a large chunk of money coming off the books this offseason, Anaheim could be active in both the free agent and trade market this summer. They Ducks have some really nice building blocks in young prospects like Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale, and they’re going to want to start filling out the roster with a long-term vision in mind. It still seems like they’re at least a few years away from even thinking about the playoffs, but if the rebuild is expedited with a big splash and John Gibson returns to top form? It’s not totally crazy.
12. New Jersey Devils. It was another painful season in New Jersey, and the Devils are still stuck in a very competitive division, but there are a few reasons to think they could soon be turning a corner. First and foremost, Jack Hughes is developing into a star. After a disappointing rookie campaign, Hughes really started to blossom last season. The Devils are going to start looking to build around Hughes, and they’ve got plenty of money to play with this summer if they want to make a big splash or two. That being said, contenders aren’t typically built through free agency — especially in one year — so it’s probably fair to expect the process to take a bit longer in Jersey.
13. Detroit Red Wings. With almost $50 million in cap space, only two players signed beyond next season and a boatload of draft capital, it’s going to be incredibly interesting to see what Steve Yzerman has up his sleeve in Detroit. And while we have all the reason in the world to believe he’s going to bring glory back to the Wings, we also know he tends to operate intelligently and methodically over time. So, while we may start seeing Detroit get better and the rebuild start to take shape, I wouldn’t anticipate it to happen super quickly.
14. Buffalo Sabres. They were laughably bad last year, and the roster remains razor thin. Their best player is injured, disgruntled and possibly being shipped out of town this summer. If Jack Eichel is indeed traded, there’s not a ton of reason to have faith in the Sabres commanding an adequate return. This franchise is a complete mess right now. In the words of Jim Mora … playoffs?!
15. Columbus Blue Jackets. This seems like it’s going to be a crucial offseason in determining where the Blue Jackets go from here. They’ve got three first-round picks to work with in the draft and over $23 million in cap space. A Seth Jones trade is a near-certainty, and they’re probably going to get a big haul in return. Columbus could also be active in shopping other players, including the rights to Patrik Laine. This team is in full transition mode, and it’s going to be a new roster playing under a new coach in a very tough division.