After the first round, I decided to take a look at the eight teams that were eliminated and rank them based on how likely they were going to bounce back, from Stanley Cup contenders that had an off year like the Colorado Avalanche to bubble teams on their last legs like the Winnipeg Jets and New York Islanders.
With the second round in the rearview now, I thought I’d take another look at that list and add our four new teams that had their playoff runs cut shorter than expected. I won’t dive into as much detail since my reasoning for those teams already exists on the internet, but I’ll just add a bit of context for them in comparison to the new teams while mostly just diving into the four new additions.
So just how likely is it that the Edmonton Oilers, New Jersey Devils, Seattle Kraken, and Toronto Maple Leafs bounce back next season? Let’s just say none of them has the high hopes of the Colorado Avalanche on the original list, but they don’t have to worry as much about the bottom feeders either.
1. Colorado Avalanche
Even with the new additions to the list, Colorado still sits on top. They walk that line of having championship experience but not being old and worn down better than any other team here, and considering their biggest problem was injuries last season, that’s telling us that the Avs we saw last season are not the ones we should expect going forward. Gabriel Landeskog missing all of next season is going to hurt, but this time they have notice that it will be all year, so they have some extra cap space to fill out that depth to replace him.
2. Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers certainly didn’t go on the deep playoff run that many expected out of this team, as the experienced Vegas Golden Knights took swift care of them, keeping Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl contained while shutting out the rest of their top six forward group. It’s that two-headed monster of McDavid and Draisaitl that has them high up on this list, as it’s easy to see those two players going nuclear next season and giving this team another run, especially since the only key player in need of a new contract is Evan Bouchard.
However, they only have about $5 million in cap space to play with to make that happen, and they also need to sign some depth players, so some moves will need to be made in order to bring back a similar team. But, their top six forwards, top five defensemen, and both goalies are either signed for next season or the team has their rights in Bouchard’s case, so the important parts will for sure be back barring any deals, meaning they are certainly in a position to run it back. McDavid, Bouchard, and Stuart Skinner are the only players in that group under the age of 27, so some of the older players could take a step back, but they’ll still be well poised to contend next year.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning drop a spot this time around with the Oilers sneaking ahead, although most of that just comes with the uncertainty of who their cap casualties will be this season. Those big extensions to Mikhail Sergachev, Anthony Cirelli, and Erik Cernak will mean some players are out yet again, and the 2022-23 season was the first sign that those losses actually hurt the team, and with little draft and prospect capital remaining (maybe they shouldn’t have overpaid more than they needed to for Brandon Hagel and Tanner Jeannot after all), it might be hard to improve the depth. That said, it’ll be the first time they’ve had more than two months off since the COVID-19 lockdown, so that will help their core players for next season.
4. New Jersey Devils
I probably would have had the Devils as high as second if not for the massive turnover their forward group could see next season. They only have five forwards signed for next season, with Jesper Bratt and Timo Meier being the biggest names in need of new contracts, and it could get pricey considering that Meier’s qualifying offer will be $10 million. At the very least, they’ll have more than $34 million in cap space to take care of that, and they don’t really need to touch defensemen or goaltending if they don’t want to, especially if they have promising prospects Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec fill in for Ryan Graves and Damon Severson on the blueline.
Other than that, this team has a really young group of players set to contend for a long time, and they didn’t even need to dip too much into their loaded prospect pool to bring in Meier at the deadline, so they have lots of young options either coming up or set to take steps forward next season. Goaltending may be a concern again after the meltdown it experienced against the Carolina Hurricanes, but it should at least be good enough to let the team be as successful as it was last season. With Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier down the middle, this team is set to contend for Stanley Cups for years to come, and some smart signings for that forward group will go a long way to achieve that as early as next season.
5. New York Rangers
The Rangers fall behind their Hudson River rivals not just because that team beat them in the first round, but because unlike the Devils’ rebuild, the Rangers’ has been based on their older free agent signings more than any of their big draft picks. If Kaapo Kakko or Alexis Lafreniere can live up to their top-two draft pick pedigree then maybe it moves them up, but their window looks a lot closer to shutting than the Devils, although they at least have a bit less likelihood of chaos than the Maple Leafs.
6. Toronto Maple Leafs
You could make the case for the Leafs being as high as first or second on this list, and as low as 10th depending on what happens in the upcoming weeks and months going into next season. General manager Kyle Dubas is out the door, along with fan favorite Jason Spezza and several coaches on the Toronto Marlies already, which may be a solid indicator that some more may follow. It will all depend on the choices that President Brendan Shanahan makes during the hiring process for Dubas’ successor, as whoever comes into the role could possess a similar vision or something completely different and change the entire scope of this franchise. The fact that the negotiations between Dubas and Shanahan went the way they did goes to show the kind of chaos that we should expect.
What the new general manager does with the core and the surrounding pieces will likely decide if this group’s contention window gets extended for several years or gets slammed shut. All four of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and John Tavares need new contracts in the next two years, and they’ll have as little as $9 million in cap space and as much as $20 million depending on the futures of Jake Muzzin and Matt Murray with the team, so there’s lots of room to shuffle things around. In the right hands, that means chances to add some solid pieces around the core to try and run it back. In the wrong hands, that means moving one of the forwards in a deal the Leafs will likely lose, and signing a bunch of free agents to overpaid contracts to fill all the cap space. And that’s assuming that the core will want to stay beyond their deals in the wake of Dubas’ departure. It’s not quite time to hit the panic button in Toronto just yet, but they may be eyeing it on the control panel or even lifting up the glass case with the finger hovering over the button.
7. Los Angeles Kings
Despite the fact that we have a better idea what the Kings will look like next season than the Leafs, the lack of a gamebreaker compared to the likes of even three of Matthews, Nylander, Mitch Marner, or John Tavares if they move on from one of them means their window of contention isn’t quite at that level yet, especially with a bit more uncertainty in net as well. They have a strong prospect pool that could change that, but until then, I’m going to take the boat over the mystery box unlike Peter Griffin.
8. Seattle Kraken
The Kraken sit in a similar position to where I have the Kings, mostly because, like the Kings, they’re a deep team that surprised a ton of people with how far that could take them, but lacking that game-breaking talent is what’s holding them back just a little bit. They might have that in Matty Beniers or Shane Wright, but until they do, it’s hard to see them taking that next step. They don’t have a super deep prospect pool beyond that, mostly due to only having two drafts to stock up, but they will have plenty of draft capital this year to add to it.
The other big question mark is in net. Philipp Grubauer found his form in the playoffs, but we also have two regular seasons worth of inconsistent goaltending in Seattle. If he comes back next season with newfound confidence, and one of Beniers or Wright becomes an elite talent, this could be a much tougher team to beat, but until then, I’m hesitant to consider them Cup contenders yet. I’d still pencil them in for a playoff spot regardless, as they aren’t going to fall off that much, but there’s still some unknowns with this team preventing me from being truly confident in them.
9. Minnesota Wild, 10. Boston Bruins, 11. Winnipeg Jets, 12. New York Islanders
I consider the Wild in the similar camp to the Kings and Kraken where they need another game-breaking forward before I’d consider them in the same group as the top six on this list, particularly down the middle. Kirill Kaprizov and Matt Boldy are great players, but they should be playing with better centers than Sam Steel, Ryan Hartman, and Frederick Gaudreau. Sometimes they play with Joel Eriksson Ek, but they need another big center to put them over the top, and unfortunately they won’t have the cap space to do that with Zach Parise and Ryan Suter’s buyout penalties increasing to almost $15 million next season.
After that, the list stays the same from the first round, so I don’t really need to expand on the bottom three teams as much. The Bruins uncertainty has significantly direr consequences than that of the Devils or Leafs, and the Jets and Islanders were the weakest playoff teams and could just as easily not make it at all next season as they could be first-round fodder for a division winner again.
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