Another round, another set of teams disappointed that their seasons ended as early as it did. Of course, the conference finalists are probably still quite satisfied with how far they made it in the grand scheme of things, but the closer you get, the more it hurts when you lose.
Throughout the playoffs, I’ve been ranking the playoff losers after each round to see where they sit looking forward, and how likely it is we’ll see them back in the same spot, or possibly even farther, next season. Some teams have the cores to bounce back right away, while others are on their last legs or about to enter offseasons of chaos that leave a lot more uncertainty.
So, where do the Carolina Hurricanes and Dallas Stars rank among the list of 12 teams we’ve already listed at Daily Faceoff? There’s a bit more optimism than for some of the disappointments in the first round considering the cores the two teams have, but there are still a few question marks compared to other top tier contenders that were ousted earlier than expected.
1. Colorado Avalanche & 2. Edmonton Oilers
Nothing changes at the top end of the list. Both the Avalanche and Oilers have cores of extremely talented players, including four of the best in Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, Connor McDavid, and Leon Draisaitl. There’s always going to be uncertainty in the offseason, but both teams look to be poised to be bringing back similar groups to go on another run next season. Besides, you’d have to really screw up the team to hold back these stars from carrying the team to the playoffs.
3. Dallas Stars
The Stars find themselves squished behind the Avs and Oilers mostly because they just don’t quite have the same level of talent. That’s no slight on the likes of Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz, and Miro Heiskanen, and they most likely have the best goaltending of the three in Jake Oettinger (I say mostly because goaltending is quite sporadic), but even at Robertson’s best, he wasn’t quite at the level of Colorado and Edmonton’s stars. Still, it’s like saying Pavel Datsyuk wasn’t as good as Wayne Gretzky; they’re still amazing players, but they do need a bit more support to get as far as they did this season.
The good news is that they’ll have most of this year’s group coming back, with around $7 million to play with and the only big names needing new contracts being trade-deadline rentals Evgenii Dadonov and Max Domi, players whom they did just fine without for the first two-thirds of the regular season anyways. Their blueline needs a bit more work beyond Heiskanen, Thomas Harley, and Esa Lindell, but they have some younger options that could improve their play – if they play them. Buying out Ryan Suter could give them a $3 million and give the younger guys more time on ice, but Pete DeBoer seemed to love playing him, so I wouldn’t hold your breath for that one.
4. Tampa Bay Lightning & 5. New Jersey Devils
It may be a bit bold to put the Stars ahead of a Lightning team that had two Cups and three Cup Final appearances before this season, but having a younger group with a lot more certainty as to who’s coming back gives the Stars the edge. We don’t quite know what the result of working around three more big extensions will be in Tampa Bay, and if it makes the team worse than last year’s, that’s not a good sign for a team that was underwhelming in the regular season (by their standards) and was ousted in six games by the Maple Leafs.
That uncertainty also plagues the Devils a bit with how many unrestricted free agents they have in their forward group this season, although with almost $35 million in cap space it’s not as much of a worry to navigate. They also now have an established group to build around with Jack Hughes’ breakout season turning him into a superstar, so this is only the start of what should be 5-10 years of consistent success in New Jersey – if they’re smart.
6. Carolina Hurricanes
The Hurricanes rank a bit lower among the elite teams on here because while they’ve consistently been one of the best teams in the league, they have a very clear weakness, and it’s the toughest weakness to bring in. Their lack of finishing had many writing this team off against even the Islanders, and while they exceeded expectations and even got past the Devils, that weakness came to the forefront in their Conference Final series against the Florida Panthers, and scoring six goals in four games just isn’t going to cut it, even with a defense like the Canes’.
If they can make a blockbuster move to bring in a scorer without stripping off the rest of the team, I’ll feel much better about this team’s chances of winning a Cup, but until then, they sit in the murky middle of this list. That’s not entirely a bad thing, as they’re still one of the league’s best teams, and they have the group to keep winning in the regular season and try their best in the playoffs (although it will depend on if Jordan Staal returns, and if he’s going to be the same Jordan Staal at 35). But, that lack of finishing is hanging over their heads and holding them back from joining the Colorados and Tampas.
7. New York Rangers
The Rangers still have some uncertainty about if their core might already be starting to slowly age out of contention, but along with that, they’re also looking for a new head coach. Gerard Gallant had somewhat middling on-ice play disguised by Igor Shesterkin throughout his tenure, so a new coach isn’t a bad thing, but if it does end up being John Hynes as rumored, it’s not exactly much of an upgrade considering his mediocre resume.
8. Toronto Maple Leafs
While a bit less uncertainty for the Leafs now that they have their general manager should move them up the list, the fact that the replacement in Brad Treliving is a bit of a downgrade still leaves some uncertainty. He won’t be firing the head coach or moving any of the core by the sound of things, so that leaves pursuing the trade market, which he has a solid history of doing well in, and the free agent market, which he has a solid history of not doing well in. Considering how this Leafs team needs to spend efficiently, we’ll have to see just what Treliving does before making any conclusions, so they stay in the same spot this time.
Beyond that, there aren’t really any changes to the list, or any updates to any of the Los Angeles Kings, Seattle Kraken, Minnesota Wild, Boston Bruins, Winnipeg Jets, and New York Islanders beyond what I already said on this list after the first and second round.
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