Every year it seems harder and harder to predict and decipher which 16 teams will compete for the coveted Stanley Cup. Typically there are teams who, despite having exceptional players or an above- par season, tend to fall short of their end-season goal. Others, however, find themselves at the bottom of the totem pole searching for an answer to get them back to Cup contention.
Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel were this years’ generational superstar talents available at the NHL Draft. McDavid, who many claim has a higher ceiling than fellow Canadian Sidney Crosby, was the most sought-after and was selected first overall to the Edmonton Oilers who have had the top pick in the draft four times in the past six drafts.
Eichel, on the other hand, was an elite forward at Boston University scoring 26 goals and 45 assists in just 40 games. Despite being picked second overall by the Buffalo Sabres, Eichel may have an edge in seeing playoff daylight before McDavid.
Along with Eichel, the Sabres managed to obtain players who are young and, if not this year, could catapult the team into cup contention. Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly are two from the Western Conference who can really give this team the firepower it hasn’t had for seasons. Kane, 24, has yet to play in a full 82 games but had a career-high 57 points in 2011-2012 with the Jets.
O’Reilly, also 24, gives the Sabres a top line center who isn’t afraid to shoot the puck either. He tallied 9 power play goals in 2013-2014 with the Avalanche and hasn’t recorded a season with a shot percentage lower than 9.1 since his rookie year. On average, O’Reilly is a 20-goal scorer, but if we assume correctly that he centers a line of Kane and possibly Matt Moulson or Jack Eichel, he could certainly be looking at a career high of goals this season.
The questions surrounding the, however, Sabres are the goaltending and the defense situations. Defenseman Cody Franson has been signed to a 2-year, $6.6 million contract, which helps alleviate the defense question. Franson’s sub-par season to his standards could not have been more in Buffalo’s favor. He’s a solid two-way defenseman who was hoping for a better payday, but instead got the same AAV he received in Toronto, however, this time he signed his first two-year deal aside from one-year. With that in mind, he could use this season to regain some value, give Buffalo a top four defense pairing they need to supplement their goal of getting to the playoffs.
Other issues surrounding the Sabres include how well will they be able to gel within a short time frame? It’s a new corps of players along with a new coaching staff so this team has the probability to sink or swim real fast.
Much optimism surrounds the Dallas Stars as they finished just two spots outside the Wild Card race. Not to mention, they have one of the most dynamic duos of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin who combined for a total of 164 points. Now, with Patrick Sharp to add to the top six, this team is equipped with some of the highest firepower in the NHL.
The Stars finished on a four-game winning streak, but were overall inconsistent enough to miss out on the playoffs. But they made the playoffs two years ago and were etched out in the first round. This team is young and are a legitimate threat to be a cup contender now with the chance to gel.
Sharp adds veteran experience to be one of the few to have won a Stanley cup. Not to mention, he was on a team that accomplished a feat to become a modern dynasty, so he knows the extra mile that needs to be taken.
One area the Stars needed major improvement on at the end of the season was defense. They were 29th in goals against in the second half of the season and finished fourth-worst in the league. The defense is youthful with Johnny Oduya and Alex Goligoski being the oldest two blueliners on the squad. There’s a lot of offensive capability on this team and maybe the growing pains they suffered last year can only help them going into this season. But to finish in the cellar in goals against, there’s no amount of offense that can help a team get to the playoffs if that’s the case.
Finally, we take a look at the goaltending. Kari Lehtonen played 65 games last season and barely recorded over a .900 save percentage. Nevertheless, it was a down year for Lehtonen as he also recorded a 2.94 goals against average. Statistically, it was the worst season the Helsinki native recorded since his 38-game campaign with the Atlanta Thrashers in 2005-2006.
The Stars acquired 32-year-old veteran goaltender Anti Niemi from San Jose to make a run for top goaltender during the offseason. Niemi posted a solid season with a GAA of 2.59 and save percentage of .914 in 61 games. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to help keep the Sharks 10 consecutive post-season appearances going. Either Jim Nill brought Niemi in to contend for the starting position or to replace a shaky Lehtonen. Either way, it will be interesting to see how the results play out.
Dallas could easily make a run for the Stanley Cup this season with the ability to clean up the defensive lapses from last season. Expect them to finish with a solid lock on a playoff spot, but don’t be surprised if they take the league by storm.
The Sabres still have some time before they take the league by storm. However, they could easily make a case to be in competition for a Wild Card spot. That Eichel kid is good.