Canadiens: The Habs mini Cinderella run is over and this one is bittersweet. The 24th seeded team that really had no business being in the bubble at all shocked everyone by upsetting the Penguins and then took Philly to six games, actually outplaying them. The lowly Canadiens played better hockey than the number one seed in the East but ran into some bad bounces and a hot goalie.
It hurts but the future is positive. Carey Price looked like his old self, Kotkaniemi somehow reinvented himself during the break and is showing why he was selected 3rd overall and Nick Suzuki has been one of the talks of the playoffs. As the rookie he looks like a future all-star. They’ve got to wish this run could have continued but this team is loaded with young roster talent, a deep prospect pool and 14 draft picks this year. All signs point to a bright future. Montreal should trust in the assets they have now and will acquire at the draft but finding a quality back up goalie should be a priority. Price proved how good he can be with proper rest and this is a very underrated position of importance that the Habs have struggled at for years.
Blue Jackets: Another matchup that feels disappointing, but what more could you really have asked for? The Jackets did an incredible job upsetting the Leafs in the play-in round and really held their own against the Lightning but at the end of the day they lost to a better team. It took a year but Tampa got their revenge. Amazing goaltending, great defense, great coaching and depth at forward, the Jackets are a very complete team. They’ll be back in the playoffs next year and the only area they could really improve is adding some higher end talent at forward. PLD is great, but while this forward group is deep they don’t really have that gamebreaker they had in Panarin.
It’ll be a tricky ask, Columbus has never in it’s history been able to attract a top end free agents and even has trouble reassigning their own players at times. This is a special group and you have got to hope the youngsters want to stick around.
Capitals: Another great regular season, another early exit from the playoffs. It’s great that the Caps finally broke through and won a Cup two seasons ago, but outside of that run it’s incredible how long this issue has plagued them. They’ve had the greatest goal scorer to ever play the game for a decade and half now and other amazing talent around him but have only made it past the second round one time… this year was another one and done as they were upset by the lower seeded Islanders. A hot goalie, better coaching, Sid & Geno, it’s always something that does this team in. Only once in 15 seasons has this powerhouse team translated regular season success to anything meaningful in the playoffs.
The window is still open, but Ovi, Backstrom, Carlson and Oshie are all in the 30s. With Samsonov looking great it’s time to make the emotional choice to move on from Brayden Holtby and use the cap space to upgrade at Defense. The Caps are elite and deep at forward but outside of Carlson their D is nothing special.
Hurricanes: Run it back. Run it back. Run it back. Carolina is one of the best teams in the NHL and would get even more buzz if this group played in a bigger market. The defense is the league’s gold standard and the forward group has a mix of depth and legitimate superstars in Aho and Svechnikov. The Canes lost to a really strong Boston roster but they have all the tools to challenge for years. Aho, Svech, Slavin, Hamilton, Teravainen and a lot of other players on this roster are all 26 or younger.
Goaltending is Carolina’s one issue as Mrazek and Reimer are both basically backups and form one of the weaker tandems in the league. There are an abundance of teams that have two or more quality goaltenders though and with the expansion draft coming up they’ll be looking to offload. The Hurricanes shouldn’t have too much of a problem upgrading at the position. This team is incredibly well built and their one weakness might be the easiest problem in the league to fix right now.
Blackhawks: There’s still talent on this team and their veteran experience showed, knocking out the Oilers in the play-in round, but the dynasty days feel long gone. This group still has way too much talent to just blow it up and rebuild, but they aren’t contenders either. Chicago is in the not impossible but tricky situation of trying to be a competitive team, while rebuilding certain elements at the same time. Their big 3 of Kane, Toews and Keith are still strong but are moving further into their 30s and it looks like long time starter Corey Crawford might be headed out of town. Kubalik had a great rookie season and Dach looked promising, while some of the other young talent like DeBrincat and Strome took a step back this season.
Chicago is in an interesting situation here but if their young players can continue to improve and they upgrade the defense they may be able to pull off the transition back to a playoff team without having to spend years in mediocrity.
Coyotes: Yikes. This one somehow (*cough* Kuemper *cough*) went to five games but the Coyotes are probably wishing it ended in four so they could have been put out of their misery sooner. Arizona wasn’t supposed to be a playoff team and it showed big time. The Avalanche are one of the favourites to win the Cup and their elite offense was on full display, embarrassing the Yotes by a total score of 22-8, while outshooting them 185-108. Even in sweeps it’s very rare to see a playoff round as lopsided as this.
Aside from having supremely underrated goaltending, this team doesn’t feel close to be a contender. They have some decent young players and prospects but none of them are all that high end and it feels like there’s room to improve at every position. It certainly doesn’t help that their GM resigned out of nowhere in the middle of the playoffs and they’ve now been stripped of multiple draft picks for violating combine rules. Between their poor performance, management issues, unattractive free agent market, and loss of draft picks, there just doesn’t feel like a whole lot to be optimistic about. Sorry Biz.
Flames: After knocking out an injured Jets team in the play-ins the Flames had some injury issues of their own and lost to a really strong Dallas team. Matthew Tkachuk is that unicorn player mix of grit, physicality, and high end scoring that is almost impossible to find. His presence was sorely missed but can’t be used as an excuse. The Flames have problems that need addressing. Giordano is their only star on defense and as good as he is, he’s going to be 37 next season and he already showed signs of decline from his Norris performance a season ago. The biggest problem is with the forward group. Johny Gaudreau has been the Flames superstar but is it time to explore moving on. Opinion is starting to change to fact, this guy just isn’t a playoff player. He’s been a beast in the regular season and is always a wizard in open ice situations but at 5v5 in the playoffs you can’t have a player you rely on this heavily and perform this poorly year in and year out. It’s not all on Gaudreau, Monahan and Lindholm didn’t play step up either and the Flames need to figure this out. Tkachuk, Lindholm and Hannifin should be the only players safe on this roster.
The Flames don’t need a rebuild at all, but as mentioned with the Leafs in the previous edition of this post, you can’t keep doing the same thing every season and expect a different result. This core is not built to win 4 playoff rounds.
Blues: It was a quick exit for the defending champs. A young and hungry Canucks team capitalized on the Blues injury problems and shaky goaltending. St. Louis was without their top sniper, Tarasenko and last year’s playoff darling, Jordan Binnington was a disaster in net. “Do I look nervous?” We’re a far cry from the kid who backstopped this squad to a Cup last year. St. Louis is still a top team in this league but will be entering free agency with a myriad of questions. Do they really have a starter? Neither Binnington nor Allen (who was actually better this season) have proved it. Is Pietrangelo going to be re-signed? Will Tarasenko ever be the same player he once was? Can the younger players step up for former key players that are aging out of their roles?
Best case scenario: This was a down year for Binnington and the real version was what we saw in the playoffs last year. Armstrong is able to clear cap and retain Pietrangelo. Tarasenko is good to go for next season and continues to be an elite sniper.
Worst case scenario: The Binnington of last season is a flash in the pan and St. Louis is stuck without reliable goaltending. Pietrangelo doesn’t re-sign and St. Louis loses far and away their most important skater. Tarasenko’s injury problems continue and the electric game breaker they once had is gone.
They have all the pieces to continue to contend but a lot of questions going into the offseason.