What the St. Louis Blues accomplished in winning the Stanley Cup over the Boston Bruins last week can be described as nothing short of a miracle. When the clock struck midnight to ring in 2019, the Blues were sitting dead last in the National Hockey League standings with an abysmal 15-18-4 record. They had just seen two of their own players fight during a practice on December and had already fired head coach Mike Yeo. They looked well on their way to drafting centre Jack Hughes first overall in the 2019 entry draft.
And then goaltender Jordan Binnington got his first career start, set a St. Louis Blues rookie record with an eight-game win streak, earned points in 26 of his 30 starts between January 7th and April 6th, improved the Blues to a 45-28-9 record, stole the starting job from Jake Allen, and went on to set a league rookie record with 16 playoff wins.
The Blues 2019 success can’t be put all on Binnington, but it should teach the other teams in the league that sometimes all that’s needed is a little spark to turn things around. More importantly, it should teach that being in last place doesn’t really mean that much anymore.
As teams begin their preparations for the offseason, those who finished in last place in their respective divisions – the Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, New Jersey Devils, and Ottawa Senators – now have the inspiration to strive for a playoff spot as opposed to leaning into the rebuilds expected of the worst teams in the league. Given what these teams have to work with this summer, there’s already a clear favorite to make a return to the postseason following a disappointing last-place finish this year.
The Devils, on the other hand, know that their chances of keeping Taylor Hall after next season are essentially zero, and should do all they can to win while they have a player of his caliber. With eight roster spots to fill, not including their pending free agents, New Jersey has the money to spend on a few contracts to come in and offer immediate support in building a competitive team.
The Wild also find themselves in a fairly competitive spot with just above $20 million in free space heading into the summer of 2019. With six blueliners and two goalies already committed to the next season, the Wild should be able to spend nicely in free agency even after giving Joel Eriksson Ek an extension. Bringing in free agent forwards such as Joe Pavelski or Anders Lee could help provide some much-needed offense to capitalize on the final year of captain Mikko Koivu’s contract and push for a return to the post-season.
The Kings have the least room to work with heading into free agency, with only $14.7 million in cap space. When you take into consideration the raise that Adrian Kempe will likely receive, LA will likely have around $13 million to fill four roster spots. Barring any trades, it will be hard to build a competitive team with contracts that will fit into that space.
Clearly, the Devils have a massive advantage after winning the draft lottery and jumping up two spots into the number one slot. They will presumably land them the aforementioned Jack Hughes. Hughes, who tallied 112 points in 50 games with the Under-18 US National Team, is the kind of player that will be able to step in and make an immediate offensive impact. Especially, on a team that could only muster 222 goals across the entirety of last season. Behind Hughes, the Devils are one of the most heavily featured teams of this group in the draft. They have nine more picks between rounds two through seven. With that many selections, the Devils should be in an excellent position to bundle a few picks to trade for a player. One who will be able to step in and make an immediate impact in getting them out of the divisional basement.
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The Kings, on the other hand, fell back from the expected second overall to fifth, taking them out of contention for the consensus second pick Kaapo Kakko. With all but two of their defensemen of the 18-19 season heading to free agency in 2020-2021, it would not be a surprise to see defenceman Bowen Byram of the Vancouver Giants head to LA. Byram scored 71 points in 67 games in the WHL. However, he will likely need a season or two of development in the AHL before making the jump to the Kings roster full-time. Los Angeles also hold Toronto’s 22nd overall pick as part of the trade that sent Jake Muzzin to the Leafs back in January. But as with Byram, whoever they take at this spot will likely need developmental seasons in the pipeline before being able to make an impact at the NHL level. Although the Kings also have 10 picks in this years draft, it doesn’t appear that they’ll be better suited for a playoff push after the draft than they are heading into it.
When Ottawa traded away their first round pick in either the 2018 or 2019 draft to acquire Matt Duchene, not many people would have expected it to be a top-four selection. One year out of a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Senators finished a disappointing seventh in the Atlantic division in 2018, with many of the pieces of their deep playoff run still on the roster. A world-class player like Duchene should have been an easy piece to plug in to see an immediate turnaround. So they kept their 2018 pick, taking Brady Tkachuk fourth overall, expecting that with the addition of Tkachuk, a return to the playoffs would be imminent.
Instead, General Manager Pierre Dorion declared that the team would enter a rebuild, and that pick that the Senators expected not to be worse than 2018 went to Colorado. The team with the highest probability to pick first overall. Luckily for Dorion, Colorado would drop to fourth overall in the lottery. The pick this year would turn out to be no different than what 2018 would have given. Ironically, it’s trading Duchene that managed to get back into the first round, sending the pending unrestricted free agent to the Columbus Blue Jackets at the deadline. With the Jackets making a surprisingly deep playoff run this year, that pick has resulted in 19 overall and will likely result in a player requiring development time in the AHL. Not one who can help make an immediate impact on a desperate team.
At 12th overall, the Wild will pick about where they were expected if they decided to keep their first-round pick. Over the past few weeks, there have been rumors linking Phil Kessel to Minnesota, and you would think that a first round pick would be required going the other way. Given the contract situation in Minnesota, it would not be a surprise to see the Wild trade out of the first round for more immediate help to make a deep playoff push.
It will likely be tough for Ottawa and LA to find the footing and chemistry needed for a successful season. Both teams will debut new coaches to start the 2019 season. The Senators recently hired Toronto Marlies assistant coach, D.J. Smith, while the Kings were quick to hire veteran bench boss Todd McLellan soon after the end of this season. While Smith was voted by players as being the best non-NHL choice for a team to hire, it may take time for him to adjust to the new team and pace of the pros. The Kings have a proven-success with McLellan. Previously, he has brought a team to the playoffs in seven of his 10 full seasons behind an NHL bench,
Head coach Bruce Boudreau stays in Minnesota, for now. Heading into his fourth season behind the Wild bench, Boudreau will be looking to break the trend of strong regular seasons followed by disappointing early playoff exits. A trend that has plagued his pro coaching career. Last season was the first time since 2012 that Boudreau has missed the playoffs, and if the Wild make the right signings on July 1st, he should easily find himself back in the chase for the Cup come April.
The Devils made a surprising choice to sign coach John Hynes to a multi-year contract extension in January. Hynes has stood behind the Devils’ bench since the 2015-16 season. However, he has led the team to more than 90 points only once. This was back in the 2017-18 season when the Devils finished fifth in the Metropolitan division. Although, they were bounced in the first round in their only appearance since their Cup Final run in 2012. There’s lots of talk about the culture Hynes has been responsible for developing in New Jersey, but a positive culture can only get you so far. After landing an incredible gift with the first overall pick, the upcoming season should be a strong indicator of the future he’ll have with the team long-term; there’s still the possibility that Hynes doesn’t have what it takes to push a team to the playoffs.
Most likely to make playoffs
After only missing the playoffs by seven points this year, the Wild should easily find themselves in the hunt for a wildcard spot by the end of the season. Even if nothing else were to change heading into next year, the Wild would be best suited for a postseason push as LA, Ottawa, and New Jersey all missed the mark by around twenty points.
Given that they’ll have the stability of one of the leagues top coaches behind the bench, the room to sign big name free agents, and the potential of making moves with a mid-first round pick in this year’s draft, the Minnesota Wild are the last place team best positioned to make a strong return twelve months from now.