Every year, there are a handful of teams in the NHL that surprise a lot of people by outplaying their pre-season rankings.
In the Western Conference, the emergence of the Nashville Predators was a huge surprise. They made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals despite being the eighth seed. Meanwhile, the Edmonton Oilers exceeded expectations, by making the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons and were one game away from making the Western Conference Finals.
Out east, the Columbus Blue Jackets surprised a lot of people with their spectacular regular season. They finished with a franchise record of 50 wins and locked up third place in the Metropolitan Division. The Ottawa Senators also had a brilliant season, finishing second in the Atlantic Division. They were literally only one goal away from making the Stanley Cup Finals.
With a new season ahead, comes new surprises. Last time, we took a look at three potential dark horse teams in the Western Conference. This time around, let’s head out east and see which three NHL teams have potential to surprise a lot of people next season.
The Buffalo Sabres made a lot of encouraging moves this offseason. They started up at the top by naming Jason Botterill as the Sabre’s new general manager, while naming Phil Housley as the team’s new head coach.
Housley has been an assistant coach with the Nashville Predators from 2013 to 2017 and, knows a little bit about winning. He also specialized in running the Predators’ defense during his time there. Bringing in a knowledgeable mind like Housley should improve the Sabres’ defensive play, which was a huge weakness for the team last season.
Roster wise, the Sabres gave themselves a huge face-lift, bringing in Marco Scandella and Jason Pominville from the Minnesota Wild, in exchange for Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno. They also acquired Nathan Beaulieu from the Montreal Canadiens and brought in goalie Chad Johnson as free agent.
Other under-the-radar moves included the signing of Russian defenseman Viktor Antipin from Magnitogorsk Metallurg of the KHL and former Edmonton Oiler winger, Benoit Pouliot. Both players should help the shore up the Sabres’ depth moving forward.
On paper, the Sabres looks like a more balanced team than last season, with quality veterans scattered across the lineup. Their defensive core now includes Zach Bogosian, Rasmus Ristolainen, Marco Scandella, Nathan Beaulieu and Jake McCabe, which should be good enough to help them move up the standings in 2017/18.
Sabres must stay healthy to succeed
Health was a major issue for the Sabres last season. Heading into the new season we can expect key players in Kyle Okposo, Evander Kane, and Jack Eichel all to be healthy and ready to go.
A lot of the team’s success next season will depend on Jack Eichel. He is their franchise player with the potential to be a top-five center in the NHL. He is entering his third-season and might be ready to take a huge step forward.
If you look at the Buffalo Sabres’ top-six forwards, they have two elite centers in Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly, along with great complimentary wingers in Kyle Okposo and Evander Kane. On top of that, they have a former second overall pick, Sam Reinhart who has potential to take a huge leap forward this coming season.
The Sabres finished second to last place in the Eastern Conference with a record of 33-37-6 last season, but won’t likely repeat that next year. They are not guaranteed a playoff spot but definitely have a chance to surprise some people by sneaking into a wild card spot. If that’s the case who knows what will happen in the playoffs.
For these reasons, the Buffalo Sabres must be considered to be on the list of Eastern Conference dark horse teams.
The Philadelphia Flyers have been a rebuilding team for the past few years and have been mediocre at best. However, during that time they have stockpiled together a deep pool of promising young talent, including 2017 second overall pick Nolan Patrick.
It seems like they may be able to turn things around rather quickly. With enough high-end talent who looks ready to make a positive impact for the team next season, the Philadelphia Flyers has potential to be back into the playoffs next year.
Even though the Flyers haven’t been very good in recent years, people forget that they still have a pretty solid core in place, which includes Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek.
Amazingly, none of those players are even 30-years-old yet, and not too long ago Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek were top scorers in the NHL. If Giroux and Voracek can get back to being those types of players, the Flyers should finish a lot better than 11th place in the east.
Success can be found on the blueline
The Flyers blueline looks to be the x-factor that can put them over the top. Young players like Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov made a significant impact on the team over the past few years. Can other high-end prospects like Travis Sanheim, Samuel Morin, Philippe Myers and Robert Hagg follow-suit next season?
Overall, the Philadelphia Flyers will be one of the most unpredictable teams next year. Only time will tell how soon their youth can come along and catapult this team to the next level. If it happens next year, the Flyers have a very good chance to climb in the standings and be back in the playoffs.
Goaltending has been a huge question mark for a long time. This summer they brought in former Calgary Flame Brian Elliott. He is a decent starting goalie in the NHL, and did a spectacular job in the second half of last season, helping the Flames get back into the playoffs.
Finally, one of the most exciting young players to join the Flyers this season is 2017, 2nd overall pick, Nolan Patrick. If he turns out to be as good as he is projected to be, the Flyers can potentially be a team with one of the best center depths in the Eastern Conference.
Patrick will likely be eased into the team’s third-line center role but if he is able to contribute offensively, look out!
With all that, the Flyers can be considered one of the true dark horse teams in the Eastern Conference. We know they can be very good in the next two-three years but can they make that jump as early as next season?
Tampa Bay Lightning
Some people may not consider the Tampa Bay Lightning as one of the Eastern Conference dark horse teams. Nonetheless the potential to surprise a lot of people next season. They finished tenth in the Eastern Conference last season. They have serious potential to win the Stanley Cup this coming season.
Not the same can be said about other NHL teams, nor do they have the personnel to rebound so quickly.
In addition to that, some may have ruled out the Lightning to win the east, simply because there are teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins coming off back-to-back championships. Meanwhile, there are two other teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators on a major upswing.
However, it is important to point out that, the Tampa Bay Lightning went on two incredible playoff runs prior to last season, and the majority of that core is still on their roster today. This includes the likes of Steve Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Victor Hedman, who all fall in the age range of 24-27 and are still in their prime.
Additional time may be a blessing
After two long seasons, missing the playoffs last year might have a blessing in disguise. It gives their players the extra rest to get back into the best shape of their playing career.
Health was also an issue for the Tampa Bay Lightning last season. However, Ryan Callahan and Steven Stamkos will return to full health next season, along with the addition of a proven winner in Chris Kunitz, they should be a playoff team again.
Aside from Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov has also emerged as another legitimate superstar in the NHL. That dynamic duo gives the Lightning two of the most feared snipers in the NHL.
General Manager Steve Yzerman also made some shrewd moves last season. He traded away long time key players Ben Bishop, Valtteri Filppula, and Brian Boyle to add even more assets to his arsenal. They have also shored up their blueline nicely, by adding depth players in Dan Girardi and Mikhail Sergachev.
The only question mark surrounding this team is if, a 22-year-old, Russian goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy is ready for prime time and can take this team to the promise land. If he is able to do that, Tampa Bay should be a favorite to win the Atlantic Division and has a legitimate chance of contending for a Stanley Cup next season.
Do you agree with this list of “dark horse” teams in the Eastern Conference? Share your thoughts in the comment section below, and be sure to participate in the poll as well.
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