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 was one goal away from making the Stanley Cup Finals.
With a new season ahead, comes new surprises. Let’s take a look at three potential NHL dark horse teams in the Western Conference with the potential to surprise everyone next season.
The Arizona Coyotes made two of the biggest blockbusters trades this summer. They acquired Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta from the New York Rangers, and Niklas Hjalmarsson from the Chicago Blackhawks.
In addition to that, they made major front office and coaching moves, by naming Steve Patterson as their new President/CEO and Rick Tocchet as the new Head Coach.
Tocchet won back-to-back championships with the Pittsburgh Penguins as an assistant coach. He should be able to instill a winning mentality in the Coyotes’ dressing room.
No question, Arizona is one of the most improved teams in the NHL this summer. There is a lot of excitement surrounding the Coyotes heading into next season. Adding Stepan and Hjalmarsson to a core that already consists of Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Alexander Goligoski all of a sudden gives them a decent core to build around.
Aside from their veterans, the Coyotes have a stockpile of high-end young players in Max Domi, Christian Dvorak, Clayton Keller, and Jakob Chychrun who all has potential to take a huge step forward in the next few years.
All in all, Arizona should be very intriguing to watch in 2017/18. They are a team on a major upswing in the Western Conference. Coyotes’ General Manager John Chayka still has plenty of assets on hand. He has the ability to make another blockbuster trade to further improve his team.
This revamped Arizona Coyotes team doesn’t look like they will finish 28th overall again. They are an early candidate to be the most improved team next year. They are one of several NHL dark horse teams that can sneak into the playoffs next year. It’s even conceivable they may surprise some people with an impressive first-round performance.
Aside from the Arizona Coyotes, the Calgary Flames were one of the busiest teams in the NHL this summer. They made several headline moves, including two blockbuster trades. One included acquiring goaltender Mike Smith from the Arizona Coyotes, and another that added defenseman Travis Hamonic from the New York Islanders.
They also made a few underrated moves to solidify their depth, including the addition of goaltender Eddie Lack, and defenseman Ryan Murphy, from the Carolina Hurricanes. The Flames resigned Kris Versteeg and were able to come to terms with highly sought-after college free agent Spencer Foo, of Union College.
Come October this will be a very different looking team. They won’t appear to be the team we saw get swept by the Anaheim Ducks last spring.
With the addition of Travis Hamonic, the Calgary Flames have arguably the best top-four defensive core in the NHL, which consists of Mark Giordano, T.J Brodie, and Dougie Hamilton, and Hamonic. This is very reminiscent of the defensive corps in Nashville and may be a sign of things to come.
Much like other emerging teams in the West, the Calgary Flames are not far off from teams like the Edmonton Oilers and the Nashville Predators. They don’t get as much hype as those teams. That makes them one of several NHL dark horse teams that can surprise some people in the playoffs.
Their young stars like Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Dougie Hamilton, are just entering their prime. Meanwhile, youngsters Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Bennett have potential to take a huge step forward next year.
Much like the Nashville Predators, the Calgary Flames might just sneak into the playoffs next year and surprise everyone with a deep playoff run. They definitely qualify as one of our NHL dark horse teams.
Los Angeles Kings
Although some people may argue that the Los Angeles Kings Stanley Cup window has officially closed, it might be too early to rule them out just yet. They still may have what it takes to be one of several NHL dark horse teams.
The team made some key moves this summer, naming former Los Angeles King Rob Blake as the new General Manager, and John Stevens as the team’s new Head Coach.
Due to cap restraints, they did not have much room to make a big splash in free agency but they were able to bring in veteran sniper Mike Cammalleri and re-sign Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli.
The Los Angeles Kings weren’t able to make the playoffs last year. A huge reason was due to a surprisingly down year, from center Anze Kopitar. Starting goalie, Jonathan Quick also got hurt in the first game of the season and was limited to only 17 games in the entire season.
Coming into 2017/18, Quick should be fully healed. He has the ability to bounce back and be a top-five goalie again in the NHL. Kopitar is only 29-years-old and will likely revive his overall play as well.
New Head Coach John Stevens will probably implement a new system that gives his team more offensive freedom, which should help increase goal scoring for players like Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, and Mike Cammalleri.
Finally, on defense, the Kings still have one of the best defensemen in the NHL, in Drew Doughty. So if everyone can stay healthy, they should have a good enough core to compete for a playoff spot.
Remember that the Los Angeles Kings won two Stanley Cups in three years from 2012-2014. Back in 2012, they won it all as an eighth seed. If the Los Angeles Kings are able to sneak into the playoffs, they might be able to go on another fairy tale Cup run.
Do you agree with this list of “dark horse” teams in the Western Conference? If not, who do you think belongs on the list? Share your thoughts in the comment section below, and be sure to participate in the poll as well.
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