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In the NHL’s salary-cap era, quick turnarounds are more difficult to pull off than they have been in the past because there’s only so much talent you can rapidly import before financial limitations come into play.
Teams also generally live close enough to the cap that the league’s top stars almost always sign big extensions instead of hitting a free-agent market where most squads can’t afford their services. That environment means stability often rules the day. Cores remain in place and competitive sands shift gradually.
Last year, the Vegas Golden Knights managed a rare feat by winning the Stanley Cup after missing the postseason the previous season. While the 2018-19 St. Louis Blues did the same, prior to that pair the Carolina Hurricanes were the last to do it in 2005-06 — and that’s hardly comparable as Carolina was coming off a lockout and working under a new set of rules
In 2023-24, it’s extremely likely that the NHL’s champion will come from the group of 16 teams that fought for the Stanley Cup in 2022-23, but it’s possible an upstart team steals a championship. Below are the teams most likely to fit that description.
The Penguins are the most obvious candidate for go from down-and-out to hoisting the Cup. It’s tough to bet against a core that includes Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Erik Karlsson and Kris Letang — even if their collective age is 142.
Pittsburgh also deserves credit for adding around its aging Hall of Famers by bringing in a top-four defenseman like Ryan Graves, a reliable secondary scorer in Reilly Smith, and solid depth like Noel Acciari and Lars Eller.
This team is clearly stronger than the 2022-23 version, but injuries and age-related decline will be a massive concern. Last season, the team got 82-game campaigns from both Crosby and Malkin, which seems difficult to replicate this time around.
Karlsson’s fit is also imperfect as it may limit what Letang is able to do, considering the way he’s thrived in puck-dominant roles in the past.
It’s understandable that this team is pushing hard while its horses are still effective, and a playoff appearance is a fair expectation. Getting further than that might require a little magic, or at least some abnormal injury luck.
The Sabres have the opposite argument to the Penguins for being on the list. Buffalo’s core is totally unproven in the postseason considering the team hasn’t made the playoffs since 2011-12.
That doesn’t mean Buffalo wouldn’t be dangerous if it made the playoffs in 2023-24. This is a squad that just ranked third in the NHL in goal scoring and features two defensemen drafted first overall (Rasmus Dahlin, Owen Power) who keep getting better every year. Bringing in Clifton and Johnson should help settle things down on the back end as well.
What Buffalo needs to make a surprising run is some competent goaltending. Chances are that means rookie goaltender Devon Levi seizes the crease and performs at a high level. That may seem far-fetched considering Levi has seven NHL games under his belt, but we’ve seen first-year goalies like Antti Niemi, Matt Murray, and Jordan Binnington lead their teams to titles in recent years.
That trio combined for just 17 total games of NHL experience prior to the seasons they backstopped their squads to titles.
Of all of 2022-23’s non-playoff teams, the Flames are the only one that managed a positive goal differential last season (+8). Calgary was also an excellent possession team that produced the league’s third-highest expected goal rate at 5-on-5 (55.41%) while managing the NHL’s second-best shot share (57.36%).
The Flames deserved better results than they got, and the combination of a middling power play (19.8%) and brutal team goaltending (.893 save percentage) did them in.
A bounce-back campaign from Jacob Markström could put them back on the right path, as could better seasons from Jonathan Huberdeau and Nazem Kadri, who combined for 111 points in 2022-23 after producing 202 the previous season.
The departure of Darryl Sutter may also be a boon to this group, as the players clearly didn’t respond to the hard-nosed coach.
That’s not a bad core to go to war with, though, and both Pettersson and Hughes might have another gear to find. Add in the possibility of a bounce back from Thatcher Demko in net, and the pieces are in place for a solid 2023-24.
Vancouver’s offseason wasn’t headline-grabbing, but bringing Carson Soucy and Ian Cole aboard could help stabilize a leaky defense corps — and improve the NHL’s worst penalty-killing unit from last season (71.6%)
Most teams that miss the playoffs have less star power than the Canucks, and it’s possible the team has finally found the right group of role players to put around its top dogs. Pius Suter is an intriguing bottom-six pickup, it could be Vasili Podkolzin‘s time, and Ilya Mikheyev was headed for a career year in 2022-23 before he was shut down due to a knee injury.
Plenty would have to go right for Vancouver to make a 2023-24 run, but a franchise with one playoff appearance in the last eight seasons might push some chips into the middle for deadline help if it’s in the midst of a surprisingly strong campaign.