Pretender or Contender: Which of These NHL Teams Are the Real Deal?

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Which of These Five NHL Teams Are Ready to Contend This Year?

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Every year in the NHL, a select few teams severely out-perform their expectations. Sometimes a team with few stars suddenly just starts getting all the breaks en route to a surprise playoff appearance. Other times a move or two in the offseason turns a team who was scraping the bottom of the barrel one year into a legitimate contender the next.

Last year was definitely a special case. Thanks to the NHL lockout, the regular season was cut from the typical 82 game schedule to a compacted 48 game campaign. It was the perfect chance for teams that may not contend in a normal year to take advantage of a lengthy winning streak that suddenly puts them within shouting distance of a playoff spot. For some teams, a short schedule was just what they needed to get into the postseason.

However, with the 2013-2014 season comes a return to the full 82 games and possibly a shift back to normal for more than a few squads. A team that just missed the playoffs by a point or two might see that gap extend now that they’ll be playing seven months of hockey instead of four. Likewise, a team that found itself shocking the league with a playoff berth may not be so lucky this time around.

With that in mind, let’s look at a few teams that either surprisingly made the playoffs or just missed them and see just which ones have a chance to contend and which of them are just pretenders.

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Toronto Maple Leafs

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After what seemed like forever, the Leafs finally made the playoffs again last year. This was by far one of the most shocking playoff berths to be handed out, as Toronto is pretty well known for bursting out of the gate just to collapse come the final stretch, if not before.

So, can they sustain the run they pulled off last year and make a consecutive appearance?

Verdict: Pretender

The Leafs had one big hole to fill, and that was on defense. We’re still waiting on them to actually, you know, approach that. Instead of fixing up the blue line, they went out and made a confusing trade for Los Angeles Kings backup goalie Jonathan Bernier, who will most likely supplant James Reimer, the goalie who helped get the Leafs to the postseason last year.

A muddled goalie situation can ruin a team, especially if there isn’t much defense in front of the net. Watch for the Leafs to be on the outside looking in yet again next year.

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Minnesota Wild

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After making two blockbuster signings in the 2012 offseason, recruiting Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, many thought the Wild were about to surge up the rankings. Instead, the State of Hockey watched its team struggle throughout the year but eventually creep into the playoffs with an eight seed.

Can the Wild get their act together and have a season we expected to see from them last year?

Verdict: Contender

There’s just the right amount of talent on Minnesota to believe they can return to the playoffs again next year. Parise, Suter, Jason Pominville and Niklas Backstrom are all great assets to have on a team. But the biggest reason is their recent change of scenery.

Now a member of the remolded Central Division, they’ll face the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators very often throughout the year. None of these teams made the playoffs, and because of so many games against these clubs, expect the Wild to do so next year.

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Winnipeg Jets

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Speaking of which, the Jets found themselves thinking playoffs last year with a spirited mid-season run that, at one point, saw them sitting in the postseason. However, the wheels started to fall off, leading to Winnipeg watching the playoffs at home again.

Is next year finally the time when Jets fans can see playoff hockey return to Manitoba?

Verdict: Pretender

As discussed last week, the Jets' change in division sees them facing three playoff teams from 2013 on a very consistent basis, including the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks. This is pretty bad news for a team that ranked 24th in GAA last year. A power play that was dead last in the league sure won’t help matters either.

One is left to believe that the Jets were a fine example of a team taking advantage of a compacted schedule, and an 82 game season may yield opposite results this time around.

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New York Islanders

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It's been quite some time since the Nassau Coliseum saw playoff action, but that streak ended last year when the Islanders nabbed the eighth seed in the postseason. Unfortunately, waiting for them was the perennial favorite Pittsburgh Penguins. That being said, the Islanders held their own, forcing a six game series before Pittsburgh closed them out.

Are the Islanders finally for real?

Verdict: Contender

There’s still an issue in net. Evgeni Nabakov isn’t getting any younger, and there doesn’t seem to be a viable backup option waiting in the wings. However, if that gets settled, the Islanders should be back in the postseason this year.

John Tavares is one of the leagues great young talents, while wingers Michael Grabner and Matt Moulson can put up points as well. And for being thrown to the gauntlet of having to play the Penguins in the first round, they really impressed in their ability to hang in there when everyone expected a slaughter.

Their move to Brooklyn is coming up in a couple years, but Long Island may be seeing some more playoff games next year.

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Columbus Blue Jackets

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Much was made about the Blue Jackets' stunning run to the finish line last season. Picked to be dumpster dwellers after dealing Rick Nash, Columbus surged through March and April, falling just a tiebreaker short of the franchise’s second playoff appearance.

Last time they made the playoffs, they flopped the following year. Are we about to see the same thing this season?

Verdict: Contender

It’ll be tough, make no mistake about that. However, the Blue Jackets have a lot going for them coming into this season.

Marian Gaborik is clearly loving life without John Tortorella and has since embraced his new home in Ohio. A fresh start could be just what he needs to put together another high-scoring campaign. Management was smart to sign Vezina winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky to a two-year deal, which should keep him motivated to play hard and earn even more. Though he won’t be ready until December, Nathan Horton will give Columbus some much needed playoff experience to go with toughness and scoring ability.

If the Blue Jackets use their just falling short of the playoffs last year as motivation, Columbus may finally get back to the postseason. And heck, they may even win a game this time.