In the NHL, there are always “can’t miss” teams that the experts pick as favorites to have great years.
The Blackhawks, Kings, Bruins, Penguins and Canadians are always at the top of their respective divisions.
However, I am looking for a team that has the potential to come out and shock a few teams.
I’m not talking about winning the Stanley Cup, but a team steadily improving from the previous year and obtaining the pieces that are necessary to put together a great future team.
My surprise team for this year is the Florida Panthers.
The Panthers finished second to last in the Atlantic Division last year, with a record of 29-45-8.
That record earned them 66 points, which allowed them to finish only above Buffalo.
However, this offseason and draft allowed them to start acquiring pieces towards the future.
With the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NHL Draft, the Panthers selected defenseman Aaron Ekblad.
Ekblad has a strong chance of making the Panther’s roster in his first professional year.
He would immediately help the Panther’s offensively, as he had 53 points in 58 games last year with the Barrie Colts of the OHL.
In the offseason, the Panthers made a couple big free agent signings.
Headlining these signings are center Dave Bolland and left winger Jussi Jokinen.
These two players will shore up the forwards and help the team offensively.
Florida had trouble offensively last year, as their leading scorer was Nick Bjugstad with just 38 points on the year.
Compare that to Sidney Crosby, who led the league last year with 104 points.
The addition of Jokinen will help the Panther’s offense, as Jokinen had 57 points last year playing with the Penguins.
Critics will say that those points came as a result of playing on a line with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, and I agree.
However, seeing as how bad the Panther’s offense was last year, he will still be an upgrade.
Bolland, on the other hand, is more of a gritty forward who is defensively minded.
This was something the Panther’s also lacked, as Scottie Upshall led the team last year with a +/- of one.
This isn’t good for a forward, and he was the only player to be positive last year with that +/-. Florida is a young team, though.
Their core players for the future are young guys, such as Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad, and Dmitry Kulikov.
Kulikov, who is only 23 years old, played in almost every game last year.
However, the only drawback to his game is that his +/- last year was -26.
He also had 66 penalty minutes.
These two stats show that even though he is young and played almost every game, his discipline and decision making were not very good.
The Panther’s young core should only improve this year.
Helping the young players will be a mix of seasoned veterans.
Not only can Bolland and Jokinen provide veteran leadership, but so can veterans Willie Mitchell, Brian Campbell and Brad Boyes.
Roberto Luongo is in the waning years of his career, however he should still be able to provide quality goaltending for this young Panther team.
Jason C. Croft:
Last night the 2014-15 NHL season kicked off with four games.
Now, with hockey in full force for the next six months, it brings up the question of surprise teams.
Which team will be the Columbus Blue Jackets of last season, the New York Islanders of 2013, the Florida Panthers of 2012.
Which team will surprise the fans in Canada and the United States alike.
Since moving from Atlanta to a much better fan base in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, the Winnipeg Jets have still failed to make the playoffs.
This year, I feel their luck will finally change.
Led by veterans such as captain Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Brian Little, Blake Wheeler and a still young fifth year Evander Kane, the Winnipeg Jets have potential to score in bunches.
The Jets as a team last year finished with 219 goals and 40 on powerplays, somewhere in the middle of the pack.
However, the team was faced with issues during the season.
Last season Byfuglien and Ladd each missed four games, and Kane missed 19 games.
With the exception of Evander Kane, the players listed each had at least 20 goals scored.
The main problem I see that hurt the Winnipeg Jets last season was defense.
The Jets though have veteran defenseman like Alternate Captain Mark Stuart and Zach Bogosian; they do not have depth in the defensive zone.
Including Stuart and Bogosian, the team takes the ice this season with Grant Clitsome, Keaton Ellerby, Toby Enstrom, Adam Pardy, Paul Postma and Jacob Trouba.
It’s not a line of defense that is going to take a team to the Stanley Cup Final.
Last season the team gave up 2.82 goals per game and 47 goals on opponents’ powerplays.
Both statistics ranked in the bottom third of the league.
The +/- of the team was not bad, however, right in the middle with a -3.
The team has room to improve on defense and, with a little time, I feel the team can move up.
While the Western Conference in particular is the tougher of the two conferences, having two teams less than the Eastern Conference makes getting into the postseason a little easier.
The Winnipeg Jets are faced with the challenge in the Western Conference to compete with six teams that had 100 or more points in the standings last year.
Even the Minnesota Wild, who claimed the first wildcard spot, had 98 points, a huge gap between them and the second wildcard team the Dallas Stars who only had 91 points.
The Jets finished the season last year with 84 points and room to improve for this upcoming season.
Though I cannot see them getting deep into the NHL postseason come April, I can see them sneaking in and causing a bit of trouble for their first or maybe even second round opponent(s).
Like the Columbus Blue Jackets of last season, the Winnipeg Jets have potential to be that surprise team in the National Hockey League, the team that can surprise many people and come trade deadline time, expect the Jets to be in the buying stage of the league, not the selling.