We are not exactly in the home stretch of the 2015-16 NHL season, but we have turned the corner from the first half to the second half. With that, it’s time to look at the teams have improved the most from the end of the 2014-15 season through today.
Each of the five teams that made this list failed to make the playoffs last season. While some of these teams are firmly entrenched in a playoff spot right now, others have a somewhat tenuous grasp on a postseason berth. However, if those teams can maintain the improvements they have made over the first half of the season, they should find themselves in the hunt for the 2016 Stanley Cup.
One team that didn’t make this list is the Washington Capitals. With the way they are playing at this moment, you could argue that the Caps are one of the most improved teams this season. Believe me, I toyed with the idea of including them here, but when it came down to making the cut, I just couldn’t justify the Caps making this list over the five teams that are included. After all, Washington’s improvements are not earth-shattering; they are playing as a complete team, believing in the system their coach has implemented.
The teams that have made this list have changed much more than one or two things in their team play this season.
So, now that you know one of the teams that didn’t make the list, read on to find out who did.
5. New Jersey Devils
Last season, the New Jersey Devils finished in seventh place in the Metropolitan Division. The team cobbled together a record of 32-36-14, good enough for 78 points. This season the team already has 23 wins and 51 points and is in the hunt for a wild card spot. If the Devils do make the playoffs, it will be the first time since 2011-12 when they lost to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup finals.
While the Devils have never been known as an offense first team, last year’s goal scored total of 181 was one of the lowest totals in team history. By the same token, the usually stingy defense allowed 216 goals, one of the highest goals allowed totals for the team in the last 20 years. The team is not on pace to score many more goals this season than they did last year, but the defense has tightened up considerably. Some of the defensive thanks has to go to goaltender Cory Schneider, who has improved his numbers over last season.
One thing that can’t be overlooked in this turnaround is the fact that the Devils have a new coach in John Hynes.
4. Los Angeles Kings
When the 2014-15 season came to an end, the Los Angeles Kings, winners of the 2014 Stanley Cup were out of the playoffs, finishing the season with a record of 40-27-15 which put them at fourth in the Pacific Division. It was the first time the Kings missed the postseason since 2008-09.
Things are looking better for the Kings this year; they are first in the Pacific Division with a record of 29-13-3 and have a 12-point lead over their closest competition in the division, the San Jose Sharks.
The Kings are playing a better defensive game this season. The team’s 2.20 goals against per game is second only to the Washington Capitals’ 2.15. More evidence of the team’s strong defensive play can be found by looking at the NHL plus-minus leaders, three of the top 10 players are Kings, including league-leading Tyler Toffoli (plus 28).
Missing the playoffs last season will not sit well with the veteran players on the Kings hockey club, and they will do all they can to prove that last season was an aberration.
3. Dallas Stars
The Dallas Stars did have the Art Ross Trophy winner on the club last season, but even Jamie Benn’s 87-point season was not enough to get the Stars into the playoffs. The team finished in sixth place in the Central Division with a record of 41-31-10, good for 92 points on the season.
Right now the team is in second place in the division with a record of 29-13-5, giving them 63 points, and barring a massive fall off, they will make the playoffs this season. It should be noted that the team might be in the beginning stages of that fall off right now, with a record of 2-6-2 in their last 10 games.
The Stars are playing better defense this year, reducing their goals against average from 3.13 per game played to 2.66 per game played. The defense has been helped by the emergence of youngster John Klingberg into a Norris Trophy as well as by the signing of veteran blueliner Johnny Oduya.
On the opposite end of the ice, the team’s goals for has gone up from 3.13 last season to 3.28 this season, which is second only to the Washington Capitals’ 3.33 goals per game average. Benn, Klingberg, Tyler Seguin, Patrick Sharp, and Jason Spezza spur the offense.
2. Florida Panthers
The Florida Panthers finished last season in sixth place in the Atlantic Division with 91 points. No, they did not make the playoffs, but the season was a success in at least one way: They improved their point total from a dismal 66 points in 2013-14. The way things stand right now, the Panthers look like they will once again finish this season with more points and may even flirt with the 100-point mark.
The Panthers also look like they will make the playoffs as they currently sit in first place in the tightly-contested Atlantic. If they do manage to make the post-season, it will be the first time the team has done so since 2011-12. Before that year, the last time the Panthers made the playoffs was 1999-2000.
One of the things that has helped the Panthers succeed this season is stellar goaltending from Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya. The team is also plus in goal differential this year, something they did not achieve last season.
In addition, the team has a good mix of veteran and young players who work well together. It doesn’t hurt that one of those veterans is Jaromir Jagr, who has been recognized as one of the hardest working players on the team, on and off the ice. Jagr is a great inspiration for the young players on the club.
The team is currently struggling a bit with the loss of defenseman Aaron Ekblad after a Matt Hendricks laid him out earlier this month.
1. Arizona Coyotes
The Arizona Coyotes finished last season with a record of 24-50-8, giving them 56 points. That total put them in last place in the Pacific Division. The only team with a worse record were the Buffalo Sabres, who went 23-51-8. The Coyotes’ performance last season had many thinking the team would not do much better, in fact, many thought the Coyotes would finish in dead last. Well, surprise, the team is actually in the playoff hunt at this time.
With 45 games played, the Coyotes have a record of 22-18-5, leaving them seven points short of their point total over 82 games last year.
The team has increased their goals per game from 2.01 last season to 2.73 this season, thanks in large part to the contributions of rookies Anthony Duclair and Max Domi. It also helps that Mikkel Boedker, who leads the team in scoring, has been around for the entire season, after missing almost the entire last half of last season after having his spleen removed.
The Coyotes will have a significant test during the second half of the season. Starting goalie Mike Smith has been sidelined since December 8 and is expected to be out until February. Rookie netminder Louis Domingue has played well in his place, but it will be interesting to see if the 23-year-old can keep the team in the playoff hunt.