Part five of our 2016-17 preview will look at the remaining three teams in the Metropolitan Division and the top two teams in the Pacific Division. Feel free to check out Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four of the series if you haven’t done so already.
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2015-16: 35-31-16 record, 10th in the Eastern Conference
Biggest Strength: The Hurricanes have produced a good group of young defensemen in the last few years. Already on the roster are Justin Faulk, Noah Hanifin and Jaccob Slavin just to name a few. Carolina also has top prospects like 2016 first rounder Jake Bean and Hayden Fleury coming up through the system. In a few years, the ‘Canes could have one of the best defensive units in the NHL.
Biggest Weakness: Scoring remains a problem for the Hurricanes. The ‘Canes ranked 28th in the league in goals scored (198) and that will probably continue to be a problem this season. Carolina also has some question marks in goal, as Cam Ward and Eddie Lack have been mediocre at times. The goaltending might look bad because there are a good number of young defensemen on the team, but they haven’t done much to help the youngsters.
Player to Watch: As I mentioned, the Hurricanes have a hard time scoring goals and one youngster who can provide offense is Sebastian Aho. The 19-year-old had a fantastic 2015-16 season in Finland, where he scored 45 points in 45 games in the country’s top division. Aho isn’t very big (5’10, 176 pounds), but he’s creative and he can fly on the ice.
New Jersey Devils
2015-16: 38-36-8, 12th in the Eastern Conference
Biggest Strength: Last season, Cory Schneider performed like one of the top goalies in the NHL. He played early and often, and he kept the Devils in many games. Expect the same thing to happen again this season. There’s no reason to think that Schneider can’t continue to be a dominant force for New Jersey.
Biggest Weakness: New Jersey finished dead last in goals for in 2015-16. The Devils were the only team to score less than 190 goals last year, but they managed to acquire Tayloy Hall from Edmonton, which should help. Still, the Devils will likely need Schneider to carry them if they hope to qualify for the playoffs next spring.
Player to Watch: Pavel Zacha is another one of those players the Devils hope can contribute offensively. The 19-year-old was the sixth overall pick in 2015, so the Devils have high hopes for him. If his first taste of North American pro hockey was any indication, he’ll be just fine. Zacha registered a pair of assists in his only NHL game last season, he added three points in three games with AHL Albany during the regular season and three more points in five games during the AHL playoffs.
Columbus Blue Jackets
2015-16: 34-40-8, finished 15th in the Eastern Conference
Biggest Strength: Not much went right for the Blue Jackets last season. Many expected them to compete for a playoff spot, but a slow start eliminated them from contention early on. The Jackets appear to be a rebuilding team and they have a few nice pieces they can build around. Brandon Saad is a 23-year-old goal scorer that should be able to lead the attack, while Seth Jones gives Columbus a true big-minute defenseman. Add Pierre-Luc Dubois, who the team drafted third overall this summer, and the Jackets might not be that far away from competing.
Biggest Weakness: The team might have some solid young players, but there are more than a few question marks surrounding this roster. They have a number of high-priced veterans like Nick Foligno, Scott Hartnell and Jack Johnson that just didn't produce last season. In goal, Sergei Bobrovsky is coming off a disappointing, injury-plagued season. After Seth Jones, the team lacks a capable number two defenseman.
Player to Watch: The Jackets should be in rebuild mode, so it’ll be interesting to see if they push some of their top prospects to the NHL this season. One of those players might be defenseman Zach Werenski. The 19-year-old was the eighth overall pick in 2015 and he possesses enormous potential. He and Seth Jones could eventually give the Jackets a lethal one-two punch on defense. Last season, he scored 11 goals and 36 points in 36 games for the Michigan Wolverines. If he makes the team, watch out.
2015-16: 46-25-11, first round loss to Nashville (4-3)
Biggest Strength: The Ducks are remarkably deep down the middle. With Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler and Rickard Rakell already on the roster, Anaheim added free agent Antoine Vermette. Vermette might play on the wing, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Ducks have four capable top three centermen on the roster.
Biggest Weakness: Anaheim made a pair of significant trades involving goalies. Frederik Andersen was traded to Toronto and the Ducks acquired Jonathan Bernier from the Leafs in a separate trade. John Gibson has been good during his young NHL career, but the Ducks are counting on him to be the go-to guy. This season will tell us just how ready Gibson is for that challenge. As for Bernier, he’ll have to show that he can overcome the struggles he had in Toronto. If Gibson falters, he’ll have to step up.
Player to Watch: The Ducks have good depth up front, but one player who may have an opportunity to crack the top two lines is prospect Nick Ritchie. The 10th overall pick in the 2014 draft has put up good numbers in the AHL, but now it’s time for him to show that he can also produce at the NHL level. The 20-year-old had 30 points in 38 AHL games and just four points in 33 games in his first professional season.
Los Angeles Kings
2015-16: 48-28-6, first round loss to San Jose (4-1)
Biggest Strength: The Kings are a stingy team when it comes to surrendering goals. Last season, only two teams allowed fewer goals than Los Angeles and that shouldn’t change this year. Jonathan Quick is a big reason for that, but so are defensemen Drew Doughty, Alec Martinez and Jake Muzzin. Having a great two-way forward like Anze Kopitar is another plus. The Kings are a big, physical team that will lean on the opposition and make it hard for other teams to score goals.
Biggest Weakness: Do they have enough firepower up front? Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli are more than capable to create offense. After that, it’s anyone’s guess. Marian Gaborik is now 34, Dustin Brown is coming off three straight disappointing seasons and Tanner Pearson had some ups and downs in 2015-16. The Kings’ secondary scoring definitely need to be questioned at this point.
Player to Watch: With secondary scoring being a question mark, the Kings will need someone other than Kopitar, Carter and Toffoli to step up. That might just be Tanner Pearson. The 24-year-old scored 15 goals last season and he might be able to contribute more in 2016-17. Last year, Pearson played more than 42 games (he played 79) for the first time in his career. Now that he’s used to the heavier workload, a 20-goal season could be within reach.