It's been four weeks since the start of the free agent period and teams have used that time, along with the trades and the selection of players in the 2019 NHL Draft, to improve. Which team from the Western Conference that missed the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs has best used this window to become the most competitive among the nonplayoff teams for the 2019-20 NHL season? That's the question posed to our staff in this week's roundtable.
Here are their thoughts:
Nick Cotsonika, columnist
Arizona Coyotes: Though they were hit hard with injuries and had an anemic offense, they were in the playoff race until the last minute of the second period of their second-to-last game last season. Not until the Colorado Avalanche ended regulation tied 2-2 with the Winnipeg Jets at Pepsi Center on April 4 was Arizona eliminated; the Coyotes had a 3-1 lead against the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena at the time. The Avalanche went on to win 3-2 in overtime; the Coyotes went on to win 4-1. Starting Jan. 6, the Coyotes went 22-14-5. Their 49 points in that span ranked eighth in the NHL. They went 10-3-1 in their last 14 home games, energizing Gila River Arena. Forwards like Clayton Keller, Michael Grabner and Christian Dvorak are capable of scoring more than they did last season, and now they have added forwards Phil Kessel and Carl Soderberg.
Video: Johnson on Kessel, Coyotes' need to stay healthy
William Douglas, staff writer
Coyotes: Arizona added much-needed scoring when it acquired Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Coyotes were stingy on defense last season, allowing 220 goals (tied for fifth in the NHL), but their 209 goals tied the Dallas Stars for 28th in the League. Adding Kessel, a six-time 30-goal scorer, and reuniting him coach Rick Tocchet, who was an assistant in Pittsburgh from 2015-17, should be the boost they need to reach the postseason.
Tom Gulitti, staff writer
Chicago Blackhawks: The Kessel acquisition made the biggest splash during the offseason, and he will provide much-needed offensive punch, but I think the Blackhawks will be the biggest threat in the Western Conference playoff race after going 20-10-3 in their final 33 games last season. They improved their defenseman group with trades for Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan and upgraded their goaltending with the signing of Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner to go with with incumbent Corey Crawford. Those additions should help Chicago improve significantly on its 3.55 goals-against average last season, which ranked second to last. Bringing back Andrew Shaw in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens will add some grit at forward, and the trade for forward prospect Alexander Nylander has the potential to pay off as their trade for center Dylan Strome did last season.
Video: Mark Lazerus on the success of Patrick Kane
Mike G. Morreale, staff writer
Coyotes: They needed scorers and added one of the best in the NHL. Kessel should ignite a power play that ranked 26th last season (16.3 percent), and his 24 goals with the man-advantage during the past two seasons are tied for ninth in the NHL. Arizona didn't have a 20-goal scorer last season; Kessel has reached that mark in 11 straight seasons. The Coyotes also added offensive depth by acquiring Soderberg, a two-way center who scored an NHL career-high 23 goals last season, in a trade with the Colorado Avalanche. The bottom line is Arizona needed more offense after finishing four points behind Colorado for the second wild card into the playoffs from the West last season and they did just that.
Tracey Myers, staff writer
Coyotes: I had a tough time with this one. I was going back and forth between the Coyotes and the Blackhawks, who I think will definitely be better but are once again part of a very tough Central Division. I'm going with the Coyotes, based mainly on the strong defense they already have. It always starts there, right? Kessel will help an offense that struggled at times, but I don't see them getting too far away from what works. The Coyotes almost qualified for the playoffs despite their injury concerns. I'm curious to see what they can do if they're healthy.
Shawn P. Roarke, Senior Director of Editorial
Vancouver Canucks: My colleagues are rightly bullish on what the Coyotes and the Blackhawks have done, but I'm going with a dark horse: the Canucks. They added important pieces in free agency: forwards J.T. Miller and Micheal Ferland will add offense and some net-front presence. Defensemen Tyler Myers and Jordie Benn bring experience as well, but the young core is driving my optimism. Center Elias Pettersson only has one NHL season under his belt and is not close to his ceiling after winning the Calder Trophy. Quinn Hughes could well be a game-breaking presence at defenseman and Olli Juolevi could be a nice complement there. The future is bright for Vancouver, and if things fall right on the development curve, the future could arrive this season.
Video: Rupp on the expectations for the Canucks in 2019-20
Dan Rosen, senior writer
Coyotes: I wrote a story on the Coyotes late last season about learning how to win the high-stakes games in March and early April. Arizona was learning on the fly and stumbling along the way. The Coyotes played their way into the playoff race by mid-March and faded out, going 3-5-3 in their final 11 games. The experience will pay off this season. The Coyotes will be better for what they went through. They should be better with Kessel playing right wing on their top line. They were tight last season, afraid to make a mistake. They scored 20 goals in those final 11 games, clearly not enough. They'll play on their instincts more this season and will score more. Their bubble won't burst.
Dave Stubbs, columnist
Blackhawks: Missing the playoffs doesn't sit well for a storied big-market team that has enjoyed success, so brighter times are ahead, imminently, for the Blackhawks. Lehner and the long-established Crawford could nicely split the workload if they're healthy, helping to settle a defense that struggled too often last season. Maatta and de Haan, each an established defenseman in his own right, will also play a large role in making the Blackhawks more sound defensively. The repatriation of fan favorite Shaw from the Canadiens provides some useful sandpaper up front. A strong finish to last season sets a high, expectant bar for Chicago, which has missed the playoffs two straight seasons and was bounced in the first round two consecutive seasons before that, a bitter taste after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup for the third time in six seasons in 2015.
Mike Zeisberger, staff writer
Blackhawks: Sure, there's a lot to like about what Kessel brings to a Coyotes team that struggled to score last season. But I watched Kessel score 20-plus goals in his six seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs (30-plus four times), and they made the playoffs once in that span. It wasn't his fault; one player can't dominate a hockey team like in basketball. That's why I have to agree with Tom and Dave and go with the Blackhawks. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, while still quite effective, are well into their 30s and could use help gobbling up minutes, so the offseason acquisitions of Maatta and de Haan certainly address the need of defensive depth. The addition of Lehner is key, too, given the injury woes of Crawford the past few seasons. And last time I checked, there was still plenty of firepower up front with Patrick Kane (110 points; 44 goals, 66 assists), Jonathan Toews (81 points; 35 goals, 46 assists) and Alex DeBrincat (76 points; 41 goals, 35 assists). Nice work by general manager Stan Bowman and the rest of the Chicago front office this offseason.
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