Vegas. New Jersey. Colorado.
These were the teams no one expected to qualify for the playoffs last season. But hockey gods be damned, they surprised us all and made the dance. Every year the postseason features a handful of newcomers. Here, we venture our best guess as to who those might be in 2018-19.
A second-half surge brought the Panthers within one point of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference last season, and they appear poised to build upon their late success and barge their way into the dance in 2018-19.
The team was sunk by a mid-season injury to goalie Roberto Luongo, who recovered to go 12-5-1 with a .930 save percentage down the stretch to give his club a chance. His health will be imperative for the Panthers to be in the playoff mix again. Florida enhanced its odds of a postseason berth with the savvy acquisition of Mike Hoffman to bolster a top-six forward group that also features superstar and new captain Aleksander Barkov, as well as Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, and Evgenii Dadonov.
However, Florida resides in a top-heavy Atlantic Division that could very well feature the conference's top three teams in the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, and Toronto Maple Leafs. The Panthers probably aren't cut from the same cloth as those powerhouses, but on the opposite end of the division lies a slew of teams much more likely to be contending for a lottery pick than a wild-card spot. Florida needs to feast on its weaker competition to qualify for the playoffs for just the fifth time in franchise history.
Like the Panthers, the Blues missed out on the playoffs by a single point, losing five of their final six contests of the regular season, including a crushing winner-take-all Game 82 to the Colorado Avalanche. The skid snapped a six-season playoff streak, but St. Louis, on the strength of a highly active offseason, looks like a threat to compete once again.
After surprisingly shipping Paul Stastny to the Winnipeg Jets at the trade deadline, general manager Doug Armstrong got back on the horn over the summer and acquired Ryan O'Reilly. He'll join Brayden Schenn and free-agent signee Tyler Bozak to make up one of the deepest trios of centermen in the NHL. Armstrong also signed wingers Pat Maroon and David Perron to give his club enviable forward depth on top of a highly reliable blue line built around captain Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko.
The Blues' biggest X-factor is in goal, where Jake Allen will need to rebound from last season's struggles and a .906 save percentage that ultimately led to Carter Hutton taking over the reins as St. Louis' starter. If he can't, there could be significant trouble in the Gateway City. But if he can, the Blues have added all the pieces they need to contend in the deadly Central Division.
Calgary was one of the busiest teams of the summer. Out are Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland, and Troy Brouwer. In are Noah Hanifin, Elias Lindholm, James Neal, Derek Ryan, Austin Czarnik, and head coach Bill Peters.
The surplus of transactions creates some uncertainty surrounding the Flames, but for the most part, their new additions should play a significant role in helping them rebound from an 84-point output last season and back into the playoffs. The biggest question is whether Hanifin can adequately replace Hamilton on the blue line, but otherwise, each of Calgary's forward acquisitions should help fix its greatest pitfall from 2017-18: offensive depth.
The Flames lacked much of an attack behind Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan on the team's first line. Neal could give that unit two elite finishers and create several enviable options down the lineup, which features mainstays like Matthew Tkachuk and Mikael Backlund along with a new mix of offensively capable players.
The Flames also benefit from a wide-open Pacific Division. Aside from Vegas and San Jose, there's a pack of middling teams vying to claim the third playoff spot, and Calgary appears equipped to be in the thick of the race.