By: Nathan Shield
With newly structured divisions and a reduced schedule, predicting playoff teams is really anyone’s best guess. With teams meeting each other at least eight times in the regular season, it’s going to be an interesting season to say the least.
Aside from the top team in each division, it really could go several different ways depending on who can stay healthy and get hot down the stretch. Here are the top dark horse teams from each division.
Scotia North – Winnipeg Jets
While it's a struggle to call any team in the North a true “dark horse”, Winnipeg is a team that not enough people are talking about. Where the Jets have struggled with offensive depth in the past, this will not be a problem this season.
With the addition of Paul Stastny and Pierre-Luc Dubois, the Jets have secured the best center depth in the NHL. While they gave up all-star Patrik Laine, the Jets have shown that they have no issue replacing his scoring touch by tallying 14 goals in their first three games without him.
While they lack significant talent on the blue line, their elite goaltending tandem of Connor Hellebuyck and Laurent Brossoit will balance it out for the Jets who look to make some noise in the North division.
Honda West – Minnesota Wild
There is a very strong divide within the West division between the top and the bottom teams. While the Wild are yet to play one of the better teams in the division, they are off to a hot start.
Despite the lack of star-power on offence, they have a lot of young talent looking to make a name for themselves in the NHL. Watch for Jordan Greenway, Joel Eriksson Ek and Calder Trophy front-runner Kirill Kaprizov to be a big part of the Wild if they want to make the playoffs.
Despite the Wild’s strong defence, their goaltending will be a big question mark as Cam Talbot and Alex Stalock have both struggled to stay consistent throughout their NHL careers.
MassMutual East – NY Islanders
Picking a dark horse in this division was a really hard call. In a strong east division, any team could get hot and make a push. However, the most under the radar team has to be the New York Islanders.
The Islanders often get called a boring team but this is truly a compliment to their strong defensive game. With one of the strongest D-cores in the NHL and a goalie tandem that some are saying could win the Jennings Trophy, the only question around the Islanders will be on the offensive side of the puck.
However, with strong pieces in place and one of the NHL’s best coaches, the Islanders could surprise a lot of people this season and could make a deep run in the playoffs.
Discover Central – Florida Panthers
Yes, really the Panthers. Despite losing Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadanov, the Panthers are already showing that they're alright without them. In a top-heavy Central Division, the Panthers are off to a hot start going 3-0 in their first three games. This is due, in large part, to the off-season acquisitions of new General Manager, Bill Zito.
Newcomer Patric Hornqvist brings an edge to the team that was severely lacking along with playoff experience as a two-time Stanley Cup Champion. The Panthers also brought in Anthony Duclair and Carter Verhaeghe who will be looking to fill the offensive hole left after the departure of Evgenii Dadonov and Mike Hoffman.
As per usual, play from Jonathon Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad and Aleksander Barkov will be one of the determining factors for the Panthers. They will also be looking for a bounce-back year from former Vezina Trophy winning goaltender, Sergei Bobrovski who struggled to live up to the high expectations last season.
As a team that constantly seems to be on the brink of success, the Panthers have a real chance at making a playoff run this season.