With the NHL Season Opener just over a month away, hockey fans everywhere are gearing up and placing their expectations. If you're a Leaf fan you have likely just gotten over your disappointment from last season, (likely the Jays dismal fall from grace has been an apt distraction) and are prepared to open yourself to predictable heartbreak all over again.
If you are looking for a safe investment for your team loyalty then you have probably already hedged your heart to The Blackhawks, The Kings, The Penguins or The Bruins. But if you are a bit more adventurous there are a couple of sleeper teams that just might come out swinging this season. Here are three teams that just may surprise us this year.
1. The Buffalo Sabres
I know what you are thinking; I can already feel your fingers hitting the comment box with a "are you insane..." (I took the liberty of cleaning up your pre-anticipated comment) - but this is a classic example of a team that might be so bad, they're good. Gene Hackman's character in The Replacements said it best - Men with nothing to lose are very dangerous men. Last season the Sabres finished an impressively terrible dead last. Really they have nowhere to go but up.
The Sabres did a little retail therapy after last season's dismal performance and brought in a much-needed Veteran presence. Matt Moulson, Andrej Meszaros, Josh Gorges and Brian Gionta are among players who were brought in. And it is no secret that Buffalo has an enviable roster in development. Particularly, Sam Reinhart, who was picked second overall in the 2014 draft. With a few breakout performances from these up-and-comers and some veteran leadership - it just might make the Sabres competitive. I don't think there is threat of them making a run at the cup - but I wouldn't be surprised if they played the role of spoiler this season.
2. Vancouver Canucks
Ok, first off, I have to say... as a Leaf fan... this pains me to write... but I digress. The Canucks finished 25th over all last season (note, the Leafs finished a much more impressive 23rd overall... it's the small victories that Leaf fans have to grasp onto). The Canucks ownership made it clear that they aren't comfortable with their disappointing season (cough*Leaf's ownership take note*cough) last year and made drastic changes in the off-season to ensure it doesn't happen again. Starting with the front office the Canucks fired GM Mike Gillis and Coaches John Tortorella and Mike Sullivan and the hiring of alum, Trevor Linden as President. Eventually the Canucks hired Jim Benning who brought in Willie Desjardins as the new coach.
The new front office brought in Ryan Miller and Radim Vrbata and signed RFA Zack Kassian. Benning did a great job in Boston making a team with depth and consistency. Combine this proven strategy with an experienced goalie; some goal scorers and the Canucks will definitely finish much hire than they did last year.
3. The New York Islanders
The Isles finished 26th last season lead by their, maybe slightly over-hyped, leader Tavares. Granted he suffered a season ending MCL tear in the Olympics and missed that last couple months of the season. But he is back, and stronger than ever. The Isles can expect 30+ goals from the developing captain and with the addition of Kulemin and Grabovski the team should be able to increase their offensive performance ten-fold from last season. Defensively, the Islanders were also able to sign Jaroslav Halak to play net.
This will be the last season the Isles play on Long Island - seems like a great opportunity to break out of their recent rut and put themselves in a great position to start fresh and competitive in Brooklyn for the 2015-2016 season... It worked for the Nets in the NBA.
It is likely none of these teams will make a very threatening run in or even for the playoffs - but it is very likely they will make strides in the right direction. Especially Buffalo who have a great opportunity to bring their player development to the show and build for a better future.