Living on the edge: The borderline teams of the 2017 NHL playoffs


Rookie Auston Matthews has been everything the Maple Leafs could have hoped and more. Kevin Sousa/Getty Images

If you argue that the Stanley Cup Playoffs are sports’ best postseason, you have quite the leg to stand on. Goaltenders riding hot streaks, youth being served, stars being stars, controversial hits, multiple overtime games — the whole gamut is on full display in the postseason.

The playoffs tend to be focused on what the perceived contenders are doing (or not), but the annual chase for Lord Stanley's Cup also serves as a litmus test for teams that find themselves in the midst of, well, something. They aren’t total contenders yet but are borderline teams that could be setting the stage for future title runs or taking their final walks through the tunnel of "what if?" Here at Yardbarker, we take a look at a few playoff teams that are now at the NHL’s proverbial fork in the road.

On the rise


Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid has finally helped the Oilers get back to the playoffs. Perry Nelson/USA TODAY Sports

Toronto Maple Leafs
This may quite frankly be the easiest buy-in if you’re looking at the future of the NHL. In a league teeming with young talents, Auston Matthews is going to run away with the Calder Trophy thanks to his 40-goal, 29-assist campaign. Yet, he’s flanked with other superb rookies like William Nylander and Mitch Marner, making this year’s Leafs the first team with three 60+ point rookies since 1980-81 (Quebec). Throw in a future Hall of Fame coach in Mike Babcock to keep pulling the right strings and some shrewd management, and there’s enough reason to believe that at some point in the next few years, the 50-year (and counting) Stanley Cup drought might end in Toronto.

Calgary Flames
This team probably arrived a bit earlier than expected after many post-Jarome Igilna years mired in frustrating mediocrity. Johnny Gaudreau is legit; this we already knew. Yet seeing how Sean Monahan has perfectly complimented Gaudreau has really helped pushed the Flames this season.

On the team’s second line are Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik and the NHL’s newest villain, 19-year-old Matthew Tkachuk. That trio scored 52 goals and tallied 99 assists this season. Consider that the Flames, while lacking a lot of size or veteran know-how, did not lose a regular-season game in regulation when leading after the second period (30-0-4).

Calgary could be a couple of veteran acquisitions — and with respect to Brian Elliott, perhaps a true goalie of the future — away from starting to truly bully some teams around.

Edmonton Oilers
Sure, the current playoff format places the Oilers as a No. 2 seed in the Pacific Division bracket, which ideally means that there’s nothing borderline about the team. Yet with the division being weaker in the last couple of seasons, the Oilers were primed to finally turn their eternal remodel around younger players into a playoff team. It hasn’t been as instant of a reclamation project as Toronto, but having a likely league MVP in the superb Connor McDavid has rejuvenated the franchise like no other.

This team has tremendous depth at center (McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Leon Draisaitl) and left wing (Milan Lucic and Patrick Maroon). Add Cam Talbot, who tops all goalies this season in games started, wins, saves and fewest goals allowed, and this is a team that will impress for the next few years.

On the decline


Has Father Time finally caught up with Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers? Danny Wild/USA TODAY Sports

St. Louis Blues
In back-to-back seasons, the Blues have seen attrition of their top guys thanks to the offseason trade of T.J. Oshie to Washington in 2015, the free agent departure of David Backes coupled with the trade of Brian Elliott last summer, and the long-expected moving of Kevin Shattenkirk (also to Washington) at the trade deadline. Let’s throw in the predetermined coaching hand-off of the Blues from Ken Hitchcock to Mike Yeo happening months earlier than planned because of the team’s middling status by the end of January.

The Blues have some scoring depth behind the brilliance of Vladimir Tarasenko, but they don’t have the netminder depth they had in the past two seasons after they chose Jake Allen over Elliott in the last offseason. St. Louis remains mired in that gray area where either a team should either fully dismantle itself for the future in the way that Toronto and Edmonton did or keep tinkering with the roster and flirt with playoff pushes that eventually run out of gas.

New York Rangers
The Blueshirts had an incredible offensive start on the year during which seemingly everyone who stepped inside Madison Square Garden scored at least one goal on the season, fans and concession workers included. You’d think that finally this team has a consistent offense to help out Henrik Lundqvist in goal during the playoffs, right? Well, there’s a chance that the reverse has happened, and the Rangers may have to worry about Lundqvist being able to hold up for a long run after he missed significant time late in March. On top of that, the team’s scoring completely dropped off after the All-Star break while the defense slipped a notch.

Postseason scoring struggles have become a recent tradition with the Rangers, and with the wear and tear beginning to truly catch up to Lundqvist, you wonder if management may finally hit the reset button after too many years of trades and free agent acquisitions netting the same Cup-less results.

San Jose Sharks
Playing below .500 hockey down the stretch and catching their breath chasing the young Oilers in a couple of recent games highlight some of the concerns in the Bay Area. The oldest team in the league at 29.6 years of age, San Jose has a lot of relative graybeards on the team, and unfortunately a couple of them have dealt with injury woes all season, most notably Joe Thornton.

While the defense is still one of the NHL’s best, it’s a defense that may be too long in the tooth, especially after the run to the Stanley Cup Final last year. That six of the team’s top 11players in minutes played this season are 32 years old and over (four above 35) makes you wonder what the Sharks may or may not have planned to replace those players when the time comes. Management has reloaded the clip with more veteran players to keep San Jose in the playoff picture for nearly the entire 25-year existence of the franchise, but the team may be due for some youthful infusion in order to keep chasing teams like Edmonton and Calgary in the future.

Jason Clinkscales is the senior editor and media analyst for The Sports Fan Journal, editor for Yardbarker, and a masochistic New York Knicks fan. Follow Jason on Twitter at @asportsscribe.

MORE FROM YARDBARKER:
QUIZ: Name the members on all 3 Stanley Cup-winning Toronto Maple Leafs teams from 1961-64

19 members of the Toronto Maple Leafs were on all three Stanley Cup winning teams from 1961-64. How many of these NHL players can you name?

Clue: Number/Position

Score:
0/19
Time:
5:00
1/G
Johnny Bower
2/D
Carl Brewer
3/D
Al Arbour
4/C,D
Red Kelly
7/D
Tim Horton
9/LW
Dick Duff
10/C
George Armstrong
11/RW
Bob Nevin
12/C
Ron Stewart
14/C
Dave Keon
15/C
Billy Harris
20/C
Bob Pulford
21/D
Bob Baun
22/D
Larry Hillman
23/LW
Eddie Shack
24,1/G
Don Simmons
25/RW
Ed Litzenberger
26/D
Allan Stanley
27/C,LW
Frank Mahovlich
100 SLIDES
100 greatest players in NHL history
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