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Mailbag: Canucks, Islanders under radar; Flyers’ plan without Couturier

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What two teams (one in each conference) do you believe are flying under the radar and could potentially be a playoff team? — @punmasterrifkin

The Vancouver Canucks in the Western Conference and the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference.

The Canucks have question marks and holes, particularly on the right side of their defense and potentially in their bottom-six forward group, but they also have a lot of bright spots and are coming in feeling good about how they finished last season under coach Bruce Boudreau (32-15-10 after replacing Travis Green on Dec. 6). I love their center depth if they go with it Elias Pettersson, JT Miller and Bo Horvat. Miller could move to the wing, but they need a strong presence on each of the top three lines and can have it if Pettersson, Miller and Horvat are the top three centers.

The left side of their defense is a strength Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Quinn Hughes and Travis Dermott. Hughes could move to the right side if necessary. Thatcher Demko proved last season he is a workhorse No. 1 goalie by playing 64 games, third in the NHL, but the Canucks need to manage his workload, which makes Spencer Martin, the likely no. 2, vitally important. Vancouver also needs a strong start because, like last season, I don’t think the team is deep enough to climb all the way back if it struggles in October and November. A strong start with their goaltending, center depth and a wide-open Pacific Division after the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers gives me reason to believe the Canucks can be a Stanley Cup Playoff team.

The Islanders need to find some more offense out of forwards Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Oliver Wahlstrom and Kyle Palmieri. I’d say 10-15 percent more from each player could be enough to put them in the playoffs after they didn’t qualify last season. They did not have a 60-point scorer last season (Barzal and Brock Nelson each had 59). Barzal should be an 80-point scorer if he plays the full season. He’s among the best players in the world with the puck on his stick. Wahlstrom scored 13 goals in 73 games, and with his shot and Barzal’s playmaking ability, he should be a 25-goal scorer. Beauvillier is capable of scoring in the 20s after getting 12 goals in 75 games. And Palmieri must be more consistent. The Islanders didn’t make any major upgrades at forward, so they’re banking on the players they have to be better. If they are, I think they will be a playoff team.

Video: Top 20 Thatcher Demko Saves from the 2021-22 Season

Now that the Philadelphia Flyers have another injury Sean Couturier, a reported herniated disk in his back that could sideline him for a while, what is the plan in Philly? Is Chuck Fletcher on the hot seat? Antoine Roussel is on a PTO. Are we watching the rebirth of the Broad Street Bullies? — @theashcity

That’s a lot to unpack. Let’s start with Couturier and the Flyers’ plan. The plan doesn’t change because Couturier is week to week with an upper-body injury. The execution of the plan becomes more challenging because Couturier is one of the veteran leaders who can set the type of culture that coach John Tortorella wants. The Flyers in their first season under Tortorella will be challenged to become a closer team with better leadership and way more accountability than they had last season. It’s harder if Couturier isn’t part of it. They fell apart without him last season, going 13-34-6 in the 53 games he missed, but Tortorella’s plan is all about creating the type of team culture that he believes is essential to have success on the ice. He has talked quite openly about his concerns about the locker room and what goes on in there and said that has to change, or be fixed, before anything else can happen. Not having Couturier and defenseman Ryan Elliswho is likely to start the season on long-term injured reserve, will make it harder in the short term.

As for Fletcher being on the hot seat, all general managers are always on the hot seat because they’re judged by what happens next. For example, if defenseman Tony DeAngelo turns out to be a stud, a favorite of Tortorella’s and an impact player on and off the ice, the decision to trade for and sign him to a two-year, $10 million contract will look great. If DeAngelo doesn’t mesh well with Tortorella and Philadelphia, Fletcher will take the heat for it. The Flyers made some significant changes coming off a miserable season. Fletcher knows the moves have to work or he could face the consequences.

And, no, we’re not watching a rebirth of the Broad Street Bullies. The Flyers will try to become a much harder team to play against. They will push back. But no team can survive in the NHL today by trying to be what the Flyers used to be under Fred Shero and with Bobby Clarke and others. The game has changed dramatically in the past 50 years.

Who are the top three rebuilding teams you see taking the next step this season? — @nyrprpokemon

They’re all in the Atlantic Division, the Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabers and Detroit Red Wings. I will add the New Jersey Devils, but let’s focus on the three in the Atlantic for the purposes of your question.

Ottawa is obvious with additions of forwards Alex DeBrincat and Claude Girouxand goalie Cam Talbot. The Senators must be taken seriously when you add a 40-goal scorer, a veteran playmaker and leader, and a solid goalie to a team that has already felt the emergence of forwards Tim Stutzle. Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris and Drake Bathersonplus defenseman Thomas Chabot. The next step is contending for a playoff berth. They missed by 27 points last season and I don’t think they’re good enough, particularly on defense, to close the gap enough this season. I also don’t think it’ll require 100 points to get into the playoffs in the Eastern Conference as it did last season, so the Senators have a chance.

The Sabers return a core group that features young players who are confident that they are the answer in Buffalo. They were 16-9-3 in 28 games from March 2 to the end of last season, a .625 points percentage that was tied for 12th in the NHL with the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche. Tage Thompson (28 points), Jeff Skinner (26), Victor Olofsson (25), Rasmus Dahlin (19), Casey Mittelstadt (16) and Alex Tuch (16) all finished strong. Defenseman Owen Power, the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NHL Draft, had two goals and one assist in eight games. The Sabers can build off their finish last season, but it’s easier to play when you’re already out of the playoff race than it is at the start when you’re in it and the pressure is on. They need a good start.

The Red Wings added forwards Andrew Copp and David Perronand defensemen Ben Chiarot and Olli Maatta. They beefed up their goaltending by bringing in Ville Husso to join Alex Nedeljkovic. Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi and Jakub Vrana are forwards in the prime of their careers. Moritz Seiderthe defenseman who won the Calder Trophy voted as the NHL rookie of the year last season, and forward Lucas Raymond should benefit from the additions. New coach Derek Lalonde comes from the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he was an assistant for three straight trips to the Stanley Cup Final, championships in 2020 and 2021.

Do you think Buffalo should have waited on the Thompson extension? I think it could be a pretty fair, maybe slightly overpriced contract if he had a few years like he did this past season, but he’s had a hard time getting an NHL spot in the seasons before last. — @Phlyers24

I don’t mind Thompson’s seven-year, $50 million contract. It’s a big number for a 24-year-old forward who had one good season, but this is what we’re seeing a lot of in the NHL today, teams buying long term on young players who still have one year remaining on their current contracts. The Senators did it with Stutzle. The St. Louis Blues did with forwards Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou. The Montreal Canadiens did last offseason with a forward Nick Suzuki. The idea is to make it a value deal for the team in the long run and to show the player that they’re all in on him too.

The Sabers are all in on Thompson. He scored 38 goals last season. He wants to be in Buffalo. He is also 223 games into his NHL career, so he’s no spring chicken. The Sabers are banking on Thompson’s production last season becoming the norm. It’s not unreasonable to think he will average 30 goals per season for the duration of the contract. If he does, it will be a value deal for Buffalo, particularly after the 2023-24 season, when the salary cap is expected to go up significantly. It’s a gamble, but that’s part of the game teams are playing with young players today.

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