2014-15 NHL Preview: The Bottom Feeders

Welcome to Grantland’s annual NHL preview, in which we run through all four divisions in an attempt to figure out what to expect from the league’s 30 teams.

By “all four divisions,” of course, we don’t mean the league’s actual four divisions — the Atlantic, Metropolitan, Pacific, and Central. That would be boring. Instead, we’re dividing the league into four more suitable groups. Today we’ll look at the bottom feeders, tomorrow we’ll cover the middle of the pack, on Wednesday we’ll look at the teams that nobody can figure out, and then on Thursday we’ll wrap up with a look at the top Cup contenders.

First up is the bottom feeders, the group of seven teams most likely to be challenging for last place overall. In a normal year that would be a bad thing, since abject incompetence on and off the ice isn’t exactly something to be proud of. But this year comes with the promise of a nifty consolation prize or two: Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, a pair of draft-eligible forwards who some think could be the best prospects to enter the league since Sidney Crosby.1

The new draft lottery system guarantees the 30th overall team a top-two pick, so if you were going to finish dead last, this would be the year to do it. In no particular order, here are the seven teams with the best chance to earn that, um, honor.

Florida Panthers

Last season: 29-45-8, 66 points, finished 29th overall, missed playoffs

Offseason report: We’d might as well start with the team that won last year’s draft lottery thanks to an ugly season and some Ping-Pong ball luck. The Panthers followed the season up by being uncharacteristically busy in free agency, thanks partly to new ownership and partly to that pesky salary floor. The Dave Bolland signing was pretty much universally mocked as a staggering overpay, but they also added some solid players in Willie Mitchell and Jussi Jokinen, and they didn’t lose any major contributors aside from Tom Gilbert.

Oh, and they used that first overall pick and took Aaron Ekblad, who was somehow eligible even though he’s clearly 32 years old. He’s expected to make the opening-night lineup, although it’s rare for an 18-year-old defenseman to have much impact.

Outlook: The Panthers were awful last year; only the Sabres had fewer goals scored or a worse differential, and only the Oilers gave up more goals. Florida will get a full season from Roberto Luongo, which should address the goals-against problem, and 19-year-old Aleksander Barkov has the raw talent to help on the offensive side. And the free agents should help — even Bolland, who’s a useful player even if his contract is ridiculous.

So they’ll be better this year; it would be hard not to be. But that may not be saying much, because they’re miles away from contending.

Key stat: 10.0 percent — Florida’s power-play efficiency last year, worst in the league by far. Everyone else managed at least 14 percent. The Panthers were also dead last on the penalty kill.

Best case: Barkov is the breakout story of the year, Ekblad wins the Calder, Luongo reminds everyone that he’s one of the very best goalies of our generation, and Bolland sprinkles the locker room with some of that magic winner dust that the Maple Leafs spent all of last year insisting he had. Fellow Atlantic teams like Toronto, Detroit, Ottawa, and Buffalo all stumble, and suddenly the Panthers are wild-card contenders.

Worst case: Everything unfolds pretty much the same way it did last year, the free agents are all busts, Ekblad needs a year to adjust to the pro game, and Luongo never quite recovers from the emotional devastation of this. Then they don’t win the lottery because they used up all their karma last year.

Bold prediction: The Panthers are better than most expect, hanging tough in the playoff race right up until the 75-game mark, at which point they’re considerate enough to step aside and let the good teams duke it out.

Carolina Hurricanes

Last season: 36-35-11, 83 points, 13th in the East, missed playoffs

Offseason report: The summer was a relatively quiet one in terms of player moves, as the team mostly tinkered with the roster and failed to find a taker for Cam Ward and his $6.3 million contract.

But it did feature a shakeup behind the bench and in the front office, with Bill Peters in as coach and Ron Francis in as GM. Neither man has held that job at the NHL level, but Peters spent three years working under Mike Babcock in Detroit and Francis is a franchise legend who should get a long honeymoon period.

Outlook: An organization that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2009 seems to be entering a transition phase, and there’s little reason to think they’ll be any good this year. The roster was already thin on talent before losing Jordan Staal, who fractured his fibula during a preseason game and could miss four months. Eric Staal can still be dominant, but he turns 30 next month and hasn’t topped 80 points since 2008. You never know what you’re going to get from Alex Semin, and Jeff Skinner has yet to top the point-per-game average he put up as an 18-year-old in 2010-11.

There’s some talent here, but it’s not hard to imagine the whole thing going south in a hurry. And if it does, will Francis shift into full-fledged rebuild mode and start moving veterans?

Key stat: 1 — rank of Carolina’s Anton Khudobin in career save percentage among the 69 goaltenders who’ve played at least 50 games since 2009. Small sample size, sure — he’s played only 57 games in that time, bounced around three teams, and last year was the first time in his career that he was a starter for any length of time. But there’s at least a chance that the Hurricanes have found a hidden gem here.

Best case: Khudobin is a late-blooming stud in the Tim Thomas/Dominik Hasek mode, Eric Staal looks strong, Skinner has a career year, and Andrej Sekera shows that last year’s breakout was no fluke. The Hurricanes challenge for a playoff spot, and even get a midseason gift when some team that’s lost its own goalie to injury panics and takes Ward off their hands.

Worst case: Khudobin is just OK and the Hurricanes are in the mix for last place. By midseason, the Eric Staal trade watch is on.

Bold prediction: Carolina finishes in last place in the Metro by double-digit points.

Nashville Predators

Last season: 38-32-12, 88 points, 10th in the West, missed the playoffs

Offseason report: The Predators went into the summer intent on adding an impact forward, and after missing out on Jason Spezza, they landed James Neal from Pittsburgh in exchange for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. They later added depth by picking up cheap castoffs from other teams, including Mike Ribeiro and Derek Roy, who represent smart low-risk, high-reward gambles. And probably most important of all, they replaced longtime coach Barry Trotz with Peter Laviolette.

Outlook: The offensive upgrades were nice, but this team’s big problem last year was keeping the puck out of the net. Their 242 goals allowed was the second-worst total in the conference, so unless a Vezina-quality goalie magically shows up, they’re screwed.

Luckily for them, that’s pretty much what will happen — at least if Pekka Rinne can stay healthy. Rinne missed most of last year with a bad hip, and he wasn’t all that great in 2012-13, but prior to that he was considered one of the league’s best goaltenders. If he can get back to that level — and that’s certainly no small “if” — then the Preds’ season could get interesting.

Other than Rinne and Neal, you pretty much know what you’ll get in Nashville — not much offense, an emerging star in Seth Jones, and a whole lot of Shea Weber.

Key stat: 75 — percentage of Neal’s even-strength points over the last three years that came with Evgeni Malkin on the ice. It’s fair to say that there are no Malkin-caliber centers waiting for him in Nashville.

Best case: Rinne shines, Jones and Weber dominate, Neal plays like a guy who wants to prove the Penguins wrong, and the rest of the new guys fit right in. The Predators challenge for their first playoff spot in three years.

Worst case: Rinne’s hip doesn’t hold up, Neal’s numbers turn out to have been a product of Malkin, the offense still can’t score, and by midseason the only time you remember the Predators exist is when a Flyers fan starts yelling about Shea Weber trade rumors.

Bold prediction: Without a top center to feed him, Neal scores fewer goals in Nashville than Hornqvist does in Pittsburgh.

Arizona Coyotes

Last season: 37-30-15, 89 points, ninth in the West, missed the playoffs by two points

Offseason report: The Coyotes parted ways with Mike Ribeiro under less-than-ideal circumstances, and lost Radim Vrbata to free agency. They traded for Sam Gagner, who’ll replace some of that offense, but for a team that finished last year tied for 19th in goals scored, putting the puck in the net could be an issue.

Outlook: The Coyotes are almost certainly the best team in today’s post, and if I were willing to go with just six teams in this section then I’d move them to tomorrow and be done with it. But there are some warning signs here, starting with the fact that they’re stuck in the Pacific Division with the three California powerhouses. Unless one of the Sharks, Ducks, or Kings falters, the Coyotes are basically reduced to playing for a wild-card spot before the season even starts.

Whether they can earn that spot will have a lot to do with goaltender Mike Smith, who’ll need to play well and stay healthy. He managed the former last year, but a late-season injury helped torpedo the team’s playoff chances. If he’s not the team’s MVP, they probably don’t go anywhere.

Other bright spots include defenseman Keith Yandle, who’d be a big star in other markets, as well as fellow blueliner Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who has the talent to blossom into a big star pretty much anywhere. The forwards are less impressive, and they’ll need to count on productive seasons from veterans like Martin Erat and Shane Doan.

Key stat: .222 — the Coyotes’ winning percentage last year when they gave up the game’s first goal. Only the Devils were worse.

Best case: Smith plays well, Ekman-Larsson emerges as a legitimate Norris candidate, and the offense chips in just enough to keep them in games, which is all they need because Dave Tippett is a coaching warlock. They cruise to a wild-card spot, and I quietly delete them from this post in six months.

Worst case: Smith struggles or gets hurt, the forwards can’t score, and the five-pack of strong Central teams slams any wild-card hopes shut early. They drift through the season and wind up under the 80-point mark.

Bold prediction: Every Coyotes fan is bookmarking this page right now and setting a calendar reminder for April that reads, “Email Grantland idiot about Coyotes.” I’ve been there. I’d do it, too, if I were in your shoes.

Calgary Flames

Last season: 35-40-7, 77 points, 13th in the West, missed the playoffs

Offseason report: Their biggest offseason move was hiring Brad Treliving to take over from Brian Burke as GM. Burke remains as team president.

On the player side, the major loss was Mike Cammalleri, who signed with New Jersey and leaves a dent in the offense. Their top acquisition was Jonas Hiller, who signed as a free agent and should stabilize the goaltending. They also added Devin Setoguchi and Mason Raymond to help with the Cammalleri void, and Deryk Engelland and Brandon Bollig because this is still a Brian Burke team and playing against them is going to involve occasionally getting your face punched.

Outlook: Last year’s Flames weren’t good, but they worked hard and ended up putting more points on the board than just about anyone expected. This year’s edition figures to be about the same in terms of talent, although they’d quickly tip into “better” territory if Hiller could regain his old form.

Either way, this is a rebuilding team with an eye on the future. The trio of Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, and this year’s no. 4 overall pick, Sam Bennett, are a good start, although Monahan may be the only one of that group who plays a full season in the NHL. Then you’ve got prospects like Sven Baertschi and Tyler Wotherspoon, plus good young NHL players like Mikael Backlund and Joe Colborne and … well, you get the point. The Flames are building something here. It just won’t be ready for a few more years.

Key stat: 10.3 — 5-on-5 Corsi Rel% for Mark Giordano, the best in the league among NHL regulars. That means that no player outperformed his own teammates more when it came to puck possession, and that performance earned him some under-the-radar Norris consideration.

Best case: All the young players continue to develop, nobody regresses, and one or two actually surpass expectations. A few veterans play well enough that they can be packaged up at the trade deadline for more futures. If all that happens, it’s been a great season; the wins and losses don’t really matter.

Worst case: They rush their kids into roles they’re not ready for and pay a price for it. Meanwhile, Hiller is inconsistent but still steals just enough games to keep them out of prime McDavid-drafting territory.

Bold prediction: Once again, the Flames battle a fellow Canadian team for last place in the West. But this time it’s not the Oilers. It’s these next guys.

Winnipeg Jets

Last season: 37-35-10, 84 points, 11th place in the West, missed playoffs

Offseason report: I found a pretty comprehensive video recap.

Outlook: After another disappointing season in which they missed the playoffs in a brutally tough division, the Jets chose not to make any meaningful improvements to the roster, so you do the math. There’s some talent here, to be sure, including Evander Kane, Dustin Byfuglien, and the underrated Bryan Little, as well as two potential future stars in Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba. So they’re not a lost cause by any means. But it’s awfully hard to see them spontaneously improving enough to make up all that ground in the Central.

Key stat: 2 — number of goaltenders, out of a leaguewide total of 31, who played at least 1,500 minutes last year and had a worse 5-on-5 save percentage than Jets starter Ondrej Pavelec. (Neither of those two goalies currently has a job.)

Best case: Pavelec looks more like the goalie he was in 2010-11 than the goalie he’s been … well, every other year of his NHL career. Kane takes a step forward and challenges for 40 goals. People finally stop making weight jokes about Byfuglien long enough to realize he’s a borderline Norris contender. The kids all make the leap. Everyone stays healthy, and when the dust clears the Jets are sitting comfortably in the playoffs as this year’s “never saw it coming” team.

Or, if all of that seems too far-fetched, how do you feel about conspiracy theories?

Worst case: Pavelec has yet another subpar season, the kids have the sort of uneven year that kids tend to have, everyone starts to tune out coach Paul Maurice in his first full season with the team, it all falls apart, and they find a way to blame Kane and Byfuglien for everything in that curious way that Winnipeg seems to do. Then they win their last three games to drop far enough down the lottery rankings that they miss out on McDavid and Eichel.

Bold prediction: James Reimer is the Jets’ starting goaltender by opening night 2015, at the latest.

Buffalo Sabres

Last season: 21-51-10, 52 points, dead last in the NHL

Offseason report: The Sabres were busy, turning over a good chunk of the roster. They bought out Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff and said good-bye to John Scott and Cory Conacher.2 They added Josh Gorges, Andrej Meszaros, and Brian Gionta, and brought back Matt Moulson after trading him away at last season’s deadline.

Outlook: On paper, the Sabres should improve. The offseason additions should outweigh the subtractions, key pieces like Tyler Myers should rebound from last season’s nightmare, and the young players should get better through experience. So it’s fair to expect that they’ll be better.

But in the Sabres’ case, “better” could still translate to last place overall, because they were miles behind the pack last year. Goaltending will be a question mark as they transition to the post–Ryan Miller era, and the overall talent level just isn’t very high at any position.

They can’t come out and say it, but the Sabres sure look like a team that has their eye set on McDavid, and there’s a good chance they get him. Between that, a stacked prospect pipeline, a stockpile of draft picks, and a smart young GM in Tim Murray, the Sabres have a chance to be very, very good in a few seasons. But to get there, they may need to be very, very bad this year.

Key stat: 99 — total number of 5-on-5 goals scored by the Sabres last year, worst in the league and 29 goals behind the next most anemic team.

Best case: They’re terrible and finish dead last.

Worst case: They’re not terrible and finish well out of last place. (No, we didn’t get those two sections mixed up. This is what happens when a franchise player comes along in a league that insists on rewarding failure with a better chance at high draft picks.)

Bold prediction: The Sabres wind up dead last and then lose the McDavid lottery to some team that finished 20 points ahead of them, because Buffalo.

Filed Under: NHL, Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes, Nashville Predators, Arizona Coyotes, Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets, Buffalo Sabres, 2014 -15 NHL season preview

Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at Down Goes Brown. When he's not writing, he makes hockey jokes on Twitter at @downgoesbrown.

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