2015-16 NHL Preview, Part 2: The Middle of the PackBruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images
Yesterday, we kicked off NHL season preview week with a look at the Bottom-Feeder Division, the seven teams that aren’t likely to contend for anything beyond a high draft pick. Today, we move on to the Middle-of-the-Pack Division, featuring eight teams that should be good but aren’t likely to be much more than that.
The mushy middle is the NHL’s equivalent of a sketchy neighborhood — you can pass through on your way to where you’re going, but you don’t want to linger. Some of the teams below are headed in the wrong direction, perhaps on their way to bottoming out. Others may crack the league’s elite and become true contenders in the near future. But the ones that get stuck here — never really contending, but never earning the chance to draft a game-changer — are the ones that deserve our deepest sympathies. Time will tell whether any of these teams meet that fate.
On to today’s list …
Last season: 38-29-15, 91 points, sixth in the Atlantic and 20th overall.
Offseason report: The Panthers didn’t do much over the summer, which would normally be a bad sign for a team that missed the playoffs by seven points. But with a young core in place that should improve through experience, it may not be the worst approach.
Outlook: The Panthers are a fascinating mix of young and old. The back end is anchored by defensemen Brian Campbell, who’s 36, and Aaron Ekblad, who’s 19, in front of goaltender Roberto Luongo, who’s 36. The top line could feature Jonathan Huberdeau (22), Aleksander Barkov (20), and Jaromir Jagr (84).1 It’s so crazy, it just might work. But it hasn’t yet — the Panthers haven’t made the playoffs since 2012, and that was their first appearance since 2000.
Key number: 41 — Points by Bobby Orr in 1966-67, the most ever by an NHL defenseman who was 18 on opening night. Ekblad had 39 last season. He’s good.
Watchability index: 6/10. You saw the part about them having Jaromir Jagr, right?
Best case: Other than Jagr regrowing the mullet — which we’re not ruling out — Panthers fans will be looking for progress from the team’s young players. If it happens, it may be enough to get them back into the playoffs in a weak Atlantic.
Worst case: While few teams could withstand a long-term injury to a starting goaltender, it would probably be more devastating to the Panthers than most. Luongo has stayed mostly healthy over the course of his career, but most goalies eventually find at least one stray puck or rut in the ice.
Suggested slogan: Come see the superstar with the awesome hair who plays like he’s been in the league for 25 years! Oh, and when you’re done watching Ekblad, we have Jagr too.
Bold prediction: The Panthers surge all the way up to fourth in the Atlantic but still miss the playoffs when the Metro grabs both wild cards.
Last season: 43-26-13, 99 points, fifth in the Central and 14th overall, lost in the first round.
Offseason report: It was a quiet offseason in Winnipeg, which wasn’t much of a surprise — with the exception of last season’s Evander Kane trade with the Sabres, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has preferred to stay conservative. Winnipeg lost free agent Michael Frolik to the Flames but did bring back intriguing talent Alexander Burmistrov from the KHL.
The bigger story was what the Jets haven’t done, at least not yet: sign Andrew Ladd or Dustin Byfuglien to extensions. There’s still time — neither hits free agency until after this season — but it’s tough to predict the Jets’ future without knowing whether it includes their captain and best player.
Outlook: Everyone spent last season waiting for the Jets’ feel-good story to run out of gas, and it never did — at least until they ran into the Ducks in the playoffs. But with a stacked farm system, there’s every reason to count last season as a moral victory that could serve as a stepping-stone on the way to bigger things. Now they just have to build on it, which admittedly is easier said than done in the Central.
Key number: 521:46 — Minutes spent on the penalty kill by the Jets last season, the worst mark in the league; only one team was even within 50 minutes. It’s fair to say discipline was an issue.
Watchability index: 5/10. Unless it’s a playoff game, in which case they become a must-watch (because all other senses will be rendered useless by the noise).
Best case: They build on last season thanks to the continuing development of their young players. Byfuglien and Ladd sign reasonable deals. The goaltending is good enough, which probably means it features somebody other than Ondrej Pavelec. Jets fans get to cheer another playoff appearance, and this time it even includes some wins.
Worst case: It wouldn’t take much of a step back for the Jets to miss the postseason. It might not even take a step back at all — it’s not hard to see them making modest improvement while still getting passed by a team like the Stars or someone in the Pacific.
Suggested slogan: Uh, any chance we could go back to the Southeast Division?
Bold prediction: The Jets miss the playoffs in a tough Central. Given how many times I predicted that last season, Winnipeg fans should be high-fiving right now.
Last season: 43-26-13, 99 points, fourth in the Atlantic and 13th overall, lost in the first round.
Offseason report: The Senators went into the offseason with a nice-to-have problem of too much goaltending, and they addressed it by dealing Robin Lehner to the Sabres. That leaves them with a proven veteran in Craig Anderson as the starter and last year’s late-season miracle worker Andrew Hammond as the backup. There are still doubts about whether Hammond is truly an NHL talent, but as a reasonably cheap backup he’s not being asked to do too much, and college free agent Matt O’Connor is waiting in the wings.
Outlook: The Senators are a young team that got better-than-expected contributions from several rookies last season. The most prominent of those was forward Mark Stone, who racked up 64 points to tie Johnny Gaudreau for the rookie lead. With plenty of young skill up front, a dependable veteran in goal, and a blue line led by all-world talent Erik Karlsson, the Senators should be well-positioned for another playoff run.
Key number: 8.0 percent — Bobby Ryan’s even-strength shooting percentage in 2014-15; until then, he’d been over 10 percent every year since his rookie season, and his career average heading into last season was 12.6 percent. At 28, Ryan may already be past his prime scoring years, and Senators fans have to be at least a little nervous that he could be following the Dany Heatley career pattern of doom, but he’s a good candidate for at least a modest rebound season. With a seven-year, $50 million extension just kicking in this year, the Senators had better hope so.
Watchability index: 5/10. Mostly for Karlsson, who’s just a joy to watch. And can we please do away with the “defensive liability” narrative? It may have been true in 2012, but it’s not now. If Karlsson has a weakness in the defensive zone, it’s that his puck skills mean he’s rarely in it.
Best case: Every one of the young players gets a little bit better, Ryan rebounds, and Anderson stays healthy. That would probably be enough to nudge the Senators back into the playoffs, this time without needing the late-season miracle run to get there.
Worst case: Stone has a sophomore slump, Ryan looks done, Hammond has to play more than 25 games, and Ottawa’s recent habit of missing the playoffs every year or two continues.
Suggested slogan: Don’t forget to pelt us with ground-up cow carcasses if we’re playing well.
Bold prediction: With all eyes on Stone, it’s actually 22-year-old Mika Zibanejad who breaks through as a legitimate All-Star-caliber player.
Last season: 46-28-8, 100 points, fourth in the Central and 11th overall, lost in the second round.
Offseason report: The Wild made the move they had to make, re-signing pending free agent and season savior Devan Dubnyk. That was about it, although adding free agent Mike Reilly after the 2011 Blue Jackets draft pick failed to sign with Columbus was an intriguing gamble.
Outlook: The Wild have yet to develop into the top-tier contenders they thought they’d become when they splurged on Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in 2012, and it’s fair to start wondering if it will ever happen. They went into last season’s playoffs as the league’s best team over the second half but were eliminated by Chicago for the third straight year. Losing to a machine like the Hawks is not shameful, but at some point the Wild will need to take that next step, and with many of their key players leaving their peak years, it had better be soon.
Key number: .914 — Dubnyk’s career save percentage, a full 22 points below what he recorded during last season’s second half with the Wild. He’s clearly not the overwhelmed bum he looked like in Edmonton, but did he suddenly become Dominik Hasek? Not likely.
Watchability index: 4/10. Their practices, on the other hand, can be must-see TV.
Best case: Nobody expects Dubnyk to be the same guy he was over that second half; realistically, if he can be a top-15 goalie, the Wild should be in good shape. Beyond that, somebody else knocking off the Hawks before they arrive for their annual postseason date with Minnesota would probably be a welcome change.
Worst case: If Dubnyk struggles, they’re pretty much screwed, but that’s unlikely. A more realistic worry may be that Suter eventually starts to show some wear and tear after years of insane ice time. The young blue line would be solid even without Suter, but they count on his dominance.
Suggested slogan: Still fighting off the nagging feeling that our logo isn’t complicated enough.
Bold prediction: The Wild face the Hawks in the playoffs yet again, but this time the result is different. (They lose in seven, after having lost in five, six, and four in the previous series.)
San Jose Sharks
Last season: 40-33-9, 89 points, fifth in the Pacific and 22nd overall.
Offseason report: The Sharks made changes after a disappointing year, although perhaps not quite as many as you would have expected after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2003. But they’ll feature a new coach in Peter DeBoer and a new starting goaltender in Martin Jones, as well as a pair of veteran free-agent signings in Joel Ward and Paul Martin. In theory, at least, that’s an improvement.
Outlook: Hockey fans probably go overboard with the constant talk of windows closing, but it really does feel like this may be the Sharks’ last shot at making something out of the Joe Thornton/Patrick Marleau era. Both players are 36 and have two years left on their deals, and given some of the animosity of recent years, you’d have to think another playoff miss would push the Sharks to decisively move on to the Logan Couture/Tomas Hertl era.
Key number: 29 — Career starts for former Kings backup Martin Jones, which was apparently enough for the Sharks to make him their goaltender of the future — and present. Jones posted excellent numbers in those starts, so it’s possible the Sharks have found a gem. Then again, Ben Scrivens also looked like an All-Star behind that L.A. defense.
Watchability index: 4/10. With gusts to 10/10 if Thornton has a hat trick with time left on the clock.
Best case: With everyone expecting a rebound from the Kings, the Pacific won’t be as weak as last season. But there’s still room for the Sharks in the playoffs, and if Jones is the real deal, they’ll probably get there.
Worst case: Jones can’t live up to expectations, and the Sharks look like an old team stumbling through the season, waiting to be blown up for good.
Suggested slogan: Not coming off a disastrous playoff choke job for the first time in a decade.
Bold prediction: The Sharks get a dead-cat bounce back into the playoffs, where they actually make a little noise while finally getting to play an underdog role.
Last season: 45-30-7, 97 points, third in the Pacific and 16th overall, lost in the second round.
Offseason report: You could have forgiven the Flames for basking in the glow of last season’s unexpected success and staying the course with a developing team. Instead, they got aggressive, landing Dougie Hamilton from the Bruins in a perplexing steal of a trade. They also signed Michael Frolik, who’ll help despite being a slight overpay.
Outlook: The Flames were last season’s surprise team, and they earned that moniker while riding some awful possession numbers and unsustainably high percentages. That should make them a prime candidate to be this season’s Avalanche or Maple Leafs — the overachievers that plummet predictably back to earth while everyone else points and laughs. We’ve seen this movie before, and it never ends well.
But there’s reason to think Calgary could be different. For one, it’s a young team, so any regression should be tempered at least somewhat by normal player development. More importantly, by adding Hamilton, it improved significantly, and getting a healthy Mark Giordano back in the lineup helps there too. So even when the correction comes — and it will come — the Flames are reasonably well-positioned to withstand it.
Key number: 10.5 percent — The Flames’ shooting percentage across all situations, the second-highest in the league. Even the most optimistic Calgary fan would have a hard time arguing this is the most talented shooting team in the league, so that number will almost certainly come down. The Flames will need to make those goals up somewhere, which may be easier said than done given they didn’t address their goaltending.
Watchability index: 8/10. With lots of skilled youth and a rock-solid blue line, the Flames are fast, fun, and feisty.
Best case: The kids run wild, Giordano wins the Norris, the goaltending is adequate, and the Flames improve their percentages just enough to stay in contention in the Pacific.
Worst case: Remember what happened to these guys?
Suggested slogan: Statistics are like a lamppost to a drunk: They’re not the reason there’s vomit everywhere, but they’re going to get blamed.
Bold prediction: Goaltending is an issue, and the Flames’ starter down the stretch run is a guy who’s not on the roster right now. It’s too little, too late, and Calgary misses the playoffs.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Last season: 42-35-5, 89 points, fifth in the Metro and 23rd overall.
Offseason report: The Jackets made headlines early, trading for Blackhawks winger Brandon Saad. The 22-year-old power forward is coming off a 23-goal season and was expected to be part of Chicago’s long-term plans before cap pressure and the threat of an offer sheet forced the Hawks to move him. The Blue Jackets were there to get a deal done, and Saad may quickly become the team’s best winger.
Outlook: Plenty of people are high on the Blue Jackets this season, figuring that the addition of Saad and some better luck (see below) will be enough to push them into the playoffs. That’s a pretty tempting case, but it’s worth remembering this team showed some flaws last season that could linger into this season. Sergei Bobrovsky needs to be better now that he’s among the highest-paid goalies in the league. The defense is still a question, although one that a healthy Ryan Murray could help answer. And forward depth is still a concern, with Columbus icing one of the weakest fourth lines in the league.
Key number: 393 — Games lost to team-reported injury by the Blue Jackets last season, the most in the NHL. That’s just bad luck, and bad luck tends to even out. But does it even out enough to make up a nine-point playoff gap?
Watchability index: 6/10. Unless you’re sitting in the press box, where the fake cannon will cause your already grease-encrusted heart to explode.
Best case: They stay relatively healthy, Saad becomes a 30-goal guy, Bobrovsky puts up a top-five season, and they manage to hang with teams like the Rangers, Caps, Isles, and Penguins in a very tough Metro.
Worst case: Bobrovsky is good but not great, the defense doesn’t jell, Nick Foligno comes back to earth after a career year, and those four Metro teams ahead of them prove to be too tough, leaving the Jackets’ playoff hopes riding on a weak Atlantic coughing up a crossover wild-card spot.
Suggested slogan: Pretty much guaranteed to have better luck with injuries than last yea— [slogan writer falls over injured].
Bold prediction: The Jackets find themselves stuck in the Metro’s middle — not as good as the big four, but well ahead of the Flyers, Devils, and Hurricanes. They stick in fifth place most of the season, which ends up being good enough for a postseason trip.
Detroit Red Wings
Last season: 43-25-14, 100 points, third in the Atlantic and 12th overall, lost in the first round.
Offseason report: As usual, the Wings were busy in free agency, bringing in veterans Mike Green and Brad Richards. But the big news was the departure of longtime coach Mike Babcock, who’ll be replaced by AHL call-up Jeff Blashill.
Outlook: Someday, the Red Wings’ veterans have to start slowing down. This roster features plenty of experience, to put it kindly; Richards, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, and Niklas Kronwall will all be 34 or older on opening night. There’s youth here, too, both on the NHL roster and on the way, so this isn’t a team about to fall off a cliff. But it has to take a few steps back sometime soon, right? [CTRL-C’s this paragraph for use on the next half-dozen Red Wings season previews, with reminder to keep updating ages every year.]
Key number: 31 — Goals scored by Green over the past three seasons despite missing double-digit games each year. That’s good for eighth in the NHL among defensemen over that time. He’s no longer the guy who scored 31 in 2008-09 alone and he never will be, but he can still put the puck in the net.
Watchability index: 6/10. Wings fans who know the team well will be interested to see how their playing style differs under Blashill; other fans will just enjoy the talent on display.
Best case: Jimmy Howard rebounds and/or Petr Mrazek turns out to be the real deal; either would be fine. The old guys hang on, the young guys improve, and, ho hum, the Red Wings are challenging for a division title yet again.
Worst case: The goaltending controversy simmers all season, injuries and age take their toll, and Blashill seems like a guy in over his head. A team that only squeezed into the playoffs by four points last season takes a small step back, which is all it takes to break the streak.
Suggested slogan: Now that he’s gone, we can all admit that Babcock’s “angry” face was more silly than intimidating, right?
Bold prediction: The Red Wings make the playoffs. Oh wait, I thought that said “old prediction,” as in a quarter-century and counting. That streak has to end eventually, but this won’t be the year. That’s not bold at all, so let’s add some detail: Blashill wins the Jack Adams as coach of the year.