The NHL’s Race to the Bottom

With most of the offseason’s major moves already made and rosters around the league largely set, it’s time to start talking about which team heads into the 2014-15 season with the best chance at earning the big prize.

No, not the Stanley Cup — that’s so 2013-14. This year, there’s something far more important to play for: a top draft pick, and the chance to select Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, two of the most hyped draft prospects the NHL has seen since Sidney Crosby.

To be clear, we’d certainly never suggest than an NHL team would intentionally tank for the opportunity to draft a generational franchise player. But while the league is making changes to its draft lottery format for next year, it’s reportedly keeping the existing rule that prevents the last-place team from dropping any further than second, meaning that whichever team finishes 30th this year is guaranteed to get one of McDavid or Eichel.

And that makes this year’s NHL basement a very valuable piece of real estate. By my count, a little more than half the teams in the league could be contenders for last place overall if everything went wrong. Of course, some of those teams are better positioned than others, so let’s start with the worst of the worst.

The Top Bottom Contenders

Buffalo Sabres

This year’s 30th slot sure feels like it’s the Sabres’ to lose. After all, they’re the defending champs in this category, having finished at the bottom of the league last year. It wasn’t even close — the Sabres were 14 points back of the 29th-place Panthers. (And remember, that was with former All-Star Ryan Miller in net for most of the season.)

This year’s team doesn’t figure to be much better. They made a few token improvements, trading for Josh Gorges, adding Brian Gionta, and bringing back Matt Moulson via free agency. But those improvements are partly countered by the loss of defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who led last year’s team in ice time by over two minutes a night but was bought out in June.

The Sabres still figure to be better than last year, since it would be hard to imagine them being much worse, but they should still be awful. Maybe even more important, they’re absolutely fine with that. This is a team that is clearly in scorched-earth rebuild mode, and if that means a lot of losing for a few years, GM Tim Murray seems like he can live with it. This year, the race to finish dead last should be the one and only instance where the Sabres will be tough to beat.

Calgary Flames

The Flames are another team that’s in rebuild mode, although they actually did try to get better this summer, and may have succeeded thanks to the signing of goaltender Jonas Hiller. On the other hand, they lost Mike Cammalleri, and they’re apparently going to insist on stocking their roster with Brian Burke–style tough guys, so any improvement is likely to be minimal.

Burke may be the wild card here. In previous jobs, the Flames’ president has been adamant about not having much patience for traditional, long-term rebuilds, and he’s indicated that he feels the same way about Calgary. Last year’s Flames were a hardworking team that outperformed just about everyone’s expectations, and if Hiller can get back to the level he’s played at in the past, then maybe a fast-track approach can work. A more likely scenario is that the team struggles, and the organization’s patience for losing gets tested.

Florida Panthers

The Panthers finished 29th last year, then won the draft lottery to capture the top pick. They gave up more goals than any team but Edmonton, and had a worse goal differential than anyone other than Buffalo. They were bad.

But after a busy offseason that saw GM Dale Tallon spend big in free agency, they figure to be … well, “less bad” is about as far as I’m willing to go right now. Willie Mitchell and Jussi Jokinen will both help. The much-maligned Dave Bolland will, too, ridiculous contract aside. Aaron Ekblad probably won’t, at least initially, because it’s so difficult for 18-year-old defensemen to have an impact, but he should be great someday. Perhaps the biggest difference maker will be Roberto Luongo, who’ll have a full season in Florida after last year’s deadline trade that you’d already completely forgotten about.

The Panthers are bad but seem anxious to get better, which means they probably will be. That’s unlikely to be enough to get them to the playoffs, but it could keep them just out of range of the Flames and Sabres.

Carolina Hurricanes

The Hurricanes finished 24th last year, missing the playoffs by 10 points. That was enough to spur changes throughout the organization, including a new coach and GM.

What hasn’t changed, at least not much, is the roster. That’s bad news for Hurricane fans, since on paper they look like a team with some reasonably decent top-line talent but little in the way of depth. They’ve also been unable to find a taker for goaltender Cam Ward, whose injury woes, deteriorating performance, and terrible contract may have rendered him untradable.

If Ward bounces back (or Anton Khudobin wins the job outright), they should be fine — after all, even in a bad year they still finished 31 points clear of the Sabres last season. But this dashboard has plenty of warning lights blinking.

Nashville Predators

Nobody seems to expect the Predators to be any good this year. That’s understandable, given that they’ve missed the playoffs two straight years and just fired longtime coach Barry Trotz. But they did add James Neal via trade and signed Mike Ribeiro and Derek Roy to cheap deals. And they’re coming off a season that was better than you probably remember it — they had 88 points and avoided finishing in the bottom 10 — so it would take a major step back to get them into contention for the top pick.

But maybe the worst news is that they still play in the stacked Central Division, where they’ll be sentenced to spending most of the season getting run over by teams like the Blues, Blackhawks, and Avs.

Winnipeg Jets

Like the Predators, the Jets are stuck in the seemingly hopeless Central. Unlike the Predators, they don’t seem all that interested in getting better. That’s led to some confusion over what exactly the front office is doing. One proposed answer: blatantly tanking the season. Which, again, NHL teams would never ever do.

Could Be in the Mix

Ottawa Senators

The Senators went into last year as a trendy sleeper pick to contend, then suffered through an awful season when their goaltending cratered. On paper, they’ll be even worse this year after trading captain and top-scoring forward Jason Spezza and not adding much to replace him apart from journeyman David Legwand.

The goaltending should be better, but this is still shaping up to be the toughest season the Senators have had since the epic futility of the mid-’90s. There’s long been a sense of curiosity in Ottawa over how much the city’s notoriously fickle sports fans would support a truly bad team. This could be the year we find out.

Vancouver Canucks

Coming off a 25th-place season and featuring an aging core, the Canucks seem like a strong candidate for “former contender that finally falls off a cliff and has to start all over” status. They traded Ryan Kesler and Jason Garrison over the offseason and didn’t get much back in return, and their big-money free agent deal with Ryan Miller was widely panned.

But on paper, the Canucks still look like a pretty good team, and it’s possible that last year was the worst-case scenario. At this point, it would be a surprise to see them scraping the bottom of the league. But it’s also worth remembering that they just cleaned house and brought in new management and coaches. If the season did go bad and it started to make sense to just steer toward the iceberg and hit rock bottom, the powers that be will have the job security to do it.

Edmonton Oilers

Sure, the Oilers have been near the bottom of the league for years. But with excellent young talent like Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, they have to take a step forward eventually, right?

(Oops, sorry. Accidentally cut-and-pasted my Oilers summary from 2010. Let’s try again …)

Sure, the Oilers have been near the bottom of the league for years. But with excellent young talent like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, they have to take a step forward eventually, right?

(Crap, that one was from 2011. One more try.)

Sure, the Oilers have been near the bottom of the league for years. But with excellent young talent like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Justin Schultz, and Nail Yakupov, they have to take a step forward eventually, right?

(Nope, that was from 2012. You know what, maybe the Oilers should have been in that first section after all.)

Not Unless Things Go Really Bad

New York Islanders

The Islanders finished in the bottom five last year, which is becoming familiar territory for this traditionally awful franchise — they’ve been 26th or worse in five of the last six years, including a 2008-09 season that saw them finish dead last.

So why not rank them higher on this list? Because, believe it or not, they look like they could be pretty good this year. Last season was largely sidetracked by awful goaltending, and they addressed the position by acquiring Jaroslav Halak. They also added two very good forwards in Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski, and John Tavares will be back to full health after getting hurt at the Olympics and missing the second half.

And remember, the Islanders don’t have their own first-round pick this year. (They traded it to the Sabres.) So even if all the wheels come off and the season is headed for disaster, GM Garth Snow will be highly motivated to do everything possible to avoid a last-place finish. Based on their offseason moves, it’s highly unlikely it even comes to that.

Arizona Coyotes

The Coyotes finished last year with 89 points, and were in the playoff mix right up until the season’s final days. On paper, they’ve got worse since then, buying out no. 1 center Mike Ribeiro and losing Radim Vrbata to free agency. They replaced some of that offense with Sam Gagner, but only some.

The Coyotes were perceived as overachievers last year, so it’s not hard to imagine them taking a step or two back. In the ultracompetitive Western Conference, that could be enough to knock them into contention for a bottom-five finish. But all the way down to 30th? That seems like a stretch.

Washington Capitals

The Caps missed the playoffs last year for the first time since 2007, and the responded with an offseason that was, um, interesting. They’ve hit rock bottom before, spending several seasons in the basement a decade ago, but doing it again during what’s left of Alex Ovechkin’s prime would be tough to take. To finish 30th, they’d have to have just about everything go bad. Not “Brooks Orpik contract”–level bad, but still bad.

New Jersey Devils

The Devils missed the playoffs last year, and given how old the roster is, it’s tempting to predict they’ll be even worse this year. After all, when your two best forwards are Jaromir Jagr (42) and Patrik Elias (38), you’re just begging for performance decline and/or injury to wipe out your scoring.

But while they could certainly happen, the Devils should still be good enough to stay out of the basement. As bad as last season went, they were still an 88-point team, and that was with their ridiculous 0-13 shootout record. And with Martin Brodeur apparently done in New Jersey, the team can finally lean on the far superior Cory Schneider in net. As long as he stays healthy enough to play 60 or 65 games, they should be fine.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Yes, they did finished dead last by a wide margin just three seasons ago, but with smart management and a rebuild that’s well on its way, it’s hard to imagine them being in the mix this year. I’m including them here just because Blue Jacket fans will be scanning the list for them out of force of habit. Hi, Columbus fans!

Toronto Maple Leafs

The Leafs were a mess last year, and they’re returning essentially the same core under the same coach and the same GM. Last season, they needed great goaltending just to stay near .500, so if Jonathan Bernier ever slumped or got hurt, things could get ugly. And just as a reminder, he’s never made it through a full season as a starter.

All that said, there are a pair of two sure-thing franchise players available at the top of the draft, and this is the Toronto Maple Leafs we’re talking about. There’s no way they don’t end up picking ninth.

Total Long Shots, But Fun to Think About

Detroit Red Wings

After 23 straight seasons of making the playoffs, the aging Wings seem to be on the verge of finally fading. Even so, they’re 2014-15 lineup will feature too much talent to have a realistic chance at a total collapse. There’s no chance. They shouldn’t even be on this list.

Still … you have to admit, finally failing just long enough to grab a franchise player and then rebounding right back into contention a year later would be the most Red Wings thing ever.

Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers already did the whole “completely unexpected crash and burn” thing back in 2007, so there’s a precedent here. And the Hockey Prospectus guys make a decent case that some curious roster moves and the specter of Steve Mason makes them vulnerable. It would be nice to see them land the no. 1 pick, just so we could see them desperately try to use it to trade for Shea Weber.

Colorado Avalanche

The Avalanche head into the season having replaced last year’s Maple Leafs as the league’s most divisive team. They’re coming off a 112-point season and are stacked with young talent, yet all the numbers seem to point to impending doom.

It still seems like the absolute worst-case scenario here would be narrowly missing the playoffs, unless Patrick Roy starts pulling Semyon Varlamov for the extra attacker right after the opening faceoff every night and everyone is too afraid of him to say anything about. So, let’s call it a 20 percent chance.

(And yes, we left out a dozen teams off the list entirely, on the assumption that they had absolutely, positively zero chance of finishing last under any circumstances. I’ll just offer my apologies in advance to one of those teams for dooming them. Looking at you, Wild fans.)

Filed Under: NHL, Buffalo Sabres, Calgary Flames, Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes, Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets, Ottawa Senators, Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, New York Islanders, Arizona Coyotes, Washington Capitals, New Jersey Devils, Columbus Blue Jackets, Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers, Colorado Avalanche

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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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