2014-15 NHL Preview: The Middle of the Pack

Yesterday, we kicked off NHL season preview week with a look at the bottom-feeder division — the league’s truly hopeless teams. Today we’re moving up the standings, with what we’re calling the Stuck-in-the-Middle Division. These are the teams that are good, but not great — they’re not quite Stanley Cup contenders, but each should be right in the middle of the playoff race.

Some of the teams we’ll be covering today are passing through this section on their way to bigger and better things, while others are tracking in the opposite direction. And a few are in what may well be the worst possible situation an NHL team can find itself in: stuck in no-man’s-land, not really good enough to contend but never quite bad enough to land the sort of high draft pick who could turn into a franchise player. Spend more than a season or two in that zone and it can take a franchise years to recover.

Here’s hoping that none of today’s squads meets that sort of ugly fate. These are the eight teams that should be in the mix this year, but probably won’t be around once the big trophy comes out. And yes, you may notice a theme today, as one of the league’s divisions ends up dominating the list.

Minnesota Wild

Last season: 43-27-12, 98 points, earned a wild-card playoff berth, then upset the top-seeded Avalanche in the first round before being eliminated by the Blackhawks

Offseason report: Two years after landing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the Wild jumped back into the free-agency pool by making winger Thomas Vanek their big acquisition. He came a little cheaper than those two other guys, clocking in at just under $20 million on a three-year deal.

Outlook: The Wild were a 98-point team last year despite a difficult goaltending situation.1 With Vanek in the top six and some better luck on the health front, there’s every reason to think that they should be even better this year.

And yet … it’s still tough to get excited about the Wild, given that they’re stuck in the league’s toughest division. To win the Cup, they’ll have to get through the Blackhawks, Blues, Avs, and Stars just to make it out of the Central and earn the right to face whoever emerges from the almost-as-tough Pacific. That’s an awfully tough road, even for a team that should threaten the 100-point mark.

Key number: 2 minutes, 20 seconds — the gap between Suter’s league-leading 29:24 of average ice time and the next-most-used player. The poor guy should be exhausted, but he doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of it.

Best case: One of the goalies stays healthy all season,2 Vanek helps jump-start the offense, and Suter continues to be a machine. The Wild make the sort of leap that one good team seems to make every year, spending the season going toe-to-toe with the Hawks and Blues for the division crown.

Worst case: After another year of scrambling for a wild-card spot, it becomes clear a team that spent like a Stanley Cup contender has failed to reach that level.

Bold prediction: Despite all the attention that the big-money guys get, 22-year-old Mikael Granlund emerges as the breakout star and leads the team in scoring.

New Jersey Devils

Last season: 35-29-18, 88 points, 10th in the East, missed playoffs

Offseason report: Their biggest acquisition was Mike Cammalleri, who signed a five-year, $25 million deal. That seems like it may be on the high side for a 32-year-old, until you remember that for this roster, adding Cammalleri will seem like a youth movement.

They also parted ways with Martin Brodeur, handing the full-time starter’s job to Cory Schneider.3 After years of splitting time with Roberto Luongo in Vancouver and Brodeur last year, this will be the 28-year-old Schneider’s first NHL season as an undisputed starter.

Outlook: The Devils fell out of the mix quickly last year and never really recovered, despite a late push to get within shouting distance of a playoff spot. And they’re an old team that relies heavily on declining guys like Jaromir Jagr (42) and Patrik Elias (38), so in theory we should expect them to be even worse this year.

But despite that, there’s reason to believe that they’re better than we all think. They were a very good possession team last year, which would normally translate to a playoff spot. It didn’t for the Devils because they gave up too many goals, and most of that falls on Brodeur.4 With him gone and Schneider starting 60-plus games, that problem appears to be solved. And despite the goaltending, New Jersey still would have made the playoffs if not for a fluke of bad luck that we’ll cover in the next section.

Key number: 0-13 — the Devils’ absurd record in shootouts last year, an unprecedented level of futility that morphed into outright comedy as the season went on. Shootouts are basically coin flips, and if the Devils had gone even 5-8 they would have been in the playoffs.

Best case: Schneider takes his long-overdue opportunity and runs with it, providing Vezina-level goaltending. The older stars keep churning for another year, the kids hold their own, the shootout luck evens out, and the Devils cruise to a mid-90s point total and an easy Metro playoff spot.

Worst case: Schneider struggles out of the gate, then has to hear whispers about Brodeur all season long. Meanwhile, the old guys start their inevitable decline, and the Devils plunge toward the bottom of the Metro.

Bold prediction: In their season opener next Thursday, the Devils beat the Flyers in a shootout.

Detroit Red Wings

Last season: 39-28-15, Eastern Conference wild card, lost in the first round

Offseason report: After years of being big players in free agency, the Wings were largely shut out this year, failing to make a major improvement to a blue line that desperately needs it. And perhaps their biggest offseason move was the one they didn’t make: re-signing coach Mike Babcock. He enters the season with just one year left on his deal, and plenty of speculation that he’s looking for a new challenge elsewhere.

Outlook: The Red Wings are really old. Key contributors like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, and Niklas Kronwall are all well into their thirties, and the team is still mulling the return of 41-year-old Daniel Alfredsson.

The Red Wings are also kind of young. Breakout star Gustav Nyquist leads a group of players that are just entering their prime, giving the Red Wings yet another generation of potential stars. That mix of young and old makes it hard to nail this team down — they could go in a few different directions.

Key number: 18.3 — Nyquist’s shooting percentage last year, which is Steven Stamkos territory. Nyquist certainly has the sort of talent that would lead you to expect him to put up a decent number in this category. But he was just a 6.1 percent shooter in 40 career games before last season, so it seems fair to assume we’ll see a drop this year.

Best case: The old guys stay healthy, the young guys take another step, the normally dependable Jimmy Howard rebounds from an off year, and the Wings return to quasi-contender status.

Worst case: Age and injuries wreak havoc once again, Howard struggles, and Babcock’s status becomes a running sideshow as the Wings finally miss the playoffs for the first time in 25 years.

Bold prediction: Nyquist plays a full season after being limited to just 57 games last year, but fails to improve on his 28 goals.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Last season: 43-32-7, 93 points, wild card, lost to the Penguins in the first round

Offseason report: A relatively quiet offseason was highlighted by the acquisition of Scott Hartnell, who came over from the Flyers in a deal for R.J. Umberger. But the bigger news has been the ongoing contract standoff with Ryan Johansen, which left the young star feeling insulted by the team’s hard-line stance. With just over a week to go before opening night, there’s been little progress in getting Johansen’s deal done.

Outlook: It’s almost impossible not to root for the Blue Jackets, a franchise that has yet to win a playoff round in its 13-season history.5 It would be great to see them finally go on a deep run and give their long-suffering fans something to cheer about. The problem is that they’re not all that good a team.

Luckily, that might not be an issue, since they play in the Metro Division, where even the better teams look vulnerable. And while the lineup isn’t exactly star-studded, they at least appear set in goal with Sergei Bobrovsky, who followed a surprise Vezina win in 2012-13 with another very good season last year. That should be enough to keep them in the wild-card race, and if/when they can get Johansen back onboard, they could make a push for more.

Key number: 0 — number of times during his seven-season career that Jack Johnson has had a positive relative Corsi, meaning the former third overall pick has always been worse than his teammates at driving possession. He’s never even really come close. Needless to say, Johnson has long been a poster child in the analytics vs. old-school debate.

Best case: The addition of Hartnell and an eventual return to health from forgotten man Nathan Horton helps the Jackets build on last year’s quasi-success, leading to a Metro playoff spot. In the postseason, Bobrovsky takes over and leads them on a thrilling ride all the way to the promised land … Round 2.

Worst case: The league moves them back to the West, where they’re never heard from again.

Bold prediction: Johansen misses the start of the season before eventually signing. He gets off to a slow start, and everyone eventually blames him when the Jackets narrowly miss the playoffs.

Montreal Canadiens

Last season: 46-28-8, 100 points, third in the Atlantic, lost to the Rangers in the conference finals

Offseason report: After a surprisingly strong season, the Canadiens said good-bye to several veterans, including Thomas Vanek, Daniel Briere, Josh Gorges, and team captain Brian Gionta. They added veterans P.A. Parenteau and Tom Gilbert, as well as 22-year-old Czech free agent Jiri Sekac, who’s looked great so far in camp.

And of course, they finally signed P.K. Subban to an extension (but not before oddly taking him to arbitration first). The former Norris winner is now the highest-paid defenseman in NHL history in terms of cap hit. This is the part where I’d normally write something about all the pressure in the world suddenly being on his back, but this is Montreal. It was already there.

Outlook: The Habs had a strong 2013-14 season and some would argue that only an injury to Carey Price kept them from going to the final for the first time since 1993. They’ve kept the core intact, they’re younger, Price is healthy again, and it’s not like the East got all that much better. If you wanted to make the case that they belong in tomorrow/Thursday’s Cup contender division, I couldn’t blame you.

But all that said, they struggled to score goals last year — they were the lowest-scoring Eastern playoff team — and on paper the offense should be slightly worse. They were a bad possession team (see below), and their plus-11 goals differential doesn’t leave much margin for error. If even one Atlantic team made an unexpected push past them, they drop into the scary world of wild-card contention. That seems to be their floor, and I suppose there’s an outside chance they could even push the Bruins for the division title. They’re a good team; I just don’t see how they’re one of the seven or eight best in the league.

Key stat: 47.0 — Montreal’s Corsi percentage last year, the fifth worst in the league. The bottom eight in that stat includes train wrecks like Buffalo, Edmonton, and Calgary, and only one other playoff team.6 That’s a bad sign, and it indicates that Montreal needs great goaltending to stay competitive. Of course, they do happen to have great goaltending, so they’ll be fine as long as Price stays healthy and stands on his head. But if he doesn’t …

Best case: Subban wins another Norris, Price is great, and the offense gets a boost from a breakout season from Alex Galchenyuk. The Canadiens earn a second-round rematch with the Bruins, and they continue to drive their archrivals crazy. Then the Habs get to try their luck in a conference final in which their goalie doesn’t get run in Game 1.

Worst case: The Bruins stay on top, the Lightning live up to the hype, the Red Wings surge, the Metro isn’t a joke, and suddenly Montreal is one bad streak away from 95 points and fighting for its playoff life.

Bold prediction: The Canadiens follow up a year in which they had 100 points and finished third in the Atlantic by having 100 points and finishing third in the Atlantic.

Washington Capitals

Last season: 38-30-14, 90 points, ninth in the Eastern Conference, missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years

Offseason report: Plenty of teams would be OK with a 90-point season, but expectations in Washington are higher and the team responded to last year’s struggles by making several changes. They fired coach Adam Oates and longtime GM George McPhee.7 They filled the coaching vacancy by hiring the biggest name available in former Preds boss Barry Trotz. They filled the GM vacancy by … well, hiring McPhee’s assistant, Brian MacLellan, which raised a few eyebrows coming from an organization that seemed to want a change of direction.

The Caps were active in free agency, signing a pair of Penguins defensemen in Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik; the former deal was generally given a thumbs-up, but the latter wound up on several “worst signings” lists.

Outlook: As always, any talk of the Capitals’ chances has to start with Alexander Ovechkin. The Russian superstar is coming off his fourth Rocket Richard trophy as the league’s leading goal scorer. But he struggled defensively (more on that in a second) and will be under a microscope all year, especially with yet another new coach onboard.8 Trotz has never really coached a superstar forward in his prime before, and it will be interesting to see how much he can squeeze out of his franchise player.

Beyond Ovechkin, there’s plenty of talent here. Nicklas Backstrom puts up big numbers despite often being overlooked, and while Mike Green will never challenge the 30-goal mark again, he’s shown signs of once more being an offensive force. Then there’s goalie Braden Holtby, who was perceived as having a tough year last season even though his numbers were decent. He’s played parts of four NHL season, and his save percentage and goals against average have gotten worse each year. The Caps will need him to reverse that trend if they’re going to make it back to the postseason.

Key number: Minus-35. What else? As any fan probably knows by now, this was Ovechkin’s +/- rating last year, the third-worst in the league. That number spawned a flood of articles about what was wrong with Ovechkin and whether the Caps could ever win with him. But it was accompanied by an on-ice shooting percentage of just 6.4 and on-ice save percentage of just 90.3 — which (as we’ve already covered) is basically a sign that Ovechkin was suffering from some bad luck last year. He won’t be challenging for a Selke anytime soon, and he does need to play a better 200-foot game if he’s going to help the Capitals get over the hump, but there are better ways to make that point than relying on a mostly useless stat like +/-.

Best case: Trotz manages to get through the top talent, Ovechkin wins yet another Rocket Richard, Niskanen and Orpik stabilize the blue line, and Holtby has the best season of his young career. The Caps waltz through the Metro and back into the postseason, and Trotz is your 2014-15 Jack Adams winner.

Worst case: A lot like last year, only worse. Holtby doesn’t look like an NHL starter, the defense continues to struggle, and Ovechkin and Trotz are feuding openly by the end of the season.

Bold prediction: Ovechkin’s +/- improves, his goal total goes down, and now we get a flood of articles about how he’s focusing too much on defense and “not being himself.”

Vancouver Canucks

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

Offseason report: Big changes came off the ice, as the team cleaned house after a season that saw them miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Gone are GM Mike Gillis and coach John Tortorella, replaced with, respectively, Jim Benning and Willie Desjardins. Neither guy has held his job at an NHL level, but both come with strong résumés and reputations. The team also welcomed back former star Trevor Linden, who’ll serve as team president and the de facto face of the franchise.

The roster received an overhaul as well, with longtime Canuck Ryan Kesler finally getting the trade he’s been pushing for; he went to Anaheim for Nick Bonino and Luca Sbisa, who’ll provide some depth. Vancouver also said good-bye to defenseman Jason Garrison, who was traded to Tampa Bay. The main additions were a pair of free agents: Ryan Miller, who signed a three-year, $18 million deal to be their starting goaltender, and Radim Vrbata, who got two years and $10 million and may start the season with the Sedin twins.

Outlook: While their years-long goaltending controversy got most of the attention, the Canucks’ big problem last year was a significant drop-off from most of their top skill players. The Sedins both struggled with injury and lack of production, and other key players like Kevin Bieksa, Alex Burrows, and Alex Edler also had down years. All of those guys are on the wrong side of their primes — the Sedins just turned 34 — so the odds of some sort of teamwide rebound season seem slim.

That said, there’s at least some room for optimism. Last year’s Canucks were a strong possession team, ranking eighth in even-strength Fenwick, ahead of good teams like the Ducks and Lightning. If they can reproduce that performance, get some strong goaltending from Miller, and improve on their meager 7.6 shooting percentage (tied for second worst in the league last season), they’re right back into the playoff race.

Key number: .916 — Miller’s save percentage over the four seasons following his 2010 Vezina win. That ranks just 21st in the league over that time, and that Vezina year was the only one of his career when he finished over .920. That 2010 season established Miller’s reputation as one of the league’s elite goaltenders, but the numbers suggest that’s just not the case anymore.

Best case: Miller plays well, Vrbata recharges the Sedins, and they get a boost from young guys like Zack Kassian and maybe even Bo Horvat. That probably wouldn’t be enough to move them past the Pacific’s big three California teams, but it would get them into fourth place, which means a good shot at a wild card.

Worst case: Miller can’t live up to his contract, Eddie Lack looks good in relief, and suddenly there’s yet another goaltending controversy in Vancouver. Meanwhile, Father Time keeps chipping away at the top of the roster, and it becomes apparent that what this team really needs is an old-fashioned rebuild.

Bold prediction: The Canucks are respectable and finish fourth in the Pacific, but lose out on a playoff spot when the Central Division claims both wild-card spots.

New York Islanders

Last season: 34-37-11, 79 points, 13th in the East, missed playoffs

Offseason report: They added some skill up front, with Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, and Cory Conacher. But the big move was replacing goalie Evgeni Nabokov with Jaroslav Halak in a trade with whichever team it was that he was playing for by the end of the season.9

Outlook: Nabokov was awful last year, posting a .905 save percentage, and backups Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson were even worse. Halak is a career .918 and posted a .921 last year; if he can do that again, the goaltending upgrade alone would put the Islanders back into playoff contention.

Outside the crease, there’s some good young talent here, including Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey. The signings of Grabovski and Kulemin added two useful players, albeit on a slight overpay, and while Conacher is small, he’s shown enough skill to at least be worth a look. Oh, and did we mention that John Tavares, who played just 59 games thanks to an injury suffered at the Olympics, is healthy again?

So the goaltending looks good and the forwards are intriguing. We should probably stop there, because, man, this blue line looks ugly.

Key number: 1 — Jack Capuano’s rank among the eight Metro Division coaches in seniority with their current team. He was hired less than four years ago. The Metro is weird.

Best case: Tavares wins the Art Ross, the team’s young talent takes a step forward, Halak is his usual dependable self, and the blue line is better than expected, which is to say merely bad instead of completely awful. In a weak division, the Islanders soar all the way to second place.

Worst case: After years of playing behind an excellent defensive unit in St. Louis, Halak sees more rubber than a dead skunk on the Trans-Canada Highway.10 He doesn’t handle it well, and his play dips to Nabokovian levels. The forwards can’t score enough to make up for all the goals against, and the team plummets into the Connor McDavid sweepstakes — except they don’t even have their own pick, having traded it to the Sabres in last year’s Thomas Vanek deal.

Bold prediction: This has regret written all over it, but I’m onboard with the Islanders this year, so here goes: They don’t just make the playoffs, they win a round for the first time since 1993.

Filed Under: 2014 -15 NHL season preview, NHL, Minnesota Wild, New Jersey Devils, Detroit Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets, Montreal Canadiens, Washington Capitals, Vancouver Canucks, New York Islanders

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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