One of the tricks of the season-preview business is that you always start at the bottom and work your way up, building suspense along the way. That’s the basic approach we’ve taken for our NHL preview; on Monday, we covered the Bottom-Feeder Division, and yesterday it was on to the Middle-of-the-Pack Division.
By the end of that second post, we’d covered half the league. And when it went up, fans of the teams that hadn’t been mentioned yet were thrilled. Clearly, this meant their teams were considered Stanley Cup contenders. Celebrations broke out across the hockey world.1
Well, except among Oilers fans. They were legitimately worried that I had lost my mind.
Not so fast.
Today we introduce the “Your Guess Is As Good As Mine” Division. These are the teams that are expected to be … well, pretty much anything. Yes, I’m supposed to be the expert, which means my job is to pretend like I know everything. I don’t. And when it comes to these teams, I’m not ashamed to say I’m stumped.
So here we go: the eight teams with the widest range of possible outcomes. Could the eventual Stanley Cup winner be one of the teams below? Sure could. What about Connor McDavid’s new home? Wouldn’t surprise me. Could one of these teams manage to accomplish both those things? That shouldn’t technically be possible, but what the hell. With this group, all bets are off.
Last season: 52-22-8, 112 points, first in the Central, upset by Minnesota in the first round
Offseason report: They lost Paul Stastny to free agency, but replaced him with future Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla, which is close to a wash. They traded P.A. Parenteau to Montreal for Danny Briere and lost backup goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere to retirement. And they named Joe Sakic the new GM while demoting Greg Sherman, which was shocking because everybody sort of assumed they had already done that last year.
Also, everyone on the roster got older. That’s not exactly breaking news, since the same could be said for every team, but it seems especially important in Colorado’s case, because this is a team led by an extremely young core. Guys like Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan O’Reilly, and Gabriel Landeskog should all still be improving with each year that goes by. If this team of kids racked up 112 points last year, how much better could they be this year?
Outlook: Ah hell, let’s just get it out of the way now …
Key stat: 46.7 percent — Colorado’s 5-on-5 Fenwick percentage last year, fourth-worst in the league. The Avalanche were a terrible possession team, which tells us they shouldn’t win many games. Now clearly, the Avs did win a lot of games — for one season. But the numbers say it can’t continue, and that a big drop-off this year is inevitable. Remember how last season, Toronto became the lightning-rod team for the analytics argument? That’s the Avalanche this year. And we all remember how that story ended for the Maple Leafs.
So are the Avalanche equally doomed? Maybe, although there’s hope. They could improve their possession game, although that’s no small fix. If they can’t, they’ll need to win with high-percentage shooting and excellent goaltending. They got both last year, including 8.77 percent 5-on-5 shooting that ranked second in the league. With all their talent up front, you’d expect them to be better than average in that category, but history suggests that last year’s numbers probably aren’t sustainable.
And then there’s Semyon Varlamov, who’d essentially been a league-average goalie before breaking out last year and very nearly winning the Vezina. He’s only 26, so it’s possible that last year really did signal his emergence as an elite goaltender. But if he takes a step back to merely very good, the Avalanche could be in trouble.
For their part, the Avalanche brain trust are saying they’re not worried about the analytics. Of course, there’s not much else they could say.
Best case: The Avs beat the percentages and basically repeat last year (minus the early playoff exit), solidifying their place as one of the league’s elite teams. Eat it, math nerds.
Worst case: The percentages catch up to them, and they crash and burn all the way out of the playoff race. Eat it, old-school dinosaurs.
Bold prediction: They earn a Western wild-card spot, and nobody on either side quite feels satisfied.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Last season: 36-24-8, 80 points, third in the East, home ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs, baby! … immediately followed by 2-12-0. The end result: 38-36-8, 84 points, 12th in the East, missed playoffs.
Offseason report: After seeing their season end with yet another collapse, the Leafs moved quickly to shake up the organization by hiring Brendan Shanahan as team president. He kept GM Dave Nonis and coach Randy Carlyle, but fired most of their assistants. That’s not exactly cleaning house, but you can’t help but feel like Nonis and (especially) Carlyle are on borrowed time and know it.
On the ice, the team signed Stephane Robidas and traded for Roman Polak in an attempt to address its consistently leaky blueline, and brought in several cheap free agents to compete for depth spots up front. The Leafs didn’t show much interest in re-signing Nikolai Kulemin or Jay McClement; they did try to bring back Dave Bolland, but lucked out when they were outbid by the Panthers.
Outlook: Much like the Avalanche, the numbers say the Maple Leafs simply can’t win without either fixing their possession problems or posting crazy-high percentages at both ends. Unlike the Avs, the Leafs at least seem to realize that’s a problem. Carlyle and his new staff are making adjustments to the team’s much-maligned defensive system, and Shanahan even hired an analytics team to educate key decision-makers going forward.
Those are positive changes, but they won’t fix the problem right away, which means the Leafs will need another season of excellent goaltending and above-average shooting just to make the playoffs. They can probably get the latter, thanks to a decent forward group led by Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. As far as the goaltending, Jonathan Bernier was excellent last year until he got hurt during his return to Los Angeles on March 13. That left the starter’s job with James Reimer, who took most of the blame for the season-ending slide.
Surprisingly, Reimer is back this year, although the starter’s job is clearly Bernier’s. Between them, they’ll need to provide All-Star-caliber goaltending, at least until Carlyle (or his replacement) can fix the defense. If they do, and if the other key players can stay reasonably healthy like they did last year, then this team can make the playoffs.
Key stat: .911 — Reimer’s save percentage from the moment Bernier was hurt through the end of the season, the stretch in which everyone agreed he was unquestionably terrible and was to blame for the team missing the playoffs. The lesson: Never let yourself get on the wrong side of a narrative in Toronto. The other lesson: With even slightly below-average goaltending, this Maple Leafs team will be terrible.
Best case: Kessel racks up his usual 35 goals and 80 points without breaking a sweat,2 Bernier is fantastic, the free agents help steady the ship, Carlyle and his new staff mesh well, the defensive changes work, Dion Phaneuf settles down, and the team has the same sort of good injury luck that it had last year. The Leafs make the playoffs. Man, that was a long list.
Worst case: The goaltending is just OK, a few guys get hurt, and the defensive improvements don’t pay immediate dividends. By November, they’re already out of the playoff race and Carlyle shifts into full Art Howe–in-Moneyball “I’m playing my team in a way that I can explain in job interviews next year” mode. They get dangerously close to bottom-five territory (but naturally don’t win the lottery), and Shanahan has no choice but to clean house.
Bold prediction: Steve Spott or Peter Horachek is the Leafs’ interim coach by Christmas; somebody currently behind the bench for another NHL team is the Leafs’ coach by next season.
Last season: 29-44-9, 67 points, 14th in the West, missed the playoffs
Offseason report: After yet another disastrous season, the Oilers looked to improve over the summer by adding Benoit Pouliot, Mark Fayne, and Nikita Nikitin, while trading away Sam Gagner. They also added yet another stud forward prospect, drafting Leon Draisaitl with the third overall pick. That’s certainly not standing pat, but it’s also not the major shakeup some would have expected, especially for the second offseason since GM Craig MacTavish declared that “we have to do some bold things.”3
Presumably, “bold things” would not include signing a hotshot rookie who turned out not to have ever been eligible, but the Oilers just did that anyway.
So after years of failure, why not just go ahead and blow it all up? Because, as always, the core of this team is young and talented, and the Oilers have some tantalizing potential to be very, very good someday. When? That’s the question.
Outlook: Any early-season optimism the Oilers may have enjoyed last year was quickly derailed by an awful start that could be at least partially blamed on lousy goaltending. That turned into a season-long carousel in the crease, with a ridiculous six different goalies seeing time. But there’s some stability now, with a duo of Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth that should be reasonably good. They should be somewhat better along the blueline as well; it would be hard to be worse, after last year’s league-worst 270 goals allowed.
That leaves the forwards, which is where things could get really fun. The Oilers have invested plenty of top-five draft picks to build this group, and the hope has always been that they’d all mature into an elite core at around the same time. That’s essentially what happened in Colorado last year; it hasn’t happened yet in Edmonton. Taylor Hall is already a star, and Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are knocking on that door. Nail Yakupov hasn’t looked like a no. 1 overall pick yet, but he doesn’t turn 21 until next week, and if Draisaitl ends up being the real deal … well, you get the idea. There’s a ton of talent here if it all comes together. But that “if” has been killing them for years.
Key stat: 8 — years without a playoff appearance in Edmonton, the longest streak in the league.
Best case: Finally, mercifully, all that promise starts to click. The offense takes off, and the goaltending is good enough to cover up some of those youthful mistakes. They sneak into the playoffs, or at least come close enough to give their long-suffering fans something to cheer for.
Worst case: Oiler fans know it well by now. Another lost season could spell the end of coach Dallas Eakins after just two years on the job, and would probably force MacTavish into finally following up on that promise to start tearing up the young core. Then what? Can Oiler fans really be expected to sit through yet another rebuild?
Bold prediction: The Oilers are the fourth-best team in Canada, which represents progress even though it still leaves them outside the postseason.
Last season: 42-30-10, 94 points, third in the Metro, lost in the first round
Offseason report: The big move came at the top, with Paul Holmgren taking the job as team president to make room for Ron Hextall as the new GM. Hextall didn’t make any major moves, but did pull the trigger on the Scott Hartnell/R.J. Umberger deal. The other big news was the loss of veteran defenseman Kimmo Timonen, who was diagnosed with blood clots. He’s out long term, and his career is probably over.
Outlook: The Flyers look like they should be a solid playoff team, especially in the Metro. After all, they made it with room to spare last year, and this year head coach Craig Berube won’t have to parachute into the job after the season has already started. Claude Giroux is coming off a year in which he was a Hart finalist, and could be even better if he can avoid the sort of lengthy cold streak that opened last season. The younger guys should be better, and they’ll have a full season of Andrew MacDonald.4
Other than Jack Johnson, there may not be a “star” player with worse possession numbers than MacDonald, but scouts seem to love the guy.
But of course, this is Philadelphia, so it will all come down to goaltending. That’s where things could get dicey …
Key stat: 27 — ranking of Flyers’ starter Steve Mason, out of 29 goalies with at least 200 games, in career save percentage since he broke into the league in 2008. That’s the bad news. The good news is that Mason’s been pretty good since coming over from Columbus and posted a .917 last year. So which number do you believe? That probably determines whether you think the Flyers are a playoff team.
Best case: Mason is fine, Giroux challenges the 100-point mark, one or two of the younger forwards reach the next level, and the Flyers spend the season pushing the Penguins for the division title.
Worst case: Mason struggles, the forward group misses Hartnell more than expected, and the loss of Timonen hits the blueline hard. They slip a few points in the standings, which is all it takes to drop out of the postseason picture.
Bold prediction: I think the Flyers narrowly miss the playoffs. But if I’m wrong, Philadelphia fans will be cool about it, right?
Last season: 40-31-11, 91 points, wild-card berth, lost in the first round to the Ducks
Offseason report: Jim Nill is not messing around. One year after the then-rookie GM acquired Tyler Seguin in the offseason’s biggest trade, he landed another big-name center by acquiring Ottawa’s Jason Spezza. That gives the Stars one of the best one-two center combos in the league, at least in terms of offense. And Nill also added Ales Hemsky, a relatively cheap signing who could excel after a rough stretch with the struggling Oilers.
Outlook: The forwards look fantastic. In addition to Seguin, Spezza, and Hemsky, there are also Jamie Benn and Valeri Nichushkin, so we can expect this team to do plenty of scoring. The goaltending should be fine, assuming Kari Lehtonen is OK after leaving a recent preseason game with what the team called a mild concussion. That leaves the blueline, which isn’t strong and didn’t get much attention over the summer.
Still, it’s easy to get excited about the Stars. At the very least, they should be exciting. But will they be good enough to do any damage in the Central?
Key stat: 1.06 — Spezza’s points-per-game average since the 2005 lockout, tied for with Pavel Datsyuk for the fifth-best mark in the league, trailing only Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, and Joe Thornton. He’s slowed down over the years, and his back will always be a concern, but those are some nice numbers for a second-line center who’ll no longer have to face the other team’s shutdown lines this year.
Best case: The run-and-gun Stars are great fun to watch, playing a bunch of 5-4 games that they win.
Worst case: The run-and-gun Stars are great fun to watch, playing a bunch of 5-4 games that they lose.
Bold prediction: Let’s pencil them in for third in the Central and another first-round exit. But a fun one!
Last season: 37-31-14, 88 points, 11th in the East, missed playoffs
Offseason report: The Senators traded Jason Spezza, their longtime star and most recent captain, in a deal with Dallas that didn’t land them much beyond cap space. They then used that money to go out and acquire … no, just kidding, this is the Senators. They don’t spend money anymore.
OK, that’s not completely true, since they did sign David Legwand, and they got the goaltending tandem of Robin Lehner and Craig Anderson signed to extensions. But the Spezza deal was yet another example of the franchise’s recent trend toward becoming the league’s thriftiest team.5 They’re currently embroiled in a contract dispute with Marc Methot that will probably end up with him being traded. And, oh yeah, Bobby Ryan needs an extension.
As of today, they have the league’s lowest payroll in terms of actual salary paid out.
I live in Ottawa, and I can tell you that fans here are starting to run out of patience with tightfisted ownership. We’re not there yet, and maybe we don’t get there at all, but there’s a non-zero chance that this thing could go off the rails.
Outlook: The Senators were a disappointment last year, never really contending for a playoff spot despite being a popular preseason pick in the Atlantic. That almost cost Paul MacLean his job; the former Jack Adams winner was rumored to be on the chopping block until a late-season win streak. On paper, they’ll be even worse this year without Spezza, so the playoffs would seem like a long shot.
That said, last year’s big problem was goaltending, as both Anderson and Lehner posted their worst save percentages in years. You’d have to think at least one guy bounces back this year, and MacLean has had all summer to figure out what went wrong defensively and make the necessary adjustments. They still have the league’s best offensive defenseman in Erik Karlsson, Kyle Turris looks ready to step into a full-time first-line center role, and Mika Zibanejad seems poised for a breakout. All that could be enough to at least keep them in the race, and owner Eugene Melnyk has indicated that there could be money available if they need a boost later in the season.
Key number: Minus-79:13 — the Senators’ total power play minutes minus their total penalty kill minutes. In other words, the team was a man down far more often than they were a man up, by an average of just shy of one full minute per game. That was the worst total in the league, and was largely driven by their league-leading 379 minor penalties. The Senators don’t have a reputation as an especially tough team, but they clearly need to get their discipline under control.
Best case: Karlsson is unstoppable, the goaltending is better, Ryan has a career year (and then signs a reasonable deal), and yet another crop of young no-names emerge as viable NHL players, the way they always seem to do in Ottawa. The Senators roll back into the playoffs (and, even more important, they lead the league in the all-important Cost-Per-Point).
Worst case: They quickly fade out of the playoff race, and it becomes clear they may never be able to afford to spend anywhere close to the cap. Ryan demands Phil Kessel money, and the team dumps him at the trade deadline. The fan base shifts from “disgruntled” to “downright angry,” and the building is half empty by March.
Bold prediction: Ryan is either signed by Halloween, or he’s a ghost by March.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Last season: 46-27-9, 101 points, second in the Atlantic, lost in the first round to Montreal
Offseason report: After making a surprise leap into the top third of the standings, the Lightning continued to improve over the summer. They addressed a weak blueline by adding a pair of good defensemen in Anton Stralman and Jason Garrison, and added some experience up front in Brian Boyle and Brenden Morrow.
Outlook: The Lightning were one of last season’s best breakout stories, and they did it with a young team that has lots of room to improve. They featured a pair of Calder finalists in Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, and Jonathan Drouin may be the favorite to win it this year.6 Meanwhile, former second overall pick Victor Hedman is only 23 and has quietly evolved into one of the league’s best young defensemen.
Although he’ll miss the first few weeks with a thumb injury.
This will be the Lightning’s first full season without Martin St. Louis in more than a decade, and while Ryan Callahan gets lots of love for his intangibles, he won’t replace St. Louis’s offense. On the other hand, they’ll also presumably get a full year out of Steven Stamkos, who missed half of last season with a broken leg.
Add it all up, and the Lightning have plenty of people excited, with some preseason predictions even listing them as the favorite to come out of the East. They’re this year’s trendy team, and it’s not hard to see why. But before I jump on the bandwagon, there’s that one nagging doubt …
Key stat: 1 — career seasons in which Ben Bishop has started more than 21 games. That would be last year, of course, and he was great, posting a .924 save percentage and earning a spot as a Vezina finalist. As with Varlamov, it’s quite possible that last year signaled his arrival as one of the league’s top goaltenders.
But … it sure would be nice to see him do it for more than one year, wouldn’t it? This is a guy who bounced around the league as a backup and/or AHLer for five years before finally getting his shot in Tampa Bay. He ran with it, to his credit, and maybe he does it again — his best quality is his massive size, and it’s not like he’s suddenly going to get smaller. But there’s not much margin for error here. The Lightning replaced backup Anders Lindback, who is young and bad, with Evgeni Nabokov, who is old and bad. If Bishop regresses or gets hurt again, they’re screwed. Remember, Bishop missed the playoffs with an elbow injury last year, and the Lightning got absolutely carved up by the Canadiens.
If you’re a Lightning fan, you’re probably looking at this team and saying, “If having a Vezina finalist in goal is our weak spot, we should be OK.” I’m just not sure the Lightning’s ascension to the top of the Eastern Conference is as inevitable as everyone else seems to think it is.
Best case: Bishop is great, Stamkos scores 60, the kids look great, and Hedman enters the Norris conversation. The Lightning grab the first seed in the East, and I make a note to my future self not to overthink things.
Worst case: If Bishop isn’t great again, is it really that hard to picture this team missing the playoffs?
Bold prediction: A young and very talented Lightning team dominates the East and rolls to the Stanley Cup final … eventually. Just not this year.
San Jose Sharks
Last season: 51-22-9, 11 points, second in the Pacific, lost to the Kings in Round 1 after blowing a 3-0 series lead, and then swore that EVERYTHING WOULD CHANGE
Offseason report: Not much changed. It was kind of weird.
Outlook: Despite their promises to rebuild and become a “tomorrow team,” the Sharks will be icing more or less the same lineup that coughed up the series against the Kings. And that’s … good? I think it’s good.
Remember, despite all the hand-wringing over how their season ended, this was a 111-point team. And in the end, San Jose lost a seven-game series to the eventual champions. The Sharks are stacked with talent, they’re due for a little bit of good luck, and if they can just hold it together, they can absolutely be Cup contenders.
That “if” seems like a big one, though, because you get the sense this is a franchise that’s desperate to destroy itself. In addition to the vows to tear down and rebuild, there was the curious decision to strip Joe Thornton of the captaincy. The Sharks have plenty of good young players, so some sort of passing of the torch may be all well and good, but Thornton7 has somehow wound up as the scapegoat for the franchise’s inability to get to the final, and it’s just wrong.
And, to a lesser extent, Patrick Marleau.
The Sharks should be one of the league’s best teams during the regular season, and they’d have as good a chance at the Cup as any other once the playoffs started. But after management sent such a mixed message over the summer, you wonder how they’ll (over)react to the first little wobble along the way.
Key stat: 7 — number of times in his career that Thornton has finished in the top three in assists, including last season. Only Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe have done it more often. But sure, he’s the problem.
Best case: Stanley Cup.
Worst case: Out in the first round. Hell, I could even go for missing the playoffs, maybe by a mile. No team has a wider range of possible outcomes than this year’s Sharks.
Bold prediction: The San Jose Sharks will not lose a playoff round in May.