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2015-16 NHL Preview, Part 1: The Bottom-Feeders

In the first part of our look at the 2015-16 NHL season, we break down the seven teams already looking to next year.

With NHL training camps winding down and the regular season opening a week from tomorrow, it’s season preview time in the hockey world. Over the rest of the week, we’ll be breaking the league’s 30 teams into four divisions. We’ll look at the Contenders Division, featuring the teams that have the best shot at the Stanley Cup. We’ll cover the Middle-of-the-Pack Division, which in today’s NHL may be the worst possible place to be. And, of course, we’ll need a No-Clue Division, one that covers that handful of teams that seem to defy easy categorization while offering the widest range of possible outcomes.

But we start off today with the Bottom-Feeder Division. These are the seven teams that figure to be much closer to contending for the first overall pick in next summer’s draft than for a playoff spot.

Of course, a lot can change over an 82-game season. Last year, this section contained the two worst teams in the league, as the Sabres and Coyotes were every bit as bad as expected, perhaps even intentionally. But it also contained three teams that made the playoffs, including one, the Nashville Predators, that very nearly won the league’s best division. Chalk it up as further proof that I’m an idiot and that the NHL is harder to predict than ever in the age of salary-cap-induced parity.

Much like the NHL, we want to keep the divisions balanced, which means seven or eight teams in each one. Last year, with Connor McDavid waiting at the entry draft, that meant narrowing down the list of plausibly bad teams. But this year, with a few of those long-term also-rans moving up, we’re left with a shortage of truly terrible outlooks.

So is there a Predators on this year’s list? Quite possibly — while a few of these teams are just about sure things to be awful, some could surprise if enough factors break just right. Let’s dive in.

Arizona Coyotes

Last season: 24-50-8, 56 points, last in the Pacific and 29th overall.

Offseason report: The Coyotes’ offseason looked a lot like a typical rebuilding team’s. They drafted a stud with a high pick, in this case Dylan Strome at no. 3 overall. They shuffled a few veterans out and added a few more, none of whom are likely to have a major impact. And, in an added twist, they re-signed two free agents they’d dealt at the deadline, Antoine Vermette and Zbynek Michalek. That’s a nice trick if you can pull it off.

Oh, and they traded for Chris Pronger. So there’s that.

Outlook: The Coyotes have amassed a decent haul of prospects to go with some good young NHL talent like defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. They’re going to be good someday. That day is not today.

Key number: Minus-68 — Even-strength goal differential for the Coyotes last season, the worst in the league. (Yes, even worse than Buffalo.)

Watchability index: 3/10. Watching a team in clear rebuilding mode always sounds like more fun that it really is. You think, Cool, a bunch of young guys, let’s see how they’re doing. Then five minutes later, you go I want to watch a good team now and reach for the remote.

Best case: Auston Matthews. I mean, it’s almost too perfect, right? An honest-to-goodness future superstar, born and raised in Arizona, and he comes along right as the Coyotes are hitting rock bottom. Even the most die-hard anti-tanking zealot would be OK with the Coyotes punting the season to build their franchise around Matthews, right?

Worst case: The NHL changes the draft lottery rules to make it much harder for teams to tank for the top pick. Oh, wait, it already did.

Suggested slogan: Auston .316* says you just whupped our ass. (*That’s our projected win percentage.)

Bold prediction: The Coyotes finish last, win the lottery, and the Earth is jolted off its axis by the strength of every hockey fan yelling “Conspiracy!” in Gary Bettman’s direction all at once.

New Jersey Devils

Last season: 32-36-14, 78 points, seventh in the Metro and 25th overall.

Offseason report: Remember the end of Cocoon when all the old people pile onto a boat and sail off so they can be picked up by a friendly alien spaceship? That was pretty much the Devils’ offseason, as a long list of veterans either retired, went unsigned, or were bought out. All of that added up to the Devils now being merely “too old,” instead of “depressingly old.”

Outlook: The Devils are quite possibly in the worst shape of any team; last week, we gave them the longest odds of winning a championship in the next five years. They’re not expected to be good, either this year or in the near future, but they don’t have the sort of prospect pipeline that eases the pain of losing. That said, there is some youth here, specifically on a decent blue line built around Adam Larsson. The Devils may be starting over, but they’re not quite starting from scratch.

Key number: First — Ranking of Cory Schneider’s save percentage and goals-against average among goaltenders with at least 100 games played since 2010. Better than Henrik Lundqvist, better than Carey Price, better than Tuukka Rask. They say you build from the crease out; in at least this one area, consider the Devils built.

Watchability index: 2/10. A bad team with a goaltender good enough to keep it from getting embarrassed? Pass.

Best case: Schneider is good enough to keep them competitive, rookie coach John Hynes looks like he belongs, and new GM Ray Shero flips enough veterans for future assets that this time next year, Devils fans can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Worst case: Schneider is good enough to keep them from adding a desperately needed top prospect at the draft, but they still miss the playoffs by a mile.

Suggested slogan: Smile, Devils fans! (Since for the first time since 1987, it will not immediately result in being stabbed by our GM.)

Bold prediction: With the remaining veterans in decline and the youngsters still finding their game, the Devils finish last in goals scored.

Carolina Hurricanes

Last season: 30-41-11, 71 points, last in the Metro and 26th overall.

Offseason report: As expected, the Hurricanes made changes in the crease. But surprisingly, none of those moves involved Cam Ward, who heads into the season as the nominal starter yet again. Instead, the Canes sent Anton Khudobin to the Ducks for defenseman James Wisniewski while adding Eddie Lack from the Canucks. They also bought out underachieving free-agent bust Alexander Semin, then ripped another team’s GM for it.

Outlook: The standings say the Hurricanes should be rebuilding, and they certainly have some promising young talent in the pipeline — fifth overall pick Noah Hanifin could be this year’s Aaron Ekblad, and fellow defenseman Haydn Fleury could see time in the NHL as well. But they’ve also got a pair of highly paid veterans in Ward and Eric Staal, neither of whom has been dealt for futures despite their pending UFA status. If the Canes drop out of contention early, that subplot could be more fun to watch than the team’s actual games.

Key number: 1 — Number of seasons, over a 10-year career, in which Ward has posted a save percentage over .920. His career average is .910, and he’s been under .900 three times. The 2006 playoff run was magic, but we all need to accept that Ward is not an above-average NHL goaltender and never has been.

Watchability index: 4/10. Mostly for Hanifin, who looks like he’s going to be given tough minutes right out of the gate.

Best case: Hanifin is a Calder finalist, Fleury is almost as good, Jeff Skinner rebounds from a tough year, and they trade Staal for a boatload and Ward for something. If all of those things happen, the standings don’t really matter.

Worst case: Staal sticks around, either by exercising his no-trade clause or because GM Ron Francis punts on the tough call, and plays well enough to lead the Hurricanes to a 20th overall finish … then bolts as a free agent.

Suggested slogan: Teams that trade for Vancouver Canucks goalies go on to have lots of playoff appearances, right?

Bold prediction: Staal is dealt at the deadline to a contender in need of a top-six center,1 then returns to the Hurricanes on July 1.

Philadelphia Flyers


1.

Why yes, I do mean Montreal.

Last season: 33-31-18, 84 points, sixth in the Metro and 24th overall.

Offseason report: The roster won’t be that much different than the one that finished last season, as GM Ron Hextall largely chose to tinker rather than make sweeping changes. The biggest move came behind the bench, where Dave Hakstol takes over after 11 years in the college ranks.

Outlook: The Flyers boast one of the best duos in the NHL in Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. The latter finished fourth in scoring last season and was rewarded with a $66 million extension. That sounds like yet another case of the Flyers throwing around crazy money that they’ll eventually regret, although in this case there’s a good argument it can work. In either case, the Flyers will need their two stars scoring, since their forward depth is merely average and the blue line will have holes until some of the team’s young prospects are ready to step in. Steve Mason is back as the starting goaltender, although Michal Neuvirth is an upgrade at backup.

Key number: 11 — Shootout losses by the Flyers last season, the most in the NHL. At 3-11, no team left more points on the board in the solo skills competition than the Flyers. And that’s good news, since shootout performance tends to be largely random. With some shootout regression and a new 3-on-3 overtime format that should favor a team that can throw a combo like Giroux and Voracek out there, the Flyers should see a nice boost in post-regulation points.

Watchability index: 5/10. It will be fun to see what Hakstol brings to the table as the first coach in more than 30 years to make the jump directly from college to an NHL debut.

Best case: This season feels like a step toward contending down the road, as Hakstol gets his system in place, prospects develop, and young NHLers like Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn elevate their game. But even with one eye fixed on the future, the Flyers have enough talent to be relevant. A playoff spot certainly isn’t out of the question.

Worst case: Mason had the best season of his career last year, and it still wasn’t enough to get the Flyers near the postseason. If he regresses behind a leaky blue line, even Giroux and Voracek won’t be able to score enough to keep the team in contention.

Suggested slogan: Still figuring out which one of is going to fight Phil Kessel off the opening faceoff of the first Penguins game.

Bold prediction: A year after a disappointing 84-point season left the Flyers sixth in the Metro, they crack the 90-point mark and improve all the way to … sixth in the Metro.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Last season: 30-44-8, 68 points, seventh in the Atlantic and 27th overall.

Offseason report: The Leafs were busy, firing most of what was left of the old regime inherited by Brendan Shanahan last spring. That included GM Dave Nonis, interim coach Peter Horachek, and a big chunk of the scouting staff. Then they started hiring big names, including Mike Babcock, Lou Lamoriello, and Jacques Lemaire. Off the ice, there’s no organization in the league that boasts this much star power.

Outlook: On the ice, unfortunately, the Leafs are bringing back pretty much the same core that produced last season’s embarrassment, minus Kessel and with the addition of various cheap veterans who’ll probably end up being trade deadline bait. Dion Phaneuf is still here. So are Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul and James van Riemsdyk, not to mention goalies Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer. Long term, the organization is headed in the right direction. Short term, a bad team just got worse.

Key number: 2.02 — Even-strength points per 60 minutes for Nazem Kadri since the start of the 2012 season, second on the Leafs to Kessel’s 2.13 and by far the highest number of any player still on the roster. This is setting up to be a make-or-break season for Kadri; on talent alone, he’s clearly the team’s no. 1 center, and he still hasn’t turned 25. But character questions, which culminated in a team-imposed suspension last season, have left his place in Toronto’s long-term plans in doubt.

Watchability index: 2/10. It will be fun to see which of the Leafs’ moribund veterans Babcock can salvage, but that’s about it.

Best case: Babcock works enough magic to get the Leafs surprisingly close to .500 while restoring some legitimate trade value to most of the core, or they bottom out completely and draft another blue-chip prospect to go with future studs Mitch Marner and William Nylander.

Worst case: Right in the middle of those two best-case scenarios: They win just enough games to be respectable and convince management they can do this rebuild with a surgical scalpel instead of a wrecking ball.2


2.

Bonus worst case: They make that horrifically dumb Travis Zajac trade that’s been rumored lately, proving that Lamoriello really is calling all the shots now instead of just being the veteran mentor to a young front office.

Suggested slogan: In Year 2 of a five-year rebuild since 1968.

Bold prediction: They’re not as bad as everyone expects and don’t end up seriously contending for last place overall. But they’re not good, and at least a half-dozen players from the opening-night roster have been traded for futures by March.

Colorado Avalanche

Last season: 39-31-12, 90 points, seventh in the Central and 21st overall.

Offseason report: The Avs’ biggest offseason move was trading center Ryan O’Reilly to Buffalo for picks and prospects. Conventional wisdom says the team that gives up the best player loses the trade, but an O’Reilly deal had been expected for so long that Colorado’s haul actually seemed like an impressive bit of work by Avalanche GM Joe Sakic. They also traded for Carl Soderberg, and signed veteran defenseman Francois Beauchemin to a deal that wasn’t well-received.

Outlook: Remember that question about which team on today’s list could be last season’s Predators? Here’s your best candidate. The Avs have a ton of young talent, most of it just entering its prime, and they’ve supplemented that with several veteran free-agent signings. And let’s not forget that goalie Semyon Varlamov has been very good over the past two seasons. They’re still just one year removed from a 112-point season, and while anyone who paid attention to the numbers knew that year wasn’t a realistic representation of what the Avalanche are, it was still a reminder this team can be dangerous when everything goes right. You can’t say that about every team on today’s list.

Key number: 43.6 percent — The Avs’ even-strength Corsi last season, worse than any team in the league that was actually trying.3 Colorado’s terrible possession numbers in 2013-14 were Exhibit A in the case against the team being for real, and it was even worse last season. Either Patrick Roy fixes this or the Avalanche are also-rans again.


3.

But still better than Buffalo’s.

Watchability index: 8/10 — There’s a ton of star power, most of it young, and you never know when that’s going to add up to something crazy. Oh, and speaking of crazy, their coach is completely nuts and might randomly climb over the glass to fight the other team’s backup goalie.

Best case: Remember two years ago? Imagine something almost as good.

Worst case: Remember one year ago? Imagine something far worse.

Suggested slogan: Guaranteed to make you say “Wait, they still have Alex Tanguay?” at least once per game.

Bold prediction: Another rough year leads to a flood of midseason “Would Sakic ever fire Roy?” speculation, which is going to be freaking fascinating.

Vancouver Canucks

Last season: 48-29-5, 101 points, second in the Pacific and eighth overall, lost in the first round.

Offseason report: The Canucks unloaded two popular players in late June, sending defenseman Kevin Bieksa to Anaheim and goalie Eddie Lack to Carolina. They also flipped Nick Bonino to the Penguins as part of a package for Brandon Sutter. It’s fair to say the critics were not impressed.

Outlook: A 101-point team in the bottom tier? Hey, Canucks fans already hate me after last week, so I might as well go all in.

On paper, the Canucks are almost certainly worse than last season’s surprise squad. Neither Lack nor Bieksa brought back any immediate help, and they overpaid (both in terms of assets and contract) for Sutter. The offense is still top-heavy, relying on the Sedin twins and Radim Vrbata, all of whom are 34 or older — nobody else on the team cracked 40 points last season. Add in Ryan Miller, a 35-year-old goaltender with a big contract coming off a rough year, and the roster starts looking dangerously creaky. There’s some youth worth watching here, most notably Bo Horvat, but not enough.

Key number: 11 – Full seasons that Willie Desjardins has been a head coach over the course of his career in the WHL, AHL, and NHL. Also: Total number of playoff appearances for Willie Desjardins, who apparently does not enjoy having time off in the spring.

Watchability index: 5/10. Good or bad, the Sedins are always fun.

Best case: Last year was pretty much it. It’s possible the team could get there again if Horvat breaks out, all the veteran skaters can maintain their level of play, and either Miller stays healthy or backup Jacob Markstrom shows he can finally make an impact at the NHL level. That’s a lot of ifs.

Worst case: If the Sedins ever hit a wall and see their production plunge — and let’s face it, if they do, they’re going to do it at the exact same time — the Canucks could free-fall down the standings.

Suggested slogan: This entire preview is the result of East Coast media bias.

Bold prediction: The Canucks start strong and I get this post emailed back to me by roughly 10,000 Vancouver fans. But by the end of the season, they’ve missed the playoffs by double-digit points.