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2015-16 NHL Preview, Part 3: The No-Clue Division

In the third part of our 2015-16 NHL season preview, we look at the teams that are the hardest to figure out.

We’re now six sleeps away from the start of the NHL season, not to mention halfway through our preview week. On Tuesday we looked at the league’s bottom-feeders; yesterday it was the middle of the pack.

That leaves us with the best of the best, the league’s true contenders. So if your favorite team wasn’t mentioned in either of the last two articles, congratulations! You guys are in for a great … oh, wait. The Contenders Division doesn’t come until tomorrow. We’ve got one more division to go before we get there, and it’s the group that’s usually the most fun: the No-Clue Division.

These are the eight teams that are the hardest to figure out and have the widest range of possible outcomes. Out of the playoffs by Christmas? Sure. Stanley Cup contenders? Why not. Traded to the KHL for future considerations? Highly unlikely and technically illegal, but nobody’s entirely ruling it out.

This is always my favorite article to write, because it’s the only one where I can’t end up being embarrassingly wrong. Lower those expectations far enough and you won’t be disappointed. Gosh, this must be how the Oilers feel every year. Speaking of whom …

Edmonton Oilers

Last season: 24-44-14, 62 points, sixth in the Pacific and 28th overall.

Offseason report: They traded for Cam Talbot, the latest in a long line of candidates who’ll try to provide passable goaltending behind the Oilers’ leaky blue line. They tried to address that blue line by signing Andrej Sekera to a big free-agent deal. They said goodbye to Martin Marincin and Viktor Fasth.

What else, what else … oh, right, they won the draft lottery and picked the best player to enter the NHL in a decade. Connor McDavid changed everything in Edmonton, so much so that the team quickly cleaned house and brought in Peter Chiarelli and Todd McLellan.

Outlook: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but it really does feel like a new era in Edmonton. McDavid is as close to a sure thing as any prospect could be, the sort of franchise player that usually results in a Stanley Cup or two down the road. That road may be a long one for the Oilers, who still have plenty of the same holes that plagued last year’s team, but McDavid, Sekera, and Talbot alone should be enough to move the team out of the league’s basement district. And if McDavid stars right away and Talbot is a legit starter, a playoff hunt isn’t entirely out of the question.

Key number: 5-14-6-1 — Recognize this? No? Oilers fans do.

Watchability index: 8/10. McDavid will be must-see TV as a rookie, but there’s other talent on display here. This could be the year Taylor Hall finally breaks through into the “best wingers in the league” conversation, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins also seems poised for a big year. With that blue line and a question mark in goal, the Oilers should produce plenty of highlights at both ends of the ice.

Best case: McDavid has a rookie year like Sidney Crosby’s in 2005-06, Hall cracks the 30-goal mark for the first time and then pushes for 40, Talbot is the real deal, and Sekera stabilizes the defense. The Oilers grab the last playoff spot and host a postseason game for the first time in a decade.

Worst case: McDavid has a 50-point season that’s perfectly reasonable but feels like a letdown, Talbot is this year’s Dubnyk/Scrivens/Fasth-style goaltending disappointment, and the rest of the roster reminds us all why they were terrible last year. The Oilers are a bottom-five team yet again, as their fans rock back and forth in the fetal position on the floor.

Suggested slogan: Hey, what’s the worst that could happen? Don’t answer that.

Bold prediction: The Oilers are better, but the playoffs have to wait. They post their best point total since 2006, but that tops out at a whopping 89.

Nashville Predators

Last season: 47-25-10, 104 points, second in the Central and sixth overall, lost in the first round.

Offseason report: The Predators made a series of minor moves, but the roster won’t look all that much different than last year’s. Centers Mike Fisher and Mike Ribeiro both re-signed, and free agents Barret Jackman and Cody Hodgson were added.

Outlook: The Predators were last season’s biggest surprise, making the leap from also-ran to Presidents’ Trophy contender seemingly overnight. Maybe we should have seen that coming; good goaltending can fix just about anything, and Pekka Rinne returned to full health after missing most of 2013-14. Rinne’s return, the addition of James Neal, a breakout season from rookie Filip Forsberg, and a very good young blue line propelled the Preds to one of the league’s best season-long stories.

So can they do it again? A lot of that will ride on Rinne, and there are some concerning signs the big Finn could be wearing down. He missed three weeks with a knee injury suffered in January, and his numbers were down substantially after he returned — he posted save percentages of .927, .938, and .935 in the first three months of the season, but he went .910, .919, .914, and .863 in the four months after that. At 32, he’s not what you would call an old goalie, but he’s at that age where guys tend to start their decline.

If Rinne falters, the Predators could find it tough to produce enough offense to make up the difference. Their reputation as a low-scoring team isn’t exactly fair — they were 13th in goals last year — but there’s not much in way of star power up front. You’d have to think Neal will do better than his 37-point campaign, and Forsberg and Roman Josi are young enough to expect improvement. But when you’re counting on a 35-year-old Ribeiro as your no. 1 center, you’re not exactly working with a huge margin for error.

Key number: 28 — Home wins by the Predators, the second-highest total in the league. They’ll get an extra chance to play host this season, as the All-Star Game comes to Nashville in January.

Watchability index: 7/10. We haven’t mentioned Shea Weber yet, but the captain is often worth the price of admission on his own. Mix in a little Seth Jones, and you’re golden. Or mustard-colored, or whatever that’s supposed to be.

Best case: The offense gets a little better, Rinne is back to his usual self (and healthy), Forsberg picks up where he left off, and the Predators challenge for the division title again. And this time, they don’t cough it up in the final week.

Worst case: Rinne declines, the kids are inconsistent, and the offense just can’t produce enough to keep up. The Predators don’t plummet, but they follow in the footsteps of last year’s Avalanche as Central Division one-year wonders.

Suggested slogan: We apologize in advance for subjecting our fans to an NHL All-Star Game.

Bold prediction: The Predators produce a Norris finalist yet again, but this time it’s Josi, not Weber.

New York Islanders

Last season: 47-28-7, 101 points, third in the Metro and ninth overall, lost in the first round.

Offseason report: The Islanders mostly stood pat, making a series of small moves that were highlighted by an upgraded backup goaltender (Thomas Greiss). They were busy at the draft, continuing to stockpile prospects, but that won’t have an impact this year.

Oh, and they moved to Brooklyn, where fans will get views like this. The old Nassau Coliseum would have needed a major upgrade to qualify as a dump, but there’s at least a chance the atmosphere at the Barclays Center could be an issue.

Outlook: With excellent forwards, a good-enough blue line, and goaltending that will probably be fine, the Islanders seem poised to take another step forward and perhaps join the league’s elite. It won’t come easy in a top-heavy Metro, but the talent is there.

Key number: $5.5 million – John Tavares’s cap hit for each of the next three seasons. One of the very best players in the game makes a few bucks a week more than David Clarkson. This will never stop be amazing to me.

Watchability index: 7/10. Consider this an average — the Isles could be a 9/10 if Barclays is rocking for its brand-new tenants, or a 5/10 if it takes Brooklyn a while to warm up to hockey.

Best case: Tavares is a Hart candidate once again and drags the team to first place in the Metro and a long playoff run.

Worst case: They’re still good, but nothing quite clicks like it did last year and Jaroslav Halak can’t hold it together. They let the Blue Jackets sneak up and knock them out of the top four, and it’s suddenly life-and-death just to make the playoffs.

Suggested slogan: [Miscellaneous hipster joke you’ve already heard 400 variations of.]

Bold prediction: We finally get an Islanders-Rangers playoff matchup for the first time in 20-plus years. OK, fine, I said that last year too. But I was almost right then, so I’m doubling down.

Dallas Stars

Last season: 41-31-10, 92 points, sixth in the Central and 19th overall.

Offseason report: It was the offseason, so it goes without saying that GM Jim Nill was out there making big moves. This summer, that meant trading for Patrick Sharp and signing Johnny Oduya, both members of last year’s Blackhawks, while adding Antti Niemi to push for the starting goaltending job.

Outlook: Last year’s team ranked second in goals scored. Even if we assume that Jamie Benn won’t win another Art Ross and that Jason Spezza’s production could start to wane, an extra year of development for Tyler Seguin, the addition of Sharp, and the return of a healthy Valeri Nichushkin means the Stars offense could be even better.

Of course, there’s another end of the ice, and it was a problem for the Stars last year, when they ranked 26th in goals allowed. The blue line should be better with Oduya, although the Sharp trade cost them Trevor Daley. But the big change is in goal, where Niemi will spell (and could eventually supplant) Kari Lehtonen. Will that fix the crease issues? For a combined $10.4 million cap hit, it had better.

Key number: 23 — Points earned by the Stars in 29 games against Central Division opponents. Their 8-14-7 record was by far the worst in the division, with every other team averaging better than a point per game.1 If they’d managed to record just 30 points within the division, which still would have been tied for last, they’d have made the playoffs.


1.

If that sounds weird, remember that the NHL’s idiotic loser point skews everything about the standings.

Watchability index: 10/10. Plenty of goals at both ends, tons of skill, and the outside chance of seeing a sneaky Cup contender emerge right before our eyes. There may not be a team that’s more fun to watch.

Best case: They lead the league in goals, get the defensive side under control, and challenge for first place in the Central.

Worst case: They lead the league in goals allowed, the offense slips, and they challenge for last place in the Central.

Suggested slogan: We hired an auctioneer to be the PA guy so we could occasionally get one goal announcement done before the next one starts.

Bold prediction: The Stars don’t just make the playoffs, they have home ice in the opening round. Yes, I’ve been suckered in. Yes, again.

St. Louis Blues

Last season: 51-24-7, 109 points, first in the Central and fourth overall, lost in the first round … again.

Offseason report: With everyone expecting them to press the button marked “Detonate,” the Blues were surprisingly quiet. They traded T.J. Oshie to Washington, which was no small move. But they didn’t fire Ken Hitchcock, or go after a new goalie, or pull off a big-time shake-it-up blockbuster. They did give Vladimir Tarasenko $60 million, because after last year, who wouldn’t?

Outlook: It seems like it was just last week that somebody was describing the Blues this way: “It feels like we know what they are: a very good regular-season team that’s stalled out just short of joining the league’s elite.” So if we know what they are, how can they wind up in the No-Clue Division?

Well, here’s the thing. We’re 90 percent sure we know what the Blues are. They’re going to have 100 points, finish third in the Central, lose in the first round, and then fire Hitchcock and start over. We’re all nodding right now. Except … what if they don’t? Is anything really out of the question? In fact, let’s screw up the order of operations here and go straight to…

Best case: This team could absolutely win the Cup, right?

Worst case: They could absolutely have a rough opening month, fire Hitchcock by Halloween, and get snowballed right into last place in the Central, couldn’t they?

Neither of those is likely. But they’re both completely plausible.

Key number: .923 — Brian Elliott’s save percentage since 2011, the year he joined the Blues. That’s good for fourth in the NHL over that time, ahead of guys like Carey Price, Jonathan Quick, and Braden Holtby. I mean … are we sure Elliott isn’t a pretty good goalie? The Blues are clearly sure, which is why they do something ridiculous with their goaltending every year. But can we at least have the conversation about him maybe being good? No? OK, just checking.

Watchability index: 5/10. They’re going to be a fascinating team to follow. I’m not sure they’ll be all that fun to watch. There’s a difference.

Suggested slogan: We were the Sharks before the Sharks were the Sharks.

Bold prediction: After an up-and-down roller coaster of a season, the Blues finish … third. Huh. Maybe we knew what they were after all.

Boston Bruins

Last season: 41-27-14, 96 points, fifth in the Atlantic and 17th overall.

Offseason report: After replacing Peter Chiarelli as GM, Don Sweeney got to work. The results were, um, interesting. The big moves were sending Dougie Hamilton to the Flames and Milan Lucic to the Kings, which resulted in Boston owning three consecutive first-round picks. He added Matt Beleskey via free agency and Zac Rinaldo via trade.

Oh, and he also didn’t fire Claude Julien, despite everyone expecting him to. Got to save something for the regular season, I guess.

Outlook: The Bruins are headed in the wrong direction. I can’t imagine that anyone disputes that. After winning the Cup in 2011 and nearly doing it again in 2013, they’re coming off a year where they missed the playoffs, so the trend line is fairly obvious. The question is how fast they’re dropping, and when and where they hit bottom and start the climb back. They’re probably not there yet, which could mean more pain to come. The loss of Hamilton and Lucic makes them worse in the short term, even if those picks could add up to something down the road.

And yet … this is a team that was only two points away from the playoffs. That was with Zdeno Chara missing a big chunk of time and Tuukka Rask looking merely good instead of his usual excellence. With better years from their top guys and a good bounce here or there, it’s not impossible to imagine the Bruins squeezing back into the playoffs, even as they continue to deteriorate.

(But it’s also not impossible to imagine it all going to hell, and the Bruins free-falling out of contention altogether.)

Key number: 38 — Chara’s age heading into this season. The track record of defensemen that age putting up strong seasons is not great. It does happen, but unless your name is Lidstrom, Bourque, or Chelios, it’s rare.

Watchability index: 4/10. The curiosity factor will be high, and there’s always the chance they’ll start pummeling each other on the bench, but you’ll probably have better options most nights.

Best case: Chara is healthy, Rask wins another Vezina, Torey Krug becomes the new Hamilton, and Sweeney is able to patch up the blue line early in the season. The Bruins put up 100 points and cruise back into the playoffs, and we all realize that last year was a blip.

Worst case: The blue line is awful, Chara’s hurt again, Rask takes another step back, Beleskey is a bust, Julien gets fired, and their playoff chances are toast by November. And that’s when things really start to get ugly.

Suggested slogan: Still like 60 percent confident that Cam Neely knows that he’s doing.

Bold prediction: The big collapse doesn’t come, but neither does the big rebound. The Bruins drift through the year, finish fifth in the Atlantic, and then head into the offseason wondering what comes next.

Los Angeles Kings

Last season: 40-27-15, 95 points, fourth in the Pacific and 18th overall.

Offseason report: The Kings’ big move was adding Milan Lucic in a deal that cost them backup goalie Martin Jones and futures. Lucic should be a great fit in L.A., although with this being the final year of his deal, he’ll need an extension that the cap-strapped Kings may struggle to afford. The Kings also said goodbye to several contributors: Justin Williams and Andrej Sekera left via free agency, Slava Voynov headed back to Europe after serving time for domestic violence, and Mike Richards had his contract terminated (a move that the NHLPA is contesting).

One thing the Kings didn’t do: Extend Anze Kopitar, their franchise center who’s scheduled to hit free agency next summer.

Outlook: Nobody seems to believe the Kings were as bad as they showed last year, and just about everyone has them penciled in for a playoff spot. There’s just too much talent here, and the addition of Lucic to the first line should be enough of a boost to push them back to contender status. The big question is whether they can get back to Cup favorite status.

Key number: .931 — Jonathan Quick’s even-strength save percentage since becoming a full-time starter in 2009, ranking him just 11th among goalies with at least 3,000 minutes over that time. The debate of whether Quick is an elite goaltender or just a merely good one playing behind an elite defense has been well-covered. Kings fans will point to his two Cup rings and rest their case, and many in the hockey world seem to agree. But the skeptics are still out there, and the numbers seem to back their case.

Watchability index: 8/10. At their best, the Kings are a machine — one that seems to have been set for a slightly higher speed than everyone else.

Best case: Another Stanley Cup. They’ve got the talent, the coaching, and the experience. And this year, they’ve even got some extra offseason rest. Nobody would be shocked to see the Kings joining the Blackhawks in the cap-era three-timers club.

Worst case: On the ice, it’s tough to poke holes in the Kings chances. Off the ice … well, it hasn’t been a good year, and while the Kings are taking steps to clean up their mess, I don’t think we just give them the benefit of the doubt that everything is back to business as usual. There have also been reports of players turning on Darryl Sutter. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where things spiral out of control in L.A.

Suggested slogan: Working hard to give you more reasons to hate us than just “they employ Dustin Brown.”

Bold prediction: The Kings-Ducks second-round series is the best one of the playoffs.

Buffalo Sabres

Last season: 23-51-8, 54 points, eighth in the Atlantic and last overall.

Offseason report: The Sabres went into the offseason with almost an entire roster’s worth of holes to fill, and they were able to plug a few. They acquired Robin Lehner to be their new starting goaltender and Ryan O’Reilly to (at least temporarily) become their first-line center. Dan Bylsma was a great choice to take over behind the bench, and Cody Franson was a bargain pickup who could play on the top pairing. And while he wasn’t an offseason addition, a healthy Evander Kane will also be making his Sabres debut this year.

But the biggest moment of the Sabres’ summer came at the draft, when they used the second overall pick on blue-chip prospect Jack Eichel. He may not be Connor McDavid, but he’s not far off, and he will be the piece that the Sabres build around for the next decade or two.

Outlook: The Sabres weren’t just bad last year — they were historically bad, by almost any measure you can come up with. Maybe that was all part of a long-term plan, and they may have improved as much as any team in the league, but it’s important to remember how far the Sabres have to climb.

So that said … how far can they climb? The playoffs seem like a long shot, and even getting into the race will be a challenge. Everything would have to break just right for the Sabres to make any noise at all; otherwise, it’s another transition year.

Key number: 36.0 percent – The Sabres’ even-strength, score-adjusted Corsi last season, meaning the other team had the puck almost twice as much as they did. That’s not just the worst mark in the league; it’s the worst mark of the past decade2 by more than 5 percentage points. And the 2014-15 Sabres took over the top spot on the all-time worst list from … the 2013-14 Sabres. Like we said, lots of work left to do.


2.

And probably beyond, but we only have data from the cap era to work with.

Watchability index: 6/10. It will be fun to see what Eichel can do, and to find out how quickly Bylsma can start making progress on turning this group into a contender. But you’re going to be watching a lot of losses.

Best case: Eichel is an instant superstar, Lehner shines, Kane hits the 30-goal mark, and Bylsma finds a way to improve the possession mess. The Sabres stay in the playoff hunt into the second half, by which point they’ve become the feel-good story of the league. With just about everyone rooting them on and the city of Buffalo going crazy, they ride that momentum all the way into the postseason.

Worst case: They’re miles better than last year, which is enough to move them all the way up from 30th to 29th.

Suggested slogan: Keep your eyes on the prize. (The prize is the thought of Tim Murray giving a Stanley Cup parade speech.)

Bold prediction: The Sabres’ return to respectability happens much more quickly than anyone expects, so much so that they make it all the way back to the playoffs … next year.