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
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.
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.
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.