Monday, September 29, 2014

Season preview, part one: The Bottom Feeders

Welcome to Grantland’s annual NHL preview, in which we run through all four divisions in an attempt to figure out what to expect from the league’s 30 teams.

By “all four divisions,” of course, we don’t mean the league’s actual four divisions — the Atlantic, Metropolitan, Pacific, and Central. That would be boring. Instead, we’re dividing the league into four more suitable groups. Today we’ll look at the bottom feeders, tomorrow we’ll cover the middle of the pack, on Wednesday we’ll look at the top Cup contenders, and then on Thursday we’ll wrap up with the teams that nobody can figure out.

First up is the bottom feeders, the group of seven teams most likely to be challenging for last place overall. In a normal year that would be a bad thing, since abject incompetence on and off the ice isn’t exactly something to be proud of. But this year comes with the promise of a nifty consolation prize or two: Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, a pair of draft-eligible forwards who some think could be the best prospects to enter the league since Sidney Crosby.1

The new draft lottery system guarantees the 30th overall team a top-two pick, so if you were going to finish dead last, this would be the year to do it. In no particular order, here are the seven teams with the best chance to earn that, um, honor.

Florida Panthers

Last season: 29-45-8, 66 points, finished 29th overall, missed playoffs

Offseason report: We’d might as well start with the team that won last year’s draft lottery thanks to an ugly season and some Ping-Pong ball luck. The Panthers followed the season up by being uncharacteristically busy in free agency, thanks partly to new ownership and partly to that pesky salary floor. The Dave Bolland signing was pretty much universally mocked as a staggering overpay, but they also added some solid players in Willie Mitchell and Jussi Jokinen, and they didn’t lose any major contributors aside from Tom Gilbert.

Oh, and they used that first overall pick and took Aaron Ekblad, who was somehow eligible even though he’s clearly 32 years old. He’s expected to make the opening-night lineup, although it’s rare for an 18-year-old defenseman to have much impact.

Outlook: The Panthers were awful last year; only the Sabres had fewer goals scored or a worse differential, and only the Oilers gave up more goals. Florida will get a full season from Roberto Luongo, which should address the goals-against problem, and 19-year-old Aleksander Barkov has the raw talent to help on the offensive side. And the free agents should help — even Bolland, who’s a useful player even if his contract is ridiculous.

So they’ll be better this year; it would be hard not to be. But that may not be saying much, because they’re miles away from contending.

Key stat: 10.0 percent — Florida’s power-play efficiency last year, worst in the league by far. Everyone else managed at least 14 percent. The Panthers were also dead last on the penalty kill.

Best case: Barkov is the breakout story of the year, Ekblad wins the Calder, Luongo reminds everyone that he’s one of the very best goalies of our generation, and Bolland sprinkles the locker room with some of that magic winner dust that the Maple Leafs spent all of last year insisting he had. Fellow Atlantic teams like Toronto, Detroit, Ottawa, and Buffalo all stumble, and suddenly the Panthers are wild-card contenders.

Worst case: Everything unfolds pretty much the same way it did last year, the free agents are all busts, Ekblad needs a year to adjust to the pro game, and Luongo never quite recovers from the emotional devastation of this. Then they don’t win the lottery because they used up all their karma last year.

Bold prediction: The Panthers are better than most expect, hanging tough in the playoff race right up until the 75-game mark, at which point they’re considerate enough to step aside and let the good teams duke it out.

Carolina Hurricanes

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

Offseason report: The summer was a relatively quiet one in terms of player moves, as the team mostly tinkered with the roster and failed to find a taker for Cam Ward and his $6.3 million contract.

But it did feature a shakeup behind the bench and in the front office, with Bill Peters in as coach and Ron Francis in as GM. Neither man has held that job at the NHL level, but Peters spent three years working under Mike Babcock in Detroit and Francis is a franchise legend who should get a long honeymoon period.

Outlook: An organization that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2009 seems to be entering a transition phase, and there’s little reason to think they’ll be any good this year. The roster was already thin on talent before losing Jordan Staal, who fractured his fibula during a preseason game and could miss four months. Eric Staal can still be dominant, but he turns 30 next month and hasn’t topped 80 points since 2008. You never know what you’re going to get from Alex Semin, and Jeff Skinner has yet to top the point-per-game average he put up as an 18-year-old in 2010-11.

There’s some talent here, but it’s not hard to imagine the whole thing going south in a hurry. And if it does, will Francis shift into full-fledged rebuild mode and start moving veterans?

Key stat: 1 — rank of Carolina’s Anton Khudobin in career save percentage among the 69 goaltenders who’ve played at least 50 games since 2009. Small sample size, sure — he’s played only 57 games in that time, bounced around three teams, and last year was the first time in his career that he was a starter for any length of time. But there’s at least a chance that the Hurricanes have found a hidden gem here.

Best case: Khudobin is a late-blooming stud in the Tim Thomas/Dominik Hasek mode, Eric Staal looks strong, Skinner has a career year, and Andrej Sekera shows that last year’s breakout was no fluke. The Hurricanes challenge for a playoff spot, and even get a midseason gift when some team that’s lost its own goalie to injury panics and takes Ward off their hands.

Worst case: Khudobin is just OK and the Hurricanes are in the mix for last place. By midseason, the Eric Staal trade watch is on.

Bold prediction: Carolina finishes in last place in the Metro by double-digit points.

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