Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Season preview, part two: The middle of the pack

Yesterday, we kicked off NHL season preview week with a look at the bottom-feeder division — the league’s truly hopeless teams. Today we’re moving up the standings, with what we’re calling the Stuck-in-the-Middle Division. These are the teams that are good, but not great — they’re not quite Stanley Cup contenders, but each should be right in the middle of the playoff race.

Some of the teams we’ll be covering today are passing through this section on their way to bigger and better things, while others are tracking in the opposite direction. And a few are in what may well be the worst possible situation an NHL team can find itself in: stuck in no-man’s-land, not really good enough to contend but never quite bad enough to land the sort of high draft pick who could turn into a franchise player. Spend more than a season or two in that zone and it can take a franchise years to recover.

Here’s hoping that none of today’s squads meets that sort of ugly fate. These are the eight teams that should be in the mix this year, but probably won’t be around once the big trophy comes out. And yes, you may notice a theme today, as one of the league’s divisions ends up dominating the list.

Minnesota Wild

Last season: 43-27-12, 98 points, earned a wild-card playoff berth, then upset the top-seeded Avalanche in the first round before being eliminated by the Blackhawks

Offseason report: Two years after landing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the Wild jumped back into the free-agency pool by making winger Thomas Vanek their big acquisition. He came a little cheaper than those two other guys, clocking in at just under $20 million on a three-year deal.

Outlook: The Wild were a 98-point team last year despite a difficult goaltending situation.1 With Vanek in the top six and some better luck on the health front, there’s every reason to think that they should be even better this year.

And yet … it’s still tough to get excited about the Wild, given that they’re stuck in the league’s toughest division. To win the Cup, they’ll have to get through the Blackhawks, Blues, Avs, and Stars just to make it out of the Central and earn the right to face whoever emerges from the almost-as-tough Pacific. That’s an awfully tough road, even for a team that should threaten the 100-point mark.

Key number: 2 minutes, 20 seconds — the gap between Suter’s league-leading 29:24 of average ice time and the next-most-used player. The poor guy should be exhausted, but he doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of it.

Best case: One of the goalies stays healthy all season,2 Vanek helps jump-start the offense, and Suter continues to be a machine. The Wild make the sort of leap that one good team seems to make every year, spending the season going toe-to-toe with the Hawks and Blues for the division crown.

Worst case: After another year of scrambling for a wild-card spot, it becomes clear a team that spent like a Stanley Cup contender has failed to reach that level.

Bold prediction: Despite all the attention that the big-money guys get, 22-year-old Mikael Granlund emerges as the breakout star and leads the team in scoring.

New Jersey Devils

Last season: 35-29-18, 88 points, 10th in the East, missed playoffs

Offseason report: Their biggest acquisition was Mike Cammalleri, who signed a five-year, $25 million deal. That seems like it may be on the high side for a 32-year-old, until you remember that for this roster, adding Cammalleri will seem like a youth movement.

They also parted ways with Martin Brodeur, handing the full-time starter’s job to Cory Schneider.3 After years of splitting time with Roberto Luongo in Vancouver and Brodeur last year, this will be the 28-year-old Schneider’s first NHL season as an undisputed starter.

Outlook: The Devils fell out of the mix quickly last year and never really recovered, despite a late push to get within shouting distance of a playoff spot. And they’re an old team that relies heavily on declining guys like Jaromir Jagr (42) and Patrik Elias (38), so in theory we should expect them to be even worse this year.

But despite that, there’s reason to believe that they’re better than we all think. They were a very good possession team last year, which would normally translate to a playoff spot. It didn’t for the Devils because they gave up too many goals, and most of that falls on Brodeur.4 With him gone and Schneider starting 60-plus games, that problem appears to be solved. And despite the goaltending, New Jersey still would have made the playoffs if not for a fluke of bad luck that we’ll cover in the next section.

Key number: 0-13 — the Devils’ absurd record in shootouts last year, an unprecedented level of futility that morphed into outright comedy as the season went on. Shootouts are basically coin flips, and if the Devils had gone even 5-8 they would have been in the playoffs.

Best case: Schneider takes his long-overdue opportunity and runs with it, providing Vezina-level goaltending. The older stars keep churning for another year, the kids hold their own, the shootout luck evens out, and the Devils cruise to a mid-90s point total and an easy Metro playoff spot.

Worst case: Schneider struggles out of the gate, then has to hear whispers about Brodeur all season long. Meanwhile, the old guys start their inevitable decline, and the Devils plunge toward the bottom of the Metro.

Bold prediction: In their season opener next Thursday, the Devils beat the Flyers in a shootout.

Detroit Red Wings

Last season: 39-28-15, Eastern Conference wild card, lost in the first round

Offseason report: After years of being big players in free agency, the Wings were largely shut out this year, failing to make a major improvement to a blue line that desperately needs it. And perhaps their biggest offseason move was the one they didn’t make: re-signing coach Mike Babcock. He enters the season with just one year left on his deal, and plenty of speculation that he’s looking for a new challenge elsewhere.

Outlook: The Red Wings are really old. Key contributors like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, and Niklas Kronwall are all well into their thirties, and the team is still mulling the return of 41-year-old Daniel Alfredsson.

The Red Wings are also kind of young. Breakout star Gustav Nyquist leads a group of players that are just entering their prime, giving the Red Wings yet another generation of potential stars. That mix of young and old makes it hard to nail this team down — they could go in a few different directions.

Key number: 18.3 — Nyquist’s shooting percentage last year, which is Steven Stamkos territory. Nyquist certainly has the sort of talent that would lead you to expect him to put up a decent number in this category. But he was just a 6.1 percent shooter in 40 career games before last season, so it seems fair to assume we’ll see a drop this year.

Best case: The old guys stay healthy, the young guys take another step, the normally dependable Jimmy Howard rebounds from an off year, and the Wings return to quasi-contender status.

Worst case: Age and injuries wreak havoc once again, Howard struggles, and Babcock’s status becomes a running sideshow as the Wings finally miss the playoffs for the first time in 25 years.

Bold prediction: Nyquist plays a full season after being limited to just 57 games last year, but fails to improve on his 28 goals.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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