Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Season preview, part one: The Bottom Feeders

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 year, 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.

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