Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Season preview, part two: Stuck-in-the-Middle

Yesterday, we kicked off NHL season preview week with a look at the Bottom-Feeder Division, the seven teams that aren’t likely to contend for anything beyond a high draft pick. Today, we move on to the Middle-of-the-Pack Division, featuring eight teams that should be good but aren’t likely to be much more than that.

The mushy middle is the NHL’s equivalent of a sketchy neighborhood — you can pass through on your way to where you’re going, but you don’t want to linger. Some of the teams below are headed in the wrong direction, perhaps on their way to bottoming out. Others may crack the league’s elite and become true contenders in the near future. But the ones that get stuck here — never really contending, but never earning the chance to draft a game-changer — are the ones that deserve our deepest sympathies. Time will tell whether any of these teams meet that fate.

On to today’s list …

Florida Panthers

Last season: 38-29-15, 91 points, sixth in the Atlantic, 20th overall.

Offseason report: The Panthers didn’t do much over the summer, which would normally be a bad sign for a team that missed the playoffs by seven points. But with a young core in place that should improve through experience, it may not be the worst approach.

Outlook: The Panthers are a fascinating mix of young and old. The back end is anchored by defensemen Brian Campbell, who’s 36, and Aaron Ekblad, who’s 19, in front of goaltender Roberto Luongo, who’s 36. The top line could feature Jonathan Huberdeau (22), Aleksander Barkov (20), and Jaromir Jagr (84). It’s so crazy, it just might work. But it hasn’t yet — the Panthers haven’t made the playoffs since 2012, and that was their first appearance since 2000.

Key number: 41 — Points by Bobby Orr in 1966-67, the most ever by an NHL defenseman who was 18 on opening night. Ekblad had 39 last season. He’s good.

Watchability index: 6/10. You saw the part about them having Jaromir Jagr, right?

Best case: Other than Jagr regrowing the mullet — which we’re not ruling out — Panthers fans will be looking for progress from the team’s young players. If it happens, it may be enough to get them back into the playoffs in a weak Atlantic.

Worst case: While few teams could withstand a long-term injury to a starting goaltender, it would probably be more devastating to the Panthers than most. Luongo has stayed mostly healthy over the course of his career, but most goalies eventually find at least one stray puck or rut in the ice.

Suggested slogan: Come see the superstar with the awesome hair who plays like he’s been in the league for 25 years! Oh, and when you’re done watching Ekblad, we have Jagr too.

Bold prediction: The Panthers surge all the way up to fourth in the Atlantic but still miss the playoffs when the Metro grabs both wild cards.

Winnipeg Jets

Last season: 43-26-13, 99 points, fifth in the Central and 14th overall, lost in the first round.

Offseason report: It was a quiet offseason in Winnipeg, which wasn’t much of a surprise — with the exception of last season’s Evander Kane trade with the Sabres, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has preferred to stay conservative. Winnipeg lost free agent Michael Frolik to the Flames but did bring back intriguing talent Alexander Burmistrov from the KHL.

The bigger story was what the Jets haven’t done, at least not yet: sign Andrew Ladd or Dustin Byfuglien to extensions. There’s still time — neither hits free agency until after this season — but it’s tough to predict the Jets’ future without knowing whether it includes their captain and best player.

Outlook: Everyone spent last season waiting for the Jets’ feel-good story to run out of gas, and it never did — at least until they ran into the Ducks in the playoffs. But with a stacked farm system, there’s every reason to count last season as a moral victory that could serve as a stepping-stone on the way to bigger things. Now they just have to build on it, which admittedly is easier said than done in the Central.

Key number: 521:46 — Minutes spent on the penalty kill by the Jets last season, the worst mark in the league; only one team was even within 50 minutes. It’s fair to say discipline was an issue.

Watchability index: 5/10. Unless it’s a playoff game, in which case they become a must-watch (because all other senses will be rendered useless by the noise).

Best case: They build on last season thanks to the continuing development of their young players. Byfuglien and Ladd sign reasonable deals. The goaltending is good enough, which probably means it features somebody other than Ondrej Pavelec. Jets fans get to cheer another playoff appearance, and this time it even includes some wins.

Worst case: It wouldn’t take much of a step back for the Jets to miss the postseason. It might not even take a step back at all — it’s not hard to see them making modest improvement while still getting passed by a team like the Stars or someone in the Pacific.

Suggested slogan: Uh, any chance we could go back to the Southeast Division?

Bold prediction: The Jets miss the playoffs in a tough Central. Given how many times I predicted that last season, Winnipeg fans should be high-fiving right now.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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