Thursday, October 1, 2015

Season preview, part three: The No-Clue Division

We’re now six sleeps away from the start of the NHL season, not to mention halfway through our preview week. On Tuesday we looked at the league’s bottom-feeders; yesterday it was the middle of the pack.

That leaves us with the best of the best, the league’s true contenders. So if your favorite team wasn’t mentioned in either of the last two articles, congratulations! You guys are in for a great … oh, wait. The Contenders Division doesn’t come until tomorrow. We’ve got one more division to go before we get there, and it’s the group that’s usually the most fun: the No-Clue Division.

These are the eight teams that are the hardest to figure out and have the widest range of possible outcomes. Out of the playoffs by Christmas? Sure. Stanley Cup contenders? Why not. Traded to the KHL for future considerations? Highly unlikely and technically illegal, but nobody’s entirely ruling it out.

This is always my favorite article to write, because it’s the only one where I can’t end up being embarrassingly wrong. Lower those expectations far enough and you won’t be disappointed. Gosh, this must be how the Oilers feel every year. Speaking of whom …

Edmonton Oilers

Last season: 24-44-14, 62 points, sixth in the Pacific and 28th overall.

Offseason report: They traded for Cam Talbot, the latest in a long line of candidates who’ll try to provide passable goaltending behind the Oilers’ leaky blue line. They tried to address that blue line by signing Andrej Sekera to a big free-agent deal. They said goodbye to Martin Marincin and Viktor Fasth.

What else, what else … oh, right, they won the draft lottery and picked the best player to enter the NHL in a decade. Connor McDavid changed everything in Edmonton, so much so that the team quickly cleaned house and brought in Peter Chiarelli and Todd McLellan.

Outlook: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but it really does feel like a new era in Edmonton. McDavid is as close to a sure thing as any prospect could be, the sort of franchise player that usually results in a Stanley Cup or two down the road. That road may be a long one for the Oilers, who still have plenty of the same holes that plagued last year’s team, but McDavid, Sekera, and Talbot alone should be enough to move the team out of the league’s basement district. And if McDavid stars right away and Talbot is a legit starter, a playoff hunt isn’t entirely out of the question.

Key number: 5-14-6-1 — Recognize this? No? Oilers fans do.

Watchability index: 8/10. McDavid will be must-see TV as a rookie, but there’s other talent on display here. This could be the year Taylor Hall finally breaks through into the “best wingers in the league” conversation, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins also seems poised for a big year. With that blue line and a question mark in goal, the Oilers should produce plenty of highlights at both ends of the ice.

Best case: McDavid has a rookie year like Sidney Crosby’s in 2005-06, Hall cracks the 30-goal mark for the first time and then pushes for 40, Talbot is the real deal, and Sekera stabilizes the defense. The Oilers grab the last playoff spot and host a postseason game for the first time in a decade.

Worst case: McDavid has a 50-point season that’s perfectly reasonable but feels like a letdown, Talbot is this year’s Dubnyk/Scrivens/Fasth-style goaltending disappointment, and the rest of the roster reminds us all why they were terrible last year. The Oilers are a bottom-five team yet again, as their fans rock back and forth in the fetal position on the floor.

Suggested slogan: Hey, what’s the worst that could happen? Don’t answer that.

Bold prediction: The Oilers are better, but the playoffs have to wait. They post their best point total since 2006, but that tops out at a whopping 89.

Nashville Predators

Last season: 47-25-10, 104 points, second in the Central and sixth overall, lost in the first round.

Offseason report: The Predators made a series of minor moves, but the roster won’t look all that much different than last year’s. Centers Mike Fisher and Mike Ribeiro both re-signed, and free agents Barret Jackman and Cody Hodgson were added.

Outlook: The Predators were last season’s biggest surprise, making the leap from also-ran to Presidents’ Trophy contender seemingly overnight. Maybe we should have seen that coming; good goaltending can fix just about anything, and Pekka Rinne returned to full health after missing most of 2013-14. Rinne’s return, the addition of James Neal, a breakout season from rookie Filip Forsberg, and a very good young blue line propelled the Preds to one of the league’s best season-long stories.

So can they do it again? A lot of that will ride on Rinne, and there are some concerning signs the big Finn could be wearing down. He missed three weeks with a knee injury suffered in January, and his numbers were down substantially after he returned — he posted save percentages of .927, .938, and .935 in the first three months of the season, but he went .910, .919, .914, and .863 in the four months after that. At 32, he’s not what you would call an old goalie, but he’s at that age where guys tend to start their decline.

If Rinne falters, the Predators could find it tough to produce enough offense to make up the difference. Their reputation as a low-scoring team isn’t exactly fair — they were 13th in goals last year — but there’s not much in way of star power up front. You’d have to think Neal will do better than his 37-point campaign, and Forsberg and Roman Josi are young enough to expect improvement. But when you’re counting on a 35-year-old Ribeiro as your no. 1 center, you’re not exactly working with a huge margin for error.

Key number: 28 — Home wins by the Predators, the second-highest total in the league. They’ll get an extra chance to play host this season, as the All-Star Game comes to Nashville in January.

Watchability index: 7/10. We haven’t mentioned Shea Weber yet, but the captain is often worth the price of admission on his own. Mix in a little Seth Jones, and you’re golden. Or mustard-colored, or whatever that’s supposed to be.

Best case: The offense gets a little better, Rinne is back to his usual self (and healthy), Forsberg picks up where he left off, and the Predators challenge for the division title again. And this time, they don’t cough it up in the final week.

Worst case: Rinne declines, the kids are inconsistent, and the offense just can’t produce enough to keep up. The Predators don’t plummet, but they follow in the footsteps of last year’s Avalanche as Central Division one-year wonders.

Suggested slogan: We apologize in advance for subjecting our fans to an NHL All-Star Game.

Bold prediction: The Predators produce a Norris finalist yet again, but this time it’s Josi, not Weber.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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