We’ve flipped the calendar into the NHL season’s second month, and one of the biggest emerging stories can be found in the Central Division. Specifically, down near the bottom of the standings, where two teams that we all expected to be very good are struggling to find wins.
With three wins through nine games, the Nashville Predators are on pace for just 64 points on the season. The Dallas Stars‘ three wins and eight points have them in a little better shape, projecting out to 73 points. Those would be stunning totals for two teams that both played in the second round last year, and that came into this year as favourites in the Central.
But if you’re a Stars or Predators fan, you’re probably wondering just how troubling a bad start can be. After all, each team still has 73 games left to play, which seems like plenty of time to right the ship. Is this kind of start really as big a deal as it might seem?
One way to forecast the future can be to dig into the past. So today, let’s look through the salary cap era with a specific question: How often have good teams gotten off to starts this bad?
First, we'll need to define "good team." There are plenty of ways you could do that, but let's keep it relatively simple and say that a team is considered "good" if it's coming off a season where it had at least 95 points and/or won at least one playoff round. (We'll pro-rate the lockout shortened 2012-13 season.) The Stars and Predators hit both marks last year, so they certainly qualify.
As for bad starts, let's aim even lower than where the Predators and Stars have ended up. They've both got a disappointing three wins; let's look at the teams that were even worse, posting two wins or fewer through their first nine games.
So if that's what a good team with a bad start looks like, how many times have we seen it happen in the cap era? And more important, as far as the Stars and Predators are concerned, how much damage had those bad starts done by the end?
As it turns out, our criteria gives us nine teams to work with. Some will offer up a dose of hope for fans in Dallas and Nashville, while others serve as cautionary examples of where this all could be headed.
Let's start our list with one of two teams from last season to make an appearance.
2015-16 Calgary Flames
How good were they? They were coming off a 97-point season in which they'd advanced to the Pacific Division final by knocking off the Canucks. They'd also appeared to take a step forward during the off-season by adding Dougie Hamilton to a core that was already young and improving.
How bad was the start? Pretty bad. They were 2-7-0 through nine, and didn't earn their first regulation win until their 12th game of the season.
Did they turn it around? Not really. The Flames clawed back into the fringe of the playoff picture with a seven-game win streak in December, but by then it was too late. They traded wins and losses for another two months before a seven-game losing streak finished them off for good, ending the season at 35-40-7, the fifth-worst record in the league.
What was the turning point? There wasn't one, at least in any sort of positive sense. And the season's biggest flaw doesn't bode well for the Predators or Stars, two teams that have questions around their goaltending. The Flames went into the season figuring they could squeeze a decent year out of Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo. When that didn't happen, the Flames never recovered.
2012-13 Washington Capitals
How good were they? After three straight 100-plus point seasons, the Capitals had stumbled in '11-12, dropping to 92 points and seeing Bruce Boudreau sent packing after an unfortunate attempt to convert a high-flying roster into a trap team. Still, they'd managed to pull off a first-round upset of the Bruins, and took the Rangers to seven games in Round 2.
How bad was the start? Under new coach Adam Oates, the Caps dropped their first four and were 2-6-1 after nine.
Did they turn it around? For the most part. After hitting rock bottom at 2-8-1, they won three straight to start clawing back into the playoff race. Time wasn't on their side – remember, this was the lockout year – but they started rolling down the stretch, going 15-3-2 over their last 20 to win the Southeast and cruise into the playoffs with home ice advantage. (Then they blew a 2-0 series lead and lost to the Rangers. Hey, they were still the Capitals.)
What was the turning point? Nothing really stands out. They didn't fire anyone, and only made one major trade (which Caps fans would rather forget). Instead, they largely stayed the course and trusted the team they'd put together. In a way, this could be the best-case scenario for Predators and Stars fans, at least as long as you ignore the fact that the Caps missed the playoffs the next year.