We’ve got just over three weeks left in the regular season, which means this is the time of year when we should be focused on all the teams fighting it out for the final playoff spots.
But this year, that playoff race has been a bit of a dud – realistically, there are 19 teams still alive for the 16 post-season invitations. The Kings are the only team on the outside of the Western race with any sort of shot, and even that’s feeling like a real stretch after last night’s loss. Meanwhile, the East is basically down to the Leafs, Islanders and Lightning fighting for one spot, maybe two if the Bruins fade.
That leaves us with 11 teams that are basically done. Sure, you could still make a case that teams like the Flyers or Hurricanes aren’t quite dead yet. But according to the various sites that run these sorts of numbers, those teams both have less than a three–per cent shot at pulling off the comeback. And everyone else is way behind that.
So we’ve got 11 teams that are already dealing with the disappointment of a playoff miss. But not all disappointment is created equal. So today, let’s turn the focus to that group of 11 with a question: Based on expectations coming into the season, whose season has been the biggest disappointment?
We'll count them down, starting with the least disappointing team and getting more depressing as we go.
#11: Vancouver Canucks
The expectations: Rock bottom. The Canucks were picked to finish dead last by many, a fact that didn't go unnoticed in Vancouver. In fact, the only ones who didn't seem to think this season would be a disaster were Trevor Linden, Jim Benning and friends in the front office. That had some fans worried that the Canucks would become the absolute worst-case scenario for a modern NHL franchise – a bad team that doesn't realize it's bad, and keeps grinding away year after year with no hope of real progress.
But then: Can you be well out of the playoffs in early March and still feel like the season was a success? The Canucks were still bad, but they didn't finish dead last, or even come all that close. And they had a couple of stretches, notably a 4-0-0 start and a six-game win streak in January, that made them look like a real team. Those stretches didn't last, and the second half has been ugly, but the beauty of rock-bottom expectations is that they're not all that hard to exceed.
Maybe next year: The Canucks have to happy with Bo Horvat's season, and the decision to sell at the deadline with some solid moves brought in help for down the line. They'll probably be bad again next year, but at least they seem headed in the right direction.
#10: New Jersey Devils
The expectations: Low. The Devils haven't done a full-scale rebuild, but they're clearly in a transition phase. This year was about seeing the kids develop, making sure Taylor Hall settled in, and hoping that a 30-year-old Cory Schneider would remain a top-tier option in goal.
But the playoffs? Even the most optimistic Devils' fan would have had trouble buying that. Sportsnet's analytics-based view had them dead last in the Eastern Conference, and just about everyone had them lumped in with the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets at the bottom of the Metro.
But then: Those Metro predictions turned out to be dead wrong about one of those three teams, but it wasn't New Jersey. They hung around respectability a bit longer than most probably expected, but were a non-factor by the second half and are headed towards that last-place spot in the East.
Maybe next year: The youth has been OK; Pavel Zacha hasn't blown anyone away but he hasn't looked out of place as a teenager. Hall fought through injuries and saw his scoring rates take a slight dip, while Schneider had an off year. Overall, this season felt like a step back New Jersey. But that's what we expected.