Monday, July 23, 2018

Six teams I can't figure out

We’re roughly a month into the off-season, and by now there a few teams we can feel pretty confident about projecting. The Lightning will be good, especially if they get Erik Karlsson. The Capitals, Predators, Jets and Leafs should also be contenders. At the other end of the standings, we’re all pretty sure that teams like the Senators, Canucks and Sabres will struggle. There are even a few teams we can comfortably predict will be just OK – we could call that the Minnesota Wild zone.

There’s nothing especially controversial in any of those calls; just about every set of pre-season predictions will say pretty much the same thing when it comes to those teams.

And, of course, we’ll almost certainly be wrong about at least a few of them. Like, super wrong. As in not even close.

Look at last year, when obvious bottom-feeders like the Devils and Avalanche and Golden Knights all made the playoffs, while legitimate Cup contenders like the Blackhawks and Oilers crashed and burned. Few of us saw any of those stories coming. None of us saw them all. Everybody was dead wrong about something, just like we’ll be wrong this year too.

And here’s the thing: That’s just the teams we feel confident about. If we already know we’re going to screw a few of those up, imagine what’s going to happen with the teams we can’t figure out.

So today, let’s look through a half-dozen teams that I’m still not sure about. I’ve gone back and forth on all six, and I’m not any closer to feeling confident about where they’ll wind up. Maybe you’re on steadier ground when it comes to these teams, and if so please let me know why. Seriously, I could use the help.

We’ll start with one of those 2017-18 surprises…

Edmonton Oilers

They’ll be good because: They have Connor McDavid, and if he isn’t already the unanimous choice for “best player on the planet” honours, he will be soon. The NHL isn’t the NBA, where one superstar can singlehandedly drag a team to the playoffs. But it’s still a league that runs on elite talent, and there isn’t any more elite than what the Oilers can toss out there for 22 minutes a night.

They’ll be bad because: McDavid was great last year, and it didn’t get the Oilers anything other than weaker lottery odds. And as you’ve probably noticed, they’ve barely done anything this off-season. They haven’t made any major trades or signed any top-tier free agents. Right now, it looks like they might be content to roll out pretty much the same lineup that they featured last year. You know, the one that missed the playoffs by 17 points.

But they’ll probably be fine because: A big part of last season’s disaster was due to a rough year from Cam Talbot. No team leans on its starter as heavily as the Oilers, and in 2016-17 it paid off. Last year, it didn’t. But Talbot has played five NHL seasons and over 250 games, and the bulk of his resume tells us that he’s a very good goaltender, maybe even a great one.

Goaltending is voodoo, but when your starter has a bad year it’s almost always going to torpedo your chances. Let’s not overthink it with Edmonton – if Talbot is better, they’ll be fine. And history tells us he’ll be better.

Unless they’re not because: Most nights, a goaltender is only as good as the defence in front of him. The Oilers blue line continues to be a weak point, and according to the rumour mill their plan for fixing it is to trade their best defenceman. That’s not how this works.

The verdict: The Pacific was the league’s weakest division last year, and could be again. With the three California teams getting older and the Knights presumably coming back to reality, it won’t take a monster season to make the playoffs. The Oilers should manage it fairly easily. I think.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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