Wednesday, January 2, 2019

A lot can change in a year. Five teams that proved that in 2018, and five more that could follow suit in 2019

We’re​ into the new​ year,​ and​ by​ now,​ we​ have a pretty​ good sense of​ where most teams​ stand.​ Some have emerged​​ as legitimate Cup contenders. But others are struggling through seasons that could charitably be described as disappointing.

For a hockey fan, there’s something even worse than disappointment: a lack of hope. That gnawing feeling that not only is your favourite team bad right now but that they’re not going to get any better.

This is the time of year when that feeling can really start to settle in. You’ve seen your team play roughly 40 games, so you can’t just chalk up their failures to a bad streak here or there. By this point, most teams are somewhere close to being what their record says they are. And when the record says they’re not good enough, the path back to the top can start to look awfully long.

For some teams, it will be. But for others, a lot can change in as little as a year. So today, let’s go back in time to this point one year ago. We’ll pick out five teams that were probably feeling pretty miserable about things midway through the 2017-18 season, only to flip the script over the 12 months to follow. And then, because we’re all about optimism around here, we’ll try to pair each of those with a team that’s struggling right now and could use a reminder of how quickly things can sometimes turn around.

Know hope. Or at least know how to trick yourself into thinking there might be some.


The 2018 team: The Buffalo Sabres

The situation: The team that’s been rebuilding for years and has plenty of young talent, but just can’t shift gears and start winning.

At 10-20-9, the Sabres were dead last in the East a year ago, and there were legitimate concerns that the rebuild had failed. Some of the pieces were in place, sure, but the results remained the same. And for yet another season, the Sabres were heading into the new year knowing they weren’t going to be part of the playoff hunt.

Somehow, things managed to get even worse in January, as the Sabres started the month with five straight losses. They sold at the deadline, moving Evander Kane to San Jose, then stumbled to a 25-45-12 record that was good for dead last in the league.

The turnaround: Two key turning points came in the offseason. The first was the Sabres finally winning the draft lottery, landing the first overall pick and bringing Rasmus Dahlin to town. The second was an aggressive move to land Jeff Skinner from the Hurricanes. Combined with the trade that sent Ryan O’Reilly to St. Louis, GM Jason Botterill made it clear that he wasn’t willing to head into the new season with the same old Sabres.

The results, so far, have been solid. The Sabres are in the thick of the Eastern playoff race, largely powered by a 10-game win streak that briefly had them flirting with the upper echelon. They’re not quite there yet, but the playoffs seem likely. And at the very least, we’re going to see some meaningful second-half hockey in Buffalo for the first time in years.

The possible 2019 comparable: The Arizona Coyotes.

The Coyotes rebuild will always be tied to the Sabres, given their memorable duelling tank jobs for Connor McDavid back in 2014-15. Much like the Sabres, the Coyotes have been spinning their wheels ever since, despite John Chayka making some aggressive deals to try to get better.

He’ll have to make a few more if he wants to follow the Sabres model. His track record suggests he’ll be up for it, and some of the pieces are already in place. Granted, the Coyotes don’t have a Jack Eichel-type stud to build around up front, largely because they whiffed on that 2015 pick with Dylan Strome. Then again, the Sabres didn’t have Oliver Ekman-Larsson or Antti Raanta.

The Coyotes don’t have Raanta either these days, but he’ll be back eventually and the emergence of Aiden Hill should give Chayka some options to work with. Winning the lottery would help too, of course, as would finding a Skinner-type on the trade market who’s ready to have a career season.

But the good news is that even in the midst of another disappointing year, the Coyotes have far less ground to make up than last year’s Sabres were facing. It can be done. But staying the course is rarely the way it happens.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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