Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The numbers say that these are the ten worst teams. Here's why they may actually be good.

I have kind of a love-hate relationship with preseason predictions.

On the one hand, they’re all sorts of fun. Readers flock to them, even when they disagree. And I’ve always believed that everyone should put their predictions on the record before the season starts, if only as a form of accountability for when something unexpected happens and we all pretend we knew it all along.

On the other hand, well, I’m bad at this. And I’m not alone. Every year, there are a few teams that everyone agrees will be terrible who turn out to be pretty good. Two years ago it was the Golden Knights, Avalanche and Devils. Last year, it was the Islanders, not to mention the mid-season turnaround from the Blues. Sometimes we underestimate the impact of an offseason change, or we fall in love with a narrative. Sometimes, hockey is just weird and stuff happens. But I’m always very wrong about at least a few teams, and you probably are too.

Well, the first step in solving any problem is to recognize that you have one. The second step is to overcompensate by steering way too far in the other direction. That’s what we’re going to do today. My pal Dom Luszczyszyn has kindly given me a sneak peek at the ten teams his model expects to have the worst seasons in 2019-20. I’m going to try to figure out why it’s wrong, and why those bottom-feeders will actually turn out to be playoff teams, if not Cup contenders.

Can I do it? Let’s just say that some teams will be easier than others. To keep from pulling a muscle on some of these reaches, I’ll warm up by starting with the best teams on Dom’s bottom-ten list and working my way down to the dregs.

No. 10. Columbus Blue Jackets

Dom says: A point total in the high 80s and a roughly 1-in-4 chance of making the playoffs. (We won’t reveal the model’s exact predictions until a little closer to the season, and the specific order for the bottom ten could shift between now and then.)

Why he’s probably right: The Blue Jackets’ offseason drama has been well-documented. They went all-in on the 2019 playoffs and pulled off a legendary first-round upset that provided the greatest moment in franchise history, but then watched all their top UFAs walk away, including Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin. When a team that barely squeezed into the playoffs in the final week loses two of its three best players, it’s not hard to see where things are headed.

But hear me out … : Losing Bobrovsky should hurt. But it might not because they’ve got a couple of good young goaltenders in Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. If one of them runs with the job, the Blue Jackets should be fine in goal, and maybe even improved. Will that happen? Maybe, because as we’ll probably end up saying in just about all of these, goaltending is voodoo and unexpected things happen every year.

The loss of Panarin is tougher, and with apologies to Gustav Nyquist, there’s really no replacing his production. So how can a team recover from watching their best forward walk for nothing in return? Well, let’s ask the Islanders, who did exactly that last year. And that Islanders surprise came on the heels of a year where the team wasn’t very good. The 2018-19 Blue Jackets had 47 wins and 98 points. They probably don’t even need to improve to be playoff contenders. They just need to fall a few points rather than a whole bunch.

See? This hope stuff is easy. Let’s keep the positivity going with Dom’s next team.

No. 9. Chicago Blackhawks

Dom says: A point total in the high 80s and a roughly 1-in-4 chance of making the playoffs.

Why he’s probably right: The Hawks weren’t great last year, and that was with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews having unlikely career seasons at 30 years old. If those two revert a bit, look out.

But hear me out … : For the second straight entry, we can invoke last year’s Islanders to give hope to one of this year’s also-rans. The Hawks’ biggest offseason acquisition was goalie Robin Lehner, who was so good for the Islanders last year that he somehow won the Jennings for the Rangers. Between adding Lehner and the possibility of Corey Crawford getting back to full health, the Hawks looks pretty set in goal after watching Cam Ward torpedo half their season last year.

Mix in the possibility of Kane and Toews continuing to play at a high level and continued development from youngsters like Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome, and there’s some decent room for improvement here. And don’t forget that this will be the first full season for head coach Jeremy Colliton. Everyone was ready to write off Jared Bednar in Colorado after one year despite being hired on the eve of the season starting, but he’s settled in as a solid coach once he had a full offseason to work with. Colliton is young and learning, so as he gets better, the Hawks should too.

Will it be enough to compete in a Central that may not be top-heavy but should be deep? Probably, because these are the Blackhawks and the dressing room is still knee-deep in Cup rings and magical know-how-to-win dust. See? Optimism!

No. 8. Vancouver Canucks

Dom says: A point total in the mid-80s and a roughly 1-in-4 chance of making the playoffs.

Why he’s probably right: They haven’t finished over .500 in terms of points percentage in four years, in a league where the standings are rigged so that everyone can finish over .500. They’re bad.

But hear me out … : They’re a young team that took a decent step forward last year, improving by eight points. If they do that again, they’re at least in the playoff mix.

Can they? Sure. Most of their best players are young enough that they should improve just based on aging curves. They added guys like Tyler Myers, Micheal Ferland and J.T. Miller, and while we can debate the long-term wisdom of those moves, they should make the team better in the short term. And Jacob Markstrom continues to develop into a legitimate No. 1 goaltender.

Add it all up, and the Canucks should improve at least a bit. But if Elias Pettersson or Brock Boeser have the sort of big breakout that players their age sometimes have, or Markstrom reaches the next level, the Canucks could move up significantly. And if all of those guys make the leap – which hardly seems impossible – the Canucks could be that team that hits fast forward on the rebuild and zooms straight to contention.

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