Thursday, August 8, 2019

The six teams that have me stumped heading into the 2019-20 season

Do you know which NHL team I just can’t figure out?

Well, all of them. I’m not very good at the whole “predicting” thing. Whenever I start thinking I know where a team is headed, you can probably make some money by betting the other way. Never listen to me about anything, is what I’m trying to say.

But when it comes to the 2019-20 season, there are a few teams I feel at least reasonably confident about. The Lightning will be good! So will the Sharks, and Bruins and probably the Knights and Leafs and Capitals. On the other side, the Senators should be bad, along with the Kings and Red Wings. The Blue Jackets will be worse than last year, maybe a lot worse. The Blues will be good again as long as Jordan Binnington plays well. The Coyotes, Hurricanes and Panthers are on the way up. The Penguins are not, but will still be the Penguins right up until they’re not.

I’ll end up being dead wrong about roughly half of that last paragraph, but for now, I feel like I’m on reasonably solid ground. But then I get to the teams where I have no earthly idea what’s going to happen. It’s just total confusion, either because I can’t figure out what they’re doing or where they’re headed or (in some cases) still can’t get my head around what happened last season or over the summer.

I still have a few weeks to figure it all out, but for these six teams, time is running out for me to get a handle on their situation and it’s not looking good. Let’s just put the cards on the table right now. Here are the half-dozen teams that I just can’t figure out heading into the season. Please help me.

New Jersey Devils

They’ll be good because: Every good player who was available in the offseason plays for New Jersey now.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. But by adding Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev and even Wayne Simmonds on a manageable one-year deal, the Devils had one of the best offseasons of anyone. And they didn’t really give up anything of note to do it. They’re pretty much guaranteed to be way better.

They’ll be bad because: “Way better” than 72 points still might not get them anywhere near the playoffs.

The Devils were a mess last year, ranking 26th in both goals for and against. The offseason additions should help boost the offensive side, but the goaltending hopes seem to rest on either MacKenzie Blackwood breaking out despite being just 22 years old with only 21 NHL starts to his name, or Cory Schneider regaining the form he hasn’t had since 2016. Either of those things could happen, because goaltending is voodoo. But when you need to improve by about 25 points just to make the playoffs, I’m not sure that having to cross your fingers for a goaltending miracle is a great sign.

But they’ll probably be fine because: Every year, we see at least a few teams go from near the basement to the playoffs in one shot, often despite nobody seeing it coming. Last year, it was the Islanders. The year before that, it was the Avalanche, Knights and oh yeah, these same Devils. Most of those teams didn’t add anywhere near as much talent as New Jersey just did.

And speaking of talent, they’ve got a former MVP in Taylor Hall who’s healthy and ready to go, and who should be motivated to tear up the league in a contract year.

Unless they’re not because: Yeah, about that contract. Hall hasn’t re-signed yet, which means his status could become the dreaded off-ice distraction if it doesn’t get done by opening night. And if they can’t lock him down, don’t they have to consider trading him? That could torpedo a promising season, but you don’t have to look much further than Columbus to see how this can play out if a team tries to stand pat.

The verdict: The Devils are going rank very high on my watchability ratings for the year, but I really have no idea where they’re going to end up in the standings.

Colorado Avalanche

They’ll be really good because: They’re already good, and they’re young enough that they should get even better just by virtue of their stars developing. Every arrow on the dashboard is pointing in the same direction, and that direction is up.

And that’s why just about everyone seems to agree that they’re contenders. There are probably more than a few people reading this who aren’t even sure what there is to be confused about. They’re one of the best young teams in the league, they won a round last year and might have won another if the league’s replay review rules weren’t so dumb. They’re all set. What are we even talking about here?

They’ll be disappointing because: They won 38 games last year. That’s not great. They still made the playoffs, because they were in a conference where you could make the playoffs with 90 points. And they needed a league-leading 14 loser points just to get to that total.

Loser points are still points, so we can’t call the 2018-19 Avalanche a fluke; they earned their playoff spot based on the same system everyone else plays with. But if winning is the name of the game, this is a team that won fewer games than the Coyotes, just one more than the Flyers and Wild and just three more than the lowly Oilers.

Are we absolutely sure they should be anointed as some sort of guaranteed Cup contender?

But they’ll probably be great because: Well, yeah, they sure do seem like a Cup contender.

First of all, if winning is what matters then we need to factor in that the Avs did a fair amount of it during the playoffs, including knocking off the Flames in five and nearly beating the Sharks. The playoffs are a smaller sample size, but not too many bad teams make it within a misplaced toenail of the conference final.

Beyond that, you just have to look at the roster. They’ve got one of the very best players in the league on perhaps the very best contract in Nathan MacKinnon, who’ll only be 24 on opening night. Mikko Rantanen will be 23, and presumably, will have been signed by then. Basically all of the other key contributors are in their mid-20s, including new addition Nazem Kadri and starting goalie Philipp Grubauer. And maybe most impressive of all, the blue line is stacked with young talent, with Samuel Girard and Cale Makar looking like future stars and Bowen Byram on the way.

It’s awfully hard to imagine this team not being even better next year.

Unless they’re not because: The blue line is indeed stacked with stud prospects, but young defenseman tend to have their ups and downs in the NHL, so the defense won’t necessarily be a sure thing in 2019-20. Grubauer’s never been a full-time starter and there’s no safety net with Semyon Varlamov gone. And while MacKinnon and Rantanen were both fantastic last year, there’s a flip side to that: Their two best forwards both had years where they looked unstoppable and the team still only won 38 games.

I know we keep coming back to that but look at this way. If we think that the Avalanche are going to be eight wins better than they were last year – which is a lot to improve in one offseason – they’re still behind the pace of teams like last year’s Jets, Predators, Islanders and Blue Jackets. They’d be a playoff team for sure. But are they more than that?

The verdict: If Grubauer disappoints and the younger players are inconsistent, they could conceivably take a step back. That feels unlikely and penciling the Avs in for improvement seems reasonable. But I think some of us are underestimating how far they may have to go to reach the league’s top tier, and this seems like a case where we’re all getting ahead of ourselves, if only by a season or two.

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