Wednesday, September 25, 2019

From bottom feeders to contenders, my best guess on where each team ends up

We’re now just one week away from opening night. And you know what that means: If you can go just one more week without putting your predictions for the 2019-20 season in writing, you can pretend that everything that’s about to happen was stuff you knew all along.

Unfortunately for me, no such luck. So today, I’m unveiling my annual attempt to break the NHL down into four divisions. Not the Central and Metro and all that. I mean real divisions. As in the Bottom-Feeders, the Middle-of-the-Pack, the True Contenders and the always popular Your-Guess-Is-As-Good-As-Mine group.

That’s it. Unlike some poor folks I could mention, I don’t have to predict exact point totals or even who’s going to make the playoffs and who won’t. Just four relatively simple divisions. How badly could I screw that up? (Narrator’s voice: He would screw it up very badly.)

The teams aren’t listed in any particular order within each group, but in terms of the divisions we’ll start at the bottom and work our way up. Here we go …

The Bottom-Feeder Division

These are the teams that everyone with half a brain knows will be bad this year. Previous editions have included such obvious trainwrecks as the 2017-18 Golden Knights and last year’s Islanders.

Also, I’d just like to say that this is the section that makes me really regret going with a division-based format that forces me into groups of seven or eight teams. There aren’t seven teams that are definitely going to be bad this year. There are maybe three. The odds that at least one of these teams makes the playoffs and I never hear the end of it from their fans are like 90 percent. I hope you all appreciate the sacrifice I’m making here.

Ottawa Senators

Last season: 29-47-6, 64 points, dead last in the league

Their offseason in two sentences: They collected a bunch of ex-Maple Leafs, which was weird. But they re-signed Thomas Chabot, which was the important part.

Why they’re here: Because even the most optimistic Senators fan knows they’ll be bad this year. Could they be better than last year? Sure, they’re a young team that added a few pieces, so they could improve. But even an extra 10 wins wouldn’t get them anywhere near the playoffs. And since they won’t be getting three-quarters of a season from Mark Stone and Matt Duchene, it’s possible that they’ll be even worse. Everyone knew the Sens would be in this section, and here they are.

Los Angeles Kings

Last season: 31-42-9, 71 points, last in the West

Their offseason in two sentences: They hired Todd McLellan. That was pretty much it.

Why they’re here: They’re rebuilding, they say, even though they haven’t exactly been shipping out veterans. Still, that suggests that they’re willing to accept another bad year as the price to be paid for waiting on one of the league’s better farm systems to produce enough NHL talent to shift their fortunes. That’s a decent plan, but unless McLellan can work miracles, it won’t be enough to get them back into contention this year.

Detroit Red Wings

Last season: 32-40-10, 74 points, missed the playoffs

Their offseason in two sentences: The roster is pretty much the same and they used their high pick on some kid in a bowtie. Nobody really cares, because Steve Yzerman is back to save us all.

Why they’re here: The Wings are the third of the three teams everyone agrees will be bad, and like the Kings and Senators, it’s all part of a plan. Replacing Ken Holland was always going to be a tall order, but Yzerman will get all the time in the world. If that means this year is a write-off, so be it. And it will be.

Buffalo Sabres

Last season: 33-39-10, 76 points, missed the playoffs for the eighth straight year

Their offseason in two sentences: They made some nice deals and hired Ralph Krueger as coach. Same goalies, though.

Why they’re here: This is the first team where the ground starts to feel at least a little bit shaky. Unlike the last three teams, the Sabres aren’t still lingering in the patient part of a rebuild. Instead, they’ve spent the last few seasons pumping the gas in time-to-win mode. So far that’s just meant a bunch of tire-spinning, apart from last year’s early win streak that didn’t fool anyone who wasn’t a gullible sap. But at some point, they need to either make some progress or fire everyone and start over yet again. If that progress arrives this year, it could be enough to move them out of this section. But I’m not betting on it.

Chicago Blackhawks

Last season: 36-34-12, 84 points, missed the playoffs

Their offseason in two sentences: They made a few additions, mostly involving the blueline. But the biggest move was signing Robin Lehner.

Why they’re here: If the ground felt shaky for the Sabres, it’s basically breaking the Richter scale here, because I hate this pick. The Hawks had lousy goaltending and defense last year and still only missed the playoffs by three wins, and they just signed the reigning Jennings winner. Plus, they’re the Hawks. They’re going to make the playoffs and make me look dumb. I don’t know what to tell you, I have a few other teams in this range that I like a bit better and I have to have at least seven teams in each division. Also, I don’t trust Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to repeat their career years on the wrong side of 30, the defense still isn’t great and Islanders fans have assured me that Lehner isn’t actually good after all even though they all spent last year telling me that he was. But yes, future Blackhawks fans tracking me down to call me names after they win a round in the playoffs, I hear you.

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