Wednesday, October 9, 2019

A brief history of NHL teams getting off to terrible starts that ultimately didn’t matter at all

We’re one week into the NHL season. How’s your team doing?

If you’re a fan of someone like the Hurricanes, Blues or Bruins you’re probably in a pretty good mood. Even fans of supposedly bad teams like the Oilers, Ducks and Sabres are feeling OK so far. All those teams are off to strong starts, the kind that inspire plenty of confidence and maybe even generate a little self-fulfilling “we can do this” momentum. At the very least, those October points count just as much as the ones in March and April and it’s nice to get a few in the bank.

But what if your team is off to a rough start? They might still be winless, or already a few points out of a playoff spot. Maybe they’ve already had a loss that was so bad, so embarrassing, that it made you start asking tough questions. Maybe they’re the Sharks and it’s all of the above. What happens when the season has just started and every warning light on the dashboard is already flashing?

Are you screwed?

Well … yeah, maybe. You definitely could be. Recent history is filled with teams that came into a season with high expectations, stumbled out of the gate and never recovered. Heck, the Coyotes do it pretty much every year. In this age of parity, where three-quarters of the league finishes over .500 and the mushy middle accounts for roughly 20 teams, even a bad week or two can make the difference between the playoffs and the lottery. Mix in the sort of bad vibes and occasional panic decisions that a slow start can generate and there’s every reason to be worried.

So yeah, if your team has looked bad, they might absolutely be screwed. But maybe not, because while we’ve seen plenty of teams start poorly and never recover, that’s hardly a guarantee. Remember, last year opened with the Bruins losing 7-0 and the Blues dropping five of six and eight months later they were playing for the Stanley Cup. Sometimes a good team just starts slow, shrugs it off and gets back to playing at a high level. And in those cases, we often don’t even remember how the first few weeks went.

So today, let’s offer up some optimism for those fans who are watching their teams flatline early, by looking back through history at a half-dozen examples of terrible starts that turned out not to matter at all. Whether it was an embarrassing early performance, an immediate losing streak or even a rotten October start-to-finish, these teams gave us plenty of reason to worry. Then they figured it out, rolled through the rest of the year, and all was forgiven.

Could your struggling team enjoy the same sort of turnaround, or at least flip their seasons into something positive? Maybe. And at this point, for some teams, “maybe” will have to do. Let’s crack open those history books …

The 2015-16 Anaheim Ducks

The team: The Ducks were entering their fourth full season with Bruce Boudreau behind the bench and had already won three straight Pacific titles. They were the heavy favorites to capture another, coming off a 109-point season and a trip to the conference final. With a strong mix of youth and veterans and a top-tier goaltending tandem of John Gibson and Frederik Andersen, the bigger question was whether they could go further and maybe even win the franchise’s second Stanley Cup.

The bad start: Their first four games were a nightmare, as the Ducks only scored one goal on the way to four straight losses. They snapped the streak with a home win over the Wild, but then lost five more. Ten games into the season, they had one win, just 10 goals, and had already been shutout five times. And on top of all that, an appendectomy had just taken Ryan Getzlaf out of the lineup.

The easy narrative: The window had closed, Boudreau had lost the room and it was time to fire everyone and tear down the roster.

Sample reaction: “While the Ducks are off to a horrendous 1-7-2 start as they prepare to face the Nashville Predators Sunday, many around the league are starting to wonder if (GM Bob) Murray himself will take the fall for this awful first month because, after all, he’s the architect of this mess.” – From the Ottawa Sun on Oct. 31, 2015.

But then: Despite the rumor mill, Murray didn’t end up doing much of anything at all. The Ducks eased the pressure by rolling off four straight wins, starting on the road back to respectability. It was a slow climb, and they went into the Christmas break having won just 12 of 33 games. But they caught fire the rest of the way and eventually passed the Kings to take yet another division title by a single point on the season’s final night.

How it all ended: The Ducks didn’t exactly get the happy ending their second half seemed to be building to. That first-place finish earned them an opening round matchup with the Predators, who pulled off a seven-game upset that cost Boudreau his job. Still, based on where they were at the end of October, even being in a position to be upset in the first round was pretty amazing.

They could be inspiration for: The Sharks. Just like those Ducks, this year’s Sharks went from Pacific favorites to looking old and washed up almost overnight. They’re not a perfect team, and they certainly don’t have that Ducks team’s elite goaltending. But it’s a long season, and talent tends to win out over time. That’s worth remembering if you’re a Stars fan too.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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