Thursday, November 5, 2020

Six NHL teams that have me stumped right now

It’s been a confusing year. There are a lot of things in the world I’m not sure about these days, including what month it is and whether I’m actually muted on this Zoom call. If you ask me a direct question these days, I will look you straight in the eye and flat-out guess, followed by immediately forgetting what I just told you.

But when it comes to the NHL, there are at least a few teams I feel … well, not sure about, but at least vaguely confident. The Lightning are good. The Avalanche and Golden Knights should be, too. The Red Wings are not good, and the Senators and Kings are still a year or two away from breaking through. The Oilers have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl but not enough depth or goaltending, and will stay that way until the end of time. And a whole bunch of teams are stuck in the middle, close enough to the playoff race but not really scaring anyone, just the way the league likes it.

But every year, there are a few teams that I just can’t figure out. So as we all wander around in a haze of confusion, let’s break out my annual attempt to argue with myself about the half-dozen teams that have me stumped heading into the (whatever year it is next year) season.

Philadelphia Flyers

They’ll be good because: They were good last year. Like, really good. They were on pace for 105 points if we’d played a full season, and even that might be underselling it. In early January, the Flyers were muddling along with about as many wins as losses. They were fine. But over what turned out to be the last 26 games of the season, the Flyers went 19-6-1, earning a playoff bye and planting their flag as a legitimate contender.

That was last year. So what’s changed heading into a new season? Not much. The retirement of Matt Niskanen was a surprise, but you could argue that helped more in terms of cap space than it hurt in terms of blue line quality. They lost a few depth pieces, like every team does. But all the key names are back, so there’s no reason to expect a dropoff.

They’ll be bad because: Virtually nobody had the Flyers pegged as an elite team last year; they’d missed the playoffs in 2019. That doesn’t mean they were a mirage, since we’re wrong about plenty of teams all the time, but you’d probably like to see it for more than one season before you nudge anyone into the sure thing column.

Beyond that, the Flyers didn’t look all that great in the postseason. They struggled with a Canadiens team that, on paper, they should have rolled over. And they lost to an Islanders team that imposed their will on the series. It’s hard to know what to make of that whole deeply weird playoff tournament, and maybe the answer is that we shouldn’t draw any conclusions at all. But at the very least, you could piece together an argument that the Flyers are an above-average team that got hot for two months in the second half, but don’t deserve top-contender status yet.

But they’ll probably be fine because: The most important player on the team is Carter Hart, and he’s 22. Goaltending is impossible to predict, especially younger guys, but if you had to make a bet you’d think Hart is going to be even better over the next few years. He’s also on the last year of his entry-level deal, which means the Flyers have a nice window here with some extra cap space to work with.

Unless they’re not because: So far, they haven’t really done anything with that space. They were quiet in free agency, and while they’ve been rumored to be in on a few names on the trade market, nothing has happened yet. And that cap space window only lasts for this year, because both Hart and Travis Sanheim will need new deals.

Meanwhile, they’re on the hook for over $16 million in annual cap hit to Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, who have been good, plus another $7 million to James van Riemsdyk, who hasn’t, and all three of those guys are over 30. The Flyers aren’t an old team by any stretch, with Hart, Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov all entering their prime. But if the older guys take even a small step back and/or Hart has the sort of rough year that good young goalies sometimes endure, it’s not hard to imagine the Flyers falling back to the middle-of-the-pack.

The verdict: In theory, the Atlantic features two perennial contenders (Caps and Pens), one good team that’s especially tough in the playoffs (Islanders) and two teams on their way up (Hurricanes and Rangers). There aren’t enough playoff spots for everyone, and that’s before factoring in a temporary realignment that might shuffle things around and drop someone like the Bruins into the mix. I still think the Flyers will be good, but I’m not sure they’ll be any better, and they might not have as room to work with as they’d like.

Calgary Flames

They’ll be good because: They aggressively addressed their most-discussed weakness in the offseason, paying up to land Jacob Markstrom in free agency. We can debate whether that was a smart contract, and maybe it looks bad in a few years. But today, it should be a nice upgrade over Cam Talbot (who’s now in Minnesota) and David Rittich.

They’ll be bad because: Talbot and Rittich weren’t actually a bad combo; they were pretty much a middle-of-the-pack duo, so it’s not like goaltending was the reason the Flames took a step back. And even if they’ve upgraded the position, losing two top-four defenseman in T.J. Brodie and (probably) Travis Hamonic will cancel some of that out. The Markstrom signing made headlines, but it’s no sure thing that the offseason has made the Flames any better.

But they’ll probably be at least OK because: As easy as it is to forget now, this was a 107-point team only one year ago. Granted, they followed that up with a disappointing season, but it’s proof that the core is capable of contending. And remember, last year’s team had to deal with a bizarre midseason coaching switch from Bill Peters to Geoff Ward, one that nobody saw coming based on performance. Ward did a good job under tough circumstances, but like most coaches, you’d expect him to do a better job with a full season (including a training camp) to put his system in place.

Unless they’re not because: Hmm, a Canadian team that has a breakthrough season followed by a letdown, where we’re wondering if they should get credit for how they looked at their best. If that sounds familiar, it’s a lot like what we went through last year with the Jets, another team that confused me. And it turned out that the recent, mediocre season was a more accurate predictor than the 100-plus point days. Sometimes, you don’t need to overthink it when a good team takes a step back to mediocrity. That’s just what they are now.

The verdict: I’m lost. And to make things even more complicated, we don’t even know what division the Flames will be in. Home ice in the Pacific seems up for grabs, with the Golden Knights looking strong but nobody else really looking unbeatable. But would a temporary all-Canadian division present an easier path, or a tougher one?

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