Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Why the 10 teams we all think are bad could actually be good

I kind of like it when preseason predictions are really wrong. That’s partly because mine are usually terrible, and I like to have company. But I’ve always ben fascinated by a specific type of surprise, the one that sees a team that everyone thinks will be terrible suddenly emerge as a legitimate Cup contender.

The most famous recent example would have to be the Golden Knights, who were supposed to be a typically awful expansion mess but went straight to the final. Two years ago, we saw the Islanders go from consensus pick for last overall to a 100-point team that did playoff damage. A few years before that, the Avalanche went from one of the worst seasons in cap era history to Central powerhouse.

We didn’t really get that last year; a few teams did outperform expectations, but nobody really made The Leap from bottom-feeder all the way to contending. Maybe that means the experts are getting better at this. I’d like to think it means we’re due, especially heading into an uncertain season that will be unlike anything we’ve seen.

So today, let’s take a crack at making the case for the league’s ten worst teams, based on Dom’s offseason power rankings. That list is based on both his statistical model and our writers’ personal picks, so it should cover the consensus pretty well. Our goal will be to take the ten most hopeless teams, based on those rankings, and come up plausible reasons why they’re going to be not just respectable, but actually good.

We did this last year, and if you revisit that piece you’ll find a handful of arguments that hold up reasonably well, including that the Blue Jackets goaltending may be better than we think, that the Canucks could be ready for a jump thanks to young talent and additions like J.T. Miller, and that Dave Tippett may be able to work some early magic to get the Oilers into the mix in a weak Pacific. I’m not sure that going 3-for-10 is all that impressive, but we’ll take what we can get.

The good news is that one season later, those three teams have all escaped the bottom ten. But the other seven teams from last year’s post are all back this year, reminding us that clawing your way out of the league’s cellar is no easy task, even in the era of parity.

So yeah, hope is hard to come by. But that’s where we come in, so let’s crank up the optimism and, in a few cases, turn off our brain cells as we try to get the NHL’s ten worst teams into the contention. We’ll start with the easiest case to make, and work our way down to the real dregs.

10. Minnesota Wild

The rankings say: About a quarter of The Athletics’ writers thought the Wild would be in the playoff mix, with the rest having them on the outside looking in. Dom’s model was a little bit more optimistic than that, but only a little, and the overall message was a familiar one for Wild fans: They won’t be good enough to contend, or bad enough to land a high pick. They’ll just kind of be… there.

Why they’re probably right: The Wild finished sixth in the Central last year, and a busy offseason from Bill Guerin probably made them worse, at least in the short term. They lost Eric Staal and Mikko Koivu, so they’ll be weak down the middle, and there’s no guarantee that Cam Talbot is an improvement in goal.

But hear me out … : Last year’s team wasn’t as bad as you might remember; they were on pace for 92 points, and were heating up down the stretch with 12 wins in 19 when everything paused. And they did that despite 30 games of ugly goaltending from Devan Dubnyk. You never know in net, but Talbot was pretty solid last year and will almost certainly be better than Dubnyk, and probably better than Alex Stalock. A goaltending upgrade fixes a lot of problems, and the Wild look like they’ve found one.

As for those veterans up front, it hurts to lose a franchise icon like Koivu, but he had 21 points last year, and Staal just turned 36. Guerin was trying a little addition-by-subtraction here, clearing space for some of the team’s younger players to move up the lineup and take over the dressing room. That’s always a risky play, but if it works, the Wild could take another step forward. If so, they’re not that far away from being dangerous.

9. Buffalo Sabres

The rankings say: What they pretty much always say, that the Sabres will be bad. In this case, the writing staff is nearly unanimous on that, although there’s one outlier who think the Sabres can be dark horse contenders. But everyone else is bearish, and Dom’s model is even more pessimistic.

Why they’re probably right: It’s been nine years since the Sabres made the playoffs, and seven since they even came close, so we all know the drill by now. They’ve got Jack Eichel and one year of Taylor Hall, and Kevyn Adams made a nice move to land Eric Staal. But the goaltending and blueline aren’t any better than they were last year. And last year, they weren’t anywhere close to good enough.

But hear me out … : First of all, let’s remember that last year’s Sabres were one point away from tying the Canadiens for the last spot in the expanded postseason, and everyone seems to think Montreal is in reasonably good shape to make a playoff run.

But we’re supposed to be aiming higher than just a playoff spot here, so let’s see if we can get the Sabres into the top third of the league. That path starts with Eichel having one of those years where he finds a new level, sort of like Leon Draisaitl did last season. Mix in a Miro Heiskanen-style breakthrough from Rasmus Dahlin, add a healthy and focused Hall having a contract year for the ages, then finish it with a boost from Staal and maybe even one of the occasional Jeff Skinner years where he looks like a legitimate star. There’s some talent here.

If all of that happens, they still need above-average goaltending. But Linus Ullmark is only 27 and was decent last year, so it’s not out of the question that he either has a breakout year or at least one of those weird outlier seasons that even bad goalies sometimes have. Either way, the pieces are here, and there’s a really good coach in place to figure out how to put them together.

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