Monday, January 11, 2021

NHL bottom feeders to contenders, where each team will end up

Seven years ago, the NHL made big changes in advance of the 2013-14 season, shifting teams around and going from having six divisions back to a traditional four. It was a major realignment, and you probably remember it as being the year we all spent going “No really, it’s can’t be called the Metropolitan, what’s the real name going to be?”

Back then, I thought it would be cute to build my season preview around the concept of new divisions. But instead of the NHL’s versions, the twist was that I’d divide the league up into four groups that made more sense to me: The bottom-feeders, the middle-of-the-pack, the true contenders, and then a “your guess is as good as mine” divisions for the teams I couldn’t figure out. It was a bit of a silly concept, but it stuck, and I’ve been using the format for my previews ever since.

Then came this year, and suddenly the NHL is stealing my schtick by making up weird division on the fly, and slapping ridiculous names on them to boot. They didn’t really have a choice, and the all-Canadian thing is cool, but you will never be able to convince me that the league isn’t secretly shifting new teams in and out of the Central every morning and waiting to see if anyone notices.

In these difficult times, I know you’re counting on me for some stability, so we’ll stick with our traditional divisions as we take a look around the league and try to figure out who lands where. We’ll start from the bottom and divide the league into groups of seven or eight (with no particular order within those divisions). Then we’ll wait and see how it all turns out, and come back here in a few months to laugh about how wrong I was.

Bottom-feeders, middle-of-the-pack, contenders and [shrug emoji], let’s do this.

The Bottom-Feeder Division

It’s never been more dangerous to declare a team a bottom-feeder than in today’s NHL, because the gap between the truly bad and the merely mediocre is so thin. That will be especially true in a short season. Is that going to keep me from inevitably embarrassing myself here? Of course not.

Chicago Blackhawks

Last season: 32-30-8, -6 goals differential (not counting shootouts), lost in the first round

Their offseason in one sentence: Corey Crawford and Brandon Saad are gone, Kirby Dach is out, and now so is Jonathan Toews, although we’re not sure for how long.

Why they’re here: The rebuild sure seems to be on, whether the veteran core likes it or not. That’s probably the right call, but the Hawks are still raising some eyebrows by heading into the season without any NHL-proven goaltenders. Maybe we’re all making too much out of that, since goaltending is unpredictable and maybe one of the kids steps up and proves they can handle the job. But even if that happens, the rest of the roster is looking shaky, especially if Toews is out long-term.

Ottawa Senators

Last season: 25-34-12, -48, missed the postseason

Their offseason in one sentence: They used all the draft picks, added Matt Murray and went bargain-hunting with their cap space.

Why they’re here: I liked their offseason, at least apart from the Murray contract, and the prospect pipeline is close to overflowing. There’s plenty of optimism for the future in Ottawa, and it’s been well-earned. But even their owner is saying that this isn’t their year, so we don’t need to overthink this.

Los Angeles Kings

Last season: 29-35-6, -32, missed the postseason

Their offseason in one sentence: The rebuild mostly stayed the course, getting some lottery help to add Quinton Byfield along the way.

Why they’re here: Because they’re doing a fairly traditional tear-it-down rebuild, albeit one that hasn’t touched any of the core veterans quite yet. It’s a plan, and so far it’s working, as the Kings have put together a nice pipeline of young talent. As I’ve written before, there’s at least an outside chance that the Kings eventually have one of those “all the kid show up at the same time” breakout years like the Leafs did back in 2016-17. It doesn’t sound like it will be this year, though.

New Jersey Devils

Last season: 28-29-12, -39, missed the postseason

Their offseason in one sentence: They brought in Ryan Murray and Andreas Johnsson without giving up all that much, and thought they’d added Corey Crawford too before his surprise retirement.

Why they’re here: Remember last year when they drafted Jack Hughes and added P.K. Subban and everyone put them in the playoffs and I was like “wait are we sure about that?” and people yelled at me? Those were good times.

I don’t hold grudges. But there’s unlikely to be enough improvement here to push for the playoffs, or come all that close, and I felt that way before Crawford’s announcement, which obviously hurts. Mackenzie Blackwood is one of the better young goalies in the league, so goaltending isn’t likely to be the big problem, but it needed to be absolutely great for the Devils to have a shot and the odds of that are lower now than they were a week ago.

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