Thursday, September 30, 2021

Finding hope for the NHL’s ten most hopeless teams

Dom Luszczyszyn’s season previews have been rolling out since last week, as he counts down from the league’s worst projected teams to the best. He’s still got a ways to go before he gets to the top contenders, but we now know his model’s bottom ten. And that means it’s time for our annual attempt to argue that he’s wrong, and these teams could actually be good. And not just “fringe playoff good”, but actually against-all-odds really good.

There’s always some mixed feelings around this one. On the one hand, this is a post that’s all positivity. I don’t do a lot of that, and it’s a nice change. We’ll have most of the season to complain about this or criticize that, but not today. Today, we’re being as kind as possible.

On the other hand… well, let’s just say this is tougher for some teams than others. It’s one thing to be flattering, it’s another thing to cross over into condescension and delusion. For a few of these teams, we’ll be tip-toeing right up to that line, and maybe barrelling over it. It’s worth pointing out that last year’s list ended up having only one playoff team, and that was the tenth-place Wild, so that was a whole lot of wasted optimism. But we’ve seen teams come out of nowhere before, like the expansion Golden Knights or the 2018-19 Islanders, and that’s what we’re looking for here.

We’ll start with Dom’s tenth worst team based on points projection and work our way down until we get to the very bottom of the barrel. At what point will we hit the tipping point between plausible and ridiculous? It’s possible we’re already there, but it’s never stopped us before. Let’s put on our rose-colored glasses and do this.

10. Vancouver Canucks

The projections say: About 87 points, which would leave them fifth in the Pacific. The model gives them just under a one-in-three chance at making the playoffs.

Why they’re probably right: The Canucks were very bad last year, maybe even the league’s most disappointing team if we’re weighing expectations. They had a busy offseason, and did fill a few holes, but haven’t done enough to move out of the murky playoff bubble.

But hear me out … : First of all, the murky playoff bubble isn’t a bad place to be compared to some of the other teams we’re going to get to. The path to the postseason is wide open in the Pacific, which will be a theme of this post, and it’s possible that Canucks could get in even without significantly overshooting their 87-point projection. And as we learned last year, once you’re in the playoffs, even a mediocre team can get hot and do some damage.

Let’s assume that Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes are signed and in the lineup for opening night. That leaves the top end of the lineup looking a lot like the one from 2019-20, when the Canucks made the playoffs and then knocked off the defending champs. Sure, it’s also a lot like last year’s disaster, but sometimes everything just goes wrong for a year. The Canucks can bounce back, especially now that they’ve added a young difference-maker up front in Conor Garland. Oliver Ekman-Larsson may be overpaid and even overrated, but that doesn’t mean he can’t improve the blueline. Add in another year of experience for emerging star Thatcher Demko, and it’s not hard at all to picture the Canucks getting back to the level we thought they were at last year. If Hughes and/or Pettersson make the leap into the true Hart-Norris-level elite, maybe this team can go even further.

(Fair warning: If that paragraph felt overly optimistic to you, you might want to bail out on the rest of this list now.)

9. Nashville Predators

The projections say: About 87 points, good for seventh in the Central, and a one-in-four chance of making the playoffs.

Why they’re probably right: The Predators aren’t quite rebuilding, but they did move Ryan Ellis and Viktor Arvidsson, so it’s hard to see how they’ll be much better than last year, when they snuck into the playoffs but didn’t last long.

But hear me out … : The Predators’ strength last year was goaltending, especially the strong play of Juuse Saros. With Pekka Rinne gone, Saros is now the unquestioned starter and could see significantly more action that last year’s 60/40 split. When your best player plays more, that’s good, right?

Well, maybe. As Dom points out, goaltending is notoriously volatile, and it’s hard to bank on it being consistent year-to-year. But Sarros is only 26 and was good enough last year to show up on a few Hart ballots, so it’s not wild to suggest he could match his play or even improve. And if he does, the Predators will be in good shape for a playoff spot, and a dangerous opponent once the postseason arrived. Mix in a bounceback from Filip Forsberg and maybe even high-priced expansion bait Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen, and maybe another Norris season from Roman Josi, and the Predators are right in the mix.

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