Tuesday, October 5, 2021

From the bottom-feeders to the true contenders, finding a spot for all 32 teams

The NHL is back to its old divisions this year, with the Coyotes shifting to the Central just to make sure we’re all confused. I don’t want to confuse anyone, so I’m going to stick with my traditional four groups for my annual attempt at figuring out who’ll end up where. That means we’ll have eight teams each representing the bottom-feeders, the middle-of-the-pack, the real contenders, and then a bonus division of teams I just can’t figure out.

If you’re looking for a detailed analytic model, you’re in the wrong spot. (Try here.) No, this is just me mixing the numbers with the recent history, adjusting based on offseason action, then adding a little bit of gut feeling and topping it all off with simmering grudges over your fan base being mean to me. Mostly that last one, if we’re being honest.

We’ll start at the bottom and work our way up, just so we don’t make Sabres fans wait around all day.

The Bottom-Feeder Division

My first thought when putting this list together is that it was easier than most years. I’m used to having to squeeze in three or four teams that I’m worried might be actually good, but this year I think almost all of these teams are reasonably easy calls. Does that guarantee that at least three of them will make the playoffs? It does actually, thanks for noticing.

Buffalo Sabres

Last season: 15-34-7, -62 true goals differential, finished dead last.

Their offseason in one sentence: They traded Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen for futures but did not trade Jack Eichel, who still hasn’t had surgery and may not be moved anytime soon.

Why they’re here: They’re the Sabres. Look, I did the whole attempted optimism bit with these guys last week, so my credibility is already shot. With Eichel in limbo, no goaltending and yet another rebuild under way, no reasonable person thinks they’re going to be even vaguely competitive this year.

Arizona Coyotes

Last season: 24-26-6, -24, missed playoffs.

Their offseason in one sentence: They shipped out all their goaltending, plus Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Connor Garland, and didn’t add anyone good other than maybe Shayne Gostisbehere.

Why they’re here: Because they sure seem to want to be. The Coyotes have launched a full-scale rebuild, one that’s apparently going to see them move anyone with a pulse for future assets while they coast towards the best possible lottery odds. Honestly, it’s not a bad plan, especially with this year’s move to the Central.

San Jose Sharks

Last season: 21-28-7, -50, missed playoffs.

Their offseason in one sentence: They upgraded the goaltending, albeit probably not by much, and eventually there were so many Evander Kane stories that they told him not to come to camp.

Why they’re here: Because I’m tired of being the guy who’s always talking himself into the Sharks. Sure, there’s still plenty of name-value talent, and you can imagine a scenario where all the veterans suddenly have one last gasp of success together. That just seems incredibly unlikely after two miserable seasons, especially if Kane isn’t part of the plan going forward and/or Tomas Hertl is traded. The Sharks are the first team we’ve hit where I wouldn’t be completely shocked if they stuck around the race, but I’m not getting suckered in again.

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