Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Six teams that are surprisingly good, and six bad ones that can draw hope from them

It’s a new year, which means that as a hockey writer I’m legally obligated to conjure up a metaphorical fresh sheet of ice. It’s a new beginning, and the possibilities are limitless. Anything can happen, right?

Well, no, not anything. Your favorite might be terrible, and you should feel sad about that.

That’s the thing about a new year — it doesn’t coincide with a new NHL season. In hockey terms, we’re almost halfway through this chapter and that sheet of ice isn’t all that fresh, and while there’s still plenty of time left to go, several teams are already out of hope. One conference already has pretty much its entire playoff picture locked up, and almost half the league is all but out of the race.

If you root for a team that’s having a disappointing year, where can you find hope? The good news is that you may not have to look far; it could be coming from one of the next teams you play. So today, let’s look at a half-dozen teams that are exceeding expectations so far this season, and then pair them up with a team that could use some positive vibes.

Fair warning: Some of these pairings will be natural fits, while others might require a bit of a stretch. Either way, it’s the time of year to be optimistic. Or at least be able to plausibly fake it. Let’s do this.

The rebuilding team that’s on the right track but will obviously still need to be bad for a few years

When you’re doing a full rebuild, you generally know the timeline. You strip it all down, bottom out for high picks, and draft a few potential stars. Then you have to suffer through a few more years of losing with the young guys, because you can’t just flip a switch and go from the bottom of the league to waltzing into a playoff spot.

Except when you do. Every few years, a team skips a few steps and goes from bottom-dweller to legitimately good almost overnight. It’s rare, but it’s the dream scenario for the (many) teams that are rebuilding at any given moment.

The 2021-22 inspiration: Anaheim Ducks

A year ago: The Ducks were a 100-point team just three years ago. But they’ve been under .500 since, and while that landed them guys like Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale, all the smart people knew they’d be a write-off this year.

But then…: Troy Terry turned into Mario Lemieux, John Gibson turned back into John Gibson, Zegras invented a new way to score, and the Ducks rebounded from a 2-4-3 start to win eight straight and move into contention for the Pacific title. Most of us still didn’t believe in them, but the big collapse hasn’t happened yet. At the very least, they’re going to be in the playoff race for most of a season where they were supposed to be bottom-dwellers. Oh, and Mason McTavish is on the way.

Possible 2022-23 candidate: Ottawa Senators.

This is a bit of a backhanded compliment, because Sens fans were told they wouldn’t be in the running for this sort of pick this year, the first of Eugene Melnyk’s promised five-year run of unparalleled success. That hasn’t happened, and it looks like the Senators are headed for another year in the bottom five. But a lot of the pieces are in place, and more are on the way, and it’s not hard to imagine it all finally clicking to create a playoff contender next year.

The one caveat is that they don’t have a Gibson-like answer in goal, but that’s what the trade market is for. Give this team some real goaltending, and does a sudden surge really seem all that more impossible than it would have for this year’s Ducks?

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