Thursday, October 6, 2022

Do you believe in miracles? Finding hope for the ten most hopeless teams

Every year, at the very start of a season, I like to take the ten most hopeless teams in the NHL and try to figure out if there’s any chance that we could all be wrong and they could actually be good. That’s “good”, not just “not terrible”, because even an awful team can have a goalie go on a heater for a few months and drag them into the fringe of the playoff race. I wanted to figure out which team is going to be the 2018-19 Islanders or 2017-18 Golden Knights, the underdog expected to finish dead last who instead becomes a Cup contender.

It’s kind of a weird season to be doing this, for two reasons.

First, it’s been a while since we’ve really seen one these hopeless teams break through. That Islanders turnaround was four years ago now, but you could argue that it’s still the most recent example. The Habs’ run in the 2021 playoffs was unexpected, and last year’s collapse made it feel miraculous, but they went into that season with decent expectations. We’re looking for teams that are already being written off, but could be legitimate contenders. Last year’s list did have two playoff teams, the Predators and Kings, but neither won a round, so your contender mileage may vary.

That leads us to our second problem: With the top of the 2023 draft looming, a lot of teams sure seem to want to be hopeless this year. The whole point here is to offer some optimism to hopeless fan bases, but right now Connor Bedard is the optimism for more than a few teams. Am I even helping here? I’m not sure I am.

I’ll still do my best, As always, we’re taking the ten worst teams for this season, based on the season previews from Dom’s model. We’ll start with the tenth most hopeless team and work our way to the very depths of despair.

Four teams – Vancouver, Nashville, Los Angeles and Ottawa – have graduated from last year’s list. Let’s try to figure out who might join them, and maybe go even further than that. Hopefully.

Seattle Kraken

The projections say: 87 points, and a 27% chance of making the playoffs

Why they’re probably right: The Kraken were bad last year, which we probably should have expected. The Golden Knights were Cup contenders right from the start, which shocked everyone and messed up our ability to project the Kraken, but the roster never looked especially strong. In addition to the expected lack of offense, the goaltending was a weakness, and all that’s changed there since is the addition of Martin Jones. I’m guessing that’s not going to solve anything.

But hear me out … : Jones isn’t likely to be the answer, but regression might be. There’s a reason that nobody saw Philipp Grubauer’s season coming: he’d been a consistently good goaltender for his entire career before arriving in Seattle. Maybe he’s bad now – you never know with goalies, which will be a theme of this piece – but it seems more likely that we can bet on him being better, and maybe even significantly closer to the .920 guy he’d always been.

The roster is already improved with the additions of Andre Burakovsky, Justin Schultz, Oliver Bjorkstrand and (maybe) Shane Wright, and Matty Beniers is a legitimate Calder favorite. If Grubauer is better, there’s a very clear path to the playoffs here. And with cap room and at least a little local pressure on Ron Francis to deliver a better season, who knows where that could lead. Remember, the history of NHL expansion teams that aren’t the Golden Knights is filled with awful first seasons, but teams like the Panthers, Wild and Sharks were all winning playoff rounds pretty quickly after that. It could absolutely happen in Seattle too.

Convincing, right? I hope so, because the numbers say that was the easy one. Those playoff odds take a big dip as we move to our next team.

Detroit Red Wings

The projections say: 82 points and an 11% of making the playoffs

Why they’re probably right: The Red Wings spent big in the offseason, finally signalling that the Steve Yzerman’s rebuild was shifting out of the patient tear-down phase. In fact, nobody improved more than the Red Wings did this summer, according to Dom. But even a big improvement doesn’t get this team into the playoff mix, especially in the Atlantic. It will happen eventually, but they’re not there yet.

But hear me out … : Or are they? The nice thing about adding so many players is that you have to figure that at least a few of them will overachieve. If it’s more than a few and Wings start stacking an extra win here and there, it adds up.

Would that be enough in the Atlantic? It could be, since it’s not impossible to imagine things going off the rails in Florida or Toronto, and we don’t know what those early injuries will do to the Bruins. And remember, even if the division’s big four all stay strong, there’s still the other wildcard.

Even more encouragingly, almost every team that makes a big, unexpected leap does it with a new coach or a new goalie, and the Wings have both. Again, it’s all about the volume of change. It’s very possible that it goes the other way and there are more disappointments and overpays and it adds up to another lost season, or even a step back. But if the coin keeps landing on the right side, this team could be good. And if Mo Seider has his Cale Maker-style breakout this year, they could be even more than that.

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