One of the most interesting things about the NHL and sports in general, is how differently a team performs compared to how they look on paper. To correctly predict the effects of each addition and subtraction to a roster is nearly impossible. Team chemistry is a tangible but mysteriously elusive factor. Human beings that are judged and analyzed intensely by an endless array of advanced statistics remain humans, and their performances can be wildly unpredictable. Career years, sophomore slumps, bodies breaking down, all throw predictions for a loop. After the offseason of speculation finishes, the season begins and the real results come in. It’s a beautiful chaos as teams impress or disappoint.
Improving a team for the long term is ultimately done with drafting. It’s then filled out with smart trades and helpful signings, but the draft is most important. Currently, the top nine teams in the league (ranked by points) have all acquired their top two players that way. Number 10 is Toronto, and I don’t believe any rival GM is rushing out to emulate them. The salary cap puts a huge premium on getting the most production out of a player's cheaper years. Chicago won their 2010 Stanley Cup while Kane and Toewes' base salary was $875,000! (cap hit of $3.725 with performance bonses) Quite a bargain compared to their $10.5 million cap hit scheduled to start next season.
Each of the five most disappointing teams on this list share a common weakness: defence. Each team sits in the bottom 10 for goals allowed. Not all of these teams have poor goaltending as well. They all lack a stud no.1 defenceman, and they all would rank defense as their weakest facet behind offense and goaltending. It really seems defense not only wins championships, but just wins in general.
8 Most Improved
7 5. Florida Panthers
Dale Tallon's winning background in Chicago is finally starting to work magic in Florida. After finishing last season second last in the East, they are now just one win out of a playoff spot. The defence is full of young talent like 2014 first-overall pick Aaron Ekblad, who already sits 12th all time for points by an 18-year-old defenceman. Tallon also likes his 2010 3rd overall pick Erik Gudbranson; commenting “ He is likely going to be the captain of our team some day.” Stanley Cup Champion Willie Mitchell was smartly signed to help mentor the young talent alongside another Stanley Cup winner Tallon signed from Chicago, Brian Campbell.
Up front the Panthers are solid if not spectacular with a decent mix of youth and veterans. Dave Bolland and Jussi Jokinen bring stability and veteran presence. Former Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad form the core of Florida’s future. Tallon swapped his 2010 1st rounder (15th overall) to L.A. for their 19th (Bjugstad) and 59th overall picks. Tallon and Bjugstad are generating plenty of excitement and optimism in South Florida.
Tallon took a chance on former Panther Roberto Luongo. It has paid off rather well. He consistently gives the Panthers a chance to win at a relatively low cap hit for an elite goaltender ($4.5 million). His hiring of former Canadiens assistant Gerard Gallant is also looking like a savvy hire, who seems to fit the profile of what the Panthers needed.
The only thing out of Tallon’s direct control this season is the attendance; it has been embarrassing this year. The franchise put a stop to free/discounted tickets and consequently sit dead last with an average of 8,849 fans per game. The sports fans in South Florida have previously proven that they will show up for a winning team, and with Tallon at the helm, it looks like winning is back in fashion.
6 Nashville Predators
The Predators suffered hugely with the loss of superstar goaltender Pekka Rinne last season. This year, he is back and so are Nashville’s chances of winning every game he starts. The team also changed their identity drastically after firing their only coach in history Barry Trotz. Former Stanley Cup winning coach Peter Laviolette has the Preds playing an uptempo, entertaining brand of offensive hockey that has never been seen in the Music City. Also huge has been the surprisingly effective free agent pickup of Mike Ribiero. Bought out of his last contract by Arizona for “behavioral issues”, Nashville struck gold, ending up with a point-per-game no.1 center for a mere $1 million. Filip Forsberg is proving to be another genius acquisition. Brought back in a trade that sent career Predator Martin Erat to the Capitals. Forsberg has lived up to his famous last name and could run away with Rookie of the Year honours.
The back end has never been a problem and still features dynamic Shea Weber as their anchor, with young Seth Jones as the potential heir apparent. Nashville has always had a feverishly loyal fan base and they look to be rewarded for their loyalty in spades.
3. Calgary Flames
This is how tough the Western Conference is; The Flames finished last season just five games below .500 and they were second last in the conference. Compare that with second last in the East; the Florida Panthers finished 16 games below .500. The Flames fanbase bought in to the rebuild and expected another rough season. This being an exceptional draft year would make the expected losing much easier to swallow. They headed into this season with a lot of youth, and rag-tag mix of veterans like Jiri Hudler and Mason Raymond.
Calgary surprised everyone with their 17-14-2 start to this year. Standout defenceman Mark Giordano has had a big impact on the culture of the team and is putting a case together for Norris consideration with a team-leading 31 points in 33 games. T.J. Brodie has also quietly emerged as a legitimate top-pairing defenseman. Up front, 5-foot-9 Johnny Gaudreau is a highly entertaining and effective scorer, showing flashes of an extremely high upside. Coach Bob Hartley has proven to be a great fit. He has the Flames prepared to do the dirty work and give a blue-collar effort each and every night. In net, Jonas Hiller has seen a resurgence in his career, forming a potent tandem with Karri Ramo.
The battle of Alberta has taken a quick and interesting turn. Calgary is enjoying a taste of success only two years into their rebuild, while Edmonton is at seven years and counting. Former Flames GM Jay Feaster said it best with this tweet. “Entire time I was in Calgary all I heard was how far ahead they were of #Flames”.
2. Vancouver Canucks
After two tumultuous decades of underachieving, the franchise is greatly improved and finally appears to be moving forward.
The crushing defeat to Boston in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final has haunted the Canucks ever since. In a last-gasp attempt to ‘toughen up’, Mike Gillis sent the franchise’s all-time winningest coach Alain Vigneault packing, bringing in fiery John Tortorella. It backfired disastrously, leading to a nightmare collapse in the second half of last season. Consequently, Tortorella and Gillis both lost their jobs. Fan favorite Trevor Linden was brought in as Team President, and he swiftly hired former Boston Bruin Assistant GM Jim Benning and Calder Cup winning Willie Desjardins as GM and head coach. Benning wasted no time retooling the roster. He signed big-name goaltender Ryan Miller for three years at $6 million, swiftly shipped out an unhappy, trade-demanding Ryan Kesler, and also picked up underrated scoring winger Radim Vrbata to play with the Sedins. Optimism was back in the city as the franchise felt refreshed, but no one predicted the immediate success this year would bring.
The Sedins and Alex Burrows are back to their productive selves. Miller silenced his critics with a fantastic record out of the gate. New pickup Nick Bonino and rookie Bo Horvat have contributed along with others to provide an incredibly balanced scoring attack up and down the lineup. The solid if unspectacular defence has done the job asked of them, even getting through injury to top rearguard Dan Hamhuis relatively unscathed. For the first time in years the Canucks also have an exciting young group of forwards coming up in the system. Trevor Linden and his new management have quickly revitalized the franchise and restored respectability to a team that looked lost only a season ago.
1. New York Islanders
Garth Snow has shown a willingness to deal. Most recently pouncing on Boston and Chicago’s cap-space issues. He managed to add two quality defenseman without sacrificing a player from his roster. Snow also put an end to the consistently mediocre goaltending over the past few years (Evgeni Nabokov, Kevin Poulin, Rick DiPietro) when he brought in proven veteran Jaroslav Halak. The Islanders are now instantaneously better at preventing goals as the new acquisitions have all panned out exceptionally well.
Offensively speaking, the Isles are taking off. Kyle Okposo fulfilled his potential as a big-time power forward. He admirably picked up in the absence of captain John Tavares, injured in the Olympics last year. And speaking of Tavares, he is the legitimate superstar the team has lacked for two decades! A point scoring machine who hates to lose and loves to compete. He is a building block any team would love to have. He's also arguably the most valuable player in the league, only carrying a $5.5 million cap hit. The offence is rounded out with youngsters Brock Nelson, Ryan Strome, Frans Nielsen and veteran signings Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin.
5 Most Disappointing
3 Carolina Hurricanes
What is going on in Raleigh? One game over .500 last year, and now competing for a lottery pick and a shot at McDavid/Eichel. Losing Jordan Staal to a broken leg before the regular season set them off on the wrong foot (or leg, if you will), testing their depth at centre. Alex Semin has been a criminal waste of $7 million. His lack of interest and effort is so poor he found himself in the press box as a healthy scratch. Former rookie standout Jeff Skinner has struggled to find consistency in his young career.
The defence has always lacked star power, even in their Stanley Cup win of 2006. It’s currently headlined by Andrej Sekera, and features John-Michael Liles and Tim Gleason (who funnily enough was earlier traded FOR Liles). Cam Ward has been so inconsistent it prompted GM Ron Francis to publicly declare that Carolina still sees him as an elite goaltender in the NHL. Nothing seems to be going right for the former Stanley Cup champs, unless they are deliberately tanking, in which case, they are doing a bang-up job.
2 Columbus Blue Jackets
Columbus started off last season slowly, winning just 10 of the first 26 games. They managed to turn that season around, knocking off a franchise-high eight wins in a row and making the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history. The emergence of potential stud center Ryan Johansen was a big cause for excitement. Along with first ever Russian Vezina-winner Sergei Bobrovsky, expectations had never been higher. Fans in Columbus eagerly awaited to see what this season would bring.
Injuries are the story for Columbus this year. Sergei Bobrovsky, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Fedor Tyutin, and Ryan Murray have all missed time. Prized free-agent acquisition Nathan Horton has played just 36 games since signing in 2013. His degenerative back problems are currently causing him extreme pain and he faces the possibility of an early retirement. The team Columbus actually manages to put on the ice has displayed uneven efforts and frequent breakdowns in their system. Their struggles culminated with a nine-game losing streak in November. Coach Todd Richards commented “...right now we’ve dug ourselves a hole. And it’s tough to get out of that hole.” When Columbus finally gets healthy, they will have a lot of work to do before they are finally out of this hole. There is now some hope for the Jackets to turn it around, as they've rattled off seven wins in a row. Could they be turning the corner now? Still, when taking everything into account, it's been a disappointing start.
3. Dallas Stars
The Stars look absolutely loaded up front. Emerging superstars Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn were bolstered by Jazon Spezza and Ales Hemsky. Young Valeri Nichushkin was poised to take the next step and add to the impressive attack. The Stars were pleased with goaltender Kari Leghtonen’s playOnly their defense looked lacking, but it was good enough to squeeze them into the playoffs last year. Stars owner Tom Gaglardi adamantly believed in his group stating “I think for people to criticize our defense is flat wrong”.
Skip ahead a quarter of a season this year and Dallas are ten points out of playoffs. Their offense has performed well enough, (7th in the west), but only Edmonton and Dallas have allowed 100 goals in this young campaign. Kari Lehtonen has not been able to bail out his sub-par defense as he has in previous years. Interestingly enough, their most veteran rearguard Sergei Gonchar was moved this year (with the Stars retaining $400,000 of his salary). This leaves only Trevor Daley, Alex Goligoski, and Jason Demers as defenseman who have at least 200 games of NHL experience. Which is fine... if you are an AHL team.
High-end defenseman are at an all-time premium to acquire, and until something is done to shore up the defense, Dallas will remain a disappointing waste of talent.
1 Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers finished last season sixth place in the East with a 42-30-10 record. They had an interesting off season. Ron Hextall was promoted to GM, and Paul Holmgren to President. Scott Hartnell was traded for R.J. Umberger to provide cap flexibility down the road. But the biggest off-season change had nothing to do with management or trades. Cornerstone defenseman Kimmo Timonen suffered blood clots in his leg and was forced out of the lineup, potentially for the entire season. Michael Del Zotto was brought in, but the Flyers defence looked to be weak yet again. The Flyers stood pat in net, re-signing Ray Emery and sticking with Steve Mason as their number one. Expectations are always high in Philadelphia, and this season would be no different.
Unfortunately for the Philly faithful, the team has looked an absolute mess this year. They currently sit 15th in the Eastern Conference. The loss of Timonen has proved too much to overcome. Young Braydon Coburn showed flashes of high-level play alongside Timonen last year, but looks overwhelmed without his steady partner. Expensive shot-blocking defenceman Andrew Macdonald (six years, $5 million) has looked awful, leading to a healthy scratch for the pricey veteran. Pleasant surprise Del Zotto has resurrected his career, but it hasn’t been enough to right the ship. The turmoil climaxed with GM Hextall exploding on the Flyers in their dressing room after a particularly tough loss to rival New York Rangers.
The Flyers are still stacked up front and Steve Mason is providing adequate enough goaltending. Their biggest issue (defence) is the toughest to fix. Elite defenders are increasingly hard to come by in this era of the NHL. Until Hextall and co. can improve goal prevention, the Flyers will remain a disappointment.
1. Colorado Avalanche
Under first-time NHL head coach Patrick Roy, Colorado opened last season with a blistering 14-2-0 record. They continued that success to end up with 52 wins, behind only Anaheim in the Western Conference. Colorado rode their goaltender’s breakout season as he finished second in voting for the Vezina trophy. They also received great performances from their deep crop of young high-end forwards. The advanced stat junkies were all over Colorado, claiming their success was unsustainable. Patrick Roy just pointed to the results. Only time would tell who was right.
Maybe they have something with those fancy stats. Colorado has sunk like a rock to 12th in the west. The young offence has suffered growing pains all around. Matt Duchene leads the team with 20 points in 30 games; that’s not awful but well behind his point-per-game pace set last year. Perhaps letting Paul Stastny go for a cheaper replacement in Jarome Iginla has had a bigger effect on overall offence than previously thought. With Varlamov not standing on his head the young defense has been exposed badly. Stats aside, the eyeball test shows a blue line struggling to breakout of their zone. Their inability to get the puck to the forwards is causing all kinds of havoc. Perhaps Patrick Roy is suffering a sophomore slump himself, as he is unable to get the forwards to come back and help out the defence like they did so well last season.
Like most teams on the disappointing list, Colorado desperately needs an upgrade defensively as its proven they cannot rely on timely scoring and Varlamov to carry them to the playoffs anymore.
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