Projecting the final bottom portion of the NHL’s overall standings prior to the season is akin to taking a multiple choice test. The best method of selection is to start by ruling out the least likely answers.
That is why it is so fitting to look at an upcoming season as a clean slate. At first glance, everybody looks like they are within lassoing distance of success or at least, depending on where they left off, improvement.
They are entitled to believe as much until the standings start taking shape deep into autumn. In turn, there are more teams that readily emit an “among the best” vibe than “among the worst.”
But upon striking the strongest-looking teams off the list and then eliminating the outstanding prospective welterweights, we are left with the 10 who, shall we say, are most likely to constitute the bottom one-third by mid-April. (Lucky for them, they have about seven months to prove otherwise.)
That unfortunate group is as follows in alphabetical order.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this slideshow were found via NHL.com.
Could life get any more unfair for puckheads in Western New York?
This past spring, in the NHL’s final year of five-team divisions, the Sabres were the odd team out while the other four Northeast tenants went to the playoffs. Now, with realignment taking effect, they are in an Eastern Conference with 16 teams rather than 15 and a division with seven cohabitants rather than four.
Oh, and there is a new playoff format with emphasis on finishing among the top half of one’s division.
As if all that is not enough, there's also the trade talk, both via Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News, surrounding two long-tenured franchise figures, scorer Thomas Vanek and goaltender Ryan Miller. The more time passes with no activity or even reportage, the likelier it appears that the two pending 2014 free agents will be in Buffalo for at least some of 2013-14 per NHL.com.
If that is the case, it's likely that the players in question and/or the rumor mill that spins around them could become a distraction. Even if a deal involving one or both is in order and general manager Darcy Regier executes a trade or two, it will amount to significant overhaul, rendering this season a bridge year at best.
Veteran goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff is still leaving the Flames hanging as to whether or not he plans to play again, according to Todd Cordell of Hockey Buzz.
If he does, one wonders how much he still has to offer with his skill set. He had an irreproachable 2011-12, retaining a 2.35 goals-against average and .921 save percentage in 70 appearances, but his output plummeted when he played half of the shortened 48-game season in 2012-13.
If Kiprusoff, who will turn 37 late this October, calls it quits, then the situation becomes a matter of whom Calgary can get to fill the void in net. Right now, they have 33-year-old journeyman Joey MacDonald, who outside of a 49-game ride with the Islanders in 2008-09 and 21 appearances last year has never played more than 15 NHL contests in a single year.
With 48 career ventures in Tampa, Karri Ramo is the only other netminder under Calgary auspices with NHL experience.
The goaltending situation alone is enough to complicate the Flames’ endeavor to outrace their new Pacific Division peers.
The Hurricanes trail only the New Jersey Devils, one of their new foes in the newfangled Metropolitan Division, with 19 sets of back-to-back game days on their 2013-14 itinerary. While that also means many stretches of consecutive days off, that could amplify the team’s difficulty sustaining a favorable rhythm.
Other teams near the top of that unenviable list include the Chicago Blackhawks, New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins with 18 apiece.
As perennial powerhouses, the Hawks and Pens should be equipped to deal with that rigor. The Islanders and Devils, meanwhile, have the luxury of living in a three-team market and therefore staying close to home for both halves of some of those back-to-backs.
As for addressing their needs on the ice, Carolina’s best bet to prepare for a better year was to fortify its defense over the summer. After all, the Canes have finished among the bottom 10 in team defense and allowed at least 31.4 opposing shots per night over the previous four seasons.
They did obtain one player, Mike Komisarek, who carries a “defensive defenseman” label. However, significant impact on his part is in question given how little he has played lately.
The Penguins and Capitals had to go through it with Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, respectively, in 2005-06. The Blackhawks had to go through it with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in 2007-08.
Now the Colorado Avalanche are incorporating the freshest first overall draft choice in Nathan MacKinnon, who will have to start by joining the team through at least one year’s worth of regular-season growing pains.
Consider what they have to deal with in the newly aligned Central Division. The Blackhawks are a certifiable powerhouse, and the Blues are another sturdy, established team.
The Wild and the Jets, who fought hard while displaced in the Southeast Division, are on the rise. The Predators have retooled their offense with such acquisitions as Viktor Stalberg and look primed to kick ice chips over a fluky down year.
As a result, the still youthful Avs―with only four rostered skaters in their 30s―will be buried for the moment.
The only new Central Division team we have not mentioned by name yet, the Dallas Stars, are stocked with new faces. They have a new GM in the seasoned and successful Jim Nill, a new skipper in Lindy Ruff and new players in Sergei Gonchar, Shawn Horcoff, Rich Peverley and Tyler Seguin.
Whether they can coalesce all of that with their holdovers and produce will depend on speed. Because of the circumstances in their new division (already explained in the Colorado slide), there will not be much margin for error and not much time for learning and jelling.
On top of that, there remains the question as to who gets the “C” now that Brenden Morrow is gone. Nill has stressed to Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News that they will name a new captain for 2013-14, but whoever assumes that position will need to play a role in everyone’s quick, collective acclimation.
Chicago, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg are all viable playoff candidates, and the Stars will have to finish ahead of at least one, if not two of them to make the 2014 tournament.
Not very likely. Not right now.
This past week, George Richards of the Miami Herald reported that Ed Jovanovski and Kris Versteeg “are expected to miss the start of the season” with injuries.
That means the Panthers will have to go without their captain and defensive elder statesman in Jovanovski and a scorer in Versteeg who is good for the 20-goal and 50-point range in a full-length season.
Florida’s roster does not have much veteran presence and established offense to begin with.
But ask the Edmonton Oilers how fast an overload of unripe talent has brought their team pleasing results. Then ask how comfortable one can really be with Brian Campbell, Matt Gilroy and Mike Weaver as the elder half of a healthy defensive corps and three other blueliners (Erik Gudbranson, Dmitri Kulikov and Alex Petrovic) no older than 22.
Throw in the fact that they will be in a new eight-team circuit with Detroit, Tampa Bay and the five former tenants of the deep Northeast Division, and this looks like anything but the year of the Panther.
This compounds the drainage of the Devils offense that began last summer with the departure of captain Zach Parise, a loss that hurt more than one could have logically expected.
To be fair, no one can say the New Jersey front office isn’t trying. Up front, the Devils now have Ryane Clowe, Jaromir Jagr and Michael Ryder coming in.
Barring any pleasant surprises, though, they will not be thoroughly supplementary substitutes for Clarkson, Kovalchuk or Parise. Ryder has shown his prolific potential with a pair of 60-point seasons, but Jagr is likely on his last ounces of fuel, and Clowe could be a toss-up at best.
Behind those forwards, new captain Bryce Salvador is 37 and coming off an unsavory minus-12 campaign that ended early with an injury. The fact that this followed a 2012 playoff (14 points, plus-nine) that could have won him a Conn Smythe leaves one wondering who is the real Salvador at this point, and what it means for the Devils defense.
Like the Hurricanes, the Flyers are in need of a defensive upgrade (as pointed out by Frank Seravalli of the Philadelphia Daily News), especially if they are to nab a 2014 playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division. They do not need to outright replace the long-injured Chris Pronger, who is now going on two years without any game action, but they do need to pursue a piece as close to the same ilk as they can.
Philadelphia did spring for one big-name blueliner over the summer, Mark Streit. But Streit is more of the offensive-oriented variety and therefore will not do much to address the club’s pure defensive pothole.
The new netminding tandem of Steve Mason and Ray Emery should be an improvement over the abandoned multi-million dollar experiment that was Ilya Bryzgalov. But as the Flyers and the division are currently constituted, their only hope is a surprise lights-out campaign from one of those goaltenders and a startling collapse by one or more of Columbus, the Islanders, the Rangers, Pittsburgh or Washington.
The Coyotes have company with Calgary, in that they have the least promise to compete for a coveted playoff berth in the seven-team Pacific Division. They face four reigning tournament-goers in Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose and Vancouver along with an improving Edmonton team.
One of the Oilers' additives is a Phoenix loss, seasoned checking center Boyd Gordon.
As Joe Yerdon of Pro Hockey Talk was apt to point out, just among defensemen alone, “David Rundblad, Brandon Gormley, and Connor Murphy are waiting for their shot to crack the NHL full-time which means guys like Keith Yandle and Derek Morris will pop up in trade rumors, Yandle especially.”
A less-than-ideal position in the standings by the thick of winter could amount to serious shopping with Yandle. That, in turn, would signal an aim for long-term rather than short-term gratification in Phoenix.
There is no guarantee anything of the sort will arise, but it could for reasons that Yerdon cites, as well as a general lack of seasoning up front. In an interview with general manager Don Maloney, NHL.com’s Tal Pinchevsky relayed that Phoenix is considering using multiple homegrown prospects to plug holes in the depth chart.
That will mean a lot of acclimation, which is not typically synonymous with immediate results.
Of the eight tenants of the new Atlantic Division, five are coming off a playoff appearance in 2013: Boston, Detroit, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. None of those teams show signs of receding much in the near future.
Of the three who missed last year’s dance, the Bolts have a better chance to reverse that situation than the Sabres or Panthers. But with that said, too many divisional and conference rivals have a better outlook going into this season.
Offseason acquisitions Jonathan Drouin and Valtteri Filppula are both nice additives up front, but offense is the least of Tampa Bay’s worries.
Goaltenders Anders Lindback and Ben Bishop could be ready to take on a more substantial workload, each having played a career-high number of games last year. Then again, that was only 24 games for Lindback and 22 for Bishop.
In between lies the question of what the Lightning should or can do about their defensive corps. As Damian Cristodero of the Tampa Bay Times phrased the situation late last April, “It needs someone a little faster. It needs someone confident with the puck, who can make a play under pressure rather than bail.”
So far, the professional portion of the Tampa Bay organization has no new faces on defense to speak of. Barring any changes between now and opening night, that means indefinitely banking on the incumbents to implement their own dramatic do-it-yourself facelift along with coach Jon Cooper in his first full season.
Anything short of that will not make the netminders’ lives any easier.