NHL Teams Most Likely to Decline This Season

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistDecember 14, 2017

NHL Teams Most Likely to Decline This Season

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    A third of the way through the 2017-18 NHL schedule, the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders are among the clubs jockeying for playoff berths. However, they are also at risk of declining over the course of the season.

    A lack of secondary scoring is one factor that could derail the rebuilding Devils. The Islanders, meanwhile, have ongoing concerns about their goaltending and on their blue line. Left unaddressed, these issues could jeopardize their postseason hopes.

    The Devils and Islanders aren't the only teams at risk of decline over the remainder of 2017-18. Here's a closer look at other such clubs and the problem areas that could send them tumbling in the standings. Feel free to express your views on this topic in the comments section below.

Winnipeg Jets

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Led by scoring forwards Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine, the Winnipeg Jets find themselves among the top clubs in the Western Conference. Their 41 points in 31 games place them third in the Central Division. However, their goaltending and the health of their veteran blueliners could be causes for concern over the remainder of the schedule.

    Goaltending used to be a weakness for the Jets. It's improved this season thanks to the development of Connor Hellebuyck, who's won 16 of 23 starts with a 2.40 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. Still, it remains to be seen whether he can maintain that solid effort. If he struggles, backup Steve Mason's numbers (3.45, .904) hardly inspire confidence.

    For years, Dustin Byfuglien and Toby Enstrom were blue-line stalwarts for the Jets. Injuries, however, have waylaid the duo for several weeks. Their production was already down prior to being sidelined. How well the Jets adjust to their absences could affect their finish in the standings.

    Thanks to their potent offense, Winnipeg should remain a playoff club through the rest of this season. But if Hellebuyck struggles and the blue line fails to suitably adapt without Byfuglien and Enstrom, a slide in the standings is possible.

San Jose Sharks

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The San Jose Sharks are trying to regain the form that made them Stanley Cup finalists in 2016. They are third in the Pacific Division, with 35 points in 29 games, but they have their work cut out for them to maintain that spot in the competitive Western Conference.

    A big factor is the Sharks' declining offense. In 2015-16, their 2.89 goals-per-game average was fourth in the league. Two years later, in a season when league scoring is up, the Sharks (2.68) have slumped to 25th. That's due, in part, to the drop in scoring by veteran forwards Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski and puck-moving defenseman Brent Burns.

    Goaltending and defensive breakdowns are also a concern.

    On Monday, NBCS Bay Area's Marcus White reported starting goalie Martin Jones' save percentage in "high-danger" situations is .798 at even strength and .821 in all situations. White also observed San Jose's defense played poorly during Jones' recent starts.

    The Sharks have sufficient time in the schedule to improve their defensive game. Bolstering their scoring, however, could require a move or two before the Feb. 26 trade deadline. If those issues remain unaddressed, the Sharks risk tumbling out of playoff contention.

Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    After squeaking into the 2017 playoffs, the Toronto Maple Leafs are flying high this season in the Eastern Conference. With 41 points in 32 games, they are second in both the Atlantic Division and the conference standings. However, defensive issues could threaten their hopes of remaining among the East's top clubs.

    The Leafs' 34.4 shots against per game are third-highest in the NHL. Following their 4-2 loss to Philadelphia on Tuesday, Sportsnet's Chris Johnston reported it was the 13th time in Toronto's previous 17 games wherein they were outshot. While the Maple Leafs' explosive offense is playing a big part in their victories this season, it's come at the expense of their defensive play.

    As a result, Toronto relies too much on starting goaltender Frederik Andersen to bail them out. That tactic has worked fine so far, but it could become an issue if Andersen struggles or suffers an injury. The lack of a true top-two defenseman exacerbates the problem.

    With the league's fifth-best goals-per-game average (3.31), the Leafs offense should help them retain a postseason berth. But if they don't address their defensive concerns, clinching a spot in the 2018 playoffs could become a more difficult task.

New Jersey Devils

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Led by resurgent left wing Taylor Hall and rookies Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt and Will Butcher, the rebuilding New Jersey Devils sit among the top teams in the Eastern Conference. With 38 points in 30 games, they're third in the Metropolitan Division

    Those rookies also hold the key to Devils' playoff hopes this season. It's the first time Hischier, Bratt and Butcher will have played up to 82 games in a season. They could fade over the course of the second half of the campaign as the grind of the long schedule takes its toll.

    Secondary scoring could also become a concern.

    Brian Gibbons, their leading goal scorer, tallied only three times in his past 10 games. Right wing Drew Stafford has been held pointless since Nov. 12, while sophomore forward Pavel Zacha has managed only three points since Oct. 28. Injuries, meanwhile, sidelined forwards Kyle Palmieri and Marcus Johansson for lengthy periods.

    Should the rookies continue playing well and the aforementioned forwards get healthier and regain their scoring touch, the Devils could clinch their first playoff berth since 2012. Otherwise, they could find it difficult maintaining their position in the standings.

Vegas Golden Knights

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The Vegas Golden Knights have exceeded expectations in their inaugural season. With 40 points in 30 games, the expansion club sits in second place in the Pacific Division. However, they could find it challenging to maintain their surprising first-half success over the remainder of the schedule.

    One problem area is the lack of a skilled mobile top-two defenseman. Colin Miller is their highest-scoring rearguard, with 16 points. That's a respectable number, but there's no certainty he can maintain that output. As teams tighten up defensively in the second half of the season, the absence of experienced blue-line offense could hurt the Golden Knights.

    Vegas' special teams could also use improvement.

    The team's power-play percentage (18.4) sits 19th in the league, while the penalty-kill percentage (78.9) ranks 23rd. Those stats must improve over the second half. The Knights also caught teams by surprise with their solid play. Opponents will be better prepared going forward.

    The Golden Knights are defying history and the experts. They could go on to nail down a postseason berth. But the work gets tougher in the second half, with teams in playoff contention jostling for position. Maintaining their perch among the top five teams in the Western Conference will be a demanding test for this expansion club.

New York Islanders

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    With 37 points in 31 games, the New York Islanders are fourth in the Metropolitan Division, holding one of the two Eastern Conference wild-card spots. However, their goaltending and blue-line depth are weaknesses that could derail their postseason hopes.

    The Islanders have the third-highest goals against per game (3.35) in the league. That's the worst among teams holding playoff berths. The goalie tandem of Jaroslav Halak (2.97 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage) and Thomas Greiss (3.72 GAA, .890 SP) must improve or the Isles could find themselves in the market for help in the crease.

    On the blue line, Nick Leddy's 24 points in 31 games rank him among the points leaders for defensemen. However, the Isles' overall defensive game needs work. They have the second-worst penalty-killing percentage (73.7) and have given up the seventh-most shots per game (32.6).

    Given their shaky goaltending and poor defensive numbers, the Islanders are living dangerously. If not for their strong offensive game, they would be sitting outside of a playoff position. If their scoring declines, they are in trouble.

             

    Player and team stats (as of Dec. 13) via NHL.com.