Pretender or Contender: Which NHL Teams Are for Real?

Abbey MastraccoContributor IINovember 12, 2021

Pretender or Contender: Which NHL Teams Are for Real?

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    With a generational netminder and a good supporting cast, the New York Rangers were expected to compete for Stanley Cups until at least the end of Henrik Lundqvist's contract in 2021. But as it turned out, that supporting cast wasn't strong enough, and the Rangers found themselves fading in the standings as the 2018 NHL trade deadline approached.

    The club took a candid approach, issuing the now-infamous letter to fans to tell them the team needed to get younger, faster and more competitive.

    All of that spelled out one thing: a rebuild.

    Rebuilds are never fun, but in a salary-cap world, sometimes they are necessary to get teams back into a position to contend for championships.

    Every franchise goes through some dark days when the losses seem to pile up nightly. But along with the losses come draft picks, prospects and hope. It might be difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel, especially for fans of teams like the New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres, who have been deprived of winning products for so long, but rebuilding phases don't last forever.

    Some organizations might be more adept at expediting them than others by putting the foundation in place through drafting and developing and supplementing through trades. Those other teams? They are the dysfunctional ones. Incompetence can hamper a rebuild and slow down the recovery timeline. But even those teams eventually turn the corner.

    So which teams have turned the corner this year, and which teams are still stuck in rebuild mode? Good early-season performances can bring false hope, but a few of the NHL's rebuilding clubs might be for real.

    Here's a look at six rebuilding teams that have started the season strong. Are their results indicative of better times to come? Let's discuss.

Anaheim Ducks

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    California was a hockey mecca for so long. The Anaheim Ducks brought the Golden State its first Stanley Cup in 2007, the Los Angeles Kings won it in 2012 and 2014 and the Sharks went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016.

    Anaheim reached the Western Conference Final as recently as 2016-17, but the core aged, the roster had little depth and coach Randy Carlyle was fired in February 2019.

    The Ducks are at a crossroads, as general manager Bob Murray resigned Wednesday amid an investigation into his personal conduct, and he will enter an alcohol treatment program. Jeff Solomon, a long-time Kings executive, has been named his successor on an interim basis. Murray had been in charge of the hockey operations in Orange County since 2008, when he took over for Brian Burke.

    Anaheim is known to have one of the best scouting staffs in hockey, and the club has had a lot of success developing defensemen in particular—six of the blueliners they have drafted in the past decade have played at least 159 NHL games. But the stars of their current crop of prospects are mostly forwards, with the exception of 19-year-old defenseman Jamie Drysdale. A fifth-round pick in 2015, Troy Terry is finally looking like the a top-line winger the Ducks hoped he would become after his star turn at the 2017 World Juniors.

    Terry's 11 goals are tied for the second-most in the league and his 19 points are the fourth-most. He's found chemistry on a line with Adam Henrique and Ryan Getzlaf, is riding a 13-game point streak and shooting at a ridiculous 33.3 percent clip. Trevor Zegras, who is all of 20, is centering the second line. The Ducks also have 2021 third overall pick Mason McTavish on the third line.

    The presence of Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson means the blue line is still solid. And the blueliners play in front of an elite goaltender in John Gibson. All of these players are homegrown, which speaks to that stellar scouting and development reputation the Ducks have developed.

    This is a talented crop of prospects, though some, like Sam Steel and Maxime Comtois, still have rough edges. But the Pacific Division is weak this season, which could bode well for their chances.

                               

    Verdict: Contender

    The Ducks might not be Cup contenders, but if Solomon can fortify the roster at the trade deadline without giving up too much prospect capital, then they could have a shot at making the playoffs.

Buffalo Sabres

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    Jack Eichel is gone, marking the end of an era in Buffalo. The superstar center was the focal point of the Sabres' plan to get back to contention, but the situation became untenable.

    The Eichel era was mostly characterized by front office dysfunction and an inability to develop the talent around him. After the team failed to reach the postseason in any of six seasons with the team, he wanted out of Buffalo after the team would not allow him to undergo his preferred surgery for a herniated disk in his neck.

    So off he went to the Vegas Golden Knights, with the key returns being injured forward Alex Tuch and highly regarded prospect Peyton Krebs.

    What has life been like for the Sabres without their star center, who last suited up March 7? Not bad. Buffalo went 5-1-1 to start the season and has gotten good goaltending from veteran backstop Craig Anderson, and crease-mate Dustin Tokarski hasn't been bad, either.

    The Sabres have some youngsters playing big roles, with Tage Thompson centering the top line that also contains Jeff Skinner and Rasmus Asplund, who leads the team in points with 10. Head coach Don Granato, the team's fifth since 2013, seems to inspire the players and has provided some stability. He took the role on an interim basis last year after Ralph Krueger was fired. He earned the job full time after guiding the Sabres to a 9-16-3 record last year.

    But this roster is devoid of the sort of stars who can take over games, and it shows. The goal differential is exactly zero. Buffalo's advanced metrics at five-on-five are average. They are relying on a goalie tandem comprising a 40-year-old and someone with a little more than 50 games of NHL experience.

    There is something to build on—especially with three first-round draft picks in 20222—and their winning start made for a nice feel-good story, but it isn't sustainable.

                         

    Verdict: Pretender.

    The Sabres are already coming back to earth, having lost their past five straight (0-4-1).

Detroit Red Wings

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    The Detroit Red Wings are starting to see some payoff for their years of retooling efforts. Tyler Bertuzzi, a 26-year-old winger, is the team's leading scorer. Two of the NHL's most exciting young talents are playing in Motown in Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond. Some regard Seider as one of the top defensive prospects in the world, while Raymond, a winger, is a complete player at only 19 and looks to have quickly adapted to NHL defenses.

    The Red Wings expedited the rebuilding process over the summer when they traded for Calder Trophy finalist Alex Nedeljkovic. The goalie will have to show that he's capable of handling a full season of work at the NHL level, but the team seems intent on rotating him with veteran Thomas Greiss.

    However, Nedeljkovic and Greiss are facing a lot of high-danger shots, per Natural Stat Trick. That shows that Detroit's defensemen aren't doing a good job of stopping opposing forwards from creating premium scoring opportunities. Plus, Bertuzzi is unable to play in games in Canada because he is unvaccinated, and the team will be without Jakub Vrana for much of the season as he recovers from shoulder surgery.

    The Red Wings are sitting in third place in the Atlantic Division with a 7-6-2 record, but it's highly unlikely they will finish ahead of perennial contenders like the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Boston Bruins.

                      

    Verdict: Pretender—for now

    This team will be a contender again in the coming years, possibly even as soon as next season. The pieces are in place, but this team needs more time to mature before it can take the next step.

Los Angeles Kings

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Associated Press

    It's a new era in Los Angeles, but this team is starting to resemble the ones from between 2010 and 2014. Those teams had significant depth up the middle, big, mobile defensemen and staunch goaltending. Coach Darryl Sutter is long gone, and in his place is Todd McLellan. General manager Dean Lombardi is gone as well, but his successor, Kings great Rob Blake, was an assistant general manager on that 2014 Cup team, so the similarities in these builds aren't a coincidence.

    The Kings' .921 save percentage is the fifth-best record in the league, and the 35-year-old Jonathan Quick is looking back to his best in goal after three seasons of subpar play. Captain Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danault make up a strong one-two punch up the middle.

    But Los Angeles' depth has taken a huge hit this season. Center Quinton Byfield, arguably the Kings' top prospects, is out indefinitely with a fractured ankle. Defenseman Drew Doughty is out for six weeks with a bruised knee, and fellow blueliner Sean Walker is out for the season after tearing his ACL and MCL in his right knee. Winger Viktor Arvidsson, a key offseason acquisition, has spent time in the NHL's COVID-19 protocol.

    The good news is that the Kings have one of the best prospect pools in hockey. Blake tried to keep the core of the 2014 team together for as long as he could to give them another shot at a Cup, but the window slammed shut, and he knew he needed to restock the farm system in order for the team to be competitive again.

    His efforts were successful, and the team is on a seven-game winning streak even without calling up some of its elite talent in the minors, like the playmaking of Alex Turcotte or the defensive prowess of Brandt Clarke. Blake is smart enough to know that rushing those prospects won't be conducive to success in the future.

                           

    Verdict: Pretender

    Yes, the Pacific is a bad division, but it's tough to lose the impact players the Kings have and still contend. This will be a very good team for years to come—as evidenced by its winning run—so consider this season the last year of Los Angeles' rebuild.

New Jersey Devils

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    What a wild ride this rebuild been for the Devils.

    It started back in 2015, though it should have got underway sooner. The architect of the build, Ray Shero, was fired suddenly in the middle of the 2019-20 season, shortly after the club had fired head coach John Hynes and traded 2018 Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall—and just six months after the team drafted Jack Hughes at No. 1 overall.

    On paper, that should have been a playoff team. New Jersey broke its five-year postseason drought in 2017-18, with Hall dragging the team to the playoffs, but his efforts weren't enough, and the team was never able to build around him successfully.

    Now, Shero's former assistant general manager, Tom Fitzgerald, is guiding the rebuilding efforts with Lindy Ruff behind the bench. The Devils have two top young centers in captain Nico Hischier and Hughes, a promising goalie in Mackenzie Blackwood and the best blue line they have had in years.

    The club signed free agency's biggest prize, Dougie Hamilton, to a seven-year, $63 million deal in July. The defense group is so loaded that P.K. Subban doesn't have to play at an All-Star level anymore.

    Are the Devils the plucky underdogs of the Metropolitan Division? Maybe. Injuries to Hughes, Hamilton and Miles Wood have thinned the roster, though Hamilton made a goal-scoring return to the lineup in Thursday's 4-0 win over the New York Islanders. There are also questions about secondary scoring, especially since Yegor Sharangovich hasn't produced the type of highlight-reel goals he did last year and in the preseason.

                            

    Verdict: Contender—kind of

    This is a tough division, and it's still unclear where New Jersey fits into it. But the Devils haven't shown any signs of letting up during a 7-3-2 start to the season, which included a signature win against the high-flying Florida Panthers.

New York Rangers

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    The New York Rangers have a ton of high-end talent, most notably winger Artemi Panarin, center Mika Zibanejad and phenom defenseman Adam Fox. The Blueshirts boast another emerging blueliner in K'Andre Miller, as well as a quality young goalie tandem in Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev.

    So what's the problem?

    Well, you could start with their five-on-five play. The Rangers are getting cratered at even strength. Their 43.35 Corsi For percentage is dead last in the NHL, per Natural Stat Trick. Of course, that leads to problems scoring at five-on-five, and only five teams are scoring fewer goals per game than New York (2.54 per game). Natural Stat Trick also details that Shesterkin has faced 71 high-danger shots at five-on-five, which is the sixth-most faced by any goaltender in the league.

    Beneath the aforementioned elite talent, the skill level drops off significantly. Two important young prospects have yet to develop into top-line wingers. Kaapo Kakko, the No. 2 overall pick in 2019, has shown flashes of brilliance but has been inconsistent. Alexis Lafreniere, the first overall selection in 2020, has spent time on the third and fourth lines this season after a disappointing debut campaign.

    There have been some late-game blowups, with one coming recently against the Florida Panthers, when the Rangers almost threw away a 4-0 third-period lead. However, New York is 7-3-3 and has a top coach behind the bench in Gerard Gallant. There is time to right these wrongs.

                    

    Verdict: Contender—kind of

    The Rangers are in the same situation as the Devils, with an uphill climb in the Metro. But much like the Kings, the team they faced in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, the prospect pool sets them up for a bright future. So the Rangers will compete for a playoff spot this year, and it will provide invaluable experience for their young core, setting them up to become postseason regulars for the forseeable future.

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