At the beginning of every hockey season, or every season in any sport, everyone makes their big predictions and hopes like hell they end up being right.
In the NHL more than any other league, there are always going to be major outliers. Last year’s Islanders were widely expected to be any shade of “bad” you like, but few outside the homer racket had them making the playoffs, let alone finishing north of 100 points.
On the other side of the ledger, reliably good teams like Minnesota faltered and expected risers like Florida, well, didn’t rise.
You can go through and do this for any given year in recent NHL history: There are always one or two pleasant surprises, always one or two alarming disappointments. Such is the nature of this incredibly random sport.
So let’s think, then, about the teams that might be most likely to surprise one way or the other. While it’s often not who you think it might be, there are usually red flags, or silver linings on otherwise dark clouds that could portend better things.
Arizona is a team with red flags. As outlined in the Power Feelings, a lot of their points last season came because a goalie had an outsized stretch of unexpected success. They needed a career .912 goaltender to go .925 for 55 games (the most of his career by far) to even get to 86 points. Part of that was because injuries and a mostly too-young forward group hampered the offense significantly — Clayton Keller was their leading scorer with 47 points — but it also came while Antti Raanta, who’s usually great if oft-injured, was bad when he wasn’t on the shelf.
The idea, then, that the Coyotes are ready to take the next step is predicated on three ideas: maturation of young talent throughout the lineup, the addition of Phil Kessel to juice the offense, and some big suppositions in the crease.
It’s easy to buy the first two (at least as long as we’re also buying that Kessel’s obvious defensive deficiencies won’t significantly hurt a team that was pretty good in its own end last season). The third? Ehhhh. It’s counting on Kuemper to keep being a borderline-elite goaltender, Raanta to stay healthy for the full season, or at least have both be available and solid in combination. That would require one or both to buck career-long trends — Kuemper’s toward mediocrity, Raanta’s toward the infirmary — that, at their ages, might just be How It Is.
There’s no doubt they should be better, talent-wise, but whether that translates to more points in the standings to the extent many seem to expect is a bigger what-if.
Another team for which it wouldn’t be super-surprising to see things go sideways is Calgary. The argument is much the same: Dave Rittich was well above average before the All-Star break (.918) but much of that was buoyed by a hot October (.939), and masked a really poor run down the stretch (.898 in his last 15 appearances). Mike Smith was .898 for the season last year, and kept getting starts despite all logic, but now he’s gone. He was replaced with a goaltender who might be equally cooked in Cam Talbot, whose last two seasons have seen him go .902 in 102 games.
To be fair, the Flames’ outfield quality is much greater than that of his previous two employers: Edmonton and Philadelphia, but if he is what he appears to be now, and Rittich turns out to be a guy who’s right around league average, the Flames’ results thin out quickly.
That’s not saying they’ll be bad. Far from it. But they also likely won’t be able to keep up with what they did last year, when they finished second in the league. Let’s just say the odds that they’re closer to the first wild card spot than the top of the conference seem pretty good.
Going the other way, a couple of lower-level teams that could really surprise people are Philadelphia and Minnesota.
The Flyers undoubtedly got worse in adding Justin Braun and a late-model Matt Niskanen to their defensive mix, but they also shored up at least some of their forward depth issues by signing Kevin Hayes (the money is clearly an issue but not as bad as people make it out to be).
A little more jam to the offense probably goes a long way to help what was a below-average offense last season, and if we want to count on more health for all involved, that seems fine too, even if we aren’t necessarily relying on Claude Giroux to have another point-a-game season.
The real reason one can see the Flyers taking a big step this season, though, is that Carter Hart looks like the real deal, and none of of the other seven(!) goalies they used last year won’t be able to get 51 starts like they did last year. That alone probably gives them five or six extra points in the standings, albeit in a tough division.
Finally, there’s the Wild, an elite defensive team last year beset by mediocrity and injuries up front, and more importantly, some low-key poor goaltending. Devan Dubnyk’s save percentage graded out okay, but the team was so good in front of him that an average goalie would have done much better; Dubnyk cost the Wild almost 19 goals below expected.
No one would mistake this group for a contender or really, anything close, but if the important players are healthy for 70-plus games and the goalies aren’t as bad as they were last year, this is a team that’s easily in the playoff conversation, at least. Not that I’m holding my breath on Dubnyk and especially Alex Stalock turning into competent goalies again, but stranger things have certainly happened.
Which, I guess, is the point: Stranger things happen every single season, usually two or three times.
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