It's pretty clear by now that there is significant stratification in the NHL.
There is a small handful of great teams — Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Jose, St. Louis — and quite a few more very good ones. There are several middling teams thrown in as well, which range from decent to kind of bad, but which will have no impact on playoff proceedings overall.
Then there is a small number of truly dismal teams, and it is this group of three or four clubs that will be of particular interest this season.
Unlike the last time a true “generational talent” came into the NHL (2005, when Sidney Crosby was the consensus No. 1 by a mile), there is actually going to be a season played this year, and for the most part we don't have to get into conspiracy theories about the selection process. The results you see on the ice over the next several months will dictate who picks where, which is the way it should be.
But here's the thing: This year isn't really like last year, in terms of being able to say, “Oh yes, the Sabres are clearly the worst team in the league.” Well, they're clearly the worst team in the league at present, but the gap between them and some of the other contenders for that fateful No. 30 spot in the standings isn't quite so pronounced as it was last year.
The over-under numbers that came out earlier this week got me thinking about that portion
The first thing to keep in mind about the Sabres of last season is that they were, in addition to being the worst team in the league, almost hopelessly unlucky. They only got to 52 points last season, which is pathetic (literally 40 points below league-average), despite the fact that Ryan Miller and the rest of the goalies stopped 5 percent more shots than the average NHL goaltending (.918); if they'd kept Miller the whole season, instead of wisely trading him, they'd have probably gotten closer to 60. He was that good for them.
But even 60 would have been bad, and the fact that they shed Miller and will instead rely upon Michal Neuvirth to push things along. Things will not go quite so well for them in the goaltending department as a consequence, but Neuvirth isn't bad or anything, and the rest of the team has improved. They brought in Brian Gionta and Andrej Meszaros among other NHL veterans, and re-signed Matt Moulson after trading him to Minnesota. Now that's asset management. The team's biggest problem was scoring, and it's not really been addressed, but the likelihood that an entire team shoots just 7 percent again (almost two points below league average) next season seems quite low.
So the question becomes whether that increase will square up with a potentially big drop in save percentage, and how adding some better players in front of Neuvirth will affect their shots-against total. One assumes that the answer is “not enough to make a difference”, and so this will still be an almost-incredibly bad team, all things considered. I feel pretty confident saying that they weren't really as bad as a 52-point team last year, and they won't be that bad again this time around. They are, however, clearly still downright awful.
It'll be interesting to see if the luck actually goes their way this season, too, and effectively screws them into a race with some other teams for dead last. It's not probable, but it's certainly possible, that such a thing could happen, especially if one of the other deeply bad teams ends up getting the same kind of tough bounces Buffalo did last year.
But because the rules for the draft lottery have been changed to take away some of the advantage of finishing 30th — a hearty screw-you to the tanking crowd from the league — it's also fair to examine the group of teams that might come next, and I'd say there are probably only two or three who have a legit shot at finishing 29th. And by the way, it goes without saying that even if you're picking second in the draft come June, you're still walking away with a very good player in Jack Eichel, whom most scouts said would have been No. 1 overall in this past draft, had he been eligible.
The team that seems to be the prohibitive favorite to finish one step up from the basement is the Calgary Flames, but they're a team that actually improved somewhat this offseason, and might be able to stay afloat better than they should want. The fact is that they finished 27th despite getting awful goaltending (.902) and suffering some major injuries to key players (their man-games lost was third in the league last year, many to key players). They didn't really replace Mike Cammalleri after predictably seeing him walk in free agency, but they shored up some of the team's depth issues with actual decent possession drivers. And, most critically to their non-losing, they brought in league-average goaltender Jonas Hiller, which is not what teams near the bottom of the league should be doing.
Is this the year the Flames bottom out? I wouldn't be surprised, but they weren't truly as pitiful as they needed to be last year, and things might even improve for them this year (albeit slightly).
Carolina is another interesting potential bottom feeder this season, even if Eric Staal actually delivers something useful. They added next to nothing — three former Maple Leafs! — and changed coaches again, and still, for some reason, plan on making poor Anton Khudobin split time with Cam Ward.
That alone ensures that they're going to lose more games than they probably should. But it's also difficult to believe that Khudobin is really as good as the numbers say he is (career .926 save percentage, same as he posted last year) because we're still talking about a guy with just 57 career games under his belt. Maybe he regresses with a heavier workload, but even if he steps back considerably from his career numbers he'll still be above average. Unless Ward really steps up, this is still a team that's not very good, and that outweighs even world-class goaltending in a lot of cases (see also: the 2013-14 Sabres).
As for the people throwing Florida into this mix, that seems unlikely. They're a team that's young and improving, with high-test players in critical positions. They also brought in some very solid depth (Willie Mitchell, Jussi Jokinen, Dave Bolland) to shore up the bottom of what was a thin roster before. Go down their top-9 forwards and six defensemen and you won't find a lot wrong with that lineup. Are they a playoff team? No, but they're not skulking along with the dregs of the league either.
This is especially true because they're going to get a full season out of Roberto Luongo, who remains one of the best goalies in the league. That's a huge upgrade from the other four goaltenders they used last season, and I warn you that this is a real list: Tim Thomas (40 games, .909), Scott Clemmensen (17 games, .896), Jacob Markstrom (12 games, .874(!!!)), and Dan Ellis (six games, .836(!!!!!!!!!!!)). Altogether, those guys faced 2,110 shots in 4,000-plus minutes — 31.2 per 60 minutes, which is a lot — and allowed 220 goals. That's an .895 team save percentage, and that's going to get you second-to-last every time. With Luongo carrying the water now, though, it will be almost impossible to get below .910 as a team; that's a goal savings of about 30 goals over the course of a season, or as much as 10 extra standings points, just on goaltending alone.
The rest of the team improving as well should push the Panthers pretty safely out of the basement.
Then there's Edmonton, which has likewise improved and wasn't even as bad as Calgary last season. A full year of Ben Scrivens should do wonders for their dismal goaltending, and the team also added a number of depth forwards whom the underlying numbers like quite a bit. Plus, not having to deal with yet another coach firing might make it a little easier for the team to actually know what the hell it's supposed to be doing at any point in the game, and that, too, means improvement.
The Islanders are so much better now than they were as a 67-point team last season that their candidacy for their position isn't worth discussing.
The Vegas odds say the three worst teams in the league this year will likely be Buffalo, Calgary, and Florida, but I'd swap out the Panthers for their old Southeast Division foes in Raleigh. The fact of the matter is that the salary cap (and specifically its floor) is bringing greater wealth distribution in terms of how bad teams are able to improve by adding good players.
Last year, the worst teams in the league were almost historically bad, but they've all taken a step forward. It'll still be a dogfight to see who's picking with the Nos. 1 and 2 spots, but I doubt it will be quite so pitiful.