Hockey

Everyone’s favorite darling, basically because national media types love to get drunk there for free and it’s not cold. Generally that has shielded everyone’s eyes from this being a pretty repugnant organization run by a ghoul in David Poile, who just engaged in the long-running hockey and Southern tradition of when things go wrong blame the black guy. It’s also put the wool over most experts’ eyes that the Preds have taken two straight division championships and done just north of dick with them, or that Ryan Johansen blows, or Eli Tolvanen didn’t redefine the sport upon arrival, or Roman Josi is starting to age, or half a dozen other things. Is it finally going to, thankfully, crash down around their ears this year?

2018-2019

47-29-6  100 points  (1st in Central, out in 1st round)

2.88 GF/G (18th)  2.59 GA/G (4th)  +24 GD

52.1 CF% (7th)  51.1 xGF% (13th)

12.9 PP% (31st)  82.1 PK% (6th)

Goalies: Same crew. Pekka Rinne will take the starter’s role as he has done in Music City since before Marvel Studios existed. He was more than acceptable last year with a .918. But that was down from the previous season, and he is 37 now and one wonders if that’s a slide that’s just going to continue. No one outruns time forever. Encouragingly for the Preds, Rinne did get stronger as the season went along last year, with a .913 in February and a .927 in March after a very shaky winter period. Didn’t really save him in the playoffs though, where he put up his second consecutive .904 in seven games against the Stars. And that’s usually the story for Rinne when the games really matter, as other than that one run to the Final he’s been nothing more than ordinary in the spring. And he’s running out of chances.

There are probably some in the Preds braintrust that hoped Juuse Saros would take the job from Rinne last year. He wasn’t bad, but he didn’t outperform Rinne and if the Preds are going to move on from a club legend while he’s still playing the difference has to be clear. Saros is only 24 and has time on his side, and if he sticks around his career .920 one might think that could be enough to usurp the incumbent, should his age-induced slide continue. Either way, the Predators are solid here.

Defense: Well it must be pretty damn good if they thought they didn’t need PK Subban anymore, huh? Must be nice when you can jettison the d-man who had the best metrics on the team.

It’ll put more pressure on Roman Josi, whose influence hasn’t been as great the past two or three seasons but still puts up points. Matthias Ekholm should be his partner, as Ryan Ellis was completely exposed taking on top pairing assignments in the playoffs. He’s a great bum-slayer but don’t put him up against real players, or you’ll pay the penalty.

There’s also a lot of faith in Dante Fabbro, who was tossed into the deep end of the playoffs after being a point-per-game at BU the past two seasons. He could end up driving things on the second pairing, either alongside Ellis or forcing him down to the third pairing where he started in the first place. Then again, that’s probably not what you want out of a d-man you’re paying $6.2M until the Earth’s heat death. More brilliant work from Poile.

They’ll round it out with Matt Irwin, Yannick Weber, and Dan Hamhuis‘s slowly-turning-to-dust bones, and they’ve definitely got this. Again, solid, but if Josi isn’t around Norris-level discussion, it’s short a top-pairing guy.

Forwards: The headlines are Matt Duchene finally came “home,” if home is the place where you’ve made it clear you want to play for about five years because you’re a true Canadian shit-kicker. Duchene will certainly juice the second line, whether from the wing or in the middle.

The Preds as always will do it through a strength-in-numbers method. Their only proven top line talent is Filip Forsberg and he’s made of graham crackers. Viktor Arvidsson is probably a genuine top-liner as well or a tick below. Ryan Johansen is completely overmatched as a #1, at least when he’s not playing for a contract to blow on a lifetime supply of ding-dongs, but they’ll keep selling it. Mikael Granlund will get a full season in yellow before hitting free agency, which probably means a big season for him. Granlund’s and Duchene’s presence will shove Kyle Turris down the lineup where he will hope no one notices he’s not worth $6M a year either. Same goes for Colton Sissons, and Craig Smith, and Calle Jarnkrok, Marriage counselor Austin Watson is still here to fill out Nashville’s absolute bastard quota. It might not have the highest of ceilings but this crew probably has the highest floor.

Prediction: My comrade in arms Fifth Feather thinks this squad is headed for a collapse. I wish I could get there, though the chance that Peter Laviolette‘s style finally is too much for the players is non-zero. The chance for Pekka Rinne to look his age is also non-zero. But the chance of both Rinne and Saros being bad is pretty close to zero. The defense certainly lost most of its fun to New Jersey, but it’s still more than enough as long as they keep Ellis away from anything flammable. They’ll be more than that if Fabbro is the real deal. The forwards carry more than enough speed and dash to light up most teams.

There isn’t a guarantee in the West to expose Johansen or outgun them, but they can also lose to anyone as they did last year. They very easily could win the division again. They could very easily eat it early with the wrong matchup. If that happens again, there could be changes.

But they’ll still be assholes.

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Hockey

There seems to be this misconception that the Stars made it back to the playoffs and to the second round of the playoffs last year because of a dynamic young roster playing entertaining hockey. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, as coach Jim Montgomery authored a second-half charge by boring the utter shit out of everyone and trying to copy what Barry Trotz was doing with the Isles. They got a Vezina-finalist worthy season out of Ben Bishop, which was the main catalyst. So which way does Montgomery play this now? Stick with the effective but limited, and coma-inducing, style that got the Stars into the playoffs? Or retry finding something more expansive that might be harder to pull off but leads to bigger rewards down the line?

2018-2019

43-32-7  93 points (4th in Central, out in 2nd round)

2.55 GF/G (29th)  2.44 GA/G (2nd)

48.1 CF% (23rd)  50.2 xGF% (15th)

21.0 PP% (11th)  82.8 PK% (5th)

Goalies: The Stars get to return both halves of their duo this year, and it starts with THE BISHOP! Whenever Bishop is healthy, you get Vezina-level play from him. The problem is that remains a huge “if.” Bishop only made it to the post 45 times last year, and the Stars probably are going to need more from him this time around. Even if he is healthy, they’re probably not going to get .934 from him again, though they can still expect mid-.920s.

Anton Khudobin finally found success outside Boston last year,  flourishing behind the heavy shielding he got from the Stars and their system (expected save-percentage of .925 at evens). Still, Khudobin’s .923 SV% was by far the best he’d managed in five seasons, and to expect him to get back to that, no matter the defensive shielding, is kind of pie-eyed. He’s also 33, so going up from where he was last campaign is probably not a probability either.

The goalies will be good. Bishop always has potential to be great. They definitely provide a floor for the Stars that they can’t fall through, which is around the bottom of the playoff picture.

Defense: Perhaps the reason Montgomery opted for the Mourinho approach to hockey was that he ended up pairing his only two puck-movers in John Klingbergy and Miro Heiskanen. That left him with only pluggers and punters on the next two pairings, so better to just ask them to do what they do best, i.e. roadblocks. The two Finns are wonderful players and really do push around most everyone they come across when together.

It’s pretty much the same crew now, though they added Andrej Sekera just in case he isn’t clinically dead (he is). Stephen Johns started camp with the Stars but started feeling his post-concussion problems again, and one might have to suggest his career is over. Jamie Oleksiak will sink to the third pairing where he belongs, to make room for any Esa Lindell growth. But it feels like we’ve been hearing about that one for a while now and still haven’t seen it. At 25 and in his fourth season, it’s definitely a “shit-now” kind of season.

It’s a fine collection even if it’s really only the two Norris candidates in Klingberg and Heikanen at the top. If Montgomery wants to show any adventure in the team, he’ll split those two up. If they’re together, we can probably guess it’s going to be more three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust hockey, if we can keep mixing our sports metaphors (and I can, it’s my fucking blog).

Forwards: The name in lights here is Joe Pavelski, whom Dough Wilson deemed surplus to requirements at the price and age he was. Which should give everyone a second of pause. At 35, Pavelski’s days in the middle probably should be over, but it’s hard to spot a center who can maximize his still top-tier finishing ability other than Tyler Seguin, who already has his wingers. Or Pavelski could play there and Jamie Benn can not-munch his way to 50 points on the second line, but again, same problem.

As it always is with the Stars, the rest of the lineup is littered with products of the system who serve merely as foot-soldiers and insurance-carriers. It would be hard to convince me that Jason Dickinson, Roope Hintz, Radek Faksa, Mattias Janmark aren’t all the same person that the Stars have just cleaved in half a few times and watched them regenerate into two. They’re also throwing Cory Perry to the wall to see if the slime he’s made of sticks, which it won’t. Between him and Sekera the level of zombification in the dressing room is certainly over quota.

But everyone below the top line are capable of carrying out the specific tasks that Montgomery sets out, which is keeping things tight and preventing goals. It feels like they’ll be doing that again.

Prediction: You could roll out Bishop and Khudobin by themselves and probably guarantee 85 points. So the question is whether the Stars can add much to it. Pavelski adds some juice to the offense, but there’s no Logan Couture or Tomas Hertil for him to play off as there was in San Jose. If he plays on the top line, it’s probably a little more offense than Benn would get you there now but the problem of support scoring is still there. There’s just not a lot of goals here, although there doesn’t have to be considering the goalies and defensive ways. The division hasn’t taken too many steps forward. If the Hawks had made improvements, I would say the Stars’ spot is the one they can aim for. But they haven’t. Around the 8th seed is more than possible for them again.

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Hockey

It’s not often a team loses its captain and its leading goal-scorer and is still considered among the conference favorites. But such is life in the West where no one has really jumped forward aside from the Colorado Avalanche. The San Jose Sharks return Erik Karlsson, which if he can remain upright for even 60 games and more importantly the playoffs, is about half the battle in itself. While Joe Pavelski may be gone, they still return a host of nifty forwards who can fill the net on at least three lines. Brent Burns might be overrated by a factor of 12, and losing Justin Braun may turn out to be nearly as big as Pavelski. Still, this team never felt like it clicked for very long last year and ended up with 101 points and in the conference final (WHERE THEY FAILED US ALL MISERABLY AND SHALL NEVER BE FORGIVEN). Can they do it again?

2018-2019

46-27-9  101 points (2nd in Pacific, lost in conference final)

3.52 GF/G (2nd)  3.15 GA/G (21st)  +31 GD

54.9 CF% (1st)  54.3 xGF% (4th)

23.6 PP% (6th)  80.8 PK% (15th)

Goalies: The only reason the Sharks didn’t end up with 110 or more points last season was their goaltending. Martin Jones was simply awful, Aaron Dell wasn’t any better, and the Sharks had to overcome it most nights. And most nights they did. Doug Wilson has bet that Martin Jones simply can’t be that bad again. And with good reason.

In the three seasons as Sharks starter before that, Jones never had a SV% below .912. That’s the thing with the Sharks, they don’t need Carey Price back there. They don’t need a Vezina finalist. They just need league average. Jones couldn’t even manage that in the playoffs and they still got to the conference final. Jone will turn 30 during the season, so it’s hard to imagine last season was the begin of age-related decline. It feels like a very weird and ugly outlier, and the Sharks need to hope so. Dell isn’t going to ride in like Mighty Mouse if Jones is coughing up his esophagus again, which would mean Wilson would either have to look for answer at the deadline or close his eyes, clinch a towel between his teeth, and hope his team can plow ahead dragging Jones along.

The Sharks always have the puck as well, giving up the least amount of attempts last season and in the top half in expected goals against. The job is just about as easy as it can be for a goalie. And they merely need to pass on a pass/fail course. Do that, and the Sharks can take this division.

Defense: That doesn’t mean they’re without questions. The first is will Erik Karlsson ever finish a season healthy? His groin having all the gremlins doomed them in the playoffs (NEVER FORGIVEN), and he missed large chunks of the season. He hasn’t managed a full slate of games in four seasons. They’re nowhere without him, so expect him to get a regular slate of games off to try and preserve him for April and May. When he’s on the ice he still dominates, as his metrics were seven or eight points ahead of the Sharks as a whole, who again, were one of the best possession teams in the league. He’s still otherworldly when on song.

After that though…Mar-Edouard Vlasic loses his main defensive running buddy in Braun and there isn’t an obvious candidate to take the hard shifts with him or to cover for whichever of Burns or Karlsson Pickels doesn’t. Brendon Dillon is a post. Tim Heed and Dalton Prout are seat-fillers at best. Jacob Middleton is a kid that will get a look, but coach Peter DeBoer famously hates any young d-man. One outside candidate is rookie Mario Ferraro, but he’ll also have DeBoer to overcome.

Burns was completely exposed as a runway in the playoffs last year, and there’s no reason that won’t be true this year. He’ll pile up a ton of points again, which will be close to empty calories. This unit could use some buffeting at the deadline too, because Burns can’t really be trusted with anything than a third-pairing yahoo deep in the playoffs.

Forwards: Losing Pavelski is a ballsy call. This is still a team that features Logan Couture, Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl, and Evander Kane. It shouldn’t hurt for goals, it just might not have a wealth of them as it did before. Kevin Lebanc stepping up into a top-six role would help the cause, and maybe they think he’s ready for that. Joe Thornton is back for another go-around, and while he can still make a play here and there his days of being a genuine top-two center on a team are gone. Luckily, Couture and Hertl don’t require him to do that. There are enough foot soldiers to fill out the bottom six without standing out. But the Sharks always seemingly round out their bottom six with pieces from their system.

Prediction: It doesn’t feel like the doomsday machine they could have been last year but fell short of. The loss of Pavelski and Braun will be somewhat canceled out if Martin Jones can escape from whatever pod person took over his body last year, but not entirely. They look short a top four d-man and maybe one forward.

But there’s more than enough here to win the division and conference. The Flames haven’t gotten away from them, and whether the Knights want to admit it or not they have the same questions in net and on their blue line. Another 105-110 points seem on offer if Karlsson can manage 60-65 games or more. The bet is that Couture and Hertl at center can take some wingers with them even if they’re not Pavelski. Perhaps. But nothing the Sharks do will be judged until they get into April again. They could be in any kind of shape by then.

Hockey

Did you forget that the Flames finished with the best record in the West last year? You probably did, because if you cut a loud fart and winced you missed their playoff appearance. They were done in five games against the Avs, as they watched Nathan MacKinnon do a full Cirque de Fuck You and were helpless to stop him. They even got a good playoff performance from Mike Smith, which didn’t matter because Mac K was taking 40 shots per game just by himself. Will it get better this season? Let’s find out…

2018-2019

50-25-7  107 points (1st in Pacific, lost in 1st round)

3.52 GF/G (3rd)  2.72 GA/G (9th)  +66 GD

53.9 CF% (5th)  53.2 xGF% (7th)

19,3 PP% (18th)  79.7 PK% (21st)

Goalies: After a season where the fans were clamoring for “Big Save” Dave Rittich to take over for Mike Smith, he eventually did and wasn’t really all that impressive. That left the door open for Smith to take the playoff starts, which went well for him but not the team. This time around, the Flames will give the job to Rittich full-time and hope his career .909 in 66 career games are just a starting point and not an indication of what he is. At 27, one wonders how much room there is for growth, and if this is his prime, it might not be enough to take Blasty through multiple rounds in the spring. Given the way Bill Peters teams play though, it can probably get them through the regular season.

The interesting card here is Cam Talbot, who will start as the backup. Talbot simply died of exhaustion in Edmonton, getting 73 and 67 starts in successive seasons before coughing out most of his organs the past two seasons. But it was only two seasons ago that Talbot was putting up .919s and .924s with the Oilers, and possibly with spot starts at the beginning of the season he can rediscover some type of that form. He could be just cooked, but he’s worth the risk as a backup and safety net.

If neither work out, the Flames will definitely be in the market for a goalie at the trade deadline, or pray to God that Tyler Parsons lights up the AHL and can be rushed up to Alberta. But that would be the height of desperation, and even their ability to get anyone at the deadline is going to be complicated with their cap situation.

Defense: This seemed like the strength of the Flames all season…and then MacKinnon burst through the walls and declared he was here to fuck shit up before flipping over the whole buffet and draining the keg himself. And now the Flames appear to just be running it back.

They have to do that, because the plan was to introduce Juuso Valimaki into the lineup, but his knee when blooey while training in Finland in August and now the Flames are fucked without the customary enjoyment. The only hope for change is continued growth from Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington, which they actually should get. If one or both can start to take on second pairing responsibility, the Flames should be ok.

Maybe. Because even though Mark Giordano put up a Norris campaign, he was nowhere near the Avs top line in that first round immolation. It looked exactly like when Joakim Noah won Defensive Player Of The Year with the Bulls and then spent the playoffs getting his neck stepped on by Nene (now let’s all picture MacKinnon with Nene’s dreads). Gio is 35 now and if the spring was some kind of signal of a tumbledown the hill, the Flames could be in serious trouble. And it can happen fast. Ask Duncan Keith. Gio has already proven he’s dragged around TJ Brodie to any kind of competence, and if he can’t do that anymore then this unit could be in serious trouble.

Forwards: The big question is when, and possibly if, Matthew Tkachuk is going to rejoin the fray, as he’s still unsigned. More and more RFAs seem to be coming into the fold, but it’s now crunch time to get him in before the season.

Without him, this outfit is even more top-heavy than it already was. There’s Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan at the top, and Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik on that unique checking/scoring line, but that’s about it. Elias Lindholm can join either, and put up 78 points at 23. They’ll need Dillon Dube to show a lot more than he did in his first toe-dipping at the top level. We’re talking about a team that took Milan Lucic on, so you know there are major holes in the bottom six. Which only get larger if someone has to rise up to replace Tkachuk. And if he’s anything like his dad–and he’s everything like his dad–he’s going to go into the tank as soon as the ink is dry on the new paper (or more accurately, demand his bathtub of chicken wings in the dressing room).

They’re short up top, but in Gaudreau and Monahan and a hopefully not-blob-like Tkachuk can mostly outscore it.

Prediction: Lucky for the Flames, the division still blows. San Jose and Vegas will be good, but they can harvest on Vancouver, EdMo, LA, Anaheim, and Arizona enough to comfortably remain in the top three. You could squint and see where if Giordano is stumbling through a quick decline, and Rittich isn’t up for it, and Tkachuk never matches last year, it could be a disaster. All of that is possible, but I wouldn’t bet on likely. 107 points again seems a bit beyond them, but a comfortable 98-100 is probably still on the table, given that Peters always has his teams getting more chances than they give up. And in Calgary, unlike his Carolina days, he has the horses to finish them. But this team needs or needed one more half-step to truly become a power. Maybe it was Valimaki. Maybe it’s another goalie. Maybe it’s a player from nowhere. It doesn’t feel like they got it.

 

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Hockey

For the 378th straight year, this is the time when the Arizona Coyotes will be relevant. Their oh-so-smart and oh-so-young and oh-so-handsome GM has finally broken the code, and now all the young talent they’ve been amassing since I had hair is finally going to gel, take a huge leap forward, and save hockey in the desert. You heard it here first, motherfuckers! Actually, you’ve heard it every goddamn year from everywhere, and then by December you’re genuinely shocked when the Yotes pop up on the schedule because once again you’ve forgotten they exist.

So I’m just going to go ahead and say this year will be no different. It’s the safe bet.

2018-2019

39-35-8  86 points (4th in the Pacific

2.55 GF/G (28th)  2.68 GA/G (6th)  -11 GD

48.7 CF% (20th)  49.2 xGF% (17th)

16.3 PP% (26th)  86.0 PK% (3rd)

Goalies: Once again, the Yotes will roll it back with the hopes that Anttie Raanta can keep the loose grip on all the gremlins that form his body and muscles, and not see them go spilling off in every direction again and miss a large chuck of the season. It happened…never.  So when he once again finds himself in the infirmary, the starter’s role will be taken up by Darcy Kuemper again. Strange things happen to goalies in AZ, which is they turn good. They have a system for it. So you may remember Kuemper as the middling place-holder in Minnesota, which is what he was. But last year in Glendale he threw up a .925, which followed a season of .920 in both LA and Arizona. That doesn’t mean he’s definitively turned a corner or anything, because this is still Darcy Kuemper we’re talking about. But the Yotes seem to just get representative goaltending at worst the past few years, which they probably will again through the combo of DK and the times Raanta maintains oxygen intake.

Defense: Of course, the main problem has always been assembling skaters for Arizona. This defense still contains Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Niklas Hjalmarsson, who were dominant last year (a single tear rolls down my cheek). Beyond that, I can’t help you. Jakob Chychrun has missed huge parts of the last two seasons through injury, so maybe this is the one where he really leaps into the main picture except I don’t know what it is he does that gets everyone with a breeze going between their legs. Even with that though, there is not much beyond this. Alex Goligoski is 34 now. Jordan Oesterle is…you know what? His name is enough. Jason Demers is solid but needs a dynamic partner, which may or may not be Chychrun. They basically need the latter to finally blossom for this to be a good unit, because they’ve had OEL for years now and all that’s gotten them is a handful of themselves and their face in the dirt.

Forwards: And here’s another issue. They hardly scored last year, and are hoping that an aging and cranky Phil Kessel will solve that problem on his lonesome. I guarantee he tries to murder Derek Stepan by Christmas when he’s not getting any passes on his tape. Nick Schmaltz is healthy after blowing out his knee, so Yotes fans can look for five great games followed by a month of him floating around the outside and avoiding contact and waiting for a breakaway pass. Clayton Keller is probably due for a step forward, and will certainly be tasked with feeding Kessel at least on the power play where the Yotes need all kinds of help. Nothing helps out a young player like having a moody sniper’s feelings weighing on him. Still, Keller’s second season was a step back, and he might not be a point-per-game player. Which the Coyotes have exactly none of.

Prediction: This team was able to goalie and defend its way to near a playoff spot last year. The hope is that Kessel and growth from Keller and one or two others will aid their scoring and power play problems, but I’m not convinced. Kessel will get you 25-30 goals until he can’t walk, but the Coyotes need more than that. He’s no longer a surefire top line winger, and there might not be another one on the roster. Keller has yet to prove that he is. Schmaltz most certainly isn’t. Everyone thought their pick of Barrett Haydon was a joke. And you’ll never convince any of us here that Rick Tocchet isn’t huffing paint and betting lines behind the bench. With the playoff bar certainly going to be higher this year than it was last year, it feels like the Yotes are still behind it. The top three spots in the Pacific are spoken for, which means scrapping for a wildcard spot. It could happen if either or both Kuemper and Raanta have great years, but that’s their most likely hope. Feels like they’re coming up short again. Which is their lot in life.

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Hockey

Schadenfeude: noun, 1. Pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune. 2. When your rival team is even worse than your team. See: 2019-20 Detroit Red Wings.

2018-2019

32-40-10 74 Pts. (7th in Atlantic Division)

2.73 GF/G (21st) – 3.32 GA/G (27th)

47.1 CF% (28th) – 44.5 xGF% (31st)

18.1 PP% (19th) – 77.1 PK% (28th)

Goalies: In my mind Jimmy Howard is at least 65 years old, but turns out he’s only 34. Only. It’s safe to say his best years are behind him, and while he wasn’t a trainwreck or anything last year, his .907 SV%/3.07GAA at evens isn’t exactly going to save this shitshow of a team. Jonathan Bernier isn’t going to do it either. He’s certainly a serviceable back-up, and let’s be honest neither of these goalies are going to be what sinks the Red Wings’ season, but neither of them are good enough to bail out this team either.

Defense: Why is Mike Green still playing? I guess plenty of Wings fans could yell that right back at me but with the words “Brent Seabrook” in the middle of that sentence. But that doesn’t change the fact that if Mike Green is on your top pairing, you’ve got issues. Last season the Wings were 28th in the league in terms of shots against per game, placing them in the esteemed company of the Rangers, Hawks, and Senators. Only one defenseman (Filip Hronek) was above water in possession last year, and just barely—he had a 50.3 CF%. We know a few things about shitty defenses around here, and that’s what the Red Wings have.

Green will probably pair with Danny DeKeyser, Hronek and Dennis Cholowski maybe, and Patrik Nemeth and Jonathan Ericsson will round out to the main six. Will Trevor Daley stink up the joint for a while? Probably! But who cares? Fuck this team.

Forwards: A lot of teams are stuck with one top line and nothing else, but the Red Wings are really taking this situation to a new level. Bertuzzi-Larkin-Mantha is a decent top line—really, Dylan Larkin is probably the only good thing on this team. But all three are young and could be good pieces to build around. Or maybe they can gtfo to better teams, I don’t know.

Frans Nielsen and Valtteri Filppula are your centers behind Larkin, with Luke Glendening probably centering the fourth line. Andreas Athanasiou isn’t horrible, but I swear I hate that fucker so that’s literally the nicest thing I’m going to say. Justin Abdelkader is still playing on this team, for God’s sake.

Now, they have young guys like Filip Zadina, Taro Hirose, and Michael Rasmussen, who may develop into something, but that’s by no means certain and they weren’t lighting up the scorer’s sheet in the playing time they had last year. This team was dead-ass last in expected goals for. And so it goes with a rebuild—it’s going to be a lot of trial and error.

Prediction: Yes, Steve Yzerman is back and people will try to find the upsides, but let’s not kid ourselves—the Red Wings are going to suck this year. It’s entirely possible they’re at the bottom of the division, and I couldn’t be happier about it. If they’re not, it’s simply because the Senators are proving yet again why relegation is a viable strategy the NHL should adopt. The Wings will end up with somewhere between 75-80 points, and Larkin will be like a poor man’s Connor McDavid—not, he’s not anywhere near as good as McDavid so please do not misunderstand me, but he’s young, talented, and wasting it on a terrible team. But too bad. Fuck this team.

Stats from NHL.com, Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick

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Buffalo

Hockey

They have lots of young talent! They just need time to develop! They’re going to finally make the postseason again! Management is getting its shit together, for real! You’d be forgiven for thinking that we’re talking about the White Sox, but lo, it is the Buffalo Sabres who seemingly every year are on the verge of great things only to see it go down in flames. After a truly ugly spectacle last year in the second half, they’ve brought in new coach Ralph Krueger who, despite having a name that makes him sound like an insurance salesman from Toledo, is actually NOT part of the clique of crusty old white men from which NHL GMs and coaches are typically drawn. So they say it’s really going to be different this time, but I think we’ve heard this song before…

2018-2019

33-39-10 76 pts (6th in Atlantic Division)

2.70 GF/G (23rd) – 3.27 GA/G (24th)

49.9 CF% (14th) – 47.82 xGF% (22nd)

19.5 PP (16th) – 80.9 PK (12th)

Goalies: This remains a huge weak spot for Buffalo, and in a goalie league, that’s a problem. By the total numbers Carter Hutton isn’t horrible, and at 5v5 he managed a .913 SV%/2.80 GAA on the season. But what that masks is a second half that was hot garbage, with an .895/3.56 after January 1st. Backup Linus Ullmark isn’t much better. He had a .918/2.69 at 5v5 for the year with a decent .910 after 1/1, but an .856 SV% on the PK (Hutton wasn’t spectacular either with an .883 on the PK).

All of this is to say that both of these guys are middling goalies, which won’t kill you every night if the young, snazzy defense can play well in front of them, but it means they also can’t be relied upon to win it for you if the defense shits the bed at times, nor can they be counted on to steal a few games. The Sabres have prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukonen—easily in the running for best name in the league—but he’s out with a hip injury so by the time they bring him up, if in fact he can play at the NHL level, it may be too late.

Defense: On the other hand, the defense should be a relative strength for Buffalo. The top pairing is, for now, the Rasmuses (Rasmusi?), Dahlin and Ristolainen. However, Ristolainen wants out and could be a valuable trade piece for greater forward depth (more on that later). If he’s moved out, Brandon Montour could move to the first pairing. Dahlin should continue building on a solid year (was 4th on the team in points, and the only guys beating him in possession numbers all played fewer than 35 games). Either Ristolainen or Montour, who himself should have a strong year now that he’s fully out of the Anaheim shitstorm, would make a decent partner.

Otherwise, Montour may pair with Jack McCabe. Or, Colin Miller may jump to the first pairing and then it’s Montour and McCabe on the second. None of which is terrible. And, we’ll probably see our almost-special-boy Henri Jokiharju somewhere, likely on the 3rd pairing. Yes, I’m just assuming Harju makes the lineup over Marco Scandella, although Casey Nelson could figure in as well, depending on if they want to play him and/or Harju on their off side.

Forwards: As is the style of the time, the Sabres have a top line and little else. However, it is an enviable top line, don’t get me wrong, of Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel, and Sam Reinhart. Like their other prodigy Dahlin, Eichel should just have more good days ahead. Last year was a career year for him with 82 points (which led the team), with Skinner and Reinhart right behind him.

Beyond that it gets a little dicey. Casey Mittelstadt needs to learn how not to suck, and if he can’t there’s an outside chance he’ll lose the 2C spot to recently drafted Dylan Cozens. However, that assumes Cozens makes huge strides really quickly, and that his thumb injury isn’t an issue (but at that age would a damn thumb really not heal? Come on). Conor Sheary and Marcus Johansson could finish out that second line, but after that, as is so often the case, there’s no depth. Do Evan Rodrigues and Jimmy Vesey do anything for you? How about Johan Larsson or Kyle Okposo? I didn’t think so. Their fourth line of Zemgus Girgensons (who is not a character from Lord of the Rings?), Larsson and Okposo might be the fourth-liniest line ever. Prospect Arttu Ruostalainen may be able to help with the depth issue, but again, that’s assuming a young guy in Europe can make the jump to the top club right away. Or maybe they can get something for the aforementioned Ristolainen—you’d have to think forward depth would be their asking price. But, it’s a lot of ifs.

Prediction: The Sabres likely won’t be the trainwreck we saw at the end of last year, but it’s doubtful they’ll be a playoff team either. If everything, literally everything, goes right, they finish with about 85-90 points—closer to 80 if not everything goes right. Maybe just maybe they take 4th in the Atlantic? It seems unlikely unless Montreal regresses and Florida fails to make a leap forward. But, spoken like a true Sox fan, even if they don’t make the postseason, they should still see a lot of improvement and maybe a faint light at the end of that tunnel.

Photo credit: theleafsnation.com

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Hockey

The old standby. The last four seasons, no matter what happens, there the Caps are, finishing first in the Metro. There’s always a portion of the season where it feels like it’s gone on them, that this is finally where they’ve gotten too old and too predictable and too comfortable, and yet the season ends and here we are. Coaching change doesn’t seem to matter much. Whatever player turnover doesn’t seem to matter much. There seems to be things you can always count on. Alex Ovechkin will lead the league in goals, he’ll score from his post-up spot, and the Caps will finish first.

Will it be true again? There are a couple challengers, but maybe we’ve gotten to the point where we just take the Caps as a given until they say they’re not.

2018-2019

48-26-8  102 points (1st in Metro, lost in 1st round)

3.34 GF/G (5th)  3.02 GA/G (17th)

49.1 CF% (18th)  47.1 xGF% (25th)

20.8 PP% (12th)  79.9 PK% (24th)

Goalies: You think of Braden Holtby as another given for the Caps, along with Ovie and Backstrom. Still, the past two seasons he’s only been ok, and you’ll recall the Caps’ Cup run started with Philip Grubauer in net in the playoffs before he gave way to Holtby. Holts put up a .911 last year, which was only a touch above league average. He hasn’t been near his Vezina form for two seasons now, but this is his final one before hitting free agency. Tends to motivate some players. He’ll be 30 when the season starts, which means whatever comes after this is probably the last big contract he’ll sign, wherever that might be. There’s no reason to think the .908s and .911s of the past two seasons are now the norm. If the Caps get another .920+ out of Holtby, then they’ll almost certainly be near the top of the standings again.

He’ll be backed up by Pheonix Copley and his misspelled first name, who was your run of the mill backup last year. The Caps can’t afford an injury to Holtby, that’s for sure. Then again, do the Caps want Holtby to prove he’s worth $8M or $9M for the next few years?

Defense: The Caps mostly return the same outfit on the blue line, except they’ve swapped out Matt Niskanen for Radko Gudas. At first that sounds like a major downgrade. It’s still something of one, but Gudas is actually effective when none of the bullshit is on display. Sadly, there’s always some bullshit on display, so the Caps will be killing off some dumbass penalties. John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, and Michal Kempny (sigh) will be doing the heavy lifting here, They’ll hope for development from both Christian Djoos and Jonas Siegenthaler, and both were good in sheltered roles last year. If they get that, they can reduce what they need out of Gudas, which should always be the idea. They may get minutes from prospect Lucas Johansen as well, but they shouldn’t need it.

Forwards: Along with Holtby, Nicklas Backstrom is going into his free agent year at 31. Just like the goalie, this is probably his last big contract, and it’s a question if he’ll get it from the Caps with Evgeny Kuznetsov pretty much taking the #1 center role, or poised to. Backstrom is a lock for 70 or more points every year, and that should get him a deal nearing eight figures next summer, even at 32. Kuznetsov and him down the middle is just about as good as it gets. Lars Eller does the dirty work, and you know what Ovechkin is going to do no matter how old he is. He’ll be scoring 45 when he is 45. Beyond that there’s TJ Oshie, who if healthy he’s probably good f0r 30 goals again. Big if, though.

Beyond that, the Caps might be a touch short on scoring forwards. If they get a step forward from Jakub Vrana and his 24 goals last year, they’ll be ok. Carl Hagelin is around for a full season this time, and though he’s getting up there he still that brain and those feet. If the top six do top six things, the Caps are fine as they have plenty of foot soldiers in the bottom six to carry through. They always do, don’t they?

Prediction: You know what the floor is with the Caps. It’s incredibly hard to envision them slipping out of the playoffs unless Holtby goes full poltergeist in net or getting hurt. Ovie will score. So will Kuznetsov and Backstrom and Oshie. They’ll get contributions from elsewhere. The defense is solid if not spectacular, though it could start to approach that if the two kids become things. They have the Penguins and Hurricanes to outlast, but they always seem to. Maybe they’ll fall all the way to second. It’s hard to see anything worse.

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As the season draws nigh, we land on the team in the Central Division that I become more and more convinced are the only ones the Hawks can actually catch. The Minnesota Wild will show up to make up the numbers, because that’s really all they do. Sure, there was that weird one a couple seasons back where they almost won the division, and then surrendered meekly in the playoffs.

And that’s all the Wild ever really do. The height of their accomplishment is that they almost did something. They like, almost beat the Hawks in 2014. They almost won the division. And they almost mattered anywhere beyond that.

This is a team that if it has a true, top-line player it’s either the pretty damn old Eric Staal or the permanently crocked Zach Parise. If it has a truly top-pairing d-man it’s the pretty damn old Ryan Suter. It will once again rely and Devan Dubnyk to bail them out of just about all the things they can’t do, as he barely clings on to the platform of top-echelon goalies. Again, he’s an almost. He’ll almost get you there. But he won’t. And they won’t.

2017-2018: 45-26-11 101 points  253 GF 232 GA  47.8 CF%  53.5 xGF%  8.1 SH% .927 SV%

Goalies: You know the story here. Doobie Brother is going to be in net and he’s going to be better than you ever think he is, because we don’t associate him with the Prices and Holtbys of the world, perhaps just because he’s so damn goofy looking. But last year’s .918 SV% overall was something of a small step down for him, And over the past four seasons, only Price has a better SV% than he does. He’s a tick ahead of Corey Crawford in that span as well. He’s just that good, and without him the Wild would essentially be the Canucks.

He’ll be backed up by Alex Stalock again, who was just about serviceable last year. Stalock spent three seasons being woeful or being in the AHL before last year, and he’s certainly not anyone the Wild are going to want to have to ride if Dubs were to get hurt. But he’ll do a job. This whole fucking team is guys who’ll “do a job.” It’s why they don’t do anything.

Defense: Christ, is there a team with less turnover than this bunch always seems to have? Dumba, Suter, Brodin, Spurgeon. It’s been that way for seemingly 89 years. And none of these guys are bad, and in fact all are quite good. Even if the Wild have been trying to trade Brodin for three seasons. Suter has aged better than his contemporary Duncan Keith because his game is more efficient. There’s no wasted movement. Dumba put up 50 points last year and I bet you didn’t know that. Spurgeon has been one of the best puck-movers and possession d-men in the league for years even though he’s not getting on any roller coaster. As far as top fours go, there are plenty of teams doing way worse than this (leading off with the one in town).

The third-pairing is looks to be Greg Pateryn, who is a broken toilet, and rent-a-stiff Nick Seeler. There’s a couple kids in the AHL in Menell and Belpido who could come up somewhere during the season to bolster this, but in the meantime they’ll get by with the top four they have.

Forwards: Again, you know this crew. Eric Staal somehow came up with 42 goals last year, though somehow I doubt he’ll shoot 17% again. As he hadn’t scored more than 30 since 2011 before that, you can look for 25-28 goals again. And where the Wild will make up the difference, I can’t tell you. Mikael Granlund is still here to not be a center and a top line winger with a whole lot of “Yeah, but who gives a shit?” Jason Zucker got rich and will still score 10 goals annoying goals against the Hawks, and that’s it. His 33 goals last year aren’t the anomaly that Staal’s totals were, because he’d scored at that rate before. But you see him and think, “If he was on the second line, that team would be good. But he isn’t, and they’re not.” Zach Parise is here for 50 games and then he’ll have some injury that will cause you to have to take a moment to yourself while kneeling. Charlie Coyle is a synonym for disappointment. Mikko Koivu needs his food turned into mush. Nino Neiderreiter will be undervalued by everyone, including his coach. “Joel Eriksson Ek” is something you say while booting. Marcus Foligno is always a sign that your roster needs work.

We have written this preview for them for like four straight seasons. I’m just fucking cutting and pasting next year, assuming the Hawks haven’t caused me to turn the lyrics of “High Speed Dirt” into a performance art piece.

Outlook: The thing about the Wild is that the roster isn’t anywhere near bad enough to be bad. That would at least be interesting. They’re a team full of the middle skater from the Nintendo hockey game. Just fast enough to not get killed, but not skilled enough to surge. Dubnyk gets them to the playoff platform if he performs. If he falls off or gets hurt, this is the definition of an 88-point team.

But they’re not going to do anything memorable. They’re not anywhere near the Jets or Preds. They’re nowhere near bottoming out to get a top pick to actually get a player you’d recognize one day. They’re in that limbo-hell that teams in other sports actively try and avoid (except for the Bulls). They’re not gong to win anything, they’re not going to rebuild. They’re as bland as the state they come from. Seriously, how did that place produce Prince? That seems like a crime.

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I wonder if it bothers the NHL that there’s a very good chance that four of the ORIGINAL SIX HARF HARF might seriously be regurgitated foodstuffs this season. The Bruins and Leafs will be good, and then probably play in the first round. If I squint really hard to the point that I prolapse my own asshole (leading to the question, “How would you prolapse someone else’s asshole, dear Samuel?” And I don’t want that answer), maybe the Hawks could find a playoff spot that someone else tossed onto the sidewalk in a fit of pique and shortsightedness. But after going through the Wings on Thursday, I can assure you that the Montreal Canadiens will blow chunks. Their organization and press will still bleat on about how they’re the gold standard, they’ll interview some barely coherent Francophone who was on the third line in 1974 or something, and in French he’ll say the problem is that Max Pacioretty isn’t tough enough. Because the great Habs teams were certainly built on bludgeoning people or something. Why didn’t you let them leave again, Canada? Oh right, access to the smoked meat and strippers. Fair play.  Whatever the question is about the Canadiens, the answer up there always seems to be, “Kirk Muller.”

Goalies: Drinky McGoo, otherwise known as Carey Price after he got boring, is once again your starter. Except now he’s ouchy and bad. At least he could be. Price hasn’t managed a full season in three, and last year in 49 games he was objectively awful. Now that could be an aberration, as he just turned 31 and that’s not the time when goalies are supposed to go skunky. Yet considering the workload he’s been carrying since he was 21, as well as carrying the daily mood of an entire province that time, maybe his time has come. We know when he’s on he’s the best in the world. And the Habs need the best in the world if they have any hope of playing a game that means anything past the turn of the year.

If he’s not, the insurance plan is Antti Niemi. Which is basically like having whatever animal in The Flinstones was used to patch things up instead of car insurance. Niemi was good in 17 starts for the Habs last year, with a .929 SV%, in what had to be either the lord’s or the devil’s practical joke on Canadiens fans for their own entertainment. I hope it’s the devil’s, because every fan up there deserves to hear various callers begging for Niemi in November only to see him literally chuck the puck into his own net while falling down like some Cluseau-esque waiter. This is going to happen.

Defense: You know it’s bad when an injury to the already old and fading Shea Weber absolutely cripples your blue line. Welcome to the Habs’ world. They’re going to rock Karl Alzner and Jeff Petry on the top pairing until January. It might not matter how good Price is, because with this blue line he’s going to take off his mask, fold up his jersey, undo his pads, lay them gently down in the crease like The Undertaker and skate off to never come back to hockey again. Victor Mete once had promise, and then Claude Julien beat any sense of self-worth out of him and now he thinks he’s a marmot. How does Jordie Benn still have a job? All he can do is scowl while looking at the forward’s ass no less than four feet in front of him. They better hope Noah Juulsen is the second coming of Larry Robinson… so they can then trade him for whatever other French-Canadian forward who’s good for 38 points they can find in three years. Hey did you know they had Sergachev?

Forwards: It’s basically Max Pacioretty checking his watch every five minutes running out the clock and then a bunch of riff raff. They punted the abused Alex Galchenyuk, the American with the Russian name who was a Canadien, and his fancy collection of mirrors and $1 bills to Arizona for MAGA pudwhack Max Domi and the points he’ll never score. Jonathan Drouin is the top line center simply because you don’t pronounce the last letter of his last name, even though last year pretty much showed he can’t play center. But hey, you can’t have two overhyped left wings, and that’s Domi’s job now! Philip Danault gets to do all of Domi’s skating, though now that he’s actually getting paid it’ll be a couple hours before all the fans hate him even though you don’t have to pronounce the last letter of his last name either. Tomas Plekanec ended up back here because of course he did. The Quebecois will do anything for a turtleneck. Except shower. There is one genuine top-line player on this team and they’re going to trade him at the deadline to the Bruins for whatever Don Sweeney digs out of his ear. Or the Penguins where he’ll score 38 goals in 15 games. Oh sure, there’s Brendan Gallagher‘s Marchand-Lite act, if that does anything for you. It doesn’t, I’ll answer for you.

Outlook: Here’s another team that needs a total overhaul everywhere. The GM was proven a withering dolt at least three years ago, and at this point Claude Julien is outdated. They don’t have a d-man you’d want anything to do with outside of quarantine other than maybe Juulsen and who even knows with him? They even have Xavier Ouellet along for the ride. Remember when he was going to save the Wings? This team probably isn’t as bad as Detroit or Ottawa, as a healthy and focused Price keeps them from that alone. But they’re nowhere near the other four teams in this division, which means they’re exactly where you don’t want to be, hockey purgatory. Maybe they think the league will rig it again so they can have whatever player they want from the QMJHL again, because what you need to succeed in the NHL these days is a kid or two who have played nothing but 8-6 games for three seasons while Pierre McGuire licks the glass behind you.

Fuck this team and organization. Their legacy is utter bullshit. It’s far too wonderful of a place to have a plague like this as its only professional team. Move the Rays there tout suite.

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