Down Goes Brown: When bad starts happen to good teams

The Anaheim Ducks scored five goals in the second period on their way to decisively defeating the Nashville Predators.

We’ve flipped the calendar into the NHL season’s second month, and one of the biggest emerging stories can be found in the Central Division. Specifically, down near the bottom of the standings, where two teams that we all expected to be very good are struggling to find wins.

With three wins through nine games, the Nashville Predators are on pace for just 64 points on the season. The Dallas Stars‘ three wins and eight points have them in a little better shape, projecting out to 73 points. Those would be stunning totals for two teams that both played in the second round last year, and that came into this year as favourites in the Central.

But if you’re a Stars or Predators fan, you’re probably wondering just how troubling a bad start can be. After all, each team still has 73 games left to play, which seems like plenty of time to right the ship. Is this kind of start really as big a deal as it might seem?

One way to forecast the future can be to dig into the past. So today, let’s look through the salary cap era with a specific question: How often have good teams gotten off to starts this bad?

First, we’ll need to define “good team.” There are plenty of ways you could do that, but let’s keep it relatively simple and say that a team is considered “good” if it’s coming off a season where it had at least 95 points and/or won at least one playoff round. (We’ll pro-rate the lockout shortened 2012-13 season.) The Stars and Predators hit both marks last year, so they certainly qualify.

 

As for bad starts, let’s aim even lower than where the Predators and Stars have ended up. They’ve both got a disappointing three wins; let’s look at the teams that were even worse, posting two wins or fewer through their first nine games.

So if that’s what a good team with a bad start looks like, how many times have we seen it happen in the cap era? And more important, as far as the Stars and Predators are concerned, how much damage had those bad starts done by the end?

As it turns out, our criteria gives us nine teams to work with. Some will offer up a dose of hope for fans in Dallas and Nashville, while others serve as cautionary examples of where this all could be headed.

Let’s start our list with one of two teams from last season to make an appearance.

2015-16 Calgary Flames

How good were they? They were coming off a 97-point season in which they’d advanced to the Pacific Division final by knocking off the Canucks. They’d also appeared to take a step forward during the off-season by adding Dougie Hamilton to a core that was already young and improving.

How bad was the start? Pretty bad. They were 2-7-0 through nine, and didn’t earn their first regulation win until their 12th game of the season.

Did they turn it around? Not really. The Flames clawed back into the fringe of the playoff picture with a seven-game win streak in December, but by then it was too late. They traded wins and losses for another two months before a seven-game losing streak finished them off for good, ending the season at 35-40-7, the fifth-worst record in the league.

What was the turning point? There wasn’t one, at least in any sort of positive sense. And the season’s biggest flaw doesn’t bode well for the Predators or Stars, two teams that have questions around their goaltending. The Flames went into the season figuring they could squeeze a decent year out of Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo. When that didn’t happen, the Flames never recovered.

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2012-13 Washington Capitals

How good were they? After three straight 100-plus point seasons, the Capitals had stumbled in ’11-12, dropping to 92 points and seeing Bruce Boudreau sent packing after an unfortunate attempt to convert a high-flying roster into a trap team. Still, they’d managed to pull off a first-round upset of the Bruins, and took the Rangers to seven games in Round 2.

How bad was the start? Under new coach Adam Oates, the Caps dropped their first four and were 2-6-1 after nine.

Did they turn it around? For the most part. After hitting rock bottom at 2-8-1, they won three straight to start clawing back into the playoff race. Time wasn’t on their side – remember, this was the lockout year – but they started rolling down the stretch, going 15-3-2 over their last 20 to win the Southeast and cruise into the playoffs with home ice advantage. (Then they blew a 2-0 series lead and lost to the Rangers. Hey, they were still the Capitals.)

What was the turning point? Nothing really stands out. They didn’t fire anyone, and only made one major trade (which Caps fans would rather forget). Instead, they largely stayed the course and trusted the team they’d put together. In a way, this could be the best-case scenario for Predators and Stars fans, at least as long as you ignore the fact that the Caps missed the playoffs the next year.

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2009-2010 Carolina Hurricanes

How good were they? The ’08-09 Hurricanes had gone 45-30-7 for 97 points, then upset the Devils and Bruins to make it to the conference finals before being swept by the Penguins. Predators’ coach Peter Laviolette probably remembers that year’s team, since they fired him 25 games into the season.

How bad was the start? The Hurricanes split their first four games, but they’d stay stuck on two wins for a long time, dropping their next 13 in a row. By the end of November, they had just five wins in 27 games.

Did they turn it around? They were much better in the second half, going 24-13-3 to finish the year with 80 points. But that still left them well out of the playoff hunt.

What was the turning point? The team didn’t make any major moves during the season, although the second half turnaround did coincide with the decision to move the captaincy from Rod Brind’Amour to Eric Staal.

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2007-08 Atlanta Thrashers

How good were they? It seems weird to see Atlanta on any list of good teams, but the ‘06-07 edition was by far the best in Thrashers’ history. Granted, that’s not setting the bar very high, but they went 43-28-11 for 97 points, finished first in the Southeast, and made the playoffs for the first and only time. Then they were swept in the first round.

How bad was the start? Any hope of building off of the previous year’s momentum ended quickly, as the Thrashers lost each of their first six games on the way to a 2-7-0 start.

Did they turn it around? Briefly. By mid-November, the Thrashers had won six of seven to improve their record to 11-10-0 and move back into the playoff race, and they were still hanging around as late as mid-February. But a 5-13-4 finish left them at 76 points on the year, the third-worst record in the league.

What was the turning point? Laviolette and Lindy Ruff won’t like it, but that six-game losing streak at the start of the season cost Bob Hartley his job, with GM Don Waddell taking over for the rest of the season. Not surprisingly, this won’t be the only coach firing on our list.

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2014-15 Colorado Avalanche

How good were they? That’s a bit of a loaded question. The 2013-14 Avs had posted 112 points, earning the top seed in the Central and a Jack Adams for new coach Patrick Roy. But they’d done it with lousy underlying numbers, which led to predictions of a crash back to earth and one of the first major test cases for the emerging analytics era.

 

How bad was the start? The Avs were 2-4-3 through their first nine. They continued to struggled through most of the season’s first quarter, going 6-9-5 and through their first 20 games.

Did they turn it around? To some extent, although it didn’t happen until the new year. A 7-3-3 January boosted their record back to respectable territory, and they ended the season 39-31-12 for 90 points. That was solid, but still left them dead last in the Central.

What was the turning point? A New Year’s Eve win over the Flyers kicked off a stretch where they won five of six, giving them more wins than regulation losses for the first time of the season. (Of course, analytics fans would point out that the real turning point was regression to the mean. Not that they’d ever gloat about anything.)

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2011-12 Montreal Canadiens

How good were they? Not great, but at 44-30-8 during the 2010-11 season they just squeak into our group with 96 points.

How bad was the start? They didn’t pick up their second win until their ninth game of the season.

Did they turn it around? Only somewhat. After that 2-5-2 start, they won four straight before slipping back to mediocrity. After 32 games, they were sitting at 13-12-7 and in 11th place in the East.

What was the turning point? Those 32 games were enough to cost Jacques Martin his job; he was replaced by Randy Cunneyworth. The Habs responded to the new regime with yet another awful start, losing four straight and five of six. They finished the year at 31-35-16 and well out of the playoffs, and Cunneyworth wasn’t brought back.

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2010-11 New Jersey Devils

How good were they? The Devils were coming off a 48-27-7 season, good for 103 points and first place in the Atlantic.

How bad was the start? Under new head coach John MacLean, the Devils stumbled through an ugly October. They went 2-6-1 through their first nine, and by Dec. 23rd they were sitting at 9-22-2.

Did they turn it around? Eventually, although it was too late to make a run at the playoffs. They went 29-17-3 over their last 49 games.

What was the turning point? That Dec. 23rd date turned out to be important. That was the day that the Devils fired MacLean, just 33 games into his NHL head coaching career. They replaced him with Jacques Lemaire, who’d been the coach the previous year but retired in the off-season. The Devils responded to the coaching change by losing three straight and seven of eight, but over the second half of the season they went an impressive 28-10-3. That was still only good for 81 points on the season, though.

If there’s good news here for the Stars and Predators, it’s that this Devils team turned out to be just one year away from making a run to the Stanley Cup Final.

See? Things aren’t necessarily that bad! Uh, those fans might want to skip this next one.

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2006-07 Philadelphia Flyers

How good were they? The 2005-06 Flyers had gone 45-26-11, good for 101 points.

How bad was the start? Bad enough to cost some jobs. A 3-2 shootout win over the Thrashers left them sitting at 2-6-1 through nine games. That was the first game for John Stevens, who’d taken over as coach after Ken Hitchcock was fired eight games in. General manager Bobby Clarke resigned the same day.

Did they turn it around? Not even close. The Flyers managed just one three-game win streak over the entire season, and that was immediately followed by nine straight losses.

What was the turning point? There wasn’t one. And that’s what makes this the worst-case scenario for teams like this year’s Predators and Stars. The Flyers never pulled out of their spiral, and ended up finishing dead last in the NHL with just 56 points. It was one of the worst single-season collapses in league history. To make matters even worse, they lost the draft lottery and missed out on Patrick Kane, who’d show up to score the Stanley Cup-winning goal on Flyers’ home ice three years later.

The good news is that like the 2011-12 Devils, the rebound was a quick one. The Flyers made the playoffs in 2008 and went to the conference finals, and wouldn’t miss the post-season again until 2013. Then again, you could view that as proof that sometimes, even a good team never recovers from a terrible start.

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2015-16 Anaheim Ducks

How good were they? And that leaves us back where we started – with last season, and a Pacific Division team face-planting early. This time it’s the Ducks, who posted 109 points and had gone to the conference finals the previous year.

How bad was the start? Awful. The Ducks lost four straight, got a single win, and then lost five more. They opened November with four straight wins, but quickly went back to struggling. By the Christmas break, they were 12-15-6, last in the Western Conference, and just one point up on the Blue Jackets for dead last in the entire league.

Did they turn it around? You could say that. The rest of the way, the Ducks were the best team in hockey, going 44-10-5 to roar into the playoffs as the Pacific’s top seed. They ended up losing in the first round, which cost Bruce Boudreau his job, but the second-half turnaround to their regular season was nothing short of remarkable.

 

What was the turning point? Beyond having a few days to regroup over the holidays, nothing obvious stands out. They resisted a growing chorus of calls to make a mid-season coaching change. They didn’t make any blockbuster trades, although adding David Perron helped. If anything, GM Bob Murray made it clear that he was sticking with what he had. And it worked.

If anyone can be held up as a model of hope for the Predators and Stars, this is it. As bad as those two teams have been, the Ducks were far worse. And yet they refused to panic, trusted the process, and held on. And everything worked out perfectly.

Well, at least until the playoffs. But if you’re a Dallas or Nashville fan, you’ll worry about that down the road.