Down Goes Brown: Five NHL teams who could be this year’s Avalanche

Matt Duchene talks about how difficult it was for him and some of his Colorado Avalanche teammates to stay competitive during the 2016-17 NHL season and how moving on from the team is not his decision.

The Colorado Avalanche are suffering through one of the worst 12-month stretches in modern NHL history. Short of a team moving or some sort of off-ice tragedy, it’s hard to imagine how a year could go much worse for a team.

Their coach walked out on them. They maneuvered themselves into pretty much having to trade one of their best young players, then failed to make a deal happen. They sure seemed to make a clumsy pass at a future GM, only to come up empty. And worst of all, they suffered through what was probably the worst season of the cap era, then became the first last-place team to lose the same draft lottery three times.

And that’s why it’s somewhat jarring to remember that one year ago today, nobody thought the Avalanche would be all that bad. We weren’t exactly calling them a Cup contender, but they were coming off an 82-point season in 2015–16, good enough to finish ahead of eight teams and to tie them with the Montreal Canadiens. Oddsmakers were expecting them to finish a few points over .500, and had them ranked ahead of eventual playoff teams like the Blue Jackets, Senators and Maple Leafs.

And then it all went horribly wrong. But not many of us saw it coming until it was too late. So today, let’s ask the question: Could any of the current middle-of-the-pack teams be this year’s Avalanche?

To be clear, it’s exceedingly unlikely that any team implodes quite like Colorado did – that was a perfect storm of bad luck, poor timing and utter ineptitude. But could any of the teams that finished last season in roughly the same not-great-but-not-awful ballpark as the 2015–16 Avs be in danger of a major collapse of their own?

We’ll exclude the four teams that finished last year with 70 points or fewer – that’s the Canucks, Coyotes, Devils and (of course) the Avalanche – as well as the expansion Golden Knights, since all of them are expected to be bad. That still leaves us with 10 teams that finished the year roughly in the 2015–16 Avalanche range. Of those, here are five who could be at risk of seeing a Colorado-style plummet down the standings.

New York Islanders

2016-17 finish: 41-29-12, 94 points, 17th overall

Warning signs on the dashboard: John Tavares. I mean, this should be done by now, shouldn’t it? Heading into the off-season, we were assured that the Islanders were going to either extend their franchise player for as long as possible or, failing that, explore moving him. Instead, nothing seems to be happening, and it’s starting to feel possible that no news is bad news.

We tend to talk way too much about distractions in the sports world, but this year’s Islanders feel like a team where it could actually apply. If Tavares heads into the season without a deal and suddenly every minor thing that happens starts turning into a referendum on the team’s long-term future, things could get ugly.

That seems unlikely – Tavares still sounds like a guy who wants to stay, and there’s a good chance this whole thing gets wrapped up and then Islander fans point and laugh at anyone who suggested it wouldn’t. But as Avalanche fans could tell you, sometimes the unlikely worst-case scenario is the one that ends up happening.

Why they should be OK: They’re the best team on our list in terms of last year’s standings; remember, they finished with as many points as the Cup-finalist Predators. They were also a downright impressive 24-12-8 under interim coach Doug Weight, who now holds the full-time job. And that was before they added Jordan Eberle.

Maybe more importantly, failure doesn’t seem to be an option right now. With Tavares looming over everything, new ownership looking for a new arena, and Garth Snow’s job potentially on the line, the Islanders don’t seem like a team that can afford to be bad this year. That’s a dangerous situation, because it can lead a team into some bad long-term decisions. But it should mean that a total collapse would be unlikely, if only because Snow would do everything in his power to prevent it.

But all bets are off if…: Tavares decides he wants out, and Snow has to go into scramble mode to salvage something of the situation. Again, that’s unlikely. But among more realistic scenarios, recall that the goaltending is still a question mark, and the blue line just lost Travis Hamonic. The Metro was brutal last year, and with the Flyers and Hurricanes on the way up there won’t be much room for error here.

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Florida Panthers

2016-17 finish: 35-36-11, 81 points, 23rd overall

Warning signs on the dashboard: Any flashing lights on the Panthers’ dashboard probably look more like a question mark. As in: What the heck is going on with this team?

You know the story by now. The 2015–16 Panthers were fantastic, putting up 103 points to finish first in the Atlantic. But they lost in the first round, then spent most of the off-season fixing a front office that didn’t seem to be broken. They started the season slowly, fired their coach, gave their old GM his job back (sort of), and ended up missing the playoffs by a mile. It wasn’t quite an Avalanche-like plunge, but the previous year’s success arguably made them an even more disappointing team.

So what now? Who knows. On paper, the Panthers are a good young team that should rebound nicely. But their expansion maneuvering was downright weird, they’ve got a rookie head coach, and their star goalie is 38 years old (but still signed for five more seasons). Plus, they made Jaromir Jagr sad, and teams that do that have a bad habit of hitting rock bottom shortly after.

Why they should be OK: Guys like Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad are at the age where they should all be getting better, and maybe even making big leaps into the league’s elite. Even if age catches up with Luongo, James Reimer is a reasonably dependable backup option, and Jagr was slowed down to the point that they may be better off without him.

And again, this team is one year removed from winning the division. Just about everything that could possibly go wrong last year did (including plenty of injuries), and they still topped 80 points. We’ve already seen their floor, and it’s nowhere near last place.

But all bets are off if…: They start off slowly and management panics. You know, again.

Winnipeg Jets

2016-17 finish: 40-35-7, 87 points, 20th overall

Warning signs on the dashboard: They’ve done a great job of drafting and developing, but that only takes you so far. With a GM who refuses to trade and a market that has a tough time attracting free agents, they’ve struggled to make the transition from future contender to a team that can win right now. They’ve been back in Winnipeg for six years now and have yet to win a playoff game, and eventually that starts to wear on a team. Jacob Trouba already sounded like he wanted out last year; are we really sure that he’s the only one?

Plus, after years of seeing their playoff hopes torpedoed by substandard goaltending, they went out and addressed the problem by adding… Steve Mason? That seems sub-optimal.

Why they should be OK: Mason struggled last year, but overall he was better than you think in Philadelphia. And he isn’t being asked to come in and win a Vezina here – he just needs to be better than Ondrej Pavelec. Spoiler alert: He is.

Outside the crease, the team has enough talent to contend for a playoff spot. Remember, these guys are supposed to be on the way to the 2019 Stanley Cup – surely this is the year that they finally start generating some momentum in that direction. And if they do start slow, maybe they finally make the coaching change that at least some fans have been begging for.

But all bets are off if…: Mason and Connor Hellebuyck struggle, the team is once again all but out of the Central playoff race by late-November, and fans start wanting to know if there’s an actual plan here.

Buffalo Sabres

2016-17 finish: 33-37-12, 78 points, 26th overall

Warning signs on the dashboard: The Sabres struggled through yet another disappointing season. They’re the worst team on our list in terms of last year’s standings, so they don’t even have all that far to fall to get to Colorado territory. And they share some eerie similarities to last year’s Avalanche.

Both teams feature a young core that should be good, but has underachieved. Both have questionable blue lines. Both have good goaltenders who’ve battled hip and leg problems. And both head into the season with a new head coach who’s never held that job at the NHL level before. Hell, the Avalanche even stole Buffalo’s whole “getting screwed by the draft lottery” bit.

Why they should be OK: On paper, the Sabres look like a team that should be on the way up, not down. Jack Eichel is ready to break out as one of the league’s very best forwards, Ryan O’Reilly is one of the league’s best No. 2 centres, Sam Reinhart could finally break through, and they’ll either have a motivated Evander Kane in a contract year or whatever they eventually get back for him in a trade. The blue line is still a mess, and that’s the big concern right now. But Robin Lehner should be healthy and ready to go, and he was really good last year.

But all bets are off if…: Phil Housley can’t hit the ground running as a rookie head coach, the team gets off to another slow start, and a long-suffering fanbase gets even more frustrated than they already are. Or Eichel gets hurt again. Either of those would be bad news, and both would be a recipe for disaster. Still, of all the teams mentioned here, the Sabres seem like the biggest long shot to flatline.

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Detroit Red Wings

2016-17 finish: 33-36-13, 79 points, 25th overall

Warning signs on the dashboard: Of all the teams on this list, the Red Wings stand out as the most obvious candidate for a plunge. In fact, their dashboard isn’t just blinking — it’s smoking and starting to spark.

After 25 straight post-season appearances, the Red Wings’ streak finally ended last year. Even the most diehard Detroit fan could see that coming – the team hadn’t won a round since 2013, and had barely squeaked in on a tie-breaker in 2016. On paper, the team isn’t all that good. It’s also relatively old, and absolutely packed with ugly-looking contracts. There’s even a good case to be made that the Red Wings have the worst long-term cap situation in the entire league.

Despite it all, GM Ken Holland insists that he won’t rebuild, at least not in the traditional tear-it-all-down sense. With a new arena ready to open, maybe he feels like he can’t. But we’ve seen old and expensive teams try to reload on the fly before, and it rarely ends well. It’s not hard to imagine a season playing out that sees beleaguered coach Jeff Blashill fired, Holland forced to start trading veterans, and the Red Wings finishing close to dead last.

Why they should be OK: Between Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek, the Wings have two goalies who’ve had NHL success. Granted, both have been inconsistent lately, but only one needs to play well to prevent the season from going completely off the rails. And while the core is old, there’s enough young talent on the roster and on the way that things could get at least marginally better.

Besides, Holland has been at this for a while and should get some benefit of the doubt. If he really thinks they don’t need to rebuild, maybe he’s right and the rest of us are wrong.

But all bets are off if…: Holland changes his mind (or was bluffing all along) and decides to tear it down. That would be more of a controlled demolition than an Avalanche-style collapse, but the end result would look the same.